Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Epidermis Deep: Glabrousness in the Late Modern Age

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Epidermis Deep: Glabrousness in the Late Modern Age

Article excerpt

And all the carnal beauty of my wife Is but skin-deep. Sir Thomas Overbury A Wife

Skin: Our Most Essential Home

Constantly shedding, regenerating, healing, protecting, and aging, our skin is at once our largest organ and, as Hilary Briggs describes it, "our most essential home" (17). With all the connotations of belonging and security that it possesses, the skin we live within is our complete covering--an integer integument that is, perhaps, indicative of the extent to which our notions of skin are for better or worse implicated in our notions of integrity. It is in this vein that the history of skin reads, at times, like a history of rogue epithelials, whose capacity to protect, regulate, and differentiate human bodies has been exercised on racial grounds (we need no reminder of the discriminations that mark world histories like embarrassing blemishes). At other times, skin has functioned as a site of constructive creative expression in private/personal and communal contexts. We may refer to the tattooing traditions of Chinese and Maori communities that are among many methods for denoting kinship, status, and belief known to the historians. Nina Jablonski is right to point out that it is "Through our naked, sweaty, marked-up skin, [that] we tell the world who we are" (quoted in Briggs 17). It certainly marks stages in the ageing process. Consider the softness of a newborn baby (the expression "smooth as a baby's bum" comes to mind), the grazed knees and elbows so indicative of childhood rough and tumble, the specter of acne that haunts many adolescents, the time-telling wrinkles of adulthood that make their ideological transformation into the wisdom of old age.

These examples find skin expressing a certain normativity and, in this way, compliance to a particular set of cultural expectations. Thus, it remains to be asked, What are the implications for skin when we discover this home to be the house of anxiety--when, beneath this threshold of the physical self, there is found to exist some niggling sense of disempowerment, one that is at odds with the conceived expectations of a broader cultural context? The problem to which I refer relates to late (that is, radicalized) modern cultural conditions that promote the imperative of personal power and yet hinder its vital realization in everyday experience. The individual living in an industrialized (privileged minority) world is encouraged to believe that they should or must be able to achieve their highest potential (as the master of his or her own destiny that makes something of his or her life). Such a sentiment denotes the meritocratic face of a vociferously democratic society--the posture of Western modernity that, as Talal Asad puts it, is so "pregnant with positive futures in a way that no other cultural condition is" (15). But it would be misguided to suggest that there is not a less desirable underbelly to accompany such optimism. For late modernity gives birth to heightened anxieties with regard to social status and global risk scenarios, these being "risks derived from the globalized character of the social systems of modernity ... [such as] the risk of massively destructive warfare ... [and] the risks of ecological catastrophe [that] form an inevitable part of our horizon of day-today life" (Giddens 4). Thus, this discussion addresses contexts in which narratives of self-concern (bodily regimes) signify a retreat into the self, that is, into pre-established cultural shells. It is such shells, according to Bramann, that offer the individual "convenient guidelines, 'identities; and a feeling of security in a world that would otherwise appear to be a mass of 'humming and buzzing confusion"' (9). In particular, helping to "flesh out" an interdisciplinary discursive space for theories of skin, I focus on the cultivation of glabrous (hairless) skin.

In a way that intimates the following discussion I should like to clarify that the significance of risk in relation to skin regimes lies in the way that skin is used to deal with risk. …

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