Abstract: Posture-Master Project

The early eighteenth-century entertainment economy can be characterized by its variety and its modernity. The participatory spaces of entertainment were newly shaped by public debate and the world of print; in this brave new world of print and plenty, the mass audience begins to take shape. One component of this modern entertainment economy that has received little attention is the posture master—or, in contemporary parlance, the contortionist. His highly embodied entertainments, which strip away prop, sound, costume, and plot, became in the early eighteenth century markedly consistent features in the advertising pages of The Daily Courant, The Daily Post, and other popular urban newspapers. The posture-master’s existence is especially interesting in light of his increasing visibility during a period that saw the consolidation of advertising as both a site of publicity and a marker of the limits of the emergent rationalism associated with the newspaper. Posture-masters, with their tricksy facility at reshaping and deforming the human body, seem to offer a ready-made analog to the popular image of the modern audience in need of education—indeed, one reason we no longer see the posture-master is because such embodiment has been rendered illegible in the textual residue of history. Four of the most famous posture-masters of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—Joseph Clarke, Mr. Higgins, John Riner, and William Phillips—gained renown through their marvelous bodily manipulations; though there is little archival evidence of such performers or performances in the first person, a surprising quantity of information from newspapers helps us re-situate them in a larger historical context, even perhaps reclaim their perversion from the normativizing stories and practices of critical debate. While one might expect posture-masters to play, at best, marginal roles in the eighteenth-century entertainment economy, they in fact speak very much to the consolidation of the modern cultural landscape in which “entertainment” as a category is becoming a viable, and even threateningly dominant, mode of consumption.

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