Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Revolting Spectacles

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Revolting Spectacles

Article excerpt

The Freak-Garde: Extraordinary Bodies and Revolutionary Art in America

by Robin Blyn

University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 317 pages

I've never had a final form: I've been protean since the day I was born.

--Riva Lehrer

Early in Robin Blyn's rigorous and important book The Freak-Garde: Extraordinary Bodies and Revolutionary Art in America, there appears a statement likely to unnerve those readers invested in feminist or disability scholarship. Blyn dedicates her book to illustrating "how often and variously the avant-garde has appropriated the arts of the freak show as a means of generating alternatives to the subject of capitalism," thereby creating a "freak-garde" genre that "proposes ... radically new ways of being" (x-xi). Acknowledging that freak imagery can be exploitative, Blyn adds that nonetheless the texts she studies "undermine the ideological certainties that attend the representation of differently-abled persons, and, taken together, they conceive of an endlessly mutating subjectivity that renders disability as an ontological category utterly moot" (xix). One might infer that the mid-eighties euphemism "differently-abled persons," the singling-out of disability among other social identities, and the somatophobic argument for the body's irrelevance do not bode well for a revolutionary critical agenda. Fortunately, The Freak-Garde does not fulfill the bleak promise of that assumption. In fact, although Blyn mentions few disability scholars, her project is consistent with the interests of that field and could profitably be put in dialogue with various recent texts within it. In Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (2000), David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder urged scholars to go beyond wagging their fingers at bad imagery and work harder to describe how disability operates in literature; Blyn's book is a great contribution to that project.

Among the ways various American avant-garde works make use of the freak show's example, Blyn focuses on the tendency to sustain "epistemic desire"--that is, the freak show's need to keep audiences enthralled by perpetuating doubt, curiosity, and a sense of indeterminacy. That these strategies were developed for commercial purposes is not incidental to Blyn's project: she rejects models of radicalism that presume an innocent subject who pre-exists or escapes liberal capitalism, insisting instead that all of the emancipatory tools we have come from that system, not from some imagined outside. But she identifies "possessive individualism"--C. B. Macpherson's term for the belief in the free and autonomous subject who owns their selfhood as property--as an ideology that the freak-garde does successfully resist (xxix). Blyn finds other tools for her analyses of freak-garde iconoclasm in Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's introduction to her anthology Freakery and in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus. From the former, she adopts the ideas of "spiel" and "tableau" (xxv)-- verbal description and visual image--as central, and inevitably contradictory, components of the freak display. The spiel/tableau contrast creates a space for doubt and imposes an ironic distance between audience and spectacle, equating the authoritative claims of authors and narrators with the attention-grabbing tricks of the freak show barker. From Deleuze and Guattari, meanwhile, Blyn takes a model of desire that is not grounded in lack, as the psychoanalytic tradition posits, but instead precedes and undermines the priority of fixed subjects (which are in fact produced by the repression or disciplining of desire). This Deleuzian perspective, which slices up the social world into impersonal life forces, flows, and motions rather than into individuals and their wills, gives Blyn the tools with which to describe how freak-garde art confronts ontological issues, seeking to revolutionize perspectives on reality and being.

Blyn's first chapter offers an innovative approach to Mark Twain's conjoined narratives "Those Extraordinary Twins" and Pudd'nhead Wilson. …

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