Dwight Codr on ch. 4, Skin

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.

8 responses to “Dwight Codr on ch. 4, Skin

  1. Hi Dwight,

    I, too, think the question of evidence is a really interesting one for a project like this, which I’ve asserted is a kind of genealogy of reenchantment.

    I do think that this is supposed to have some kind of critical purchase on the material, but that critique may not focus on some now conventional categories of demystification–race, class, and gender–in short, the thematics of inequality and power. This is one of the reasons why I think this project resembles but does not quite fall in with cultural studies paradigms, though I’d love to hear others’ opinions about this.


  2. Laura Rosenthal

    Interesting question. While I’d say that most works in our field that we would call cultural studies focus on certain categories of demystification, there are examples of studies that don’t. Maybe David Porter’s book on Chinoiserie would fall into that category. Although, interestingly, I believe Porter explains in the introduction why he is not using post-colonial theory to address this topic, thus locating himself in relation to it (which we don’t see in Roach, unless if missed it) even though he does something else.

  3. Your Porter example suggests that Porter wanted to clarify the difference between his own analysis and a “post-colonial” approach. My suspicion is that both approaches require and use evidence, though the uses and types of evidence might differ. JR is attempting, I think, a project that synthesizes a number of approaches. But I think that the attitude toward mystification/demystification/remystification is fundamental to what he’s up to.


  4. Dear Readers,

    I tried to sort out my stand on Weberian demythification (Entzauberung) and Benjaminian “re-enchantment” in note intro 24, pp. 234-35 by positioning myself in relationship to Simon During’s book on secular magic. The idea is that celebrity in the deep eighteenth century takes over the forms and practices of religion, but uneasily: it is stigmata and charismata acting together like muscles in opposable pairs that unites the genealogy of the afterimages of Charles II, from the Westminster effigy to Captain Hook.

    Chapter Four (“Skin”) offers many examples and citations in answer to the questions, “Were their images circulated?” and “Do we have any accounts of reception?” (see Lamb and Flaxman, p. 148; the 500 plus paintings and prints in Kal Burnim’s iconography, cited p. 150; the probable influence of Reynolds imagery on Burke in Reflections, pp. 151-53 and note to Reid, “Burke’s Tragic Muse” no. 8, page 245; The Tragic Muse’s uncontestable influence on Hazlitt’s demonstrably hyperbolic hagiography, cited pp. 156-57; Siddons likely self-reference of the pose as Britannia in St. Paul’s Cathedral, p. 158; right down to Bette Davis stepping into the afterimage of The Tragic Muse at Laguna Beach! p. 169).

    But the key idea is that the celebrity “image” is an idea shared and proliferated in the minds of many people, not identical in any one of them, but available in some way to all of them: how else would the joke work for an overweight prostitute to style herself “Miss Sarah Siddons”? (pp. 164-65)

    I am ready to accept that the evidence I present may still fail convince my readers, but for one of them to say that I have flouted scholarly conventions by presenting none puzzles me.


  5. David Mazella

    Hi Joe,

    Thanks for making it back to our forum.

    I stressed the Weberean angle because I thought it was an important if subterranean thread throughout the entire book, and because your treatment of this issue seemed to depart drastically from some conventional demystifying strategies of 18c New Historicism or cultural studies.

    When I was drawing that contrast, I was thinking about a study like Bender’s Imagining the Penitentiary, where prisons and novels seem to share some common cultural logic that unfolds during the period. This book seems to work from different assumptions, and is organized in a very different fashion from a book like Bender’s, even if both studies stake their arguments around historical readings of 18c culture.

    So in IT we are talking about popular and/or degraded reworkings of high-cultural materials, but without the usual cultural studies imperative to find a “resistance” to forms of power and authority, or “agency” for those who consume such images.

    Your model of audience-members’ and IT-figures’ reciprocal surrender to each others’ influence, and the pleasures that this surrender entails, takes us away from that kind of politicized reading.

    What I found most interesting, however, was the genealogy that you assembled using Burke, Siddons, Bagehot, and many, many others, that amounted to an argument about the varied political uses of “reenchantment,” along with an awareness that enchantment could never be conjured away.


    Dave Mazella

    [updated and edited slightly to clarify the syntax]

  6. Dwight Codr

    Hi Joe,
    I think that you may have misread the tone of my remark, since I find myself quite convinced by this chapter. I guess that what I was driving at was a question about methodology, and my use of the word “flout” was intended to underscore the creativity of approach here, not to suggest a lack of scholarly rigor. I opened that paragraph with an observation about ethnography, which one might expect in an analysis of a phenomenon (It) that is so bound up with questions of reception in particular. I am not sure that I would want to read this data, but I was curious about the kind of decisions you had to make when approaching such a problem. This is all the more pressing in this chapter, I think, since while you unquestionably forge a bond between Siddons and Melpomene, I am still unsure how much skin in particular matters here to the individuals mentioned in your reply to my question. Lamb and Flaxman warrant the association of Siddons and Macbeth; Burke’s Marie Antoinette evokes the roles played by Siddons; the quotations from Hazlitt don’t seem especially concerned with Siddons’ paleness. In brief, while I fully appreciate the legacy of The Tragic Muse, I’d like to know how much you think this is a matter of skin per se. If patina is a trope that brings together the tragic and the classical in the figure of Siddons, then is it necessary for patina to necessarily involve skin? Clothes, for instance, also seem to act like patina; and, accessories, hair, and posture might bear on your reading as much as skin (in the case of Siddons, anyway). In other words, while patina seems to denote skin more than these other terms, its status as a trope in your reading seems to release us from this denotative restriction, right? I guess that I see the applicability of a concept like patina extending beyond skin to include the range of terms offered in your book.

    One other note. The passage you mention from Davies’ Miscellanies that discusses Siddons’ paleness breaking through her rouge reminds me of the discussion of contraposto from the Introduction, those “novelty-inducing asymmetries contained-resisted-by the performer even as they register in the mind of the spectator as a miracle of unstable but inevitable harmonies” (8). Would this “paleness-through-rouge” count as one of those asymmetries, or unstable harmonies? I can see the value of limiting the designations for the kind of productive tension you discuss were it not for the fact that the next paragraph in Davies notes that “an actor’s turning pale and red in the uttering of a single line” counts as a significant difficulty in the art of acting according to the “history of the French theatre” (3:56).

    Again, I sincerely hope that my reply was not taken as an offense. Thank you, in any case, for taking the time to reply to my query.

    Dwight Codr

  7. Oh, Dwight, alas–it was a late night after a long rehearsal for an undergraduate production of Godot, in which not even nothing happened. I think that the chapter’s best contemporary evidence for the skin-patina connection is Campbell’s invocation of Siddons-Apollo at the Louvre, but what I most wanted to put in play was the way in which black-white binaries from the deep eighteenth century keep showing up in modern iconographies–in Glyn’s weird identification of the beheading of Marie Antoinette with the threat of racialized violence, for instance, or in the black on white marble cameo of Diana on her tomb in the 18th century garden where she is buried. Thanks for the lovely reading of Melpomene/MLK boulevard, by the way–NOLA makes everything I keep trying to say more tangible.

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