Communication and Construction of Monstrous Embodiment
June 15-16, 2012

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Freakery and "Aesthetic Traces"

If you happen to be interested in "freaks," freakery, and its relationship to nineteenth-century medical "monsters", we'd like to draw your attention to a fascinating article published in 2005 in the Disability Studies Quarterly, Sheila Moeschen's "Aesthetic Traces in Unlikely Places: Re-visioning the Freak in 19th-Century American Photography". The article, which is open access, offers an intriguing reading of the role that photography played in the creation and presentation of extraordinary bodies in the nineteenth century; Moeschen denies that fictive division which might separate the objective medical photograph from its public side-show counterpart, typically deemed to be more deliberately titillating. Instead, she suggests,
"The two traditions form a reciprocal relationship that illuminates their representational and political imbrications. The historical persistence to delineate between a medical and artistic "aesthetic" reveals a disconcerting bias towards privileging the power and credibility of the empirical realm over the artistic."
Moeschen points to the role that "sensation" played in separating the clinical photograph of medical monstrosity from the "freak portrait", evoking perhaps a distinction between the sensational props and posing of the visual construction of freakery with the potentially sensualised medical photographs which are marked by their nudity in order to reveal the anomalous body more fully to the viewer.

The article focuses on what Moeschen calls the "performative trace," which she sees as characterising the construction of both medical and sensational photographs of individuals with extraordinary bodies, creating "an alternate frame around these subjects that explicitly signals the perceptual and cognitive apparatuses ascribed to performance." She notes that
"The performative trace becomes another presentational "mode" employed, ironically in the case of the medical profession, to disarm these unusual bodies, endowing them with a quality of the ephemeral that ultimately promotes uncritical fascination; it promotes a kind of fetishistic voyeurism and illicit titillation."
The instability which this theatrical element introduces into these photographs is, for Moeschen, a deliberate strategy on the part of both medical and sideshow photographers to manipulate the "cultural and ideological value" of their subjects.

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