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Re: Skin

by Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007
370 pp. illus. 73 b/w. Trade, $40
ISBN: 0-262-06260-7.

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 skin’s lack of importance in the measurement of one’s 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 another’s flesh. So pervasive is skin as a "significant border," a "boundary between one’s 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 Duchamp’s "The Man Who Plugged In," the story about a male robotic expert who, borrowing his wife’s 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 Sobchack’s 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 Cannon’s "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 Obadike’s "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 Ebay––an enterprise that netted the artists a mere $152.50 before the auction was shut down for "inappropriateness" (245). Another favorite is Shelley Jackson’s "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 Leonard’s "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" (322).

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. Eliot’s 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 Toomer’s 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.



Updated 1st January 2008

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