Chapter Five: “Flesh”

Roach’s chapter on “flesh” begins with Westminster Abbey’s wax effigies.  Charisma and stigmata still emanate from the effigy of Charles II, “exuding the most intense of the contradictory qualities that reliably excite the fascination of It: vulnerability in strength, profanity in sanctity, and intimacy in public” (175).  Here “It” is framed into slightly more of a formula than in other sections (“reliably excite…”).  Later in the chapter, in contrast, Roach will invoke various chance elements in the formation of It, folding in the social dynamics and circumstances that combine unexpectedly to make “It” possible.   This chapter circles around the reproducibility of It, seen again through Pepys as a modern figure, a “self-fashioning parvenu,” who emulated his sovereign by having a cast of himself made up (175).     


A book that has been so passionately concerned with mimetic desire turns to “Pygmalionism, the affliction that makes creators fall in love with the images they themselves have forged” (176).  The success of “It” is “charmed exponentially by the number of its copies” (177). Performers and agents are beginning to do in the eighteenth-century what will become commonplace in our time–Roach uses language like “pioneering” or “presaging” modern experience.


(In a fascinating moment, Roach refers to the “wormhole” in Pepys diary that “opens up uncannily in the 1660s and drops the reader off, as Elinor Glyn rightly intuited, at the movies in the 1920s” (176).  I liked and was heartily dazzled by “wormholes” here . . . any thoughts on this?)


But I digress!  The It effect depends on another strong juxtaposition, quite a fleshly one.  The sacred icon is “fashioned from the detritus of the quotidian, the abject, and the profane” (180).  Thus the Pygmalion story possesses a deep-seated ambivalence, very much at work in Cinderella/ Galatea/ Eliza’s ascent from utensil to ornament.   Roach is also careful to stress that “charisma is an expression of shared needs . . . neither always reducible to, not ever separable from, the real or imaginary flesh of the prodigy” (187).   


So how much of the It effect is created by being in the right place at the right time?  As Roach notes, “there must be social as well as individual chemistry here, a volatile mixture of common needs catalyzed by special opportunities” (184).  More than just the It person is in play, especially to create “It-Zones” like Covent Garden, or Hollywood–both the “worshipped and the sacrificed” are necessary.  Roach’s reading of Pygmalion, which which he ends the chapter, is quite wonderful, and sheds much light on the wider meanings of performance: “By turning untutored vitality into refined inutility before our very eyes, the action of Pygmalion recapitulates the transformative act of performance itself.  As synthetic experience, performance furnishes forth the products that imagination wrests from the raw material of inchoate possibility’ (192).  There, in a nutshell, is one of the great concerns of the book. This chapter shows the dual nature of fleshly transformation, the combination of charisma and stigmata that marks the modern attainment of the It effect.


Above all, this chapter impressed me with its remarks about the selective nature of It (“while many are called, few are chosen,” 183).  Roach lauds the efforts of performance historians to look at a wider group of performers and those who made performances possible in a variety of venues, hitherto unnoticed and unsung–but poignantly acknowledges that the It effect tends to dominate even the most historically attuned academic studies of performance.

7 responses to “Chapter Five: “Flesh”

  1. Anna Battigelli

    Hi Carrie,

    Nice overview of a dense and wide-ranging chapter. Your focus on Roach’s claim that “performance furnishes forth the products that imagination wrests from the raw material of inchoate possibility” seems key to understanding this chapter. His next two sentences are also helpful:

    “That is why the word ‘performance’ has proven so powerfully descriptive of such a variety of practices, from dancing to cooking, any one of which will consist of a set of conscious adjustments called ‘art’ in a preexisting structure of expectation to which experience gives the name of ‘life.’ The theater is central to the study of performance in this sense, but it does not by any means stand alone or even supreme in the capacious category of synthetic experience” (192).

    I’m wondering whether it is possible to clarify further what what we mean (and each post has touched on this directly or indirectly) when we describe Roach as a theorist of “performance.”

  2. There’s a lot to discuss in this post and this chapter, but I’d like to focus for now on JR’s use of “performance.”

    At the very least, his pressure on the term “performance” takes us beyond the written word and a fairly discrete set of meanings, and into the realm of practices, social contexts, and the kinds of inflections and gestures made meaningful by an audience and a concrete site of enunciation.

    So perhaps the theater becomes a trope for this kind of “synthetic experience,” which is in some irreducibly collective. Does that sound plausible?


  3. Anna and Dave,
    I agree with both of you that Roach’s model of performance goes far beyond theater performance into wider collective expectations. I think his use of ‘expectations’ in the sentence Anna quoted is important, as is the idea of synthetic experience in Dave’s posting. Some performances suddenly (or not so suddenly) are culturally intelligible to onlookers and participants in the culture.

    I don’t think it’s accidental that Roach cites Malcolm Gladwell’s _The Tipping Point_ in the book (referring to it, rightly enough I suppose, as a work of “pop” theory)–since Gladwell’s book for me seems to hover in the background of Roach’s book. _The Tipping Point_ explores what makes certain things catch on…what brings back old habits (Gladwell is interested, for example, why hush puppies became hip again in the 1990s and finds the origin of their rebirth among Manhattan hipsters and vanguardists).

    I mean, hush puppies? I don’t think so! But Gladwell is right: ideas move through epidemic change–and some cultural performances just seem to catch on, whether through charismatic individuals or a great word of mouth network.

  4. Another thing that interested me…although Roach quotes antitheatrical thinkers like Jeremy Collier, the book is not that interested in exploring the “anti-It” factor…those who hate It, or who fear It, or just feel sort of snobbish about It. The book seems to imply that, well, nothing can stop It in its charismatic/ stigmatic path…(I mean, someone like Eliza doesn’t have anywhere to go after her ascendency, and many an It girl meets a sticky end, but that does not mean that their It hasn’t made an impact).

    Yet I know people–and I am not one of them–who are left cold by It (I know people who said they had never cared about Diana the Princess of Wales in life, and why would they pay a smidgen of attention to her death? What to do with them? ).

    There has to be a real cultural agreement to make It happen, and at times readers/ viewers participants will simply . . . walk away from It. Does It still exist then?

  5. I looked again at the picture of Thatcher’s helmut hair, and was sore afraid.

  6. As I understand it, the It-effect takes place in a sea of indifference, so that it is always on the verge of breaking down and allowing the crowd to disperse. This is one of the chief ways that former celebrities become contemptible over time, when they can no longer command our attention. There are plenty of “silver spoon” novels of manners from the turn of the century that document this for Beau Brummel, for example.

    But I think attention rather than agreement (this is Michael Warner’s distinction, from Publics and Counter-publics) is what characterizes this kind of crowd psychology.


  7. Anna Battigelli

    Perhaps another way of thinking of Roach’s approach to performance is that it renders dynamic older “spirit of the age” theories by developing what would once have been called a poetics of performance. His use of rhetorical tropes helps him here to read “culture” and “history” as if they were texts. Whatever criticisms one might have of the book, it provides a useful critique of what we take for granted as “history” or “the past.”