Skin: On the Cultural Border Between Self and World

Skin: On the Cultural Border Between Self and World


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"Only skin deep," "getting under one's skin," "the naked truth": metaphors about the skin pervade the language even as physical embellishments and alterations—tattoos, piercings, skin-lifts, liposuction, tanning, and more—proliferate in Western culture. Yet outside dermatology textbooks, the topic of skin has been largely ignored.

This important cultural study shows how our perception of skin has changed from the eighteenth century to the present. Claudia Benthien argues that despite medicine's having penetrated the bodily surface and exposed the interior of the body as never before, skin, paradoxically, has become a more and more unyielding symbol. She examines the changing significance of skin through brilliant analyses of literature, art, philosophy, and anatomical drawings and writings. Benthien discusses the semantic and psychic aspects of touching, feeling, and intellectual perception; the motifs of perforated, armored, or transparent skin; the phantasma of flaying; and much more through close readings of such authors as Kleist, Hawthorne, Balzac, Rilke, Kafka, Plath, Morrison, Wideman, and Ondaatje. Myriad images from the Renaissance, anatomy books, and contemporary visual and performance art enhance the text.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780231125031
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication date: 10/06/2004
Series: European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Claudia Benthien is assistant professor of German at Humboldt-University, Berlin. She received the Tiburtius Prize from the Berlin senate for this work.

Table of Contents

Preface to the American Edition
1. The Depth of the Surface: Introduction
2. Boundary Metaphors: Skin in Language
3. Penetrations: Body Boundaries and the Production of Knowledge in Medicine and Cultural Practices
4. Flayings: Exposure, Torture, Metamorphoses
5. Mirror of the Soul: The Epidermis as Canvas
6. Mystification: The Strangeness of the Skin
7. Armored Skin and Birthmarks: The Imagology of a Gender Difference
8. Different Skin: Skin Colors in Literature and the History of Science
9. Blackness: Skin Color in African-American Discourse
10. Hand and Skin: Anthropology and Iconography of the Cutaneous Senses
11. Touchings: On the Analogous Nature of Erotic, Emotive, and "Psychic'' Skin Sensations
12. Teletactility: The Skin in New Media

What People are Saying About This

Werner Sollors

Benthien's fascinating study illuminates historically changing notions of 'skin'in literature, art, and anatomical and other scientific discourse since the eighteenth century. The reader of this book gains a new understanding of the cultural significance of skin.

Werner Sollors, Harvard University

Avital Ronell

A stunning meditation on cultural codifications of skin, examining the hierarchies of color, discursive grids and fantasmatic cathexes, some of which are bound to make one's skin crawl. Claudia Benthien produces a crucial skin archive of masks, bandages, and the residue of an unbearable history of flaying.

Avital Ronell, New York University

Sander Gilman

It is important that Claudia Benthien's history of skin has finally appeared in English. Benthien's is the best and most comprehensive study of the wide and contradictory meanings associated with the largest organ of the body (yes it is an organ and it is huge)! Hers is a work of cultural history of importance to students of gender and race as well as to any one who believes that this is a problem merely 'skin deep.'A must read!

Sander Gilman, University of Chicago

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