Posted by: Philip Carr-Gomm | July 18, 2010

On Plugs, Skin and Sand

I knew Reaktion Books would be a good publisher for A Brief History of Nakedness when I read their catalogue. Here was a house pleased to publish books on the philosophy of boredom, or the history of barbed wire – who understood, in other words, the depth of meaning and interest inherent in the most apparently mundane. The great secret that every thing holds fascination – is a doorway to complexity and depth – is known to the insatiably curious, but remains hidden for the majority.

On Friday I talked with another Reaktion author, Steven Connor, when all the participants in the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Skin:Exposed‘ event met after the opening session. Steven had delivered a dazzling oration on nakedness and skin and I wanted to read more of his work. A web address later and what joy! Essays on skin, sand and best of all plugs!

You don’t find plugs fascinating? Then you don’t understand! See how Steven Connor weaves a spell around this deceptively dull object:

Plugs are peculiarly intimate objects. Plugs are archaic things, that belong to an economy of spaces in which what mattered was to seal, to store, to quarantine and dam up flow. But now the plug is used for different purposes, to establish connections, and to draw together places and times. Plugs are scale-transformers: they used to keep proximal things distant, now they bring distant things up close…In some places plugs are getting harder to find. Why do airport lavatories, for example, have sinks with no plugs? Nearly always, they also have automatic taps that belch out a grudging little spatter of warm water (or, just as often, don’t), when a hand is waved at or under them in a mystic pass. I imagine that it is because airport sinks are the products of the ‘defensive design’ that characterises most public amenities, that is intended to inhibit rather than to enable the way things offer themselves for our use. The principal concern for the designer of an airport lavatory is that passengers will be getting off planes crumpled and malodorous, and may want to treat the public lavatory like a private washroom, filling the sinks with steaming water, stripping to the waist and turning the paper towels into improvised flannels to give themselves bracing scrub-downs. Surely, the reasoning goes, if the flow of water requires to be renewed every few seconds, and no accumulation of water is possible in the sink, this kind of behaviour can be discouraged. I admit I have myself, in grimmer, grimier moments, been tempted by the prospect of such a public ablution.

To read more see Steven Connor’s website.


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