The Grotesque Element of Power

By Agnese Codebò

“I am calling grotesque the fact that, by virtue of their status, a discourse or an individual can have effects of power that their intrinsic qualities should disqualify them from having.” (Abnormal, p. 11)

In the opening seminar of the 1974-1975 Abnormal lectures, Foucault points to the grotesque or Ubu-esque as a category of historico-political analysis. It is one that could be applied to the understanding of “the person who possessed maiestas”, be it a Roman emperor as ridiculous as Nero or a figure as grotesque as Mussolini. It is also to be detected in the mediocre functionary of the bureaucratic and administrative machine who we come across in authors like Kafka. But mostly it is to be found in the “doublings” (characteristic of the grotesque), the splitting of “the element on the same scene” that constitutes the discourses of the psychiatric-penal Ubu.

“[…] what the judge is able to condemn in him [the abnormal guilty subject] on the basis of expert psychiatric opinion is no longer the crime or offense exactly. What the judge will judge and punish, the point on which he will bring to bear the punishment, is precisely these irregular forms of conduct that were put forward as the crime’s cause and point of origin and the site at which took shape, and which were only its psychological and moral double.” (Abnormal, p. 17

Such irregular, monstrous, and unstable forms of conduct, Foucault tells us, do not constitute an outside of the norm, they are not in any way forms of anti conduct, they are rather its double. If we take a step back and go to the origins of the adjective “grotesque” we would be taken to Renaissance Italy and the discovery of the paintings (in Italian pittura grottesca), representing monstrous hybrid figures, chimeras and natural elements, found on the cave walls (grotte in Italian) of the Roman ruins of Nero’s (the grotesque emperor) Domus Aurea. Since then, the term grottesco has been reconceptualized aesthetically mostly in pejorative terms as an indicator of the monstrous and absurd.

Giorgio Vasari, the foremost art critic of the Italian Renaissance, in the XVII chapter of the “Introduction to the Three Arts of Drawing” included in The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550), defined “grotesque paintings” as “una spezie di pittura licenziose e ridicole molto, fatte dagli antichi per ornamenti vari” (a very licentious and ridiculous kind of painting, that the antiques made for various ornaments). Vasari, though, concludes his considerations on thegrottesche with a sort of redemption. The use of those antique ridiculous (as a painting of a horse with legs of foliage) ornaments acquires “bella grazia” in the hands of the maestros who with the master and rule of their technique disciplined the abnormality of the grottesche in their stuccos. One, not futile, concrete example of what for Vasari would have been an excellent usage of grotesque elements was the decoration of Le Logge Vaticane commissioned to Raffaello Sanzio and his School of painters during the first half of the XVI century. All the ornaments and architectural decorations on the pillars, vaults, and walls of the papal apartments in the Palace of the Vatican deployed the style of the grottesche. Monstrous hybrid figures would be incorporated into, while altering, both the artistic technique and iconography of the Renaissance and the aesthetics of the papal palace.

This licentious, brief, and incomplete incursion in the etymology of the “grotesque”, in the Italian Renaissance, and in its artistic practices might offer clues as to how irregularity stands to the norm, how the former defines the latter, how the latter always reconfigures itself in order to incorporate the former, and thus how power works in Foucault in a relational way. It might even allow us to take distance from the power/resistance paradigm and come closer to what Ann Stoler in Foucault 5/13 (minute 101:23) pointed out as an analysis of the way that different forms of knowledge take shape. Taking the grotesque as a category of political analysis to analyze Foucault’s theory of the mechanics of power does not only shed light on the inevitability of power, but also on its two-faced, Janus like, components: the abnormal and the normal. The abnormal would stand to the norm not as an anti, not as resistance, but as a counter norm, or even a grotesque norm, legible only inside what Bernard Harcourt has suggested in his introduction to Foucault 5/13 as “those arts of governing”, which will be central already in Society Must be Defended.