Comps Reading 1: Second Skin

Cheng, Anne Anlin. Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Anne Anlin Cheng’s Second Skin is an innovative exploration of the racialized and sexualized body in performance. Through the intricate case study of Josephine Baker, Cheng uses Modernist philosophy, art history, and architecture to offer new reading on how we see Baker’s body. More than merely a redemptive reading of Baker— one that seeks to read agency in her life and carrer— Second Skin seeks to uncover the very conditions and politics of visibility. “Although the history of radicalized femininity would seem to insist on a relentless story about the coersion of the visible, we might want to ask: how is it we know we are seeing what we are seeing? What are the conditions under which we see?” (3) As such, her highly interdisciplinary study contextualizes Baker within her time. “By situating [Josephine] Baker in relation to various modes of Modernist display— the stage, photography, film and architecture— we will trace alternative stories about racialized skin, narratives that compel a reconceptualization of the notions of racialized coporeality, as well as idealized, modernist facades” (7). These “alternative stories” provide a more complex reading of race and sex in history and performance. Through her development of a “second skin,” Cheng’s is a complex weaving of agency, objectification and surface, begging us to reimagine the way we have traditionally read Bakers black feminized body, and instead attend to the politic implicit in this historicized gaze. 


What is perhaps most interesting about Cheng’s study, and the most applicable to my own work in material culture in/and performance, is her complication of the traditional binary of objecthood/subjecthood. Drawing on material culture studies that seeks to upset traditional hierarchizing of objects and humans, Cheng asks provocatively: what agency might be found in objectification?  Through a decoupling of skin and flesh, by “attend[ing] to the curious interface between skin and organics surfaces emerging out of the first quarter of the twentieth century,” Cheng sees “raced skin as itself a modern material fascination” (14, italics in original). The second skin becomes a material object all its own. As such, “The very process of objectification— even as it takes subjectivity from her — also invested the object around her with subjectivity, which in turn provides a kind of cloak for her nakedness…. objectification can be a kind of covering too” (116).  So, Cheng proposes Baker’s nakedness as a costume in itself (111), an object with agency. By contextualizing this materialist argument within a modernist history of surfaces— both in photography and in architecture— helps historicize Cheng’s reading of Baker. We cannot simply read Baker as an object to the white male gaze, rather, she occupies a grey, uncomfortable zone of competing objectivities/subjectivities. In other words: “Desire to have/desire to be become conflated in a complex negotiation of desire, embodiment, subjecthood, objecthood”  (57). 

In conclusion, Second Skin offers an exciting new reading of at the raced and sexualized body in performance. More than simply reading agency in Baker, Cheng explores the potential reductivenes in a object/subject binary, exploring instead what agency might be found in the skin-as-object; what objectness might allow. “From skin to surface to dynamic superficiality, reading Baker has required that we go beyond the established terms of racial visibility underscoring how the rhetoric of becoming visible that has energized so much of progressive racial politics often elides the contradictions underpinning social visibility and remains inadequate to address the phenomenological, social, and psychical implications inherent in what it means to be visible.” (167).