“Mountains and abysses, such is the relief of the grotesque body; or speaking in architectural terms, towers and subterranean passages.” – Mikhail Bakhtin
Annihilate, the new comic by Brandon Daniels and Sam Boven (Hive Mind Comics), begins with what appears to be some kind of microscopic cell, bacteria or virus. It divides. It then relinks as it grows. It is part of a subterranean network, a complex ecology. Evolutionary biology runs its course. It produces larvae and insects. “The grotesque concept of the body is not a closed completed unit,” the blog “For the Goat” writes,
it is unfinished, outgrows itself and transgresses its own limits. It focuses on the parts of the body that are open to the outside world, where the world can both enter and exit and through which the body can also exit. therefore it emphasizes on the apertures and convexities of the body, the open mouth, the genitals, the breasts, the phallus, the pot belly and the nose. The bodies disclosed [their] essence as a principle of growth which exceeds [their] own limits only in copulation, pregnancy, child birth, the throes of death, eating, drinking or defecation.
Mikhail Bakhtin traced the grotesque in Rabelais’s literary adaptation of the late medieval peasantry’s counter-morality. Against the aristocratic parlor – and its denial of the earthly body – the peasants, through the vernacular of the carnival, presented the existential and sexual body as process. It got sick. It fucked. It died. It became food for other things that fuck and die. When one is forced to live in the muck its exaltation is part and parcel of resistance. [*]
The social fabric of Annihilate's insect world grows more complex. There is now a Queen. There are drones, flight, and then faces – two portraits in a landscape. They visually echo Dali. One of the disembodied heads, progressively rotting in each panel as it is torn apart by bugs and germs, asks the other, “Why don’t we make love anymore?”
Neoliberalism proper mirrors the grotesque – the constant interpenetration of beings and spaces as capital feeds on labor, as larger capitals feed on smaller capitals, as new impulses overtake the old, reproduced everywhere and at once. But the cultural logic of neoliberalism denies the grotesque. At the core of the grotesque is the existential; the failing, eating, reproducing and shitting body. And the bodies that fail first, and most often, are working-class, poor, Black, colonized, feminized and Queer bodies. [**]
The cultural logic of neoliberalism claimed there was always a way out; a romantic comedy or Horatio Alger story at the gates of Hell. So the vast majority of us seek personal solutions to this collective existential crisis. As one dying head asks the other, “Why don’t you propose?" You can't blame the head. A moment of belonging appears to negate, for a time, the annihilation to come.
* Although it should be noted, in western Europe, the late medieval peasantry was often far more economically secure than earlier generations as well as the enclosed proletariat to come.
** Consider the 2016 Presidential election. A problem the elites have, both in the old Republican establishment, and in the Clinton campaign, is related to a denial of the grotesque. The candidates that either personify the grotesque (Trump) or were willing to identify it (Sanders, and now Jill Stein), were (or are) far more connected to the existential catastrophe of everyday life. The salon-culture that surrounds Hillary Clinton, of course, must deny the subterranean passages beneath the glistening towers.