A Skin That Walks
This paper was first given at the Humanities and Arts Research Centre, Royal Holloway University of London, February 13, 2002
During my adolescence, my skin was colonised by acne vulgaris. For four or five years, my face, chest and shoulders were an Icelandic landscape of grumblings, heavings, ruptures, geysers, leakings, lesions and grudging detumescences. I scrubbed my face three or four times a day. I sought out and smeared on me whatever tincture, salve or astringent held out its meretricious relief. I spent hours before the profane altar of my disgraced skin, tending the tetters and blackheads that bloomed over me, in sweet silent sessions of fanatic excoriation.
Children: nothing worked, not ever, nor ever will.
But, for a time, I was made of my skin. I made my life over to it.
And then suddenly, at long last, a moment came when I found I could say that I couldn’t any more, my skin was stronger, had more reasons and was more determined than I, and so I would just have to let it go. I recall exactly where I was and the time of day, though the date has long flown. The relief was inundating and absolute. I was going to abandon an immemorial duty: what for a hundred years we had been calling the ‘care of the skin’. I don’t mean that I would cease to wash, comb, or groom (strange word), or allow the acari and lice to scamper unopposed across my cutis. No, I observed all the decencies of civilised life, or at least such as were consonant with being an adolescent male. What I could no longer do was to allow my self, whatever that was going to turn out to be, to carry on consorting with such low and vicious company. I knew enough by then to know that I must cease to go along with that delinquent Siamese twin, decline to hide, seek, or hang out in my treacherous other half. I had found that I must save my soul, save my soul instead of my skin, save it from my skin; maybe, even, save it up for my skin, whenever it might choose to rejoin me.
And so I threw over all my passion, my invigilation, my elegy, my resentment, my hope, set aside all my duty of care. I abstained from my skin, peeled myself off from it. I would not again consent to bear this skin, or permit it to bear me out. It was all over between us; I had let slip its leash, the tantrum pelt, and from now on it would have to make shift for itself.
The skin of my face, shoulders and chest still retains the traces of these lunar ecstasies, in pits and pocks and trenches. Esther Summerson, c’est moi. I understand that surgical procedures are available to fill these cavities with a sort of polyfilla, stretch them out balloon-taut, or rasp them away altogether. But, over the last few years, during the writing I have been doing about the subject of the skin in history, my burnt-out case and I have found, gingerly, a new kind of accommodation. We circle each other with cautious civility, like a couple of old flames wary of flarings. What adventures it seems to have had, in its life, abroad. I think there are things it may know that I do not, not yet. We sip abstemiously together, like Bloom and the dubious mariner W.B. Murphy in the cabman’s shelter, and it shows me its tattoos. But we parted company so decisively that even now our paths have crossed again, our company remains that, a parted company. The prominence of the themes of the cast skin, the doubled, truant or infidel skin in this, my own incipient skin adventure, may suggest that I am not ever likely to be one of those who are fully ‘content dans ma peau’, as the French idiom has it – even supposing – .
Nine Lives of the Skin
If the skin has always been in sight, it has never been so in view as it is today. The skin is pervasive not only in critical and cultural theory but also in contemporary life. Everywhere, the skin, normally as little visible as the page upon which is displayed the words we read, is becoming visible on its own account; not only in the obsessive display of its surfaces and forms in cinema and photography, in the massive efforts to control and manipulate its appearance by means of cosmetics and plastic surgery, the extraordinary investment in the skin in practices and representations associated with fetishism and sadomasochism, but also in the anxious concern with the abject frailty and vulnerability of the skin, and the destructive rage against it exercised in violent fantasies and representations of all kinds. All of this appears to bear out the judgement of James Joyce – the importance of the skin in whose work has recently been shown by Maud Ellmann – that `modern man has an epidermis rather than a soul’ (Joyce 1977, 21).
Nobody can go far in this kind of enquiry without taking account of the extraordinary work of Didier Anzieu on the relations between the experience of the skin and the formation and sustaining of the ego. Anzieu underwent analysis with Jacques Lacan between 1949 and 1953 and was a vocal member of Lacan’s seminars in the 1960s and 1970s. In his own work from the 1970s onwards, however, he began to turn decisively away from Lacan’s influence. In place of Lacan’s formulation, `the unconscious is structured like a language’, Anzieu came to prefer the principle that the unconscious is structured like the body; by which, however, he means not the body known to anatomy and physiology, but the imaginary or phantasmal body: `the body of the phantastic anatomy of hysteria and infantile sexual theories (as Freud clearly showed); and, more fundamentally still, in a more primary and archaic manner, the body as source of the first sensory motor experiences, the first communications and the oppositions that relate to the very basis of perception and thought’ (Anzieu 1990, 43). Anzieu therefore turns away from the textual-interpretive project of realising, or at least unveiling desire-in-repression, and from the related Lacanian hostility to the ego: both to the concept of the centring ego, and the centring on the concept of the ego in American psychoanalysis. Anzieu allies himself with a psychoanalytic tradition which attempts to understand the formation and functioning of the ego through images and objects and to develop therapies to repair and sustain it. Anzieu was drawn in particular to the work of Paul Federn on the importance of the experience of the edges and peripheries of the self, and Paul Schilder’s related work on the body-image.
Anzieu attempts to draw out the implications of a number of tantalisingly undeveloped statements made by Freud in his later work regarding the nature of the ego, and, in particular, the remarks in The Ego and the Id (1923) that ‘the ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly from those springing from the surface of the body’ (Freud 1923, 26 and n.1). Anzieu’s work goes in the direction specified by Ashley Montagu, who wrote in 1971 that `the psychosomatic approach to the study of skin may be regarded as centrifugal; that is, it proceeds from the mind outwards to the skin’, and recommended `the opposite approach, namely from the skin to the mind; in other words, the centripetal approach’ (Montagu 1986, 19). However, the skin does not give rise to the ego in one fashion only. It also fulfils an extraordinarily wide and diverse range of functions, with respect both to the body and to the ego. Anzieu distinguishes nine, as follows.
3. Shielding: As in Freud, the Ego acts `as a protective shield against stimulation‘ (Anzieu 1989, 102).
4. Individuating: `In a similar fashion, the Skin Ego performs a function of individuating the Self, thus giving the Self a sense of its own uniqueness (Anzieu 1989, 103).
5. Connecting: `The skin is a surface containing pockets and cavities where the sense organs…are located. The Skin Ego is a psychical surface which connects up sensations of various sorts and makes them stand out as forms against the original background formed by the tactile envelope: this is the Skin Ego’s function of intersensoriality‘ (Anzieu 1989, 103).
6. Sexualizing: `The Skin Ego fulfills the function of providing a surface for supporting sexual excitation, a surface upon which, in cases of normal development, erogenous zones may be localized (Anzieu 1989, 104).
7. Recharging: The skin’s function as a surface receiving permanent stimulation of the sensori-motor tonus from external excitations has its counterpoint in the Skin Ego’s function of libidinal recharging of the psychical functioning (Anzieu 1989, 105).
8. Signifying: `The Skin Ego fulfills a function of registering tactile sensory traces…Socially an individual’s membership of a social group is shown by incisions, scarifications, skin-painting, tattooing, by his make-up and hair-style, and by his clothes, which are another aspect of the same thing. The Skin Ego is the original parchment which preserves, like a palimpsest, the erased, scratched-out, written-over first outlines of an “original” pre-verbal writing made up of traces upon the skin’ (Anzieu 1989, 105).
9. Assaulting, Destroying: `[T]ransported to the periphery of the Self, these parts [anger, violence, self-destructiveness emanating from the id] have become encysted in the surface layer which is the Skin Ego, where they cut into its continuity, destroy its cohesiveness and impair its function by reversing the goals of those functions. The imaginary skin which covers the Ego thus becomes a poisoned tunic, suffocating, burning, disintegrating. We might therefore speak in this case of a toxic function of the Skin Ego’ (Anzieu 1989, 108).
The principal difference between Anzieu’s conception of the skin, as it is shared with those in his group, and the conception of the skin I am trying to incubate is that between a therapeutic discourse – albeit one in which experiences of collectivity are very important – and a cultural-poetic one. Anzieu is fundamentally concerned with the defects and deficits of the skin-ego, or ego-skin, endured by his patients, and with the ways in which therapy and analysis can repair them. Not surprisingly, this brings the thematic of suffering to the fore in his work and tends to stretch it out between the alternatives of damage and healing, jeopardy and entirety.
Antonin Artaud, mistrusting his own body, colonised and infected as he felt it to be by God, language and history, just as the possessed of earlier ages may have felt their bodies to be the haunt of demons and agencies of putrefaction, sought a body remade in the immediacy of cry and gesture, a body mutilated into clamorous muteness. As Jacques Derrida has shown, this mutilation is in fact a blow against articulation, against the possibility of repetition in time and space, perhaps against the possibility of time and space as such, in so far as these are marked out on the originary ground or skin of the body. `The body’, Derrida suggests, `must be autarchic…remade of a single piece’ (Derrida 1978: 187). Artaud thought he had discovered the condition of radical, spiritual and bodily self-making in the drug-induced Peyote ritual practised by the Tarahumara people of Mexico, with whom he spent some months in 1936. In a note added in 1947 to the narrative of his experiences which he wrote while incarcerated in the asylum at Rodez, Artaud seizes on the skin as the principle of autarchic uprightness:
I walked out on my skin: Artaud attempted to walk out in his skin. Here, Artaud rejects not only the spatial partition of organs across the skin, but also the top-to-bottom stratification of the body. The reimagined body of the Peyote ritual has its skin on the inside, and wears its skeleton like a second skin, or armour. This unthinkable body, at once flayed and reskinned, in which the skin bears the weight of intrinsic being rather than the traces of extrinsic meaning, allows one to be made from the inside out rather than the outside in.
Anita Phillips suggests that there are two kinds of experience against which symbolic flaying or actual flaying is brought to bear. The first is a feeling of being trapped in your skin, ‘sick and stifled in yourself, and desensitised towards others. An ascetic ordeal can claw off this rubber or scale, can reinvigorate the sensitivity of the skin, which may be why masochism is so often symbolic kinds of flaying, in the form of whipping or cutting the skin’ (Phillips 1998, 73). The second, however is a feeling of having no skin, or containing integument, ‘the malaise that can result from an imaginative dispersal over an undefined terrain… a kind of vacant, floating freedom. The need is for definition, location’ (Phillips 1998, 139).
Phillips follows Anzieu in reading the skin as the guarantee of entirety and identity. ‘Mutilations of the skin – sometimes real, but more often imaginary – are dramatic attempts to maintain the boundaries of the body and the Ego and to re-establish a sense of being intact and cohesive’ (Anzieu 1989, 20). Anzieu’s reading of the Marsyas myth focuses on the two extremes of the flaying and the preservation of the skin, in the cave, which preserves the memory and strength of the slain God. Hung up, the skin is nevertheless upright, nevertheless fulfils the supporting function for the psyche. Even in the case of the extreme masochism reported by Michel de M’uzan of Monsieur M, who has his right breast torn away, has strips cut out of his back to allow him to be suspended from butcher’s hooks, hot lead poured into his navel, and so forth, Anzieu finds the effort to restore the entirety of the skin: ‘The skin is not indeed completely flayed off and the functions of the Skin Ego are not irreversibly destroyed. Their recovery in extremis, at the very moment when they are being lost, produces a ‘jubilatory assumption’. (Anzieu 1989, 111)
And yet, there is something incomplete in this assumption of the skin. Anzieu emphasises the repetition of the acts of imperilling and reparation of the skin, for ‘a Skin Ego which…re-enacts again and again a phantasm of having that skin flayed off and the drama of the loss of almost all those functions, in order the more intensely to enjoy the exaltation of finding them again intact’ (Anzieu 1989, 111). Anzieu always reads the drama of the skin in terms of the need to restore or heal this lost or torn integument. I am driven by a curiosity about why it is that so many figurings of the skin emphasise not the coming home to oneself, to that condition known in French as being heureux dans son peau, but of passage, from hand to hand, body to body, time to time and state to state, a passage that seems to involve walking in particular. I am interested in the coming together and coming apart of assumption and theft in figurings of a skin that walks.
Flaying is always, it seems, accompanied or followed by the possibility of a re-assumption: either the assumption of another skin, or the reassumption of one’s own skin (through healing). The skin therefore provides a model of the self preserved against change, and also in change. Anzieu reads the story of Zeus’s aegis as the story of a preservation amid change of strength. The aegis passes from Zeus’s goat-nurse Amaltheia to Zeus and then, metaphorically to Zeus’s daughter Athena, who uses it in her battle against the giant Pallas, whose skin she strips off for her aegis. The power of the aegis passes to Perseus, in the form of the bronze shield with which he deflects the gaze of the Gorgon, before decapitating it and fixing it to Athena’s aegis, to increase its power even more. At each stage, the aegis becomes more itself, its power generalised and concentrated even as it is shared.
Not surprisingly, some of the work on culture which Anzieu’s work has recently suggested reproduces this twin emphasis on the impairment of the skin and the efforts to recover its wholeness. Jay Prosser’s Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transexuality is a defence of the experience of transexuals that their being is determined, both negatively and positively, not by language or representation, but by the forms of their bodies. The presurgical transexual feels trapped inside the wrong skin, like Hercules tortured in the shirt of Nessus, and longs to acquire the whole or healed skin which is represented by the idealised male or female form. Prosser argues tellingly and movingly against the objections of those who think that transexuals are locked into fetishised and normalised models of maleness and maleness and femaleness. Prosser takes from Anzieu his primary claim that ‘[s]elfhood…is fundamentally entangled with images of integrity, of bodily wholeness’ (Prosser 1998, 76), and his emphasis on the skin either as container or interface – as a bag, or page. The question he represents transexuals as asking and recovering in the autobiographical writings he studies is: how is my defective skin to be made intact, entire, complete, in order that it may be owned (possessed, acknowledged) as mine, as me?
Now, Prosser’s work makes it probable that such agonising experiences of bodily disownment and recovery of self are indeed important for transexuals, and it is not difficult to believe that the experience of persons undergoing transexual surgery is not of a mutilation, but just the opposite, ‘the transformation of an unlivable shattered body into a livable whole’ (Prosser 1998, 92). But it is to be doubted whether such experiences form the basis for that more encompassing account of the implications of Anzieu’s work for the sexed body which Prosser hopes to supply. The model of the skin as case or container and the therapeutic narrative which it subserves, is just not extensive or various enough to account for the psychosocial life, or lives of the skin. For the suffering transexual, as for other kinds of sufferer from dysmorphic maladjustment to their bodies, the loss or lack of the skin becomes all consuming – becomes, in fact, a kind of carapace or second skin of grief. The fact that many people suffer from an acute sense of the lack or loss of a continuous, positive proprioception need not imply that other people who are not similarly tormented, or not all the time at least, actually have what is felt to be missing. For such conditions are indeed aberrations, malfunctionings, cases where something has gone wrong. What is pathological about this form of suffering is not the impairment of the sense of the body as containment, it is the shrinking of the skin to this function of containment alone. To be happy in one’s own skin is not to be contained, grounded, or bounded, or not this alone. It is to be able to live out the skin’s multiplicity – its manifoldness. The multiply-lived skin is not a clear, coherent and positive integrity, not an integument, that can be seen and held together all at once, but an untegument, which only appears ‘fragmented’ from the perspective of lack. Health is not integrity, it is resource, reach and possibility. To the one who lacks it, integrity appears like everything; it is not.
Skin Is Not a Part of the Body
Skin has come to mean the body itself; it has become the definite article, the ‘the’ of the body. But skin is not the body. I have even come to think, and aim to bring you also to think, that the skin is not even a part of the body. Skin is not a part of the body not because it is separate from it but, surprisingly, because it cannot come apart from it. Unlike a member, or an organ, or a nail-clipping, the skin is not detachable in such a way that the detached part would remain recognisable or that the body left behind would remain recognisably a body. The skinned body is less a body even than a skeleton, which we find it easier to reclothe in flesh (there are plenty of dancing skeletons in story and ritual, but very few skinned bodies). The skin always takes the body with it. The skin is, so to speak, the body’s face, the face of its bodiliness. The skinned body is formless, faceless, its face having been taken off with its skin. Where a leg, or a liver or a heart remain what they are once removed from the body and may be imagined as continuing to function apart from the body which has formed them, the skin itself is no longer a skin once it is detached. By being peeled away from the body, it has ceased to be itself. The skin cannot easily be thought of as a part of the body because, despite the fact that it has its obvious, specialised functions, its principal function is to manifest the complex, cooperative, partitioned wholeness of the body.
We can go further with this improbable line. Precisely because it is not separable from the body, it is always being imagined as apart from it, in magical flights, excursions and exfoliations. The skin is not a part of the body, because it is the body’s twin, or shadow, that part of the body which, cleaving ever so tightly to it, is able also to take leave of it, but taking the whole of the body with it, as in so-called ‘out of body experiences’. The very wholeness that the skin possesses and preserves, its capacity to resume and summarise the whole body, means that it is always in excess of, out in front of the body. The skin is thus always in part immaterial, ideal, ecstatic, ‘A Skin That Walks’.
We invent with our bodies, and by doing so reinvent our bodies. Unlike other animals, we have a relation to our bodies, a relation that we invent, and a relation that is our bodies. Our bodies are the kind that are always in question, transition, are always work in progress. For the Quakers and Camisards and Shakers and other ecstatic sects of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the body is taken to be, lived as if already raised, already glorified, perfected. We have been made accustomed to think the opposite, that the body is subject to discursive regulation. Of course, a languaged body is subjected to the orders of language. A languaged body can be regimented, abjected, insulted by language. But never wholly so. The novice who bows her head, the squaddie who stiffens in salute, have another body beside, just to the side of the statue they have become: a subjunctive, a possibled body, an imposture alongside the imposed posture.
It is the second nature of the skin to go beyond itself. Our skin outdoes us, it is the means of our self-undoing and outgoing.
Michel Serres has spoken of the sense of soul which resides in the fingers’ ends. This is because, for Serres, the soul is not something withdrawn or inhumed in the body, but that which comes into being in contact, in the activity of reaching, stretching, doubling, magnification. The soul is neither the body’s position, nor that object or new position for which it reaches. It is the reaching itself, Serres’s tiers-instruit, the third body, between here and there, this posture and that other posture, that the body teaches itself, is taught of. It is what lies just beyond the fingers’ ends, as when you reach for a key or coin in a narrow aperture, and, even as you elongate yourself to your fullest extent, must consult your own body inwardly for the knowledge of whether you can reach it, must imagine your reach, reach for the image of clasping your object, in order to reach it in actuality. Primates, for whom hand and eye are so intricately wired together, will always see that shimmer of possibility at the fingers’-ends, will recurrently dream we see the form of that shimmer embodied – in the idea of the aura, or nimbus, that tremulous, cutaneous body-soul, soul-body. Not for nothing did the New Testament Hemorrhissa, the woman with an issue of blood, touch the hem of Christ’s robe – presumably the tassel or tzitzik worn by all devout Jews – to be healed. Power is indeed concentrated at the fringe, or the outermost edge of things.
The sunderings and propagations of the skin are not always dramatic, and do not always involve ordeal and trauma. Indeed, they will often depend upon the subtlest and most tenuous of things. Lay your palm flat on a surface. Now close your eyes and, as slowly as you can, lift your palm away, so that the sense of pressure becomes concentrated on the base of the thumb, the balls at the bottom of the fingers. Keep slowly withdrawing the pressure, until you are touching the surface only with the pads of your four fingers and the outward edge of your thumb. You can do this with a photocopier, which by photographing only what is pressed against its surface, can act as a sort of tactile-camera. First photograph the whole hand; then patches of it, then the fingertips alone, then the ridges of the fingerprints, the rest of the hand receding into ghostliness.
You may be able to find the point of equilibrium described by Paul Schilder, at which the pressure imparted by your fingertips is answered exactly by the pressure of the surface upon which it rests. Just at the point before the fingers detach from the surface, it will not be certain whether they have in fact already done so. A sort of restraining second skin will seem to have arisen between fingers and world, like the pianist’s finger that coaxes the most subtle withdrawing sound, not by depressing the key, but by lifting the finger away from it. This skin will apprehend, not sensation, but its trace, or the thought of that trace. At this point, if the mind can be kept clear of the cacophony of other sensations which ordinarily compete with and complete the sense of touch, we may seem to be able to sense, not the object of sensation, but our sensing itself, which we ordinarily see or feel straight through. Practice will allow us to identify what seems to be the exact point at which sensation interposes itself between contact and non-contact, like the thinnest glaze or patina, which is indeed so fine and so intangible that it is not certain whether it is being felt or remembered. This is the paradox about this interface; there is an exact point, neither in contact nor out of contact, at which exactitude becomes impossible, because it is not possible to distinguish the actuality of touch from its phantasm or aura. It is not possible to detach the thought of the touch, or the image of the touch impressed on our thought, from the touch itself. The quality of this touch will be like a breath, indeed, the amplification of the quivering of the fingers caused by the intake of breath will need to be calmed in order to keep this imaginary skin intact; experiment will show you what is already known to archers, snipers and threaders of needles, that the fingers are steadier on the outbreath.
When every layer has melted away in the X-ray gaze of thought, there is always a last, infinitesimal film of tact, a surface tension in the mind, which veils things in the thought of them, which thought uses to protect things from their nakedness before it. There is thought and there are things; and there is also what Michel Serres calls the milieu, the mid-place or mixed body in which they encounter each other.
We are accustomed to distinguishing between sensation and thought, but this delicacy consists of the fragile interfusion of sense and thinking. Names for this class of sensation – subtlety, tenderness, delicacy, grace, refinement, tact – retain different aspects of this ambivalent intangibility. In all of them, there appears to be the thought of the sensation that holds back, or restrains itself, the tact of a tactility that retracts itself, but not fully, just enough to open up this impalpable meniscus between touching and non-touching. The daintiness of lace, the fineness of tissue-paper, speak to us of their own skin-like weakness, of the thinness of the skin which arises between them and our imaginary (never quite imaginary) touch. Delicate and subtle objections and relations have a life of their own, and call, not for grasping or decision or duress, but the kind of finesse that is found in the infinitesimal calculus of touch, thought and world practised in this epigram from Francis Quarles’s Emblems:
Than wind? The fire. And what than fire? The mind.
What’s lighter than the mind? A thought. Than thought?
This bubble world. What than this bubble? Nought. (Quarles 1635, 19)
Nothing is deader than a skin. And yet skins are often imagined as containing or preserving life and therefore having the power to restore it, as, for example, in Grimm’s story of The Three Snake Leaves. In this, a king unwisely gives his bride a promise that he will be buried with her if she dies before him. She does and he duly takes up his vigil in her tomb. A snake comes out of a hole and is about to begin gnawing at the body, when the King hews it into three pieces. Another snake appears, bearing three leaves, which it applies to the cuts in the snake’s body, restoring it to life. The King applies the leaves to the eyes and mouth of his wife, restoring her to life. In the second half of the story, the King is himself killed by his wife, who has ungratefully conceived an adulterous passion for the captain of the ship on which they are sailing. The King’s servant applies the leaves to him in the same way as he has previously used them.
What is a ghost? Derrida makes it clear that a ghost, as opposed to a spirit, or Spirit, is always a kind of body. In fact, ghosts are crustacean, for they tend to take the form of a vapour inside a shell: encased in armour, or, as Mummy and Invisible Man, held together by the cerements that they themselves hold up. In both cases, it is a matter of filling out, and creating uprightness (the opposite of the flat or recumbent life in which the skin is also so often implicated). Uprightness and collapse distinguish the two forms of the skin signalled in the two words that Latin uses for skin, cutis and pellis. Cutis means the living skin, the skin that protects, that expresses and arouses and that is the subject of care and beautifying attention. Pellis, by contrast, is the dead, the flayed skin. It is the word used for animal skins, and evokes disgust, disgrace and horror. Once scoured away from the body, the human or animal skin becomes simply a hide, deader than a corpse, because the corpse or remnant of a corpse.
But the dead skin is capable of resurrection. For example, it may be stretched. When this happens, it may even be given a voice, as when it forms the skin of a drum. The fantasy of the skin that talks, as well as walks is one of the strangest allotropes of skin. Before he became interested in prosthetics, the performance artist Stelarc specialised in hanging himself at considerable heights from hooks in his skin. When he did this at the Centre for Twentieth Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, who no doubt thought that they were paying him for something much more straight-up-and-down like a lecture, the wind, which blows hard in Milwaukee, could be heard thrumming and keening against his stretched skin.
We carry our skins, which account for around 11% of an adult’s body weight. But, in its role as taut support, our skin also helps form our carriage. Ghosts, similarly and definitionally, walk. They rise in order to walk. They are a skin that walks. What characterizes most of the walking dead, in all the films, in Michael Jackson’s Thriller which recapitulates them? They are in rags. In our mortuary imaginations, the dead are not absent or decomposed. The dead areragged. They are held together by shreds and patches, shreds and patches that are themselves perhaps only held together by our idea of them.
Rags promise transformation – rags to riches. But this is because rags are riches: because there is such a strange, vagrant, second life, even Herrick’s ‘wild civility’, amid the degradation of rags. For Yeats, the greatest poet of the ragged, so far, there is also a sexual allure in rags. The English song of The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, who steal the hearts of your ladies-o, hints at this randiness of rags.
Perhaps the libidinal charge of rags his something to do with the sense that rags are a compromise between skin and fur, or, more particularly, hair. Hair is immensely important as a way of focussing and amplifying skin sensation. Long, tangled hair, like ragged clothes, seems to signify (in fact, as always with the avatars of the skin, to do more than signify), a body alert or awoken to touch, a body not intact, but tactile – tangible, touchable, touched, torn, touching itself, soliciting touch.
So the ragged dead are scary partly because of the unnatural life that resides in their raggedness. It is as though the swarming attentions of the worms and flies had brought their skins to life. Rags are perhaps the busy life of decomposition, a dying that walks.
Marina Warner’s novel The Leto Bundle (2001) has as its centre and its self-image a bundle of artefacts and clothes, themselves made up of stories and incantations, attached to the mummified body of a woman. The woman, whose diasporic story is told in a number of different ways throughout the novel, may be the avatar of the Titan Leto, lover of Zeus, who is taken to be a new spirit of the exiled, the driven-out, the self-transforming. At the centre of the novel is a play or ply in the idea of the mummy-cloth. On the one hand, it signals preservation, the product of the desire that what should remain of us should not be what lies deep within us – heart or viscera, or bones – but the most inessential part, the skin. On the other, the skin is the sign of our transformability, our ability to become other, and yet to persist and survive in that becoming other. This is why the gift of skin, to furnish disguise or transformation, is also so often a means of preservation.
Jumping Out of Your Skin
Michelangelo shows himself awaiting resurrection, not as a body, but as the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew. It is usual for resurrection to be imaged as the gathering together and reanimation of the dry bones of the skeleton, but there are fantasies of the resurrected skin too. The resurrection of the body is sometimes imaged in the grotesque idea of the skin itself standing up and walking. Writing of the importance of clothing in artistic depictions of the crucifixion and its aftermath, Ewa Kuryluk says that ‘As skin dies, cloth may come alive and replace the body. When the body falls, garments fly up’ (Kuryluk 1991, 197). Christ’s actual resurrection was followed shortly afterwards by his disappearance from the earth, but the visible evidence of his being was maintained by the various miraculous cloths, whether sudarii (sweat cloths) like that offered to him on the road to Calvary by Veronica, or his burial shroud, on which his image had been impressed. Some of these fabrics were credited with incorruptibility and the power to effect miracles, and even themselves to undergo resurrection. There seems to have been a number of such cloths in Constantinople in the early thirteenth century, and one report, by one of the soldiers gathered together for the Fourth Crusade in 1203, shortly before they sacked the city, is given in an intriguing form:
Didier Anzieu is right to say that the self is structured like a skin, but what is the structure of a skin? The transformability of the skin is much more versatile than is traditionally imagined. As Michel Serres has suggested, the skin is a milieu, an inbetweenness, which requires a physics of the imagination that lies between the conditions of liquid and solid.
In stigmata, in acupuncture, in body-piercing, in other kinds of needlework, whether applied to the body or to body-substitutes, like tapestries (Philomela, Persephone), screens and samplers, the skin is reperceived through an activity not of folding, but of pricking and threading. What matters here is not the folding-together of planes, but the reorientation of the skin through points, usually points of particular sensitivity. The skin is reimagined as a new topology of coordinates and faces. The cardinal points of the body, hands, feet, nipples, nose, lips, ears, genitals, become the foci of a new rotation of planes and volumes. The points are distinguished from and spread out from each other on the body’s natural surface, but also communicate with each other according to alternative and shifting body-images.
One image is perhaps that of the body not spread out like a page or a map, but rolled or compacted, like a scroll or a book; a needle entering at one point will traverse several planes. If the book is imagined as a line, tape, or surface that unrolls from its beginning to its end, the gatherings of the book mean that points that are widely separated – even hundreds of pages apart – in Euclidean reading-space are also only millimetres apart, and sometimes only the infinitesimal antipodes of a recto and verso. The binder’s needle and bookworm alike experience the space of the book in this manner as well as in the consecutive manner of ordinary reading. Both Virginia Woolf and James Joyce invented metaphors of boring or burrowing in thinking of the substance of their books, Woolf speaking of the ‘beautiful caves’ that she was attempting to ‘tunnel’ out behind the characters on the page, and Joyce imaging the writing ofFinnegans Wake as like blasting a passage through opposite sides of a hill, in the hope of meeting in the middle. One does not need to look to the hypertext for an image of this, for anyone who has ever read a book with one finger or a bookmark keeping the place of the endnotes, or moved between the index and the text, has inhabited this space. This communication between points gives the body depth and voluminousness. Most importantly, it allows the body to be experienced in more than one format or articulation; to be apprehended in folio, quarto, duodecimo. There is thus an important imaginative link between the point and the thread; between drawn-together structures, like books, and structures that are more loosely articulated by means of wires – mobiles, sailing ships, puppets, kites and the like. The points in a hypertext that allow one to replace one text with another, the words which ‘yield’ (to borrow Michael Joyce’s word) or give way to other words, are not experienced as simple doorways. For we have decided to call them links or lines (liens in French), a notion that preserves and extends the memory of the bookbinder’s or sailmaker’s needle. But links are also microcosms; as in a Mandelbrot set, the whole of the target document is resumed or condensed in the piece of text or image that constitutes the link. Links are both buttonholes and mis-en-abymes; an entire other garment is fitted in to the buttonhole. What links the idea of the buttonhole and the fractal replication is the knot or stitch: in making a knot, an entire length or volume is passed through itself.
All the arts of what Mr. Micawber calls ‘personal contortion’, whether comic (upendings, pratfalls, tumblings, ‘girning’, or facemaking), heroic (cartwheels, somersaults, trapezes and balancing acts, acrobatics), or supernatural (yoga, levitation, the Indian rope-trick, ectoplasmic extrusion, stigmata), along with their many miniaturised forms like puppetry and card-tricks, in which the hand summarises and impersonates the body, or displaced forms like pottery and balloon-sculpture, can be seen as attempts to dance out new and extravagant body-images and body-volumes, topologies moulded in mid-air and mind-time by our phantasmal pellicular skins. They are all attempts to jump out of your skin. And what would happen if you did such a thing? Since only living beings, which is to say beings still provided with skins, are able to do this, even in imagination, you would have to bring your skin with you even as you jumped out of it. Even if jumping out of your skin were taken to mean jumping into a new one, this would have to be done through your old one, in the way that clowns (those complexly voluminous creatures) in my day, and perhaps somewhere still, would jump through paper hoops. You can only jump out of your skin by taking up a stitch in yourself, by tying a knot in yourself. Many art forms allow the body to be drawn out of itself; but only the pellicular imagination allows the body to be drawn through itself in this way. It is no surprise then that the arts of animation which allow us at last to see living bodies stretched, twisted, flattened, blown up (but never, ever atomised) should have had to wait for the development of film, the embodiment par excellence of the pellicular imagination.
In moving away from the thematics of the cut, in moving from duress to finesse, I hope to make out a rather different, and necessarily rather more diffusive concern with the skin. I take Anzieu’s insights and extend them beyond the individual self, into the collective life of dreams, fears, beliefs, narratives, artefacts. It is not only individual psychological life but also cultural life that is lived at the level of, and through the intercession of, the skin, and its many actual and imaginary doublings and multiplications. I enquire into the kinds of sense we make of the skin, and the kinds of sense we make of the world and each other with it, which is to say, through the action of various kinds of epidermal shape, story, device and figure. My emphasis could be said to be on the two senses of the phrase ‘making sense’: the making of the various kinds of sensory beauty, intricacy and delight which human culture makes possible and of which it largely consists; and the forms of enquiry, knowledge and understanding that can be yielded through this way of ‘thinking through things’. There may be no need to have a name for such a proceeding; but it might be called an historical poetics, which adds epistemology and aesthetics to the fundamentally therapeutic discourse offered by Anzieu and others (though not, as should by now be clear, with the aim of rounding it out into completeness). The historical poetics of the skin follows out the ways in which ideas of the skin are multiplied not just in the social history of the body – in medicine and combat and sexuality and religion, for example – and in the usual range of picturings and cultural representations (pictures, stories, statues and organised sounds) but also in milieux such as textiles, photography, cookery, printing, sailing, skiing, numismatics and alchemy. It requires a joining of the abstract mathematics of topology, the kind we properly and emblematically call ‘mindbending’, to the groping, wattle-and-daub dumbshow, mudpie mentality of the toddler in the garden.
I call this an historical poetics rather than a cultural history, in order to highlight the activity of making in it. For I want this to be a fabric I get taken up in. I am not merely observing and tabulating, not merely mapping the labyrinth, but am lifted up in the billowing sails of what I follow out. I am not teasing out a story, or filling a gap, or revealing a truth; rather I’m picking up dropped stitches. Much cultural history, in these zealously-moralised academic times, sees itself still as cultural critique, and critique etymologically signifies a cutting off, or excision. Such critique requires you to peel away the past, to unpick yourself from the past. But there is a choice between cutting and darning. The black art of Atropos, giving birth by cutting the cord, so history can be over and done with; and the art of Philomela, darning up her ablated tongue in her tapestry. Where conventional cultural history aims never to miss a trick (tricoter, to knit or knot together, and thus to deceive, riddle), I want to follow out (and follow others in following out) the intrigues (from that same root, tricoter), the knitting, the sifting, the inriddling of history. History, despite its sociable reputation and self-image, tries to keep itself to itself. It needs to prevent itself from going native, and usually expends much effort in keeping itself, in all senses, in the clear: clear thought, clear skin, clear conscience. I expect to end up implicated, even incriminated in the things I am up to here, with the skin. History, even that congenial cousin that calls itself cultural history, has had much to do with revealing, unmasking, stripping away disguises, making the past give up the truth it was, but did not know. I appear to be here, though, not as the skin’s confessor, but its confectioner.
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