- Big Glove:Televisual Dissociation and Embodied Performance
If every era gets, for better and worse, the television that it deserves, then the United States of 2011 deserved The United States of Tara (2009–11). With a title character, played by Toni Colette, who suffers from dissociative identity disorder and has (at least) six alters, the series began by using illness as metaphor to comment explicitly on the self-fragmenting challenges of “anyone’s” everyday life—a rather lame metaphor, as it happens, away from which the series moved in the service of a more literal and realistic (though still very far from verisimilar) exploration of dissociative identity disorder (DID).1 But in the process of foregrounding DID and, for a while, DID as metaphor, The United States of Tara also found itself unwittingly metaphorizing something far more interesting than the supposed typicality of experiencing the self as divided: the actual typicality with which television—and not just narrative television, or narrative television whose characters have alters—produces dissociative effects. Indeed, throughout its history but ever more so in the twenty-first century, television has been constantly dissociating its avatars (a term by which I mean here and throughout to designate the conjunction of actor and role), so that not just Toni Colette playing Tara (and her alters Alice, Buck, and so forth), but the majority of performers in television, appear on our screens with some perhaps initial semblance of singularity—only for the ongoing displays of those avatars to be anything but singular, coherent, or integrated.
To submit as much is to engage in a theoretical meditation on how actors (broadly construed) inhabit roles (likewise understood capaciously), a prominent concern of theater and performance studies—and thus to engage, also, in an ongoing project of colliding theater and performance studies with television studies in order to see where each discipline may disclose new dimensions to and in the other.2 Where the phenomenon of actorly embodiment is [End Page 91] concerned, scholars of theater and performance have had much more to say than media scholars, who have tended rather to focus on the related—but ultimately different—issue of stardom.3 In tandem, and over the past two decades, critics working in the field of performance studies have proposed a number of vital conceptual frameworks within which to consider the relationships among the actor’s body and role, performance genealogies and collective memories, and social networks and cultural capital.
Most prominent among these frameworks are those that articulate the terms and stakes of actorly surrogation, ghosting, and hosting, each of which phenomena can be profitably read across a variety of genres, media, histories, and spatialities. In a now oft-cited passage, Joseph Roach defines surrogation as the process through which “culture reproduces and re-creates itself” when subjects “attempt to fit satisfactory alternates” into key roles “as actual or perceived vacancies occur in the network of relations that constitutes the social fabric.”4 Building on Roach’s insights about surrogation, Marvin Carlson identifies the even more expansive mechanics of ghosting, which, in the theater, “presents the identical thing [the audience has] encountered before [such as the actor’s body], although now in a different context. Thus, a recognition not of similarity, as in genre, but of identity becomes part of the reception process.”5 In turn, Gay Gibson Cima moves away from the typically diachronic processes of both surrogation and ghosting to explore related synchronic manifestations of hybrid performance; in so doing, she nevertheless evokes, acoustically and orthographically, the word ghost as she develops the idea of the host body, her term for the “zone in between embodiment and abstraction, a bodily space within which [women critics may] safely speak or write, while protecting their material bodies and creating new hermeneutic pathways for perceiving those bodies.”6
Among these phenomena, ghosting comes most obviously into view when we turn our attention from theater to television—as if our attention were ever really or fully turned from television in the first place. After all, it is the performance of Cheers (1982–93) and Frasier (1993–2004) star Kelsey Grammer in a Broadway production of Macbeth (2000...