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n a recent interview, acclaimed Vietnamese-American poet and novelist Ocean Vuong remarked on letting go of control over language and embracing beauty in his latest poetry collection Time is a Mother, published after his mother’s passing from cancer. Vuong comments on this shift: “What would it look like…if I say ‘Guess what? I do value beauty?’ Because it’s medicinal to me. It’s not useless.” Vuong’s rearticulation of beauty as medicinal and as useful raises the question of what the work of beauty might offer those affected by war. Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s recent monograph, Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam, takes up this question and offers a compelling response. Against the backdrop of the lingering chemical effects of the Vietnam War and postwar renovation in Vietnam, Tu (2021: 158) argues that Vietnamese women’s practices of making beauty represent not “the expression of a desire for individual transcendence but longing for collective life.” In this insightful—and indeed beautiful—book, Tu offers us a model of scholarly work that not only undertakes a rigorous examination of the archives of militarism and science, but also a theorization of the forms of life remaindered by war.
In Experiments in Skin, Tu (2021: 8) asks us: what can an analysis of the skin tell us about “the broader process of military mobilization, Cold War geopolitics, medical/consumer capitalism, and colonial modernity”? Experiments in Skin traces how dermatology developed as a cosmetic science which expanded through military and then commercial markets. Specifically, the book examines figures such as University of Pennsylvania dermatologist and “father of modern dermatology” Albert Kligman, whose experiments on incarcerated African American men at the Holmesburgh Prison lent empirical soundness to the idea that Black skin was immune to pain. Dow Chemicals contracted Kligman to test the toxicity of TCDD (the dioxin used in Agent Orange) after workers at their Michigan plant developed skin conditions now recognized as signs of dioxin poisoning. Kligman’s research at Holmesburgh eventually gave clearance for the U.S. military to use Agent Orange under Operation Ranch Hand and also led to his discovery of retinoids, now a standard component of everyday skincare regimens.
Tu also turns to the work of Marion Sulzberger, who held top ranks in both military and academic posts including as director of the U.S. Military Dermatology Research Program. Founded in 1964 in response to a concerning prevalence of skin diseases afflicting white U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, the program identified in yet another experimental population the vulnerability of white soldiers and the curious resistance to disease and pain of Black and Asian soldiers. Tu (2021: 11) notes how the work of Kligman and Sulzberger contributed to what she terms “the science of soldiering bodies,” intent on building a soldier with an armor of skin fit to withstand the conditions of war – whether environmental, ecological, physical, or psychological. This science was a thoroughly racialized enterprise built upon “a transimperial consensus about white insecurity” held not only by the U.S. military, but also the British and French (Tu, 2021: 83). Whiteness here is not superior, but rather exceptionally vulnerable and in need of protection.
This is a different story about skin in the history of imperial race-making. Race is not read on the skin’s surface, but rather emerges from the archives Tu reads of U.S. wartime dermatologists as a subdermal capacity that registers one’s vulnerability to pain and capacity for feeling. These scientists’ research furthered a long-standing idea regarding the unique vulnerability of white bodies and the immunity to pain of racialized bodies. Tu argues that this racial science—perhaps better understood as the rationalization of racial capitalism—plays out by justifying uneven exposure to toxic regimes of labor and naturalizing racialized bodies to toxic environments.
Tu refuses any simple relationship or wholesale disavowal of the relationship between race and biology and instead paints a portrait of just how biology is recruited in the formation of racial ideology. She documents how these scientists, amidst mass global uprising and movements for decolonization and against racism, bolstered an understanding of whiteness as a biological condition of vulnerability that functioned to justify the biopolitical distribution of risk in ways that, ironically, made racialized subjects (Black and Vietnamese) more vulnerable to disease and death. Experiments in Skin joins a book like Kyla Schuller’s The Biopolitics of Feeling in disrupting the idea that biological constructions of race and sex are immutable and static. Rather, Schuller (2019) explains that race and sex in the 19th century actually understood bodies to be the gradual product of their habits and environments. Racial taxonomies were formed based upon the bio-affective quality of perceived “impressibility,” the capacity to form sensory impressions in response to the environment. This reframing pushes us to consider how to articulate an anti-racist politics not merely in opposition to a biological concept of race understood to be fixed, but how we might account for histories of racial hierarchization that recognize the potentiality of bodies in their logics and operations.
Experiments in Skin moves between sites—Holmesburg, a prison in Pennsylvania; Quang Nai, a province in central Vietnam; and Calyx, a spa in Ho Chi Minh City, to name just a few—all connected by U.S. imperialism. In the introduction, Tu (2021: 21) writes, “This book moves between the U.S. and Vietnam, but it offers neither a history of the Vietnam War nor an ethnography of contemporary Vietnam.” In this neither-nor space is a model for interdisciplinary scholarship. Tu does not only use the tools of history and ethnography, but brings ethnographic sensibilities into her historical archival research and historical sensibilities into her ethnographic observations. In her readings of Sulzberger’s papers, for example, Tu reads beyond the main text to what is written in the margins. The word “Holmesburgh” annotated on several papers suggests an epistemic exchange between Sulzberger and Kligman, despite Sulzberger claiming to bear no relationship to the harmful and unethical research conducted at Holmesburgh. In another instance, Tu calls attention to Sulzberger’s annotations in which he asks for further clarification, reflecting a potential ambivalence towards the assuredness of military medicine’s conclusions. There is much within the marginalia. Tu approaches her readings of the archives with an attention and invitation to the multicausal, the environmental, the surround. This reading practice reflects a lesson she learns from the women at Calyx “about the connections between events and their seemingly disconnected effects” (Tu, 2021: 44). The book’s moving between times and spaces embodies its central contention regarding layered histories and the materiality of haunting.
Experiments in Skin also offers a reading of war as fundamentally a question about managing ecology, or what Neel Ahuja (2016) calls “the government of species” – a biopolitical matter of how to kill some things (e.g. mosquitos, Viet Cong) and not others (e.g. U.S. soldiers). The Viet Cong were characterized as agile and environmentally adept enemies, likened to the ecology of Vietnam itself: the pesky mosquitoes that carry malaria, rats that transmit bacteria, soil that hides fungus, forests that provide cover for enemy forces, rice paddies that lead to skin disease, all of which are disease-ridden, contagious, deceptive, and must be opened up and controlled. The co-constitution of race, place, and disease is evidenced in the fact that the U.S. dermatology research team could only conclude that the skin diseases contracted by U.S soldiers in Vietnam were innate to the ecology and landscape, and not possibly the result of their own contaminating presence.
Tu’s work contributes to a history of the Vietnam War as a chemical war whose ongoing effects, as demonstrated by the latency of chemical relations, make clear that war is “less a temporality, than an altered sensibility” (Tu, 2021: 19). This reality is one that is intimately felt and understood at Calyx. In her two ethnographic chapters, Tu (2021: 156) juxtaposes the military and Western dermatological science’s techno-optimism with the sentiment at Calyx that “making livable requires making do. It requires a certain amount of acceptance.” The women who seek services and provide them at Calyx provide us a script for living in a chemically altered world. This is a book for pandemic times, if we take the pandemic to be the logical result of capitalist production and as having laid bare the morbidities inherent to a growth economy. By highlighting the spa as a key site in which Vietnamese women manage the aftereffects of war, Tu argues quotidian practices of collective life are a way of reading the toxicities of global racial capitalism and how we might survive beyond it.
The women at Calyx embrace an ethic of speculation regarding the multicausal. Their skin might bear the effects of the dioxins in the landscape from Agent Orange, unsettled ghosts from bad deaths, and/or the toxins in industrial factories in which many work. There is not a need to parse these out and to identify each in a causal disease etiology. Tu (2021: 44) writes, “Embracing the multicausal, the women at Calyx were less interested in discovering the specific agents of harm than in grasping the totality of the injury.” In other words, unlike the epistemic structure of much of environmental justice research predicated on assessing and proving harm and collecting more and more data to tell us what we already know about where toxicity is distributed and concentrated, these women do not need to prove causality to act. They instead urge us to occupy an alternative “regime of perceptibility” (Tu, 2021: 45). Tu’s use of this phrase, borrowed from feminist science and technology studies scholar Michelle Murphy (2006), continues to sit with me. If narratives of pain, trauma, and injury are solicited and preempted by liberal frames of recognition, what might remain politically useful about them lies in how they potentially uncover an alternate regime of perceptibility, to show how history seeps into the present through “sensations rather than representations,” as Grace M. Cho (2008: 53) puts it.
At the center of Experiments in Skin is the question: What might the latency of chemical relations teach us about living amidst all kinds of harm – ecological, psychological, otherwise? Might this help us refuse a politics of purity, wholeness, and innocence, not possible under racialized capitalism? This book will surely give scholars new places to look for answers to these questions.
Ahuja N (2016) Bioinsecurities: Disease Interventions, Empire, and the Government of Species. Durham: Duke University Press.
Cho GM (2008) Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Schuller K (2019) The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century. Durham: Duke University Press.
Linda Luu is a PhD candidate in American Studies at New York University researching U.S. militarism, psychology, and affect during the Vietnam War.