2016-17: Skin

The Society for the Humanities at Cornell University seeks interdisciplinary research projects that reflect on philosophical, aesthetic, political, ecological, religious, psychoanalytical, and cultural understandings of skin.  Thinking skin calls upon cultural horizons, religious traditions, flesh, haptics, signs, texts, images, biopolitics, screens, sounds, and surfaces.  From the earliest writings on medicine and religion to more recent theories of race, sexuality, gender, class, and ethnicity, how might thinking or making skin inform the global cultural experience from North to South, East to West, South to South?  We invite research projects across historical periods, disciplinary boundaries, geographic territories, and social contexts. 

For classical traditions, skin plays a role in representing the breadth of mythological empowerment, from Heracles’ lion skin in the Occidental classics, Amon’s blue skin in Ancient Egypt, to the skin-walker of Navajo culture.  Some applicants might consider religious and medieval traditions, such as how beliefs in spermatic skin differ with notions of newly made flesh.  Theoretical and philosophical approaches might dwell on skin as a fabric of the mind-body split and of the contrasts between tactility and opticality, in one context, or as the membrane of intersubjective and global connectivity, in another.  While psychoanalytic critics might theorize skin as the figure of touch, desire, trauma, and “the skin-ego,” theorists of affect and haptics might view skin in relation to contemporary configurations of sexuality, gender, queer and transgender studies, not to mention the discourse on aging.

We also would welcome biopolitical considerations ranging from the complex discussions of torture and subjugation to the discourses of race, eugenics, and genomics whose representations have been central to the histories of literature, art, theatre, screen arts, and music.  Architectural historians are likely to reflect on the skins of surface architecture.  Interdisciplinary scholars of the arts and technology might emphasize tattooing, technoskins, prostheses, and nanotechnologies. Scholars in the emergent field of “medical humanities” might choose to study questions of the complex place of skin in disease, contamination, and contagion, just as these same problematics are important in the history of travel literature, geopolitical tensions, and literary and artistic fascinations with the viral.

Thinking skin also opens the way to broad cross-cultural considerations of hermeneutics, epistemology, and social theory that are foregrounded by the challenges of digital culture.  Some scholars may embrace the opportunity to reflect on contrasts of skin or surface reading with traditions of depth in methodologies of criticism, and others might argue for the novel affirmations of surface afforded by digital touch, and mobile devices, connectivity, gaming, and mobile media.

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