|Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies
Staring at the Other
Staring is a vivid form of human communication. Part of our enormous communal vocabulary of the eyes, staring is a particularly emphatic way of expressing our response to others. A more forceful and sustained form of looking than glancing, glimpsing, scanning, contemplating, surveying, gazing, and other forms of casual or normative looking, staring starkly registers intense interest and endows it with meaning. That interest ranges widely in form--from domination, adoration, curiosity, surprise, allegiance, disgust, wonder, befuddlement, openness, hostility, to reverence. The stare is a highly charged interpersonal encounter that we snap up in a variety of contexts to put a sharp point on what we mean, think, or want. Staring is a way of strongly reacting to another; it bespeaks involvement. It is the human response to novelty, to the unexpected.
As such, staring is an embodied and relational visual exchange that carries complex cultural and historical meanings. Like sex and eating, staring is drenched with significances, scrupulously regulated, and intricately ritualized. Civility, for example, has always strictly governed staring and prescribed what we do with our eyes in social encounters. In American culture, the one thing everyone knows about staring is that your mother told you not to do it. Both furtive and compelling, staring is imagined as a formidable interchange and is a source of vivid narrative within in the Western cultural archive. Medusa's stare turned men to stone; the evil eye haunts pervasively. As ocular-centric modernity developed, myriad institutions lassoed human curiosity by ritualizing the urge to stare at the unexpected. If staring is the effort to make sense of the inexplicable, to craft a narrative of recognition from incoherence, then the target of staring is often that which seems strange or unfamiliar.
In Western history, the figure of the monster or the freak is perhaps the exemplar of the unexpected, the unfamiliar, the novel. Monsters and freaks are forms that challenge the status quo of human embodiment. We have ritualized encounters with such unexpected bodies throughout Western history by staging hyperbolic displays of what is taken to be the extraordinary. From antiquity through modernity, unusual and inexplicable bodies considered to be monsters and freaks have been displayed by the likes of medieval kings and P.T. Barnum for entertainment and profit in courts, street fairs, dime museums, and side shows. In the last two centuries, medical science has securely moved such unruly bodies into laboratories, operating rooms, and medical texts in order to establish the borders of the normal and predictable. Nevertheless, they still leak out to the public in tabloids and horror films. Indeed, the history of disabled people in the Western world is in part the history of being on display, of being visually conspicuous while being politically and socially erased. Like the word "fascination," a whole vocabulary of words such as "marvelous" and "wonderful" that described the common practice of staring at what I have called extraordinary bodies has faded today into vagueness now that it is considered bad taste to stare at disabled people as a middle class form of entertainment. Monsters, for instance, were congenitally disabled newborns imagined to be omens or messages from the gods. Monstrous bodies were a particular type of prodigy, which were wonderful and awful—in the sense of inspiring wonder and awe—events such as comets and earthquakes. In a pre-scientific world, unexpected and unexplainable occurrences were the maps of truth that had to be read by intense looking. The term "freak" has also been unmoored in the 20th century from its specific original meaning. "Freak" meant whimsical or capricious before today's notion of abnormal highjacked it. A freak was to be stared at because it bore evidence of both "nature's sport" and of God's infinite capacity for mysterious surprise (See Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Richard Altick, John Block Friedman, Mary Bain Campbell, Stephen Greenblatt, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson).
The intellectual elite from Aristotle to Voltaire debated the evidence of prodigies and marvels, arguing over their truths. Aristotle and Aquinas distrusted their particularity, seeking knowledge in the universal instead. Early travel writers such as Marco Polo and Mandeville translated the unfamiliar into the marvelous. Monarchs kept Wunderkammern, or cabinets of wonder, from which the likes of Bacon and Descartes drew examples in their efforts to delineate the natural order. Kant took prodigies as the opposite of the sublime. Voltaire advanced the notion of maternal impression to account for monsters. The persistence of the prodigious has always provoked crisis in the human need for order and certainty.
The prodigy plot informs many of the foundational narratives of western culture. Genesis's account of Eve being born from Adam's side may refer to the astonishing prodigy known as a teratoma or fetus in fetu, a tumor, often containing hair and teeth, that is the residual presence of an absorbed twin hidden the body of the surviving sibling, waiting patiently to reveal itself to some medical intruder. The story of the Christ child's birth, for example, can be understood as a convergence of prodigious events. The star of Bethlehem is the comet—a common prodigy foretelling the future-- signals the wise men that a prodigious birth has taken place and that they should travel to witness the extraordinary body as a conduit to truth. Prodigious births came in the form of unusual bodies that could be distinguished from run-of-the-mill births so as to provide a discernable text. While Jesus is not represented as monstrous per se, his body at both birth and death functions as a prodigy: Its distinction offers it up as a preternatural gesture to be read. Like monsters, Jesus was imagined as a sign from the gods. Our word demonstrates has the same root as monster, meaning to warn. The Christian pageantry of the Crucifixion, as well, takes its narrative structure from the practice of public executions that were rituals of staring intended to provide lessons to a rapt audience. In the Crucifixion story, the faithful heedfully attend the suffering body of Jesus as a sign of God's order and plan for humanity.
If monsters were prodigious wonders in the ancient world, freaks were profitable performers in the developing commercial economy of late 19th and early 20th century side shows and dime museums (See Robert Bogdan, Andrea Dennett, Rachel Adams, Benjamin Riess, and James W. Cook). Freaks were spectacular public displays of novelty that entertained viewers who gladly paid to stare. Droll and fascinating freak figures were created from the unusually embodied by way of exaggeration, irony, and theatrical staging. What we now consider the medical dermatological condition of vitiligo, for example, was parlayed into the act of Spotted Boys. Giants and Midgets appeared juxtaposed together to highlight their differences. Fat Ladies titillated with cute diminutive stage names such as Dolly Dimples. The ordinary microcephalic black man became the exotic Missing Link dressed up in an ape suit. Spears and loincloths transformed albino twins into Wild Men of Borneo. Amputees became Armless Wonders by cutting out paper dolls, penning calligraphy, and drinking tea with their toes. The freak show validated curiosity and authorized public staring at bodies that departed from the ordinary by embellishing differences to make money.
Modern technology has shifted public rituals that organized face-to-face visual encounters with exceptional bodies into what might be called virtual staring. The development of techniques that produced, reproduced, and disseminated images within the popular media such as photographs, television, films, and digital imaging separate the viewer from the viewed by virtually producing the staring encounter. Visualizing techniques were taken up as well in the cloistered arena of medical science. There, the clinical gaze focused upon unusual bodies—now classified as pathological rather than revelatory—that was once the sole province of the doctor's office, the medical theater, or the dissection room was augmented and made virtual by laboratory procedures and various medical imaging techniques. This kind of mediation changes the lived staring encounter in several ways; first, it absolves the starer of responsibility to the object of the stare; second, it eliminates the possibility of engagement between the two people in the staring relationship; third, it grants all agency to the looker and withdraws any agency from the looked upon; fourth, it renders the confrontation static. In short, virtual staring evacuates any dynamism from a lived encounter.
The advent of photography in 1839 began to shift much staring at the luridly different bodies of freaks from the actual public encounter to the private Victorian photo album, ephemeral media, or to the aestheticized images like the grotesqueries of artists such as Diane Arbus or Joel Peter Witkin. Medicalization has not only purged many freaks from humanity, but it has transformed the way we imagine human variation. Diagnoses and treatment have transformed spectacular characters such as Giants, Lion Faced Women, Lobster Boys, and Armless Wonders into cases of acromegalia, hypertrichosis languinosa, ectrodactyly, and limb deficiency. The live freak show has moved largely to the tabloid and telethon today where it can be more quickly and profitably disseminated.
What can be called freak scholarship has several important conversations: First is the cause of the freak show's demise; second is whether the shows provided dignity with employment that medicalization robs people; third is whether the shows ended or just shifted into other venues. In brief, Robert Bogdan says medicalization eliminated freak shows; Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues that sentimentality also helped end the freak show; Rachel Adams, Jeffrey Weinstock, and Andrea Dennett say it shifted forms.
Even though the interpretive authority of monsters and freaks has faded into the seclusion of the medical and diminishment of the sentimental, their astonishing bodies nevertheless still hold the power to fascinate those of us with ordinary bodies. The public staring at extraordinary and inexplicable bodies that freak shows and the revelations of prodigies once licensed has now been replaced with telethons, modern America's predominant glimpse of bodies that we now think of as disabled. Medicalization and the rise of sentimental culture in the 19th century took extraordinary bodies off the freak show stage by the mid-20th century for the most part, sequestering them in asylums and hospitals. But charity, which had always concerned itself with disabled people, mobilized the potent medium of the television spectacle to put a certain kind of unusual body right back in the spotlight in the package, not of the freak show, but of the telethon. Telethons allow Americans to reassure themselves that the excesses of individualism have not corroded their moral and communal commitments by establishing themselves as generous "givers." These collective rituals of staring display bodies marked as "disabled" as objects of the supposed compassion of their viewers. However, contempt for the ostensible "takers," who function as recipients of this largess by being stripped of the morality, agency, and productivity so valued in the concept of "giving," is entangled in that compassion. Telethons thus enable citizens who are implicitly positioned as nondisabled to counter the accusation of "conspicuous consumption," Thorstein Veblen's indictment of consumer capitalism, with what Paul K. Longmore calls "conspicuous contribution," which endows them with considerable social capital.
The naturally occurring wondrous body has been stripped of awe in late modernity, shrunk into the objects of pathology and the takers of charity and superseded by the lavish virtual fantasies of bionic action images of The Terminator and Star Wars ilk. The study of monsters became the science of teratology, recruiting the supposedly pathological to secure the borders of the normal and establish the authority of the standard body (see George Canguilhem, Barbara Katz Rothman, and Ruth Hubbard). Even though science has eclipsed superstition, the laboratory and the telethon have replaced the freak show, and the pathological has superseded the monstrous, experts still read exceptional bodies to establish the supposed truth of the ordinary. Scientists search scrupulously for defective genes; the "health" of fetuses is monitored rigorously; bodies that depart from rigid functional and formal standards are surgically normalized in a process called reconstruction, as if all bodies somehow originally conformed to these narrow norms. Monsters and freaks have not only vanished from sideshow stages, but from the human species in developed societies. The wondrous freaks the public stared at with relish in Piccadilly Circus and Barnum's American Museum are now confined to medical institutions, reconstructed surgically, or detected before birth by sonograms and amniocentesis so they can be eliminated by therapeutic abortion. They have been edited out of the human community like textual errors in the path of automatic spell checkers.
Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ) is the journal of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS). It is a multidisciplinary and international journal of interest to social scientists, scholars in the humanities and arts, disability rights advocates, and others concerned with the issues of people with disabilities. It represents the full range of methods, epistemologies, perspectives, and content that the field of disability studies embraces. DSQ is committed to developing theoretical and practical knowledge about disability and to promoting the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society. (ISSN: 1041-5718; eISSN: 2159-8371)