Unfolding the Unexpressed : The Grotesque, Norms and Repressions

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School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Doctoral thesis (monograph) | Defence date: 2018-12-14
Degree programme
Aalto University publication series DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS, 182/2018
Under the guise of fantastic fiction, grotesque representations have a unique, yet unacknowledged role in affecting cultural evaluations, idealizations and discriminations. Devoted to exploring the flourishing grotesque, carnivalesque and abject imagery of contemporary culture, the thesis dives into filmic representations of the odd or anti-ideal body, the fantastic or monstrous body, the transgressive or caricatural body, the grotesquely gendered body, or the mutilated body. Understood in a wide sense, the grotesque is characterized by category violation, metamorphosis and the surpassing of body limits. The main problematic of the thesis concerns the role of contemporary grotesque imagery with respect to cultural norms and repressions, including taboos and ideals, fears and fantasies. The aim is to explore the way in which the grotesque interacts with norms, ideologies and interests of power. Pursuing the unexpressed within society by examining the grotesque, the thesis offers a novel outlook on the construction and unraveling of social difference through the grotesque. The research material encompasses seven films: Pink Flamingos, Antichrist, Alien: Resurrection, Fight Club, Kill Bill, Satyricon, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. As a cornucopia of myths, archetypes and narratives, the films present features of widely shared cultural phenomena. Drawing on psychoanalytic theory, feminist theory, semiotics and aesthetics, the methodological approach entails an astute interplay of theories that all conceptualize margins from different perspectives. The devised analyzing method, critical visual analysis, enables the most elusive significations within visual imagery to be accessed. As discovered by the thesis, the grotesque body is a regulatory and revelatory agent through which culture readjusts its limits. As a multifunctional device, the grotesque materializes, exacerbates and reverses; embodies ultimate fears and fantasies; and thereby makes visible both the repudiated and the taken-for-granted. As a materialized fantasy of the absent, the grotesque can even represent the unrepresentable. Moreover, the grotesque sustains or dismantles taboos, ideals, myths and stereotypes; constructs or dissolves identities; and rearranges categorical limits. It constantly redraws the lines between what is considered normal or abnormal, desirable or despicable. As a versatile meaning-making tool, the grotesque can be harnessed to serve different ideologies. The grotesque can be used as a powerful identity political strategy and as a tool for psychologically effective image construction. Applied to media education, the grotesque can enhance the ability to discern ideological meanings embedded in images. The thesis demonstrates how representations interact with our conscious and unconscious thinking modes, drawing on our fears and fantasies.
Supervising professor
Laakso, Harri, Prof., Aalto University, Department of Media, Finland
Thesis advisor
Ryynänen, Max, Prof., Aalto University, Department of Art, Finland
visual culture, the grotesque, grotesque imagery, films
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