Saturday, April 18, 2009


[Originally posted 5 October 2008, 6:35 pm.]

A reflection on freakery after beginning Fielder's Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self

Reading Fiedler's work, I am obsessing over finding meaning in freakery, meaning that I know will always elude me, as I am not, myself, a freak in the sense in which the term is currently used, though even such usage eludes me, too, making this all feel rather overwhelming.

My understanding, primarily from Fiedler's discussion of language, is that freak, now thirty years after Fiedler's text, no longer refers to a deformity (such an emotive word itself), a condition, an appearance, or even a talent (in the tradition of performers or made freaks), but to the individual who willingly displays those properties in the name or performance or art, or, indeed, performance art. This represents a distinct change in the term, which, in 1978, was beginning to bother certain doctors (see the opening of Chapter 10 of Fiedler's work), do-gooders (more on them later), and non-performing individuals with physiological differences. Hence, I make the distinction, one who displays or performs.

The meaning that I so hope to find is that of the role or position of the freak (or Freak, if you're so inclined, but I would neither capitalize painter or woman) in society and culture. If freak had merely evolved to mean artist, we might have just adopted the term artist, or even performance artist, but we have not. Like a musician, storyteller, actor, etc., the freak is a particular type, or category of artist, and such particularity necessarily denotes not just a specific act, but a specific role or purpose for that act. So it is not just the word, but the complex systems and relationships that word represents.

Part of my difficulty in finding meaning lies in the changes that have taken place in terms of how freak shows/sideshows are made manifest and how they are perceived, for their role now is certainly, in many but not all respects, different from their role one hundred or even fifty years ago. Compare this to the musician, whose role is relatively unchanged for hundreds of years.

The other source of difficulty, and one of those certain differences mentioned above, is the relative obscurity of the contemporary freak show/sideshow. Once a relatively common experience, it is now one which is most often met with absolute ignorance and inexperience. While the purpose, and perhaps motivation, of the show has changed, few people are aware of those changes. They are not able to accept that performers choose to perform, for they insist on seeing freaks as they were years ago, as they are preserved in history, and not as they are now. Onlookers are locked into a sympathy that is held over from the "do-gooders" of the 1950s and 1960s and the political correctness of the 1990s and 2000s. As freaks, and their roles, have changed, so has society, but asynchronously.

While I seem to have settled on a contemporary meaning of the art, the life, even the performers themselves, a meaning which I have no right to assign, it is the larger, social meaning which which I struggle, but which will, perhaps, come with time, education, and experience, for as an outsider but one with growing knowledge and experience, I find it increasingly difficult to know what the sideshow can and should mean to the masses, and I am, again and again, drawn to Bogdan's definition, one that correlates quite well with the notions of intention and willingness, that freak is, indeed, an attitude or emotional state of being, "a frame of mind."

I am inclined, by gut or by instinct, to hypothesize: for example, when watching an armless man shave himself, the two-armed person-- man or woman, fat or thin, rich or poor-- may consciously observe because he or she is curious, but can and will observe how one who is different succeeds (here, success is a clean shave), neither in spite of nor because of his differences, but simply succeeds, and that any of the rest of us succeed by also using what we have, be that extreme height, scaly skin, or 200 extra pounds.

Finally, I am, in an attempt to find meaning, further inclined to involve myself. While the comparison of a 300 pound woman writing a book to an no-armed man shaving his face seems ludicrous, I see in that comparison a certain truth-- the book nor the clean shave are no more marvelous for the physiology of their perpetrators, but are necessarily different, differently shaped (in the creative, not physical, sense) and executed, and it is that difference at which we marvel, which we respect, applaud, commend, and which we realize has no other meaning that to be marvelled at, for, when we compare the shaved face of a two-armed man with that of a no-armed man, we are just looking at two hairless faces.

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