Daily Archives: February 15, 2008

Laura Engel on “Accessories”

 

In the chapter “Accessories” Roach begins and ends his discussion with funerals and bodies “accessories after the fact.” He explores how the accessory functions as a nexus of meanings for the expression and impact of the “it-factor.” Juxtaposing subjects as diverse as English politics, actresses, Shakespeare, masturbation, portraiture, wax figures, and Hollywood, Roach brilliantly weaves together various narrative threads that support his claims about the “deep eighteenth century” and how its legacy still plays out in contemporary culture.

 

Roach is right that we are still obsessed with the absence and presence of celebrity bodies—their deaths, incarcerations, illnesses, pregnancies, and reincarnations, what he calls their “after-images” or how they appear and re-appear in our own dreams. (I’m thinking most recently of morbid photos of Heath Ledger’s body being wheeled out of his apartment building, the strange images of Brittany Spears in an ambulance on her way to a psychiatric ward, the haunting video of a deranged Anna Nicole Smith right before her death). We have evidence everywhere of how the “it-effect” operates and is magnified and manipulated by the contemporary media in order to create the illusion of knowledge or understanding – what Roach terms “public intimacy.” We want celebrities to be just like us and then again we don’t. We want to understand their bizarre and often destructive behavior, but we also want them to remain a mystery.

 

I’m really struck by Roach’s analysis of how accessories function as a bridge between the celebrity’s body and our own “synthetic experience” of the “it-factor.” Roach writes:

 

Beholding these elements synecdochically–seeing them as separate parts made tangibly available from abstracted and elusive wholes–ordinary people can experience a spurious but vivid intimacy with the public figures they represent…In fact, at the juncture of the It-effect and modern synthetic experience, celebrities themselves become accessories–useless for all practical purposes but symbolically crucial to the social self-conceptions of their contemporaries (55).

 

What interests me, in particular, is how ideologies about gender and sexuality operate within and around this process. In other words, what is at stake when the celebrity becomes an accessory? What gets lost or collapsed in this equation? And, are these different questions for actors and actresses? Does the “it-factor” have a variety of meanings that are specific to female bodies? Much of the chapter is about the female bodies that figure prominently in the erotic imaginings of Samuel Pepys, whose diary serves as a “glimpse into a private nodal point in the larger network of the It-effect (74).” Roach does point out that there is a distinction between this expression of the “it factor” and the loftier model of Sarah Siddons’ celebrity later in the century. Using the example of William Hazlitt, who found the portraits of the celebrated Windsor Beauties to be “painted and tawdry” but wrote rapturously about Siddons and the effects of her performances, Roach gestures towards the ways in which the “it factor” becomes more complicated as the possibilities for female celebrity and for fashioning female celebrity increase as the century progresses. The question of how female performers understood and actively participated in manipulating the narratives of their own “it-factors” is another side of the story that isn’t told here, but perhaps that is part of Roach’s larger point about the celebrity as accessory. We are more interested in how they affect us than in how they participated in shaping their own images.

 

Roach’s book and this chapter have been tremendously helpful to me in writing a piece on portraits of eighteenth-century actresses with muffs – an accessory that epitomizes the double edge of the it-factor – on the one hand a sign of glamour and status on the other of vulgarity and scandal. As Roach explains, “There is a kind of freakishness to having It; and despite the allure, a potential for monstrosity…Charles Addams capitalized on this disturbingly elastic sense of the word by naming a beguiling amorphous character ‘Cousin it’ (11).” Indeed “Cousin it” is in fact a walking muff, an ambiguously gendered mass of hair. It’s true the deep eighteenth century is everywhere!