Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Transgressing Boundaries in the Nine Inch Nails: The Grotesque as a Means to the Sacred

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Transgressing Boundaries in the Nine Inch Nails: The Grotesque as a Means to the Sacred

Article excerpt

Andrew Tatusko

Seton Hall University


The grotesque is often viewed as a subversive element injected into the fabric of social and religious structures for subversive and offensive purposes intended to garner increased market share and media exposure. As such it has been seen as barbaric or even demonic. However, other theories of the grotesque show that it is often a combination of social and aesthetic criticism that disrupts the ordered structure of experience in terms of boundaries and categories that compose that structure often in terms of explicit traditions, but also in terms of hidden assumptions and values that compose this structure. To this end, there is a connection of the grotesque to the sublime and the ambiguous. There is thus an element of the grotesque that lays claim to mystery and so, can act as a vehicle for understanding crucial concepts in studying divinity. Examples of religious ambiguity and the grotesque in popular culture disclose both aspects of the grotesque and also offer a fructuous medium from which the critical engagement of tradition, boundaries, and the grotesque itself can emerge. The grotesque aesthetic and explicitly religious quoting of the Nine Inch Nails provides a clear medium through which the tentative structure of boundaries is expressed creating creative space for the mystery of the sacred to emerge.


[1] In Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas (2002) describes that which pollutes in terms of power. Pollution and impurity are elicited by disorder and run as a counter discourse to social order, reinforcing that order and sometimes destroying it. Either way, order is reified if impurity is either disposed of or introduced into a defined context. The issue here has less to do with impure elements in society per se than with the drawing and blurring of boundaries that maintain a coherent and ordered experience. The dualism of order and disorder is inscribed on the relationship between pure and impure. In between the two polarities is an ambiguous region that is neither disordered nor structured. In this "formless" region the greatest danger exists where power can be harnessed to reinforce order, or act as an agent to destroy it. It is this untamed power that reinforces boundaries by those who would draw them and can simultaneously destroy these boundaries if left unchecked.

[2] Douglas notes that power is often described in terms of witchcraft or sorcery in some instances or as an animus in others. Power along these lines is relegated to the boundaries of the disclosed and accepted order of experience. There is thus a risk involved in allowing the ambiguous to maintain its formless character. When ambiguity gains momentum, it threatens ordered experience, and threatens the boundaries that shape identity socially, psychologically and spiritually. Ambiguity is then marginalized by the accepted order.

[3] Douglas's work deals specifically with the relationship between primitive and modern culture in an effort to restore the currency of that distinction in anthropology. Her argument in concert with current thought about the notion of boundaries is a rich description that would greatly assist the current climate about what is acceptable and decent versus what is unacceptable and indecent in the terms stipulated by the FCC and Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004 (H.R. 3717). Moreover, the current debate regarding same-sex marriage, and the grotesque portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus and the debate of how the Jews were portrayed in Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ (2004) are each speaking to the issue of boundaries in their own way. The issue is where these boundaries have been drawn, how they were drawn, and how they are maintained. The challenge leveled against boundaries such as these is a normal re-negotiation of cultural language and norms. The problem seems to be in the response of actors who level protective and often exclusionary responses to any threat to established order and interpretation. …

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