Hyperrhiz 04: Reviews
Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth, eds., re:skin
Centenary College of Louisiana
Flanagan, Mary and Austin Booth, Eds. re: skin. MIT Press, 2007. 370pp.
As another excellent addition to MIT's ongoing publications in new media studies, re:skin provides a provocative mixture of creative and critical works that explore issues related to virtual and material cultures, as well as their conceptual overlap, organized under the thematic umbrella of "skin," "the interface to increasingly technological mediation of embodied experience" (1). Departing from the convention in scholarly publications of segregating primary material from criticism, re:skin presents a hybrid of the two, so that each informs and extends the other. In some cases, such as SaraD(iamond) and Model T's "Fur Manifesto," fiction and non-fiction interact in a dizzying assemblage of art and science, human and non-human embodiments, material and virtual fantasies.
re:skin marks the second successful collaboration of co-editors Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth. Their first edited collection, Reload: rethinking women + cyberculture (MIT, 2002), offers a similar format, balancing fiction with non-fiction to present a diverse range of perspectives on the ways gender and sexuality are reproduced and impacted by cyberspace. Like Reload, re:skin is a three-for-one deal, offering readers fictional speculations about embodiment and materiality, artists' musings on the flesh as an artistic medium, and a collection of cutting-edge feminist investigations of age, race, gender, and technology.
Taken together, the fictional works presented in re:skin strike me, on the one hand, as rather perverse (don't get me wrong; I like perverse), and on the other hand, as gratuitous in their forceful, and often over-played themes of techno-sexuality and "body-swapping." Each of the fictional narratives addresses the editors' claim, in the introduction, that "[t]echnology permits us not only to modify our own skins, but to cross skins, allowing us to merge with other bodies or colonize multiple bodies" (1). The question is, what are the end results of such fleshy crossings, and to what degree do they produce new understandings of gender and sexuality for a technological age?
The fictions of Nalo Hopkinson ("Ganger (Ball Lightning)") and Elisabeth Vonarburg ("Readers of the Lost Art") present bizarre futuristic scenarios in which sex and gender are literally turned inside-out. In "Ganger," Cleve and Issy supplement their ailing sex-life with "Senstim wetsuits," high-tech sex devices geared to the wearer's body and designed to heighten the skin's sensitivity to sensual pleasure. When they decide to trade suits and thus sexual experiences, the suits malfunction, producing an electric doppleganger, a monstrous sexual hybrid of the two lovers that mounts an erotic attack on the unsuspecting couple. Troublingly, the moral of this violent and erotic story seems to be that men and women should not trade sexual experiences. Worse, the image of a looming cyborgian hermaphrodite suggests that violations of strict codes of gender, sex, and sexuality lead only to violence and monstrosity. Likewise, Vonarburg's "Readers of the Lost Art," offers a gruesome tale, reminiscent of Peter Riviera holographic projections of Molly in Gibson's Neuromancer, in which an artist and his subject, a woman with a "copper-colored" complexion, surgically remove and then trade skin in a sado-masochistic stage act.
L. Timmel Duchamp, in "The Man Who Plugged In," envisions a near future in which men, with the aid of a medically engineered "carapace," surrogate uterus, and a "maternal interface," can become pregnant. For Howard Nies, however, pregnancy proves more than he bargained for as he experiences the emotional upheavals of fluctuating hormones, a distant and unsupportive spouse, and objectification and dehumanization by his male co-workers and members of the medical profession: "What the hell. To Furness I'm just the housing for her damned interface, and the musculature for lugging her precious carapace for time eternal..." (23). While Howard's corporeal "maternalization" wreaks havoc on his masculine ego, this sense of self is restored as he revises the narrative of his own pregnancy according to the masculinist rhetoric of frontierism and progress: "'From Go, we've been breaking new ground here, Marcel and me,' Dr. Nies said. 'I'm proud of my son, and I'm sure if he could speak, he'd tell the world that he's proud of me. It's a new world, for men, a big, bold, brave new world — as I've just proved, and those who follow in my footsteps will prove, too'" (50).
Jewelle Gomez' "Lynx and Strand" is an engaging love story of two women in a futuristic dystopia. In the story, which stands somewhere between Plato's Symposium and George Orwell's 1984, Lynx, an empath forced to work as a healer for the totalitarian "Society City," falls in love with Strand, a repressed artist working as corporate-controlled advertising agent. To escape their oppression, the lovers resort to the primitivist art of tattooing to transform themselves in surprising ways. As a work of lesbian science fiction, the story is rife with romanticized images of lesbian bonding, including a shockingly literal representation of the stereotypical lesbian "urge to merge."
Like the fiction, the critical works in this collection extend our definition of skin, exploring issues of the corporeal body as interface, boundary, a mobius strip sliding between interiority and exteriority. Alicia Imperiale applies Elizabeth Grosz's Volatile Bodies to architectural modeling in order to argue that the trend toward disembodied engagements with computer-generated "surfaces" disregard the materialization of architectural form, and thus engenders a mind/body split that privileges the (masculine) virtual over the (feminine) material. In their contributions Bernadette Wegenstein, Sara Diamond, Rebecca Cannon, and Jennifer Gonzalez analyze new media art in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and violence, while new media artists Shelley Jackson and Keith and Mendi Obadike showcase their recent works.
Arguably, the strongest contribution is David J. Leonard's "Performing Blackness: Virtual Sports and Becoming Other in an Era of White Supremacy," in which he offers a nuanced cultural analysis of racial stereotypes in sports-based video games such as NFL Street and NBA Street. According to Leonard, the corporeality of black athletes is amplified and exaggerated in these games to the extent that black athleticism crosses over into hypermasculinity, savagery, and animalism, and reenacts a kind of white supremacist minstrelsy." For white gamers who simultaneously embody and control these black avatars, playing these games becomes a form of high-tech identity tourism that "reduces race or skin-color to a commodity" (325).
The wide range of important essays on art, literature, film, architecture, science, and new media (too many to discuss in depth here) makes re:skin ideal for readers interested in new media and embodiment, material feminism, race studies, and cyberculture. Because of its diversity in content, form, and genre, re:skin will stand as an important core text for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in new media, art history, and digital cultures.