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! 

 

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10 responses to “Laura Engel on “Accessories”

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    Laura,

    Your article sounds intriguing. Do you talk about the famous muff in *Tom Jones*? Is that at all related to the actress representations?

    Laura R.

  2. Hi Laura, the more I read, the more surprised I am that Roach prefers to keep the “It” quality as a kind of tacit fetishization, and without really falling into psychoanalytic language or analysis. Do you think it’s because he wants to keep these different discourses in play?

    I was also curious whether you thought JR’s analysis might be related to existing analyses of “camp” or “kitsch,” since I think a similar logic of idiosyncratic reduction and appropriation could be used to talk about the fascination of celebrity across gender or temporal boundaries (e.g., drag queens and their ambiguous “reproductions” of femininity).

    DM

  3. Laura, I do talk briefly about muffs in Tom Jones and in Clarissa, but the article deals mostly with portraits of actresses with muffs from the 1780’s and 90’s — Lawrence’s portrait of Eliza Farren (1790), Romney’s portrait of Mary Robinson (1781), Gainsborough’s portrait of Sarah Siddons (1785), Reynolds’ portrait of Mary Wells (1787). I also discuss satiric prints that appear in the late 1780’s of women engulfed by enormous muffs. What’s interesting to me about the connections between the earlier novels and the later images of actresses is that the dual function of the muff in the novels (as both a symbols desire and of potential danger) surfaces again in the variety of meanings associated with muffs in images of actresses. In the actresses’ portraits the association of the muff with a “real” figure rather than a fictionalized heroine is also an interesting shift.

    Dave, I am also very intrigued by the fact that Roach doesn’t use psychoanalytic language or theory in ways that seem obvious or overdone. I wonder if this is related to your question about Roach’s use of “theory” in general . The discourses are all at play, but they don’t take center stage to overshadow the visual and anecdotal narratives.

    I do think that JR’s analysis is related to analyses of “camp” and “kitsch” — must think more about this!

  4. Dave, although there are certainly similarities in the logic of idiosyncratic appropriation and reproduction in analysis of camp and Kitsch and JR’s approach — the self-conscious performative or “putting on” of feminine identities of drag queens seems different than the effortless charismatic quality of the “it” factor — particularly for women. Female celebrity — at least iconic female celebrity as opposed to notorious female celebrity — still relies on notions/fantasies of authenticity and naturalness to be effective — yet another thing that can be traced back to the eighteenth century.

  5. Laura Rosenthal

    Re the Enlightenment (as we were discussing earlier) finds some elaboration in this chapter as well: Bagehot, Roach argues, “cynically anatomizes the irrationality of the political structures of the world into which Glyn and her generation were born” and later:

    “One effect of looking at religious faith in Bagehot’s sociopolitical way is to imagine a historic move directly from theocratic to theatrocratic rule. It is also to set aside, at least provisionally, the prevailing tendency of the human sciences to see ‘rationality’ and ‘rational choice’ everywhere in the emergence of modern democratic societies” (58-59).

    Or as Bagehot himself bluntly puts it: “as long as the human heart is strong and the human reason weak, royalty will be strong because it appeals to diffused feeling, and Republics weak because they appeal to the understanding.”

    Thus, /It/ is in part the story of how the divine power of monarchy moves forward in time and across the Atlantic to continue to work its magic in the form of theatrocratic rule.

  6. Anna Battigelli

    Roach’s claim that celebrities themselves become accessories particularly ingrigued me, in part because his use of the term “accessory” is in this chapter is always in “poignant antiphony” (Roach’s terms) with its twin, “icon.” The commercially produced and status-signifying “accessory” seems to have replaced the “icon,” redirecting the icon’s forceful invitation to leave the self into equally forceful self-absorption. The portrait of Elizabeth Pepys as St. Catherine is interesting in this respect.

  7. Hi Laura E.,

    A thought about the ideologies of gender and sexuality, which don’t emerge as a topic of consideration so much in /It/, except, I would say, in a line that continues to linger in my mind from the Accessories chapter concerning Clara Bow: “as a producer said of her not long before her contract-ending nervous breakdown, ‘she had a way of being crazy that photographs pretty well'” (78).

  8. Laura,

    JR’s use of Bagehot (with its implicit allusions to Burke and I assume Marie Antoinette) makes it clear that he’s offering some version of a secularization narrative, whereby a sacralized monarchy gets displaced by a theatricalized pseudo-monarchy.

    And the mechanism seems to be this strange realm of public intimacy, wherein individuals like Pepys and his long-suffering wife get to participate in the ever-widening circulation of images. So this is very much about the democratization of certain fantasies of royal power and eros.

    But I wonder whether JR is interested in power, particularly royal power, as anything other than image and circulation. This is the question raised by the “little, little coffin” of Victoria recalled by Glynn, an image of world-wide empire in the form of “feminine frailty” and “glorious romance.” (81)

    DM

  9. Laura Rosenthal

    Dave,
    Those are great points.
    Re power: my partial answer to that is that It depends specifically on a diminished monarchy. Perhaps also it is an analysis of the *kind* of power on which modernity operates.
    Laura R.
    PS thanks for Marge!

  10. Tita,

    That is a really great quote! I keep returning to Roach citing Kipling in the introduction “Tisn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It’s just It. Some women’ll stay in a man’s memory if they once walk down a street” (6). It does seem that “a man’s memory” (Pepys diary in particular in the accessories chapter) serves as the basis of much of the cultural evidence for the expression, effects, and transmission of the “it factor.”