Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Human Skin as a Record
Like many of you, I'm always reading several different books, fiction and non-fiction. Every once in a while the books (or in this case, a review of a book) I'm reading mesh in some way.
I've just finished the May 29, 2007 post in Richard J. Cox's blog Reading Archives which has a review of a book by Valentin Groebner, entitled Who Are You? Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe. The author defines it as being about the “histories and prehistories of identification and its documentation” (p. 8).
We identify ourselves and each other now mainly with paper documents--driver's licenses, credit cards, passports--but there was a time, before paper, when we used not just seals, badges, coats of arms, and notary signatures, but our very skin. Human skin as archives, if you will. Scars, birthmarks,and burns are all examples. As Groebner wrote "Once inscribed on the skin, no marking can be removed, but can only be supplemented” (p. 97).
Now it happens that at the same time that I was reading this review, I was finishing Laura Lippman's "What the Dead Know". In that book a character, who has no papers, no relatives who can provide DNA, no one who can attest to who her identity after so many years have passed, is finally able to prove who she is by a small scar on her arm. It is having that scar, that tiny imperfection, which allows her to claim her true identity.