Monday, November 28, 2011

Rosemarie Garland Thomson (ed.)--Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (1996)

“‘Ugliness is a devil’s grin behind beauty’” (Victor Hugo, The Man Who Laughs, quoted by Elizabeth Grosz)

This book is an edited collection of essays on the history of the freak—the exceptional, monstrous, deviant body—in America.  Its sections cover the cultural construction of freaks, the practices of enfreakment, exhibiting corporeal freaks, exhibiting cultural freaks, textual uses of freaks, and relocations of the freak show.  Thomson characterizes this history as “a movement from a narrative of this marvelous to a narrative of the deviant” (“Introduction: From Wonder to Error—A Genealogy of Freak Discourse in Modernity” 3).  Further, she notes that the “exceptional body betokens something else, becomes revelatory, sustains narrative, exists socially in a realm of hyper-representation” (“Introduction” 3).  Her description evokes Kristeva’s ideas of the abject, as she observes that “the monstrous emerges from culture-bound expectations even as it violates them” (“Introduction” 3). 
Thomson says that the freak show’s structure “fram[ed] and heighten[ed] their differences from viewers, who were rendered comfortably common and safely standard by the exchange” (“Introduction” 3).  Or, in other words, “Enfreakment emerges from cultural rituals that stylize, silence, differentiate, and distance the persons whose bodies the freak-hunters or showmen colonize and commericialize” (“Introduction” 10).  And in Elizabeth Grosz’s chapter “Intolerable Ambiguity: Freaks as/at the Limit,” she discusses “the psychical, physical, and conceptual limits of human subjectivity, that is, what the nature and forms of subjectivity consist in and the degree to which social, political, and historical factors shape the forms of subjectivity with which we are familiar; and the degree to which these factors are able to tolerate anomalies, ambiguities, and borderline cases, marking the threshold, not of humanity in itself, but of acceptable, tolerable, knowable humanity” (55).   Here’s another result of intersubjective space—the freak acts as an abject, reinforcing the normal.
Jeffrey A Weinstock differentiates between the freak, who is “one of us,” and the monster, who “exists at more of a remove” (“Freaks in Space: ‘Extraterrestrialism’ and ‘Deep Space Multiculturalism’” 328).  Once again, demarcation and boundary reinforcement are highlighted by the freak and the monstrous.  While most of the collection is more ethnographic and sociological presentations of freak culture and the evolution from the carnival freak show to the television daytime talk show,

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