An Interview With Steve Connor by Brian Dillon.
An edited version of this interview appeared in Cabinet: A Quarterly of Art and Culture , 13 (2004): 44-8.
Your book proposes three stages in the cultural history of the skin: screen, membrane, milieu. Can you describe those?
I wanted to shape what a history of stages or epochs of the skin – to put it very grandly – might look like, and the best way to do that is in terms of one area of human practice and enquiry, which is to say medical understandings of the skin. Though as soon as you say that one has to recognize that you’re talking about something very different from what we’ve now come to think of as medicine. Nevertheless, the notion of the medical understanding of the skin provided a sort of tunnel through which I could drill back and construct what looked like a series of stages.
The dreary thing about stages is that there are always three of them. So, indeed, I had three, and although I do think that the staging I offer makes sense of the medical texts that I’ve been reading, the point was almost in a sense to provide a framework which one could then improvise upon. Later in the book I quote Michel Serres’s model of history as a spread-out handkerchief which you then crumple up in your pocket. I wanted to spread out the skin and then to twist it up, to do a sort of historical origami, because it seemed to me that the skin is not a universal even though it is a universal background or horizon for human experience. This gets conceptualized differently at different moments but there’s never a moment at which the skin is not implicated in a whole lot of other things: modes of thought, ways of feeling, the way in which thought becomes affective, becomes lived through the body, through the imaginary body too, of course.
And the first of those moments has to do with the skin as frontier or barrier.
The first stage is the skin as screen, where its primary function is to register other things, primarily the state of health or what up until the seventeenth century was called your complexion, which originally meant the folding together of lots of different elements or tendencies in your constitution. It’s interesting that our word ‘constitution’ has taken over from ‘complexion': something which is constituted, something which stands, and is as it were in place, rather than something which is folded together out of multiple elements. But the skin stood for that, as if this was written on the skin without the skin being visible, so that the skin is everywhere spoken of, everywhere implicated, but somehow never itself in the frame.
In the second stage the skin is screen or membrane in medical history, this is when the body begins to be understood by being disarticulated, by being broken down into different autonomously functioning systems and organs: the period, broadly, of the Enlightenment. The skin is thought of as a kind of switch or regulator between inside and outside (a very dominant conception of the skin even now). The skin is that by which bad things are kept out and also got out of the organism. Its primary role is as a kind of gate or barrier which maintains – hydraulically, mechanically – the stable relations between inside and outside.
But that stable significance of the skin begins to dissolve later.
In the third stage, which we are still inhabiting and which is still unfolding, the skin explodes once again into a multiplicity of functions, but now without becoming invisible. The skin becomes self-reflexive, it begins to reflect on itself by the ways in which the very presence and pressure of the skin within the activity of thinking enlarges itself. And that is the skin as milieu — a term I draw from Michel Serres – or as a mid-place, a place between places and a place that is made up of this mid-place: the skin not so much as a thin membrane, that which is not the inside and not the outside, but the skin as a whole habitat, the skin as deep or voluminous. So it’s by means of the notion of milieu that I then, rather perversely, having established this seemingly quite neat frame, attempt to read all the other historical instances in those terms.
The book sort of starts again at that point and says: what if the handkerchief weren’t in fact spread out flat but were crumpled together, what would that be like? And in a way it was an attempt to write something I was tempted to call a cultural history, but then decided not to because it seemed to me that the knitting together of history, the ways in which different periods necessarily are shot through with other periods and themselves constituted by the ways in which they take up other periods and anticipate their futures, is really what history is like. That’s what my experience of my own life is like. But I don’t see history written like that. I see it written in terms of stages and epochs, in which, though perpetrating them myself, I cannot wholly believe.
So you couldn’t say, for example, that there is a single moment at which the idea of the thickness of the skin appears?
There might be at least two such. The first moment would be the work of Vesalius, who was the first anatomist to include an account of the skin in his anatomy. Every anatomist previously talks about the skin only as the stuff you’ve got to get out of the way. The traditional way of describing anatomy, deriving from Galen, is to start in the middle and move outwards. But you get to the middle in the first place by plunging through all of those layers, and in those anatomies you never get back to the skin; the skin has already been discarded and is flapping loosely around the ankles of the écorché.
What does Vesalius add to that picture?
Vesalius for the first time says that what we mean by skin is something deep. It has layers, and, indeed, in different parts of the body its depth varies and it’s hard to be sure where the skin stops and the rest starts. It’s now a second body, not the body’s herald or sign, but a body-double. Vesalius doesn’t have very much to say about the skin, but he does have something, and I think that inaugurates a kind of new possibility.
And the second moment?
A second moment would be microscopy, because with microscopy – which is developed very early on, about a hundred years before anyone could find anything interesting to do with a microscope – the thing that people looked at, almost always, was skin, the surface of things. And those surfaces turned out to be a mountainous terrain, to be, precisely, environments: epidemiological, parasitological environments. The skin turned out to be a whole functioning system on its own; one began to understand that the skin was a sort of ecology, that cells are abraded, given off from the surface and replaced from underneath. This is in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Is there a sense in which photography later gives that notion another twist, encouraging a further intimacy between the ways we think about touching and feeling the skin?
I have a very strong apprehension that photography is much more fundamemtally an art of touch, or the idea of touch, than we’ve got used to recognising. I think it was very clear in the beginning, when photographers were people who processed their own photographs, when there was, as we now like to put it, a hands-on experience of the photograph. (And I like very much those two hands: writing and art are so often idealised as the work of the single hand.) But it’s still the case that there’s a very privileged relationship between really quite vernacular practices and objects of photography, and touch. It’s a particular kind of visual-tactile complex, I think, that photography gives us. If that weren’t the case, why would the texture of photographs be so important? Shine and gloss: in one sense locking the photograph up, inviolably, like a kind of window, or glass, or protective skin or membrane; on the other hand, rendering it vulnerable, as a skin does. We look at a photograph and want to touch, and know that we mustn’t; so there’s a kind of preciousness that comes from the glossy photograph, and by reference to that, other kinds of textures that are always implicated, it seems to me, in the photograph.
This is actually a very ancient way of thinking about vision.
Here is an example of one of those foldings of ancient and modern which returns us to that Epicurean conception of vision as tactile: more specifically, the theory that vision depends upon a literal casting off of simulacra or eidola, or effigies from the seen object: skins of atoms, sometimes called ‘fleeces’, which are shed from everything at enormous speed — what we would now call the speed of light — and either enter the eyes directly (fall upon the eyes like a sort of dust or hail of vision) or are met halfway – this is Plato’s conception – by an eye-beam which, as it were, goes out intercept and gather them. It’s a bizarre theory – though one that Newton still believed, and he knew a thing or two about optics – and I think it’s a theory that hotography allows us not to abandon.
Is this bound up with the idea of the skin’s shininess, which seems to denote both imperviousness and sensitivity?
This is immensely complex, and I didn’t know where in the book to have the discussion of shininess either, because it seemed to be implicated everywhere. Shininess means inviolability. Shine also suggests skin: shine and skin are allotropes; that which shines is like those parts of us which are not even as protected as the skin. The surface of the eye is the most lustrous part of the visible body. Why is it lustrous? Well, partly because it’s moist; it’s part of the cerebral apparatus, so it’s the inside that’s visible on the outside. It is, unlike other mucous parts of the body, secret – exhibited but secret — and of course immensely sensitive. The sensitivity about touching such things is like the sensitivity about being touched. Something which is moist is living. We need to remember too that the disturbing thing, the enlivening thing, the exciting thing about a shining eye is that the shine comes from movement; it’s when the eyeball moves that it catches the light, as we say.
Yet we tend to talk about that lustre in terms of the skin’s ‘radiance’, as if the light came from within, rather than being reflected by a wet or greasy surface.
The sense that life consists in the spilling of light: that’s the evidence of life, as it were, and that skin is implicated in that. Or it’s perhaps that there are two conditions of skin, one of which encloses and when you die there is only the enclosure and nothing inside, and in the other of which there is an imaginary light that is shining through the skin, is at work in many different examples of lustre in terms of the human body, whether it’s the oiling-up of weightlifters, or in make-up, cosmetics. To my surprise I became very interested in this, for a chapter that’s about the application of the second skin of greases, oils, fats and creams in religion, in cosmetics and in the displaced ritual practices of contemporary life.
The vocabulary of cosmetics advertising sets up a lot of ambiguous pairings: between penetration and absorption, protection and nourishment. The main distinction seems to be between oiliness and creaminess.
I think this is quite local: that is to say, a Western phenomenon, or perhaps more accurately a Northern phenomenon, in tems of culture. More particularly, it’s a Protestant phenomenon, this discomfort with that which belongs to the oily or greasy rather thant he creamy or milky. Now the creaminess of milk comes from the oil in it – milk is creamy because it’s greasy. But we’ve learned to make a separation between those things. Aromatherapy insists that the things you’re applying to yourself are ‘essential oils’. There’s no real chemical definition of what an oil is; it’s an entirely cultural, phenomenological category. Previously – I mean up to 1552 — all oils, whatever their source, and perhaps especially oils which had animal sources, were regarded as luxurious, purifying, precious.
What happens in 1552?
It marks the date of the revised version of the Anglican prayerbook that does away with holy oil and the rituals of unction. That seems a convenient way of specifying this inauguration of a disgust with the oily, which of course continues to coexist with our sense that oil is luxurious, that it’s like an maginary, infinitely extensible, magic skin that will protect us, enlarge us. And we still think this when we apply suntan oil; none of us thinks of ourselves as sausages sizzling in a pan, we think it’s a kind of shield against the sun. Still, we’re also disgusted by oil, because it seems to belong to an economy of concealment, subterfuge, deception, and it’s become an image of animalistic or brutal intentions or appetites, concealed under a show of civilization.
We’ve found a way of hanging on to the balminess of oil, while rejecting its unctuousness.
We prefer to the idea of oil the idea of cream, which is also, like oil, something which is extruded through the skin – the nipple is a particularly eminent portion of the skin – and this was not lost on seventeenth-century theological writers, who would talk about the sweat of Christ as a kind of unction. But the disgust grows with that, so we have to separate the holy oil from cream. The English word cream matches the French word crême, which is the name for ‘chrism’ or holy oil. So in French it doesn’t quite work as it does in English; in French, oil is cream, and the very name of Christ contains a reference to chrism: Christos = chrism. Christ is oil.
Can you say something about the phenomena of itching and scratching?
The idea of itching and scratching seems a very simple idea, one that lies, subliminally, below the threshold of critical attention. It’s not a critical or cultural category, like ‘critism’ or ‘categories’, it’s a little thing, it’s a microscopic disturbance. You’ll find entries on intching and scratching in dictionaries of folklore and so forth, but I wondered what a history written in terms of this tiny titillation and its meaning might look like. And as it turns out there was a convenient little detective story about how a particular kind of itch – scabies, caused by the attentions of a particular parasite – came to attention, was discovered, forgotten, dicovered, forgotten again, dicovered again. And as it were how that might connect up, surprisingly, with very big issues about the nature of human community, the kinds of collective creatures we are.
Broadly, I venture the suggestion that there is something about creatures as uniquely capable as we are of reaching nearly every part of ourselves to scratch, that makes for the sort of creatures we are, or take ourselves to be. Not, I think therefore I am: but I scratch, therefore I think. Now this seems very crude, a doubtless alarming and unjustifiable jump from a particular condition that attaches to primates and their capacities, to the nature of how higher primates thinnk and feel, and conceive of themselves. But it strikes me as at least interesting that creatures for whom the attention to yourself with your own fingers – and the attentions of others to assist you in your itching and scratching self-attentions – how that has become so polymorphous.
One of the odd experiences one has with an itch is that you can get rid of it by scratching somewhere else, an adjacent spot. It seems to suggest a metaphorical drift or creep.
The thing about investigating itches is that you somehow never hit squarely upon itch itself. If you follow the fortunes of the word or metaphor of itch, it takes you everywhere, away from that physical sensation. It takes you into ideas of premonition – ‘by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes’ – or it takes you into sexual desire, or to the desire for writing. We no longer scratch on the page, but that primary action of attending to a surface with a pointed object – which Derrida, for example, has analysed in his book Spurs – says something about the way we consider the relation between matter and consciousness. The fact that so many of our recording techniques still involve the incising or retrieval of traces, seems in a curious way to be a part of this universe of transformations of the idea of itching and scratching, which at root is of the skin, though is not just of the skin because it’s always on its way, it’s always skipping off somehere else in metaphorical transfer.
The notion of the stigmata, in particular, is at once gruesomely literal and extravagantly metaphorical.
The thing that struck me about the stigmata was the way in which they reduced the body to a kind of shorthand: the cardinal points of the body, as though the body were being conceived of as a kind of jointed puppet. As a matter of fact, Giotto’s painting of St. Francis receiving the stigmata is precisely that: St. Francis is like a puppet with strings coming from the points of the stigmata to the originating figure of the crucified Christ up in the sky, as it were in some kind of kite (this is how Deleuze describes him). I was struck by this notion of the body reduced to cardinal points. It seemed to me that what is done with the idea of the stigmata is a work of imagining the body as foldable or refoldable, as a repertoire of possibilities.
What happens when this schematised body is no longer tethered to Christian iconography?
It was very striking to read of the interest in religious stigmata of Charcot and the analysts of so-called hysteria at the Salpêtrière, who also were interested in demarcated zones of the body, and in some of the phenomena of transmigration of senses and sensibilities. Stigmata connect with the notion of the body not as a geometry set out in one set of configurations which you can see all at once in three dimensions, but as a topology, a set of much more fluid and transformable, reciprocal relations where the skin can maintain its integrity but can also, like a dough or putty, be stretched, twisted and reconfigured. It’s as though there is a fantasy that the body, conceived of as a folded-out skin, folded-up skin, could be, through the idea of the stigmata, folded in some other way, or folded to another template. This suggested to me bizarre analogies with other kinds of bodily markings, such as moles and freckles and other kinds of seemingly spontaneous, endogenous appearances on the surface of the body. This was the body obeying or displaying some other logic of organisation, some sacred or comic syntax of how the body is ordered.
You suggest that moles are a randomised version of the stigmata, or the stigmata are a systematised version of the more cryptic implications of moles. Why are moles so important historically?
Well, I don’t know about important. But these spots and marks in the skin attract enormous attention; they are part of the way in which the skin is legendary, that is to say highly legible, historically. It looks as though one ought to be able to read the destiny of the person to whom it belongs in the skin itself, so that moles are a randomised version of the stigmata, or the stigmata are a systematized version of the more cryptic implications of moles.
I think we’ve lost the sense of mole lore nowadays, though we certainly haven’t lost the sense of the ominousness or portentousness of moles. I think that notion went to sleep for a few decades or centuries, but it didn’t take much to wake it up with skin cancer: the idea that there is something in store with a spot or a mark. There’s a wonderful joke about a man who goes to the doctor with a frog growing out of his head, and the doctor says to him: ‘Well, how did all this begin?’ And the frog answers: ‘Well, it all started with this pimple on my bum.’
I think all this has to do, if one wants a quick answer to it, with an analogy between skin and sky, the skin as a source for epidermal astrology. You can find it enlarged on in literature; Romeo and Juliet, for example, is rich in sky and skin analogies.
It’s commonplace to think of the skin as an expression of our selves, but you talk about the psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu, who argues that the self is actually structured by the experience of being in our skins.
Anzieu summed up the principle of his work very succinctly by saying: ‘for Lacan the unconscious is structured like a language; for me the unconscious is structured like a body.’ And in particular like the outside of a body. Anzieu’s work is fantastically suggestive in terms of the models that it generates for the skin. In the first edition of his book The Skin Ego, there are said to be nine functions of the skin. The interesting thing about these nine functions is that they don’t all cohere, they are just like ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird'; they don’t form a coherent topology, and that was the thing that created explosions of possibility in my mind. The unfortunate thing about Anzieu – not unfortunate for his patients, but perhaps for some of his readers – is that he was a clinical therapist and his interest was in suffering and how to remedy it. (How could this ever be a problem except for an academic?) The model is narrowed when turned toward that clinical scenario, because it turns out that in practice there are only two functions of the skin, or two states: the good, entire skin, the skin in which you can be happy, or the disturbed, damaged, incomplete state of the skin, in which the world is leaking in and you are leaking out.
And this model is too crudely dichotomous, as well as actually rather bleak?
That narrowing into dichotomy seemed to me to make things much less interesting for the analyst of culture, because I think the analyst of culture, the historian of culture, even – though I wouldn’t necessarily call myself this – the poet of culture, has to be interested in states other than those of damage or pathology. And it’s a great mistake, I think, to think of healthiness as simple wholeness. The word ‘healthy’ comes from the word ‘whole’, as does the word ‘heal'; but actually to be healthy is not to be whole, it is to be multiple, to be able to be multiple. To be unhealthy is to be perversely whole, to be entire, locked or sealed in your suffering, your wound, or in your means of dealing with your wound.
So there’s a kind of optimism in your thinking about the skin.
We don’t talk much about optimism or pessimism or mood when we talk about the analysis of culture, and I think we should really, because I think the moods in which we talk and think about culture are too thin, too abstract and rigidly routine. And I think, for example, there is much in The Book of Skin which is quite melancholy, because much of the writing about the skin is quite melancholy. I think many people’s experience of their skin is melancholy; we all grow old and see our skin beginning to fail us and fall away from us. As I realised at quite a late stage, being an adolescent, and having a moderate to severe case of acne, made me feel divided from myself and taught me a kind of resignation. I remember a moment when I thought, I must let my skin have its way, but I had a life to lead. We’re friends again now, but still wary of each other. There’s a levity as well as a gravity in thinking about the skin and its possibilities. We have a model for melancholy, I think, in writing, and we have a model for anger; but we don’t have – any more – many models for delight. There are very few writers we currently allow ourselves to read who allow themselves delight; Barthes was one, he allowed himself delight. There are moods and modalities that we should allow ourselves more, because it doesn’t stop you thinking. It enlarges thinking. In the end, but also right from its improbable outset, The Book of Skin was written in joy.