Desiring Difference: A Chronicle of Wonder, Part One
“I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the streets is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique.”
–Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Over the last week and half, I’ve been teaching Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, a novel that centers around a family of traveling carnival performers. The parents and circus owners, Aloysius and Lil Binewski, purposefully “engineer” the unusual, often “extraordinary” bodies of their children through experiments with drugs and other toxic, radioactive materials during pregnancy. The epigraph above comes from their first-born son, Arturo, who is born with “flippers” in place of arms and legs. His act in the show—self-dubbed the “Aquo Boy”—eventually leads to a cult following of “normies” (a pointedly derisive term for non-disabled characters/audiences in the novel), all of whom wish to be just like Arturo. For anyone, it is at times a shocking story, but one that I’ve found generates all sorts of medical humanities-related discussions in the classroom. My students were struck by Arturo’s above-mentioned commentary, in part, because it calls to mind a tension they regularly feel in their own lives: the desire to “fit in” while simultaneously be seen as somehow “set apart.”
Although the Binewskis are in the business of being looked at, Arturo’s observation reminds us that looking goes both ways. In her book Staring: How We Look, Rosmarie Garland-Thomson identifies the act of staring as “a high-stakes social interaction for everybody involved” (2009, 84). As wonderers (as well as objects of others’ looking-on), we participate in a dynamic dance within which we slip in and out of subjectivity. For Arturo, what the “norms” desire is made legible in their act of staring, and although aesthetic innovations may eventually become en vogue given enough time, such a trend toward sameness may very well be predicated on a desire for difference. “There inheres,” Garland-Thomson writes elsewhere, “in all things disability a contradiction” (2017, 51).
A “Monstrous Birth,” or Notes on Fashion
Briefly, I want to consider one example from the 16th century here. In 1565, Christian Jermin was born with excess skin around her neck and shoulders. Broadsides announcing “monstrous births” were typical to the period, but Jermin’s story highlights what I take as disability’s close relationship to aesthetics. In one such broadside announcing Jermin’s birth, the author describes her body in detail: “the arms and hands, legs and feet of right shape, and the Body with all other members, well proportioned in due form and order, saving it as it were, wonderfully clothed with such a fleshy skin like unto a neckerchief growing from the reines of the back up unto the neck with many ruffes set one after another” (The True Descripcion). The author then compares Jermin’s ruffes with the “vain” fashions of the day: “like as many women’s gowns be, the said ruffes being double and as it were thick gathered, much like unto the ruffes that many do use to wear about their necks.” Another notice concerning monstrous births in 1609 links Jermin’s specific variation to nature more broadly by observing, “God in his other creatures, shows the like examples,… as there hath bene diverse strange birds, and fowls sent into the world with the likeness of great ruffes about their necks” (Strange News out of Kent 11).
In each case, the authors read “ruffes” as indications that something has gone awry, thus resulting in divine intervention/correspondence as an omen against England’s vice and fashion. However, it also reveals a lurking anxiety which prevailed not simply due to the confrontation with difference, but what I take to be the accompanying desire for that difference. It’s unclear if the aesthetics of fashion are being read on to the “deformity” or, if indeed the fear might flow in the other direction: that each iteration found “naturally” embodied somehow re-presents the aesthetic design, suggesting, if I may, that the pattern (of ruffes about the neck) becomes organically printed on to the child. It raises a somewhat daft question, given the context: which came first?
Wonder-Reading, or a Rubric for Desiring Difference
While surveying early modern monstrous births, Kevin Stagg notes how, “like disabled characters in novels, monster births are little more than ciphers on which to hang moral comment, political or religious critique or sensational news” (29). Read with the door left slightly ajar, however, the social commentary ascribed to these exaggerated announcements of human variation belie a more subtle, though no less rich, source material for human cultural activity. Such examples abound in the historical record. A few related to the Renaissance ruffe come to mind now: Medieval crackowes, whose sometimes exaggerated shape strikes me as reminiscent of Arturo’s phocomelia; Hogarth’s mark of beauty prefigured in the “S”-shape of a curved spine; The hoop skirt, whose affected (mis)shaping of the body necessitated newly designed chairs in the 18th and 19th centuries; the “hobble” skirt in the 20th century, and the list goes on…
Deformity is a fleshy index of nature’s wonderful vagaries. In the same way nature’s wonders give rise to science, nature’s varied wanderings (made manifest in a wide range of embodiments) inspire cultural and aesthetic production. By re-reading—dare I say, strategically mis-reading even—premodern cultural enterprise as a manifestation of human desire for variability and difference, we open the door to new ways of answering Kelly Fritsch’s call to radically alter the way we imagine and practice “desiring disability.” In my next post, I will continue to think about desiring difference through the experience of wonder—what I suggest is disability’s pièce de resistance—as a project of moral and ethical development.
 I use “daft” here as a way to reclaim its original sense of humility/well-suitedness against the backdrop of its long, blunted history as an ableist term to mean irrational or “crazy.” It is productively daffy in that way.
Dunn, Katherine. Geek Love. Vintage, 2002 (originally published 1989).
Fritsch, Kelly. “Desiring Disability Differently: Neoliberalism, Heterotopic Imagination and Intra-corporeal Reconfigurations. Foucault Studies, no. 19, June 2015, pp. 43-66.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Building a World with Disability in It.” Culture – Theory – Disability, eds. Anne Waldschmidt, Hanjo Berressem, and Moritz Ingwersen. Transcript Verlah, 2017, pp. 51-62.
————-. Staring: How We Look. Oxford UP, 2009.
Stagg, Kevin. “Representing Physical Difference: The Materiality of the Monstrous” in Social Histories of Disability and Deformity: Bodies, Images, and Experiences, eds. David M. Turner and Kevin Stagg. Routledge, 2006, pp. 19-38.
Strange Nevves Out of Kent of a Monstrous and Misshapen Child, Borne in Olde Sandwitch, Vpon the 10. of Iulie, Last, the Like (for Strangenes) Hath Neuer Beene Seene. London: T.C. for W. Barley, 1609. ProQuest. Web. 19 Oct. 2023. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A04800.0001.001.
The True Discripcion of a Childe With Ruffes Borne in the Parish of Micheham in the Countie of Surrey. London: By John Allde and Richard Johnes, 1566. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A00257.0001.001.
Image Source: The True Discripcion of a Childe with Ruffes Borne. © British Library Board. Huth50.(34A.)