The Grotesque, The Digital | Bailey Trela | The Hypocrite Reader

Bailey Trela

The Grotesque, The Digital

A distorted human head and hand merging into a blurry old CRT TV screen, which is displaying a bluish closeup of plump human lips.
Still from Videodrome, 1983

In her brief tract On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry writes that “beauty prompts a copy of itself.” This isn’t a revolutionary observation, of course. Most of us are familiar with the phenomenon of seeing a beautiful thing and longing, in the next moment, to replicate it. We spy a beautiful landscape and our fingers itch to draw it; we hear a lovely melody and we strive to hum along with it; we note the fall of light on a wet street and our hand slips into our pocket in search of our phone.

This desire to copy a beautiful object or experience, Scarry adds, is continuous with and prone to a snowball effect. Beautiful things, once created, set off a chain reaction of generation. Once a poem is written, for example, it might inspire other poems to be written, or commentaries that aim to increase the original poem’s beauty (or, more accurately, make its inherent beauty more evident). The original poem might serve as an epigraph to a novel, or its effect might be more nebulous still, loosely inspiring a film, or a photograph, or a diary entry.

In its simplest form, Scarry explains, this urge to copy the beautiful manifests as a sustained gaze, by which we seek to extend or replicate the beautiful object in time. “The first flash of the bird,” she writes, “incites the desire to duplicate not by translating the glimpsed image into a drawing or a poem or a photograph but simply by continuing to see her five seconds, twenty-five seconds, forty-five seconds later—as long as the bird is there to be beheld.” But what is our reaction when we observe something grotesque, something fundamentally unbeautiful? It’s a rare aesthete who, confronted on a walk by a dead raccoon, pauses to gaze longingly at its broken teeth, or compose a sonnet to its maggoty maw.

Barring the effects of shock, a horrifying image inspires not a continuous gaze, but a nervous flicker, a steady looking-away-and-back-again, reconstituting the horrible object each time the eyes light on it. The desire to deploy this discontinuous gaze, to keep checking on the repulsive image, is partly a desire to see its absence, to discover that at last, with this new look, it has disappeared into the wings, or at least transformed into something less unlovely. The hope persists that our first coup d’oeil was mistaken, that we’d misinterpreted the scene; we long to be convinced that the raccoon’s corpse isn’t as broken as we’d first thought, that the slick of neon vomit on the sidewalk was really only a milkshake, carelessly spilled. And yet, at the same time, some part of us wants to experience the feeling of disgust that comes with looking at a grotesque object or image. By splitting our gaze, we manage this disgust, receiving our nausea in safe, discrete, uniform packets.

While for Scarry, beauty elicits a desire to replicate an object or experience in both time and number, her framework falters when it comes to the grotesque, which seeks to replicate itself in number but not in time. However, Scarry’s insistence that copying in time and number have essentially the same drive (to preserve or praise the object or experience) hints at a more effective template for analyzing the grotesque; their intrinsic connection suggests a paradigm of wholeness, which stands in marked contrast to the partialness of grotesque experiences. Just as the wholeness of Scarry’s adoring gaze is transferred to the artifacts it eventually inspires, the partialness of the grotesque flicker is transferred to the grotesque object being viewed, leading to an act of generation that is rapid and discontinuous.

A gaze that dwells on a beautiful painting will naturally move about, lighting on different details, and the perceiver themself might move around, shifting their weight from one leg to another, stepping to the left or to the right—but the continuity of the image is maintained by the continuity of perception. Grotesque objects, however, are fundamentally discontinuous, and it’s precisely this rupture that leads to their replication. The impossibility of a synoptic view of the grotesque means there is always something left over, a portion or corner of the tableau we didn’t see; and yet, because some part of us still desires to comprehend the grotesque in its entirety, our eyes dart around again and again, hoping to find another piece of the puzzle. When we banish a grotesque thing from existence by looking away and later return our gaze to it, we bring the grotesque thing back into existence—we rebirth it, doubling or trebling or quadrupling its number.

Traditional depictions of the monstrous often partake of this sense of number and generatio aequivoca—the Hydra of Greek mythology spouts new heads at an exponential rate; Bosch’s frolicsome fractals of suffering engender absurdities the longer we stare at them; and Dante’s hell is notably a swarm, a writhing ganglion of countless bodies in pits, with new shades emerging all the time. In a way, this expansive sense of number aims to preempt the palliative properties of a flickering gaze; the replication our eyes use to diminish our sense of disgust is encoded in advance into the depiction.

In the modern world we’re experiencing a profound destabilization of the ways we relate to beautiful and grotesque images. While the old ideal of museum going—Scarry’s ideal—posits a viewer who stares continuously at a painting or sculpture, for instance, the ascendancy of Instagrammable moments and the weight they now hold in exhibition design have shifted the dynamics of viewership. The primary way people consume Instagrammable exhibits actually ends up being online, where they’re force-fed countless images of the exhibition taken by friends and strangers alike, grasping at the real show by a sort of parallax effect. This collection of essentially similar images aims at the literal re-creation, or re-presentation, of the work online, so that the countless acts of copying exhibit-goers commit when posting photos are actually, when taken collectively, stripped of any variation they might possess singly.

In a way this amounts to an extended look from the collective gaze—anyone with Facebook or Instagram and a relatively hip, urban friend base probably recalls the feeling, several months ago, of having spent weeks trapped in Yayoi Kusama’s infinity mirror exhibition. At the same time, it represents an alluring foothold for capitalism—it’s not hard to imagine a museum one day being able to pay Facebook to notch posts about their newest exhibit a little bit higher on everyone’s feed. Scrolling through a feed artificially stuffed with images of a given exhibition, you’d thus be forced to contemplate as an object of beauty something that sparks no joy in the aesthetic chambers of your heart.

Likewise, grotesque images, blurred on Facebook or tagged NSFW on sites like Reddit, make the rounds of the internet. Images of fetuses—accurate or not, human or not—are shared by pro-lifers, while your progressive friends are equally zealous in their sharing of videos of protests turned violent, or pictures of blood-drenched civilians trapped in warzones. While horrifying sports injuries—a running back’s ankle turning obscenely upward; a basketball player’s bone jutting through his leg—are almost instantly cut away from on television, the opportunity to indulge in an instant replay respectfully foregone, they’re also instantly converted into gifs, where the players eternally undergo their cartoonish, Sisyphean fates, trapped in pixels as tormented souls were once trapped in mirrors. Although we ordinarily steal glances at a grotesque thing to feel frissons of nausea, this look is also inextricably tied to the desire to eventually see the grotesque thing’s absence, or an improvement of its situation. This second drive, however, is completely absent in the case of a grotesque gif. Because it’s not a continuous experience taking place in time, the possibility for change disappears; the grotesque thing will never disappear, will instead repeat endlessly, sans any redeeming variation.

One of the best modern purveyors of the grotesque (though, in the new millenium, he’s tended to eschew the shocking visuals that made him famous) is the body-horror auteur David Cronenberg. His films, studded with fulsome, semi-surreal images, frequently revolve around what the Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva called the abject—that is, an experience that blurs the distinction between subject and object, or the self and the other. Although it’s often difficult to read beyond Cronenberg’s monstrous presentments—blunt and painful yet alluring, they have a tendency to overload our visual field—many of his setpieces actually constitute clever riffs on the concept of the abject, as well as the tendency of the grotesque to self-replicate. Ultimately, Cronenberg’s films, as prescient as they are visually polluted, offer a profound illumination of the ways we consume grotesque images.

Cronenberg’s first definitively Cronenbergian feature, 1974’s The Brood, centers its plot around a radical new form of psychotherapy, “psychoplasmics,” which aims to sublimate patients’ psychic trauma by making physical alterations to their bodies. This crass literalization, typical of Cronenberg’s work, paves the way for the grotesque imagery that the film eventually supplies in spades. The film’s protagonist, Frank Carveth, fumes when he’s denied access to his wife, Nola, who’s being treated at the clinic, but has to put his frustration on the back burner when a horde of demon children with brutally inflexible faces begins murdering the town’s residents. As it turns out, the kids are an unfortunate byproduct of Nola’s therapy sessions. When Frank finds her at last, we learn that the children develop in a swollen external womb that hangs from Nola’s abdomen. The sac itself typifies the abject—it dangles like a bloated skin tag, attached to the body yet still distant from it—and it’s of course significant that the act of parturition is not on human scale; Nola is mother to a brood, a vaguely insectival swarm.

Cronenberg plays an interesting trick with his viewers, though. Since Nola’s hellspawn are psychically tied to her emotional state, to prevent them from going into a frenzy Frank has to feign calmness as he approaches Nola, assuring her steadily that he still loves her and is accepting of her new condition. Though Frank’s natural instinct when confronted with Nola’s swollen uterus, as ours, is to flinch and turn away, he’s stiff-armed into a steady gaze, forced to contemplate the grotesque as though it were an object of beauty, extending it in time and, thereby, admiring and tacitly praising it. It’s only when Nola slowly punctures the sac, removing a glistening glob of red flesh, that Frank breaks, eliciting a cry from Nola: “I disgust you. I sicken you. You hate me!”

It would be silly to claim that this decontextualization of gaze types (giving the grotesque a beautiful gaze and vice versa) is a modern phenomenon—people have had to pretend to be interested in things their friends like practically since we discovered aesthetic preferences. Yet Cronenberg’s interest in conditioned gazes has substantive parallels in modern digital culture. Digital interfaces like web pages are of course designed to create a new type of gaze, to instill in us a uniquely syncopated way of looking, so that as we read, for example, a long text centrally arranged on our screen, our eyes naturally flicker to the banner ads placed above or to the side of the main content. The irony of course is that Frank’s decontextualized gaze is maintained under incredible duress (the grotesque seems to have some power to frustrate attempts to control our gaze), whereas the sleek, carefully designed interfaces of web pages allow us to smoothly slip into our modified gazes, and to do so without even realizing it.

Cronenberg’s 1983 feature Videodrome continues his obsession with the self-generation of the grotesque, placing it in the context of the widespread availability of visual images brought on by the rise of television and VCR technologies. The film unfortunately stars James Woods as Max Renn, the head of a Canadian television network that specializes in sensationalist sleaze. When Max learns about a program called Videodrome that’s apparently being broadcast from Asia and that’s essentially one extended snuff film, his interest is piqued, and he sets out to acquire the show for his channel. Taken as a whole, Videodrome is a much darker work than The Brood. The basic plot co-opts Scarry’s formulation of copying with variation—the way a painting can inspire a poem, which can in turn inspire a commentary, and so on and so forth—and applies it instead to grotesque images.

The broadcasting of Videodrome, we soon learn from the daughter of the media expert Dr. Brian O’Blivion, induces brain tumors in its viewers. Max has developed one of these tumors (by definition a dangerously self-replicating mass of cells), which produces a series of grotesque hallucinations which form the core of Videodrome’s gross-out imagery. The hallucinations are graphic, extended, painful, and, most importantly, high-concept: a sludgy rectangular hole develops in the center of Max’s chest and a VHS tape emerges from it; a television screen is replaced by a flexible layer of veiny skin, through which human and inhuman shapes bulge. The hallucinations, while snowballing, nevertheless form a terminal loop. At the end of the film, after going on a killing spree with the gun that has fused to his arm, forming a painful-looking agglomeration that is at once metal and flesh, weapon and self, Max is forced to hide on a derelict boat; a dead TV blares back to life and announces to him that it’s time to “leave the old flesh.” A gunshot rings out, and the film cuts to black.

The collation of the mechanical and the organic holds a central place in Cronenberg’s cosmology and can be largely explained with reference to the abject. The abject is “neither object nor subject,” Kristeva writes. “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” Videodrome’s disturbing minglings of subject and object—human skin and television; human chest and VCR; human arm and gun—chart Max’s loss of agency as he gradually loses his mind (a shady multinational corporation eventually gets ahold of Max and inserts a brainwashing tape into his VCR chest cavity, intent on using him as a human weapon). Max’s decline into servitude has a real-world parallel in the increased pace of reification wrought by the rise of digital media, a phenomenon media theorists have frequently commented on. Subjects are reduced to a state of passivity, while objects are elevated to activity (in a state of boredom we scroll through a feed, while the feed actively collects information on our scrolling habits).

Videodrome is a parable of sorts, limning the corruption of a chain of self-generating images. Part of the corruption stems from the subject matter of the original image—a snuff film, interested only in depicting death, brutalization, debasement. The imagery of Videodrome isn’t so much grotesque as nihilistic, cruel, inhuman. As abhorrent as we find Nola’s transformation in The Brood, it’s difficult to condemn her as evil in any way, to commix our disgust with a feeling of moral righteousness. The other and more important corrupting factor, however, is the manner of dissemination—that is, television, and its ability to reproduce identical images en masse. It’s this act of copying sans life-giving variation that horrifies Cronenberg. The gentle, wilful cascade of Scarry’s copying-with-variation becomes, in Max’s hallucinations, an avalanche of involuntary distortions.

Cronenberg’s shock tactics find their culmination in his fifteenth feature film, Existenz (sometimes stylized, atrociously, as eXistenZ). Succinctly, the film, a fin de millénaire fever dream, is about a futuristic “biotechnological” video game system that allows users to plug into its games by popping an umbilical power cord into surgically created “bio-ports” located at the base of their spines. Jude Law stars as a security guard who has to protect a famous game designer played by Jennifer Jason Leigh who’s under attack from a terrorist group of Luddite-esque “Realists.” The video game itself doesn’t quite make sense, and serves mostly as a vehicle for Cronenberg’s heavy-handed commentary on the increasingly porous boundaries between humans and their devices, as well as his obsession with grotesque image-making.

The video game systems themselves, known as “game pods,” are pale, adenoidal, vaguely crab-like lumps produced in a factory setting; an unspecified form of genetic modification allows them to be grown inside living fish and then later cut out on an assembly line. The grotesque, increasingly formalized, is now subjected to the processes of industrialization; the laborious process of scientific discovery that had to be effected to produce one grotesque in Cronenberg’s earlier film, The Fly, has been fortunately industrialized in Existenz. Notably, it’s quite literally the grotesque object itself that produces the images in Existenz. The runaway, metastatic replication of the grotesque has been co-opted by market forces, its discontinuous, amorphous quality circumscribed by a clearly delineated production apparatus. Although Cronenberg doesn’t come down hard on whether or not this apparatus completely vitiates the power of the grotesque, it’s telling that after Existenz his films have largely eschewed the body horror that made him famous—in the glare of the new millennium and its manifold screens he seems to have sensed a downward trend in the impregnability of the grotesque and its power to shock.

The central grotesque device that provides the film’s structure—that is, the titular video game—is prone to replication. Throughout the film the video game restarts several times, and the characters move through variations of their previous playthroughs, visiting different settings, talking to new characters, and so on. They encounter the same grotesque objects—like the slimy fishery where the game pods are harvested, and an organic gun, made of ligaments and bones—in different ways and different contexts. The organic gun, for instance, shows up both in the real world and in the video game, where Law’s character has to assemble it after eating a disgusting, vaguely fishy meal. In a way, the gun is a grotesque totem that sutures together the virtual and the real. It serves both a stabilizing and destabilizing purpose as well, ensuring that the inherently unsettled meaning of the virtual world has some grounding in reality, while simultaneously compromising both the virtual and the real, as its precise point of origin becomes more and more unclear.

Ultimately, Existenz is concerned with the porousness of the boundary between the digital and the real. At the present moment, most of us would feel comfortable separating our memories into the virtual and the real—I’ve rarely been able to convince myself that I’d seen something in real life I’d really only seen online. But as experiences like museum exhibitions strive to be more easily replicable and communicable online, it will naturally become more difficult to distinguish the virtual from the real and our memories of the two—and, more importantly, the difference will cease to matter. After all, a series of images of infinity mirrors found online actually does the exhibit itself one better, multiplying infinity once more.

Even the difference between the adoring gaze we bestow on beautiful objects and the hesitant flicker we deploy against grotesque ones weakens in the presence of the digital. The images of beauty we encounter online today are subjected to a grotesque flicker—we scroll quickly past them, looking for the next beautiful thing, which, more often than not, an algorithm swiftly provides; the self-replicating galleries of the online world are, after all, endless.

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