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Skin Beyond the Sign
by Louise Jolly| Brighton, UK
Wednesday, 27 October 2010
tags: brand worlds, clients & brands, contributions from, disciplines, europe, header navigation, lateral navigation, making sense, semiotics
RoC’s new ‘Sublime Energy’ face cream introduces an electrical current into the skin, heightening inter-cellular communication, which is said to have a rejuvenating effect. With ‘communication’ the core symbolic value here, the line clearly draws juice from social networking codes. It makes communication a value in and of itself, with what’s being communicated (the message), secondary to the fact that communication is happening at all.
In its pack design, Sublime Energy represents itself as a communications ‘device’: like the devices that enable social networking, its creams sit on a base that looks very much like a charger. And its language constantly draws on social networking themes. For instance, the product is said to harness the power of the cellular ‘network’, enabling cells to ‘signal’ to each other.
In a sense, this is a new take on an already-powerful symbolic code: skin as a medium of communication. Whether through blushing, paling, breaking out in spots, or wrinkling, skin is a ‘text’ that can be read by any dermatologically-inclined semiotician. ‘Pro-age’ discourse, for instance, often talks about how wrinkles ‘tell stories’ and how you can ‘read’ someone’s life experience in their face.
But the book of skin is, strictly speaking, about expression rather than communication. In other words, it expresses what’s inside the person: emotions, thoughts, experiences and so on. For Sublime Energy, there’s no ‘inside’ or ‘content’ — just a single plane of communicational flow.
In this post-humanist model of skin as communication, Sublime Energy also moves beyond the previous difficulties and disjunctions involved in the idea of ‘skin as sign’. Along with gesture, skin is the prime example of a hysterical mechanism: displacing and betraying what can’t be said in language. Blushing and paling are perhaps the best-known examples — but skin break-outs of all kinds can be seen as hysterical forms of expression.
As one of the body’s most treacherous and hysterical mediators, skin’s relationship with the communication has previously been about the broken links in the chain, the unsaid, the blocks and repressions — rather than the seamless flow promised by Sublime Energy. It’s arguable that the more repressive a cultural system, the more it values the seeping out of the unsayable, as in the subtle eroticising of female blushing in 19th-century England.
Sublime Energy promises to lift skin out of its hysterical history, freeing up its channels of communication so that there are no more repressions, blockages and ‘unsaids’. In this post-human, post-hysterical manifestation, skin becomes a clear and purified channel of free-flowing communication, valued for its operational perfection rather than for its ability to act as one of the body’s more unpredictable and uncontrollable forms of language.