Forms of degradation and the Grotesque Body

Excerpt from “Black Metamorphosis: New Natives in a New World”

by / 18 May 2024

Sylvia Wynter’s Black Metamorphosis never developed further than the stage of manuscript. Part of a project with the Center of Afro-American Studies, for the Institute of Black World, Black Metamorphosis amounts to a long and multifaceted discussion and collection of references for what would become in the 80s Wynter’s “theory of the Human”. BM’s is an exploration of black culture’s experience in the context of the Americas: the transformation of a displaced body of culture from Africa and its diffusion on the soils and ravines of the New World, in a dynamic although subdued interlacement with the Old World’s Man. This excerpt testifies to the originality of Wynter’s work through her engagement of Michail Bakhtin, and his conception of the Grotesque mode of production. Drawing on Bakhtin’s concept of “grotesque realism” where the medieval subject/body amplifies the degradation it experiences to the point of hyperbole, where cosmic terror collapses at the scale of the body and is “transformed into grotesque monsters” (Bakhtin, 1984, 336), Wynter sees a parallel in the context of how black subjectivity operates within the claustrophobic reality of the displaced and colonized, and how it engages in its own mode of production. Black culture becomes a case study, an exemplification of a wider exploration of quasi-cybernetic socio-cultural dynamics: an interplay between sublimations and grotesqueries. Wynter’s Humanism encounters whispers from other worlds – in a space that is not philosophical, nor just psychoanalytical. It is a song of the Human, or the Human as a song.
[Chaosmotics edited the text of this excerpt, added missing footnotes and references where possible, and ordered the paragraphs without making any changes to the original text].


As the Ultimate Other, the negative term without a relative dependent Other on whom to displace that apprehension that constitutes Non-being that then grounds the human/social experience of Being, black culture, like all popular cultures created by peoples who exist as the Ultimate Other in their own society, had to constitute the self-certainty of its participants by and through their reciprocal recognition of each by the other. Black culture, like all popular cultures had to create societal identities which do not depend on binary oppositions between the Self and Other; the Self and Nature, the Individual and Society, the Intellect and the Body, life and death.

In the signification system of popular culture, as Haitian Ghedé is Lord in life and death, for example, so identity is at once particular and universal, defined and unbounded. Michael Bakhtin traces in the Reinassance the growing constitution of the sense of binary opposition that marked the ascendancy of the bourgeois hegemony. But he shows also the still widespread prevailing consciousness of the popular forces, especially in its insistence on the material bodily principle, i.e., “images of the human body with its food, drink, defecation, and sexual life…”1. Like Ghedé, gluttonous, fornicating, life-giving, death bearing –– this material bodily principle of all popular cultures relates to what Bakhtin defines as the aesthetic of folk culture, an aesthetic opposed to that of official cultures. Bakhtin defines this aesthetic as grotesque realism. In this concept the refusal to separate brain from body is related to the refusal to totally separate the self from the group that makes its selfness possible; or vice versa to posit the group as existing outside the interaction of realized selves.

The material bodily principle in grotesque realism is offered in its all-popular festive and utopian aspect. The cosmic, social, and bodily elements are given here as an indivisible whole. And this whole is gay and gracious. In grotesque realism, therefore, the bodily element is deeply positive. It is presented not in a private, egotistic form, severed from the other sphere of life, but as something universal, representing all the people. As such, it is opposed to severance from the material and bodily roots of the world; it makes no pretense to renunciation of the earthly or to independence of the earth and of the body2.

The principle of the Earth carried over from the African cultures, into the underlife-black culture becomes shaped by the same social forces that had transformed other non-industrial cultures into popular cultures as varied peoples of the world, faced with the growth and expansion of systems of power had to experience and deal with the weight and burden of ruling classes.

As ruling classes deployed strategies of social inscription, of stratified differentiation and separation, popular cultures carried on an opposed aesthetic and ethic; an opposed conceptualization based on a non-exploitative relation between Self and Other, brain and brawn, body and spirit… “the body and bodily life have here a cosmic and at the same time an all-people’s character. This is not the body and its physiology in the modern sense of the world, because it is not individualize. The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people, a people who are continually growing and renewed. This is why all that is bodily becomes grandiose, exaggerated, immeasurable.”3

Like the Jonkunnu-koo-koo, or Actor Boy, drawn in the Belisario prints, was represented as gluttonous, always begging for food as with Ghedé Lord of Life and Death – this bodily exaggeration “has a positive assertive character. The leading themes of these images of bodily life are fertility, growth and a brimming over-abundance.”4 It is this that is most opposed to the bourgeois aesthetic, an aesthetic which relates to the bourgeois conceptualization in the social – its “representation” of isolated “economic” man, whose isolation from others makes possible his accumulation from others, his refusal of reciprocal exchange – racism and middle-class consciousness are essentially refusals and limitations of reciprocal exchange with others. Thus in the buyer’s conceptualization, social life became biological, individual life, and social death becomes biological individual death.

The conceptualization of all popular cultures is opposed to this: “Manifestations of this life refer not to the isolated biological individual, not to the private egotistic ‘economic’ man but to the collective ancestral body of all the people. Abundance and the all-people’s element also determine the gay and festive character of all images of bodily life; they do not reflect the drabness of everyday existence. The material bodily principle is a triumphant festive principle, it is a ‘banquet for all the world’”.5

The refusal of the binary opposition between spirit and body, a binary opposition, central in the different forms to all institutionalizes ruling classes, leads to the strategy of what Bakhtin calls the aesthetic of grotesque realism of popular cultures. “The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is the lowering of all that to its own needs – but further than that, it is clear that black culture (like the peasant folk cultures of the world) – had to constitute the “native” culture of the American cultural reality; the source of its neo-indigenous life. Thus as the American “ruling bourgeoisie” constituted itself as a ruling caste/class, the pattern of Black minstrelsy with its Clown/figura/Negro began that parodying of the pretentions of the ruling class, i.e., of its “spiritualization” of values in a higher realm – that is central to all popular cultures, to its aesthetics, ethics, politics. The “black faced” mask was not only a psychological mask. It was also a theatrical mask, the parallel of the masks of the Asafo, the young African age group – who by the ritual of wearing the mask reverse the social structure of power, satirize, criticize, challenge the authority of those who exercise power in the society. The asafo age groups are the embryonic form, in a non-stratified society – of the popular groups and cultures of stratified societies. The comic tradition of the USA – both black and white – for the fusion of European popular elements in black minstrelsy as in Junkummu are undoubted – belong to this universal popular tradition.

As Nathan Huggins[efs_note]Black Odyssey: The African-American Ordeal in Slavery, 1977[/efn_note] perceptively shows in his description of black minstrelsy, the use of power of the end of the mechanism of degradation, enabled the reversal and mockery of the social pretenses of the newly rich groups on the social “make” in the USA. As the new stratified social order of the American bourgeoisie, solidified itself, the comic tradition of black minstrelsy, satirized, reversed on stage, the pretended irreversibility of upper-class social identity, of superiority represented as “naturally” ordained.

As Huggins argues, Black minstrelsy parodied the USA’s nouveau riche’s imitation of the European after class as it self-consciously constituted, its self is an upper-class. The complex parody lay in the fact that the parody of the other was also self-parody. The popular culture knows itself to be as “colonized” by the hegemonic values – Schuyler, according to Nathan Huggins attacked what he saw as Langston Hughes’ “romanticization” of the art of the black lower classes by claiming that it is the “Afro American masses who consume hair-straightener and skin-whitener”; and Schuyler, Huggins comments, “could find little of race, beauty, in that.” Unlike the other groups, it establishes no binary opposition between the “inauthentic” upper classes and the authentic people. Rather it produces the imitation and pretentions of the upper classes, because it knows this imitation and pretensions from its own experience. It understands the wearing of social masks, white or upper class – or of chivalry as with Don Quixote – and it laughs at its own ludicrousness. Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, it is constantly compelled to wake up the limits of its pretentions since the social order affords it no reflecting mirror in the eyes of subordinated others who can confirm its self-certainty as master, as white, as middle class. Parody and irony are only possible where the self itself is taken as contingent – irony and parody must essentially be grounded in self-irony, self-parody – as the great clown and the comic tradition prove6.

Its aesthetic is based on an ethical epistemology – the ability to see and to accept one’s own ludicrousness. And both the ethic and the epistemology are based on a social relation which has no fixed negative other. Huggins points to the parodying of social pretentions as central to black minstrelsy–at least in its black form, since in its white form black-faced minstrelsy also used white actors to parody “negroes”. Huggins mentions the black parody of the social pretensions of the Southern aristocracy – one song “I want to be a real lady.” He continues:

Language – a symbol of civilization and social class – was another cloak of travesty for the slave Negro. The use, or misuse of ponderous latinate words, the still, formal diction of the minstrel’s interlocutor (that name itself, indeed) served the pretense and exposed it all at once. The audience was asked to look at black faced performers…occasionally pretending to be civilized, and they laughed because the frequent malaphropism and misunderstandings made the pretense ludicrous. The language of the minstrel was throughout, the language of social pretense. The first thing that happened in fact was that all the black faced characters were called ‘Gentlemen’ and told to be seated7.

A dual process is at work in “black minstrelsy.” On the one hand, constituted as central to the aesthetic of the new black popular forces, black minstrels continued and urbanized the universal popular aesthetic. On the other hand, as the new middle classes rose to hegemony, they incorporated black minstrelsy creating the stage Negro – much as in the European early theatre the farcical stage-peasant had been created – in Spain and Portugal where blacks had been taken as slaves to work on the large landed estates, and the black presence established. In these countries the stage “negra” and “negro” were, like the stage peasants, incorporated into the mode of farce, the theatrical mode which responded to their social situation. As with the “stage” peasant, the stage Negro, as Huggins points out, embodied for the non-peasant classes and for the non-Negro classes the conceptualization of Negroes as being naturally foolish, and attempting to play unsuitable social roles. The stage Negro thus became the theatrical mechanism for middle class social satire. Thus he became, for the middle classes, at once a theatrical mechanism and a social stereotype. But the appropriation by the middle classes of the popular tradition of laughter, as well as its growing domestication of that tradition, did not negate entirely the original charge and force of this tradition, no more than the successive waves of “whitening” of black music has negated the powerful counter-cultural role it plays in American and global society.

Thus the verbal parodies and speech plays of the minstrels which mocked the grandiloquence of the newly powerful, such as Daniel Webster, is part of the universal popular mechanism of degradation. As Bakhtin points out:

In the learned scholastic milieu of the Middle Ages, light-hearted grammatical parody was popular. This tradition went back to the … ‘Virgilius Maro Grammaticus’ … This flippant grammar contains a transposed version of all grammatical categories brought down to the bodily level, especially to the erotic sphere. 8

Huggins recounts how minstrel figure, Mr. Bones would completely misunderstand the sentimental figures of speech – with a sentimental ballad which touched – to be moved, to have a heart – Mr. Bones would always miss the sentimental meaning – and would reply: “ The man next to me touched me, and I’ll hit him if he does it again.”

We note that the sentimental categories are reversed, brought down to the material level and the cultural signification system of the upper classes mocked and revealed as contingent. Bakhtin points to the central aesthetic opposition: “Not only parody in its narrow sense, but all the other forms of grotesque realism degrade, bring down to earth, turn their subjects into flesh. This is the peculiar truth of this genre which differentiates it from all the forms of medieval high art and literature. The peoples’ laughter which characterized all the forms of grotesque realism from immemorial times was linked with the bodily lower stratum. Laughter degrades and materializes.”9

Language was, in Medieval rimes as in the USA, a matter of social inscription, a line of demarcation, that separated the upper from the lower classes. As Huggins comments, “Daniel Webster, the Yankee who was born in rustic New Hampshire and lived to serve New England banking and textile interests, found it important to sound like a Roman orator sounded … Oratory for America was like the names they chose to give their political institutions, and the Greek columns they placed on their banks and other public buildings, costumes for greatness. Parodies of Webster’s speech in blackface not only ridiculed the posturing of the political orator but the fantastic pretense of black men playing the role of statesmen.” 10

Blacks – as the peasants had done – became the social stereotype of the clown; the mechanism by which the strategy of “degradation” is carried out. Two aspects are at work here. In the popular folk aesthetic the act of parodying the pompous orators – Americans who put on Greek or Roman masks – is designed to bring them back to “reality” to earth. As Bakhtin points out in the popular canon,

Degradation and debasement of the higher do not have a formal and relative character in Grotesque realism. ‘Upward’ and ‘downward’ have here an absolute and strictly topographical meaning. ‘Downward’ is earth, ‘upward’ is heaven. Earth is an element that devours, swallows up (the grave, the womb) and at the same time an element of birth, or renaissance (the maternal breasts) … Degradation here means coming down to earth, the contact with earth as an element that swallows up and gives birth at the same time. To degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better. To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy and birth. It has not only a destructive negative aspect, but also a regenerating one. To degrade an object does not imply merely humbling it into the void of non-existence, into absolute destruction, but to hurl it down to the reproductive lower stratum, the zone in which conception and a new birth take place.11

But as Bakhtin points out – this concept of parody differs from the purely formalist literary parody of modern times, “which has a solely negative character and is deprived of regenerating ambivalence.” 12. Bakhtin shows that already in the Renaissance, the material principle central to the folk canon – like the Jonkunnu figures at the end of the nineteenth century – began to be “subject to a certain alteration and narrowing … its universal and festive character was somewhat weakened.”13. He shows how the material bodily principle plays a double role in the work of Cervantes. On the one hand, the grotesque tradition is continued, i.e., parodies in which there is a “coming to earth” a contact with the reproductive and generating power of the earth and body.”14 But at the same time this principle has been reduced as a second aspect appears “under Cervantes per”. Under this aspect “bodies and objects begin to acquire a private, individual nature; they are rendered petty and homely and become immovable parts of private life, the goal of egotistic lust and possession. This is no longer the positive, regenerating and renewing lower stratum, but a blunt and deathly obstacle to ideal aspirations. In the private sphere of isolated individuals, the images of the bodily lower stratum preserve the element of negation while almost losing entirely their positive regenerating force. Their link with life and with cosmos is broken, they are narrowed down to naturalistic erotic images.”15

Equally with the Jonkunnu, the Jonkunnu figures gradually become only a negation, travestied, disorderly of the elegant set girls. There is an aesthetic and social displacement. Their link with, and representation of the regenerative force is broken – they remain symbolic of the lower bodily stratum only to the extent that the material bodily principle comes to be despised, repressed and disfigured in the bourgeois representation.

Thus the joyous “gluttony” of grotesque realism becomes the gluttony of the “negro”, and the black-faced minstrel eating watermelon no longer “brings down to earth”, in the original popular representation but parodies the “negro’s animal-delight” in food, in the bourgeois representation. In the middle-class version of Black minstrelsy – the “white” version – the Negro becomes the object of, rather than the mechanism of, satire. The central aesthetic of laughter is reduced to a negative destructive satire.

Yet, even in this most attenuated version some thing of the original power still lingered. Bakhtin points out that in the Renaissance, two conceptions of the world met at the cross-roads, “one of them ascends to the folk culture of humor, while the other is in the bourgeois conception of the completely atomized being.”16 Because of this, in spite of the conflict between them “the bodily lower stratum of grotesque realism still fulfilled its unifying, degrading, and simultaneously regenerating functions, however divided, atomized, individualized were the private bodies. Renaissance realism did not cut the umbilical cord which tied them to the fruiful womb of earth. Bodies could not be considered for themselves. They represented a material bodily whole and therefore transgressed the limits of their isolation. The private and the universal were still blended in contradictory unity. The carnival spirit still reigned in the depths of Renaissance literature.”17

Bakhtin relates two parallel processes in the peculiar drama of the material bodily principle in Renaissance literature – the drama that leads to the breaking away of the body from the single procreating earth, the breaking away from collective, growing and continually renewed body of the people with which it had been linked in folk culture.”

Ellison’s novel embodies the “breaking away” of the Narrator from the “body of the people”, from the world of the Truebloods – to enter the privatized separate middle-class world of the Bledsoes. Trueblood is captured in all the grotesque realism of his evocationing the incest theme, bringing the spiritually incestuous millionaire Norton back to earth. The Narrator, uncomfortable, seeks in every way to dis-identify himself with the world of Trueblood – sexual mores, food, customs, music – in order to constitute himself as the middle class ideal. He seeks in every way to dissociate himself from the grotesque realism of black popular culture and to attain the culturally “bled” world of Bledsoe. His “coming down to earth” in the underground basement leads him into the world of grotesque realism, the world of Louis Armstrong, of self-ironical, self-mocking black music. The self-mockery is the mechanism of parody, the popular strategy degradation of the dominant symbolic order, of its cultural signification system. Armstrong’s gravelly material voice, issuing from his clown’s mask, asking What did I do to be so black and blue?, ironically comments on the scapegoat function, the structure in which the black features as the signifier of that rejected lower-stratum, degraded now in the bourgeois way, which represents the lower stratum not as the source of regeneration but as the obstacle to the attainment of its privatized ideals. Armstrong’s accepts the negative valuation of “black” and self-parodies his own acceptance.

His irony performs the function of “degradation” as it exists in the popular canon. When he sign about felling the “touch of your chops next to mine” the ironic stance that is ironic both in relation to the dominant white aesthetic – thin lips are beautiful, black “thick” lips are the polar point that confirms the beauty of thin lips – and to the black acceptance of this “denigration”, he also desacralizes the dominant mythology, in which the kiss marked a frontier zone, in a tradition of Western bourgeois love which split into the sense/soul opposition, and lead to the affective sphere of sentimentality. Armstrong’s laughter, like the texture of the word – chops for lips, materializes, degrades, brings down to earth.

It is this self-irony that Stephen Henderson misses – that self-irony that all black know when they use the term nigger as a term of endearment – when he criticizes some aspects of the blues as the bad, the nigger aspect of the bad experience. For Henderson, when the bluesman quips about the shortness of his woman’s hair, hair so short that he can almost smell her brains, this is merely one moment of the internalization of a negative self-image. Far more importantly the blues operates in the tradition of grotesque realism, in an opposed canon – one which, as Bakhtin points out is “non-canonical in its very nature.” Rather he argues: “We here use the word canon in the wider sense of a manner of representing the human body and bodily life. In the art and literature of past ages we observe two such manners, which we will conditionally call grotesque and classic.”18

Bakhtin compares the concept of the body in grotesque realism with the official artistic canon of antiquity which formed the basis of Renaissance aesthetics. “The Renaissance saw the body in quite a different light than the Middle Ages, in a different aspect of its life, and a different relation to the exterior nonbodily world. As conceived by these canons, the body was first of all a strictly completed, finished product. Furthermore, it was isolated, alone, fenced off from all other bodies. All signs of its unfinished character, of its growth and proliferation were eliminated; its protuberances and offshoots were removed, its convexities (signs of new sprouts and buds) smoothed out, its apertures closed. The ever-unfinished nature of the body was hidden, kept secret; conception, pregnancy, childbirth, death throes, were almost never shown. The age represented was as fare removed from the mother’s womb as from the grave, the age most distant from either threshold of individual life. The accent was placed on the compelled, self-sufficient individuality of the given body. Corporal acts were shown only when the borderlines dividing the body from the outside world were sharply defined. The inner processes of absorbing and ejecting were not revealed. The individual body was presented as apart from its relation to the ancestral body of the people.”19

In contrast, Bakhtin writes,

Contrary to modern canons, the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, complete unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits. The stress is laid on those parts of the body that are open to the outside world, that is, the parts through which the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world. This means that the emphasis is on apertures or the convexities, or on various ramifications and offshoots: the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose. The body discloses its essence as a principle of growth which exceeds its own limits only in copulation, pregnancy, childbirth, the throes of death, eating, drinking, or defecation. This is the ever unfinished, ever creating body, the link in the chain of genetic development, or more correctly speaking, two links shown at the point where they enter into each other. One of the fundamental tendences of the grotesque image of the body is to show two bodies in one: the one giving birth and dying, the other conceived, generated, and born.20

It is in this context that we can place Henderson’s remark that “… honesty compels me to point out that our songs, our games, our myths embody a good deal of anti-black feeling and attitude. This is the old self-hatred that one hears in the Dozens and in the Blues. It is frankly, the nigger component of the Black experience …”21

The attempt to critically site the opposed “canon” of grotesque realism, beginning from an aesthetic and a politics that, however radical, still only inverts the hegemonic aesthetic, leads Henderson to label the realism with which the popular culture handles the concrete fact of a structured anti-black symbolic order that conditions anti-black feeling in al, including blacks, as itself being anti-black.
Late in the same essay, however, Henderson argues that

Perhaps the ironic distance that literary critics used to talk about so much helped black people to handle that negative side of their experience, for in Lightning Hopkins’ song as well as in Caledonia, the love element is still present. In fact it is the central subject. Superficially this says I love you, even though you are black. Fundamentally it is a total absorption of the experience of blackness, which in America has been largely shaped by reaction to other peoples values, to the values of Europe.22

The popular consciousness does not negate the widespread hegemonic aesthetic stereotype of the black woman as ugly compared to the gold standard or the ideal aesthetic of the white woman. Rather, it draws the stereotype into the grotesque canon of the popular tradition, and transmits the “ugliness” in relation to a closed separate static aesthetic into a different representation. The touch of your chops next to mine “represent ugliness” in the ideal aesthetic, but it represents the material bodily principle in the grotesque tradition, where “ugliness” responds only to the sterile.

“Love” is brought “down to earth”, it is not the sublimated sentimentality responding to the finished completed being, but the representation of the principle of vital regeneration – out of regeneration in the sense of procreation but of sexual regeneration. The “love” for Caledonia, like the kiss of the chops has nothing to do with the carefully cultivated sentimental passion of the bourgeois cult of feelings.
Ellison makes the point when he has one of his characters sing a blues in a Harlem street: “She’s got feet like a monkey//Legs like a frog – Lawd, Lawd!//But when she starts to loving me//I holler whooooo Goddog.”23

Bakhtin points out that “the grotesque mode of representing the body and bodily life prevailed in art and creative forms of speech for thousands of years. Moreover these images still predominate in the extra official life of the people. For example, the theme of mockery and abuse is almost entirely bodily and grotesque. The body that figures in all the expressions of the unofficial speech of the people is the body that fecundates and is fecundated, that gives birth and is born, devours and is devoured, drinks, defecates, is sick and dying.”24

The rise of hegemony of the bourgeoisie would entail not only the institution of a Single Culture, Western culture, but also of a Single canon, a single modality of that culture. Bakhtin traces the way in which the “grotesque related to the culture of folk humor was excluded from great literature; it descended to the low comic level or was subject to the epithet of ‘gross naturalism’. There was a process of gradual narrowing down of the ritual spectacle and carnival forms of folk culture which became small and trivial.” 25

  1. Bakhtin, Rabelais and his work, 1984, p. 18
  2. ibid. 19
  3. idem
  4. idem
  5. idem
  6. It is unclear to what this note is referred. ED
  7. Huggins, Black Odissey
  8. Bakhtin, 1984, 20
  9. idem
  10. Huggins, Harlem Renaissance, 2007 (1971), 267
  11. Bakhtin, 1984, 21
  12. idem
  13. ibid. 22
  14. idem
  15. ibid. 23
  16. ibid. 24
  17. ibid. 23
  18. ibid. 30
  19. ibid. 29
  20. ibid. 26
  21. Henderson, The Militant Black Writer, 1969
  22. idem
  23. R. W. Ellison, Invisible Man, 1952
  24. Bakhtin, 1984, 319
  25. ibid. 33

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