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Thursday, December 20th, 2001


The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum

by J. W. Cook

The Birth of Irony

A review by Jackson Lears

To its devotees as well as its detractors, postmodern thought lacks a history. The fragmentation of truth, the ascendancy of appearances, the fluidity of self, the breakdown of master narratives, the triumph of ironic detachment: all the tendencies that we loosely label "postmodernism" are commonly assumed to be the products of mass-media technology and multinational capital, or to have burst full-blown from the brains of Frederic Jameson and Jean-Francois Lyotard. Most attempts to trace the origins of postmodern sensibility stop in the early 1960s, when advertising began to mass-market irony, and quotation marks descended over whole segments of our cultural life. Postmodernism, we tend to assume, was born yesterday.

This assumption provides relief to all concerned. It reassures celebrants of postmodern culture that they are on the cutting edge of change, which apparently is still the hip place to be. It suggests to critics that what they deplore is merely an ephemeral fashion — that it will only be a matter of time before a single standard of truth is restored to its proper place as the foundation of philosophical debate.

But if postmodern tendencies have a longer history, then an alternative interpretation surfaces. The origins of postmodernism are traceable to the primal scene of market society — to the atmosphere of suspicion surrounding the interchange between buyer and seller. The postmodern sensibility is significantly less novel than its cheerleaders or its critics imagine. A relativizing tendency has long been embedded in our psyche as a consequence of our commerce. Whether terrorism and war can dislodge it remains to be seen.

These are the larger implications of James W. Cook's important book, though he does not spell them out. Cook focuses on American commercial culture from the 1830s through the 1880s. It is P.T. Barnum's world — the emerging street carnival of urban entertainment, oddities, extravaganzas, and curiosities too numerous to mention. Its representatives included Johann Maelzel and his amazing automaton chess player; Signor Antonio Blitz and his "modern magic" (which replaced supernaturalism with sleight-of-hand skill); William Harnett and his trompe l'oeil illusionist paintings; and above all Barnum himself, whose exhibits had a way of blurring familiar boundaries (truth or illusion? ape or man?) and provoking audiences to raise a series of unanswerable epistemological questions. In Cook's account, Barnum and his contemporaries were commercial versions of the mythical figure of the trickster — patron of the crossroads and of trade, of risky business and of new beginnings. Traditional tricksters inhabited the cosmological margins, defining themselves against principles of order, opening portals of possibility to unseen worlds. Commercial tricksters played a less exalted role. In market society, they moved from the margins of mythology to the center of everyday life, into the cities, where they mutated into confidence men without any vestige of a sacred aura.

But Cook does not want to leave it at that. He is an imaginative cultural historian who excels at teasing complex significance from apparently straightforward artifacts, practices, and events. His commercial trickster is not a messenger from another world, but neither is he merely a conniving cheat. He is an "artful deceiver," juggling cultural meanings in a chronically unstable society, challenging the rigid taxonomies that the Victorians used to organize human experience. Sometimes Cook strains too hard to locate complexity and loads his evidence with too much interpretive freight. This is a common occupational hazard, and Cook mostly avoids it. More often he provides fresh insight into the impact of commerce on consciousness. The Arts of Deception is a subtle and illuminating work of cultural history that tells us more than its author realizes about the history of postmodern thought.

According to Cook, the emergence of Barnum and his fellow artful deceivers in antebellum America was not simply a colorful instance of capitalist chicanery: it was also a chapter in American intellectual history. From this view, Barnum was an especially important figure. Playing with fraud, shamelessly spreading contradictory rumors, constantly prodding his audiences to test and to re-test the evidence of their senses, the showman created vernacular philosophy for a society on the make. By promoting the idea of trickery as an art form, Barnum implicitly incited speculation about the authenticity of his exhibits and encouraged the acceptance of uncertainty as a condition of everyday life. Yet there was nothing solemn about this game: it was all for fun — and for Barnum's profit. Epistemological doubt could be good business. "The public," Barnum shrewdly observed, "appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived."

Certainly Barnum and his contemporaries were on the cusp of intellectual change. They ritually re-enacted the perplexities of knowledge at the core of market exchange: What's this guy up to? What's the catch? Bringing philosophy to the streets, they unwittingly helped to accelerate the shift from an Enlightenment ideal of universal Truth to a post-Enlightened preoccupation with many particular truths. Cook somewhat melodramatically dates the birth of American popular culture to "that fateful afternoon in July 1835" when Barnum decided to exhibit an elderly black woman named Joice Heth, first claiming that she was George Washington's one-hundred-sixty-one-year-old nurse, then planting rumors that she was an India-rubber automaton operated by a ventriloquist, and later leaking hints to the newspapers that she was a simple fraud.

Granting the arbitrariness of Cook's dating, he is on to something. Maybe Barnum and other artful deceivers did preside at the birth of contemporary popular culture. The genealogy of postmodernism can be traced to the anonymity of the antebellum city, where nothing was as it seemed and no one could be sure that his neighbor was on the square. Artful deception, Cook claims, defused epistemological doubt by turning it into a democratic puzzle, a harmless game that could be played even by teetotalling Protestants. (Barnum made sure that his premises were free of alcohol, and minimized the presence of the disreputable "sporting crowd" so that married women and their children would feel welcome.) As the Joice Heth exhibit unfolded, Cook writes, Barnum transformed it "from a plausible work of realism into a far more slippery work of illusionism, one which interwove seemingly straight biographical information with provocative public encouragements to inspect this very same information for evidence of artificial manufacture." Barnum's antics provoked tongue-in-cheek reporting and nods and winks in the newspapers, but no earnest cries of humbug. The artful deceiver turned fraud into family fun.

The transformation of the trickster from god to entertainer was not simply a disenchantment of traditional culture. There was more going on than the loss of old allegorical meanings. New meanings, albeit ambiguous ones, were being created as well. Barnum and other commercial tricksters played a crucial role in promoting a vernacular philosophy for a post-Enlightenment age. They created opportunities for antebellum Americans to grapple with ambiguities of representation that surrounded many forms of social intercourse. In fact, as Cook observes, "representation" was the "curiously precocious term" that showmen and the press used to characterize the museums' stock-in-trade. Antebellum New York, like postmodern Los Angeles, was engulfed by the traffic in images.

The key to the philosophical significance of artful deception was its recurrent slide from realism to illusionism, which raised the constant question: was this astonishing marvel really an elaborate fake? The rapid alternation of outrageous claims, bogus exposés, heated denials, and re-asserted respectability led to the spread of self-conscious sleuthing by ordinary museumgoers as well as by newspaper reporters. Ultimately this turned the exhibits into a perceptual contest between the showmen and the audience. Barnum was especially adept at pulling back one curtain after another, keeping the audience in a state of panting uncertainty, perpetually postponing the revelation of what was "really" going on. Mass-circulation newspapers fed the public fascination with the continued oscillation of alternatives — fakery and authenticity, enchantment and disenchantment, the suspension of disbelief and the exposure of fraud. Moving back and forth across the mimetic threshold, Cook argues, the commercial trickster created an atmosphere of "representational indeterminacy."

But this did not make him a postmodernist avant la lettre. In fact, what made Barnum & Co. historically interesting was that they and their audience — for all their uncertainty — remained at least ambivalently attached to literalist notions of reality, and to static taxonomies for dividing it up. In America in the middle of the nineteenth century, there were still many boundaries for an artful deceiver to cross. A society thronging with imposters clung to an Enlightenment conception of universal Truth, reinforced by a Protestant cult of sincerity. For all their epistemological playfulness, urban audiences shared an earnest Victorian desire to inhabit a society where people said what they meant and meant what they said.

Yet this was not the sort of society in which they actually lived. The American republic was pervaded by "universal mistrust," as Charles Dickens observed when he toured the young country in 1842. This diffuse doubt about motives helped to foster longings for an unproblematic fit between appearance and actuality, and to sustain a mania for classifying character in accordance with surface markers of race, intelligence, and morality — down to and including the phrenological reading of bumps on the head. Artful deceivers operated within this labyrinth of taxonomic categories, sometimes re-affirming them and sometimes calling their rigidity into question. At their most inventive, they performed the classical trickster's role, raising the curtain of convention and pointing to a larger world elsewhere.

Whether they still do this is an open question. In Cook's view, the trickster's game is a recurring motif in our cultural history. "Artful deception never disappears for long," he observes. In any era, tricksters provide "the indeterminate object, the uncertain image, the morally suspect act — an engaging assortment of cultural deceits with which an eager public gauges its moral and aesthetic thresholds, defines its worth." But his sole example from our own time is "professional" wrestling — a form of mass entertainment in which the deception is anything but artful and the audience is so inured to fakery that they assume even serious accidents are part of the show. The World Wrestling Federation is not in the business of promoting perceptual games. Neither are the makers of "reality TV." Nor is Andy Warhol another version of William Harnett. By assuming continuity in commercial tricks, Cook neglects the transformations in the role of the trickster from Barnum's time to our own.

Some of those changes involved the corporatization of the consumer economy. The Barnumesque trickster was a playful egalitarian: shifty and not to be trusted, but on a more or less equal footing with his audience, whose speculative curiosity he constantly courted. He survived into the era of corporate capitalism, but he was increasingly consigned to the fringes of the economy, where he consorted with peddlers and carnival barkers. During the twentieth century, the corporation's promotional tricks were rationalized by the wizards of the modern advertising industry. The mass culture that they created was hardly egalitarian. Its deceits allowed little public space for measuring their moral or aesthetic thresholds, or for defining their worth. Within the boundaries of corporate-sponsored entertainment, the trickster was reduced to a clumsy confidence man or a sitcom wise-ass.

If trickster gestures preserved any cultural significance, it was in twentiethcentury art and literature. Often avant-garde tricks were little more than an elaborately extended middle finger, but sometimes they raised enduring questions concerning the caprice at the heart of experience and the futility of attempts to master it. Devotees of disorder, from Marcel Duchamp to John Cage, played counterpoint to the techno-utopian theme of the perfectly managed society or self.

But eventually the avant-garde rituals of transgression, meant to shock an ever-shockable bourgeoisie, sank into predictability. Older literalist conceptions of reality had been eroded by a broad range of intellectual developments, from psychoanalysis to quantum physics to the sociology of knowledge — as well as by artful deceivers in the marketplace. Taxonomies had toppled. By the late twentieth century, there were few epistemological boundaries left to transgress. In some intellectual circles, modern knowledge had devolved into postmodern knowingness.

Cook documents the early stages of this cultural revolution, beginning with the automaton chess player that brought artful deception from late-Enlightenment court circles to the sidewalks of New York. The automaton chess player was a robot dressed as a turbaned Turk. It played with physical awkwardness but tactical brilliance, handily defeating seasoned opponents on both sides of the Atlantic. The secret of its success was the chess master concealed in the cabinet beneath the robot, directing its moves. The automaton was built in 1769 by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen. A mid-rank Hungarian official at the court of Queen Maria Theresa, Kempelen epitomized the Enlightenment virtuoso, the gifted amateur artist-technician who provoked the ire of professionals but still won the respect of the public.

Kempelen exhibited his automaton in the tradition of "marvelous objects," which by the late eighteenth century had become a free-floating entertainment industry. Mechanical curiosities as well as natural ones circulated independently of any court, cabinet, museum, or fair; and the cognitive struggle that they aroused — occult intelligence or ingenious fakery? machine or man? — sustained vernacular science while it entertained popular audiences. Kempelen was an impresario as well as a virtuoso, and his decision to dress the automaton as a Turk was a shrewd show-business appeal to racial exoticism. The fear of the Eastern Other jostled with the desire to master him by penetrating his secrets. Kempelen's automaton exuded a whiff of the amusement hall, and Kempelen himself deployed tactics worthy of Barnum: he pulled out a small black case and examined it carefully before every performance, though the case had nothing to do with the automaton's operation; it was all a bluff.

In the end, though, Kempelen was too much the straightforward artisan to feel comfortable with fakery or to be patient with philosophical games. In 1790, he quit while he was ahead — before some inquisitive reporter exposed the automaton's secret. Kempelen returned to Vienna, took the machine apart, and stored its components in the bowels of the Schönbrunn Palace. The baron died in 1804, and his contraption gathered dust at the palace for fifteen years, until a German university student and hanger-on at court named Johann Maelzel bought the automaton from the baron's heirs. Maelzel had already distinguished himself in the design of mechanical music-makers, including (Cook writes) "the life-sized automaton Trumpeter, and the Panharmonicon, a kind of spring-driven military band." He showed them at the palace and took them on tour, and after he bought the chess player he exhibited them all in his own cabinet of curiosities.

Maelzel moved the automaton chess player into the emerging urban world of commercial entertainments. He took his show to London, exhibiting the chess player as part of an extravaganza that included a Panorama as well as a Panharmonicon. He did his best to create a mass spectacle by using such venues as 29 St. James Street in London, which seated one hundred people. He also used sophisticated public relations, including a series of leaks to the press designed to fire up public curiosity.

By the time Maelzel arrived in New York in the 1820s, he had perfected a rhetoric well suited to republican tastes. He used his mechanical skill to legitimate his deception, presenting himself as an inventor rather than as a showman. He played the well-mannered, honest mechanic, polite to mothers, friendly to children. No wonder he was "half-believed to be capable of inventing a machine that could calculate the combinations of chess," as Cook writes. In the Northeastern United States, where master mechanics were beginning to feel threatened by the factory system, vanquishing the Turk became less important than vanquishing the machine.

Maelzel shrewdly allowed the automaton to lose from time to time. But the real key to his success was his ability to sustain uncertainty. How did the thing work? Was there a child inside? A dwarf? A learned pig or dog? (This last possibility would not say much for the chess masters whom the automaton had defeated.) Or had he really made a machine that could play chess? Maelzel had created "a new category of curiosity ... a machine to render the process of imitation itself an open question."

By the late 1820s, the key strategies of artful deception had begun to take shape. Maelzel's game plan set the pattern: dubious authenticity defined the object on display, and made it curious; then the newspapers manipulated suspicions and beliefs; but the puzzle was never solved, and it continued to excite the crowds. Even before Barnum, one begins to sense a clouding of popular notions of truth, as scientific transparency yielded to commercial ambiguity.

Artful deceivers promoted a transition in the sources of popular knowledge. The contrast between Barnum's museum and its most famous predecessor, Charles Willson Peale's museum in Philadelphia, illustrated the shift from science to salesmanship. Peale's display had contained doubts in taxonomic orthodoxy and empirical detail. When he exhibited a perpetual-motion machine in 1813, he carefully labeled it an "optical illusion." He counted and recorded the spots on the "stomach bugs" that he removed from the vomit of an anonymous donor (and later displayed). The Peale museum preserved the precision of Enlightenment science.

Barnum, by contrast, showed little interest in the physical characteristics of his exhibits. In 1842, he contracted with a Boston museum operator named Moses Kimball to exhibit the "Feejee mermaid" — a shriveled amalgam of fish and monkey that Kimball had bought from the son of a local sailor. The contract had nothing to say about the mermaid's appearance or authenticity; it focused entirely on promotional issues, on strategies of display. Curiosities were becoming commodities, and the museum audience was refocusing its attention (as Cook says) "from legitimate wonders to fascinating frauds." By playing with fraud, Barnum deepened its meaning. In a society bent on drawing a line between reality and fakery, and on containing reality in rigid categories, artful deception blurred all boundaries and questioned epistemological orthodoxy at every turn.

But the apparent heresy underwrote a new, implicitly statistical conception of normality. This consequence was especially apparent when the curiosities on display were human and alive. Albino Negroes, bearded ladies, dog-faced boys, Siamese twins: all these unfamiliar creatures challenged existing categories of race, gender, species, and even bodily individuality. That much is obvious. What may not be obvious, however, is that in their strangeness they also reinforced those categories. The freaks were the exception that proved the rule of the ordinary.

Cook illuminates this complexity in his account of a creature Barnum called "What Is It?," an African American man whom the museum's promotional literature described as a "Nondescript." (The word first appeared as a noun in the 1860s, defining "a person or thing that is not easily described, or is of no particular class or `kind.'") Barnum had the man's head shaved, dressed him in fur suits or tights, gave him a walking stick, and coached him to scramble awkwardly about the stage, grunting and eating an "African" diet of raw meat and nuts. Barnum began exhibiting the Nondescript in 1860, three months after The Origin of Species was published and just as the regional conflict over American slavery was reaching its flash point.

What seems an obvious racist caricature turns out, in Cook's view, to have more subtle implications. His claims are suggestive, but a little strained. According to Cook, Barnum challenged conventional racialist entertainments: highlighting uncertainty, he never used the word "Negro" in his promotions. He moved beyond minstrelsy to a program that was potentially more dehumanizing (bruteface rather than blackface), but also more capable of destabilizing existing categories and playing with sectional politics.

Elite Southern men had never cared for Barnum. Their code of honor demanded that surface representations remain stable and reliable indicators of meaning. To the gentlemen of Charleston, Barnum was just a Yankee humbug, and they chased his Feejee mermaid out of town. By early 1860, when the "What Is It?" premiered, the Charlestonians had more pressing matters on their minds. But if they had bothered to notice, they would have seen that the Nondescript did not at all conform to pro-slavery assumptions about black people. He was physically weak, constitutionally indisposed to agricultural labor, and progressively "humanized" by his distance from Africa.

Yet those assumptions were perfectly consistent with apologetics for white supremacy. To say, as one Northern newspaper did, that the Nondescript was "like a child just learning" was to participate in the discourse of "contempt and pity" first identified by Du Bois — a way of talking about race relations that helped to create what Cook calls "a bipartisan racially determined caste system" for a post-slavery era. And, as Cook acknowledges, there was a harder racism in Barnum's presentation as well. Barnum's implicit suggestion that this black man might not even be a human being made the Nondescript a convenient "missing link" in the Great Chain of Being or in the process of Darwinian evolution. Either framework merged with the scientifically respectable racism of the later nineteenth century, which provided new academic legitimacy for ideas of black inferiority. Resisting some Victorian taxonomies, Barnum remained imprisoned by others.

Barnum was not the only showman seeking to sustain a post-Enlightenment peace between science and entertainment. "Modern Magic" was the slogan of sleight-of-hand artists who sought to transform their craft from superstitious necromancy into clever entertainment. According to Cook, the first performer in Western cultural history to disenchant his own magic tricks in public was a Belgian conjurer known as Robertson, who during the 1790s began to acknowledge that his phantasmagoric images of grinning skeletons and expiring bare-breasted women were pictorial projections, not spiritual visitations from the beyond. Still, the success of his enterprise depended on a mix of "philosophical instruction and supernatural excitement" — not only his revelation of his method, but also its continued capacity to provoke a frisson in the audience.

At about the same time, in the young United States, sleight-of-hand artists still faced persecution from zealous Protestants, for whom feats of "Legerdemain and subtle craft" still bore a striking resemblance to witchcraft and divination. But gradually the wizard lost his aura. In his autobiography, Signor Antonio Blitz described starting out his conjuring career in the 1820s in the English countryside, where he was harassed by Protestants who wanted to put him out of business and by peasants who wanted supernatural favors. He moved to Manhattan in the 1830s, and there he was celebrated for his ability to "please and astonish ... large and fashionable audiences."

Magicians were becoming urban entertainers. Through the next several decades, such modern magicians as Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin and Compars Herrmann refined their art for a developing bourgeois audience. The magician's perfect manners and sartorial elegance were only the most obvious tokens of his new respectability. In 1861, The New York Times, reviewing a performance by Herrmann, concluded that "conjuring has become one of the fine arts."

Yet the modern magician was not always easy to separate from the three-card monte man. Conjurers attempted to distinguish themselves from con artists by using their craft to expose criminals, especially cardsharps. Robert-Houdin inaugurated a genre with The Sharper Detected and Exposed (1863). Later magicians were less earnest. By the 1880s, Harry Kellar and Alex Herrmann were accosting strangers on the street, accusing them of thievery and producing pocket watches from behind their ears and potatoes from under their hats. This playful but aggressive performance, which sometimes targeted policemen, epitomized the artful deceiver's destabilizing impact on semiotic categories. But it also re-drew moral boundaries by demonstrating "what particular forms of deception were — and were not — morally tenable in the larger society" (just as gambling demonstrated the limits of legitimate risk). The cops may have been temporarily embarrassed, but they had the last word on which tricks were allowed.

Even perfectly legal tricks could have a destabilizing impact on the popular sense of reality. The trompe l'oeil paintings of William Harnett and his contemporaries set off a popular furor that did much to illuminate the new metaphysics of uncertainty. Walter Benjamin once remarked that the characteristic urban habit of the nineteenth century was "testing one's eyes" amid the constantly changing spectacle of the crowd; and the response to trompe l'oeil in the United States in the nineteenth century underscored the centrality of visual tests as mass entertainment. Harnett's clever illusions (pistols, banknotes, fresh-killed hares) provoked a recurring pattern of audience reaction: "confusion, adaptation, and mastery." But the sense of mastery was tenuous and ephemeral at best. "In the dizzying world of the modern metropolis," Cook writes, "perceptual certainty itself was an illusion."

Trompe l'oeil painting produced effects similar to those of that other nineteenthcentury spectacle, the cyclorama (which aimed to dramatize epic events on a vast scale). Both apparently induced a kind of vertigo among audiences. In the 1880s, a cyclorama depicting the battle of Gettysburg left the spectator "dazed and helpless, feeling much like the little girl in Alice in Wonderland when told that she was but a thing in the dream of the sleeping King." Harnett, John Haberle, and other illusionists showed their work in non-academic venues: bars, stores, industrial expositions. Like Barnum, they engaged the public — especially men — in perceptual competition.

As artisanal skills became less important in the industrial workplace, manliness began to require demonstrations of knowingness in leisure realms. Illusionist tricks gave men the opportunity to see through deception, to resist charging at the canvases (as greenhorns unused to trompe l'oeil sometimes did), to cultivate a blasé attitude toward the source of mass perceptual confusion — the hyper-reality of the painting itself. But the sense of mastery was always fleeting, subject to further testing. What remained most constant was a pervasive atmosphere of uncertainty.

The persistence of epistemological confusion among the audience was a version of the broader revolt against positivism that was beginning to stir among artists and intellectuals, even as Harnett's paintings were creating near-riots among frustrated, baffled audiences. Ironically and perhaps unintentionally, trompe l'oeil illusionism raised the specter of the subjectivity of sight as surely as Impressionism did. Both styles were part of the same seismic shift: the emergence of "a new, post-Enlightenment conception of vision, understood as prone to error and often in need of correction through other sensory mechanisms — in short, a subjective vision," as Cook writes. Artful deceptions escaped their creators' control. Their influence seeped into the larger culture and undermined literal ideas of truth.

And so frivolous entertainments had long-term intellectual consequences. Against the rigidity of existing symbolic forms, Barnum and his contemporaries had posed the formlessness unleashed by the market — the shape-shifting arts of the commercial trickster. The effect was initially liberating but ultimately unsettling. Once the genie of formlessness was out of the bottle, popular notions of reality would never be the same. Delusions of technical mastery could not provide ontological coherence. Warhol and the World Wrestling Federation were awaiting their turn on stage.

We are left with a postmodern dilemma. The metaphysics of uncertainty were a salutary break from a positivist orthodoxy that had proven too brittle to contain the fluidity of actual experience — including religious experience. In the early days of the culture of uncertainty, epistemological doubt was a way of deepening an encounter with the world, not of evading one. But eventually, in our time, the situation flipped. As doubt settled into a default setting, reality became "reality." The metaphysics of uncertainty came to sanction a celebration of agreeably meaningless signifiers, shimmering in a postmodern void.

Neither the entertainment industry nor its professorial apologists seemed to realize what the earliest anti-positivists (and the older commercial tricksters) had known: that the refusal of rigid taxonomies did not imply a rejection of the real. William James, himself a pioneer in exploring the subjectivity of perception (but not at all the forefather of most of what passes for "pragmatism" today), put the matter succinctly: "what is real always pushes back." Not long ago, among the postmodern avant-garde, such a statement might have been dismissed as charmingly obsolete. Now nothing could seem more timely than its chillingly obvious truth.

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