Surfacing. It’s been a long, administratively overwhelming term and I’m only now starting to emerge from the depths. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been much to write or think about, because there has. There just hasn’t been the time or space to really poke at stuff. And so, instead of just posting random links to interesting bits and pieces, I put things on hold, and carefully copied and pasted some of those links for later exploration.
So I guess, I’ll start at the top. A number of weeks ago, a friend pointed me to the case of three books in the Harvard University rare book collection. Now rare books are always a treasure. You can feel the history, and you can sense your genetic material mingling with that of countless others who have also felt and read the book you’re holding. As many will tell you, this is the particular magic of archival work.
But these books are different: it’s possible that they are covered in human skin. Indeed, one of them contains the following inscription:
the bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.”
This isn’t nearly as gruesome as it seems on the outside. After all, there is a long tradition of mementi mori; that is, of keeping bits and pieces of people as gestures of devotion and memorialization. Heck, we even do it today: baby teeth, umbilical cord stumps, first locks of hair, placentas … the list goes on and on. Indeed, I remember seeing a child’s leg cast on my grandmother’s neighbour’s mantle. It had dried flowers in it. Interestingly, my parents don’t recall this, so perhaps this was one of those things that only seven year olds see.
Even given this long tradition, the thought of stretching human skin onto a book cover does move into realms that are well beyond the usual Victorian locketed hair locks. There is, however, much to consider in relation to the stretched flesh that covers these books.
In 2000, Sara Ahmed and Jackie Stacey edited a collection of scholarly essays entitled Thinking Through the Skin. In it, they introduce the notion of dermography, of skin-writing – what they call “think[ing] with or through the skin.” As they observe:
The word “dermographia” is a medical term that means writing on, or marking, the skin. But here we use it to suggest that skin is itself also an effect of such marking. This is not to say that skin can be reduced to writing, for the skin matters as matter: it is a substantial, tactile covering that bears the weight of the body. But the substance of the skin is itself dependent on regimes of writing that mark the skin in different ways or that produce the skin as marked. The skin is a writerly effect. We could also suggest that writing is an effect of skin: the touch of the technologies that produce the words; the skin that is shed in the endless processes of composition and decomposition …. Writing can be thought of as skin, in the sense that what we write causes ripples and flows that “skin us” into being; we write, we skin. (15)
Conceptually, their work links to earlier work by noted historian, Barbara Duden; more specifically, her 1993 book, Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn.
Here Duden is interested in what she refers to as the “skinning” of the pregnant woman, the rendering transparent of her body in such a way as to both undermine her pregnant subjectivity and simultaneously, to assert the agency – and transcendence – of the fetus. What happens, she asks, when what was previously invisible – the fetus – becomes visible? When technologies render transparent the pregnant skin? When the pregnant woman is “skinned”?
The further I went into a history of the body – that is, a history of the female body – the more clearly I saw that there are two stories to be told. One is the story of what can be seen by physicians, artisits, and women themselves. It deals with woman as her flesh and being is, or can be, exposed to the gaze. More subtly, it is the story of what can be imagined as long as we keep to the sense of image as that which could be seen. The other is the story of touch and vision, which grope in the darkness beneath the skin. When one of us goes to a medical clinic, she usually has something wrong and can describe it as something that is. In contrast, those distant woman I have tried to approach come to the physician and tell him what has happened to them. They report on events that come at them from the outside or go on within them. At first I thought this was only a different use of grammar, but soon I recognized that in those days women suffered from experiences that have lost all meaning for us. They report on an “ebbing” and “flowing” and “curdling” and “hardening” and, above all, on an interior orientation of their being that is mysterious today but which in their own time was immediately understandable, not only to other women, but also to the physician. Forced to see, to represent, to imagine, we have a restricted sensorium for the invisible shapes inside us. The Enlightenment has removed from our bellies, as from our minds, any reality that is not perceived by the eye. Body history, as I have come to recognize, is to a large extent a history of the unseen. (8)
It is this inside-ness – this body knowledge beneath the skin that also informs the thoughtworlds of corporeal feminists, among them Vicki Kirby, whose words I shared in an earlier blog post.
Skin is, indeed, the foundational point of contact between self and other; according to Imogen Tyler, in an essay entitled “Skin-tight: Celebrity, Pregnancy and Subjectivity” which is included in Ahmed and Stacey’s collection, skin is “the border zone upon which self and not-self is perpetually played out” (77). Through touch, our skin is the first point of contact with the world around us, even as it simultaneously functions as the envelope that encases and protects our vulnerable and fragile flesh. Is it any wonder, then, that human skin might be so carefully stretched across the cover of a book? Skin, it seems, would be the ideal memento mori, a way of memorializing – through touch, feel, texture – those important to us.
But Barbara Duden suggests that skin performs another, perhaps more important function, in that it assure the bodily agency and bodily subjectivity of the pregnant subject. To skin that body, is to also skin a pregnant woman’s bodily subjectivity:
Once there was a time when pregnant women quickened, and when this happened they knew they were with child. It might take place in a drawing room, as we know from the kings’ mistress, but most of the time it occurred while hoeing, cooking, or sewing. Making this know, the woman’s delcration changed her state. A modern woman has no comparable power to redefine her social status by making a statement about her body. In our society, we are accepted as sick, healthy or pregnant only when we are certified as such by a professional. Yet from our perspective, we think the women of 1720 were at the mercy of their bodies. They had nothing like our access to a lab or a clinic. What they did have was the power to testify to an experience which was not just private but intimately nonshareable, and this definitively changed their social standing. A woman might be under suspicion of pregnancy, or have been pregnant in hindsight, but without her own witness, no woman was definitely pregnant. For at least two thousand years, the annunciation of quickening took place in her own secret parts. (94)
Sadly (although perhaps not for Jonas Wright), recent testing on this Harvard volume has revealed that the cover is not human skin at all, but rather, the much more common sheepskin.