Category Archives: Social history

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.

Cultural Studies and the BABL

The 18th-century cultural studies panel from MLA provided an excellent discussion about the opportunities and limitations of cultural studies as pedagogy, especially in the undergraduate classroom, and has got me thinking about ways to solve, or at least massage, some of the problems discussed on the panel, using some of the resources that are cropping up for instructors as guides for my students. The main problem that emerged during the cultural studies panel and the ECCO panel that morning was the lack of a guide to navigate the wealth of contextualizing sources available to our students, many of whom lack the research experience and intuition necessary to decide what is relevant to the study of a historical text and what may not yield a fruitful contextualization.

One of the resources I’m excited to have accessed is the Broadview Anthology of British Literature’s Instructor’s Guide, which I contributed to last summer. I got a passcode for these materials at Broadview’s display at the convention, and am very pleased to see the materials assembled there, which I can see using quite actively in the classroom. The guides generally provide a series of critical approaches to the authors, a few thoughtful readings of their major works, some questions for discussion, some material on critical responses to the works, and often a nice section of texts that provide some cultural context for the work. Although not all of the authors are covered yet, the ones that are provide a sort of roadmap to criticism and historical sources for many of the authors and texts we teach at the undergraduate level.

Obviously, the guides provided by BABL are limited in that the historical sources they suggest are those chosen by whatever scholar wrote the draft of the guide, but they do offer, at least, positive suggestions (i.e., something like “Try looking here”) as opposed to the negative suggestions we often find ourselves making to undergraduate researchers (“No, that’s probably not going to be a good source; try again”). My own guide, on Swift, reflects my personal interests in popular print culture and political economies, and is therefore quite limited, beyond some suggestions about other topics to research. However, I hope it offers something like what I offer students in class who simply don’t know where to start—a suggestion of a few leads that have the potential to produce an exciting research project, leading to further research more specific to that student’s interests.

One of the most exciting things, pedagogically, for those of us who encourage historical research in literature classes, is that our students may find wonderful sources that we’ve never encountered before, and make excellent connections we haven’t thought of. Those who have a knack for sussing out sources and making interesting conclusions can respond to an open-ended research assignment with passionate inquiry. However, at the undergraduate level, these open-ended research assignments can result, as Dwight Codr suggested during the panel, in a kind of despair.

In my own historical-research wiki assignment, in which I offered 70 narrow topics for research to my students, the results were either inspiringly brilliant or depressingly nonexistent. Quite a few students chose to take a zero for the assignment rather than complete the work, and a great number did only cursory and often inappropriate research (citing other student-made websites rather than primary sources, etc.), despite a great deal of class-time devoted to discussion of how to find and use primary sources. I eventually had to make the assignment extra-credit, so as not to fail a third of each of my classes. I assumed at the time that the project itself was doomed, but now I wonder if the problem was that one must not just teach students to do primary source research; one must model it for them by guiding them to examples of appropriate sources first, not just topics and suggestions for where to look.

What I hope to use the BABL guide for next semester is to mine it for historical sources that I can assign directly to students who do not readily come up with sources of their own, and to assign them the contextualization work suggested by the guides and by my own previous reading experiences. Once they have followed a path that previous scholars have found fruitful, perhaps they can then be more attuned to the kinds of sources they might look for in future assignments. After all, most of us learned to do contextualizing research by reading professional historicist criticism, not by slogging blind through special collections or databases. We learn to do this work largely by example, not by trial and error.

The problem in the past, for me, has been that my reading of primary sources outside of literature has largely been in special collections that my students do not have access to, and little of it has been the kind of stuff that interests my students. While I’d love to get them all interested in the Gentleman’s Magazine or in Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England, I can’t necessarily expect them all to travel from their homes on Long Island to midtown Manhattan to spend four or five hours trying to decipher typefaces totally unfamiliar to them, and expect them to find something critically interesting and relevant to the class, and expect them to then draw knowledgeable and well-written conclusions about those sources that their classmates will then read and use. Out of the past 200 or so students I’ve urged to go use a special collection for their research, exactly one student actually did it, and she ended up citing almost nothing she read there.

Although the BABL guides don’t tend to reproduce entire sources, they do often provide a few pages of contextualizing sources, from which a student could at least get a hint of whether she wants to spend time looking further at that source or not. On a larger scale, one could imagine a resource like the BABL guides, except perhaps in a wiki form, with suggestions by scholars of possible contextualizing sources for major authors or genres and short excerpts, as well as lists of places to find these resources on the web, on EEBO or ECCO, or in special collections. This would take a great deal of time and energy on instructors’ and scholars’ parts, but, if Wikipedia has taught us anything, it’s that human beings are glad to expend energy in a collective way if there is the promise of an output greater than their individual input.

Do we think it’s possible for literary and cultural-studies scholars, a turf-warfare bunch if ever there was one, to cooperate in some kind of project like this? Would it be best to run it somewhat like Wikipedia, with mostly pseudonymous authorship and editing? Would it be a gigantic disaster?

-Carrie Shanafelt

Names and people in 18th-century sources (I)

In my working capacity as the Oracle of the OBP Online, I was recently asked a question that went something like this (details changed):

I’m confused by all these results. If Robert Scott was hanged in 1765, who are all these other Robert Scotts? And some of them are after 1765?!

This is at first glance a slightly daft question – well, obviously, they’re all different people but with the same name, aren’t they? (The qestion also contains a common misconception about the source, which I’ll come back to in a moment.) And yet, at the same time, it’s not really silly at all.

They might not all be different people. In our database of the names in the OBP there are 142 instances of the name ‘Robert Scott’ (including slight spelling variations). (Mind you, this is nothing compared to a name like John Smith, which occurs more than 4000 times.) How do you decide whether one Robert Scott is the same person as another Robert Scott, or someone else altogether?

And this is without even starting on the problem that a significant proportion of those appearing at the Old Bailey were known by more than one name, and some had a string of aliases and nicknames. Oh, and the reporters sometimes got people’s names – even those of defendants – just plain wrong.

In other words, identifying the relationship between names and people in early modern sources is often extremely tricky, and the question ‘who the hell are all these Robert Scotts?’ isn’t so daft after all. Which is just as well, really, because this is precisely the kind of problem that’ll be keeping me in work for the next couple of years.

This isn’t just of concern to family historians trying to work out whether someone is really their ancestor or not. Most historians have to make these linkages, ask these questions, at some time or another in the course of their research. Most of us do it on a small scale by hand; a more select group do it on the large scale with computers and algorithms. I’ll hopefully post about both of these later. But in both cases, the process relies on weighing up and ranking probabilities.

Sometimes the answer, either way, is so obvious that the question doesn’t even need to be consciously formed. But at the other end of the scale, there are times when it’s impossible ever to know because you simply don’t have enough information, especially if a name is very common and you have very little contextual information besides the name itself. And I’m sure other historians will have encountered those frustrating borderline cases: if those documents are all referring to the same person, you have a great story. But are you certain enough to rest a serious argument on that identification?

It’s true, for example, that death is a clincher: if you know this Robert Scott died in 1765, then he can’t be the same person as that Robert Scott mentioned in records as alive and well in 1775. (At the other end of the life-cycle, birth is equally conclusive, of course.)

But are you sure he died?

The OBP doesn’t in fact tell you that Robert was hanged (this is the misconception I mentioned above); like archival court records of the period, it normally records only the sentence that was passed. But many people sentenced to death in the 18th century were reprieved or pardoned. Unless you have corroborating evidence that the execution was carried out (and this does occasionally appear in OBP), you need to be cautious.

So a Robert Scott in the database after 1765 could be the same guy after all. Told you it was tricky.

(To be continued.)

A few links:

The linkage of historical records by man and computer (JSTOR subscription required)
A discourse on method, historical knowledge and information technology
Reconstructing historical communities
AHDS guide

(X-posted at EMN.)