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REVIEWS This is an important book in a series from the University of Michigan Press that is theorizing and historicizing disability in many areas of the critical landscape . Points of Contact is valuable for scholars less familiar with disability studies who wish to acquaint themselves with the art and theory of an emerging field in the humanities, as well as for more established disability studies practitioners . It is a rich source of reading from within disability culture that can be enjoyed for its own sake, and individual pieces can also be easily adapted for introducing a disability perspective into already established courses on literature , drama, performance studies, history, art, and anthropology. RACHEL ADAMS. Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. 289, illustrated. $17.50 (Pb). Reviewed by Michael M. Cherners, Seattle, Washington Rachel Adams's exciting and intellectually challenging book is the most recent of a small cadre of texts that view freak as a performative, rather than essential, identity requiring the participation of the "enfreaked" subject in much the same manner as any "legitimate-theatre" actor adapts his or her body to a particular role. "Freaks," she writes, "do not occur in nature; they are produced by communities that use the physical body as the primary basis for judgements about inclusion and exclusion" (91). To conceive of freaks in such a way has a magnificent potential, not only for illuminating the history of the freak show theatrical tradition (the scholarship of which hardly matches its immense impact on American cultural life) but also for raising important questions about the naturalization of concepts of "normal" and "abnormal." As significant as this potential may be, the subject of professional "freakery" is still so controversial that almost all histories of American theatre omit it completely rather than confronting and demystifying its vagaries. Adding an important voice to a dialogue that has included such luminaries as Robert Bogdan, Leslie Fiedler, and Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Adams goes to some pains to contextualize and historicize the "freak" to shed new light on the theatrical malleability of that designation. Charting some of the ways in which the term was manipulated, by performers as well as managers, at different times in American history, Adams demonstrates how the tradition capitalized upon historically specific needs for spectacles that, in Adams' words, "defy the imposition of nonnative categories of identity" (89). Her book is organized into three "acts" that focus on particular sites of boundaryblurring engendered by freaks in life and art: science versus entertainment, nonnality versus deviance, and "natural" versus socialized alienation. Reviews Finnly rooled in Mikhail Bakhlin and Waller Benjamin as well as P.T. Barnum , Adams' book provides much that is new and exciting to this ongoing discussion. Although this is primarily a work of lilerary and film criticism, Adams seems very much at home laying the groundwork for her theories in solid historical research. Her first chapter, a deconstruction of turo-of-thecentury exhibits of "ethnographic freaks," is quite provocative, preparing her readers by showing that the membrane separating "scientific study" from "freak show" is not only thin but extremely penneable. Adams goes on to provide fresh insights into the freakish characters presented in the fictions of Carson McCullers, Katherine Dunn, and Toni Morrison by showing the dependency of the imagined freaks of twentieth-century literature on their real nineteenth-century antecedents. She also deftly breaks down Tod Browning's 1932 cult classic film Freaks! with a fresh approach that emphasizes the film's theatricality in its use of unusual performers. The jewel of Adam's text, however, deals with Leslie Fiedler's Freaks: Myths alld Images of the Secret Self. This 1979 book of psychoanalytic literary theory was among the first to bring the professional freak show into the realm of serious scholarly attention. Freaks is still regarded as an aberration, effectively a freak itself, in Fiedler's otherwise lofty canon and is ignored or dismissed even by many of Fiedler's most devoted followers. Adams' unflinching critique, although it is by no means a panegyric, is a long-overdue acknowledgement of Fiedler's most misunderstood book. Adams's work disappoints. however, in that it...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5286
Print ISSN
0026-7694
Pages
pp. 484-486
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-03
Open Access
No
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