The Grotesque and Merleau-Ponty on "Fleshing Out" the Subject

By Shabot, Sara Cohen | Philosophy Today, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Grotesque and Merleau-Ponty on "Fleshing Out" the Subject

Shabot, Sara Cohen, Philosophy Today

Merleau-Ponty's concept of subjectivity can be analyzed in a new way by examining it through the figuration of the grotesque. I shall demonstrate how the new subject proposed by Merleau-Ponty may be better understood by aligning it with the grotesque subject. I shall be arguing that the grotesque figuration succeeds in presenting the subject the way Merleau-Ponty had tried to conceive of it, namely, as embodied, strongly rooted in concreteness and yet ambiguously intertwined with the world and the others.

Phenomenology has carried out a deep critique of the concept of the subject and its identity as it appears in different classical and modem philosophical theories. In this context, the grotesque may provide us with a new analytical tool. The exceeding subject, represented by the grotesque, cannot be absolutely contained, that is, it cannot be disconnected from the rest of the world or from the others: it finds itself in a constant and intensive intertwining and mingling with its outside. The grotesque body grounds its connection to the world on the very phenomenological condition of human subjects: the embodied subject is in itself open, ambiguous, fragmented and connected to the world and to the others.

The new subject that Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology tries to present is above all created as a consequence of its being-with-others. This subject, then, must be understood as constantly re-emerging from its intersection with the world outside itself and with the others: no monolithic, closed, immutable and well defined Cartesian subjectivity is available any more. This new subject is an embodied subject. It is a subject that is historically, socially and culturally defined. This is the kind of subject that I shall exemplify and elucidate through the figuration of the grotesque.

In what follows, I shall explain how the grotesque subject is conceived by its various theoreticians in order to show, later on, how this figuration of the grotesque subject may shed new light on some important concepts and ideas within the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, such as his idea of philosophy and existence as ambiguous, as well as his concepts of the embodied subject and of the world as flesh.

The Grotesque Subject and the Problem of Representation

Different theoreticians have described the grotesque as a concept which-deriving originally from the visual arts-mainly refers to bodies and concrete subjects.' The grotesque bodies are hybrid bodies, a mixture of animals, objects, plants and human beings.2 This is why the grotesque has been recognized as a concept pointing to monstrosity,3 irrational-confusion4 or absurd,5 and deformed-heterogeneity.6 C. G. Jung, for instance, describes a mythological-grotesque character, the Trickster, as follows:

God, man and animal at once. He is both sub-human and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose chief and most alarming characteristic is unconsciousness.... He is so unconscious of himself that his body is not a unity, and his two hands fight each other. He takes his anus off and entrusts it with a special task. Even his sex is optional despite his phallic qualities: he can turn himself into a woman and bear children. From his penis he makes all kinds of useful plants. This is a reference to his original nature as a Creator, for the world is made from the body of a god.7

Another illustrative example of a grotesque character can be found in the following excerpt from classic literature, in which Ovid describes Scylla at the moment that she is poisoned by Circe, her enemy:

There Scylla came; she waded into the water,

Waist-deep, and suddenly saw her loins disfig-


With barking monsters, and at First she could not

Believe that these were parts of her own body.

She tried to drive them off, the barking creatures,

And flees in panic, but what she runs away from

She still takes with her; feeling for her-tbighs,

Her legs, her feet, she finds, in all these parts,

The heads of dogs, jaws gaping wide, and hell


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The Grotesque and Merleau-Ponty on "Fleshing Out" the Subject


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