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n the late 1990s, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University developed Virtual Vietnam, a virtual reality (VR) exposure therapy program designed to treat US Vietnam War veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder. In the immersive VR lab, patients donned a headset equipped with headphones and two mini computer screens, and sat in the “Thunder Seat,” which was equipped with a 100-watt subwoofer and meant to simulate a Huey helicopter ride. Virtual Vietnam exposed veterans to real-time graphics of rice paddies, jungle environments, and rivers, and to audio of “jungle sounds,” mine explosions, gunfire, and helicopters (Rothbaum et al., 1999: 266). In a 1999 report about the first person to be treated by this VR—a 50-year-old white man who was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam—researchers concluded that while the veteran was “quick to anger and slow to trust” and in a strained marriage, VR exposure “appear[ed] to have helped, even if modestly” (Rothbaum et al., 1999: 270).
Virtual Vietnam would later serve as the prototype for similar VR therapy programs designed to treat traumatized Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans. As the first recorded application of VR exposure therapy on a Vietnam War veteran, Virtual Vietnam demonstrates the entangled histories of US imperialism, wellbeing industries, and theories of virtuality. As I came across Virtual Vietnam as part of my book-project research, I also read Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s book, Experiments in Skin, which has been pivotal in helping me make sense of these seemingly unlikely genealogies. In particular, Tu’s account of modern dermatology’s foundations in US empire, linking Arthur Kligman’s experiments on predominantly Black inmates at the Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia to the US Military Dermatology Research Program’s (MDRP) experiments in Vietnam, illuminates how the “lab” is produced by racial crisis and, in turn, produces racial difference. It is precisely in conceiving of Vietnam as a lab that the realm of the invisible—melanocytes and bacteria, as well as the not-quite materialized world—is made to attest to the surface of the body as fact, and vice versa. If the MDRP saw Vietnam as a skin lab that “collapsed threat of enemy combatants with the threat of bacteriological infections” (Tu, 2021: 88), Virtual Vietnam extends this vision of an environment in which racialized risk is a virtuality. In both iterations of Vietnam as lab, the white body and mind are actualized to constitute the privileged subject of health and wellbeing.
As Experiments in Skin demonstrates, skin literacy is an imperial mode of reading the body that asks us to see that which is invisible to the naked eye, and, I would add, that which is virtual. Tu (2021: 55) examines how skin literacy in the visible medicine of dermatology “codifies racial embodiment” by producing race as “extravisible, defined by sense and sensation, touch and feel, and most importantly, by the capacity (or incapacity) to withstand hurt and harm.” This involves attention to skin texture, depth, density, and odor. It engenders what Tu (2021: 66) calls a subdermal view of race, a vision that understands tough skin (Black and Southeast Asian skin) as racial characteristics below the surface, in the form of melanocytes and cellular shape. Such a view of race motivated Kligman to seek ways of replicating the perceived properties of Black skin for white bodies, in the hopes of fortifying a “white corporeal armature” (Tu, 2021: 65).
Tu’s book shows us that the emergence of modern dermatology was the development of an understanding of race at the subdermal level and of racialization as subdermal capacity. I highlight racial capacity here as a way of drawing out a clearer connection between Virtual Vietnam and experiments in skin. The term “virtuality” has been theorized in various ways across different academic disciplines, but a definitive characteristic of the virtual for me is what Tiziana Terranova (2004: 27, 83) describes as an “undetermined capacity,” a site of biophysical and sociocultural processes that open to the potential of “the unlikely and the inventive.” In both Virtual Vietnam and US military dermatological visions, Vietnam is a virtuality in the sense that it constitutes “a dimension of reality, not its illusionary opponent or artificial overcoming … It connotes a force of existence: the press of the next, coming to pass” (Massumi, 2014: 55).
Put differently, Vietnam as lab is about immersion in the sensorial as knowledge—touch, but also sound and vibration—in order to harness and channel potentiality, or capacity, into modes of imperial repair through the production of racial difference. The skin or facade of Vietnam in both Virtual Vietnam and the MDRP’s experiments is concurrently extravisible and not quite actual, both on the surface and not quite material. In fact, the immersive VR requires that the white veteran assume the discursive and digital skin of the program’s imagined body in order to reify his own. If Vietnam is virtual, the American soldier emerges from it whole and concrete.
Tu’s emphasis on multiple implications of sensing skin as racial knowledge informs my own work on the relationships between new media, virtuality, and Asianness. In one of the chapters of my book project, Racial Virtuality: The New Media Life of Asianness, I consider pores in Asian skincare practices as new media. If new media are, as Wendy Chun describes them, “forms of accelerated capitalism” (2016: 2), pores’ destabilization of what is considered surface and what is subdermal indexes a link between information capitalism, skin stories, and Asia’s “compressed modernity” (see Lee, Moon, and Tu on beauty in the time of Asia). Skin pores pose a scalar complexity. They are quasi-visible and quasi-invisible openings, and they are narrated and worked on as a kind of science fiction – what Seo-Young Chu (2010: 74) might call “a high-intensity variety of realism.” K-beauty, which marks a shift in the global skincare industry to the influence of Korean products and regimens, is a science fiction that troubles straightforward representations of the body as racial identity and instead illuminates racialization’s material-discursive processes, concurrently shrinking and widening the space of reference between the body and its truths. Skin via online Asian skincare practices transcends a literal-figurative binary; it is “both a thing and not a thing,” “material and metaphor” (Tu, 2021: 5). Tu’s discussion of dermatology’s subdermal view of race historicizes and informs my reading of K-beauty discourses of skin “types,” which emphasize both the invisible scales of cellular life and the clearness of skin as a testament to healthy life and neoliberal capacity.
Specifically, I consider how “glass skin,” a term for clear, extremely hydrated, and seemingly poreless skin that was popularized in the US via social media by Korean American K-beauty influencers a few years ago, entails the harnessing of racial subdermal capacity. I use this term to designate a set of pre- or nonrepresentational functions and aesthetics that constitute the potentiality for skin’s relationship to “good lighting” – that is, to the apparatuses of image-making and, by extension, to the recognition and surveillant technologies of information capitalism. The desired glass-like or “dewy” skin of the K-beauty interface displays and offers feelings of entrepreneurial fortitude through its seemingly paradoxical properties of organic porousness (dewiness) and its resilience as a transparent border (glass skin). Such an interface is achieved through the labour of skin literacy in the information economy, and is a surface that Tu has written about elsewhere in the context of Korean development as the new face of modernity in Saigon.
But skin literacy, Tu points out, involves not only Empire’s lessons in skin but also the ongoing work of skincare in afterwar. Skin stories can therefore access the ways that “surface eruptions—be it on the body or the city—can serve as a reminder of war, of loss, of relations, chemical and otherwise, that seem so distant from the sparkling now” (Tu, 2021: 38). Such literacy also involves strategies of “making do,” of afterwar survival and everyday tactics of social life (Tu, 2021: 151). To make do is to live with opacity and to conceive of a different epistemology of skin than that of US imperialist subdermal visions. While military men of science sought to secure for the US land and markets, Tu (2021: 156) writes, the women at Calyx Spa, located just outside of Ho Chi Minh City, “wanted protections from what they left behind. This did not require them to know skin, only to sense what these men of science could not: the life, labors, joys, and sorrows of those subjects they saw only as a necessary sacrifice.” For these women, skinwork is not about “peeling back” skin to reveal its mysteries, Tu points out, but about the possibility of sociality in opacity. “For here was a world absolutely shaped by Albert Kligman’s work,” Tu (2021: 158) writes about Calyx, “but also outside of his reach and outside of his capacity to see.”
Pores help us see the entanglements of Empire, carcerality, medicine, and wellbeing discourses. How might we see not only the military and imperial subdermal logics in contemporary practices of Asian skincare, but also the everyday tactics of experimenting and living in the skin of afterwar? Pores are virtual: they are both a part of the skin and an absence of skin that indexes the epidermal capacity for mutability. How might they engender an epistemology of skin that offers us ways of conceiving of relation, contact, and transition? Perhaps such a question demands that we revisit a history of the virtual as a history of skin stories that does not end at smoothness or brightness, but rather dwells in the wayward afterlives of transimperial empire.
Chu SY (2010) Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sheep?: A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.
Chun WHK (2016) Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media. Cambridge and London: MIT Press.
Lee SH, Moon C and Tu TLN (2019) Fashion and Beauty in the Time of Asia. New York: NYU Press.
Massumi B (2014) Envisioning the virtual. In: Grinshaw M (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Virtuality. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 55-67.
Rothbaum, BO, Hodges L, Alarcon R, Ready D, Shahar F, Grapp K, Pair J, Hebert P, Gotz D, Wills B and Baltzell D (1999) Virtual reality exposure therapy for PTSD Vietnam veterans: A case study. Journal of Traumatic Stress 12 (2): 263-271.
Terranova, T (2004) Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age. London and Ann Arbor: Pluto Press.
Tu, TLN (2021) Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Danielle Wong is Assistant Professor in the Department of English Language and Literatures at the University of British Columbia, where she also teaches in the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies Program. Her research and teaching interests focus on the relationships between race, new media, and empire.