September 27, 2007

re:skin Hits a Nerve

by Nick Montfort · , 12:33 am

re:skin... book coverA Review of re:skin
Edited by Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth
The MIT Press
370 pp.

In re:skin, Grand Text Auto‘s own Mary Flanagan and co-editor Austin Booth suture essays, stories, and documentation of projects to flesh out a book that explores our ever-present bodily boundary. The items collected in re:skin are not just about the metaphorical “re-skinning” that one can undertake with a browser or with WinAmp, and not just about the virtual covering that some seek to wrap around 3-D characters. Rather, the book explores how we allow our actual, literal skin to define and segment us and how it can be a medium for expression or a provocation to rethink our concepts of boundary.

From plastic surgery to fur implants, from illegal tattooing to skin grafts, the use of technology to alter the physical body is, for women writers, less a tool for empowerment than a means to construct alternative, multiple selves. Bodily boundaries are malleable, and bodily markers which distinguish bodies are reprogrammable. The pieces gathered in re:skin claim that the technologically mutable body is neither simply liberating nor limiting, but offers instead narratives of ways of living in, and adapting to, a technological culture.

re:skin is the second anthology by Flanagan and Booth, and, like the first, the 2002 Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture, it transgresses the fiction/nonfiction membrane to incorporate short stories as well as critical writing. (It must be admitted that the texts in the book are labeled with regard to their fictionality in the table of contents. However, a few pieces get both labels.) While the book takes the body’s dermic layers as its organizing theme, it is large and contains multitudes. Many recognize the influence of fiction on digital media criticism and production – from Vernor Vinge’s True Names to William Gibson’s Neuromancer and on beyond. But fiction and nonfiction are seldom gathered together as they are here. There are exceptions, such as Cyberspace: First Space, edited by Michael Benedikt, but thinking through imagined situations and worlds is infrequent. re:skin is remarkable for gathering a diversity of perspectives on and approaches to skin.

Right after the introduction, in fact, the book starts in with The Man Who Plugged In, a science-fictional account of male pregnancy in which the belly’s pouch of skin, and its contents, are imaginatively explored. In Bernadette Wegenstein’s essay “Making Room for the Body: From Fragmentation to Meditation,” a deep exploration of what might be called “body studies” provides the context for a consideration of several suit-based and spatial artworks. Sara Diamond’s “Fur Manifesto,” co-authored with someone who at first seems to be her fursona but is later seen to be a different individual, explores how one’s skin (and pelt) interacts with one’s identity. Suits, their sexual uses, and their electrostatic dangers are told of in Nalo Hopkinson’s story “Ganger (Ball Lightning).” Artist-created digital skins and their self-stroking actions are discussed in “Perfect Twins” by Rebecca Cannon. There is documentation of Shelley Jackon’s distributed narrative Skin, in writing and in photographs, as well.

We are sometimes told, in a riddle-like way, that the skin is our largest organ. (Indeed, Mary relates this fact to us in her essay “Reskinning the Everyday” in the volume.) The skin is our interface and our packaging, incidentally enabling racism as well as defining where we end and the world begins. In the introduction to the book, the editors write that “Skin is a metaphor for borders.” This is an odd statement – shouldn’t the abstract thing be a metaphor for the concrete thing? – but a true one. re:skin will interest those concerned with the body, with borders, or with digital skins and skinnings. It should serve to enlarge the reader’s thinking rather than limiting and containing it, flexing and stretching our thinking about the body and its boundaries.

3 Responses to “re:skin Hits a Nerve”

  1. Celia Pearce Says:

    Nice review Nick! It’s quite fascinating how in spite of all the promises and Utopian ideals of new technology, in some essential ways, we never change. I’ve noticed this as well in my own work: the core issue of identity/appearance/skin never seem to go away and when people enter into their virtual identities these cultural framings are still at work. A friend recently reported to me that he was asked to leave a lecture in Second Life for presenting as a furry. The lecture was about free speech and censorship. My friend noted to the virtual bouncer the irony of his request and was allowed to stay. In contexts where anything is possible, we still carry our real world skins and their culturally constucted contents with us. Congrats on the book release Mary! These are important issues that all too often get buried in our ecstatic techno-fetishist frenzy.

  2. mary Says:

    celia, the furry story is amazing, and thankfully reason still worked in his case. The question of where the real world skin and the virtual connnect and disconnect has been a subject of writing for a over a decade, and this book does explore issues of embodiment in what I think are novel ways. Beyond the celebratory 90’s claims to lose the body, we now know the real body, and even the virtual as you note above, are both subject to cultural norms, social pressures, and markings of race, class, age, and gender, among other categories… This book goes the next step to imaging possible hybrids and interfaces at the complicated intersection of the computational and the physical, including archictecture, medical imaging, animal skin, and issues of interface. The fiction in the book is essential; sometimes it informs us where theory just cannot go. I’d like to thank all of the authors who contributed to the book, and possibly plan a book launch in NYC this autumn.

  3. nick Says:

    I just noticed a recent, and very positive, review of re:skin in hyperrhiz.

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