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date: 19 November 2019

Summary and Keywords

Defining “the grotesque” in a concise and objective manner is notoriously difficult. When researching the term for his classic study On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature (1982), Geoffrey Galt Harpham observed that the grotesque is hard to pin down because it is defined as being in opposition to something rather than possessing any defining quality in and of itself. Any attempt to identify specific grotesque characteristics outside of a specific context is therefore challenging for two reasons. First, because the grotesque is that which transgresses and challenges what is considered normal, bounded, and stable, meaning that one of the few universal and fundamental qualities of the grotesque is that it is abnormal, unbounded, and unstable. Second, since even the most rigid norms and boundaries shift over time, that which is defined in terms of opposition and transgression will naturally change as well, meaning that the term “grotesque” meant very different things in different historical eras. For instance, as Olli Lagerspetz points out in A Philosophy of Dust (2018), while 16th-century aristocrats in France may routinely have received guests while sitting on their night stools, similar behavior exhibited today would surely be interpreted not only as out of the ordinary, but as grotesque. Likewise, perceptions of the normal and the abnormal vary widely even within the same time period, depending on one’s class, gender, race, profession, sexual orientation, cultural background, and so on.

Keywords: excess, transgression, freak, monster, abnormal, laughter, abject, absurd, carnivalesque, grotesque

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