The Great Ephemeral Skin: Kara Walker, Matthew Barney, Laura Mullen

by on Nov.08, 2010

I’ve been fascinated with Lyotard’s notion of the Great Ephemeral Skin, developed in his book Libidinal Economy, which imagines a libidinous body as a kind of Moebius skin, which has not got two side, but only one, and therefore neither exterior nor interior. Yet this Great Ephemeral Skin hosts a radical contiguity which not only lays interior and exterior out in a continuous surface but also mashes together all other categories—

“[…] the immense membrane of the libidinal ‘body’ […] is made from the most heterogeneous textures, bone, epithelium, sheets to write on, charged atmospheres, swords, glass cases, peoples, grasses, canvases to paint. All these zones are joined end to end in a band which has no back to it, a Moebius band which interests us not because it is closed, but because it is one-sided.”

I find this figure immensely interesting and Lyotard’s vertiginous way of writing about it, which contains many dizzy(-ing) lists, even more so. Amazingly, I find this figure popping back in to my head when I consider any number of artists and writers whose work configures a radical contiguity like this—Kara Walker, for one, whose lateral panoramics force the viewer to mime reading, black on white, to encounter body after body pressed into a syntax of violence, in which not only are hierarchies of master and slave continually broken down, flipped and recycled, but also hierarchies of person and object, weapon and body, before and after, cause and effect. All are flattened out and reworked by this reading, which, as one critic has observed, establishes no vanishing point, and therefore no prescribed point of view or critical distance.



Matthew Barney is clearly another; in his work, the body is one more material whose utility is only known, paradoxically, when it is stripped from the body, laid out limb by limb, tissue by tissue, and brought into contact with other elements and materials, making a fabric with them. Violence is the means by which this primacy is undone and this fabric of contact woven.

In lit, I can see a lot of examples of this but most recently I was rereading Laura Mullen’s “Tales of Horror” and it seems we can apply this model to this book as well. It mounts extreme denaturing of the horror/gothic genre, with all kinds of stock figures, tropes and narrative tags stripped out of their normal narrative hierarchies (and temporal orders) and laid end to end in very long prose lines which do not behave like normal syntax:

I entered the house carefully but was dismayed to find that nevertheless
The ancient house the abandoned house the house that had been like that forever
Despite my caution in entering in spite of the considerations I had so thoroughly
Entertained the doubts I had so prominently displayed et cetera I found that
Despite my trepidations in spite of the warnings I had received “but they were anonymous
Remember” which I had lent an ear to which I had listened so judiciously
Which I had read and then burnt as the notes instructed but had believed
Although this had been I repeat I cannot make clear enough no sudden […etc]

This is the opening ‘passage’ or should we say strip of skin in Mullen’s work and I must say I find it beguiling and frightening. All the muggy narrative tags that express a narrator’s hesitation, forthrightness, misgiving, or dread in any number of generic works, so frequently at the beginning of books, chapters, and sentences, are here denatured, laid out end to end to form a libidinous and spasming strip, where I can barely make any progress but am sucked into a miasma of misgiving, of quicksanding generic tone, phrase by uncertain phrase. The inability to move forward, to follow a syntactically causal pattern, makes the dread all the more dreamlike. There is no before or after, interior or exterior to this material, and there is no getting out (alive).

The delicious non-advancement, the interminable vibration of Mullen’s unsettling denaturing of genre and rendering it a libidinous skin/film, reminds me of a quote I read in an excerpt from an essay by Gerard Genette, in the old Madame Bovary translation from Bantam (which edition I treasure, treasure!):

“Valery could not accept the accessory and hence arbitrary element of that marquise who goes out at five, and this is why the art of the novelist was to him ‘almost inconceivable.’ Flaubert, on the other hand, is preoccupied (and with him, his novel) with the accessory. He forgets the marquise, her appointment, her love affairs, and becomes fascinated by some material circumstance: a door which slams shut behind her and vibrates, interminably. And this vibration which imposes itself between a network of signs and a universe of meaning overthrows a language and establishes a silence.”

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