Under the Skin (Book Review)

Author:  Lemma, Alessandra
Publisher: Routledge, 2010
Reviewed By: Suchet, Melanie, January 2011, pp. 216

Walking into the Yugoslavian born performance artist, Marina Abramovic's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on a spring day in 2010 I was greeted by bodies, many bodies, in extreme forms of experience, pushing the limits of endurance, sometimes clothed and sometimes not, and often accompanied by piercing screams. I was entering the fascinating world of body as art, as canvas, as experiment, as subject and object. As part of the audience I felt transfixed by this visceral art; intermittently and simultaneously horrified and curious as I moved through various powerful performance pieces.

The body has become our cultural symbol, the site for exploring subjectivity and creating identity (Suchet, 2009). We are in a new era, an era of soma, as the body has become the vehicle to enact the wish to transform, transcend and liberate the self. It is estimated that approximately 20 million Americans have tattoos with an even greater number of body piercers (Greif et al, 1999). What are the meanings of this growing fascination with marking the body? Self control through self inscription, claims Victoria Pitts (2003). There is a wish to rewrite the body's meaning, in a literal manner, reconciling the inner sense of self with the body. These visible markings become a body biography, a personal history inscribed on their skins. Some express their desire to free the body from its constraints, to go beyond limits, a process, in Abramovic's words, "of liberation to the point of self obliteration" (MOMA, 2010). Some claim spiritual enlightenment and self-actualization; self transformation through bodily transformations.

I find myself drawn into this world. There is something compelling and fascinating about these bodies and the relationship they have with their inhabitants. Perhaps there is something of the horror and the abject that infects those who enter the space.

Under the Skin, is unique as an in depth psychoanalytic study of body modification, and needs to be recognized and commended for its insightfulness and the comprehensive integration of psychoanalysis with cultural studies, literature, art and film. It is a powerful, well written treatise in the growing field of body modification. Although covering a range of psychoanalytic frameworks, Lemma is clearly rooted in object relations and the work of the French analysts, especially Lacan and Kristeva. Yet she does not simply recite theories, but critically abstracts and uses the theories to expound a deeper understanding of body modification.

For Lemma, the body has become the canvas for the enactment of unconscious phantasies that cannot be verbally expressed. Body modification is "the actualization, through the relationship to the body, of an internalized object relationship" (p.21). Unconscious phantasy of the (m)other1 is crucial in her exploration of body modification as that which serves the function of managing unconscious anxieties and conflicts that cannot be reflected upon. The body is regarded as the place where we meet the other, where the meaning of sameness and difference, of dependency and separation needs to be negotiated. Lemma states that we all have to manage two basic facts: that we are all beings-in-a-body and that we are all the subject of the other's gaze, both important in understanding the internalization of other into the self. She begins her investigation in the shared corporeality of the mother and baby and the complicated emergence out of this shared physical space that is never absolute and inevitably leaves the trace of the other imprinted on the self. The body as living memory carries the entire history of early experiences inscribed on it.

She explores the complexity of desire, we yearn to be the object of desire (essential in establishing a desiring and desirable body-self) and yet we hate the inevitable ties to the object that desires us. We play out unconscious conflicts on the surface of the body. It is very clear from her work that body modification is understood as a solution to psychic pain through altering the body. This was something I was particularly aware of at the MOMA retrospective, both the sense of personal and collective suffering; the body as the site for the transmission of maternal, cultural and intergenerational trauma.

Lemma does well exploring the other's gaze and the importance of the specular in body image disturbances. She explores Lacan's mirror stage, how relevant it is for understanding the dynamics of body modification and body image disturbance because of his use of The Imaginary, which prioritizes the visual field and elaborates on our captivation with image. Lacan's mirror stage shows the child has to relinquish unity with the mother to be replaced with an illusory image of uniting with the mirror. Within six to eighteen months of age, the child is constituted within The Imaginary, the order of images and representations. The child's experience of a fragmented 'body-in-bits-and-pieces' becomes a coherent image in the mirror. Yet the relation to the image is always one of alienation since the image both is, and is not, an image of oneself. This lays the foundation of an alienating structure in us all. However, Lemma criticizes Lacan. According to her, Lacan overlooks the fundamental issue, which is that the child has to relinquish the unity with the mother, and that the body is forever a reminder of, and substitute for, the loss of a fused state with the mother. She also believes that Lacan does not sufficiently explore the dynamics of the mother-baby relationship hence his account of an inevitable alienating self is a better explanation of a problematic developmental path than normal development. For Lemma, Kristeva's ideas resonate well with the experience of being-in-a-body, especially the pre-symbolic dimension of the semiotic and how it potentially threatens to disrupt the symbolic realm. What is thought to be alien to the self is violently rejected, but the abject can never be banished altogether, it hovers on the periphery of existence, threatening the continuity of self.

The most original aspect of Lemma's work is her elaboration of three different unconscious phantasies that underlie the compelling nature of body modification for some individuals, such that, without the enactment of the phantasy, the individual's sense of self fragments.

In the reclaiming phantasy, body modification functions to rescue the self from the presence of the (m)other that is experienced as now residing within the body. This phantasy involves the expulsion from the body of the alienating object such that psychic separation can be acquired.

The self-made phantasy is an omnipotent phantasy of circumventing the (m)other and giving birth to oneself. An envious attack on the (m)other is an attempt to triumph over the other, obliterating any experience of dependency. A profound grievance fuels this phantasy.

In the perfect match phantasy body modification serves the function of creating a perfect, ideal body that will guarantee the others love and desire. Hence the fantasy is of a fusion with an idealized self.

Another interesting concept that Lemma brings to the work is Rosenfeld's distinction between thick and thin-skinned narcissists. She uses this to explore the spectrum of narcissistic disturbances she believes underlie body dysmorphia. The thin-skinned types are more immediately vulnerable, fragile, easily humiliated and more easily engaged in treatment, whereas the thick-skinned seem less amenable. The latter pursue cosmetic surgery with manic energy that has the quality of an attack or triumph over the body. They are more likely to have paranoid anxieties and are more rigidly identified with a cruel, scrutinizing object; hence the attacks on their bodies are more violent.

Lemma is helpful in clarifying that she is primarily concerned with the function body modification serves in the person's psychic economy and whether the use of the body is in the service of relating to the other or attacking them. This is a valuable distinction and a helpful clinical tool for clinicians not as familiar with body modification. Her chapter on tattoos and body markings is succinct and one of the best I have read on the subject. The different unconscious phantasies she elaborates, including the wish to mourn the body of the lost object, or of attempting to cover up a felt-to-be shameful body or of inflicting pain against the grieved object by exposing it to the ravaged body are very powerful and insightful. I did wonder if she ever believed that aspects of the self could be transformed by altering the body as many body modifiers claim. What about the claims of body modifiers as to the liberating potential of body modification? Abramovic talks of freeing the voice, freeing memory and the body. Is there any constructive potential? Are there any ways that the body modification can enhance the treatment?

I would also have liked to have seen a better integration of her concept of helping certain patients move from a monadic body (a body for one) which sealed off intimacy, a form of psychic retreat, to a dyadic, communicative body-for-two. Although in her work there is a clear way in which she looks at the defensive aspects of the closed body, I wanted more of a sense of how she experienced the shift to a body-for-two, and specifically her countertransference explorations in the room.

The only other omission is the lack of any regard for race. Despite the importance she gives to the gaze of the other, to the skin as a psychic envelope, the body as a raced body is never mentioned. Given that she explores the body as always a gendered body, the lack of understanding that it is always a gendered and raced body, is disappointing.

However, she covers so much, with such depth, coherence and vivid writing that it is difficult to remain disappointed. On the contrary, Lemma's mind, like the bodies she investigates, is worthy of exploring as she takes us on this journey through fascinating terrain.

1 Although basing her work on Lacan, Lemma interpersonalizes his theories, using the m(other) to reflect the actual person and not the Lacanian notion of the Other, the unconscious, the radical alterity of another subject which cannot be known.


Marina Abramovi: The Artist Is Present, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, March 14-May 31, 2010

Greif, J., Hewit, W. and Armstrong, M. (1999). Tattooing and Body Piercing: Body Art Practices among college Students. Clinical Nursing Research 8: 368-385.

Kristeva, J. (1982). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. L.S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

Pitts, V. (2003). The cultural Politics of body Modification. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rosenfeld, H. (1987). Impasse and Interpretation. London: Routledge.

Suchet, M. (2009). The 21st Century Body. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 10: 113-118.


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