[Off Topic] Detroit: Beneath the Skin

I beg your indulgence for a post not about blood, but about another body studies topic, skin, and about how our associations with body parts reveal our formative cultural conditioning, even despite ourselves.

In a recent article at The Atlantic, Rebecca Golden writes movingly of her battle with her body weight disability and ponders the implications of surgically losing pounds of skin in Detroit. She considers the city’s roots in the fur trade, the money that came for skins, and the city that seems to have vanished with its factories and finds hope in the thought that losing the skin may just be another thing to get through, just like the collapse of Detroit manufacturing..

From my vantage point, there are two problems with her piece, two blind spots that need addressing, one concerning the present, one the past, that mark the piece as coming from an important personal place, but also from a place that side-steps some crucial problems.

Let’s see what Kid Rock has to do with any of this…(don’t worry, he’s only a by-note)

First, the article is silent on real skin trade, though it opens with the notion:

When I had 40 pounds of skin taken off my midsection after losing hundreds of pounds, I considered selling the skin on eBay. While fur traders were the first to use “buck” to mean “dollar,” we lack a means of evaluating a large swath of human skin, probably because few humans have any skin they’d consider “spare.”  Even without a way of describing the me-skin hide, I imagined that amateur tanners might enjoy making leather out of my leftovers. eBay forbids the sale of organs, though, and skin is the largest organ in the human body.

The clash between the delicate surgery and the profanity of eBay works nicely into a juxtaposition, but unfortunately that is where it ends, in assertions of lack, of inadequate language or systems of exchange. eBay policy is the final verdict on the impossibility of turning the hide into a buck. The piece soon moves from human to animal skin, from the link between trading animal furs to the changes this trade brings to humans in the Detroit area.

However, since Susan Lederer‘s seminal Flesh and Blood, we know that skin long stood alongside blood and other tissues and organs as a marketable commodity. Since the Skin grafting has long entered the officially altruistic donor model, remaining invested with what Catherine Waldby and Robert Mitchell describe as ontologically significant  (Tissue Economies, p. 84). So the surprise at the furnace for the skin comes with a sense that the markets are saturated, the individual body potentially refused its access to the imagined commons because the altruistic gesture is rejected.

"Human skin: After being mashed up to remove moisture, some is destined to protect burn victims from life-threatening bacterial infections or, once further refined, for breast reconstructions after cancer" Source:dailymail.co.uk

This saturation, much like the fur trade wax and wanes of the eighteenth century, relate to the very real and current illegal body snatchers and the exploitation of non-white bodies as sources in black organ markets. Also, the sale of humans, parts and whole, and the increasingly opaque medical industries that traffic in our bodies distort the picture and though it is implied, Golden never explicitly asks: if companies like LifeCell can make hundreds of millions on human remains to make the next generation of skin grafts, why can’t I pawn my own hide? Together, these market forces turn human bodies into a source of money that is very real, immanent and threatening to many, including medical patients like Golden herself.

Oh no, you are still waiting for Kid Rock, aren’t you?

Well, if we must, let’s talk about him, too. As we saw, the article does not pursue relevant contemporary topics, but it mentions contemporary Detroit musician Kid Rock. While some might see Eminem as a more obvious choice, the choice seems to speak to an entire topic the reader has to bracket: skin color. The first paragraph goes into statistics of gun-related deaths in 2009, but gun violence remains an elaboration of a spatial metaphor without any mention of skin color and racism, which seems a glaring omission in a city where the police just encouraged citizens to arm themselves. Also, this raises the question of who exactly lived and worked in this nostalgic Motor City and how class discrimination creates new social alliances, but these are topics for another entry.

Beyond the mention of contemporary racism, I miss yet another history of skin in Detroit. Of course Golden is not writing a piece on Detroit’s three hundred years of history. She wrote a personal reflection on the struggle of a once mighty center of U.S. industry and the odd wax and wane of such a center that springs up with the flow of trade and ends with its decline. Yet like Detroit, Golden’s article itself has remnants of the old peeking through the new: “Kid Rock lives in California now, but grew up in Romeo, Michigan, a Detroit suburb built on the remains of an Ojibwa village. As of 2010, Romeo’s population is 92 percent white and only 0.2 percent of residents identify themselves as American Indian.” Now there is a associative leap you don’t see every day. And there it is, that missing piece, that silence at the heart of Golden’s exploration. Motor City didn’t appear out of nowhere.

Ojibwa Eagle Flag

Considering the piece focuses on Detroit, there seem to be things a third-grader would know that seem irrelevant and that yet make their way into the article, and I think for a good reason. Sure, “about 2,000 Indians settled near the new French town, eager to trade with Cadillac and his people,” but where would these “Indians” have come from? Many places, but not least of them the land around what is now Detroit itself, the land they lived on. So what is left out of the record if we think about Detroit as a city of ‘the working man’ in car factories, not as a long-standing experiment in market forces at the expense of Native inhabitants and enslaved persons?

Oh, I forget, we were talking about Kid Rock. His name in connection with Golden’s topic of skin brought back to me last year’s AP article by Mesfin Fekadu, which discusses pricing models for rock concerts and opens with the clear line, “Kid Rock is a scalper.” There it is. The scalp. The human skin and the money that was paid for it.

Of course I literalize a metaphor, but this second blind spot is perhaps too obvious to get to another way. Scalping was a Native American practice, but it changed fundamentally after the arrival of whites, as we have known for a long time, especially after the still useful piece by James Axtell and William C. Sturtevant. For one, white monetary power spread and intensified the practice to Natives who used it rarely or not at all. Also, whites themselves used it increasingly, on Natives and other whites. Apparently there is something so fascinating about the practice to these white soldiers, mercenaries, settlers, and even clergymen that they couldn’t resist. Far beyond the 1760s, the practice was applied in campaigns of terror, all the way to the scalp industry of the 1830s in Mexico, where Apache and Comanche were persecuted when they had to find a new way of life, often horse theft, after they were driven off their ancestral lands by whites.

In Michigan, before there was a United States, the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s War especially provided whites with excuses to justify their genocidal campaigns against the Six Nations–though historians are divided on the effect of the smallpox-infected fabrics the whites gave to Natives, that the whites intended to give the gift of disease in the guise of warmth and beauty, bringing biological warfare to the North American continent.

Perhaps I am unfair to expand the scope of the role skin played in the Detroit area to its origins. Yet even if we limit our view to car factories and Motor City, it seems odd to write about it without mentioning that the car models themselves frequently appropriated Native American names, words, and concepts. The most egregious of these is probably the one most deeply linked to the history of violence and the scalp: the Pontiac, with its old logo of a stylized Native American headdress and the new logo of an arrowhead.

The cars middle-class U.S. Americans built and bought said one thing: these Native people were long gone, living on only in cars that had nothing to do with them, no matter what all those Phil Delorias out there may say.

Cultural conditioning goes deep, and especially the cultural knee-jerk reaction often described as the “Vanishing Race” is important here. The year the U.S. became the world’s nuclear hegemonic power, Pontiac ad people thought it important to remind you that their cars drove straight and that Native American weaponry was technologically out-matched.

1945 Pontiac Ad

1945 Pontiac Ad

Let us return to where we picked up the discussion, Golden’s idea to sell the skin on eBay. The eBay policy that helps Golden dismiss the subject of selling her skin provides a clear hint as to what other skin trade we must remember:

We don’t allow humans, the human body, or any human body parts or products to be listed on eBay, with two exceptions. Sellers can list items containing human scalp hair, and skulls and skeletons intended for medical use.

If you follow the links on the policy site, however, you will also find eBay’s separate policy specifying “Artifacts, grave-related items, and Native American arts and crafts policy.” Note the labeling here. Native American arts and crafts stand next to graves and artifacts, things of by-gone days. Never mind that Native American culture is thriving, this is about white people imagining those simple fur-hunting savages, isn’t it? About a national fantasy that has become part of the air and water which invaders took from the Natives by force and polluted, adding ecological violence to the physical one.

The death of members of the Ottawa, Seneca, and Mingo, however, is not part of Anglo national heritage, of what it means to be a U.S. American, of the memory and nostalgia of Motor City. (I want to point out here that Detroit City itself recognizes its Anishinabeg roots, like in the case of the Potawatomi history of Fort Wayne.) But that is not what we remember. White people remember Motown, GM, and even fur traders in ‘ye olde past.’ But who hears “Detroit” and thinks about the Sauk and the Fox, the Wyandot, the Ojibwe, and the Miami, the people who once lived there alone, often still live there now among all those who came, but who have been written out of our imagined nation?

Golden ends on a note of hope: “Some might call it a desire to rise from ash, because this idea has been with Detroit nearly as long as Detroit has existed.” Nearly, indeed. So we talk about the fur and leather seats in GM cars, but not the skin of bodies that are not ours in places that were not ours. We talk about current biological and chemical threats against populations in other places, say Syria, but cultural conditioning conveniently allows us to forget or misremember the biological warfare waged in the lands in the place we call Detroit. We forget the blistered skin of the Native inhabitants who died from smallpox. We forget the scalps the white man took, those of women and children, and of each other. And so we stick with Kid Rock’s dad, with Europeans, Romans and children collecting feces for tanneries, with Ford and the Mercury.

We forget that places like Detroit go deeper than skin-deep.
(The thanks for bringing this to my attention goes to a brilliant and generous scholleague who traverses the virtual worlds under her nom de guerre, Calliope Boondoggle!)

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