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  • The Paradox of the Striptease
  • Benjamin Kahan (bio)
Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface by Anne Anlin Cheng. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 256. $49.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Roland Barthes opens his essay “Striptease” in Mythologies with the following observation: “Striptease— at least Parisian striptease—is based on a contradiction: Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked.”1 In his elaboration of this initial claim, Barthes sets out in two directions. He continues to develop the paradox of the striptease, describing the costumes as

establishing the woman right from the start as an object in disguise. The end of the striptease is then no longer to drag into the light a hidden depth, but to signify, through the shedding of an incongruous and artificial clothing, nakedness as a natural vesture of woman, which amounts in the end to regaining a perfectly chaste state of the flesh.2

But this “natural” and “perfectly chaste state” that animates the striptease is difficult to square with Barthes’s contention shortly thereafter that “feathers, furs and gloves go on pervading the woman with their magical virtue even once removed, and give her something like the enveloping memory of a luxurious shell.”3 It is this latter genealogy of displayed skin infused by its coverings that Anne Cheng’s Second Skin so brilliantly unfolds to circumvent the contradiction at the heart of the striptease. [End Page 515]

That Cheng’s book is an important one for scholarship on Baker and architectural theory (especially on Adolf Loos) goes without saying. Because of its critical subtlety and the light touch of its enormous powers of synthesis, however, it might be easy to miss that this is a monumental work of scholarship, making major interventions into critical race theory and modernist studies. Chapter 2 (the introduction is chapter 1) centers on the primal scene of primitivist modernism: Pablo Picasso’s visit to the Trocadéro museum in Paris. Juxtaposing this scene with Baker’s legendary 1925 Parisian performance, Cheng deploys “Baker as a dynamic fulcrum through which” to reread Picasso’s encounter with African art (4). In particular, Cheng seizes on the “categorical confusion” that Baker inspired (the manifest inability to decide whether she was black/ white, woman/other, delicious/horrible, human/animal, etc.) in order to open out a similar failure in the Trocadéro of modernist primitivism “to inscribe its own passions” (5). In putting “the negrophilia” (14) of modernist primitivism in dialogue with a history of the modern surface, Cheng asks “is skin—and its visibility—so available?” (7). This question effects a shift in our understanding of race from being, in Franz Fanon’s phrase an “epidermal schema,” to being a mode of seeing, one that Cheng unpacks throughout her book.

This explication comes in particular in chapters 3–5; these chapters power the theoretical and conceptual engine of Cheng’s text. Chapter 3, “Skins, Tattoos, and the Lure of the Surface,” magisterially traces a genealogy of the racialized history of the white wall that runs from Gottfried Semper to Adolf Loos to Le Corbusier and continues to operate as an unspoken default in so many apartments and houses today. In order to recover the meanings of this modern surface, Cheng locates an animating tension in Loos’s work. Famously in “Ornament and Crime” (1908), Loos rejects ornamentation, comparing it to “the [childish and amoral] tattoos of the Papuan” in order to theorize what Cheng calls “the ideal of the denuded modern surface” (24). However, in his essay “The Principle of Cladding” (1898), Loos writes,

In the beginning was cladding [Bekleidung]…. The covering is the oldest architectural detail. Originally it was made out of animal skins or textile products. This meaning of the word [Decke] is still known today in the German languages. Then the covering had to be put up somewhere if it were to afford enough shelter.… Thus the walls were added…. [But] cladding is even older than structure. (23) [End Page 516]

This opens the conundrum, “what distinguishes cladding from ornamentation?” (28). With this provocative question, Cheng unlocks an alternative history of primitivist modernism—a history that shifts the terrain away...


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pp. 515-520
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