Cover image for Skin : on the cultural border between self and the world
Skin : on the cultural border between self and the world
Benthien, Claudia, 1965-
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Haut. English
Publication Information:
New York : Columbia University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
x, 290 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GN191 .B4613 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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"Only skin deep," "getting under one's skin," "the naked truth": metaphors about the skin pervade the language even as physical embellishments and alterations--tattoos, piercings, skin-lifts, liposuction, tanning, and more--proliferate in Western culture. Yet outside dermatology textbooks, the topic of skin has been largely ignored.

This important cultural study shows how our perception of skin has changed from the eighteenth century to the present. Claudia Benthien argues that despite medicine's having penetrated the bodily surface and exposed the interior of the body as never before, skin, paradoxically, has become a more and more unyielding symbol. She examines the changing significance of skin through brilliant analyses of literature, art, philosophy, and anatomical drawings and writings. Benthien discusses the semantic and psychic aspects of touching, feeling, and intellectual perception; the motifs of perforated, armored, or transparent skin; the phantasma of flaying; and much more through close readings of such authors as Kleist, Hawthorne, Balzac, Rilke, Kafka, Plath, Morrison, Wideman, and Ondaatje. Myriad images from the Renaissance, anatomy books, and contemporary visual and performance art enhance the text.

Author Notes

Claudia Benthien is assistant professor of German at Humboldt University, Berlin.

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

Our skins often communicate more than we know, imparting our age, race, social status, and the like. But for contemporary Americans, such messages are inherently changeable through practices such as tanning, piercing, and cosmetic surgery. These practices have historic antecedents, of course, and yet the ongoing cultural role of epidermis has been rarely ingnored. In a scholarly study that ranges from the 18th century to the present, Benthien (German, Humboldt Univ., Berlin) analyzes Western literature, art, and philosophy to determine how Westerners (including Americans) have used skin as the symbolic interface between the self and the world. Examining phenomena as diverse as body piercings, flaying, language, skin color, tattooing, and touching, she delves into the cultural role of skin as the place where personal identity is formed and assigned. Academic libraries with collections on the cultural history of the body (e.g., Michel Feher's Fragments for a History of the Human Body) will find this work of interest. It is an optional purchase for all others.-Christopher Brennan, SUNY Coll. at Brockport Lib. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Preface to the American Edition
1 The Depth of the Surface: Introduction
2 Boundary Metaphors: Skin in Language
3 Penetrations: Body Boundaries and the Production of Knowledge in Medicine and Cultural Practices
4 Flayings: Exposure, Torture, Metamorphoses
5 Mirror of the Soul: The Epidermis as Canvas
6 Mystification: The Strangeness of the Skin
7 Armored Skin and Birthmarks: The Imagology of a Gender Difference
8 Different Skin: Skin Colors in Literature and the History of Science
9 Blackness: Skin Color in African-American Discourse
10 Hand and Skin: Anthropology and Iconography of the Cutaneous Senses
11 Touchings: On the Analogous Nature of Erotic, Emotive, and "Psychic" Skin Sensations
12 Teletactility: The Skin in New Media