Introduction to *It*


                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


17 responses to “Introduction to *It*

  1. I was very interested in your remarks about methodology, Laura, and the ways in which Roach builds on & differs from new historicism. I appreciated your comments about the Enlightenment & the “deep eighteenth-century”–lots to discuss there in the coming days!

    Roach has a great ability to allow “open questions” about “It” to remain both unsolved and productively tense. A good example of this appears on pgs. 8-9:

    “whether it is a God-given gift to the fortunate few or the hardscrabble self-selection of the fiercely driven is yet another mystery that makes It fascinating. Like perfect pitch, which some have and most don’t, It makes certain people interesting all the time; others require a lucky break or a lurid calamity–the fortuitous convergence of personality and extraordinary circumstances or efforts– to activate the fickle prurience of the public.”

    It’s clearly impossible to ascribe the presence of “It” to any one set of circumstances (such as “hardscrabble self-selection” or a “God-given gift”)–Roach keeps us hanging between the two.

    Does Roach’s own critical method owe something to the “precarious balance between such mutually exclusive alternatives” that he talks about on pg. 8 as a prevailing characteristic of the possessor of It?

  2. I was also taken, Laura, by your remarks about the Stuarts vs. the Hanoverians…”the particular combination of allure, eros, privilege, authority, and spectacular loss that the Stuarts represent created the perfect storm for the generation of “It.””

    …that’s a great insight.

  3. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Carrie,

    This is an interesting question:

    “Does Roach’s own critical method owe something to the “precarious balance between such mutually exclusive alternatives” that he talks about on pg. 8 as a prevailing characteristic of the possessor of It?”

    Certainly It seems to be able to go either way. Clearly much effort goes into the attempt to engineer It. By utter coicidence I heard a story on NPR last week about a researcher who argued that while perfect pitch is very rare in the West, it is far more common in China, a fact that she attributed to everyone growing up with a tonal language. Do some people grow up in It-rich environments?

    I know that doesn’t really answer your questions, except maybe that while we know how much work goes into cultivating It, there seem to be some other, uncontrollable factors at play. To analyze the engineering of It would perhaps be another kind of project. We see this conflict as well in the /Pygmalian/ chapter: is it a narrative of cultivation or discovery?

  4. Hi Laura,

    Nice post. What struck me immediately as I was reading Roach’s book was the torque and paradox he introduced into his notions of periodization: if the “long eighteenth” is extended not merely across the globe, but across centuries, then how do we even begin to demarcate an individual “century”?

    The answer seems to be that the “deep eighteenth” is not a chronological concept at all, but a convenient name we give to an ensemble of texts and events that resonate together, even as they are replayed over and over, like the mingled eros and loss of “the Stuarts.”

    I’m intrigued by this, because of the way that he plays with periodization and recurrence, but I do wonder whether the stakes of this kind of analysis are more cultural (power of theater) rather than political (theater of power).

    No objections, there, but only to register the fact that notions like re-enchantment and mystification also have a live, and not just residual, political dimension. This is Weber’s focus, I think in his treatment of “charisma,” which JR flirts with but also seems to abandon, and which you note in both the Elizabethan and Potomac primary examples.


  5. Laura, Regarding the cultivation vs. discovery question…while I was reading the book, esp. the Pygmalion section, I began to think…yes…this is really a narrative about class ascendency, the hunger of the “hardscrabble” individual for this glamorous thing called “It”–but that is only one piece of the puzzle. The material about Charles II shows that he was quite adept at learning how to disseminate his image using very new star systems.

    The example of tonal languages and perfect pitch is fascinating!

  6. I think we’ll really get to the theater of power vs. power of theater question when we have a chance to talk about Margaret Thatcher’s “helmut hair”

    A moment I eagerly await.

  7. Laura Rosenthal

    Yes, I agree that the ‘deep eighteenth century’ is not chronological; it’s not about change over time but about the ways in which the 18th century is not over. Clearly there must be a reason why certain texts (like The Beggar’s Opera) and figures (like the pirate) continue to resonate. There is a sense in which this in itself is political, even though the book does not much explore political It-people (although there is some of this as Carrie points out) on the modern end of things. We might even say that the deep 18thc is anti-chronological, in that certain modes, figures, and structures that were established in that period continue to have force and maybe certain of them haven’t changed that much. But if it’s ‘deep,’ then couldn’t the period simply continue to demarcated chronologically (1660-1820, or whatever) and still be folded forward as well? I’m not sure this strategy challenges periodization so much as a Whig version of history (or any narrative of how far we have come or fallen, for that matter).

    I hope more people have things to say about the stakes of the analysis, which another interesting question that you are raising, David.

  8. Laura, terrific post. The question Dave poses about what is at stake in a more cultural rather than political analysis strikes me too as particularly relevant to the endless debates in our discipline about the merits versus the pitfalls of interdisciplinary research. It’s liberating in many ways to have a phrase like “the deep eighteenth century” because it can serve as such a lovely justification for tracing everything back to the eighteenth century and seeing the eighteenth century in everything around us. This is something that I admittedly do anyway, but I wonder as you and Dave have about what gets lost in this mode of thinking. How can the idea of difference make its way into the discussion of who has “it” and who doesn’t. I’m thinking of the difference between the Sarah Siddons “it” factor and Clara Bow’s allure — what makes them both “it” girls in different ways at different moments in time? And who is the primary/idealized spectator here? I agree with Carrie that Roach has “a great ability to allow “open questions” about “It” to remain both unsolved and productively tense.”

  9. Laura Rosenthal

    Thanks for your comments.
    I’m not sure I’m so much worried about things getting lost as I am focused on getting to the “stakes”, as Dave puts it. It seems to me that the stakes here are in the persistence and repetition and not in the difference, which distinguishes Roach’s strategy from other kinds of arguments.

    Maybe instead what Roach’s book suggests is that we might also think about what gets lost in classic change over time narratives –which to me anyway is not to suggest that we give these up, but it worth think about what *they* don’t do.

  10. Yes, absolutely. It seems to me that Roach is suggesting that effective narratives of celebrity are about the persistence and repetition of cultural fantasies that remain consistent over time.

  11. One way to think about this book is to say that it summons up a number of conventional Enlightenment narratives of demystification with its fascinating, indefinable notion of “It,” while dismissing these narratives as too reductive.

    These demystifying narratives/concepts might include: Charisma (Weber), the fetish (Freudian depth psychology-feminism-Marxism), ideology-critique (ditto). This, to me, is where the book’s tensions with Enlightenment thought really reside.

    The issues of surface and depth are equally fraught, however, because the book seems very concerned with the materiality of these tokens of the “deep eighteenth,”–the wigs and other matter that get invested with such significance, because of their connection with the now-absent possessors of “It.”

    What I would say is that there seems to be a very different use of “theory” here than what I have found in more conventional New Historicist treatments of the past, with JR’s objects functioning very differently from the largely textual, archival “illustrations” I’ve seen in Montrose etc. The material, non-textual dimension to these discussions is the most striking thing about the book, in my opinion. Do others agree?


  12. Laura Rosenthal

    I think /It/ shares with classic New Historicism a fascination with the theatricality of the monarchy. Interesting, though, this particular kind of New Historicism was never really able to imported into 18th-c studies (but correct me if you can think of a good counter-example) and I think /It/ suggests why–ie, that the dynamic changed so profoundly. Thus the comparison to Montrose for me was a way to ask, why does /It/ start with Charles II? I am, BTW, entirely persuaded that this is the right place to start; like Laura E. I tend to see the long 18th century all over the place as well.

    But yes, you’re right Dave that there are huge differences as well: New Historicists for the most part at some points turned to a ‘literary’ text. Although there is some of this in /It/, you’re right that the focus is different. I wouldn’t sayI found this to be the *most* striking thing. I found the most striking thing to be the excavation of the 18th c past from the present in which it is embedded. I’m not saying that everyone should do this, but I thought it was great.

    I like your observation too about the tension between depth and surfaces. The deep 18th century manifests itself through a series of surfaces.

  13. Hi Carrie,

    One of the questions your post raises is about causality: what exactly is causing what in this analysis. What is cause and what is effect? Much of this part of the argument seems tacit to me, though I think some version of Freudian “overdetermination” seems to be at work here.

    While I talk about these submerged elements to the theory in this book, though, I wonder whether I am missing the point of this kind of theory: that instead of saying “I will now use X,” JR just does it.

    But yes, the Pygmalion passage seemed like a really remarkable way to move into the rest of his argument. One of my favorite episodes so far.


  14. Hi everyone,

    I’m going to talk a bit about method in my assigned chapter tomorrow (Clothes), but I think that methodology is a key facet of Roach’s book. In fact, how does the model of the deep 18th century open up new modes of inquiry? And what–if you’ll excuse the unintentional pun–depth of knowledge does this approach require to do it well?

    Along with earlier respondents, I see the 18th century all over our own and this intellectual sensibility clearly informs my own research. But– and this is a bit of a different, though related concern–I find that pedagogically (in the classroom, reading Haywood last Thursday, for instance) I let the students’ recourse to analogy to ‘today’ bubble up only briefly. While the comparisons can help them to get going on the work of interpretation, analogical thinking among the undergrads can actually be an end-point and so often seems to miss the aesthetic and historical differences that make reading 18th-c literature significant to me. (I’ve banned the phrase “back then” for this semester, by the way!)

  15. Laura Rosenthal

    Yes, students can either err on one side by seeing the 18th century as so alien that it has nothing to do with the present (which most commonly comes up, I find, around gender issues) or they can entirely collapse the differences (hey, Boswell is just like me!). Each requires a different kind of work, sometimes at the same time.

  16. Historical analogies work best as a way to get them to work from the familiar to the unfamiliar. As Tita notes, they can be an end-point, but the instructor’s follow-up becomes really crucial: so how could you learn more about this? Students, I’m finding this term, are really dependent on teachers, anthologies, etc. for their meta-narratives, but a successful student can begin to learn more by investigating within and around the terms and narratives provided by the instructor.


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