Nthposition review of “The Book of Skin”, Steven Connor, 2003

This book is a good example of contemporary (well, 14 year old at this stage) academic writing in the humanities – jargon and theory rich, concerned with unpicking privilege and inequality (and yet its very existence based on the privilege and hierarchy of the academy)

Over time I was less harsh on academic books on “readability” grounds. I never “pursued”  Armando Favazza’s  work on self-laceration, or at least I don’t remember Armando Favazza until just now.



The Book of Skin

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“I want to be able to follow out (and follow others in following out) the intrigues (from that same root, tricoter), the knitting, the sifting, the inriddling of history… I expect to end up materially implicated, perhaps incriminated in the things I am up to here, in the skin… I am to be found writing here, though, not as the skin’s inquisitor but as its amanuensis” Thus, towards the end of his first chapter, does Steven Connor proclaim his intention in writing this book.

Reading The Book of Skin is a formidable undertaking. On the first page Connor refers to Barthes, Emmanuel Levinas, Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Baudrillard, and “the abiding presence of skin in the work of Jean-François Lyotard.” The reader no doubt has her own opinion on the work of the Parisian postmodernists, but even their most avid fan can hardly claim their influence on the clarity of prose, certainly in English, has been good. Connor, as befits, one supposes, a Professor of Modern Literature and Theory at Birkbeck College, is immersed in their tendency to verbiage, and to tendentious (or at least debatable) statements delivered with a confidence that brooks little opposition. I could only bring myself to read a chapter a night, afterwards soothing myself with the most vapid airport novels I could find. The tiny typeface, evocative of particularly daunting textbooks, does nothing to encourage the reader.

It is invidious to quote in isolation fragments which do, in fairness, make more (but not much more) sense in context. Nevertheless, I feel obliged to give the reader a flavour of the verbal environment of the book: “The two kinds of skin markings, letter and picture, discourse and figure, encode absolute and empty time. The law that enacts its everlasting marks is a law of vengeance, measure and ordeal, enacted in linear time. The marks of law mark the entry of law into time.” Another sample: “In fact, for Didier Houzel, the non-orientable manifold is in no sense a desirable or healthy condition. It typifies the experience of the autistic child, whose life is the enactment of an unmasterable internal turbulence.” Everything seems to either “enact” or “encode” something else, and often on the flimsiest of pretexts.

My favourite sentence, and the moment when I almost abandoned the book altogether: “Lyotard’s concern is with the topography and the temporality of this typography.” I’m sure it is.

From the occasional binding of books in human skin (John Horwood’s murder trial and execution were recorded in a volume bound in his own skin) to the differing portrayals of male and female bodybuilders in muscle magazines (the male bodies shinier, harder-looking than the female), the cultural history of the skin is fascinating. Connor displays great erudition – references to Flann O’Brien, to Chaucer and Shakespeare, to Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers carving “4 REAL” into his arm, to the urban legend of Shirley Eaton’s death during the making of Goldfinger after being painted in gold among many others – which leavens the work somewhat. When not cramming in as many references to French thinkers as he can, he is a witty writer, for instance when writing of now-obsolete terms for colour: “the term ‘isabelle’, to signify a rather soiled-looking calico, in memory of the Infanta Isabella, daughter of Philip II of Spain, who vowed not to change her underwear until her forces had taken the city of Ostend. (The grubbiness of the shade they finally attained may be gauged from the fact the siege lasted from 1601 to 1604)”

The early chapters (which “consider the various forms of the skin’s visibility”) are particularly freighted with theoretical ballast, while later chapters (“discussions of aspects of the skin which do not begin or end with the skin’s appearance”) – where the literary theory is in the background, and a particular aspect of skin is discussed in each – are far more readable. Even here the ghosts of the Left Bank rise to haunt the reader – for example at the end of a lucid chapter on the persistent idea that while pregnant were pregnant, any shocks or cravings they experienced would be transmitted to the foetus as a suitable skin marking (for example, desire for a particular fruit would transmit itself into a birthmark in the shape of that fruit, which would change with the seasons in accordance with the ripening of the fruit) Connor can’t resist a bit more theory: “The law of beings is subject to the accident of adversity, which is its own prior law.”

Nevertheless, the later chapters, put bluntly, “make more sense” – one even sees how the theory has its place. Perhaps Connor would have been better served by reversing the order of the chapters, and discussing “the various forms of the skin’s visibility” after the paradoxically more concrete “discussions of aspects of the skin which do not begin or end with the skin’s appearance.”

It would barbarous to dismiss this book simply because it is difficult, but it would be equally wrong to praise it for that reason. Alberto Manguel’s Reading Pictures combined erudition and learning with a clarity of expression and even, at times, an entertainers touch. There is much in The Book of Skin to provoke thought and discussion, many references to works (for example, Armando Favazza’s on self-laceration) which intrigue (and which I intend to pursue), yet one wishes Connor hadn’t made the book such hard work.


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