Breaking the Skin

Essay: “Breaking the Skin: Two Visions of Destructive Transcendence”


Antibodies, David J. Skal, 1988.

Skin, Kathe Koja, 1993.

At least two horror writers of the late 1980s and early 1990s weren’t entirely keen on the whole human transcendence project via tattoos or technology

In Skal’s case, his near future science fiction novel deals with what we would call transhumanism.

In many ways, it’s an oh-so 1980’s novel.

There’s a cult. There’s a cultist. There’s a deprogrammer.

There’s CIA nefariousness in Central America, here in the fictitious country Boca Verde, “a whore, dispensing favors equally to tourists and terrorists”. There’s even a repeat of the 1980s conspiracy theory that the CIA created the HIV.

The cult is the Cybernetic Temple based in Boca Verde because U.S. law won’t allow its medical procedures and devices. (And one is reminded of another San Francisco cult based in Latin American jungles, the People’s Temple.)

The gospel of the Cybernetic Temple is spread, in this pre-internet age, by videocassette, and it promises science will actually deliver the promises of immortality made by conventional religion. The technologies to do this do not sound, apart from no mention of mind uploads and nanotechnology, all that different from what the Extropians talk about:

Artificial replacements for vital organs … myoelectric prosthesis … biocompatible silicon rubber … fluorocarbon substitutes for blood itself.

And, like Extropians, there’s a strong libertarian element to the propaganda of the Cybernetic Temple. They rail against government regulations:

More deregulation is required, not just in medicine but in all matters of trade and free choice. America’s laissez-faire dream has yet to be realized. If we cannot make decisions as basic as the control and disposal of our own bodies, then we cannot truly be considered free.

At a party, there’s an amusing bit where one Temple follower has said he’s tried Scientology and read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged fifteen times and has last found something that works.

Ed Bryant’s cover blurb does a good job at summing up the flavor of the novel:

Antibodies is a film by David Cronenberg from a screenplay by Harlan Ellison based on stories by J. G. Ballard and Joyce Carol Oates.

I’m not that familiar with the work of Oates, but there is definitely the flavor of sexual fetishism directed toward the unhuman you see in Ballard’s Crash. There’s a scene where a boy humps a garbage disposal while taking his hand off in it.

The desire of the main character Diandra is to become like the steel eyed mannequins in the famous window displays she does for a San Francisco department store, is not initially sexual. In fact, she has resisted the sexual advances of both men and women. Her rejection of the body stems from early sexual abuse by an uncle. (This easy go-to of childhood sexual abuse to explain mentally damaged characters seems to have gotten its start in the 1980s, the same decade that gave us a lot a modern witch hunts in numerous prosecutions in the U.S. of supposed abusers at childcare facilities.)

But this connection between fetishism and the transcendence of the flesh is strengthened when Diandra finally finds sexual pleasure in the mechanical grasp of Venus Tramhall, the famous sculptor who is the symbol and leader of the Cybernetic Temple, a woman with two very sophisticated prosthetic arms.

Skal doesn’t entirely rig, in emotional or factual terms, his argument of revulsion against the Cybernetic Temple. His deprogrammer character, Julian, head of an organization called Resurrection House, is a detestable character. He sexually abuses some of his subjects. He masturbates while doing a tv interview. He brings women over to his house for bondage sessions while his wife is there. He incites some of his more unstable patients to kill his wife’s lover. He’s a bad example for the flesh-should-stay-flesh side of things.

His wife, Gillian, is something of a covert saint for the Cybernetic Temple. She has pseudonymously penned the science fiction novel Helen Keller in Space. It’s something of a manifesto for the Cybernetic Temple followers. (Her agent quips to her: “You understand the science fiction reader perfectly. Terrified of sex but desperate for romance … craving military structure in relationships … and yet, so vulnerable and afraid!”). Its plot is somewhat reminiscent, in a cyborg spaceship, of Anne McCaffery’s The Ship Who Sang.

Still, Skal doesn’t show any genuine cripples who want the Cybernetic Temple’s technologies (though Tramhall lost her arms, allegedly, in an accident). They just want to escape the universal prison of normal human biology.

And its ending, where it is revealed that all the Temple’s adherents who make their way to Boca Verde, as Diandra tries to do, end up being chopped up for parts or lab rats in experiments to benefit Tramhall and governmental elites, doesn’t address the serious philosophical questions or efficacies of the Temple’s goals. The whole movement seems to come to an end at the novel’s conclusion when a CIA acquaintance of Julian unleashes a plague that kills Tramhall. (An interesting and cautionary philosophical discussion of transhumanism goals is Fred Baumann’s “Humanism and Transhumanism”.)

Skal places the Temple’s goals on a continuum of attempts to “revolt against biology”. A psychotherapist in the novel says:

In all places, at all times, the human body has been considered an object for decoration and alternation. In more primitive societies, lacking our scientific sophistication, the procedures have been limited to such things as ritual scarification, circumcision, tattooing, foot-binding, and, in more ‘civilized’ times, corseting and costume. We really shouldn’t be surprised that our new technologies will generate new fetishes.

The more primitive manifestations of that drive are at the theme of Koja’s Skin. (A book titled Modern Primitives and Industrial Culture Handbook is acknowledged by Koja.)

At the heart of the book are two obsessive artists and their turbulent relationship. (I’ll be examining Koja’s early novels in another posting.) Tess is a welder and works in metal sculpture. Bibi is an artist of the body. At first, that’s just a dance troupe. Tess is recruited by Bibi to create moving props for the troupe’s show, a project brought to an end when Bibi’s increasingly extreme shows end in the death of a troupe member.

Bibi’s is obsessed with body modifications and bloodletting. She offers no real coherent explanation for this obsession other than “Chaos must be met with greater chaos.”

The novel is told through Tess’ point of view, so we never see inside Bibi’s head.

“And to Tess Bibi’s obsession with piercings and cuttings was a kind of unfortunate sidepath, a sideshow, a descent almost into – say it; you think it don’t you?: the freakish: it was for nothing, wasn’t it, but the hectoring of limits? Which was interesting, certainly, and liberating in its own way but ultimately a deader end: my friend got her clit pierced; yeah; so? Do you modify to improve or empower, or simply to feed the greedy black scorn of the human boundaries that succor flesh to blood to pulse and contraction of the emperor mind within? To her questions – rare, but she asked, she made herself ask – Bibi was purely elliptical: soft breath on her shoulder, quiet beside her in the dark: Tess, listen, it’s not something I can explain in words, you have to do it, it’s something you have to feel.

“And for Tess the feel of Bibi’s own desire, the need to share with her, to steep her in the bright blooded ecstasy of pain; in the service of the most capricious god of all, Change.

After the two become lovers, it is Tess’ refusal to get body piercings or see Bibi’s done that precipitates their final separation.

Koja opens her novel with a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “Every idea is an incitement.” At novel’s end, at Bibi’s final show with even more deaths and her complete descent into madness, we see that incitement manifested in Bibi’s body:

her sculpture, raped of its frame, razor wire and bent sparrowbones: the blond hair gone, false gray eyes excised and in the sockets of the hedgehog itself a pair of human eyes, goggle-eyes wet and brown and smelly in the smooth metal clasp, small mouth jingly bright with safety pins circled tight as a cinching gag, the whole of it wrapped in hardware-store chain, the kind you use for a dog, and overdressed again in sloppy pink cellophane; like a candy grotesque; a sweet treat; a jest.

At that moment, Bibi does explain herself to her audience:

There exist so-called primitive tribes who practice and have practiced a variety of rites that our modern society calls aberrant, and wrong; the piercings, the negation, the wearing of the Ituburi – the waist-binding – the sharpened sticks and the heavy stones. In Australia, in certain puberty rites, they used the tip of a flint to rip the penis open, from head to testicles. This was done to prove through the power of pain that we are not our bodies. That our bodies are subject to our wills. That with enough pain, and enough practice, you can use the body to transcend the body. …

This is the lesson that we forgot. This is the lesson of the knife. …

We can learn the lesson again, but it isn’t for fun, it isn’t for pleasure, it’s because we need to, because there’s a place we need to get to and nothing else can take us there, not fucking or drugs or learning, not even the people we love can take us there. We have to go alone.

On a carpet of blood.

Koja’s certainly, in her novels, sympathetic to the obsessive artistic impulse and the transcendence it can offer. But this novel is not sympathetic to Bibi’s concluding statement,

There are all kinds of ways to get there, as many ways as there are people. I found the way that works for me, and for my friends.

Bibi’s way ultimately doesn’t work for her; it destroys her mind and leaves her friend and lover Tess bereft

I expected William Blake to show up sometime in Koja’s novel, specifically his famous line “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom”. (Fittingly, it’s from his “Proverbs of Hell”.)

Blake does show up, though, in the novel’s concluding line to remind us the wisdom to take from Bibi’s story. “We never know what is enough.”


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