Daily Archives: February 13, 2008

Introduction to *It*

it.jpg 

                In its contemporary meaning, “It,” Joseph Roach explains, was “coined in 1927 by a British expatriate, romance-author, and Hollywood tastemaker Elinor Glyn (1864-1943)” to describe the unusual allure of certain people. Glyn herself had “a quirky interest in animal magnetism.”  For Roach, though, Glyn was not the inventor of “It” but a pivotal figure who reveals “It’s” transatlantic migration.  In Roach’s study, Glyn also serves as a synecdoche for a larger phenomenon of cultural transmission, providing a bridge between eighteenth-century theatricality and early twentieth-century Hollywood. A “Tory radical” with a fascination for the Stuarts, Glyn helped shape early Hollywood sensibilities. She fashioned Clara Bow as the “It Girl”—both a new phenomenon and an echo of a particular charisma/ stigmata born in London, 1660.  Roach’s study is not, however, a history of “It”; instead, the book explores the ways in which the Restoration ushered in this charisma/stigmata mode as part of the theater’s new claims to some of the traditional power of religion and royalty.  As I read it, Roach’s argument suggests that with the waning of the traditional powers of divine right from the monarchy unleashed the possibility of another related of force—“It.” Thus, as the cover of the book suggests, the figures of Charles II and Clara Bow parallel each other in their combination of residual aristocratic magic, theatricality, erotic allure, earthiness, and vulnerability.

            This argument seems to me to both draw on and differ from classic new historicism. In one of the originary new historicist essays, Louis Montrose argued that Queen Elizabeth, faced with the challenge of ruling as a woman, harnessed her erotic power as a political strategy, the success of which was evidenced by the pleasant dreams of Simon Forman and explored in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Similarly, one might say that Charles II cultivated his apparently copious erotic appeal as part of his monarchical strategy.  Yet at the same time, royal seduction after the beheading of Charles I became an entirely different matter.  Charles II’s performance of kingship came to share quite a bit more with the actor Thomas Betterton’s performance of kingship than Elizabeth’s ever did with the boy who played Titania.

            This brings us to perhaps the largest claim of the book: what Roach calls the “deep 18th-century century,” adding a third dimension to our current confidence that our period’s length and width. The significance of “It” in modern culture might be taken to be one example of many ways in which the eighteenth century has not ended.

            How, then, does the naming of the “deep” eighteenth century differ from what many in the field have been claiming for a long time—i.e., the invention of modernity, for better (Sprat, Habermas) or worse (Swift, Horkheimer and Adorno)?  One difference lies in what exactly the period has left us.  It does not characterize the eighteenth century as having bequeathed Enlightenment reason, Richardsonian sentiment, or even Gothic uncanny.  Alternatively, (although not necessarily to the exclusion of these other legacies) the century gives us “public intimacy,” a mode that depends on print culture and a public sphere (which is another way in which Roach’s argument about Charles II necessarily differs from Montrose’s classic argument about Elizabeth.)  The Renaissance certainly had theater, but not anything like the reproduction of images in a commercial public sphere we see in the 1700’s. 

Roach’s method also distinguishes this study from previous claims about the Enlightenment. There is little discussion of how public intimacy may have changed since the eighteenth century; little discussion of the difference between Clara Bow and Charles II. Thus, this is not a progressive narrative of change over time, but instead a sort excavation that begins in the near-present with the pivotal figure of Glynn, tracing cultural movement through Glynn’s apparent idiosyncrasies that turn out not to be idiosyncratic at all. We all, in Roach’s argument, participate in the production of “It”: “Like the mythical figure of Pygmalion, who modeled an image with which he promptly fell in love, the consumer of celebrity icons does the work of creating the effigy in the physical absence of the beloved.”

Casting my vote yesterday in the “Potomac Primary” (yes, for the one who has “It”), I wondered exactly what kind of power “It” possesses.  Roach convincingly suggests that having “It” can bring considerable pain along with privilege to the bearer, who can become the target of malice. (I’ll leave the Brittany Spears analysis to others.)  Yet doesn’t the migration of “It” from Charles II to Clara Bow suggest a different kind of power as well?  The politics of celebrity have attracted much attention in cultural studies, and certainly the power of the media to shape the lives of women in particular has been the object of considerable attention in feminism.  If “It-” girls and boys can’t necessarily wield their it-power to their advantage, who benefits from “It”? What are “It’s” costs and who pays them?

My provisional answer to this question is that Roach’s study excavates the power of theater rather than a theater of power.  It is not a cost-benefit analysis (although this doesn’t mean that we can’t go on to ask those questions, I think).  There is even perhaps a hint of weariness with this critical strategy, one I have seen in other quarters as well.  Theater, including contemporary media images, operates in part through fraught memories of both allure and loss.  I think it is important that Glyn’s attraction was to not just any royal family, but to the Stuarts; to the “losers of history” (to borrow Luke Gibbons’ phrase).  Thus the political and ideological force of our world of mediated “It,” which has attracted considerable analysis, is not really under scrutiny here, but rather (I think) a very particular kind of royal echo that lends considerable force to the world of images.  The story of the Stuarts has long been one of exile and loss, of a “charisma and stigmata” as Roach puts it, that has little to do with the Georges.  Or another way to put it might be that the particular combination of allure, eros, privilege, authority, and spectacular loss that the Stuarts represent created the perfect storm for the generation of “It.”  In Roach’s formulation, “It” depends on a certain undermining of royal authority and thus could not have existed in quite the same way before Charles II.

Roach’s study, then, offers a powerful and uncommon strategy for identifying the importance of the eighteenth century, not so much as the origin of modernity, but as the beginning of a still-present mode of cultural organization, expression, and circulation.

Laura Rosenthal