by Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007
370 pp. illus. 73 b/w. Trade, $40
Reviewed by Dene Grigar
Digital Technology and Culture
Washington State University Vancouver
Think of aphorisms involving skin. "Beauty
is only skin deep" suggests the difference
between the superficial and the genuine,
with the word "only" hinting at skins
lack of importance in the measurement
of ones true value. "Thinned-skin"
hints to a failing of character. "No skin
off my nose" is a flippant response signifying
we do not care what another says or does.
"Give me some skin" reduces intimacy of
a physical connection to the imperious
slapping of anothers flesh. So pervasive
is skin as a "significant border," a "boundary
between ones self and the surrounding
. . . world" that Mary Flanagan and Austin
Booth have devoted a whole book "on the
contentious situation" of it (1).
And true to their promise Re:Skin
is a very compelling book that explores
skin in a variety of genres, from numerous
perspectives, penned by a wide range of
scholars and artists. As the editors point
out, the Re:Skin "is a complex
understanding of the ways in which difference,
especially gender difference and bodily
difference, is marked and constituted"
(5). It will be hard for anyone looking
at the images or reading the various works
of fiction, nonfiction, and scholarship
to remain unconvinced. Flanagan and Booth
make their point well, organizing works
into three sections: "Inside, Outside,
Surface," "Transgression," and "Mapping
the Visual and the Virtual."
The first piece, for example, L. Timmel
Duchamps "The Man Who Plugged In,"
the story about a male robotic expert
who, borrowing his wifes womb, makes
history by carrying a fetus (not ironically
a son) to gestation, opens the book with
a discussion about the intervention of
technology and 20th century
medical practice into the traditional
female purview of childbirth and the pregnant
body. Vivian Sobchacks essay "On
Morphological Imagination," a "meditation
on the dread of middle-aging" (103), looks
at images of women in film, from those
found in sci-fi to Death Becomes Her,
a film about plastic surgery and rejuvenation
that gives me the willies even now, particularly
now that I am middle-aged. Those of us
focused on media art will find Rebecca
Cannons "Perfect Twins" provocative.
The art she presents by Tobias Bernstrup
and Linda Erceg forces us to think about
the way network environments help us to
explore gender identity and sexuality.
Keith + Mendi Obadikes "The Black.Net.Actions,"
a short piece that looks at "the language
of color," presents three works the authors
of have been engaged in. One in particular,
"Blackness for Sale," is particularly
fitting for a book about skin in that
it experiments with selling "blackness"
online at Ebayan enterprise
that netted the artists a mere $152.50
before the auction was shut down for "inappropriateness"
(245). Another favorite is Shelley Jacksons
"Skin," an essay about the work of art
by the same name. In this piece Jackson
asked people across the world to tattoo
a word from her story somewhere on their
bodies. Images of participants showing
off tattoos like "finger," "if," "swelling,"
remind us of the potential permanence
of embodiment and the depth of which we
are marked by language. David Leonards
"Performing Blackness" critiques the way
in which black male characters are relegated
to video games involving sports, "individual
and communal representations, demonstrating
the ideological and representational connections
among stereotypes, minstrelsy, the virtual
sporting world, and our own playgrounds"
As mentioned earlier, the point the editors
make about the role that skin plays in
our lives and culture is well argued.
Try as I may to find an aphorism that
offers a spin on skin not associated with
race or gender identity or some notion
of a lowly physical existence or position,
I was not very successful. Hoping other
forms of literature besides fiction and
nonfiction offered better, I found only
T.S. Eliots rather violent image
of rendering life from limb in Murder
in the Cathedral ("take the skin from
the arm, take the muscle from bone, and
wash them") and Jean Toomers Cane
("Her skin is like dusk on the eastern
horizon/ . . . When the sun goes down").
No help there.
Re:Skin is a terrific book. Scholars teaching
feminist or cultural studies will want
to get their hands on it.