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

Guest Editor's Introduction

Michael M. Chemers, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Dramatic Literature
Carnegie Mellon University
Purnell Center for the Arts 335
Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3890
Email: chemers@andrew.cmu.edu

I am convinced that the only people worthy of consideration are the unusual ones. For the common folks are like the leaves of a tree, and live and die unnoticed.

-L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz

Welcome to Part 2 of Disability Studies Quarterly's Theme Section on Freakery. We received so many strong and compelling submissions for this special topic that the Editors of DSQ, Beth Haller and Corinne Kirchner, very graciously expanded the topic into two issues. Despite this very generous allowance of space, we received far too many papers to publish, and we hope that all those writers whose contributions were not accepted for this issue will continue to inquire into the study of freakery and find other publishing venues for their research.

We wish to reiterate our hope that this themed double-issue will contribute to the pursuit of Freak Studies, and that it will aid to prove its utility not merely for satisfying our scholarly curiosity about the role that freakery has played in the socialization of disability, but also for helping to affirmatively shape disability identity in the present time. Furthermore, we feel that this double-issue has demonstrated the compatibility of Freak Studies with the core values of DSQ and Disability Studies as a field: interdisciplinarity, variety in methodology and points of view, and internationalism among contributors.

As we began the long task of sorting the contributions of this issue into some kind of shape, we observed that the essays divided themselves more or less into one of two broad categories for approaching freakery. The first, which dominated the Summer issue, dealt primarily with the concerns of actual freaks, historical figures who worked as actors in the staging of stigma. Here, the dominant theoretical approach used was, naturally, one consistent with the study of performance art and theatre history. This issue of DSQ will focus, on the other hand, more on representations of freaks in narratives and other forms of cultural products.

Beginning with an essay from Rosemarie Garland Thomson, this issue confronts the central theoretical problem when dealing with the relationships between disabled and non-disabled communities: the act of staring. Staring is the bane of the disabled member of society, the silent act by which the disabled body is identified as deviant, and yet at the same time, the theatrical artist hungers for stares from the audience. Encouraging the disabling stare is fundamental to the freak show enterprise, yet anathema to the struggle for the mainstreaming of disability culture.

Rosemarie Garland Thomson, certainly among the most eminent scholars of the freak, confronts this difficulty head-on in her commentary "Staring at the Other." Here, Thomson engages directly with the disappearance of traditional forms of freak performance, and clearly demonstrates that the institutions that have risen to replace them may not, in the long run, be any kind of an improvement.

Continuing the "Commentary" section, David Church's observations "Examining the Role of Disability in Herzog's Even Dwarves Started Small" reveal some interesting contradictions in the filmmaking of cult director Warner Herzog. The film in question, which has been both celebrated and vilified, is one of the only films in cinema history to be cast entirely with actors of short stature. Church here queries Herzog's tightrope walk between avant-garde film-making and freakshow-style exploitation of persons with disabilities.

Getting into general scholarship on freak show narratives, Madeleine Hron discusses the use of freak show imagery by Maghrebi authors in her "In The Maim of the Father: The Discourse of Disability in French-Maghrebi Immigrant Texts." Hron, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University's Center for the Arts in Society, gives us a bilingual look at an entire genre of disability-related literature generated by Maghrebi laborers in France in the latter half of the 20th century.

Next, Sheila Moeschen examines the mingling of medical science with the cartomania of 19th-century Americans in her "Aesthetic Traces in Unlikely Places: Re-visioning the Freak in Nineteenth-Century American Photography." Moeschen's critical eye uncovers a disturbing common ground between the use of photographs of freaks as advertising and souvenirs for audiences and their use as ostensibly diagnostic tools for medical research and treatment. What she finds sheds light on the power relationships that reside in the politics of representation.

Richard Sandell, Annie Delin, Jocelyn Dodd, and Jackie Gay relate the fascinating creation of a 2003 gallery exhibit at Britain's University of Leicester with their "In The Shadow of the Freakshow: The Impact of Freakshow Tradition on the Display and Understanding of Disability History in Museums." This unique exercise in the role that the museum tradition (which in its infancy was closely linked with the professional practice of freakery) has played in the anthropology of disability is quite revelatory about how modern concepts of freakery and disability in general have come into being.

Susan Antebi's "Caliban and Coney Island: Spanish-American Narratives of Corporeal Difference and Performance" is an example of the possibilities of interdisciplinary crossbreeding. Uniting certain critical trends in humanities-based Disability Studies, for which the materiality of the body is a central concern, with the recent interest among scholars of Spanish American culture studies in the corporeality of difference, Antebi's article examines Coney Island narratives from two of its most literary visitors, the exiled Cuban journalist José Martí and the Mexican poet José Juan Tablada.

Catherine Scott's essay, "Funhouse Mirrors and Freak Show Dreams: Construction of Narrative Voice in Terry Healey's At Face Value," investigates the dark, strange world of Healey, a memoirist chronicling his recovery from dramatically disfiguring surgery. Unflinchingly, Scott's investigations turns over a few stones of the human psyche and the immense difficulty of reconfiguring a sense of self, especially in a culture where the once-powerful "ugly laws," though long banished, retain a pernicious and deleterious effect.

Closing out the general scholarship section, Kerry Duff's "Biographies of Scale" provides a new historiographic strategy for examining biographical evidence concerning the popular memoirs of freak show performers. Examining the memoirs of four persons of short stature in close detail, Duff understands memoirs themselves as a kind of performance, as complicit in the construction of a (disability) subjectivity as a live stage show, if not more so.

The freakery theme is continued with two book reviews as well; Madeleine Vala's review of Armand LeRoi's controversial study of popular genetics, Mutants, followed by my own review of The Lives of Dwarfs, a new history of persons of short stature.

I wish to once again express my thanks to Beth Haller, Corinne Kirchner, and the rest of the DSQ editorial staff for their for their foresight, guidance, patience, and investment of time and energy is the creation of this double issue on freakery, and to convey my gratitude for the excellent work of all the outside readers and contributors.