Freaks: The American Culture of the Abnormal

Englisches Seminar, Universität Zürich, Herbstsemester 2011 ///


Syllabus >

Individuals who differ from the physical norm have always fascinated their fellow people, to the extent that they were often exhibited as so-called „human oddities“ or „Freaks“. Extraordinary people like the rubber-skinned Etta Lake, the three-legged Frank Lentini or the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton even made their living by appearing in sideshows and circuses. American popular culture of the late 19th and early 20th century was especially intrigued by the phenomenon of the Freak. But even after the spectacle of the sideshow has been denounced as exploitative, the character of the Freak still haunts American culture.

Thus, the aim of this seminar is certainly not to indulge in voyeuristic fascination, but to map out how the Freak as an embodiment of otherness comments on and even subverts paradigms considered to be stable, such as sexual identity, race, or even the notion of humanity as such. We will do so by discussing a wide range of American „texts“ such as Tod Brownings seminal 1932 movie <Freaks>, Charles Burns‘ Graphic Novel <Black Hole>, novels and short stories by E. A. Poe, Herman Melville and Carson McCullers, photographs by Diane Arbus and the HBO TV-series <Carnivale>. Additionally, the participants will have to engage with studies specifically devoted to the phenomenon of Freaks, such as those by Leslie Fiedler or Elisabeth Grosz. At the same time, we will look at complex theoretical texts providing us with a more general approach to the issue of otherness and difference, such as the writings by deconstructionist thinkers Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze.

(Image: Prince Randian (1874–1934) & Johnny Eck (1911–1991), two famous sideshow artists).

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