Stunts of Late Nineteenth-Century New York: Aestheticized Precarity, Endangered Liveness

Kirstin Smith

Research output: Book/ReportBook


In New York at the turn of the twentieth century, ‘stunt’ emerged as a slang term for performance, referring not primarily to theatre or film, but to acts in public life. Aestheticized Precarity, Endangered Liveness analyses stunts in sport, media and politics, demonstrating how these risky performances tapped into anxieties and fantasies concerning work, autonomy, gendered/raced/classed bodies, and the commodification of human life and death. Investigating bridge jumping, extreme walking contests, stunt journalism, and cycling feats,

This book argues that stunts aestheticized precarity, thereby making it spectacularly visible. A means of self-actualization in hyper-exploitative entertainment industries, stunts deployed entrepreneurial personas and nostalgic fantasies of self-reliance, a form of surrogation which at times enacted modern, industrialised sacrifice. Often produced for the purpose of reproduction in recorded media, stunts displaced potential for an intimate encounter with a mediatising imperative, which threatened not only liveness but also aliveness, through the extreme precarity that performers experienced. Bodies became ambulant media space, and in some instances even death was turned into a form of media. Though highly exploitative, stunts also experimented with novel forms of work, value-creation and identity commodification, making them ambivalent spectacles with unwieldy political potential.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages222
ISBN (Electronic)9780429031007
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2019


  • stunts
  • spectacle
  • precarity
  • liveness
  • risk
  • performance
  • identity
  • nineteenth century

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