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American Quarterly 55.3 (2003) 525-538
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Freakishly, Fraudulently Modern
Janet M. Davis
University of Texas at Austin
RESIDUAL ELEMENTS OF A NINETEENTH- AND EARLY-TWENTIETH-CENTURY TRADITION OF live entertainment abound in contemporary U.S. popular culture. The Wild West show, for one, has become a metonym for the United States' protracted war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda: when asked what William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody would define as the nation's frontier [End Page 525] today, a Chicago-based Buffalo Bill impersonator, Brian Downes, responded without hesitation: "Afghanistan. He absolutely would have been there supporting the war. After all, he offered his whole troupe to fight in Cuba in the Spanish-American War." 1 During the summer of 2002, the "New Sideshow" ran on The Learning Channel (TLC), complete with a prim woman munching insects, a tattooed artist inhaling a condom through his nose and pulling it out slowly through his mouth, and "Bebe the Circus Queen" rubbing a roaring chainsaw against her armored pudendum, sparks scattering across the stage. 2 One sees elements of turn-of-the-twentieth-century vaudeville, with its "something-for-everyone" ethos, on the Fox TV show "Thirty Seconds to Fame," where midget comedians, jugglers, acrobats, flexing body builders, and belly dancers each have thirty seconds of stage time to compete for a $25,000 prize (judged by the studio audience). David Blaine, the hip New York magician, stages street spectacles of himself in periodic television specials—manacled, chained, or encased in ice—conquering all with cool resolve.
These remnant popular icons—the Wild West show, vaudeville, the freak show, professional magician, and body builder—toy with the body's capacity for pain, pleasure, and fear, and they play with the boundary between the real and the fake, the animal and the human, the self and other, and the local and the global. Taking form in the nineteenth century, these manifestations of a burgeoning mass culture also articulated the United States' historical trajectory away from an agricultural Jeffersonian "empire of liberty," to a nation that was increasingly urban, industrial, corporate, and well-connected to a growing global marketplace. Using gender, race, and class as specific sites of analysis, five recent books deftly explore the cultural manifestations and ideological implications of the nation's move into modernity. All are mindful of the ways in which technologies like photography, the penny press, and movies created a culture increasingly oriented toward the visual. Moreover, like much of the strongest work in cultural studies over the past decade, all pay attention to cultural production as a labor process. 3 Using performances of gender, class, and race as their central foci, these books thus also broaden our understanding of racial formation and gender plasticity as deeply embedded historical processes.
James W. Cook's fascinating meditation on popular fraud argues that the ubiquity of cultural hoaxes and tricks in the urban marketplace during the nineteenth century provides a powerful portal into the [End Page 526] expansion of the American middle class. Despite the fact that this burgeoning middle class idealized sobriety, domesticity, honesty, Christian faith, and thrift, Cook demonstrates that middle-class self-definition was also predicated upon the voracious consumption of cultural fraud, or...