Freaks and desire: Fetishizing bodily difference in late modernist American culture

Nancy Margaret Bombaci, Fordham University


Physically normal observer figures in literary and cinematic texts by Nathanael West, Djuna Barnes, Tod Browning, and Carson McCullers not only exhibit a fascination with bodily difference, but often fetishize such difference. In a period of American culture beset with increasing pressures for social and political conformity and with the threat of fascism from Europe, narratives that fetishize the freak defy oppressive norms and values as they search for an anarchic and transformational creativity. Using a theoretical framework informed primarily by Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, this study categorizes the physically normal spectators or flaneurs as flaneur colonizers, or freakish flaneurs. The flaneur colonizer objectifies what he perceives for the purpose of commodification, but the freakish flaneur identifies with deviance as he simultaneously maintains his stance as an observer. All of the artists in this study identify themselves as freakish flaneurs, but from different gender and class perspectives which reflect diverse reconfigurations of high modernism. West, Barnes, McCullers and Browning produce works that can be appreciated by both “high” and “popular” audiences, thus challenging the elitism of high modernist writers. West and Barnes, in particular, call into question the values of high modernism by parodying Joyce and Eliot. The late modernist artists central to this study all suggest that the desire to know that which has been socially constructed as deviant, horrific, and ugly may lead to a kind of enlightenment: the self-conscious observer may identify with the freak so fully that he or she begins to question the very foundations of normality itself. With the exception of social historian Robert Bogdan, most contemporary cultural critics do not view these marginalized others as epistemologically empowered at all. For example, David A. Gerber takes Bogdan to task for emphasizing the performative nature of freakery, and suggests that the freak show's main appeal is based on a revolting sadism that degrades deformed people. While the performing freak in the American freak show may have compromised his or her dignity and subjectivity, the freakish flaneur, I propose, is a complex phenomenon that combines an identification with deviance with poignant epistemological insight.

Subject Area

Literature|American literature

Recommended Citation

Bombaci, Nancy Margaret, "Freaks and desire: Fetishizing bodily difference in late modernist American culture" (2000). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9964558.