Bodily Epistemology: the City and Plastic Surgery

Bodily Epistemology: the City and Plastic Surgery December 7, 2012
The 2011 Spanish thriller The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito), starring Antonio Banderas, begins with Banderas’ character, a surgeon named Robert Ledgard, inventing a revolutionary burn-resistent artificial skin. As the film progresses, however, it becomes apparent that the acts of plastic surgery that drive the invention of this skin is driven by an attempt by Robert to either bury or immortalise a series of very dark, tragic and potentially incriminating moments from his past.
The film is interesting not only because of its contribution to a sub-genre of horror movies which combine a relatively bloodless horror with the sanitary, clinical world of “sci-fi”. It is also interesting because it plays out something that was hinted at in a previous post on the relationship between the body and memory in urban culture. If bodies are a site wherein memories can be imprinted then we should not be surprised that within postmodernity, a culture that tries to expunge memory in order to live in the “Now”, one of the most democratised services on offer is plastic surgery. This is the case because plastic surgery’s selling point is not merely the enhancement of beauty. As The Skin I Live In suggests plastic surgery also peddles in narratives of liberation from one’s bonds to unpleasant memories that the body, albeit implicitly, declares and makes public.
What makes this fairy-tale sell is the fact that it rests on an epistemological truth: that we know things not just with our minds but with our bodies as well. However the industry, which thrives on making many excisions of the old body as a step towards the new (for profit), distorts this truth by having its customers believe that the unpleasurable memories that result from the exigencies of urban life can be conveniently cast aside as the pieces of skin that get removed by the surgeon’s blade and dumped as so much biological waste, and providing a tabula rasa on which the imprinting of new memories (or even the immortalisation of the old) could begin. The industry seems to be cashing in on a thinned out version of Plato’s notion of the mind corresponding with the soul, and coupling it with postmodernity’s relocation of the soul to the surface of the skin, as the philosopher, economist and insurance executive Herve Juvin remarked in his The Coming of the Body.
However, any self-respecting Platonist would tell you that the soul is located someplace much deeper within the person than the surface of the skin. Because of this, the fairy-tales of convenient memory reassignment with a surgical procedure would rightly ring hollow. But given the loss of even the most basic philosophical knowledge within postmodernity, the person as consumer in late-capitalism will oftentimes fall victim to the massive story-peddling capacities of big business, who in turn are more than willing to cash in on our need for a good story to reframe our experiences and memories.
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