Spring 2004

Cutaneous: An Interview with Steven Connor

On, in, through, and beneath the skin

Brian Dillon and Steven Connor

The skin is our original image of the legible: of concealment and betrayal. “Nor doth it onely draw the busy eyes,” writes John Donne, “but it is subject to the divinest touch of all, to kissing, the strange and mysticall union of soules.” The skin asks to be read, demands to be touched and traversed, but wards off touch and vision with its cultural armory of alluring barriers: oils, unctions, and inscriptions. We live in our skins as if, as we say, they might give us away.

In The Book of Skin, Steven Connor, professor of modern literature and theory at Birkbeck College, University of London, offers a history of the cultural significance of the body’s surfaces. Connor has described his work as a kind of “cultural phenomenology”: he is interested in “substances, habits, organs, rituals, obsessions, pathologies, processes and patterns of feeling.” He has previously written on the history of ventriloquism, and his next book, he says, will be “a book of air.” Brian Dillon spoke to him in London.

Cabinet: Your book proposes three stages in the cultural history of skin: screen, membrane, milieu. Can you describe those?

Steven Connor: The problem with stages is that there are always three of them. 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 but 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 thought, the way in which thought becomes affective, becomes lived through the body, and through the imaginary body too.

And the first of those moments has to do with the skin as a frontier or barrier.

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, but somehow not ever itself in the frame.

Dried head from a medical cabinet, Paris, 1847.

When does skin start to be thought of in its own terms?

The second stage is a period when, in medical history, 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 very much in terms of a kind of switch or regulator between inside and outside (a very dominant conception of the skin even now). 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 without now becoming invisible. The skin becomes a topic of concern; it becomes self-reflexive. And that is the skin as milieu—a term I draw from Michel Serres—or as a mid-place: the skin not so much as a thin membrane, but as a whole habitat, as deep or voluminous. So it’s by means of the notion of milieu that I then, rather perversely, having established this seemingly neat frame, attempt to read all the other historical instances. 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?

So you couldn’t say, for example, that there’s a single moment at which the idea of the thickness of the skin appears?

There might be two moments. The first moment would be the work of Vesalius, who was the first anatomist to include an account of the skin, in 1543. Everyone talks about the skin, but 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 by going 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. He doesn’t have much to say about the skin, but he does have something, and I think that inaugurates a new possibility.

And the second moment?

A second moment would be microscopy, because with microscopy—which is developed very early on, in the late sixteenth century about 100 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. 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 seeing the skin?

I have a very strong apprehension that photography is much more fundamentally an art of touch, or the idea of touch, than we’ve gotten used to recognizing. I think it was very clear in the beginning, when photographers were people who processed their own photographs, when there was, as we put it, hands-on experience of the photograph. But it’s still the case that there’s a very privileged relationship between photography and touch. 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 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 touch; 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 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 is a literal casting off of simulacra or idola or effigies from the object: skins of atoms, sometimes called fleeces of atoms, 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, gathers them. It’s a bizarre theory—one that Newton still believed, and he knew a thing or two about optics—and I think it’s a theory that photography 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. Shininess means inviolability. But shine also suggests sensitivity. That which shines is like those parts of us which are not 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—revealed 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.

Yet we tend to talk about that luster 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. The sense that there is an imaginary light that is shining through the skin is at work in many different examples of luster, whether it’s the oiling of weightlifters or in cosmetics. I became, to my surprise, very interested in cosmetics and in the displaced ritual practices of contemporary life for a chapter that’s about the application of the second skin of greases, oils, fats, and creams in religion.

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 more accurately a Northern phenomenon, in terms of culture. It’s a Protestant phenomenon. 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, so that although you are sold oils, it’s always suggested that those are oils from plants. Aromatherapy insists that the things you’re applying to yourself are “essential oils.” But there’s no real chemical definition of what an oil is; it’s an entirely cultural, phenomenological category. Previously—I mean up to 1552—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 prayer book 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 imaginary, infinitely extensible, magic skin that will protect us, that will enlarge us. And we still think this when we apply suntan oil. None of us think of ourselves as sausages sizzling in a pan; we think it’s a kind of shield against the sun. Still, we’re 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 onto the balminess of oil, while rejecting its unctuousness.

We prefer instead the idea of cream, which is also, like oil, something which is extruded through the skin—the nipple is part 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 distinguish the holy oil of cream, which in English matches the French crème, which is the name for chrism or holy oil. So in French it doesn’t quite work; 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 a little thing, it’s a microscopic disturbance. 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, discovered, forgotten again, discovered again. And how that might connect up, surprisingly, with very big issues about the nature of human community, the kinds of collective creatures we are.

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 see 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. One could say that the primary action of scratching at the page—which Derrida, for example, has analyzed 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 involve the incising of traces, how all of that 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 but is not just of the skin because it’s always skipping off somewhere 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 it 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). More than the brute reality of the stigmata, I was struck by this notion of the body reduced to cardinal points, and the idea of the body as foldable or refoldable, as a repertoire of possibilities.

What happens when this schematized 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 Salpetrière in Paris, who also were interested in demarcated zones of the body, and in some of the phenomena of transmigration of senses and sensibilities. It’s as though there is a fantasy that the body, conceived of as a folded 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 organization, some sacred syntax.

You suggest that moles are a randomized version of the stigmata, or the stigmata are a systematized version of the more cryptic implications of moles. Why are moles so important historically?

I think it 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 is full of sky and skin analogies. I think we’ve lost the sense of mole lore nowadays, but 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 ass.”

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.

He 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. 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 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. 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?

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 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, it is to be able to be multiple. To be unhealthy is to be 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.

I realized at quite a late stage that 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,” and it could do its thing but I had a life to lead. We’re friends again now, but we’re still wary of each other. There’s a levity as well as a gravity in thinking about the skin and its possibilities.

Steven Connor is professor of
 modern literature and theory at Birkbeck College, University of London, and author of The Book of Skin.

Brian Dillon is the UK editor for Cabinet and a regular contributor to Frieze, Modern Painters, and the Irish Times. His first book, In the Dark Room, will be published in 2005.

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