This chapter introduces the concepts of the molecular sublime and the molecular grotesque as key aesthetics in twenty-first-century cultural representations of life at the molecular level. The aesthetics of the sublime and the grotesque as they manifest in the cultural imagination of the molecular and the microbial indicate a particular cluster of concerns and anxieties about the relation between the human and the molecular scales. Moreover, imagining the life around us and questioning the often unsettlingly porous boundaries between individual and environment, has acquired special urgency as humanity is attempting to re-define its ecological practices and self-understanding. The epistemological and affective connotations of the sublime and the grotesque can illuminate such human-environment continuities, but also obstruct the self-awareness that would make such connections meaningful to readers and spectators.
This chapter argues that while the sublime affords spectacular vistas on the very small scales of life, it may be the grotesque molecular and microbial distortions of our familiar selves, and the vision of the human body as molecular and microbial landscape, that prove the more productive aesthetic for crossing the distance between the visible and the imagined that often precludes an understanding of how the molecular relates to us. The chapter traces the aesthetics of the molecular sublime and the molecular grotesque across multiple genres, discussing examples from novels, popular science writing and poetry.