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Robin Blyn’s The Freak-Garde: Extraordinary Bodies and Revolutionary Art in America makes a compelling argument for the influence of the freak show on the American avant-garde. In a series of incisive chapters tracing the emergence of what she terms the “freak-garde” since the late nineteenth century, Blyn shows how the side show—“that notoriously exploitative exhibition of human ‘curiosities’” (ix)—became a resource for revolutionary art. Taking the commodification of the subject for granted, the side show does not pretend to transcend the capitalist order it inhabits but rather exploits the unfixed, unruly desires that order is built to subdue. Thus the “freak” body, accepting its place in the capitalist system, becomes a possible site of “radically new ways of being,” and, in avant-garde art, “makes visible the persistence of revolutionary aspirations” even where “none . . . are said to exist” (xi).
The arc of this argument, which begins with the “freak show fictions” of Mark Twain and ends with a reading of Matthew Barney’s controversial 2003 Guggenheim exhibition in New York, is impressive in its scope. It is also timely. The historical bookends, so to speak, are the Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad case of 1886 and the 2010 Citizens United decision—two proceedings that established the “legal personhood” of corporations and granted to imaginary capitalist bodies protections that were simultaneously withheld from actual people. Coinciding roughly with the segregationist Plessy v. Ferguson, Santa Clara created a legal reality—the protection of corporations from discrimination—that only “freak” bodies, Blyn argues, can successfully contest. Thus in Twain’s Those Extraordinary Twins—a story of the period later incorporated into Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)—the conjoined twins of the title elude prosecution as long as they are understood as a biological “corporation”: since it cannot be determined which one of them kicked Tom Driscoll, neither can be penalized. As soon as they are understood as autonomous individuals, however—a distinction premised on the racial segregation of the dark-skinned Luigi from the fairer Angelo—they are available to legal penalties, “conform[ing] to the ideology of the liberal subject long enough to be hanged” (16). After Santa Clara and Plessy, only corporations are safe.
In chapter 2, Blyn continues to develop the risks associated with the unitary, autonomous subject—and the potential of the extraordinary body—in a reading of the “freak show films” of Lon Chaney and Tod Browning. In these films, although the “freak” body is systematically repressed at the level of story, the film exploits the extraordinary form of the cinematic medium itself: In The Unholy Three (1925), the ventriloquist Mr. Echo must renounce his art and return “the voice to its finite location in the body” (49) to save the falsely-accused Hector from prosecution; yet this reintegration is enacted in a silent film. Thus, unhinging sight and sound, the film performs its own kind of ventriloquism and in doing so liberates itself from the form of oppression it represents. Of course, given the progression of cinematic technology, the silent movie inevitably gives way to the “talkie,” which re-unifies the dis-integrated body. Nevertheless, ever adaptable—always assuming and accepting its coercion by the powers that be—the “freak-garde” survives the end of nonsynchronous sound.
In chapter 3, returning to narrative fiction and moving forward to the 1930s, Blyn reads the decadent “freak dandies” of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936) as figures who, confronting the “consolidation of fascism in Europe and the culture industry on both sides of the Atlantic” (84), turn themselves into commodity fetishes in order to “remain disowned” (89). Though provoking both fascistic and capitalist forms of desire, the commodified body of the freak dandy refuses, [End Page 833] Blyn argues, to satisfy either one, instead exploiting the reality of fetishization—the fact that the commodity is not intended to satisfy but to provoke further desire—to resist the forces that seek to rule the world. Unfortunately, unable to imagine a result beyond...