“Did you have sex? You look radiant today.The subject of afterglow and sex has been one of the favorite topics of healthy relationships promoted by bloggers. One article reads “ScienceSaysWeCanGlowfor2FullDays After Sex”. Movies represent sex as a booster of energy that usually changes the sad adolescent or sour adult into a glowing, bright new person. No, I answer trying to act serious, it’s just my Glowdoscope palette”—a sort of highlighter that shines on my skin in a mysterious way. I turn my face towards the light, letting the shimmer (di)form me once more. Almost like the trace of a snail moving from the corner of my arcades to the cheekbones, a crescent moon configures my face.
The snail though travels a connection of thoughts sometimes not as slow as one might think. Among other, Korean Snail Masks have recently seen a boom in the wake of the Asian Skin Care, a beauty trend of mostly Korean products that center healthy skin on the radar, rather than the tendency of covering up imperfections. The trick is to repair it—food for the skin. The snail mucin is advertised under the guise of having rejuvenating powers, able to restructure the skin, make it firmer, soft and plump, and, of course, radiant. This shininess comes not from shimmer powder like my make-up palette clogging my pores, but from within. “Beauty from the inside, your soul, crawling up on the surface of the skin,” I think to myself laughing. Snails nevertheless make for a peculiar appearance in collective imaginaries as symbols of sexuality and gender, a reference to the moist flesh and shiny liquidity of a vulva, rising out in the open once more. The shimmer of skin, the radiance, the iridescence. I am here interchangeably using shimmer and iridescence, by referring to a form of glow, something that is considered as an organic secretion (visible in different degrees) and as a surface that can project multiple perspectives. This understanding is inspired by Tavi Maraud’s argument that intimacy and closeness organize “our experience of space and especially of surfaces”, where iridescence cannot but readdress the locality of the surface. The popularity of the snail mucin products, if we are to follow advertising marketing, resonates the most with geographical areas where snails have also been part of people’s diet.theoutline.com They’ve been ingested, eaten up for hundreds of years, and now they dance on our skin, smeared over like a miraculous product: life-changing.
Looking at this mantra shaping now ideas of beauty, fashion seems to have given clothing the co-pilot seat. Skins appear to be now the prime locus where the mediation through which the body enters the socio-cultural world happens, especially a women’s body. It forms a conglomerate in which, as a woman, you should become nothing more than, well, flawless. The relationship between fashion and fetishism might easily mislead us into losing our heads over imageries of lush touches of fabrics caressing the skin, silk lingerie, red Louboutin’s, or tight dresses of luscious vinyl of dominatrix Madames. As Janice Miller writes, the idea of fetish in fashion/ing the body possesses a sense of glamour that by far resides not in the mundane of Sigmund Freud’s examples of garments, but rather, in the dreamlike world of symbols.Janice Miller | Sigmund Freud. More than a Fetish: Fashion and Psychoanalysis | Thinking through Fashion:. A Guide to Key Theorists, (eds.) Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik | I.B. Tauris | 2016 | 53 If the fetish in fashion has always played a role in sparking our imagination for ways to contain, fragment, and design the body of desire, fashion spells it as well beyond sexuality per se, into the belief system once more. The attraction of fetish lies in the power of a garment to change and exchange its user.
The anthropological perspective in this sense traces the cultural practices to the Portuguese term fetisso attributed to African cult objects that, involved in magical rituals, retained a great deal of enchantment. If ingested or carried close to the skin, they endowed their possessors with extraordinary abilities, while at the same time could heal the body, both the physical and the psyche. The problematic of the fetish emerges however from its association with deceit, witchcraft, and marginal religions—with distrust over the “Other-ness” of all that wasn’t “real” objects or beliefs outside the creed of the Catholic Church. Like Fetish, fashion is derived from the Latin facere: to make.Ann Rosalind Jones & Peter Stallybrass | Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory | Cambridge University Press | 2002 | 8–9 And like fetish, fashion is subject of distrust, on the way it wears itself through objects of adornment out in the open. We might think of fetish through garments of magical qualities translating the ugly world of commodities into meaningful artifacts, which either complete the body—in Freud’s terms of substitute or lack—or to paraphrase Jean Baudrillard, make it an exquisite object of consumption.Jean Baudrillard | The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures | Sage | 1998 | 129 But in the dreams that run over our bodies, we can also consider it in a more fluid way, where the fetish functions both as a margin and an enchantment. In terms of ritual practices, it can reflect on the relationship between the body and artifacts of an origin that resides in encounters, performativity and, most of all, tactility.Lidewij Edelkoort | Fetishismin Fashion | Frame | 2013 Same as clothing, and in connection with the garments we hold dearly to our bodies, the skin does not escape figurative connotations, reassuring both the body’s boundaries and its social placement. Yet, it’s always a land that expands and grows, that sheds and transforms. Weight, dehydration, age, rushes, allergies, bruises, suntan are just a few of the things that affect the skin and of which we are maybe more aware in everyday-life. In a way, the fabric of the skin is of alien manufacture that consistently refuses to stay in its place.
“The Skin That Walks”—as Lesley Lokko names it—has always been foremost a matter of political tensions, for it can let inequalities manifest or be reiterated on its surface. Color—makes skin the first one to assert differences. “The fairest of them all”, we should recall, remains still a most dangerous ideology haunting us. The recent obsession with skin complexion attests to the intermediate stage skin now occupies in our imaginaries, its understanding as a screen onto which “our fears and fantasies about power, class, gender and even sexuality are projected.” But Lokko proposes a different take. In many African cultures, the body and the skin become another surface in which almost literary culture is carved. Instead of a projection screen, that thin layer that just so covers the body, skin becomes a thick material for inscribing memory and tradition, as it happens with practices of tattooing or scarification. Blood, tissue, secretions—the interactions within the surface bring back both pain and pleasure. The way we design our body here, through the skin, “is something that brings the world into the body” rather than a body designed by the world. It opens a space in itself, allowing reflections on shared experiences and identity, of passing on values and simultaneously one of self-expression.Lesley Lokko | In The Skin Of A Lion, A Leopard ... A Man | Superhumanity: Design of the Self | e-flux Architecture | 128/131–133 In this sense, the thickness of the skin becomes the pliable, the fold, the garment that inscribes a sense of community and feelings that bring back into focus the wearer of one’s own skin, a being in becoming.
Fashion’s superpower, one could say, resides particularly in its ability to create new understandings or fictions in approaching our bodies, and their sculptural envelope through an emotional and connective liaison. Yet, practices of self-adornment subjected to fashion as they are, always find themselves in an ambivalent state: between an inner movement towards the body and drivers of commodities. Often enough, they seem to run the risk of slipping into the same old jargon that claims the otherness of these practices as “source of inspiration”—if not downright appropriation. The colonial logic—or capitalism—of exploitation and exoticization, somehow still markets everything that goes outside of limits, maybe not directly in monetary flow but at least in image capital. Afrofuturism, for example, managed to challenge hierarchies and set imaginative traits through a “de-colonizing process” relying on alternative histories and geographies, as well as a sense of identity that ultimately rewrites the past through the future. For them, fashion and style played an essential role in re-designing the stuck western perspective, and much credit has been given to celebrities as well as prominent fashion brands for championing diversity.Sonja Eismann | Afrofuturism | Fashionand Postcolonial Critique (eds) Elke Gaugele, Monica Titton | Sternberg | 65/ 70–71 But if we look at brands like Givenchy or Chanel that end up feeding their customers fragmented and often regurgitated bits of style easier to digest, then this praise of diversity becomes blurry. And in this sense, appropriation under the discourse of inclusion makes the decolonizing process of imaginaries in fashion both an imperative and more so of a difficult task.
Michel Foucault once wrote that “there is no need for magic, for enchantment. There’s no need for a soul, nor a death, for me to be both transparent and opaque, visible and invisible, life and thing. For me to be a utopia, it is enough that I be a body.” The body is never there, it is always subject to configurations that refuse to admit that we don’t know what a body is in the first place. So, we let images and signs run across its skin, fictions that attempt to incorporate it in one order or another. Yet, the body “is always elsewhere. It is tied to all the elsewheres of the world. And to tell the truth, it is elsewhere than in the world, because it is around it that things are arranged.”Michel Foucault | Utopian Bodies | Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art (ed) Caroline A. Jones | The MIT Press | 2006 | 229–234 Then to live through the skin, through this sensed contact, one might say we approach heterotopia. We are in a space that lightly touches on the order, but makes its own one, almost like through the looking glass. Our living, breathing surface is then something of magic and enchantment, mediating between all that it evokes in terms of social placement and that which cannot be named, only felt, between institutions and make-do.
The elastic skin envelops us and keeps us in form and informed. We sense through it, we wear our bodies through it, we have to literary face it, every day. There’s this scene in Jonathan Glazer’s movie “Under the Skin”, where fleshy male bodies shed their clothes and then their skin, disappearing into an amorphous liquid of tissues and fluids. Emptyness. Formlessness. Scarlet Johansson’s character, however, wears her skin as a cloth, a costume that allows her to pass as a social and culturally recognizable body, where both eroticism and sexuality slip into appearance. When in the last scene, her skin opens to reveal another living being, from underneath there’s a dark luscious figure rising—like a sculpture or a fitting mannequin—covered in a soft shine of moisture and oil. Made of shining stars—one could say, thinking about the black impenetrable monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, an exercise in imagining the black box’s content.What has now become a cult phrase, David Bowman’s line “My God—it’s full of stars!” before the character disappears into another state of consciousness. We may not see the interior of our skin-cloth as Glazer’s alien-being, but our skin is made out of stardust: while it might leave the impression of sediments of matter, it’s simultaneously a surface flowing between depth and striations, a surface of and for projection, and yet not one so easily disposable.
Back to iridescence, the fascination for this phenomenon lies in it be- ing visible only at the intersection between light and biological tissue, or organic materials that produce light diffractions through nanostructure films. Stéphanie Doucet and Melissa Meadows argue in “Iridescence: a functional perspective” that iridescence has an aesthetic appeal—an adornment for communicative behavior intra-species—but “may also help animals avoid predation, and may serve non-communicative functions such as enhancing vision, repelling water or strengthening integumentary tissues.”Stéphanie Doucet, Melissa Meadows | Iridescence: a functional perspective | Interface | Vol. 6 | 115 Iridescence is then both an inside and an outside, a signal of the body and a sort of magical augmentation. Starting from this quality of iridescence in “decomposing the medium of vision”, Tavi Meraud considers iridescence to “mark the site where a surface begins to emerge.” Thus “to witness iridescence”—Meraud says—“is to encounter a phenomenon where the axis of reality is perhaps no longer mundanely given but rather one that is shifted towards a heterotopic convergence of images with different degrees of reality” which together form “the shine.”Tavi Meraud | Iridescence, Intimacies | e-flux Journal #61 | 2015 But in this recognition, we also identify the locality of the surface, and in a misreading, perhaps we take as densification of matter what is actually a series of elements coming together. It’s not my intention to explore Meraud’s weaving of the real-appearance interplay, but her suggestion that “when we begin to see more clearly that surfaces are in fact these zones or localities of iridescently shifting, at-once-elusive- and-alluring shining—projecting into the space of the given reality and undermining its hegemony—intimacy becomes the drive towards palpating, recognizing, appropriating these heterotopic regions.” Ibid. Touch, closeness, haptic, affect glide again from the opening surface of the skin to the technological prosthetics or the (touch) screens that govern our lives.
In this sense, could the shimmer be thought as a way of resistance that instead of just adorning might disperse multiple angles of perception in reconfiguring the body? The shimmer in Alex Garland’s “Annihilation”—the 2018 mind-bending sci-fi movie—appears as an iridescent phenomenon presented as a scientific anomaly, an alien encounter. It functions like a prism that reflects not just light, but information understood in physical qualities and organic structures, the DNA. The shimmer’s biological powers create “corruptions of form, duplicates of form, echoes, dreamlike” as Lena (Natalie Portman), the main character, recounts after escaping the Area X. What she encountered was a “mirroring”, shifting, never something of stability. The iridescent pellicle, the light particles diffract- ing, ultimately ingested, move the body from within into other forms or just right out of anything tangible. Nick Statt interpreted the shimmer in “Annihilation” as our lack to imagine an alien-being other than through our own wants. “I don’t think it wants something”, the script line goes, ultimately suggesting, as Statt underlines, “that we may not, on an ontological level, even be able to comprehend an alien form, that it could be so different and vast as to warp our sense of reality and reason.”Nick Statt | How Annihilation changed Jeff VanderMeer’s weird novel into a new life-form | The Verge | 2018 Like the shimmer, like the monolith or the shaper under the skin, the body might as well be an alien for which we account through presuppositions, from medical to cultural representations of identity and race, to outer boundaries like skin and clothing—the body has to be contained in order to be grasped.
The “modern man has an epidermis rather than a soul” in the words of James Joyce.James Joyce | Lesley Lokko—In The Skin Of A Lion, A leopard ... A Man | Superhumanity: Design of the Self | e-flux Architecture | 128 This epidermis nevertheless always sheds, leaving traces of skin flakes into invisible particles of dust. We breathe and ingest it, while we get invested with a hidden power: to project and be projected upon, all while we remain attached to our skin-screen. The fetish for glow, the iridescence, and shimmer growing over our bodies like a skin made of light, cannot be detached by references to enhancement, the almost untouchable, the undying dream of artificial. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could change your face configurations only through an app touch?In a recent paper, Yvonne Förster advances the idea of digital skins and what our interactions with them will mean, while still holding to the experience of the lived body. From Digital Skins to Digital Flesh: Understanding Technology Through Fashion | Popular Inquiry | Vol. 1 | 2018 Yet, in this idea of shape-shifting—that still holds to anthropological narratives of shamanism and animism—the skin rarely leaves our felt experiences behind. You cannot run out of your flesh and skin. If anything, it has everything to do with frictions, with the brushes and bruises, the cracks and malleability. Among them, one might encounter the possibilities of a body to lose itself in the shimmer, to become something else. Something of a failure to fit, since iridescence is always reconstructed and made visible by its angulations of light and perspectives of surfaces. Diffused, confused and distorted by a play of light, it seems an organic crossing us over where not sexuality and gender are the drivers, but transformations. A multitude for which senses remain as relevant as ever.
IN THE AFTERGLOW
“Mystic majestic entangled in a web
of iridescent curling vapor thread
Floating far above the cloud
Sinking far below the ground
No form only my senses remain”
Siouxsie and the Banshees—The Rapture, 1995