A preliminary report of ethnological research on “soma-semiotics,” that is body semiotics in the USA is both interesting and provocative. “Body semiotics” refers to the way in which a society inscribes its values on the bodies of its members, quite apart from the usual group identifiers such as age, gender, education, income, profession, or subcultural affinity. In a society as diverse and heterogeneous as the USA, community and collective identity across ethnic, political, gender, subcultural, etc. boundaries is a major issue. In addition to this, the postmodern celebration of diversity has created an enormous deficit of unity that society must in some way compensate. Although the fieldwork is not completed, and the theoretical assumptions untested, some of the findings are highly suggestive. The author identifies four types of bodies, that is, four typical ways in which society becomes inscribed in bodies. These are termed “grotes,” “scribbs,” “caps,” and “styles” and there is a separate category for the uninscribed body that is termed “normalo.“
The first type is called, somewhat provocatively, “grotes.” “Grote” is short for “grotesque.” The term should be understood in the sense in which Bakhtin uses the word when describing the grotesque body in his work on Rabelais. The grotesque should not be understood as pejorative. Instead, the term describes how the abstract and symbolic dimension expresses itself in the material and the bodily. Human anatomy becomes a mirror of abstract values and conflicts. What is suppressed on the symbolic level appears in a distorted way on the physical and anatomical level. In this way, the body illustrates those cultural and social meanings that do not appear within the officially sanctioned and supported symbolic realm. Against the background of postmodern rejection of universal values, the body comes to be the place, where unifying cultural identity can be publically displayed.