To talk about the human skin is to step back from our own bodies, to examine the integrity of the body and what lies right upon it. It is to risk a coming loose – a strange sort of existential discontinuity from what we normally take for granted as the border of our being.
Steven Connor uses The Book of Skin as an opportunity to crack open the experience of being; the book fissures skin into the discrete and yet heavily enmeshed narratives of lived reality and the alien target of knowledge. Over and over, in the ten chapters of this encyclopedia of the human response to skin, the author asks what role the skin plays in our social, religious and cultural imagination, reminding us that nothing from the tanning lotion to the tattoo can be dismissed as self-evident or fatuous.
The Book of Skin alternates its lens seamlessly between the skin-as-surface, skin-as-artifact and skin-as-discourse. It both places the skin within the matrices of human identity and plots its trajectory within the history of the reception of the human body. A lot of very interesting trivia pops up in the course of this mammoth project. I will give you a small taster: there are at least four pages devoted to actual books of skins. There is even a French countess involved whose dying wish was for her lover to have a copy of her diary bound in her skin.
Never before has the gross, the sensational and the utterly bewildering been treated with so much wry humor and close analysis.
It would be a mistake however to assume that the ten essays in this book are only preoccupied with the role of skin within the scope of cultural theory. This book plays with an intimidating tide of knowledge on subjects as diverse as medieval medicinal treatises and the history of lace but equally does not hesitate to deploy pop culture references like Michael Jackson’s Thriller to prove a point. This is possibly the only book in which academic goliaths like Serres and Bachelard peacefully coexist with pop culture icons like the Terminator and Ian Fleming.
The Book of Skin is a brilliant fusion of whimsicality, charismatic articulation and immense knowledge. It heaps together everything that we could possibly want to know (or not) about the history, geography and mythology of the skin – stigmata, scabies and even the rejuvenating sea-plant in the epic Gilgamesh – and weaves it all together in a delightful tour-de-force of imagination and dizzying theoretical acrobatics.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to find out more about the most visible part of our bodies that we all take for granted.