A few years ago, I lived in south Florida and often hung out at a house that served as the hub for the area anarchist community. One week a man named Peter, who worked as a trainer at the Ruckus Society’s direct action skill-building camps, demonstrated for all of us how he could shove a very long nail up his nose. Tilting his head far back, he slid the spike into his nostril and toward his brain. Then, using a hammer, he tapped at the nail’s head, nudging it a few inches further than it had gone when pushed only by his extended thumb.
It’s not a “trick,” he explained, but rather an “act,” a demonstration of what unexpected things you could do with your body. To my amazement the other activists, perhaps responding to the generally participatory atmosphere of the gathering, lined up to try it themselves. Peter happily provided pointers.
My younger brother, Paul, now a union organizer, worked professionally as a juggler in his adolescence. His most popular stunt involved balancing a 10-speed bicycle on his chin. Of Peter’s work, Paul commented: “He’s not a master violinist or anything, but that takes some serious guts.” He then added, “Fire breathing is also big in punk culture.”
These anecdotal examples, of course, do not prove any deep link between radicalism and the sideshow arts. Then again, amongst my generation’s counter-cultural leftists, an interest in freakish performance turns up often enough to make me curious. (I recently learned the Lesbian Avengers also teach their members that fire eating is a good way of symbolically expressing resistance.) Feeling no inclination to perform such feats myself, I wonder about the genre: What is its appeal? What are its politics?
Two recent books, one an academic study and one a collection of historical essays by an enthusiast-insider, help to provide answers. By revealing different connections to the subject of the sideshow, the authors suggest different motivations for a political response.
The first book focuses on subversion. In her recently released Sideshow U.S.A., Rachel Adams recalls how misfit youth of the 1960s first adopted the persona, or at least the designation, of “freak” as part of a “purposeful embrace of marginality.” They did so to the great dismay of their parents, for whom the word recalled guilty memories of an exploitative and engrossing medium — the “freak show” display of “midgets, fat ladies, and wild men” — that by the 1950s had been widely denounced as sleazy and disreputable.
Nevertheless, Adams argues, the term was ripe for appropriation because “freak,” like “queer,” refers not to a specific thing, but rather to a violation of social norms. At different points in the sideshow’s history, an otherwise unexceptional woman could be exhibited alongside snake charmers and conjoined twins simply for having grown her hair long enough to reach past her knees. By the ’60s, the usefulness of such a malleable idea had become apparent to youthful rebels. Even as somber authorities increasingly moved the display of unusual bodies into the confines of medical pathology, a new generation highlighted how freaks, in a social context, are “made, not born.”
The wider argument of Sideshow, U.S.A. is that as the freak show went out of business, its imagery spread through literature, film and the visual arts. Or, more laboriously: “As actual freak shows were evicted from popular culture, their representational currency multiplied, granting them symbolic importance in inverse proportion to their declining status as a profitable mode of live entertainment.” This statement of the thesis gives fair insight into book’s content: It is an interesting and suggestive proposal, wrought in the language of professors.
To back her claim, Adams takes an in-depth look at a handful of 20th-century instances in which “freak shows performed important cultural work by allowing ordinary people to confront, and master, the most extreme and terrifying forms of Otherness they could imagine, from exotic dark-skinned people, to victims of war and disease, to ambiguously sexed bodies.”
She notes that in 1905, a black man from Africa was displayed in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo. The director, who considered himself a man of science, refused to admit that racism might be involved: “I am a believer in Darwinian theory,” the zoo executive explained, “but I hope my colored brethren will not take the absurd position that I am giving the exhibition to show the close analogy of the African savage to the apes.”
In the 1930s, the appearance of disabled actors in the studio cafeteria during the filming of the Tod Browning’s Freaks made screenwriter F. Scott Fitzgerald so queasy as to lose his lunch in the MGM lot. Popular audiences responded similarly when the movie hit theaters. Thus, it is not surprising that many elders recoiled when such emerging icons as Jimmy Hendrix and Frank Zappa began letting their “freak flags” fly, claiming a term that referred primarily to extreme physical difference and extending it to cover the counterculture’s brand of personal alienation. (Zappa’s 1966 debut album with The Mothers of Invention was titled Freakout!; “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” was its opening track. Meanwhile, Hendrix’s 1967 “If 6 Was 9” immortalized the image of a “freak flag” flying over a hippie nation.)
Several such examples of “freaks” appearing in popular culture are skillfully explored by Adams. But her prolonged analyses of particular works also reveal her as a miniaturist — a close reader — working a highly specialized turf. In Adams’s hands, Browning’s Freaks, Diane Arbus’s photographs, and the lesser-known books of Carson McCullers all prove to be examples loaded with social and political connotations. But in trying to hold the attention of the general reader, she struggles against the fact that none of these has attracted much more than a cult following.
Before launching a chapter based around the carnival scene, she notes that “few readers of Toni Morrison’s Beloved recall that early in the novel Sethe, Denver, and Paul D visit a carnival freak show.” The author may make a genuinely insightful case for the potential significance of the obscure moment. Few readers of Sideshow, U.S.A., however, will agree that such artifacts do much to establish the “centrality of the freak show” in the “literary and visual culture of the past century.”
But even if Adams falls short of sustaining such a bold argument, and even if we accept the traditional freak show as a form that increasingly fades from memory, the author demonstrates in conclusion that the few sideshows that have reappeared today have remade themselves as venues for subversive politics. For example, Jennifer Miller, “a woman with a beard,” attacks gender norms in her Coney Island monologues, bonding with women who begrudge waxing and electrolysis. The queer performance troupe that she leads, Circus Amok, uses campy antics to enact a well-known skit demonstrating the maldistribution of wealth in the country: While one person stretches out leisurely to cover half of the folding chairs in a row of 10, the nine remaining actors pile upon the few seats that remain.
A second recent book on unusual entertainments, Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, moves in a different direction, focusing more on the performers’ craft than their audiences’ response. Rachel Adams may admit to being not only a critic, but also a fan of the contemporary sideshow. Nevertheless, historian Ricky Jay remains more deeply implicated in the genre. Once the youngest magician ever to appear on TV (at age 7), Jay went on to share the stage with “mediocre midget accordion players, splendid soap-bubble blowers, and Japanese quick-change artists.” An accomplished sleight-of-hand artist, he gained renown for his skill with playing cards — for hurling them into the husk of a watermelon, or for clearing distances of up to 198 feet with a mighty flick of the wrist.
He subsequently produced books with such alluring titles as Cards As Weapons and Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. The latter revealed a serious scholarly streak. It contained erudite essays on the history of various eccentricities, from armless calligraphy to the origins of modern mind reading. Through the mid-1990s, Jay, while expanding his activity to include film work with David Mamet, continued producing historical reviews. With a fine press newsletter, the original Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, he distributed quarterly examinations of unusual entertainments that have evolved through the last four centuries. The new book collects 16 issues of the journal into a volume that is itself an anomaly: printed on creamy paper and filled with rare images from Jay’s personal collection of carnival publicity.
The book is instantly delightful. An opening passage describes the career of one of history’s most successful canine performers: “In an era rich in examples of animal scholarship, Munito was a star.” The article goes on to relate how the talented dog’s repertoire of doing long division and answering bookish inquiries with alphabet cards was stolen — such is the way of show business — by other hounds (or at least by their trainers). Even Houdini presented an act, “Bobby, the Handcuff Dog,” lifted from an earlier canine master.
Like Adams, Ricky Jay shows that the histories of science and hucksterism have frequently co-mingled. In the late 1700s, a performer-cum-scientist in the court of Maria Theresa displayed a wooden automaton seated at a gear-filled cabinet. After being wound up, the wooden man capably challenged royal patrons in chess matches. Unlike the inventor’s legitimate innovations in the mechanical replication of human speech, the illusion (actually powered by a human conspirator concealed amongst the gears) grew quickly famous. Although it had many debunkers, Edgar Allan Poe among them, the automaton chess man played to great acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.
But more fascinating than the hoax itself is the fact that the improbable invention inspired others to much greater feats of industrial revolution. Upon hearing of a robot that could “make all the variety of moves required in that complicated game,” the Rev. Edmund Cartwright insisted that certainly he could make the breakthrough power loom that he had conceptualized in his dreams. And so he did.
Many of the acts that Jay explores have shown surprising resiliency. On-stage human crucifixion has a long history, and it continued at least through the mid-20th century, proving too painful for the gathered community at the Abbott’s 1955 Magic Get-Together to watch. After looking back at their Enlightenment-era predecessors, Jay traces a lineage of contemporary face-makers to Jim Carrey, and finds modern-day ceiling walkers in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and in the art house films of Matthew Barney.
By looking at a field not wholly subsumed by the “Other” on display, Jay breaks down the dichotomy between the performer and the “born freak.” Explaining his approach to the subject, Jay writes: “While I have long written about anomalies, in dimension as well as deed, I have traditionally placed more emphasis on prowess than physical exaltation. Siamese twins, for instance, were worthy of discussion only if balanced on their heads, reciting Goliardic verse and providing their own accompaniment on violin and dulcimer.”
Jay’s motivation in his study is clearly not that of the dissertation writer. He closes his book with an unabashed exclamation, “I really do love this stuff!” And with his wry comments on fellow entertainers’ acts, he conveys a deep solidarity — giving the impression that at any moment he, like my activist friends in Florida, may be the next to try.
This enthusiasm fits with a time when exploitation of deformity no longer provides a reliable source of income, and when the sideshow turns to performance art and street theater. It reveals that in freakishness, broadly defined, there resides something beyond the possibility of subverting culturally enforced norms. In Ricky Jay’s work, one also finds a celebration of human potential — a delight in those who, by demonstrating what unusual things they could do with their bodies, were able to evoke awe and sometimes even to improve their lot in life.
Maybe it’s not so strange to suggest that, as much as expressing deviance, those who take up unusual acts may also be exhibiting a drive to self-improvement. But it is interesting to consider whether this drive — which stands among the most American impulses in politics — has penetrated the do-it-yourself ethos of contemporary anarchism. And whether it might even afflict our punks.