CCR 631: Contemporary Rhetorics

Freak Shows & The Negated Audience

The objectification of certain individuals and groups discloses itself through what is and is not said about them and through actual conditions affecting their ability to speak for themselves. (Wander 370)

Mental illness was briefly discussed during the presidential debates last fall. Now, the presidential debates are an exclusive space where the audience (the U.S. public) doesn’t have direct access to the speakers. So, when Obama and Romney started talking about mental illness and tighter gun restrictions—two men who have never claimed disability—they were speaking in an inaccessible space (in the sense that the public couldn’t access it to create dialogue) about “disability” in ways that no one—particularly the disabled—could speak back to. And, because of the power of these two men, the association between mental illness and (gun) violence worked very quickly to push people with mental health issues further into the margins.

Though this conversation centered on mental health, it silenced any productive conversations about mental health and simultaneously silenced particular groups of people who were associated, through the political discourse, with violence.

This week’s readings introduced three different “personas” that are useful for thinking about audience. According to Wander, all discourse has an implied, intentional speaker (369). This speaker is the “I,” the First Persona. This speaker, through particular discursive characteristics, speaks to an implied audience. This audience is the “you,” the Second Persona (369). Black theorizes this second persona more fully, arguing that each discursive act constructs an implied auditor (or listener). Though Black admits that this isn’t a novel idea, particularly for anyone who has studied authorship or literary theory, the link constructed between the auditor and an ideology is worth pursuing (333). Black relies on the Marxist definition of ideology, “the network of interconnected convictions that functions in a man epistemically and that shapes his identity by determining how he views the world” (334), to illustrate how the speaker constructs an implied auditor and particular beliefs intended to shape the identity of that auditor.

So if the (intentional) speaker is the First Persona, and the (intentional) audience is the Second Persona, the Third Persona refers to the audiences not present, “audiences rejected or negated through the speech and/or speaking situation” (Wander 369). This is the audience I referenced in the debate example. Because there is an intended audience, a “you,” there must also exist a negated other, an “it.” Wander’s definition of the Third Persona is worth quoting at length here:

The Third Persona, therefore, refers to being negated. But “being negated” includes not only being alienated through language—the “it” that is the summation all that you and I are told to avoid becoming—but also being negated in history, a being whose presence, though relevant to what is said, is negated through silence. The moral significance of being negated through what is and is not said reveals itself in all its anguish and confusion in context, in the world of affairs wherein certain individuals and groups are, through law, tradition, or prejudice, denied rights accorded to being commended or, measured against an ideal, to human beings. The objectification of certain individuals and groups discloses itself through what is and is not said about them and through actual conditions affecting their ability to speak for themselves. Operating through existing social, political, and economic arrangements, negation extends beyond the “text” to include the ability to produce texts, to engage in discourse, to be heard in the public space. (370, emphasis added)

Adolph & Rudolph, Siamese Twins (Image 408 from the Ronald G. Becker Collection of Charles Eisenmann Photographs, Special Collections Research Center)
Adolph & Rudolph, Siamese Twins (Special Collections Research Center, SU Library)

This made me think of historical freak shows. In the description of the Ronald G. Becker Collection of Charles Eisenmann Photographs (SU’s archive of 1000+ images of “circus sideshow and dime museum performers”), the people are described as “human ‘freaks’ who displayed their odd physiognomies and performed before gawking visitors.” Freak shows historically have been sites intended to exploit and objectify non-normative bodies, including disabled, sexed, raced, and otherwise marked bodies. And it is through this process of exploitation and staring where negation occurs.

In “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography,” Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes, “The history of disabled people in the Western world is in part the history of being on display, of being visually conspicuous while politically and socially erased” (56). This speaks to Wander’s point about objectification: the disabled have historically been objectified in ways that silence them. The freak show, in particular, creates an interesting site to think about audience.

If freak show images are texts, the speaker is the photographer (the person objectifying the bodies to a particular audience), the audience is the gawking public (those who stare), and the negated audiences are the “freaks” themselves (those who are stared at). They cannot themselves be the speakers because they lack rhetorical agency; that is, even when they chose to participate in these freak shows (and some did), they were still bound by the rules of that space.

To reference Wander, this shuts down any chance for participants to operate outside of the social, political, and economic constraints of the freak show business. It also denies freak show participants the rights accorded to human beings. Garland-Thomson describes staring as an act that “creates disability as a state of absolute difference rather than simply one more variation in human form. At the same time, staring constitutes disability identity by manifesting the power relations between the subject positions of disabled and able-bodied” (57). That is, disability (and thus the disabled audience) is positioned beyond the realm of human, which silences but also creates an opportunity for identity formation.

Freak shows are complicated because, sometimes, the performers wanted to be there. Particularly in the 19th century, there were fewer economic opportunities for people with extreme physical differences and some of these performers were able to make a good ($$$) living displaying their bodies to gawking audiences. These performers crafted their identities around the freak-show persona.

At the end of his article, Wander suggests that the Third Persona is an opportunity to create space in rhetorical theory “for those unable not only to find shelter in, but also to take part in the discourse” (276). Here I offer an example of a contemporary freak show that further troubles marginalization.

Erik “The Lizardman” Sprague (image by Adam Taylor from
Erik “The Lizardman” Sprague (image by Adam Taylor from

Erik ”The Lizardman” Sprague is a freak show and sideshow performer who is probably most well known for his extreme body mods. Sporting tattooed green scales, sharpened teeth, a split tongue, and subdermal implants, the Lizardman is a voluntary “freak.” Sprague, and others like him, are attempting to reverse marginalizing power structures. That is, through these performances, national tours, and extreme body modifcations, Sprague has created spaces for producing texts, engaging in discourse, and being heard in public space.

Sprague troubles the very notion of a “freak,” someone who is usually deemed an Other by a dominant group who either names it explicitly or condemns it through silence (there are close ties here to disability and the tensions of staring/looking away). The Lizardman is interesting also for the way he flips the speaker/audience/negated audience dynamic.

Here the negated becomes the speaker, conveying a different ideology that openly welcomes difference and Otherness—not as absolute difference but as a variation of human form.



Black, Edwin. “The Second Persona.” 331-40.

Wander, Philip. “The Third Persona: An Ideological Turn in Rhetorical Theory.” 357-79.


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