Freak of Nature or Freak of Culture? Using Theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, Freud, Julia Kristeva and Fredric Jameson about the grotesque body and semiotics, discuss why we watch trauma and transformation documentaries such as Channel Four’s Body Shock series, how they are produced, and how they make us feel.
2. Body Shock: ‘I Am The Elephant Man’
3: Documentary Semiotics and Audience Response
- The Grotesque Body, The Uncanny and Abjection
I am going to take Channel Four’s Body Shock (2006) as a case study, and, as an example, I will focus in particular on one episode ‘I am the Elephant Man’ (2008). The first section of my essay will examine Body Shock in relation to media trends and a close textual analysis of my chosen episode. The next section will consider semiotics of the ‘trauma’ documentary, taking into account how they are produced, and analysing viewer responses in relation to contexts such as Jon Dovey’s definition of ‘first-person’ media. Next I focus on the work of specific theorists: Bakhtin on the ‘carnivalesque’ and the ‘grotesque body; Freud on the ‘unheimlich’ and Julia Kristeva on ‘the abject’; in order to consider how such concepts could help us understand why we watch such programmes and how they make us feel. Finally I conclude that, in order to answer the question, a combination of various theoretical and methodological approaches are required to understand the complex and uncertain reactions we feel toward programmes such as Body Shock.
2. Body Shock: ‘I Am The Elephant Man’
Body Shock was a series on channel Four, which, according to its website, “investigates extraordinary and moving real-life stories about the extremes of the human body” (Body Shock 2008). This simple marketing blurb suggests many elements that would be expected to attract viewers. On one hand it is ‘extraordinary’ and ‘extreme’, yet on the other hand it is ‘real-life’. It is emotionally engaging, ‘moving’, but also has a focus on the physical ‘the human body’.
Programmes dealing with extremes of the human body, Supersize V Superskinny (2008) for example, had been hugely successful recently. An interest in ‘reality’ is still prevalent, but by promising something genuinely ‘moving’ rather than the perceived boredom of fly-on-the-wall shows such as the seemingly dated Big Brother series (1999-2009), it had the potential to be a surefire ratings success
What was not really pointed out by the description, but what seemed to create the actual huge success of the programme was the fact that it focused entirely on the kind of hideously deformed bodies that provoke a strong but complicated emotional reaction on behalf of viewers. Programmes include ‘Half-ton man’, a show about a grossly overweight man which ‘investigated’ “what leads people to eat themselves to death” (Episodes 2008), ‘The girl with eight limbs’, ‘The girl with two faces’ and ‘The boy who gave birth to his twin’ (Episodes 2008)
The episode I will focus on here is ‘I am the Elephant Man’:
Known as China’s ‘Elephant Man’, Huang Chuncai tells his own story as he undergoes surgery to remove life-threatening tumours weighing 20kg. At the age of 31, Huang’s tumours make up half his body weight, and after a life of suffering, he travels to a leading cancer hospital to undergo risky surgery in the hope of having a more normal life.
(Elephant Man 2008)
‘I am the Elephant Man’ opens with conventional establishing shots to set up its location as ‘exotic’. There are clichéd images of running chickens and Chinese men working in fields, clichéd ‘oriental’ sounding music and a soothing female voiceover, “in this tiny village in Eastern China, many have left to find work in the factories of the South”. The scene is immediately set for UK viewers as somewhere ‘other’, left behind by ‘progress’. There is a reference to the socio-economic context, as if anyone living here has been well and truly left behind and is in need of help to reach normative western capitalist standards. The voice is soothing, calm and slightly patronizing in tone, evoking a feeling of pity. Suspense is built up with a succession of long takes showing fields, huts and landscapes, as viewers are left waiting for the ‘shock’ of the title, until suddenly the image shifts to a close-up of ‘the elephant man’. It is a dramatic and affecting shift. Suddenly his tumour-ridden face fills the screen, framed as if is sloping off to the right edge of the frame. It recalls initially some kind of Photoshop experiment, but then the viewer reels, realising that there have been no digital effects. There is a man who looks like this. The camera remains still for a long time, letting viewers take the sight in, then the shock is undercut (or made stranger) with his words, pronounced with difficulty and subtitled from Chinese, “I go down for a breakfast, and have a wash”. The combination of the familiar situation and unfamiliarly grotesque image provokes an uncanny reaction, which in the next line shifts back to horror, pity and disgust, “I don’t need to brush my teeth as the tumour has knocked them out”. Lulled into a sense of identification after initial confusion, the viewer is then metaphorically punched in the stomach as the horror of the situation is drilled home with such a simple everyday detail. There is a close-up again, in shallow focus, so we just see the face against a blur, again held for an uncomfortably long time. As a viewer, one is not sure what to look for. There is no obvious trace of emotion on Huang’s face. There is no dialogue, no voiceover and no action. We find ourselves staring, feeling a mix of emotions too complex to initially assimilate.
This opening sequence summarises many of the techniques of Body Shock. It defines its participants as human, in their everyday living context, which is generally somewhere less capitalistically ‘progressed’ than the context familiar to most UK viewers. It evokes sympathy and pity for its subjects, but most of all it uses grotesque imagery to provoke shock, disgust, and, most of all, fascination. Why we watch these programmes, how they are made, and how they makes us feel requires taking research from various fields.
3: Documentary Semiotics and Audience Response
In Jon Dovey’s analysis of documentary, he discusses how there has been a “demise of the ‘claim on the real’” (Dovey 2000: 11). People, in other words, have come to expect fakery. Spoof documentaries such as Best in Show (2000) have drawn attention to and revealed the codes and conventions of the documentary by satirising them. Charlie Brooker Screenwipe (2009) went further by not only satirizing the codes and conventions of a factual genre – the ‘mission documentary’ for example, but taking the deconstruction further by cutting between his satirical ‘programme’ – two men on a mission to overcome their inability to relieve themselves in public urinals, and him sitting in a room discussing supposedly serious examples of the genre, Trinny and Susannah Undress the Nation (2007), for example. Brooker’s programme suggested some of the reasons why we watch documentaries based on personal missions – we identify with those overcoming their fears, our emotions are manipulated with music and the editing of sequences into a linear progressive narrative. The trend of this focus on satire, analysis and constant media commentary on the media itself Big Brother’s Little Brother (2001-2009) for example, is one factor that has led to the increase in a more culturally aware spectator, dissatisfied with formulaic documentary and looking for something more. Ironically perhaps, shows such as Trinny and Susanna Undress the Nation are still incredibly popular, which suggests that even if people are aware of them as ‘fake’ constructions of triumphant narratives, they still enjoy them nonetheless.
Jon Dovey defines ‘first-person media’ as “the ever mutating experience of the private and the public” (Dovey 2000: 1). He argues that as, “producers are constrained by the formal expectations of those who commission [documentaries], which are in terms determined by their idea of the audience or ‘their ‘public address’” (2), then documentary codes must constantly be expanded. He focuses on shifts including “a foregrounding of the individual subjective experience as guarantor of knowledge” (21). As a flipside to the lack of public trust in documentary conventions, the first person narrative, hand-held camcorder video diary or couch confessional comes to play an increasingly important role in the ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ which people still demand of the documentary format. There is a sense than even though we are aware that we are being manipulated by the editors of, say, Big Brother, that when we see ‘diary room’ footage then we now get to ‘really’ see what is going on. In other words, what would usually be private, the confessional for example, has now become an important part of public broadcasting.
Dovey takes this argument further to suggest that this focus on subjective experience leads not only to a shift in notions of belief and authenticity, but also an increased focus on private and individual tragedies thrust into the public sphere, which he defines as ‘Trauma TV’:
Trauma TV can be seen as a manifestation of anxieties and insecurities previously contained in the formation of a public sphere ‘hygiene’, which would have determined much of this material unfit for public consumption. (22)
Things previously thought of as private, health matters for example, are more commonly coming to occupy this expanded public sphere, “what was private becomes public. (22)
Body Shock then can be seen to combine many elements. It takes the conventional ‘narrative realism’ of the documentary (the format of the story edited into a progressive human narrative, which people are aware of as ‘fake’ yet still get pleasure from). It adopts elements of Dovey’s ‘Trauma TV’ using first-person accounts and experiences to verify the truth of the represented stories. Further, it combines these elements with excessive imagery representing a more traditional concept of the ‘freakshow’, based on the spectacle and voyeuristic pleasure at staring at the hideously deformed physical body (images that people are repelled by yet still get pleasure from). By taking elements from, say, gross-out horror, and putting them into the first-person documentary framework, the show achieved massive ratings success:
The episode attracted 3.5 million viewers over the 9pm hour last night. The one-off documentary about a 31-year old Chinese man Huang Chuncai, called I am The Elephant Man drew a 15% share of the audience, according to unofficial overnights. A further 209,000 watched on Channel 4+1 an hour later…it outperformed BBC2’s Clowns, an examination of the lives of four childrens entertainers…and also beat the last episode of Channel Five’s Breaking into Tesco
(Dowell 2008: 1)
This analysis is interesting in a number of ways. Firstly, in terms of the choices on offer in the most primetime slot of TV – Body Shock, or a documentary about clowns, or a programme about amateur chefs trying to get their products sold by a supermarket. This proves the popularity of the human-interest documentary genre. Secondly, it reveals that from this choice Body Shock was by far the most successful. This suggests that beyond a theory of why people watch, for example, ‘first person media’ or ‘docu-soaps’, we need more specialist theories on why people choose to watch ‘trauma tv’ in particular.
Viewer response was split in interesting ways. Some focused on the expectations of documentary narrative trajectory. Dovey suggests that the viewer of ‘Trauma TV’ has expectations of a “melodramatic theatre of horror [where] the individual victim is brought to salvation through the agency of institutions” (Dovey 2000: 97). Such documentaries are usually produced in this way. Take Pet Rescue (2003) for example. Here a focus on pet-owners individual suffering would be intercut with affecting images of the wounded pets, but always lead to them being sorted out by the vets (the institution in this case) in the end. This suggests a sense of closure in the narrative structure and Body Shock provided disappointment when this ‘salvation’ fails to arrive:
That was an amazing story, but what happened, it finished very abruptly with no mention of any follow up. (‘biggus’ Blog 2008)
But what was the outcome??? Will there be a follow up programme (‘Jen jen Jen’ Blog 2008)
I’ve been looking for an update on google to see how he is. this first operation they showed was last july and he had a second operation in january but i cant find anything saying how he is now (‘goldfink’ Blog 2008)
Others expressed similar responses but emphasized their own helplessness, viewing the programme as more of a charity appeal:
There doesn’t seem to be any link on the C4 website to enable people to make donations. (‘Gary J’ Blog 2008)
The programme itself, when not focusing on the ‘elephant man’s’ face, focused also on the economic situation, “ I can’t do the tiniest thing.. I can’t earn money” (Elephant Man 2008). He is described as a “burden” on his family in a culture where the eldest son is expected to work and support his family. At the same time, there is a focus on the ‘surgery’ that could ‘normalise’ Huang enough (it is implied) to earn money and support his family. He is presented not only as a failure and deviant in terms of his non-healthy appearance but also in terms of his earning capability in a neo-liberal economic context. ‘Surgery’ represents the ‘agency of institutions’ Dovey mentions, which would normalize the subject. In this case, there is no surgery. The closure of the salvation narrative is thwarted and viewers are left feeling cheated, unable to feel the ‘catharsis’ such closure may provide. However, responses along these lines were not the only responses to the programme. Others watched and were affected in different ways. Many focused less on the narrative but more on the physical affects provoked by the ‘grotesque’ nature of the programme, generally in a disgusted and negative way:
Why do TV stations broadcast this hideous personal tragedy???
I’ve not seen the programme because I am disturbed by the way that TV uses other peoples tragedy just to improve ‘viewer ratings’ to increase the ‘advertisement takings’!!! (‘Suricat’ Blog 2008)
His/her response is interesting in a number of ways ans he/she feels disturbed enough to complain without even actually watching the programme! The argument is based on two main assumptions. Firstly, that broadcasting ‘horrific’ material’ will ‘improve viewer ratings’, reflecting an assumption than people do watch and get (some kind of) pleasure from such programmes (as my above data suggests). Secondly, there is an assumption that there is something morally wrong with this, that we feel guilty perhaps, or that we feel repulsed yet fascinated, or that we transfer this guilt to the programme makers (or advertisers) in terms of ‘exploitation’, which is another common thread of response.
Another thread of concern is the worry of a more general decline in society, reflecting Fredric Jameson’s arguments on the ‘depthlesness’ of postmodernism as the cultural dominant of late capitalist society, ”a culture of a new kind of superficiciality, in the most literal sense” (cited in Storey 2006: 138), merely imitating past styles and genres without adding anything new. This come across in concerns that TV in general is ‘dumbing down’. This relies on a notion of ‘progress’, the development of ‘science’ for example, hence the repeated use of ‘Victorian’ as a derogatory adjective:
Science editor”? Shouldn’t that read “Freak Show editor? (‘MilanK Blog 2008)
I shudder to think what someone could get out of watching these Victorian side shows, (‘goldfink’ Blog 2008)
Its not like the Victorian days (‘madkitten25’ Blog 2008)
These viewers are suggesting we should be more ‘civilised’ now, in contrast with ‘Victorians’, even though others such as Gunning have argued that spectacle is as much a vital part of TV and cinema now as it was in the days of early cinema (Gunning 2006: 384). Many responses focused on how the programme was produced and the various ethics or codes of morality, which were or should have been involved in this:
Calling the documentary a ‘Freak Show’ seems to be less than respectful to Huang and the terrible suffering he must have endured practically his whole life, with the poverty and the misery of his struggling and anxious family to cope with as well. It was very painful to watch, and surely a reminder of how utterly dreadful human experience can be; yet Huang hung on to life and wanted to carry on. (‘gary J Blog 2008)
I was profoundly moved by this film and cannot help but wonder if those calling it a ‘freak show’ actually bothered to watch it. ‘Freak shows’ are exploitative by nature; this documentary was not. It was far more than an examination of Huang’s medical condition; it was a portrait of the despair, frustration, hope and isolation that comes with living with such an extreme disability. (‘murakawa Blog 2008)
These responses do suggest that there is the potential for viewers to respond differently depending on subtleties in how the show is produced and presented. It also suggests that people watch ‘Trauma TV’ for their own reasons, and must be given their own agency, rather than providing a universal theory for its effect. Patrick Fuery for example compares responses to Romper Stomper (1992) to show how different responses are influenced by different socio-economic or political contexts, “some may see no irony in Hando as a tragically heroic figure, while others may see nothing but a vicious fascism in the character. Such interpretations are heavily influenced by other social and textual contexts” (Fuery 2000: 113)
This is true to a certain extent in the Body Shock case. People must be granted the agency to watch it in different ways. However, almost all of the responses suggest negative feelings. People feel disgusted, disappointed, helpless, repulsed, or despairing, yet, as ratings show, so many people still watched it. This, along with my analysis of the excessively grotesque imagery it employs, suggests the need to move beyond a formal semiotic approach and consider other ways in which we may, unconsciously, get pleasure from watching such documentaries.
4. The Grotesque Body, The Uncanny and Abjection
Mikhail Bakhtin analyses the work of Rabelais, alongside research into popular festivals in the medieval and the Rennaisance periods to produce his definition of the ‘carnivalesque’. The carnivalesque is something that challenges the traditional social orders of a society, as in popular festivals for example, when a poor man may dress and perform as the king. Bakhtin associates the exaggerated ‘grotesque body’ with his definition of ‘the carnivalesque:
The banquet images – food, drink, swallowing, are closely linked in Rabelais with the popular festive forms…their gay and triumphant tone. They rise, grow swell with this leaven until they reach exaggerated dimensions. (Bakhtin 1984:278)
Exaggeration, hyperbolism, excessiveness are generally considered fundamental attributes of the grotesque style (303)
This focus on the gross exaggeration of the human body recalls many examples from Body Shock. It has focused frequently on unusually fat people, and in ‘I am The Elephant Man’, the man’s face and body are grotesquely exaggerated due to his tumours. The images of ‘rising’, ‘growing’ and ‘swelling’ Bakhtin describes seem particularly appropriate to describe the imagery employed in the programme, particularly in its use of close-ups and extreme close-ups, when swelling flesh comes to fill the whole screen.
Patrick Fuery picks up on Bakhtin’s definitions in his analysis of the carnivalesque in contemporary film and TV, connecting it to why we get pleasure from these programmes:
Film often represents when the social order is challenged, disrupted or inverted; and watching this is part of the pleasure, because we know that what is being played out has a certain reality, but one that is textual based (Fuery 2000:112)
Here he suggests that we take pleasure from the challenge to social norms, but only because we are aware that what is portrayed is not actually ‘real’. Documentaries such as Body Shock provoke a different response as they are produced, using the codes of realism, which I have outlined above. The social order is challenged but in a shockingly real way. Fuery goes on:
This is often expressed in terms of the body and its distorted engagement with the world, such as eating, drinking and sexual activity. In this way the carnivalesque is used to play on what are seen as normal healthy activities and pushes them to extremes (117)
This is true of many ‘trauma TV’ documentaries and Body Shock in particular, where ‘normal’ activities such as eating are taken to an extreme. This could be seen as a ‘carnivalesque’ challenge to the existing social hierarchies when health and slimness are promoted as powerful while obesity is seen as deviant and dangerous. In the fictional feature film (which Feury’s analysis is generally limited to), this challenge is ‘contained’ within the fictional or ‘textual’ element of the film. If this were the case, then Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, the inversion of the power structure would have no actual effect beyond the carnival. During a procession the fool may be king, but this is within the framework of the carnival when we know that it is an act, and after the carnival, the king will be king again and he will be a fool again.
Body Shock however is a bit different. The grotesque body of Huang offers a challenge to the discourses of health and normativity structuring our society, but its first-person documentary realism also fails to contain this challenge. In other words, rather than leaving the cinema thinking that the he was deviant but its just a film, we turn off the TV while the disturbing feeling lingers. We may get pleasure from watching Body Shock not only because of voyeuristic pleasure from watching something so weird but also in the way it challenges the ‘norm’ of what is expected in our society. As Foucault has argued (see Storey 2006: 102), images of ‘deviance’ must be constantly produced in order to re-affirm the ‘normativity’ of the human subject. The media operates to present discourses of, say, overeating, as negative, and discourses of say ‘health’ as positive constructions of the normative and healthy body. The excessive imagery of ‘I am the Elephant Man’ could be considered In terms of what Fuery calls ‘the desultory’:
We must also look to the disruptive and uncontrolled/uncontrollable aspects of the body as it is presented in film, however the excesses of the body always threaten whatever restrictions from the discursive practices that may be placed on it (Fuery 2000: 71)
The presentations of non-normative bodies lead to the formations of normative ‘healthy’ bodies in response, yet also exert a strange affective fascination.
Bakhtin argues that the carnivalesque could be read as satire:
In the grotesque, displeasure is caused by the impossible and improbable nature of the image. It is unimaginable that a woman could conceive from a monastery belfry, but this feeling is overcome by two forms of pleasure: first we see the truly existing monastic corruption and depravity, as symbolized in the hyperbolic image. In other words we find some place for exaggeration within reality. Second we feel a deep moral satisfaction, since sharp moral criticism and mockery have dealt a blow to these vices …therefore the grotesque is satire. (Bakhtin 1984: 305-6)
For Bakhtin however, the carnivalesque and the grotesque body are not just satire. They also have a positive aspect, “its hard to say for example what Rabelais is being satirical if he gets carries away ‘drunk’ on his comic exaggeration” (307). As Judith Davidov describes, the grotesque body is “a body of becoming, process and change…challenging the aspirations of bourgeois individualism” (Davidov 1998: 389). As well as just operating as satire, it offers the potential of alternative definitions of the body, and its relations to the world, to those normalized as ‘healthy’ in contemporary capitalist society, “We find in grotesque imagery a special concept of the body as a whole and of the limits of this whole. The confines between the body and the world are different” (314). Other commentators such as Middleton pick up on this positive potential aspect of the grotesque body, “For Bakhtin, Carnival, and the grotesque bodies which populate it, serve as figures for different social possibilities, perhaps ultimately for the Socialist state to come. “(Middleton 1999: 7)
it is this calmness within all the excesses that makes the whole process more carnivalesque, perhaps more than the actual eating. One of the defining qualities of such excess in a carnivalesque context is the almost mater of fact attitude of the participants. (Fuery 2000:117)
This point about the ‘calmness’ or ‘matter of factnesss’ of the carnivalesque is also true in this case of ‘I am the Elephant Man’. As I mentioned in my analysis above, Huang is shown talking about having breakfast and having a wash in a completely non-hysterical fashion. The programme provides familiar aspects – Huang having a wash, with those entirely unfamiliar – his giant tumours, so perhaps it may make sense to read why we watch it in relation to Freud’s work on ‘the uncanny’. Freud focuses on this strange feeling of the unfamiliar within the familiar, which may offer another reason why people watch such programmes:
The subject of the ‘uncanny’…is undoubtedly related to what is frightening — to what arouses dread and horror.., so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general.
…the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar
(Freud 2008 1-2)
Uncanniness’ may be a useful model to understand certain situations of unfamiliarity in the familiar, visiting a previously lived in house for example, to find it changed and with new owners. If I watch a soap opera to find one of the characters replaced with a new actor then I could describe my response to this as a feeling of the ‘uncanny’. I think the extreme reactions and feelings provoked by Body Shock however, go beyond the uncanny and demand a different theoretical approach. Kristeva, who in her work draws on Bakhtin as well as Freud and Lacan, analysed and developed a concept of ‘abjection’ which is useful for understanding the simultaneous repulsion and fascination we have with trauma and transformation documentaries. She references Freud’s definitions of the uncanny but emphasizes how the abject is different:
Essentially different from ‘uncanniness, more violent too, abjection is elaborated through a failure to recognize its kin; nothing is familiar, not even the shadow of a memory. I imagine a child who has swallowed up his parents too soon, who frightens himself on that account. (Kristeva 1980: 233)
‘Kristeva emphasizes the ‘violence’ of abjection, it is more extreme than the ‘strangeness’ of the uncanny. As she points out, ‘nothing is familiar’. It is the violent shock of the completely unfamiliar, which throws the viewer into a state of shock or fright. The imagery she uses of the child swallowing his parents is intentionally grotesque, evoking abjection in her own writing as she attempts to describe it. For Kristeva, the abject is not an object, “the abject has only one quality of the object – that of being opposed to I “ (Kristeva 1980: 230)
The abject in other words is that, which is separate from the subject and which the subject must distance itself from in order to be. She goes on to explain abjection in psychoanalytical terms, relating it to the fundamental split between infant and child and the loss experienced in subject formation:
All objects are based on the inaugaral loss that laid the foundations of its own being (232)
The abject is the violence of the mourning for an object that has always already been lost. The abject shatters the wall of repression and its judgements. It takes the ego back to its source on the abominable limits from which, in order to be, the ego has broken away…
…It is an alchemy that transforms death drive into a start of life, of new significance. (241)
She emphasizes here the paradoxical nature of the object. In order for the child to be separated from its mother, it must be both fascinated by the maternal body, but also repelled by it, in order to break away, and this is where she locates the source of abjection. It has the paradoxical and twin relations of fascination and repulsion,
The fascinated start that leads me toward and separates me from them. Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface if milk – harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring – I experience a gagging sensation, and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly…
’I’ want none of that element, ‘I’ expel it. But since the food is not an ‘other’ for me..I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself through the same motion through which ‘I’ claim to establish myself. (Kristeva 1980: 230-1)
Her analysis here is interesting. A layer of skin on milk for example we find disgusting, perhaps it makes us retch. According to Kristeva’s theory, one reason for this could be the way it challenges borders, milk skin should be liquid or solid, not some strange inbetween composite, and this causes a physical nauseous reaction. She relates this to self and identity, the need to protect the ‘I’ of the self and the repugnant realization that the formation of the subject is based on this process of expulsion. We react powerfully to things that should be ‘inside’ but leak out (blood, for example) with a “repugnance and retching that protetcts ‘me’ the identity of the self “ (228).
As Kelly Oliver summarises Kristeva,
The abject is not, as we might ordinarily think, that which is grotesque and unclean; rather it is what calls into question borders and threatens identity. The abject is on the borderline, and as such it is both fascinating and terrifying. Ultimately the abject is identified with the maternal body since the uncertain boundary between maternal body and infant provides the primary experience of both horror and fascination. (Oliver 1997: 225)
Kristeva gives examples of the corpse, and of expelled waste, as things that challenge fixed and stable positions:
Corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live…dung signifies the other side of the border. The place where I am not and permits me to be (Kristeva 1980: 231)
It is thus not lack of cleanliness which causes abjection but what disturbs, systems, identity, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules, the inbetween, the ambiguous, the composite (232)
The dead body, or shit, is repulsive as it represents what challenges, identities, rules and orders, repulsive and fascinating. It is not part of ‘I’, but it is close enough to be worrying, “It lies there quite close, but it cannot be assimilated, it beseeches worries and fascinates desire” (229). Kristeva’s theory is useful in attempts to understand why we watch programmes such as Body Shock. It emphasises the purely physical reaction, the ‘retch’ or ‘spasm’, which can be accounted for neither in formal semiological analysis of the documentary, nor in sociologically based audience response research and effects theories (see for example Ien Ang in Storey 2006: 114) Abjection allows for an understanding of how unconscious responses to the programme are at least equally as important as ones around viewer-centred agency, or programme producers’ use of codes and conventions. A notion of the abject then could suggest why we are so disgusted by a programme such as Body Shock yet remain fascinated enough to watch it. The cancerous body of the ‘elephant man’ challenges borders’, cells which should be inside of his body have multiplied outside in a hideously grotesque form, calling into question the fundamental distinctions that separate our bodies from the rest of the world. They are close enough and familiar enough to us to recognize, yet exaggerated enough to be disgusting.
There are problems with Kristeva’s analysis. Firstly, it was developed as a psychoanalytic treatment so, although it is useful, we have to be careful how directly we apply it as a theory of media effects. Secondly, it is quite specific. For example, she applies her analysis only to male infants, developing a theory of female sexuality in other work such as Black Sun (1989). Whether or not male and female viewers react differently to Body Shock is something that would require more audience research. Thirdly as Deleuze and Guattari have argued, there is a danger with psychoanalytical interpretations of fitting responses into pre-existing structures, “it breaks up all formations of desire and crushes all utterances” (Deleuze and Parnet 2002: 57). Perhaps Kristeva’s association of the ‘semiotic’ with feminine and ‘symbolic’ with masculine is too much of a binary distinction. Her work has, however, along with Bakhtin’s, been taken up productively by other feminist theorists. Elizabeth Grosz points out how her focus on the pre-oedipal is an important challenge to theories of representation (Grosz 1991: 70). Mary Russo suggests that work by Kristeva and Bakhtin challenge our conception of the body and so of social order, “This body is the open, protruding, extended, secreting body, the body of becoming, process, and change. It is opposed to the Classical body, which is monumental, static, closed and sleek, corresponding to the aspirations of bourgeois individualism (cited in Middleton 1999: 7) .
I have focused on Body Shock and on ‘I am the Elephant Man’ in particular, in order to consider the ‘trauma’ documentary, why we watch them and how they make us feel. My analysis of the programme showed how it is produced to provoke extreme reactions. These can be understood in relation to frameworks such as Dovey’s ‘first-person media’, genre hybridization, and other semiotic approaches. It has also been useful to focus on specific audience responses. These revealed certain narrative expectations, but also the specific affects the programme evoked. In order to understand this further, I drew on research from Bakhtin and Patrick Fuery, combined with concepts from Freud and Kristeva. Dovey uses the term ‘freakshow’ as part of his argument that the public sphere is ‘turned inside out’ as personal and subjective narratives come to ‘balance’ the lack of narrative coherence and notion of the chaotic and fragmented self produced by post-structuralist theory:
As a name freakshow carries a prejorative sense based upon a particular historical response to this form of sideshow entertainment However the changes that are part and parcel of neo-liberal economics clearly open new domains for the expression of identity. These voices are filled by voices proclaiming and celebrating their own ‘freakishness’, articulating their most intimate fears and secrets, performing the ordinariness of their own extraordinary subjectivity. The performance and display of difference has become a driving force in our aspirations. we are all leaning to live in the freakshow. It is our new public space (Dovey 2000: 4)
Dovey’s analysis, in this context, is appropriate up to a point. He argues that ‘Trauma TV’ is part of the mechanism for using ‘extraordinary subejcctivity’ producing ‘normative identity:
The incessant performance of intimacy, of deviance and of horror in factual programming is precisely part of a mechanism for the production of normative identities in the public communicative space of broadcasting.
…Normative carries not only the notion of moral hegemony, but also, and perhaps more crucially, the whole idea of a coherent subject (Dovey 200: 27)
In one sense then, we watch such programmes, repelled by their deviance, to re-affirm our own normativity and coherence. His argument can be extended however, in the wake of my research from Bakhtin and Kristeva. ‘Freak Shows’ may also offer a more radical positive potential, we are seduced and fascinated by their deviance, the potential of going beyond discourses of the normative, calling into question its very parameters and limits. As my audience research shows, we do watch programmes such as Body Shock, and we are affected by them. Why we watch them and how they make us feel is complicated and contradictory. They may both re-affirm the normative ‘healthy’ body while also making us “drawn toward the place where meaning collapses” (Kristeva 1980: 230). They are disgusting but also present as “joyful lavishmess, quality, wealth and variety “ (Bakhtin 1984: 307). Their subjects are presented as ‘freaks of nature’. They are, more specifically ‘freaks of culture’, but the programmes, and our affective responses, serve to challenge the boundaries of what constitutes nature, culture, and freakishness itself.
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