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n the proliferation of writing about war, “care” and “beauty” are often summoned as feminized antidotes to militarized violence. If war is destructive and injurious, then intimate acts of bodily and aesthetic care, this move suggests, are redemptive and good. Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam troubles this normative contrast by unmaking neat epistemic divides between war and beauty, harm and care. Thuy Linh Tu asks how skin and practices of caring for skin are sites of racialized war-making and knowledge-making, of violent histories and ambivalent futures.
If, as the historian and novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016: 4) writes, “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory,” Experiments in Skin asks how skin remembers war, and how war is endured, remembered, and remediated through working with skin.
Experiments in Skin unfolds through parallel “skin stories” during and after the American war in Vietnam. Skin pathologies—from “paddy foot” (a fungal infection) to blistering sunburns—were a leading cause of debilitation for U.S. combatants waging war in Vietnam. American war managers drew on dermatological science to attempt to fortify and protect the skin of white soldiers. Care, here, is not the opposite of war but that which makes war possible. Tu’s research in the archives of dermatologists illuminates a connection between anti-Black carceral violence in the United States (including prison experiments by famed University of Pennsylvania dermatologist Arthur Kligman) and racialized imperial violence in Vietnam. This uncanny transnational genealogy reminds us, as Tu (2021: 13) writes, that war and militarism—and the racial sciences developed with them—“are not just the technologies through which we enact racial animus” but are themselves race-making technologies. This tangled dermatological history connects the prison and the hospital, the battlefield and the university, and the beauty, pharmaceutical, and war industries.
A parallel skin story confounds neat temporal divisions between war and afterwar. Chemical warfare’s noxious traces are passed through generations. They reach into the future to erupt on the surface of the skin or interrupt biological reproduction, across species. Experiments in Skin investigates how Vietnamese women make life and cultivate beauty in the “collateral afterworlds” of chemical warfare, from exploded ordinances to the infamous “rainbow herbicides.” Tu draws on ethnographic fieldwork at Calyx, a spa in Saigon. In the absence of medical certainty about what causes specific skin conditions—acne or eczema, rashes or psoriasis—aestheticians and the women they care for instead theorize skin conditions as they draw together the multiple scales and times of war. Tu shows us that the environmental violence of war “rests” in skin, alongside the multiple hauntings of other genres of violence: poverty, injurious and precarious labor, industrial pollution. In caring for and “cleansing” skin, spa workers draw on substances (such as retinoids) forged through prison experiments and martial science and now circulated through a booming global beauty industry. This attention to Vietnamese women’s practices of beauty and care illuminates how living on and making do in ruinous post-conflict landscapes might be productively understood not as the opposite of war, but as an ambivalent form of politics practiced in the midst of war’s debris.
The five essays gathered here—co-edited by Wes Attewell and Emma Shaw Crane and written by scholars working at the intersection of geography, Asian/Pacific/American and Canadian Studies, critical ethnic studies, feminist and queer studies, and medical and cultural anthropology—reflect on the political and epistemic stakes of Experiments in Skin.
Wes Attewell argues that Experiments in Skin is a “fundamentally geographic book” that connects—across scales—bodies and landscapes to long histories of racialized war-making, carceral violence, and counterinsurgency. He situates this book as at the forefront of a “materialist, geographic Asian/American studies” and an emerging (and necessary) conversation within geography that centers race and racialization.
Linda Luu reflects on what Experiments in Skin—and the women of Calyx—teach us about “living amidst all kinds of harm—ecological, psychological, otherwise.” Such practices of living with and naming multiple harms refuses, they argue, an impossible politics of “purity, wholeness, and innocence.” Instead, this book offers us analysis towards an anti-racist politics that attends to race not as biologically fixed but as it is made by war and the material and psychic hauntings of war.
In “Skin as Material, Method, and Metaphor,” Jacinda Tran argues that the racialization of Southeast Asian refugees resettled in the U.S. hinged on the “collapse of a distinction between landscape and people.” By attending to the production of Vietnam and Vietnamese landscapes as places in “need” of counterinsurgent war and chemical debilitation, Experiments in Skin illuminates the “elaborate web of race, beauty, and power that helps close the epistemological gap between racialized places and people.”
In “Virtual Pores,” Danielle Wong takes up the entanglements of U.S. empire, carceral violence and biomedicine and “wellbeing discourses” as they seek to see and know that which is invisible to the naked eye (and, as Wong argues, what is virtual). She connects an experimental virtual reality therapy program intended to treat the trauma of U.S. combatants who waged war in Vietnam to experiments in skincare and beauty practices to show that “the ‘lab’ is produced by racial crisis and, in turn, produces racial difference.”
JP Catungal reflects on the transpacific methodological approach of Experiments in Skin, which is “attuned to the embodied, felt and intimate.” Thinking with skin, he argues, invites us to attune to historical and geopolitical intimacies and connections. This approach also demands that we critically engage with our own fraught participation in the militarized, corporate universities within which we work, teach, and study.
Together, these essays reveal how attention to the “skin stories” of Experiments in Skin tells us something about bodies, endurance and race-making, across scale and place, during and after war.
Nguyen VT (2016) Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.