A Freak Hauntology

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A Freak Hauntology

Circus’ Necessity to Learn to Live with Ghosts

A text by Ante Ursić

My contribution to this volume results from the editor’s kind invitation to expand on a short passage in my article ”On Clown Politics,”1 in which I caution against idealizing the notion of abjection as inherently subversive. I refer to freak performances as an example to showcase how the abject has often been channeled towards the maintenance of conservative values. Before revisiting and expanding my arguments, I must confess a sense of uneasiness in writing about the freak in general. I am inclined to use case studies in my scholarly work. Focusing on a particular performance assists me in staying more specific while allowing me to trace how concepts or ideas (e.g. Deleuze’s Body without Organs, Derrida’s Animots, Arendt’s Tiefsinn or Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus) unfold in the case study. I am interested in scrutinizing how concepts articulate what circus performances or practices can do on an affective and theoretical level and how they can talk back to concepts and ideas, complicating and expanding them. Hence, in my experience, it is most fruitful when performance and concepts stage a dialogue, providing a sense of cross-pollination between theory and practice.

My uneasiness stems, therefore, from the fact that my contribution to this issue doesn't follow a case study in which I address the figure of the freak and the many concepts, notions, and ideas that this figure evokes, be it negative connotations such as human zoo, colonialization, abject, racialization, normate, othering, animalization, objectification, or positive ones such as difference, empowerment, queer, resistance and grotesque. Nor will I provide a case study that links the freak with circus, a word that itself produces a metonymic chain no less problematic and/or suggestive than the word freak. Yet, the linking of circus and freak conjures the figure of the conjoined twin. No matter the (theoretical) surgeries done, one continues to carry the scars of the other. Indeed, one could assert that today's circus practices are still haunted by past injustices, violence, and harm towards freak performers as well as the potentiality of transgression, defiance, and deviancy that the freak body represents concerning the normate.2

The challenge of this particular text amounts to an oxymoron: to write in general without generalizing, to write without evoking further harm (an impossibility?), to elaborate on the freak without further "enfreaking", and to do justice to a term filled with so many injustices. And yet, despite all these challenges, to stay attentive to openings, possibilities, and potentialities by not simply settling on a particular dominant account of the meaning of freak. Hence, the task is not treating the freak as a homogenous (even monolithic) term but acknowledging its heterogeneities and multiplicities.

How to refrain from violence? Derrida reminds us in Spectres of Marx that we should never speak of a man as a figure, that a "man's life, as unique as his death, will always be more than a paradigm and something other than a symbol. And this is precisely what a proper name should always name."3 While Derrida is referring here to the murder of South African liberation fighter, ANC Member, and communist Chris Hani, his words serve as a reminder that the terms freak is often used as a denominator while forgetting the singularities of the humans labeled under the category of freak, and by doing so dehumanized. David Hevey has coined the notion of enfreakment, thereby describing the process of "cultural rituals that stylize, silence, differentiate, and distance the persons whose bodies the freak-hunter or showman colonize and commercialize."4 Hence, when talking about the freak, it is necessary to remember each person's singularity, humanity, and dignity. Charles Tripp, Sarah Baartman, William Henry Johnson are much more than what they have been reduced to in countless books and webentries on freaks: The Armless Wonder, Hottentot Venus, What is it? A multitude of such ghosts, haunt circus, demanding responsibility and accountability. How to answer to their ghostly presence is an ethical and political obligation often overlooked, ignored, and sidelined by circus practitioners and scholars. How, following Derrida, might the circus community learn to live with ghosts?

Derrida writes: "he time of the 'learning to live,' a time without tutelary present, would amount to this, to which the exordium is leading us: to learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company, or the companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts. To live otherwise, and better. No, not better, but more justly. But with them. No being-with the other, no socius without this with that makes being-with in general more enigmatic than ever for us. And this being-with specters would also be, not only but also, a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations.”5

Derrida provides us with a strange and beautiful understanding of what it might be like to be haunted by ghosts. A temporality filled with ghosts is a time out of joint.6 Haunted time does not simply follow a clear trajectory from the past, present, to the future, in a clear and linear progression but provides us with ruptures, fractures, and stumbling stones. Repressed events, injustices, and lost opportunities might come back to haunt us at moments out of our control. To be haunted, to be caught in what Derrida terms hauntology provides an opening, a possibility to create a more just and equitable world.7 To be haunted by ghosts of the past, especially ghosts of past injustices, offer a sensitivity to the injustices, violence, and wrongdoings of the present. Hence, for Derrida, to learn to live with ghosts amounts to living justly.

To live with ghosts entails, among many other things, accounting for historical context. The circus is not only a place where humans and animals present extraordinary physical capacities of their skills. Until the 1940s, circus was also an assembly of another kind of extraordinariness. Freak shows were an intrinsic part of the US circus experience during its Golden Age (1870-1920). In Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, Rosemarie Garland Thomson concludes that the freak body was crucial in generating the normative American citizen; she states that the "freak show defined and exhibited the 'abnormal'."8 In seeing the abnormal the audience could define what is normal. Freak shows provided "an opportunity to formulate the self in terms of what was not."9 Thus, the boundaries of the normative citizen body were established by the rejection of what was ambiguous and confused strict categorical distinctions. For example, bearded women transgressed the border of a clear distinction between man and woman; conjoined twins played a trick on one's imagination of a singular self as an autonomous being incorporated in the confines of their body; people with exceptional hair growth all over their bodies were framed in such a way that the hairiness blurred the distinction between human and animal.

Through the spectacularization of otherness in freakshows, circus reified hegemonic beliefs.10 In freak shows, people's physical particularities serve as a "hypervisible text against which the viewer's indistinguishable body fades into a seemingly neutral, tractable, and invulnerable instrument of autonomous will, suitable to the uniform abstract citizenry democracy institutes."11 The anomalies of a freak performer were highlighted through fictionalized narratives to such an extent that the performer's humanity was often put into question. As Elisabeth Grosz suggests, freak performers "are those human beings that exist outside and in defiance of the structure of binary opposition that governs our basic concept and modes of self-definition."12 Therefore, the category confusion provided by freak performers threatens a system that is built upon oppositional categories. The freak performer's bodily differences place them outside of such normative discourse, thereby embodying a visceral anti-image to the "unmarked, normative subject of US democracy."13

Freak shows exploited racial differences, disability, and gender nonconformity to produce a clear marker of the category of the human, idealized by the unmarked white, male, middle-class, and heterosexual subject.14 To be haunted by the troubled history of freak performers of the past entails thinking about how circus practices and performances continue to verify dominant ideological beliefs around issues of race, gender, sexuality, and ableness. While the freak show of the golden age is a phenomenon of the past, it is paramount to stay attentive to the continuation of the structures that allowed freakshows' success and ideological work. Scholarship in Black Studies, Queer of Color Critique, Black Feminism, and Disability Studies reflect how the process of racialization, animalization, ableism, heteronormativity, and their intersection, continue to dehumanize, abuse, subjugate nonwhite, gender-nonconforming, and disabled people. Being haunted by ghosts of freak performers, a freak hauntology demands justice and the obligation to create a circus that provides justice.

Ajamu X, Self Portrait (Freak Tattoo), 2021 © Ajamu Ikwe-Tyehimba. All rights reserved, DACS 2023 / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023

Furthermore, a freak hauntology addresses freak performers as subjects that exist outside and in defiance of the structure of binary opposition, as Grosz reminds us earlier. Therefore, responding to such haunting might entail seeing value, merit, and desirability in defiance of the normate, to a structure that disallows non-normative modes of life and living. Particularly, the notion of non-normativity appears to be the gluing agent that binds freak with queer. Jack Halberstam, for example, advocates for a comprehension of queerness that extends same sex-relationship and encompasses ways of life, practices, and experiences of subjects that "live outside of reproductive and familial time as well as on the edge of logistics of labour and production."15 An expansive understanding of queerness is not only embodied by freak performers that trouble gender binaries such as women with beard, hermaphrodites, and/or drag performances, but includes people who don't conform to other normative understandings as well. In this vein, circus scholar Charles Batson stresses the relation of circus to a non-normative, out-of-ordinary disposition. He writes, "someone in my tribe, a queer, an abnormal, a freak who does stuff differently, who is different (…) lies at the heart of circus practices and meaning."16

The danger of the entanglement between freak and queer, is its inclination towards romanticizing the freak, thereby overlooking the lived, often exploitative experience of freak performers and its ideological context. This is particularly the case of privileged subjects (the majority of contemporary circus performers) who, while sometimes identifying with the notion of freak, do not share the same vulnerable disposition which marked the freak performer, especially people of color and disabled people, as not-fully human. At the same token, while queerness indicates non-normativity it also provides a critique of the established capitalist order and its compulsive heterosexuality and homonormativity. Queerness, therefore, aims to resist being folded into the logics of capitalism. The notions of freak and queer do not necessarily carry out the same politics and ethics, even though they share many affinities. Even though cast as abject, the classical freak performance did not necessarily provide a counter stance to the dominant ideology of their time. Instead, the freak body was reoriented towards sustaining the hegemonic order. Queerness, on the other hand, provides a critique of existing structures, imagining a sociality beyond the restriction of the already given capitalist order and its mechanisms.

However, my distinction between freak and queer does not want to remove any political agency from freak performers. While scholarly accounts are scarce, it would be unjust to comprehend the freak simply as a passive body on which a cultural text is written onto it. While freak show environments were doubtlessly exploitative and oppressive, especially towards freak performers of color, they also allowed some financial independence and autonomy.17 In addition, freak shows were spaces where people with differences were able to create a sense of community and belonging (also queer ones).18 Furthermore, freak performers, aware of their position as socially abject, toyed with their audiences. Janet Davis, for example, reports the resistance strategy of Carrie Holt, who performed as a fat lady. When audience members became too offensive, she simulated a sneeze. Maybe assuming that her germs matched her corpulent body size, the audience retrieved instantly.19 Holt and her colleagues also find amusement in pointing to those audience members who could be freak performers themselves.20 Hence, while freak shows functioned as spaces of exclusion, and their narratives furthered the mistreatment and marginalization of people not conforming to white, able-bodied, heteronormative subjecthood, freak performers were also able to carve out spaces of agency, self-determination, and self-worth.

It is important to stress that the circus' primary interest was to gain financial gain by exploiting the freak performer's bodily differences. The freak performer's agency and defiance produced a sense of community, allowing individuals to insist on their dignity as human beings not because of circus but despite it. If there was ever the promise that circus was a welcoming place for oddballs, otherness, outsiders, queers, and freaks, circus has still to hold up to this promise. Learning to live with ghosts of such pasts entails creating conditions in today's circus where respect towards otherness is not subsidiary to profit but embedded in the fabric of its culture.

Alongside queer theory, Mikhail Bakhtin's notions of carnivalesque and grotesque are often evoked to understand the political work of freak performances and circus.21 Bakhtin, writing about medieval carnival, argues that one's social status was momentarily inverted during carnival. Carnival festivities, focused on corporeal indulgence and gratification, allowed a "second life."22 in an otherwise strictly stratified social arrangement. For Bakhtin, the grotesque body mirrors the political and social transformation of the carnivalesque event. The notion of the grotesque emphasizes the visceral, sensual, and sexual aspects over the rational, stagnant, and pious. Subjects direct their transformation toward the material sphere through the performative force of degradation, "lowering of all that is high, spiritual, abstract.”23 Importantly, the transformation of the grotesque body is open-ended "in the act of becoming. It is never finished and never completed."24

For Bakhtin, the transformative force of the grotesque body continues to live on in circuses and sideshows: the unruly and generative aspects of the grotesque body are embodied by giants, dwarfs, monsters, trained animals, clowns and fools.25 It is, therefore, tempting to employ Bakhtin's framework when addressing the subversive potential of freak in the context of circus. Taking such an understanding for granted, however, might stratify and essentialize the bodily difference of freak performers as inherently grotesque, especially if such a lens originates from a normative location. My critique, however, does not aim to decrease the aesthetic-political importance of the grotesque body as Bakhtin understands it. On the contrary, much of contemporary circus, particularly clown performances, continue to display the value of the grotesque body to critique normative aesthetics. Yet, while Bakhtin is partially to blame for equating the grotesque body with the freak body, we should be careful not to do the same.

To conclude this text, I suggest that notions of queer and grotesque speaks powerfully towards a freak hauntology in circus. The fact that circus has still to learn to live with ghosts makes it prone to sideline its violent past by searching for contemporary correlatives that display the (subversive) potential of the freak body in a contemporary context. Undoubtedly, aspects of the notion of queer and grotesque reverberate with characteristics of freak performances of the past, yet the term freak stays irreducible. The irreducibility of the freak constitutes the very navel of a freak hauntology. Its power is to reinsure a responsibility to the past in the present towards a more just future, precisely by being susceptible to the history of violence and exploitation while addressing its potential for subversiveness and defiance without neglecting one over the other.

1 Ursić, Ante: A Pie in the Face. Approaching Clown Politics. In: Fuchs, Margarete / Jürgens, Anna-Sophie / Schuster, Jörg (Hg.): Manegenkünste: Zirkus als ästhetisches Model.
Bielefeld 2020. S./pp. 235 – 252.
2 Der Begriff „Normate“ wurde geprägt von Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. Er beschreibt ein anonymes ideologisches Diktum, das sich selbst definiert, indem es körperliche
Abweichungen, die nicht dem vorherrschenden Verständnis von Norm entsprechen, analysiert und kontrolliert. Siehe: Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie: Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring
Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York 1997.
“Normate” is a term coined by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson which describes an anonymous ideological dictum that defines itself by parsing and policing bodily variations that do
not conform to the dominant understanding of norm. See: Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie: Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New
York: Columbia University Press. 1997.
3 Derrida, Jacques: Marx’ Gespenster: Der Staat der Schuld, die Trauerarbeit und die neue Internationale. Aus dem Französischen von Susanne Lüdemann. Frankfurt/Main 1996. S./p. 7.
4 Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie: Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York 1996. S./p. 10.
5 Derrida, Jacques: Marx’ Gespenster. S./p. 11. Hervorhebung siehe Original. See original for emphasis.
6 Ebd. S. 38. / Ibid. p. 38.
7 Ebd. S. 11. / Ibid. p. 11.
8 Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie: Extraordinary Bodies. S./p. 58.
9 Ebd. S. 58. / Ibid. p. 58.
10 Siehe/See: Adams, Rachel: Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination. Chicago 2001.; Davis, Janet M.: The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American
Big Top. Chapel Hill 2002.; Lavers, Katie / Leroux, Louis Patrick / Burtt, John (Hg.): Contemporary Circus. London, New York 2020.
11 Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie: Freakery. S./p. 10.
12 Grosz, Elizabeth: Intolerable Ambiguity: Freaks as/at the Limit. In: Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie: Freakery. New York 1996. S./p. 56.
13 Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie: Freakery. S./p. 12.
14 Wynter, Sylvia: Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument. In: The New Centennial Review.
Band 3, Nr. 3. 2003. S./pp. 257 – 337.
15 Vgl./Cf. Halberstam, J. Jack: In a Queer Time and Space: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York 2005.
16 Vgl./Cf. Batson, Charles / Malouin Hayley / Richmond Kelly / Zajdlik, Taylor (Hg.): Freak and Queer: Towards a Queer Circus, Queer Hatchings, Monsters in the Cabinet, and Queering
Circus Sessions. In: Performance Matters, Band 4, Nr. 1–2. 2018.
17 Krugman, Sasha Dilan: Reclamation of the Disabled Body: A Textual Analysis of Browning’s Freaks (1932) vs Modern Media’s Sideshow Generation. In: Word and Text: A Journal of
Literary Studies and Linguistics. 2018. S./p. 96.
18 Ebd. S. 101. / Ibid. p. 101.
19 Davis, Janet M.: The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top. Chapel Hill 2002. S./p. 180.
20 Ebd. S. 180. / Ibid. p. 180.
21 Siehe/See: Tait, Peta: Circus Bodies: Cultural Identity in Aerial Performance. London, New York 2005.; Neirick, Miriam: When Pigs Could Fly and Bears Could Dance: A History of the
Soviet Circus. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press. 2012.; Purovaara, Tomi: Contemporary Circus: Introduction to the Art Form. Stockholm, 2012. STUTS.
22 Bakhtin, Mikhail M.: Rabelais and His World. Cambridge 1968. S./p. 8. (Auf Deutsch erschienen unter: Bachtin, Michail M.: Rabelais und seine Welt: Volkskultur als Gegenkultur. Aus
dem Russischen von Gabriele Leupold. Herausgegeben und mit einem Vorwort versehen von Renate Lachmann. Suhrkamp Verlag. Berlin 1995.)
23 Ebd. S. 19. / Ibid. p. 19.
24 Ebd. S. 317. / Ibid. p. 317.
25 Ebd. S. 5. / Ibid. p. 5.

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