Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Caliban and Coney Island: Spanish American Narratives of Corporeal Difference and Performance

Susan Antebi
Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies
University of California, Riverside
2401 HMNSS Building
Riverside, California 92521
E-mail: susan.antebi@ucr.edu


In recent years, Disability Studies scholarship in the humanities has frequently focused on histories of the freak show and on theoretical problems stemming from the limits of cultural discourse with respect to the materiality of the body. In contrast, corporeality and difference in the context of recent work in Spanish American Cultural Studies and related disciplines often appear as metaphorical constructs, grounded in the trope of monstrosity as nexus of identity and alterity. Through readings of José Martí's and José Juan Tablada's literary encounters with Coney Island, this article proposes the critical productivity of intersecting models of Spanish American literary discourse and live corporeal spectacle.

Keywords: freaks, Spanish American Literature, cultural studies, Coney Island, monstrosity

Disability Studies and Spanish American Literary Discourse

Amongst the thousands of daily visitors to late 19th century Coney Island, the exiled Cuban journalist, José Martí paused before the displays of the 50-cent museums, momentarily captivated by the outrageous and unbelievable quality of the spectacle before him: "human freaks, preposterous fish, bearded ladies, melancholy dwarves, and stunted elephants, grandiloquently advertised as the largest on earth" (Martí, 2001, p. 318). A nearly endless stream of fascinated, curious spectators with money to spend would ensure the lucrative success of such dime museums, freak shows, and related operations throughout the United States, particularly from the second half of the nineteenth to the first two decades of the 20th century. But here, the display is perceived through the eyes of a foreigner, who, wishing to distinguish himself from the throng, repeatedly reminds the reader of his outsider's status. As Martí famously wrote in the same essay, in reference to differences between Spanish American and United States' culture, "such people eat quantity; we, quality" (p. 321).

Several decades later, the Mexican poet and journalist, José Juan Tablada would similarly elicit the complicity of his readers in his own description of the Coney Island dime show spectacles: "(...) with the legitimate skepticism of our ancient lineage, for you and I, reader, are sons of the millenary Anahuac; and long before Coney Island rose out of the ocean like a common, commercial Venus, Montezuma had jesters, dwarves and hunchbacks, caged beasts and botanic gardens" (Tablada, 1926, p. 3; all translations of Tablada are mine). While Martí and Tablada both provide evidence of potentially having witnessed spectacles of corporeal difference commonly known as freak shows, sideshows, or dime museums–forms of entertainment now widely familiar to scholars of Disability Studies and United States cultural history in general, these Hispanic narratives at once resist participation in this growing body of freak show knowledge. Resistance, as non-belonging, takes place here not only through the emphatic rejection of United States' popular culture, but also through adherence to Spanish American literary discourses that at once exceed the boundaries of the corporeal spectacle, yet barely resist its lure. The intersection of discourse with spectacle here implies, I will argue, a retroactive adjustment to the contours of each.

In the context of United States' freak shows, such as those witnessed by Martí and Tablada, the disabled or otherwise different body tends to take on the burden of pre-inscribed meanings, but may also alter or reinvent those meanings through performance, or what Rachel Adams, in reference to Judith Butler's reading of gendered performance, calls "repetition" (Adams, 2001, p. 6). Freakishness, according to these terms, and whether through live spectacle or narrative representation, might be said to operate through a dual condition, one that offers both the limitations of pre-determined modes of representation, and the potential re-appropriation of these modes, through the seemingly infinite opportunities for performed embodiment.

This dual condition at once implies a related, though certainly not identical double-bind, through which corporeal difference is construed as either minoritizing (strategic essentialism), or universalizing (strategic constructionism), (see Garland Thomson, 1997). Indeed, since the 1990s, U.S.-based Disability Studies scholarship in the humanities has frequently focused on postmodernist contributions to identity politics, and most specifically on dilemmas stemming from politically charged oppositions between constructionism and essentialism. As both Rosemarie Garland Thomson (1997) and Lennard Davis (2002) have suggested, postmodernist leanings towards the abandonment of identity categories, via the privileging of the universalizing pole, threaten the specific necessities grounding the ongoing history of disability politics. At the same time, while such contested oppositions emerge with similar urgency in debates pertaining to other familiar categories of identity (race, class, gender) disability may be especially effective in crossing the boundaries of identity categories, potentially restructuring critical approaches to gender (Garland Thomson), or to systems of oppression common to multiple groups (Davis).

In the above-cited Spanish American texts, where radical difference as otherness becomes a condition of spectatorship, and not only of freak show performance, the re-appropriation of spectacle works through the construction of an elite, disembodied Spanish American self, in opposition both to the freaks on the platform, and to the unruly, apparently gullible masses consuming the show. According to this model of re-appropriation, the performed narrative of spectatorship questions and adjusts the freak show's pre-established meaning, just as a given instance of live performance might allow the freak to mean otherwise. Yet the promising cultural work these texts thus appear to perform is at once bound up in an inevitable shifting of identity categories, following the postmodernist double-bind, mentioned above. In unmooring the freak from his or her contextual specificity, via discursive interventions that insist upon their own identities-as-alterities, Tablada and Martí at once translate the dilemmas of disability to those of Spanish American discursive identity formation–and vice versa.

Julio Ramos describes Martí's Coney Island, in its uncontainable proliferation of modern mass culture, as participating in a fundamental binary, one which opposes "we," the Hispanic American community, to "they," the North Americans. Ramos states: "Such is the grounding gesture of Latinamericanism" (2001, p. 211). The freak show, so clearly an icon of United States' culture, thus figures, however negatively and marginally, in this moment of construction of a fin-de-siècle Spanish American literary and cultural identity. Martí's and Tablada's narrative encounters with Coney Island freak show spectacles create potentially incongruous juxtapositions, between models of embodied and disembodied performance, both constructed through the problem of corporeal difference and its metaphors. Rereading these texts in view of their unlikely engagement with U.S.-style freak show corporeality at once allows for a critical dialogue between perspectives from the field of Disability Studies, and those from Spanish American Cultural and Literary Studies.

David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's elaborations of the concepts of narrative prosthesis and metaphorical opportunism suggest that the relationship between text and disabled body tends towards a form of exploitation: "The knee-jerk impulse to interpretation that disability has historically instigated hyperbolically determines its symbolic utility. This subsequent overdetermination of disability's meaning turns disabled populations into the vehicle of an insatiable cultural fascination" (2003, p. 61). Through the corporeal metaphor, the disabled or otherwise different body may easily become a stand-in for more abstract notions of the human condition, as universal or nationally specific; thus the textual (disembodied) project depends upon –and takes advantage of– the materiality of the body.

Scholarship on particular modes of U.S. freak show entertainment has frequently focused on the cultural work to be performed in a specific socio-historical context; thus, for example, James W. Cook (1997) unpacks the link between P.T. Barnum's purposeful ambiguity in staging the "What is it?" exhibit, and the complexity of antebellum racial politics in Northern U.S. states. The historical work grounding this and other related studies reveals the ways in which meaning is constructed, and depends for its effectiveness upon specific staged bodies. Freak show scholarship, as exemplified here by Cook's work on "What is it?", may be said to perform a renegotiation of freak show politics, the revelation of the constructed nature of meanings supposedly implicit in displayed bodies works to sever what might have seemed to be the irrevocable nature of ties between meaning and material body. Mitchell and Snyder's work on the disabled body in narrative enacts a similar form of renegotiation, allowing readers to reconsider, and potentially rewrite, the body-text relationship. If, as I have suggested, Martí's and Tablada's texts each engage in a form of reciprocal interaction between discourse and corporeality, what might be the role of such renegotiation–if any–in these narrative performances? Do these Spanish American texts merely reiterate the "symbolic utility" of corporeal difference, subsuming material bodies into a broader, pan-Hispanic metaphoric expression of cultural identity as alterity?

Corporeal difference as an overarching marker and placeholder of cultural, racial, and ethnic differences has been invoked repeatedly in readings of Spanish American cultural history, often with reference to the figure of Caliban. As Michael Palencia-Roth describes in his analysis of the "teratological theology" of the conquest of the New World, both Christian theology and classical teratology include cannibalism as the most extreme example of monstrous behavior, and perhaps in part for this reason, cannibalism as a practice becomes "the particular New World signifier for monstrosity" (1996, p. 40). The cannibal, and later, versions of its Shakespearean anagram, Caliban, thus come to occupy the place of the monstrous body, as initially constructed by the European colonizers' cultural traditions and imagination. In fact, later European texts would actually use the term "cannibal" in place of "monster" (Palencia-Roth, p. 45). Monstrosity, whether read as anatomical or behavioral, suggests in this context a process of "othering," inseparable from Stephen Greenblatt's (1984) notion of Renaissance "self-fashioning."

Whether the victim of colonialist and racist violence, the agent of radical subversion of this victimization, or both, Caliban frequently suggests the metaphorical role of the body in the construction of Spanish American identities. And recent Spanish American Cultural Studies scholarship continues to insist upon the corporeal metaphor, borrowing from and reinventing Caliban's historical and literary trajectory (Dabove and Jaúregui, 2003). The monstrosity of this cultural trajectory, unlike the freakishness referred to frequently in Disability Studies' scholarship, functions specifically through its conduit to metaphor. Here, it is not merely that corporeal difference creates meaning, or anchors meaning through material form, but rather in this case that the monstrous itself sits at the axis of identity and alterity, through which bodies seem to insist on their transcendent, tropological status. Monstrosity, as the inevitability of metaphor, comes to signify the dynamic of New World identities and alterities, in part because, as Palencia-Roth demonstrates, the Spanish conquerors never actually discover the monstrous bodies to which they refer. These absent bodies will continue to figure prominently in the emergence of a Spanish American discursive identity in relation to the United States.

Martí and Tablada occupy distinct political positions with respect to the U.S., although both include combinations of admiration and disdain for the northern nation at various points in their writings. Martí lived in exile for many years in the United States, due to his political activity in favor of Cuban independence from Spain, a cause to which he ultimately gave his life. While he often expressed admiration for U.S. institutions, as well as for the sheer size and modernity of cities such as New York, his critiques of U.S. materialism are strongly articulated, as are his warnings of the future threat this empire would pose to its Spanish American neighbors (see Fernández Retamar, 1977).

Tablada, by contrast, took on varied political allegiances throughout his career. He was among the middle-class Mexican intellectuals who supported and benefited from Porfirio Díaz's regime, thanks in part to a policy of openness to U.S. investments. Tablada's later exile to New York was conditioned by the fall of Victoriano Huerta, a military dictator he had criticized but later supported. Writing from New York, Tablada made frequent, bitter references to the Zapatistas' sacking of his home in Coyoacán, Mexico. Despite his earlier opposition to the Mexican Revolution, his tactical journalism allowed him to win the support of President Venustiano Carranza, who offered him a diplomatic position (see Sheridan, 1992).

Martí's political and literary trajectory, in comparison with Tablada's offers a far greater consistency of ideals, and ultimately a stronger dedication to both nationalism and a broader vision of Latin American identity. Despite these differing positions and historical conditions grounding the work of each writer, it is of particular interest here that within the framework of the journalistic crónica both express strategic distance, and fascination, with respect to the freak show and the culture it is seen to represent. In addition, in each case the writer's position is structured through the performance of an opposition between Spanish American and United States' identities. In this sense, both participate in a history of real transcultural encounters as inseparable from the metaphorical –and literal– work of corporeal difference.

Martí's calibanesque crónica of his visit to Coney Island must pass through the metaphor of monstrosity, in order to access the space where an incipient pan-Hispanic identity might be forged. Yet here, the vivid representation of the live freak show, and of other corporeal spectacles, becomes an irresistible temptation, whether or not the staged bodies will ever coincide with the polarized cultural opposition upon which the narrator insists. Martí's and Tablada's writings suggest that monstrosity as metaphor does not always remain consistent with a model of disembodied distance through which identity as alterity is constructed. Instead, these texts engage and participate in performances of corporeality, thus radically altering the textual conditions of both embodiment as freakishness, and metaphor as symbolic utility.

José Martí's "Coney Island," and the limits of monstrosity as metaphor

Martí's "Coney Island" exemplifies the Cuban writer's ambivalent fascination with United States' mass culture, as opposed to his vision of Spanish America. The opening lines of the crónica immediately ground the ensuing descriptions of leisure and material abundance in more somber reflection: "In human affairs, nothing equals the marvelous prosperity of the United States of the North. Whether or not deep roots are lacking in them (...) this is what the times will tell" (Martí, 2001, p. 318). Judgment of the potentially shallow quality of the United States will be momentarily suspended here, at least in gesture. It is clear, however, that a cautionary tone will continue to hang over the images of grandeur and prosperity that come to characterize Martí's vision of the New York beaches.

The discursive distance through which Martí situates himself with respect to the North American scenes recurs throughout the text, as Julio Ramos has also suggested (2001, pp. 204-210), often merging with the writer's enthusiasm for striking visual description. Martí writes: "(...) these restaurants that seen from afar look like lofty armies, these roads that from a two-mile distance are not roads but long carpets of heads (...) this monumental aspect of the ensemble" (Martí, p. 320). The dramatic perspective afforded by the position of the exile, "from a two mile distance," both creates and enhances the impression of proliferating humanity and wealth. The writer's repeated separation from the scenes he re-creates thus emphasizes his initial rhetorical stance vis-à-vis the United States, yet at the same time, I would argue, binds him irrevocably to Coney Island's conditions of monumentality and awe. The distance of exile and transcultural, discursive difference, here and elsewhere in the text, slips insistently towards the materiality of an urban mass culture that is both incorporated and resisted: "From afar these places seem like restless higher spirits, laughing and diabolical spirits that pass through the morbid gaslights" (p. 322). Martí's transformative metaphors function through the glittering materiality of the Coney Island scene, caught here between higher spirit and morbid gaslight, or between elevated, rhetorical distance, and literalized "carpets of heads." While Ramos' discussion of such metaphors hinges on the "slippage from the literal to the figurative" (Ramos, p. 208), I also wish to emphasize Martí's textual performance as momentarily caught in the materiality of referents it cannot fully transcend. The scene of the freak show, although mentioned only briefly in Martí's text, will suggest a similar duality, through which the writer as outsider rejects the corporeality of the spectacle, yet creates a precarious, transversal alliance with the freak on the platform.

Martí, the exiled Spanish American, sees through the freak show's misrepresentation and exploitation of the people and animals it displays, as in the above cited lines. And, in fact, his words suggest a reciprocal engagement between on one hand, misrepresentation, or fraudulence, and on the other, exploitation, or cruelty. He is quick to uncover the deception at the root of the spectacle. Thus the elephants' "stunted" size belies their promotion as "the largest in the world," (Martí, 2001, p. 318) while at once implying the animals' substandard health and living conditions. And the dwarves, in Martí's view, project only their own melancholy, rather than inspiring the enjoyment of the curious spectator, so that the performers' unhappiness results in the viewer's sense that he has been defrauded.

Later in the text, Martí continues his critique of Coney Island spectacles, this time in more explicit terms: "others applaud the skill of someone who has succeeded in bouncing a ball off the nose of an unfortunate man of color, who, in exchange for a paltry day's wage, stands day and night with his head poking out through a piece of cloth, dodging the pitches with ridiculous movements and extravagant grimaces" (p. 321, also cited in Adams, p. 226). Here Martí adds to the extensive documentation of the performed enfreakment of racial difference, which was common practice in this period.

At certain moments, the unhappy condition of the "freak" performer appears somewhat comparable to that of Spanish Americans in exile (such as Martí) as he himself describes: "It is well known that a sad melancholy steals over the men of our Hispanoamerican people who live here (...) they feel like lambs with no mother or shepherd, lost from the flock; and though their eyes may be dry, the frightened spirit breaks into a torrent of the bitterest tears, because this great land is devoid of spirit" (Martí, p. 320). As exile and observer, Martí undercuts the euphoria of the Coney Island ambience, of which the freak show is a fundamental element, by revealing its fraudulent and cruel representations, and by identifying with the outsiders–although only partially– rather than with the masses, thus both subverting and redefining the dynamics of the performance. Identification, however, works indirectly– or obliquely in Martí's text, for although the melancholic and marginal status of the freak does evoke the exile's similar position, as described above, the freak, unlike Martí, is first and foremost a body. While Martí, as narrator, performs his outsider's status through the observation and evocation of cultural difference, the freak, on stage and in the text, performs embodiment itself as the fundamental prerequisite of all difference. If the horrifying carnality of the U.S. masses at leisure in Coney Island stands in direct opposition to Martí's elite, abstract, disembodied, Spanish American narrative presence, what, one might ask, is the role of the so-called freak here, with respect to these opposed identities? The freak stands out from the crowd as a figure of possible identification for the exile, against a backdrop of supposed homogeneity. But at the same time, the freak show, as spectacle based on the (false) promise of tangible, unmediated embodiment, becomes the paradigmatic figure of fleshly exuberance – representative of everything Martí rejects in order to define himself against the Coney Island scene. What, then, is one to do with this sudden performance of incongruent corporeality in Martí's text? As I have suggested, Martí's discursive position creates an ambivalence between distanced observation and literalized evocation of mass culture. Yet more specifically, how does the body, witnessed in live spectacle, negotiate – or interrogate – the coordinates grounding the narrative formation of an emergent Spanish American selfhood?

Martí's own idealized construction of an emergent Spanish American cultural scene, in opposition to U.S. mass culture ("Such people eat quantity; we, quality," p. 321) traditionally has been read through the explicitly metaphorical vision of monstrosity he evokes, in lines such as the following: "Then like a monster emptying out its entrails into the ravenous jaws of another monster, this immense crush of humanity squeezes onto trains that seem to groan under its weight" (p. 322). Here, Martí's construction of the New York monster does not rely on a particular anomalous or racialized body, (as would the freak show in its Coney Island context) but instead on an overall impression of U.S. urban mass culture and modern technology, the backdrop against – and within – which the exiled Cuban speaks.

The train tracks, concludes Martí "crisscross the slumbering city of New York like iron veins" (p. 322). Thus the monster, as if any doubt remained, becomes the city itself, proliferating with machines and boisterous, pleasure-seeking crowds. This machine-run city, impressive in its scale and efficiency, reflects awe-inspiring advances in transportation engineering. But in the same gesture, these decidedly nonhuman machines reveal their entirely organic entrails — the mass of humanity they carry. This fusion of metal and flesh becomes "monstrous" where one form melds into another, where the train, seemingly pure machine, unveils its teeming human underside — or vice versa.

Monstrosity here depends upon metaphor and abstraction. The machine as monster, symbolic of U.S. technological prowess and advancement, suggests the looming imperialist threat to Spanish America's future. At the same time, this train's cargo, an overwhelming mass of humanity, runs parallel to the train itself, as a synonymously monstrous figure of the growing and threatening population in the North. Yet the vision is most horrifying when the two "tracks" slip into one another, when the abstraction of machine as human monster is literalized through the entrails that are at once the train's inner mechanism, and the carnal embodiment it both contains and signifies.

Martí's vision of the train reveals the paradox underpinning his depiction of the United States as monstrous other. For the metaphor upon which this notion of monstrosity depends immediately becomes literal, at the station platforms where a reciprocal symbolism between man and machine gives way to a more shockingly palpable symbiosis -- the inseparability of the organic and the mechanical (train and human cargo) — as a monstrous cyborg avant la lettre. Just as man and machine, for Martí, refuse to keep their distance from one another, as reciprocal signifiers of each other's monstrosity, so the status of metaphor itself cannot remain clean of the horrifying carnality to which it points.

Metaphorical fusions of machinery and organic life, as well as fascination with modern technology as such, occur elsewhere in Martí's work, as in his well-known chronicle of the inauguration of the Brooklyn Bridge. As in "Coney Island," here the slippage between the mechanical and the human coincides with the revelation of corporeality as monstrous. Martí writes: "And the creators of this bridge, and those who maintain it, and those who cross it seem–but for the excessive love of wealth that gnaws at their intestines like a worm–men carved out of granite, like the bridge itself" (2002, p. 141). While the phrase seems to oppose the impenetrable granite of the bridge to the horrifying intestinal flesh-as-worm, the juxtaposition at once creates a jarring link between the bridge and the gnawing worm. The intestinal worm, like the human cargo of the Coney Island train, invades the imagery of the sentence, paradoxically transforming granite to flesh, and flesh to bridge. Similarly, Martí describes aspects of the bridge's construction in explicitly fleshly terms: "those four colossal boa constrictors, those four parallel cables, thick and white, which uncoil like ravening serpents, lifting their sibilant bodies from one side of the river (...)" (p. 143). This language might be said to suggest the violent encounter between technology and the "subjectivity of images" (Rotker, p. 142), or the will to a modern and fragmentary "machine of style" (Ramos, p. 182). In either case, however, both violent imagery and stylistic innovation depend here on the distinctly organic, volatile expression of monstrous machinery.

In "Coney Island," the dual, oscillating quality of monstrosity as metaphor, and as metonymy, viewed through the figure of the train, operates similarly to the staging of the freak show, and of other striking bodies, in Martí's narration. For in each case, the apparent distance between the disembodied and the corporeal unfolds. The text performs its monstrosity at the points where the train, as rapidly moving signifier, grinds to a halt and transfers meaning and inertia to the human meat it spews forth, and when the freak, through Martí's eyes, evokes the corporeality of U.S. mass culture, but at once the singularity of the detached and rejected outsider.

In addition, while Martí depicts himself at a safe distance from these unruly masses, it seems he cannot avoid lingering at the freak show platform, although with a sharply critical eye. It is here, before the spectacles of the dime museum and the freak show that a monstrous U.S. population seeks out its corporeal, racial, and cultural others, cohering against the extreme differences it recognizes but continuously rejects. The gesture, performed by Martí, of constructing the U.S. urban masses as his own monstrous other thus becomes irrevocably bound up in the fear and pleasure of self-recognition that contributes to the dynamic of the freak show. Martí's text unveils and subverts the exploitation of the freak show, but at the same time suggests an enigmatic link between the marginalized body on the platform, and the monstrosity of the U.S. urban masses, both caught –in the narrative– between material and abstracted identities.

The body and performance of the Coney Island freak leave their mark on Martí's text, yet the manner in which this freak participates in the forging of cultural identities ("we" and "they") remains uncertain here. The freak is neither the equivalent of the monstrous pleasure-seeking masses, which reject racial and corporeal difference, nor an ideal figure of identification for the Spanish American exile, who retains his role of distanced, culturally privileged, and disembodied observer. It is from the peripheral space of narrative performance, shifting between pre-scripted metaphor and the body's refusal of meaning, that the freak asserts his or her presence. By at once obliquely participating in the construction of a monstrous other, and refusing direct identification with the textual symbols of self or other, Martí's freak performs a preliminary interrogation of the category of monstrosity, and its supposed opposite– the emergent Spanish American self. In the context of the Coney Island freak show, as depicted here, the freak appears through the larger audience's construction of a body as object on display. Yet through Martí's eyes, this same freak acquires a more dynamic role, one that dramatically reveals the New York audience's own monstrous participation in the scene, as well as the Cuban's ambivalent status as not-so-disinterested observer.

In partially unraveling these precarious roles structuring Spanish American-U.S. relations, as self-other dyad, Martí's text inevitably participates in a history of metaphorical bodies, and of monstrosity as a shifting category through and against which collective identities are forged. Yet the freak show scene at Coney Island, and the monstrous organicity of the train, suggest the insistent dilemma of tangible corporeality as a rupture to the framework of purely metaphorical bodies. Through the productivity of this corporeal rupture, Martí's freak in the text offers a rereading and an interrogation of the notion of corporeal monstrosity as metaphor, and as an overarching construct of identity formation in Spanish American cultural history.

"The mirror of a people": P.T. Barnum and José Juan Tablada

Readers of José Juan Tablada's description of Coney Island, and of the figure of P.T. Barnum, will inevitably be reminded of Martí's earlier response to the Coney Island dime museum spectacles, as discussed above. Yet while Martí's distance from the spectacles he describes is partially grounded in melancholy, and in a nostalgic longing for home and for Spanish American cultural identity, Tablada is far more willing to enter and engage with the circus scene, and to demonstrate a detailed, reporter's knowledge of Barnum's lucrative enterprise. In this sense, Tablada's textual project, although initially distant and dismissive of the Coney Island spectacles, creates the impression of an intense proximity between the literary language of the newspaper chronicle and the live experience of the show.

Tablada's perspective oscillates between that of a sideshow barker, through exclamations that both announce and evoke each act, and a more descriptive, detailed vision. He refers to Joyce Head, former slave of George Washington, to Jenny Lind, to General Tom Thumb, "the most famous of dwarves," and to the Fiji mermaid, "woman with a hairy monkey face, womanly chest, long nails of a learned Chinaman." Yet the figure of Barnum himself apparently provokes the most wonder and awe: "Phineas Taylor Barnum . . . Barnum the universal . . . Barnum the unique!" (1926, p. 3).

Tablada's list of the displayed human spectacles includes references to "Chinese curiosities, Chinese tightrope walkers and Japanese wrestlers" (p. 3); here, the exotic mode of ethnographic spectacle dovetails with Tablada's own well-known fascination with the far East, thus blurring the line between a detached and critical observation, and participation in the scene. The performance of the crónica takes place through the persuasive voice of print media that at once critically undermines its own ability to educate and entertain. For Tablada, Barnum is both "the grotesque mirror–like those of Coney Island, your island–in which Uncle Sam sees himself when he laughs" (p. 3) and an astute, self-promoting entrepreneur: "His wings were of paper, a miraculous kind of paper: newspaper!" (p. 3). Tablada's ambivalent fascination with the power of print media (in which he participates through his weekly column) is reflected in another of his crónicas, where he describes a U.S. journalist as both a "cantor of capitalism" and "an author of journalistic haikais" (1931, p. 3). The reference to haikais should be read as a celebratory one, given that Tablada wrote numerous haikais in Spanish, and considered himself to be responsible for the introduction of this poetic form to the Spanish language (see Tablada, 1932). It is through such gestures of performative mirroring that Tablada's newspaper texts allow for a rereading of the lines dividing performance as spectacle (as in the Coney Island scene) from the self-reflexivity of performative language. Tablada criticizes both this journalist (Brisbane) and Barnum, for their complicity with crude capitalist enterprise, but at once admires both figures enough to stand in the place of each, at least momentarily, via the experience of textual persuasion.

Journalistic expertise, and apparent ease of transition from one cultural context to another, allows Tablada to effectively –and literally– translate between the world of Coney Island, and that of his Mexican readership, or from live, Anglophone public spectacle to Spanish language print media. Occasionally, however, Tablada's enthusiasm ruptures the transition, as when he bursts into English, and then translates himself: "America is liked to be fooled [sic]. ("A Norteamérica le place ser engañada) (1926, p. 3). Whether the error originated with Tablada or at the newspaper's printing is difficult to determine. In either case, the moment of spontaneous translation in an otherwise strictly Spanish text coincides here with the governing principle of freak showmanship, namely, fraud. As Robert Bogdan (1990) makes explicit in his study of freak show history, deceptive practices in the name of profit were commonplace throughout the freak show's heyday, and beyond. For writers such as Martí and Tablada, however, fraudulence specifically dovetails with cultural difference, offensive taste, and exploitative northern neighbors. The grotesque, fun-house mirror and its distortion of the human image at once embodies Barnum, and as Tablada makes clear, the spirit of the United States as a people.

Tablada's fascination with the scenes he witnesses appears to stem not so much from the particular cases of corporeal difference he describes, but rather most strongly from the power of deception, and the sleight-of-hand techniques that seem equally effective in live spectacle and textual performance. The figure of Barnum is not tied to a specific embodiment, but is instead described as "the mirror of a people" (Tablada, 1926, p. 3) one that distorts reality, and hence is conveniently represented here as a Coney Island mirror. Corporeal difference, via Barnum and Tablada, thus functions as a false, albeit temporary image, one which is equally accessible to all who pay the entrance fee, and which deceives all who willingly take part in the game– those who like to be fooled.

In extending Barnum's freak show to the adjacent fun-house mirrors, Tablada seems to suggest that corporeal difference is an open, transparent category, perhaps so familiar to most spectators that they would opt to try it for themselves, without fear or risk of losing their fundamental normalcy. Indeed, the mirrors, like freak show spectacles, simply affirm normalcy in relation to its polar opposite. The ease with which freakishness could be tried on and discarded might be said to parallel Tablada's vision of barnumesque capitalism, as the distorted mirror image of a laughing Uncle Sam. Yet not everyone is equally fooled by the mechanism: "Barnum is for us, Latinos, the personification of the vast, profane enterprise's booming advertisement" (p. 3). This advertisement, as Barnum, and as distorting mirror, simultaneously organizes a consuming citizenry, temporarily confounds visual observation, and offers the category of corporeal difference, so as to immediately oppose it with a return to normalcy, as soon as subjects turn away from the mirror to rediscover their newly normalized bodies. Tablada, however, straddles the line of deception, noting that "Latinos" see through Barnum's distortions. The ideal audience is, once again, comprised of those who like to be fooled, and failure to participate means exclusion from Barnum's lucrative U.S. market.

As Lennard Davis has written, in reference to representations of disability in 18th and 19th century English novels, bourgeois capitalism's positive, functional image depends upon the ideological fantasy of the norm (2002, p. 96). Normalcy, however, is not a static feature in narrative, but instead must be achieved as the culmination of struggles based on conflicts of ethnicity, race, gender, socio-economic class, and disability. Conflict resolution, or cure, is endlessly rehearsed in these novels in order to maintain the fantasy of normality. Davis writes: "All these cures are placebos for the basic problem presented to capitalism and its ideological productions in the form of modern subjectivity; which dons the form of the normal, average citizen protagonist–that bellcurve —generated, fantastic being who reconciles the promise of equal rights with the reality of an unequal distribution of wealth" (p. 99). Tablada's Coney Island mirror, as vision of Barnum, and as reflection of the U.S Other, suggests a similar dynamic of bounded oppositions between normality and freakishness. In this case, the genre of the newspaper chronicle does not allow for a progressively developing narrative "cure," as is the case in the novel. Instead, disease and cure must be represented instantly, as immediately interchangeable extremes. The sudden appearance of the fun-house mirror fulfills this function; the audience pays to exchange normalcy for aberration, and vice versa. Thus through the act of payment, the audience is fooled, for the difference that was promised always reverts to sameness, revealing the fundamental deception underlying the distorting mirror, yet the entry fee is –of course– not returned. The deception of the freak show itself clearly parallels the mechanism of the distorting mirror, as Tablada's text suggests; it is the mirror held up to the people, through which mass normalcy is (falsely) confirmed through constructed images of corporeal difference.

Tablada's emphasis on corporeal difference, envisioned here through the momentarily distorted body image emblematic of Barnum's capitalism as mass fraud, thus cannot offer the cure that would (temporarily) reconcile inequalities of wealth and privilege with the promise of normalized corporeality. Instead, the instantaneous quality of the mirror image– and of the brief newspaper chronicle– accelerates the process by which normality and aberration are polarized and made equivalent. Tablada, as authorial voice, becomes similarly polarized, shifting rapidly between equivalence and opposition to the figure of Barnum.

Tablada's oscillating position here, at once vociferously critical of the grotesque mirror and the people it reflects, and seduced by the power of print media behind Barnum's enterprise, might be seen as symptomatic of the author's shifting political position, as described above. But most significant here is the manner in which opposition coincides with equivalence, at once in Tablada's position as critic-participant, and in the scenes of corporeal difference he chooses to represent. Tablada's (and Barnum's) duplicitous position as narrator becomes, in this sense, inseparable from the fictitious duality structuring the relationship between normality and difference.

The Coney Island fun-house mirror, evoked here as the figure of Barnum himself– via Tablada– conjures the repeating dilemma of postmodernist incursions into identity categories such as disability and Hispanic ethnicity. According to such a reading, the ease with which sameness and difference appear to slip into one another in the mirror scene, and with which Tablada's attack on fraudulent practices at once becomes a flirtation with fraudulence, highlights the critical limitations of the oscillating model. Presumably, if deception cannot be clearly pin-pointed, corporeal difference and the specificity of its history will be rapidly subsumed into a broad vision of fraudulent spectacle as symptom of mass culture. Tablada's project certainly participates in this version of spectacle; yet, without overcoming the risks that the model implies, takes advantage of his jarring cross-cultural position in order to highlight the disruptive role of foreign print media in the Coney Island context.

The asymmetry of the relationship between discourse and spectacle again suggests the ongoing problem of the symbolic utility of corporeal difference, whereby the body functions as useful– and subservient to an overarching metaphorical purpose. Here, however, the problem of textuality centers specifically on the dizzying velocity of the production and distribution of newspaper, and the correlation between this defining quality of modernizing print media, and the instantaneity of freak show and distorting mirror mechanisms, as described above. The particularity of Tablada's insertions into these mechanisms relies upon the seductive power of fraudulence and speed; but also on moments when the textual translation of corporeality disrupts the otherwise seamless processes through which difference and homogeneity are reflected.


Unlike in Martí's "Coney Island," where the U.S.—Spanish America binary grounds the use of monstrosity as metaphor, while setting the stage for the incursion of freak show corporeality, Tablada's figure of the "mirror of a people" confounds self-other divisions, through performative gestures that elide fixed classification. If Martí's freak interrupts the metaphor of monstrosity through the problem of a carnality that belongs neither to "us" nor to "them," Tablada's mirror reflects a version of corporeal difference insistent on its reversion to textual performance and translation. It is the sheer speed of newspaper production and circulation that allows Barnum's enterprise to take flight on "newspaper wings," in Tablada's terms, and thus to enact a lucrative mass deception. Tablada similarly relies on the power of print media to suggest a version of embodiment that can be in two places at once. As I have described, Tablada's emphasis on fraudulence coincides with his cross-cultural, erroneous self-translation: "America is liked to be fooled." In the Spanish version, however, "America" becomes "North America"; the detail suggests that Spanish Americans, unlike their northern neighbors in this case, do distinguish the part from the whole. At the risk of merely translating from body to textual metaphor, Tablada's narrative will remind readers that discursive cross-cultural difference, here instantly produced and disseminated as newsprint, necessarily adjusts the contours of corporeality as live spectacle. The newspaper text performs its version of Barnum's show, replicating the model of fraudulence in its act of translation, but in so doing shatters the mirror of corporeal difference as normalcy, pointing instead to those who will not recognize Self and Other as symmetrically reversible reflections.

The seemingly incongruous appearance of the freak show spectacle in José Martí's "Coney Island," and its interruption of the dynamic frequently defined by monstrosity as metaphor of radical cultural difference, suggests the relevance of contemporary Disability Studies' perspectives in readings of Martí's text. In an opposing, complementary sense, José Juan Tablada's textual replication of performed corporeal difference, through cross-cultural print media, points to the importance of recognizing discursive interrogations of pre-inscribed models of freak performance–such as the example of Barnum's mirror. Tablada's Spanish American discursive model, in its close familiarity with freak show characters and modes of performance, suggests that freak show history, while necessarily informed today by a Disability Studies' perspective, must also account for textual sources which, although not fully incorporated into the spectacle, nonetheless intersect with and challenge the parameters by which corporeal difference is enacted and written.

To be sure, neither of these textual models escapes the problematic usage of freak corporeality as otherness, even when the self/other dyad is called into question; and the absence of an effective solution to a familiar dynamic of discursive and material exploitation hardly seems surprising. The appearance of the freak in the space of these Spanish American journalistic texts creates a jarring effect, and as I have suggested, does potentiate a renegotiation of distinct disciplinary modes of reading both material corporeality and metaphors of alterity. The juxtaposition of Spanish American literary discourse and embodied freak show spectacle must ultimately fail to fully account for the elision of the freak as materiality. Yet the particular modes of elision revealed by Martí and Tablada nonetheless point beyond the conditions of their discourses, towards a critical position through which the freak might begin to constitute both the material conditions of specific performed corporeal difference, and an embodiment open to the slippery material metaphors and shattered mirrors of transcultural encounter.


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Copyright (c) 2005 Susan Antebi

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