Between the 1400 and 1500 blocks of St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans runs a single street that has two different names, depending on which side of the avenue one is. Running towards the lake and tracking into some of the most dangerous parts of the city is Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Running towards the river and tracking into one of the many wealthy and predominantly white blocks of the Garden District is Melpomene Street (the tragic muse and central figure of this chapter). The sign announcing this provocative intersection of black and white, modern and ancient, history and myth, would serve as an excellent visualization of the claims put forward in Joseph Roach’s “Skin” (Chapter 4, It). Like Reynolds’ portrait of Siddons as the tragic muse (1784, p. 152), Melpomene Avenue betokens a Classical past, but here it is transformed to suit American circumstance, taste, and history, where wrought-iron lattice work besmeared by time and consequently evocative of a dignified antiquity plays on the same psychic keys as finely shaped marble sculpture (such as the Apollo Belvedere) did for eighteenth-century English cultural consumers. In virtue of its proximity to a tragic American figure whose death itself serves as a kind of figure for the neighborhood his boulevard at times traverses, the situational irony of Melpomene Avenue’s architecture and cultural resonance is all the more palpable after a reading of Roach’s chapter, wherein the whiteness of tragedy is seen as less white than it is lustrous, antique, and suffused with heritage. Siddons’ skin, Roach argues, traded in the visual intersection of tragedy and tradition, and in so doing became the “It-girl” of her own time.
Ranging from patina, or, the accreted sense of historical weight and significance on the most superficial visual element of celebrity identity (i.e. skin), to deep skin, or “a phenomenon [involving] the attribution of enormously important (and not infrequently tragic) consequences to differences that are in fact only skin deep,” to brand, in which the public image of the celebrity contains Whitmanesque multitudes (nobility/vulnerability, strength/tenderness, etc.), “Skin” offers the reader a series of ostensibly simple terms theoretically re-imagined for immediate and wide critical appropriation and consideration. One would expect an account of skin and “It” in the eighteenth century to turn on images of blackness, the link between blushing and sexual (im)purity, the threat of sullied skin to the socialite (smallpox, measles, etc.), or the wealth of literature and imagery of the female toilet and cosmetics, but Roach here approaches what is ultimately a racial problem by looking at the power of a particular kind of whiteness in popular culture.
One question that arises in this context concerns precisely the form of Roach’s primary object text in this chapter: Reynolds’ painting of Siddons. While the book is clearly not designed to provide the kind of ethnographic information we suppose to be relevant to the evaluation of such things as effervescence or even popularity, I do wonder what is at stake in defining “It” largely in terms of a painting whose visual consumption takes a decidedly more private form than, say, theatrical consumption. Roach asserts that actresses such as Anne Bracegirdle and Siddons set “the terms of the It-Effect, [partly] because their images began to circulate widely and hyperbolically in the absence of their persons” (149). Were their images circulated? In what forms? Do we have any accounts of reception? If they were circulated widely, in what sense was that circulation hyperbolic? It is comparatively easy to follow Roach’s reading of Princess Diana, whose image was so heavily circulated that the market for her image was directly responsible for her death, but I would like know a bit more about Roach’s sense of his critical method, and particularly his criteria for evidence. This book seems at times to deliberately flout scholarly conventions, leaving me to wonder whether Roach would prefer that we cite his work or muse upon it.