more on Shelly Jackson’s Skin

I had a great email exchange with Kimberly McColl about Shelly Jackson’s Skin, which I blogged here previously. Kimberly and I have very different views of Jackson’s project, but our conversation about it clarified ideas on both sides. With Kimberly’s permission, I am posting here excerpts from our correspondence…

I had a great email exchange with Kimberly McColl about Shelly Jackson’s Skin, which I blogged here previously. Kimberly and I have very different views of Jackson’s project, but our conversation about it clarified ideas on both sides. With Kimberly’s permission, I am posting here excerpts from our correspondence…

Kimberly wrote to me the following:

The assumptions about tattoos and text – conventionally printed texts are immortal, tattoos are permanent, text can be translated into tattoo and vice versa, Jackson can “retain copyright” – underlying Jackson’s project are specious. They
reveal a fundamental misapprehension of tattoos and what they can do.
What’s especially interesting to me are the ways in which Jackson seeks to maintain control of the embodiment of each word. For example, “words in fanciful fonts will be expunged from the work.” Expunged in what way, exactly? Also, why impose this restriction, do you suppose? Another fascinating set of questions is raised by the transformation of a person into the embodiment of a word that Jackson has “authored” and authorized.
I believe that tattoos cannot be text–they can only be images of texts. One key difference is that text can be reproduced and still be recognizable as the same text, provided that the order and spacing of the letter forms is
maintained, to crib a little from Goodman. Tattoos are irreproducible and may be one of the last remaining form of expression that retains Benjamin’s “aura.”

To which I responded:

For me, the underlying assumption was not that “conventionally printed texts are immortal, tattoos are permanent” but precisely that texts are mortal like bodies. And, more floridly perhaps, that texts are bodies, texts are flesh. And that Jackson is literalizing this, or bringing it to concrete realization. Even at its most extreme, the tattoo dies when the body does.
Also that texts, or just say words, are alien: they always come from outside, not from within, which is why imprinting on the body seems a better way to conceive them than expressions of the spirit. So this outsideness would be my relation to the word that Jackson would order to be imprinted on my flesh, were I to respond to her injunction and agree to embody (part of) her text. This coming-from-outside, this responding to an injunction, is how I think of my own writing, though admittedly I do not know how Jackson thinks of hers.
I read Jackson’s rather extensive instructions as rather comic, and probably deliberately so. The bureaucratic fussiness about details, the precision of a contract entered into by supposedly free and independent parties — this seems to me to be less Jackson’s desperate attempt to maintain “copyright” and control over the work, than it is another recognition of mortality and materiality. Or to put it another way: these kinds of petty, legalistic restrictions and regulations are necessary, the price we have to pay, in order to ward off the totalitarian horror of the Word as a categorical injunction inscribed upon the flesh by ritualistic torture, as envisioned in Kafka’s “In The Penal Colony.” The grim humor of Kafka’s story comes from the fact that the officer, who finally subjects himself to the torment he imposed upon others, does not find in this torture the transcendent illumination that he imagined his victims to have found. The exteriority is not interiorized, and enlightenment through subjection to power is a sham. Jackson’s methodology is a recognition of mortality and materiality because it is designed NOT to allow for the dream of transcendence, the idealization of what I have called injunction and exteriority, that Kafka is sardonically writing about.
I don’t really know anything about tattoos, but haven’t they become too widespread, too much of a fashion accessory, to maintain the aura they once had? In which case, they would have the same fate that Benjamin describes for other forms of the aura.
But I’d rather say that, in general in “postmodern” culture, the aura hasn’t shattered, so much as it has become ghostly, a kind of a residual haunting, rather than the heightened sense of presence that Benjamin says it was in the pre-industrial past (but also rather than the shattering experience of shock that Benjamin sees as the characteristic of 19th- and early-20th-century modernity).
And if this is the case, then the transfer between printed (or electronic) text and tattoo is not as severe a disjunction as you have posed it as being. In both cases, we have the code, conventionalized signifiers, which can be repeated indefinitely without any loss of signification, and the materiality of embodiment, which is irreproducible or untransferable, and which haunts the seeming transparency of the code. And therefore, tattooing the text would just make more explicit (literalize) what is already true of texts but which we tend to forget, when we merely look past or through the materiality of the printed page or the computer (both of which, I believe, are mortal bodies as is my biological flesh).

To which Kimberly again responded:

I agree with you that texts are mortal and also subject to a sort of mutation as new editions are created, old mistakes are corrected (which phrase is also suspect), and new ones are introduced. Biological metaphors are quite useful, so useful that we forget that they are metaphors. The consequence, and here I’m going to indulge my own propensity for dramatic statements, is that we cease to see clearly what we’re talking about.
[To say that the tattoo dies when the body does] is a statement that seems immediately evident. But many preserved
bodies (e.g., mummies, icemen) have identifiable tattoos. Perhaps they are no longer tattoos after death. It may be that for something to be a tattoo (and not simply evidence of one), the skin must be alive. Yet, a tattoo in living skin is constantly degrading: when a dermal cell in a tattoo dies, it breaks open and releases the pigment it held into the interstitial fluid. Adjacent cells typically absorb most of the pigment, but some is taken away as waste. This is why old tattoos are often faded and broken. It’s when the body as a whole dies that tattoos (or what is left of them) become fixed.
It’s precisely that words are alien that makes Jackson’s project difficult for me to appreciate. If I were to respond to Jackson’s injunction (good word), any description or explanation I might give of the tattoo would necessarily be incomplete. It would no longer be a word that is outside of me, like part of an essay or short story; it would be part of me and to remove it would scar me as much as removing a mole or a nipple. The tattoo would disrupt the distinction between outside and inside and transform the word into an image. The meaning that Jackson had in mind would be displaced by the tattoo’s existence in my body and my own unique relationship to it.
I admit that I saw the humor in Jackson’s statement, but it was more convenient to ignore it–a mistake. This part of your e-mail was most convincing. I’m not sure, though, about the comparison. Yes, Kafka’s officer does not find transcendence and also the machine malfunctions and impales him rather than inscribing intended message. In contrast, Jackson’s participants are willing, and the word they accept is not meant for them personally, as the officer’s judgments were meant for his victims. I understand your point, but the willingness of the participants must be an
important difference.
Tattoos may seem frivolous, spectacular, shallow, ubiquitous. They are. Still they fascinate people, and they continue to proliferate and spread among people and media. This fascination is another symptom of Americans’ anxiety about bodies, our inability to control them, and the uncomfortable relationship between embodiment and subjectivity.
I like what you have to say about the residue of aura and the importance of recognizing the material condition of text, whether on paper or screen, but I cannot accept your conclusion. Text can be (and perhaps must be) imagistic and embedded in its materiality, but bodies cannot be textual. The tattooed letter forms would be recognizable in Jackson’s project but they would no longer be text because the ways in which tattoos are perceived is radically
different from the ways in which a word is read. The tattoo would have a level of significance unattainable by conventional text because it resides in a person’s skin. Like any other tattooed image, the Jackson tattoo would
require a narrative. The word would be unable to speak for itself any longer, and if transcribed to another medium, would necessarily lose whatever meaning it had as an image.

To which I replied, once again:

The mortality is the important thing for me, which doesn’t necessarily mean that texts should be viewed biologically (though I recently read a wonderful short story by Paul DiFilippo that precisely runs with that conceit), but which does endorse the idea of art as mutable/mortal/finite/open to metamorphosis, as opposed to the (equally traditional) idea of art as eternal, transcendent, immortal.
Good points, both about the legibility of tattoos after death, and about the question of whether they are still tattoos when part of the no-longer-living body. (I was going to say fixity, but of course dead bodies decay; the difference is between the changes living bodies go through, and those that not-alive or no-longer-alive matter goes through).
I agree with everything you say [about inside and outside] but I don’t see it as an objection to Jackson’s project. The disruption between outside & inside, and the way that the meaning an author has in mind is displaced by the contingencies involved in its imprinting, and the way this ambiguity spreads as well to whoever bears the text, or the image of the text, are all very much to the point of the piece, as I understand it.
I’d want to argue that the willingness of the participants in Jackson’s project is not foreign to what happens in Kafka’s story, since the officer ultimately “wants” to subject himself to the torture machine. But in any case, I mentioned that story only heuristically (if that is the right word?), as a way to formulate/think about the issues I see in Jackon’s piece, both in terms of similarities AND differences.
I don’t really disagree with anything you say [about tattoos versus text] except that I don’t believe “text” exists. I am not denying the differences between how tattoos are perceived and understood and how printed books are. But I think how printed books are perceived and understood is much murkier and multifarious than is expressed by theories of “textuality”; so that I don’t believe that any sort of inscription of words has what you refer to as the significance of “conventional text.”

To which Kimberly replied:

The issue of how print (perhaps a better word?) is perceived is rightfully gaining attention. Returning to Jackson’s statement about her project, though, I am still struck by the primacy she seems to give to the word, how she seems to envision it subsuming the body. Even taken as tongue-in-cheek, it’s still a little disturbing to me.

That’s pretty much it. I’m posting this at such length, because I believe I learned a great deal from this exchange. Thanks again to Kimberly for writing such thoughtful and thought-provoking comments.