Errant Boundaries Running head: teaching religion with nine inch nails

Дата канвертавання24.04.2016
Памер62.62 Kb.

Errant Boundaries


Errant Boundaries in the Nine Inch Nails: Using the Profane to Teach the Divine

Andrew Tatusko

Seton Hall University

Errant Boundaries in the Nine Inch Nails: Using the Profane to Teach the Divine


In Purity and Danger Mary Douglas (2002) describes that which pollutes in terms of power. Pollution and impurity are elicited by disorder and run as a counter discourse to social order reinforcing that order and sometimes destroying that order. Either way, order is reified if impurity is properly dealt with or is properly wielded. The issue here has less to do with impure elements in society per se as it has to do with the drawing and blurring of boundaries that maintain a coherent and ordered experience. The dualism of order and disorder is inscribed on the relationship between pure and impure. In between the two polarities is an ambiguous region that is neither disordered nor structured. In this formless region the greatest danger exists where power can be harnessed to reinforce order, or act as an agent to destroy it. It is this untamed power that reinforces boundaries by those who would draw them and can simultaneously destroy these boundaries if left unchecked.

Douglas notes that power is often described in terms of witchcraft or sorcery in some instances or as an animus in others. Power along these lines is relegated to the boundaries of the disclosed and accepted order of experience. There is thus a risk involved in allowing the ambiguous to maintain its formless character. When ambiguity takes over, it threatens ordered experience, and threatens the boundaries that shape identity socially, psychologically, and spiritually.

Douglas' work deals specifically with the relationship between primitive and modern culture in an effort to restore the currency of that distinction in anthropology. Her argument in concert with current thought about the notion of boundaries is a rich description that would greatly assist the current climate about what is acceptable and decent versus what is unacceptable and indecent in the terms that the FCC and Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004 (H.R. 3717), with the current debate regarding same-sex marriage, and the grotesque portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus and the debate of how the Jews were portrayed in Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ (2004). The issue is where these boundaries have been drawn, how they were drawn, and how they are maintained. The challenge leveled against boundaries such as these is a normal re-negotiation of cultural language and norms. The problem seems to be in the act of negotiation itself.

Ambiguity in the midst of such boundaries is revealed in the debate and in so doing discloses the conditions and powers that create them. In theological rather than anthropological terms ambiguity can be both a power that distorts the relationship between the human and divine and a power that clarifies the difference between the human and divine. What I argue in what follows is that an intentional blurring of boundaries, while offensive to an ordered experience, and while it distorts the boundary between the human and the divine, can also be used to clarify the difference between the human and the divine. The distortion of the human and divine, among other boundaries, can be seen in the work of popular industrial musician Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. The offensive and grotesque images in his work can be used to reveal and critically engage assumptions about experience in order to disclose the divine as that which transcends the boundaries of human experience.

Borders, the Structure of Experience, and the Grotesque

The notion of boundary is as closely tied to social structuring as it is to the structure of personal experience. Boundary, in this sense, is not so much a static and reified structure as it is a negotiation of limits and categories. At the heart of the behavior is the inclusion of elements into categories that order and define experience - a behavior that also requires an act of exclusion. Categories, however, are not completely static, but undergo a constant renegotiation from internal and external elements that call into question the entire structure of experience in terms of established borders that define it. The definition of terms either in support of or in contradiction to a given order is given in relation to that structure. The structure of experience ordered through a system of differentiated borders thus creates opposing terms, as these terms reinforce and sustain the structure. The grotesque proceeds from an ordered structure of experience when opposing or differentiated terms are combined in a way that unifies terms that ought to be differentiated, and differentiates terms that ought to remain unified. In short, the grotesque is an often radical disturbance of an ordered structure of experience.

Mary Douglas' understanding of dirt "as matter out of place…implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order" (p. 44). Dirt as an inappropriate element only exists in relation to a system that classifies this or that as dirt. The behavior of rejecting an object or idea flows from the experience that the order of experience is disturbed. This she calls "pollution behavior" (p. 45). In this sense eliminating dirt is "a positive effort to organize the environment" (p. 2). Organizing behavior in this way limits experience, makes it manageable and helps one to focus and discern reality. "Danger lies in transitional states, simply because transition is neither one state nor the next, it is undefineable" (p. 120). Danger is an idea or expression that is ambiguous in relation to a given structure that can neither be classified as a pollutant, nor included in any prescribed boundaries. Lack of definition results in lack of classification and so, the ambiguous is suspended somewhere outside or along the lines of the system. Fredrik Barth (2000) notes three characteristics of boundaries along these lines. Boundaries "divide territories 'on the ground'…set limits that mark social groups off from each other…and…provide a template for that which separates distinct categories of the mind" (p. 17). It is a faculty of human cognition and modern society to draw boundaries and develop a structure in which experience is ordered and predictable and the division between human and divine powers is clearly demarcated. However there is a more fluid understanding of boundary formation that is rather inclusive of oppositional voices and a spate of different elements. While Douglas would perhaps characterize these sorts of arrangements in terms of primitive culture, Delwin Brown argues that this fluidity of boundaries lies in the negotiation of active participants in a tradition.

Delwin Brown (1994) offers a reinterpretation of "tradition" in order "to seek an adequate understanding of tradition after the advent of modernism" (p. 4). While modernism may have heightened "the destructive capabilities of inherited ideas, actions, and structures,…humans are inescapably traditioned and traditional beings" (p. 2). Brown's strategy is to redefine tradition in terms of its consistently renegotiated boundaries and limits and the inherent multiplicity of voices that give tradition its shape. This more fluid structure not only makes room for other voices, but actually generates these voices. Tradition, so conceived, is of a very different character than the criticism leveled against its "special character" as "an act of faith at odds with the evidence" (Brown, 1994, p. 68). "That is why tradition must be understood as the negotiation between chaos and order, order and chaos. The dynamic of tradition requires both. Either alone is impossible, and either in excess is dangerous" (Brown, 1994, p. 87). The canon that forms the "galaxy of meaning" for a tradition should not be deconstructed to an endless play of meaning, nor should it reify itself into a dogmatic and static hegemony of this or that meaning. The boundedness of the canon establishes a limitation or the conditions for the tradition and in so doing, those within the tradition negotiate meaning and identity in relation to the canon (Brown, 1994, p. 78). Yet the canon is also curatorial in the midst of "multiple and conflictual" meaning, and contestable in that it is a "negotiation or play" (Brown, 1994, p. 80). A similar view suggests that the individuals within the boundaries of tradition may use their own schemas in order to construct their identities relative to those boundaries (Barth, 2000, p. 33). What is at stake is a more flexible and adaptive view of tradition that allows space for the subversive to co-exist within its bounds. Moreover, because there are still boundaries that establish identity, the space outside of the bounds of the tradition are available for inhabitation by the grotesque. Indeed, "the provocation for change seems most frequently to come from outside the tradition" (Brown, 1994, p. 87). The grotesque, as we will see, is liminally related to constructed boundaries. What is the character of the grotesque that can be so challenging, repugnant, subversive and destructive of boundary limitations that establish identity, and order experience?

The word grotesque derives from grottesca which is the feminine form of grotto meaning cave. The word became associated with an ornamental style of painting in Italy from fifteenth-century excavations. However, through time the meaning would take on a new meaning more closely associated with its contemporary usage. Wilhelm Kayser (1963) traces the complex history of the term and notes that Vitruvius, a contemporary of Augustus condemned the style characterizing it as "barbaric." Kayser quotes Vitruvius from De architectura, "For our contemporary artists decorate the walls with monstrous forms rather than reproducing clear images of the familiar world" (p. 20). The work he describes seems to take aspects of different classifications in the order of the world and combines them in an unnatural or unfamiliar way. Thus he asks, "For how can the stem of a flower support a roof, or a candelabrum pedimental structure? How can a tender shoot carry a human figure, and how can bastard forms composed of flowers and human bodies grow out of roots and tendrils?" Kayser's connection between the barbaric and the grotesque is an interesting one because it inscribes a social category on the meaning of grotesque. The grotesque, in these terms, connotes a lack of civility.

"Civilized" is often seen in contradiction to "barbaric". According to Brown "(t)o civilize was to bring humans into a social organization, and to be civil was to behave in a way appropriate to that organization, to be orderly, educated, polite" (p. 59). This meaning was dovetailed with the meaning of culture through the Eighteenth century. Freud echoes this sentiment with his less than inclusive view of taboo. Freud draws a parallel between restrictive taboos in primitive culture and "obsessional neurosis" (p. 45 ff.) more akin to the view of the savages in Huxley's Brave New World than in the way we have been looking at the notion of boundary so far. For Leszek Kolakowski (1990), barbarity, as relative to Eurocentrism, is a result of the loss of tradition through fanatical skepticism or cultural universalism. Either of these options contradict a fundamental European characteristic which is self-criticism that exists within boundaries (p. 25). Hence tradition can be preserved without morphing into totalitarianism. Radical acceptance of all elements on an equal plane ultimately reduces a culture's identity into such fanatical regimes. Further, Kolakowski argues the notion of complete and utter sameness under the umbrella of the word utopia is a contradictory notion. "A feasible utopian world must presuppose that people have lost their creativity and freedom, that the variety of human life forms and thus personal life have been destroyed, and that all people have achieved perfect satisfaction of their needs and accepted a perpetual deadly stagnation as their normal condition" (Kolakowski, 1990, p. 138). Difference must run parallel to and intersect with what seems to be normalized and defined within boundaries.

The place of the grotesque within this matrix of tradition and difference opens up as a normal reaction to and element of boundary structures. Bakhtin (1981) argues that "the disunification of what had traditionally been linked, and the bringing-together of that which had traditionally been kept distant and disunified, is achieved in Rabelais via the construction of series [rjady] of the most varied types, which are at times parallel to each other and at times intersect each other" (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 170). In Rabelais' use of the body, exaggerations run parallel and intersect with precise anatomical descriptions. It is thus a strategy to renegotiate the boundaries of tradition in the sense the Brown defines it, but through that which escapes category because it has blurred the boundaries that construct these categories. However, this negotiation first must re-establish where cultural boundaries are, who is responsible for upholding them, and the assumptions that govern their existence. Re-negotiation from this view is not without its significant challenges and re-establishes what is profane and indecent.

One angle of understanding the profanity of blurred boundaries is through the relationship of the subversive to cultural norms. What is subversive runs against norms to reveal oppressive regimes of power, and discloses assumptions in order to generate a more authentic notion of self. However, the prevailing cultural structure can assimilate this level of the grotesque and package it in a likeness to consumers in the guise of "cutting-edge style." This movement provides fertile ground for a new subversive element to replace the former counter or subculture that becomes the mainstream. One example of this is so-called "alternative" music. The moment Nirvana struck the chord of American youth in 1991, the alternative was repackaged in dozens of look-alike and sound-alike forms to mimic Nirvana and the "Seattle sound" of so-called "grunge." This "feedback loop" is documented in the Frontline program "Merchants of Cool". As Douglas Rushkoff (Dretzin & Goodman, 2001) notes, "The media watches kids and then sells them an image of themselves. Then kids watch those images and aspire to be that mook or midriff in the TV set. And the media is there watching them do that in order to craft new images for them, and so on." Even those who believe that they have escaped this cycle through the grotesque (e.g. the Insane Clown Posse and others) are soon sold the grotesque as a part of the mainstream. It is perhaps this re-imaging of the grotesque that no longer seems grotesque in the sense we have seen thus far. Art can here be seen as a confusion with perversity - the grotesque without any referent or boundary by which it defines its own relative formlessness.

Without a vigorous tradition to oppose, the avant-garde declines into a series of narcissistic soliloquies, raging against an illusory enemy that is only too happy to subsidize its tantrums. In fact, we are living today in the aftermath of the avant-garde, a time when its gestures have become ubiquitous but also aesthetically impotent. The obsession with novelty; the addiction to extreme gestures; the desire to marry art and radical politics: These common features of avant-garde culture live on now as a species of caricature (Kimball, 1997).

The grotesque and the avant-garde become simulacrum (Baudrillard, 1994), and cease to mean nothing more than shock value in order to increase market share. The issue here brings us back to recent controversy over decency and order in society with regard to FCC regulations, same-sex marriage, The Passion and even ClearChannel's removal of Howard Stern's radio show from six markets in order to protect its "listeners from indecent content" (ClearChannel, 2004). What is clear from these current debates is that, whether perceived or real, the grotesque has a dangerous element to it. In terms of boundary formation, identity and tradition, these debates are part of a larger complex of behavior in which boundaries are constantly renegotiated and redefined by those from within the tradition and from the outside of the tradition. In this way those within the tradition and its galaxy of meaning redefine who they are and legitimate or refigure the canon that shapes their galaxy of shared meaning.

The Grotesque as a Medium for the Sublime

The other side of formlessness points to another set of categories that have little to do with corporeal restructuring and repackaging. This is more in tune with the idea of the holy or with mystery - the sublime. As Connelly (2003) notes, "The boundlessness of the sublime, dynamical or numerical, overwhelms reason and exceeds its powers to contain and define" (p. 4). For her this is an important distinction with the grotesque. The grotesque rather, "is in constant struggle with the boundaries of the known, the conventional, the understood" (p. 5). For Chaouli, it is a question of scale. The sublime, is "absolutely - that is to say, beyond any comparison - exceed(s) the human scale. For only then will our power of imagination feel its own limits, leading to a momentary sense of failure that in turn becomes the negative pleasure we feel when we realize the even greater extension of our reason. In order to experience the infinite range of our reason we need to confront something that is not finite, something beyond the human scale" (Chaouli, p. 55). For Kayser (1963), the grotesque is a refiguration of categories that are the material of the middle-class worldview, but are radically recombined and altered in a way that challenges that worldview. In one sense this perspective leads to a freeing notion of the grotesque since structure is viewed as tentative and a more authentic notion of self and the sublime is possible. The formless has been slipped into two categories, "the loathsome disgusting" and the "sublime sublime". The grotesque as that which is formless can thus take two directions - both of which subvert boundaries: that which is rejected as foul or Douglas' "dirt", and a sublime disruption of existing categories. The former falls into the category of "profane", while the latter is "holy."

In contrast to Chaouli's affirmation of how far reason can extend to comprehend the sublime, Christian spiritual writings have stressed the idea of God's unbounded nature that escapes any formative categories that human reason is able to construct in order to comprehend it. This seems to be in concert with Connelly's understanding of the sublime in relation to the grotesque. The basis for the Cloud of Unknowing, for example is knowledge of God via negativa, that is, knowing God by rejecting all positive statements about God due to the inability of the senses to conceive of God. That the finitude of the senses and the mind to perceive and conceive of God are likened to "a cloud of darkness" reinforces that the being of God is ultimately a mystery. "The darkness we enter is the other side of what is known. It is not an unqualified darkness of unknowing, but the other side of what can be spoken of" (Allen, 1998, p. 30). The holy and the sublime, in this sense, is something that escapes human categorization and is unbounded by human reason and the ability to accurately articulate the habitual presence of the divine.

Divine presence is that which human categories can at best partially understand. The beauty of the world or "the book of nature" can give one only a partial reflection of the beauty of God. Moreover, Jesus as God incarnate upholds the mystery of God for, according to Barth (1955), Jesus only reflects God through an analogy of relationship rather than an analogy of being (Barth, 1955, III/2, pp. 220-221, 323-324). Since the being of God escapes all categories, including "being" itself (Marion, 1991) the closest category to which we can ascribe to God is that God escapes all categories. However, this way of looking at the holy as a sublime, unbounded formlessness does not adequately pinpoint the issue of the grotesque as such. In contrast, the subject of the grotesque is the corporeal and the material. But even if we locate the grotesque here, there is room for the grotesque to open a space for the divine in the way that it challenges boundaries and the categories that structure experience. This challenge reveals the limitedness of human cognition to grasp all of reality from not only a transcendent, noumenous level, but even on a material, observable level.

Douglas offers a very brief proposal that leaves space for the grotesque to be a creative rather than a destructive force. The category of the profane behaves in a cycle from formlessness to form and a return to formlessness. "Dirt was created by the differentiating activity of mind, it was a by-product of the creation of order. So it started from a state of non-differentiation; all through the process of differentiating its role was to threaten the distinctions made; finally it returns to its true indiscriminable character" (Douglas, 2002, p. 198). This is certainly the case in Genesis where "the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (NRSV). This verse itself is an indication of the Yahwist tradition in which the experience of God is not limited to the cult of the Temple, but is also outside of those boundaries. "In a word the chief importance of God's activity suddenly lies outside the sacred institutions. It is thereby perhaps more concealed from the natural eye because the entire profane sphere is also the domain of God's activity; but it is nevertheless looked at more inclusively, not intermittently, but much more continually" (von Rad, 1972, p. 30). This perspective echoes the notion of via positiva through the book of nature. Dirt is not only formless and a way of understanding the grotesque, but dirt is also the potential for order and can disclose beauty and even the likeness of God! Here, dirt offers a creative rather than destructive quality, or a "creative formlessness" (Douglas, 2002, p. 199). This is part of the constructive side of what the grotesque as formlessness can offer. The issue is that the grotesque can be a creative medium for boundary renegotiation among participants in a traditional dialogue inasmuch as dirt was a creative medium for God.

In sum, the grotesque offers us a fructuous concept to understand the conditions under which human boundary formation exists from the social, cognitive, and spiritual dimensions. With uncategorized formlessness and ambiguity there is a power that can either be subversive or disclose the nature of the divine. In the grotesque there is a creative energy and power through which identity and tradition in relation to the divine can be renegotiated and more richly understood. Can that which is profane and subversive also act as an agent to reveal the divine? That is to say, it possible to combine the grotesque with the ordered and pure in a way that the nature of the divine is revealed? If the grotesque is that which knocks order and structured experience out of balance, there is a piece of it that forces experience to renegotiate structure and order. In the midst of this renegotiation of boundaries there is a ripe moment in which human limitedness to know the divine is disclosed thus reinforcing the mystery and the ineffable nature of the divine. An understanding of why this or that is grotesque or offensive can disclose the otherness of God. There is thus an analogy of relationship in human boundary formation and the grotesque to boundary formation to God.

Grotesque Images and Boundary Transgressions in the Nine Inch Nails

In a 1994 interview, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails says, "What I am trying to do is challenge the accepted…I'm fully aware that Nine Inch Nails works within the context of writing songs with choruses and hooks. This gives it a certain degree of commerciality and I think that's a good platform to slip in some messages that are a bit subversive" (Sprague). The music and art of the Nine Inch Nails can be characterized as subversive not just because of the hostile and dark images and language, but because of how mutually oppositional elements are grotesquely conjoined. This includes the collusion of food, sex, death, and religion in the award winning music video for the song "Closer". But this instance is part of a wider pattern for the prominent position that is given to the grotesque in Nine Inch Nails music and video.

In the film-noir video for "Happiness in Slavery" (1992) a stream of images pulsate in a calculated flood of the grotesque. The video begins with Trent Reznor, lead singer, writer, instrumentalist, label owner, and performer for over half of all Nine Inch Nails music, belting out the words "Slave screams…" from the inside of a cage. When he reaches the fourth verse ("don't open your eyes you won't like what you see") we are brought inside of dim a room with an early 40's white gentleman in a suit carefully lighting a candle, and methodically removing his clothing. In the middle of the room is what looks like a reclined dentist's chair or a massage table with gadgetry and a hint of machinery all around it. Vegetation grows at the base of this chair/table. The man walks over to a sink, and while engaging in a ritualistic washing of his body the camera pays special attention to his genitalia. He slowly walks over to the benign looking chair and lays back in it. The chair swiftly comes to life twisting itself to a position suitable for an examination and his hands and feet are locked in place by restraining devices. The chair becomes more "alive" than the supposed initiate as an active participant and leader in a ritualistic transformation as the iniitiate becomes a passive object that the machine body of the chair restrains. At this point he undergoes horrific torture - his hands are pierced by probes, his chest is prodded and impaled by claws, his abdomen ripped open by spinning blades, and his genitalia crushed. At the end his body is ground and fed to the worms that live below in the midst of the weeds. His torturous pleasure lubricates the cogs of the machine and his torture and death sustains the machine and the weeds. There is thus disturbing subtext in which the grotesque combination of machine, man, pleasure, pain, and ritual form matrix of slavery as a means to freedom. After the gruesome mutilation and excretion of the man by the machine, Trent Reznor enters the room and begins the same ritual as the camera fades to black. While these images conjure up nightmarish gore and visions of pain at the whim of technology, the most disturbing aspect is the intense and even orgasmic pleasure he derives from the captivity and torture. The boundaries between man and machine, life and death, freedom and captivity, pleasure and pain, sacrificial cleansing and profane mutilation are all simultaneously breached in a matter of minutes. This video offers a framework that explains the Nine Inch Nails' thematic - control, pain, pleasure, and the body - all at once.

Technical control through modernity and the determinism that masks itself as a condition of liberation is at the fore of the Nine Inch Nails experience. Reznor transports the viewer through a blurred boundary or a simulacrum of boundedness in order to face the possibility of annihilation; and rather than run away or turn from it, look at it with the perverted gaze of a rush hour commuter attending to the carnage of a car crash with the unspoken urge to see the frailty of the human body encased in a steel automobile body that is at once an extension of and an amputation of the self and embodied animus. "Embodied" here means a mechanical layer on top of the flesh rendering it irrelevant and even profane.

This marks a grotesque theme that runs through Reznor's art - the union of the technological and the biological. At the end of "Happiness in Slavery" Reznor invites our attention to the illusion of freedom that the images of the video represent "i don't know what I am i don't know where i've been / human junk just words and so much skin / stick my hands thru / the cage of this endless routine / just some flesh caught in this big broken machine". The body is thus devoid of an "I" that can be free or happy. Liberation from the machine and the hope it requires is an illusion and escape is impossible. We must somehow be content even if we are not happy with this knowledge. Much like Adam and Eve, perhaps we would be better off not having this knowledge of good and evil at all ("the blind have been blessed with security").

These images and themes bring to stark relief the chord that runs through the Nine Inch Nails EP Broken (1992) and its follow up LP The Downward Spiral (1994). Broken is a diatribe against corporate influence and how corporate culture kills art in order to sustain the market. It is as much of an exploration of subversive elements as it is a declaration that the grotesque can shatter what is acceptable in an industry driven by certain norms and expectations. While this could be drawn into the feedback loop mentioned above, it never was due to its exaggerated subversive quality. It can be argued that the over-the-top use of the grotesque is a tool used to subvert corporate influence. However, there is a more important theme that has to do with what subversive means rather than why Reznor may or may not have used what is subversive in this or that instance. Where the latter album differs is its inclusion of God into the conundrum. It does so through an introspective glance rather than an outward gaze. It is also here that we find the track "Closer" (1994).

What "Closer" and The Downward Spiral do is take the entrails spat out from Broken and melancholically gaze at them with existential passion rather than make a concerted effort to personal liberation. We are rather faced with the question of whether or not liberation is indeed possible given the human condition and the conditions that the modern technical social structure exact upon embodiment. What Reznor also brings to the audience is a more critical tone that at least asks a question of possibility and so, offers the listener with a degree of openness that his previous work seemed to destroy. It seems to end as tragically as the fate of Oedipus who destroys his ability to see, lancing the gaze from possibility leading ultimately to death. Here it is a bullet that discloses the frailty of the self and reveals the anguish of choosing between unsatisfying alternatives.

A more exact look at "Closer" in this framework lends its images to a more faceted interpretation ripe with possibility to explore the aspects of religion that it perhaps intentionally blurs. The video is rife with images of death, sadomasochism, sideshow misfits, animal flesh, seraphim, and the crucifix. In the lyrics there is an oscillation between subject and object between the "I" who acts at the permission of an object, "you", with desire, control and release all working in a very uneasy tension. This production is colorful, but given a sepia treatment that gives an an aged quality from the early 20th or late 19th century. Despite its ability to be internally coherent, "Closer" is the result of a grotesque combination of equally grotesque art from the 20th Century.

These images are heavily indebted to photographer Joel-Peter Witkin who is unique not only due to his careful crafting and composition, but perhaps more so due to his favorite subject matter - the corpse. "Witkin, in photographing the dead, takes what we would ordinarily dismiss as the past, and enlivens it" (Mann). Witkin's photography collapses the boundary between the self and the image of the self. The image seems to suspend the death of the subject and his sepia and black and white tones and scratched film give the imaged a timeless character. The boundary between death and life is blurred rendering the images grotesque. Witkin thus destabilizes a fundamental boundary at the foundation of his photography (Schwenger, 2000). Looking at the issue from another side can simply recall the discussion of the profane above. Witkin could be doing all of this for a reaction - to be subversive for the sake of being subversive, or even perverted (Wilson, 2000). Certainly, Witkin would describe his art of the former, deeper character. The issue at stake for what I am arguing is that the sources for the images in the "Closer" video are a compendium of pre-existent grotesque elements that are brought together for a subversive end. As director of the video Mark Romanek writes, the video "was merely a compendium of original and re-contextualized images from the last Century of Art and Photography - images that I felt would resonate with the song's themes, images that 'felt' right" (Romanek, personal communication, 2003). The entire video is layer on top of layer of internally grotesque images brought together in a grotesque chorus where Reznor proclaims "I want to fuck you like an animal" while images of a monkey on a cross, a crucifix attached to the head of an androgynous masked person dressed in S&M clothing, and what appear to be angel's wings behind Reznor but on further analysis is a hollowed out animal corpse split open and suspended to form a cherubic background for Reznor. To put the piece in the context of the rest of The Downward Spiral, Reznor says, "Thematically I wanted to explore the idea of somebody who systematically throws or uncovers every layer of what he's surrounded with, comfort-wise, from personal relationships to religion to questioning the whole situation. Someone dissecting his own ability to relate to other people or have anything to believe in" (Hammerschmidt, 1994). Bakhtin shared a similar view of the liberatory potential for the grotesque. There is a sense of creative destruction in which existing structures and regimes of knowledge that are taken for granted are blurred to the degree of non-existence in order to liberate creative passion and a more authentic identity. One can become composed of such habitual matrices of experience and become subject to regimes of knowledge/power. A source of power is found in the reversal of the accepted order, the bringing-together of conventionally separate objects and deconstructing these existing structures and relationships (Bakhtin, 1981). Boundaries are stripped away in order to disclose a more authentic self. The sublime, or a category of the sublime, is brought into the boundary of the corporeal rendering it a grotesque manipulation of religious symbolism.

Yet in the song "Hurt" (2003) we return to the possibility that it may not be a complette deconstruuction of the boudaries that structure an regulate eperience - in short, complete nihilism. It is here that the end may indeed be a beginning, but Reznor leaves us with that question unanswered. Johnny Cash clothed the song in intense introspection and retrospection when he re-recorded it and Mark Romanek produced a video for the song in 2003. With one change of the song's lyrics, Cash turns something corporeal to something somewhat divine. In one line, Reznor sings "I wear this crown of shit", but Cash turns the lyric into "I wear this crown of thorns." The video echoes the past career of Cash and weaves in scenes of the crucifixion of Jesus. When Nine Inch Nails perform this song live, Reznor sings these lines as a silhouette in front of a massive movie screen that shows scenes of death, decay and torture. As the chorus goes in both versions, "You can have it all/ my empire of dirt/ I will let you down/ I will make you hurt". But the conclusion of the song, that also concludes the album, is "If I could start again/ a million miles away/ I would keep myself/ I would find a way". It is in this line that Cash shows scenes of the crucified Christ. In the biblical account of the crucifixion in Mark, the grotesque body of Christ and the holiness of God is blurred in the cry of dereliction which is an echo of Psalm 22:2, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" As Jürgen Moltmann (1993) interprets this passage, "The abandonment on the cross which separates the Son from the Father is something that takes place within God himself; it is stasis within God - 'God against God' - particularly if we are to maintain that Jesus bore witness to and lived out the truth of God" (pp. 151-152). Jesus' transgression of established boundaries is revealed in his person as fully man and fully God, in his work that cut against the grain of accepted traditions, in his speeches that proclaimed the kingdom of God, and his unique relationship to God as Father, and in his final crucifixion and death. It is the resurrection which renders the grotesque into something sublime and beautiful in its unity of previously unharmonious combinations and separations in the person and work of Jesus. There is thus something of a hope at the bottom of The Downward Spiral that Broken did not have. At the end of deconstruction of all boundaries, there is a new space creating for rebirth and recreation of a more authentic self.

Critically Engaging the Lifeworld through the Grotesque

What I am arguing is that the encounter with grotesque art that has captured something of the religious has also the potential to disclose a more authentic understanding of the divine even as it strips away those vital boundaries that structure identity. It creates a forum in which convictions of the observer for or against the image are extracted and the potential for a restructuring of belief and identity emerges. The answer to how this occurs is not only through the habitual matrices of Bakhtin, but also in the notion of the lifeworld for Jurgen Habermas (1987). It is the lifeworld as a hidden boundary limit to experience that gives shape and structure to the encounter with reality. The encounter with the grotesque is a strategy in which the hiddenness of the lifeworld can be disclosed.

One of Jurgen Habermas' most important contributions to continental philosophy is the move from a subject-centered to a communicative rationality. Presented as an alternative to "being" as the primary category for rationality, Habermas proposes a counter discourse to subject-centered rationality that ascribes "the meaning-creating horizons of world interpretation…to communicatively structured lifeworlds that reproduce themselves via the palpable medium of action oriented mutual agreement" (Habermas, 1987, p. 295). Much like Brown's understanding of tradition in which multiple perspectives and voices are held together, a communicative rationality is a performance oriented paradigm where participants coordinate and negotiate a mutual understanding. "Insofar as speakers and hearers straightforwardly achieve a mutual understanding about something in the world, they move within the horizon of their common lifeworld; this remains in the background of the participants - as an intuitively known, unproblematic, and unanalyzable, holistic background" (Habermas, 1987, p. 298). The lifeworld so understood furnishes both the structure and content of the discourse. The lifeworld should not be mistaken for a metanarrative (Lyotard, 1984) or some other grand unifying theory to which participants subscribe and to which they capitulate. It is rather "co-given" and constructed as participants engage in dialogue. This dialogue is rooted in the "public sphere" in which interlocutors form groups rooted in an ideal discourse that makes changing the system of capitalism and technocracy possible. In such a situation, where the ideal speech act of consensus is achieved, participants can each "overcome their at first subjectively biased views in favor of a rationally motivated agreement. Communicative reason is expressed in a decentered understanding of the world" (Habermas, 1987, p. 315). Habermas' theory is fundamentally social, but has consequences for the individual as reason is no longer subject-centered, but centered in the public sphere. It implies that the individual so conceived is open to a critical engagement of what is assumed in a discourse, namely, the experiences, traditions, and knowledge one brings to the discourse moment.

Habermas' theory, as it is rooted in discourse has opened itself up for use in transformation theory through Jack Mezirow in which critical reflection transforms frames of reference. "A frame of reference is the structure of assumptions or unquestioned and taken for granted beliefs about reality. Transformative learning is the process of becoming aware through critical reflection of the frame of reference in which one thinks, feels and acts" (Fleming, 2002). The fundamental disconnect between Mezirow and Habermas is in the radical nature of the public sphere and how the lifeworld both develops and is developed by the public sphere. This lack of emphasis on the public sphere has been a criticism of Mezirow's use of Habermas' critical theory - although it has also been noted that he emphasizes the pragmatic side of the lifeworld where others have not (Connelly, 1996; Fleming, 2002). There is perhaps a more direct tie with the critical theory side of Habermas' argument that looks at education as a transformative process that is socially motivated rather than motivated by the transformation of frames of reference for individuals.

Critical pedagogy seeks to transform individual frames of reference and assumptions through political and social action.

At its best, critical pedagogy is developed as a cultural practice that enables teachers and others to view education as a political, social, and cultural enterprise. That is, as a form of engaged practice, critical pedagogy calls into question forms of subordination that create inequities among different groups as they live out their lives (Giroux, 1988, p. 165).

For critical pedagogy, education is placed in the same category as the system. The effort is not only for transformation to occur on an individual basis, but on an institutional level as well. The goal is to create critical citizens who can rationally question and speak to social and political issues in the society in order to change it though discourse and action. Within this context, Henry Giroux advances what he calls "a border pedagogy of postmodern resistance" (1988b, p. 165). It is a strategy that upholds the modernist self-critical sensibility as discussed above with a twist of resistance to the power/knowledge matrix. But it does so by "engaging the ways in which knowledge can be remapped, reterritorialized, and decentered in the wider interests of rewriting the borders and coordinates of an oppositional cultural politics" (Giroux, 1988b, p. 166). The materials that fuel the politics of resistance are the cultural codes that have inherent limits and assumptions that must be critically engaged in order for the education to be emancipatory in relation to existing power structures. To engage these codes is to ferret out the emotional investments students have with cultural codes to reach a point at which those aspects and symbol systems of the students' lifeworld can be disclosed and critically engaged. This means that popular culture forms a set of materials that shape the lifeworld of the postmodern student and ought to be engaged at a level where emotional ties and the structure of meaning can be disclosed and engaged on a critical level.

What is at stake here is developing a border pedagogy that can fruitfully work to break down those ideologies, cultural codes, and social practices that prevent students from recognizing how social forms at particular historical conjunctures operate to repress alternative readings of their own experiences, society, and the world (Giroux, 1988b, p. 169).

Thus the critical theory of Habermas is upheld while the potential for individual transformation is possible in service to a greater social and political agenda. In the writings of Mezirow's critics for his incomplete use of Habermas' theory of lifeworld and communicative action for transformational learning, critical pedagogy is hardly mentioned at all as a method to bring what Habermas argues in concert with pragmatic ends.


Critical pedagogy enjoins the critical elements in the grotesqe as it is related to boundaries and knowledge of the divine, and does so in a constructive and pragmatic way. First, the constructive side of the grotesque can creatively offer a strategy for reconstructing one's identity to a more authentic end stripped of cultural norms by way of negation and deconstruction. By critically engaging and challenging the assumptions that lie behind these cultural norms and other regimes of power/knowledge, the student engaged in border pedagogy learns the theory-laden and tentative nature of the borders that are constructed in favor of knowledge regimes. To push this issue further, contact with the divine through a habitual presence also occurs by way of negation and by knowing that the experience of the beauty of the world is a limited reflection of divine beauty itself. Both sides of this relationship disclose the limitedness of the human subject in experiencing the divine.

The second element is the notion that tradition is more fluid in structure than is often thought and that counter-discourses are always parallel to and often intersect with the galaxy of meaning associated with the tradition itself. What border pedagogy does a step further is to step into the counter-discourse in order to critically challenge the assumptions of the main corpus of the tradition. Here too, the grotesque can function as a means by which one can engage in that critical task. The third element is the integration of popular culture to raise the banner of critical engagement of the lifeworld as it is disclosed through popular culture media. The employment of the Nine Inch Nails as a profoundly grotesque art form to teach the divine seeks to examine a counter-discourse that blurs traditional boundaries in order to examine emotional investments to traditional categories, that reveals the tentative and fluid nature of traditional boundaries, and explores the limitedness of human reason in comprehending the divine. The grotesque is thus used to critically engage the conditions and inherent limits of knowledge, language, culture, and religion in order to reconstruct a more authentic understanding of the divine. So understood, the grotesque ought not be relegated to an expression that is a simulacrum of shock with no possibility to enhance the depth of koeledge and personal conviction. Nor ought it be seen as that which simply devalues high culture and art in favor of corporate gain and disturbs sacred cultural values in the service of capitalism at the expense of decency. It is rather that which forces us to take a hard look at our unchecked assumptions that often govern but always condition our intersubjective associations. It is only through such critical refection that the public sphere can flourish and social action can be enjoined to a more authentic understanding of self and the other including God and divinity.


New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. (1991). Cambridge: Oxford Press.

Allen, D. (1998). Spiritual theology: Cowley.

Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays. Austin: University of Texas.

Barth, K. (1955). Church dogmatics. New York,: Scribner.

Barth, F. (2000). Signifying identities : anthropological perspectives on boundaries and contested values. In A. P. Cohen (Ed.), (pp. vi, 178). London ; New York: Routledge.

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Brown, D. (1994). Boundaries of our habitations : tradition and theological construction. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Chaouli, M. (2003). Van Gogh's ear: Toward a theory of disgust. In F. S. Connelly (Ed.), Modern Art and the Grotesque. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

ClearChannel. (2004). Howard Stern show taken off ClearChannel stations. Retrieved March 07, 2004, from

Connelly, B. (1996). Interpretations of Jurgen Habermas in adult education writings. Studies in the Education of Adults, 28(2), 241 ff.

Connelly, F. S. (2003). Introduction. In Modern art and the grotesque (pp. xv, 316). Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Douglas, M. (2002). Purity and danger : an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. London ; New York: Routledge.

Dretzin, R. (Writer), & B. Goodman (Director) (2001). Merchants of Cool [Television]. In B. Goodman, Rachel Dretzin, Douglas Rushkoff (Producer), Frontline. Boston: PBS.

Fleming, T. (2002). Habermas on civil society, lifeworld and system: Unearthing the social transformation theory. Retrieved November 18, 2003, from

Freud, S. (1950). Totem and taboo : some points of agreement between the mental lives of savages and neurotics. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Giroux, H. (1988). Teachers as Intellectuals: Bergin & Garvey.

Giroux, H. (1988b). Border pedagogy in the age of postmodernism. Journal of Education, 170(3), 162-181.

Habermas, J. (1987). The philosophical discourse of modernity : twelve lectures. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Hammerschmidt, C. (1994). Down on the spiral. Retrieved July 8, 2003, from

Kayser, W. J. (1963). The grotesque in art and literature. Bloomington,: Indiana University Press.

Kimball, R. (1997). Art without beauty. Public Interest, 127, 44.

Ko*akowski, L. (1990). Modernity on endless trial. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lyotard, J. F. (1984). The postmodern condition : a report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mann, C.The bone house. Retrieved July 8, 2003, from

Marion, J.-L. (1991). God without being : hors-texte. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moltmann, J. (1993). The Crucified God. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Reznor, T. (1992). Broken EP: Interscope.

Reznor, T. (Writer), & J. Reiss (Director) (1992). Happiness in slavery. In A. Stern (Producer).

Reznor, T. (1994). The downward spiral: Interscope.

Reznor, T. (Writer), & M. Romanek (Director) (1994). Closer. In K. Montagna (Producer).

Reznor, T. (Writer), & M. Romanek (Director) (2003). Hurt. In A. McGarry (Producer).

Romanek, M. (2003). Email correspondence. In A. Tatusko (Ed.).

Schwenger, P. (2000). Corpsing the image. Critical Inquiry(Spring 2000), 395-413.

Sprague, D. (1994). Nails leader explores pain amid his spiraling stardom. Boston Globe.

von Rad, G. (1972). Genesis: A Commentary (Revised ed.). Philadephia: Westminster Press.

Walsh, J. (Ed.). (1981). The Cloud of Unknowing. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Wilson, C. (2000). Joel-Peter Witkin: Is his darkly imaginative photography an intellectually camoflaged freak show or high art? Retrieved July 11, 2003, from

База данных защищена авторским правом © 2016
звярнуцца да адміністрацыі

    Галоўная старонка