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WILLIAM SOLOMON University at Buffalo The Rhetoric of the Freak Show in Welty’s A Curtain of Green IN ON LONGING, SUSAN STEWART DISCUSSES IMAGES OF THE GROTESQUE body, distinguishing between the manifestation of corporeal figuration in carnival-grotesque cultural practices and the deployment of such imagery in accordance with the structures of “the spectacle.” Following Mikhail Bakhtin fairly closely, she correlates the grotesque body with the gigantic, explaining that as “a body of parts” in which the “productive and reproductive organs . . . are its focus,” it is these (the parts) that “come to live an independent life of their own” (105). The sci-fi horror parody skit titled “Are the Findings of Doctors and Clinics Who Do Sexual Research Accurate?” in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972) offers a good example of the tendency of grotesque strategies to isolate and exhibit in exaggerated form selected reproductive organs. There, as a result of a silicone injection gone wrong, a massive breast (formerly belonging to Stockard Channing) goes on a comically murderous rampage across the countryside. For Stewart, the specificity of such carnival-grotesque displays of corporeal fragmentation is that they participate in the process of “democratic reciprocity” in which no spatial gap keeps audience members away from performers as they come into contact with each other in the participatory dynamics of communal celebrations (107). In contrast, the spectacle is said both to establish and to work to maintain the distance between spectators and the “aestheticiz[ed]” “aberrations of the physical body” they (the spectators) are shown (107, 108). In visual terms, the difference is thus between the mutuallyregarding“gaze of carnival and festival” andtheone-sidedstare that the spectacle solicits; in the latter “the object is blinded; only the audience sees” (108).1 For Stewart, the freak show best exemplifies the objectifying proceduresofthespectacle.Emphasizingtheminiature,sheexplainsthat this enduring form of popular entertainment is customarily committed 1 See Bakhtin for a related conceptualization of the difference between spectacle and carnival (7). 168 William Solomon to the firmly bordered framing of anomalously shaped others for an observing self.2 Crucially, the process of constructing the abnormal entity conventionally depends in part upon the verbal spiel of a barker. This is to say, the ear as well as the eye, sound as well as sight, are involved in the fabrication of the human oddity. “Even when, as is sometimes the case in smaller and poorer . . . operations, the freak delivers his or her own ‘pitch,’ there is an absolute separation between the tableaulike silence of the freak’s display and the initial metacommentary of the pitch.” This detachment is experienced most powerfully in the “hesitation,” “the pause before the curtain closes or beforetheviewerwalkson”(Stewart109).3 The language ofthespectacle thus properly belongs to the presenter, the showman as orator who has necessarily “mastered the art of persuasion” (Bogdan, “Social” 27). At many recreational sites (amusement park midways or fairgrounds, circus sideshows, and dime museums), the talking duties were split between an “outsidelecturer,”whosetaskwastoconvincepassersbytocomeintothe venue, and an “inside lecturer,” who would give the entering patrons sensationalized background information on the various attractions. Whereas in the first case descriptive “exaggeration and falsification” (27) were virtual prerequisites for the job, in the second the narrative account rarely took accuracy into consideration, the goal in both cases to affect—toamaze and excite or startle and disgust—rather than tofurnish knowledge.4 The structure of the spectacle therefore was and remains fundamentallytriangular,withthespeaker’sepistemologicallyunreliable (pseudo-scientific) discourse playing a constitutive role in conditioning the way the exhibition of an atypical body appears to fascinated spectators. Duplicitously purporting to know what it is in effect making, 2 The next section of Stewart’s study is titled “The Body Made Miniature,” which is in turn followed by an analysis of the tradition of Tom Thumb Weddings (111-25). 3 Adams acknowledges the pertinence of Stewart’s model of the spectacle, but argues that “historical evidence reveals how rarely this theory was realized in practice, for sideshows are hardly spaces of restraint or decorum, and things seldom go as planned: freaks talk back, experts lose their authority, the audience refuses to take their seats” (13...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 167-187
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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