MAPSKIN: the body as a map

donald kunze
architecture / integrative arts /penn state university


1 / "The body is made of numbers"

It should not be surprising that skin has been a drawing surface ever since it has wrapped humans. The emergence of human thought and perception begins with the idea of skin — the skin of the sky, the skin of the god whose voice is thunder; the skin of the earth, which could be marked with a plow and fed with blood. These two cosmic membranes gave rise to culture itself. The writing on the sky was the object of divination, the basis of subsequent laws. The marks on the earth became the walls of cities and the sacrificial troughs of altars.

Tattoos found on the mummified remains of ancestors from the era of hunter-gatherers most probably combined religion with medicine, bringing relief to wounds and ailments such as arthritis. The idea was, as the Navajo developed in the use of sand mandalas for healing, to make the body a microcosm through a process of drawing that could be adjusted and refined, brought in tune with its original model, the macrocosm. The relationship was guaranteed because, in effect, both were skins.

As pictorial convention developed the idea of projection, the skin-map became a grid superimposed on the standing or prone figure. This was both a modern and ancient idea — modern because of its evident relation to projective geometry and perspective popularized in the Renaissance; ancient because the prone body had long been divided into regions and zones for magic purposes. Scottish warriors would spread the limbs of their slain foes in order to dance precisely over them to avoid any retribution from the ghost. The numbered zones of the game of hopscotch probably relate to this practice. Certainly, the matrix of customs engaging the step or dance, numbers, and the body as a map of the soul is common in many cultures. The closest example to our own experience is the Medieval church, whose nave, transept, and chapel correspond to the body, outstretched arms, and head of Christ and whose processions, rituals, and holidays numerically and choreographically complete the picture.


2 / "The skin, like numbers, is ruled by an internal infinity."

Whether number, dance, or map, the idea is to fix the body with an idealized skin. The Argentine short-story writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges wrote a fictional historical account of a country of cartographers who had pursued their mania for accuracy to the point of papering their land with 1:1 scale maps. This, ironically, is the true notion of the map-skin: a perfect congruence between reality and sign, a mapping of everything through the "reverse action" of turning everything into a map. Immobility, the joke result of the Borges fable, is actually the Promethean immobility that fixes the knower with fascination of absolute knowledge.

What kind of knowledge could do this? Some speculate that such a knowledge would include the knower with the known within an infinite recursion — not a "bad infinity" extending outward to Sisyphian futility, but a simultaneously inward and outward symmetry of part to whole. Such was the emblematic riddle of Leonardo’s version of the "Vitruvian man," a revelation that the body itself contained the ancient puzzle about the relationship between circles and squares of equal area.

The search for the "number of numbers" is for a "last number" that perfectly contains its precedent parts, such as the aliquot 6, a sum and product of 1, 2, and 3. The key is probably not a number itself, but simply a ratio, such as A:B::B:C, the proportion of the golden section, echoed in the terza rima rhyme scheme of Dante’s Comedia Divina.


3 / "Anamorphic skin (the power of reassignability)"

From an oblique point of view, the skin can serve both an index of rule (map of divine order) and as the key to the modifying or even undermining of this rule. In this sense, the skin is an "anamorph," a composite creation that is capable of containing/revealing two or more images simultaneously. This is clear in the intention of ancient tattoos which sought to link internal well-being with macrocosmic design. It is also true in a more general sense. Whatever decoration or magic device it sports, the skin is also the boundary mediating pleasure and pain. Most significantly, it is the skin’s ability to exchange pleasure for pain and vice versa that makes it the "hysterical" organ par excellence. Hysterics, in the clinical sense of the term, are known for their ability to re-assign zones of the body as erogenous or untouchable. This confirms rather than confounds Freud’s definition of the "phallic" phase of development as one where sexual interest focuses on the genitals. Actually, it is the subject’s capability of assigning specialized zones that links the phallic phase with the notion of mapping. If a functional region can be assigned, it can be re-assigned. This is even clearer when the reassignments turn out to be objects of desire of other bodies — Claire’s Knee, the eponymous subject of Eric Rohmer’s film; or the exquisite ear of the girlfriend in Murakami’s Wild Sheep Chase.

Mapping implies error, change, and camouflage. The skin is also a mask. When appearance can represent reality, it can just as easily lie. The result is a confounding alternation between the possibly true and the possibly false that cannot be resolved without access to a "point of view" outside the conundrum. This typically involves the idea of an audience, a spectator positioned at remote point, dark and calm. This point is ruled by the logic of the rhetorical "enthymeme" — a syllogism where the connecting middle term that effects the proof without appearing in the final statement is the audience itself. The audience’s point of view is at once central and remote, engaged and detached. It works as long as it is invisible. The skin’s anamorphy implies such an audience, such an enthymemic condition.

The Cretan Liar proclaimed that all Cretans were liars and gave his listeners the privileged position of the audience of a comic farce, where the knowing actor winks at the knowing audience. The comic actor employs God’s logic — "I am I." Comedy, a formalization of the cathartic convulsions of laughter, knows in advance that the magic number is 1. "Your honor," says Groucho Marx playing a lawyer defending his client, "my client may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot, but you should not be deceived. — He is an idiot!" The map is not the indicator of some truth concealed within or beyond but, more revealingly, the truth of truth.

In this sense, the hysteric’s (everyone’s?) regard of the skin as a redefinable surface with cosmic import is the self-identical subject that looks and talks like a subject, but is a subject nonetheless. The "Groucho fractal" is the ratio of self-reference and self-replication that makes the skin a universe and a map of the universe at he same time. The subject is the split subject or, more precisely, the split in the split subject. We are simultaneously in our skin and out of it.


4 / "The ‘wet line’ of culture and the ‘dry line’ of Eros"

This is why such "maps" as the body-column — evidence of the bloody sacrificial origins of architecture in buildings made from the remains of victims — make poetic sense. Ratio and proportion dominate our thinking about this relationship, but there is also another more fundamental ratio at work.

Skin is a tissue whose surface not only covers the body but "extends" inside the body as the mediating membrane of the digestive tract. Topologically a torus, the definition of inside and outside is mediated in several distinctively different ways. The incorporation of food takes place symbolically at the mouth, although real ingestion happens mostly in the small intestines. The notion of threshold is a cluster of symbolic associations and bodily specializations that can be localized "anywhere" appearance demands. Like the Möbius-band, the "twist" that makes the surface so enigmatic can "occur" at any point. The twist is systemic rather than episodic.

Our image-map of the body corresponds closely to the specializations that relate to Freud’s developmental phases, "oral," "anal," and "phallic." The mouth and anus mark that part of the skin-torus that relates to the satisfaction of need and the subsequent development of symbolic ways of dealing with that need. The part of the torus externally joining the mouth and anus — our usual definition of skin — takes over the whole of the phallic function, with its "hysterically reassignable" options, its self-identical role as a mask of itself, and its ability to cross-define pleasure and pain.

Curiously — very curiously — the body’s symbolic division of the skin-torus correlates to the ancient system of the "four humors," the bodily qualities corresponding to the traditional Greek elements, air, earth, fire, and water. The "interior" oral-anal region connects the "wet" humors, blood and phlegm, not in any literal sense but through the associations with the cultural networks that facilitate symbolic exchange in the satisfaction of human need. Blood is the humor of the "sanguine" relationships that are the essence of family and culture. Phlegm is the humor of caution and prudence. This is the key to the chaining of Prometheus to the mountain in punishment for stealing fire. The myth could be translated: "the practice of divination ends feral wandering of early humans by making permanent locations essential to the authority of the auspices." Sanguinity (hot-wet) and prudence (cold-wet) establish a "wet line" that forms the basis of cultural life: systems of exchange for the satisfaction of need, centering on food, security, and wealth.

Fig. 1. The "wet line" of conventional relationships and the "dry line" of phallic connections of fire and earth (Hades).


It may sound somewhat Nietzschean to assert a "phallic," or Dionysian, element apart from culture’s main, "Apollonian" concerns. There is no simple way, however, to form stable categories to cover the complex of practices and meanings that have evolved from the division of the skin-torus. The close correspondence of the "wet line" to the matrix of symbolic relationships (oral-anal, in Freudian terms) is paralleled by an equally close correspondence of a "dry line" (the humors of choler and melancholy, elements of fire and earth) to the "phallic" pursuit of desire which resists incorporation into the symbolic systems of exchange.


5 / "the Groucho fractal"

Needless to say, psychology, culture, biology, and cosmology all intersect in this question of the skin’s phallic mapability. It is not enough to assert the importance of "Dionysian" traditions. It is necessary to demonstrate common regulative structures that work "in any and all media." Skin is only one aspect of this issue, but it is able to demonstrate — more clearly than other aspects, perhaps — the way the "Groucho fractal" works at all levels and modes of personal experience and cultural life.

The "dry line" connecting fire and earth (or light and dark; or Eros with death as Hades, which means "the invisible") is both the surface of the exterior skin but also the "line of sight" offering a skewed angle of view on the "anamorphic" aspect of appearances. The phallic aspect of the anamorphic image is its ability to appear suddenly and then disappear. The phallic quality of the exterior skin — and a key to its relation to maps and signs — is related to the blush as a temporary change of color due to the dilation of capillaries and swelling of tissue with blood. Blushing is conventionally associated with embarrassment and modesty. Beneath lies the use of the head, or even the whole body, as a medium of erection.

Who stands up, who appears and disappears, who is the phallic representative? Tradition assigns this role to the hero, a word that originally referred to any dead person but came to be applied to the mythical character granted the privilege of visiting Hades and returning — in effect, the power of life over death.

The hero is the personification of skin and the "dry line" connecting fire with earth. The hero not only steals fire and is himself "caloric," but he visits Hades, the location of the dark fourth element. Aristotle famously compiled the lore of melancholia in a short work that asked why those with great wit, ability, and heroism were always afflicted with melancholy. Hercules’ melancholy was legendary. The relationship here is not just with the etymology of hero or the trial of descent (katabasis) undertaken by all heroes of antiquity, but with an obligation, enacted by the hero, of recovering the genius of the ancestor.

The dry line is not just an imaginary diagrammatic device but the logic of the ritual whereby the corpse, in traditional cultures, must be desiccated in order to serve future generations with prophecy. Cultures vary in the method they use. Cremation is common; sometimes animals (dogs, vultures, worms) are assigned the role of reducing the body from flesh to bone.

The dry line serves the wet line by guaranteeing the continuance of the psyche, but it must do so outside of the system of conventionalized meanings. It, like the skin, must be a map of itself.


6 / "Vampires as the flip side of life"

In New England some ten years ago, a 19c. cemetery had to be relocated. Archeologists seized the opportunity to study the corpses to learn more about the history of diseases and mortality patterns. Upon opening the coffins, they were surprised to find that a large number of them had been previously disinterred and the remains "re-ordered."

The key to this mystery lay in the nature of tuberculosis, which was widespread in the days of the cemetery’s occupants. The victim of tuberculosis, though evidently wasting away, often displays unusual libidinal energy. After death, the unembalmed corpse does not contract but, instead, plumps. The skin is rosy. A small trickle of blood can sometimes be seen at the corners of the mouth.

These were more than sufficient "clues" to prove to any who dared open a coffin that the deceased was a victim of vampires rather than a microbial disease. The solution was to lay the soul to rest by reconfiguring the remains. A wooden stake through the heart was recommended. Crossed thigh bones was another accepted precaution.

The victims had exceeded the wet line of social convention and acceded to the dry line connecting Eros and death. The procedure was a "re-mapping" of the body to restore the proper Hermetic seal between life and death. It is not recorded whether or not the map-makers did a dance.

The figure of the vampire combines, collates, and re-presents the issue of the skin as a map by being the prototype of the phallic outsider. Consistent with the diagram of the wet line and dry line, the vampire occupies the position of the melancholic genius — what Lacan would identify with the objet petit a, or "little other" (autre), who is surplus to the system of symbolic relations. What do vampires want? Blood, of course, is the answer, both in terms of the folkloric tradition and the humoristic diagram. How do you stop them? The solution tried in Nosferatu is to sprinkle consecrated host in a circle around the unwelcome monster. This, again, is true to the diagram of the wet line and dry line, which specifies that ingestion limits the power of the phallic. But, this is a limited solution which any self-respecting vampire can overcome. Vampire-to-vampire relations use ingestion as the main metaphor of Eros. Vampires don’t copulate, they consume. Again, the diagram of humors explains. The vampire/parasite enters into the figure-eight cycle from his/her emergence from the grave, into the blood system, resulting in phlegmatic response of victims but a refreshing vitality in the "other subject," who renews his/her relationship with the earth. By covering the full cycle, the vampire enacts the humoristic system in toto and thereby transcends the limits of mortality. Skin is reassignable.