When a tattoo is fashion not fetish

The Book of Skin
October 29, 2004

By the time an intellectual discipline has distinguished itself from its competitors and graduated beyond its ancestors, it will possess its own key concepts, speak in its own idiom, declare allegiance to a method with a morality to match, and name a few sacred texts as gospels for the novice.

Steven Connor is surely the most impressive scholar of the generation that has brought cultural studies to maturity. His early effort, Theory and Cultural Value , tabulated the laws of the field; his recent history of ventriloquism announced quite new ambitions to his listener; and now this long and remarkable study, The Book of Skin , equips us with a work that is masterly as to method, daunting as to erudition, calmly unshockable, judiciously speculative and tremendously interesting.

Connor's austere authorities are all selected from the Hautes Ecoles and the Collège de France: Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Alain Corbin and Gaston Bachelard (although Connor terms the latter as "plain soppy"). With these lights to guide him, and his true Penelope, James Joyce, at his ear, Connor gives full play to the merciless tropes of paradox, pun, synecdoche, metonymy, and the associative collisions of etymology (aesthetics, anaesthetics; figure, disfigure). Wit and wisdom are certainly here allied: time and again, his observations on slitting, tearing, picking, smearing, bring his reader up with a jolt of recognition, as well as a queasy anxiety that all is not well in the peristaltic process. He is untouched by prurience, and the reek of human emanation is everywhere present.

He orders his topics by intuition rather than by grammar or pathology - "Complexion", "Disfiguring", "Stigmata", "Off-colour", "Aroma" and "Itch" are among his chapter headings - but although it is his purpose to prove the paradox that "each of us wears all of mankind as his skin" (Marshall McLuhan's words), there is no predicting where his thoughts will tend. Thus disfiguring leads him to the prescriptions of the law; the universal stigma of the navel to the historiography of hysteria; aromatherapy to some tormented punning on "Sartre's virile resiling against the threat of the visqueux".

This last sally gives ground for my modest objections. For despite Connor's terrific historical and geographical reach, his originality and daring, it is damnably hard to discover an argument or an explanatory framework that would give system to his insights. He gives us no idea, for example, why the young wear rings in their eyebrows or tongues, nor how tattooing has passed class and gender boundaries and is displaced from fetish to fashion.

One wishes that Connor had trusted that great anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard to tell him and us what cicatrices mean when cut down to the very skulls of boys of the Nuer as they became men.

Hermeneutics is a harder and more factual business than the most arresting speculation ("the scratch-card is a magical skin-fragment"), but it is at the heart of the science of human affairs. Without it, the proper study of humankind loses its responsibility to humans, and even so serious a thinker as Connor cannot then tell the difference between frivolity and truth.

Fred Inglis is emeritus professor of cultural studies, Sheffield University.

The Book of Skin

Author - Steven Connor
Publisher - Reaktion
Pages - 304
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 1 86189 193 8

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