copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, fall 2016

Star vehicle: labor and corporeal traffic in Under the Skin

by Amy Herzog

“Ever more callously the object world of man assumes the expression of the commodity…. The commodity attempts to look itself in the face. It celebrates its becoming human in the whore.”
—Walter Benjamin, “Central Park” (42).

We are introduced to the streets of Glasgow through her manufactured eyes, she, an unnamed alien sent to Earth, to Scotland, for purposes that remain elusive. She is a worker, an operative who cruises the city looking for easy marks, single men with few entanglements. She seduces, she hunts, but not for herself. Instead she gathers these corporeal goods to be farmed, liquefied, and extracted, their residue collected and distributed for some unspoken use. She is an instrument, a vehicle that performs her tasks in tandem with a network of other operatives, namely her motorcycled overseer, and a complex of tools (a manufactured humanoid body, an unworldly viscous slaughtering pool, a white cargo van, a fur coat, a tube of lipstick). She is bait; she offers herself up within the rituals of this alien abattoir, and in doing so serves as fetish object, indentured vassal, and contracted executioner. Her labor rests ultimately in the value of her simulated body as an object of desire.

While she might at first glance appear to be an opportunistic seductress, her status is gradually revealed to be more complex. Her personal investments remain submerged, if they exist at all, and visually overpowered by her rapt amazement with the human world. The alien demonstrates no apparent gratification in duping her victims, and gains no immediate benefit from their entrapment. She serves as an inscrutable vehicle for a larger transactional web that remains, within the world of the film, beyond comprehension.

Under the Skin impressionistically riffs on Michel Faber’s novel, troubling the boundaries between human and nonhuman subjectivities.[1] [open notes in new window] Scarlett Johansson’s character undergoes an existential crisis as the film unfolds, finding herself compelled by certain human pleasures to which she has no access. Her attempts to break free from cycles of use and abuse are thwarted by the flimsiness of her own synthetic epidermis, and the interventions of her cohorts, those motorcycled drones that enforce the instrumental power of their alien economy. The film sheds far less light than Faber’s novel does into the protagonist’s subjectivity and motivations. This, coupled with the lush cinematography and keen attention to textures and surfaces, lends itself to readings similarly attuned to questions of form and surface. The overall impact of the film works to undermine the ostensible narrative of humanization offered by the novel. I find Glazer’s rendering of the scenes of capture particularly revealing in this way. The grotesque spectacle of dismemberment and torture from Faber’s text are replaced here with something slick, austere, and resistant to psychological readings. The interiors of the bodies themselves melt away in a silent puff, leaving behind their shapeless floating skins. The implication is less that we are all the same beneath the skin than that, in fact, beneath the skin is nothing at all.

Glazer’s film is rife with contradictions, fixated on surface-level perceptions that resonate uncomfortably with the systems of labor, exploitation, and consumption that the film depicts. These contradictions are manifest on multiple registers: the dissonance between the often-slick imagery of the film and its frenetic, erratic soundtrack; the simultaneous exposure and inscrutability of both human and alien bodies; the combination of “real” surveillance footage and hyper-stylized tableaux. The aliens are closely bound to the machines that enable them to perform their work (the van, the motorcycle), their subjectivities folded into the sensorium of their facilitated movements. Indeed, all the players in this universe serve as unwitting carriers, bearing values and burdens that thwart intentionality and individuation. I would include in this trajectory Johansson’s current zeitgeist as an idealized non-or-superhuman avatar across a range of contemporary cinematic texts, including Her (Spike Jonze, 2013), Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014), and the soon-to-be-released Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017). What does it mean to perform as an instrument for use by another? Can one consent within a system that remains unknowable? And how might the very machinations of commercial cinema be entwined in these practices?

When she first emerges into the world of Glasgow, the creature sets to work, clothing herself in an outfit stripped from a woman dumped by the side of the road. The history and the fate of this woman are left unexplored. The alien ignores her human donor, but is soon lost in reverie examining a small ant she plucks from her immobilized body.

She goes to the mall. She fondles the fabrics, settling on a cropped jacket of mottled fur, and mimics the gestures of the female shoppers. The worker is a careful student; she attempts to look herself in the face, her new face, carefully applying a thick coat of bright crimson lipstick.

This mode of work feels at once familiar and utterly strange. Is she a sex worker? She uses sexuality, or the promise of sex, to initiate a transaction, but no sex is performed, and as best as we can tell she has no anatomical sex. She isn’t, exactly, a commodity; exchanges are enacted, but the deal serves as a front for a reversal, whereby the body ultimately trafficked is that of the one who thought he was getting something for free. Is she a predator? A farmer? A livestock manager? Is this affective labor? The alien learns quickly how to survey her marks, to read nuances in human behavior, to draw out the details she needs, that the men ultimately want to share. But she lacks, at least at the beginning of the film, the faintest traces of empathy. Then again, perhaps caring labor does not require literally caring, which would only interfere with efficiency. She culls the prime candidates skillfully, and shuttles them quickly toward their end.

The alien’s own narrative trajectory is more difficult to map. Johansson’s face serves as a screen throughout the film, an extended Kuleshov experiment in which we watch her looking, endlessly gazing through the window of her van--- it is difficult not to project our own desires onto that gaze, a gaze that can accommodate a wide range of interpretations, none of which are ever substantiated. The alien’s empathetic lack is felt most poignantly in a scene at a beach, when she ignores the horrific drowning of a young couple attempting to rescue their dog, using the distraction as an opportunity to bludgeon a good Samaritan with a rock. She walks past the couple’s baby, who is screaming hysterically on the pebbled beach, unfazed. The film follows suit; we return to the beach later in a later scene, in darkness; the child is still there, still screaming.

But a lack of caring does not indicate a lack of desire. “How strange,” Ara Osterweil observes, “to experience the female gaze saturated with desire but unencumbered by care,” and indeed, this unempathetic desire is what makes Johansson’s character so unfamiliar and inscrutable.[2] The alien is thoroughly engaged in her conquests. Yet in the process, she (and we through her) undergoes a shift, one that registers most palpably after she picks up a young man with neurofibromatosis, which has radically disfigured his face. The alien brings him to the killing room, but then releases him, leaving him naked in the streets to fend for himself. It isn’t clear precisely what about this encounter motivates her to free him (something he says? His vulnerability and loneliness? An affinity with his outsider status?), but she does, and she flees, and doing so sets in motion her own awakening and her violent end.

The alien begins to seek pleasure. She orders a piece of cake at a restaurant, delicately raises a forkful to her mouth, and then chokes. Her body has not been designed to ingest. Later, the runaway goes to bed with a kind man who has rescued her. She offers him her upturned face, awkwardly motionless, like a gift. They embrace, he undresses her, she caresses his face and hair—an unprecedented exchange of tenderness. But at the moment, ostensibly, of penetration, something goes wrong. He can’t enter her. She scrambles to the edge of the bed and grabs a table lamp, spreading her legs. [FIG. 10] She attempts to look at herself. Our view is blocked, but we might presume that there is nothing to see; genitalia, pleasure, have no use or exchange value in her occupation, so, it seems, they were never manufactured.

Her nascent shift in self-awareness can be traced to an earlier moment in the film. The alien’s gaze has become disoriented, no longer focused on her prey, her point of view shots now linger on shop windows, on the flow of humanity on the streets. A sequence of tracking shots and shrill strings signals the beginning of a hunt, but now her gaze centers on a series of women. The alien walks down the street, lost in the traffic of people, advertisements, commodities, food stuffs. The camera assumes surveillance mode, documenting Johansson-as-alien as she travels down the sidewalk. Prior to this moment, the alien has always been surefooted and intent, if perhaps a bit wobbly in her heels. But now she falls.

It is December of 2012, and the Glazer production team shot this scene on the streets of Glasgow using small, covert cameras. Scarlett Johansson’s character trips, sprawling face down on the pavement. She is helped to her feet by real-life passersby who do not realize they are being filmed, and appear not to recognize her. But the moment, in the real-world of Glasgow, is captured by paparazzi and pedestrians who do recognize Johansson as Johansson, and the images begin to circulate as trophies of celebrity carnage. There’s something about Johansson’s vulnerability in this image, her grimace, the awkward angle of the pose that makes this frame so ripe for paratextual use, tipping into corollary realms of signification with great velocity through this collective, evolving, cumulative chain of recontextualization.

I’d like to read the ScarJo Falling Down meme, which had enormous traction and breadth in its range of visualizations and cultural references, as an extension of the text of the film, a celebrity snap that is in fact a production still that self-generated its own virtual life. The meme relies on the collapsed categories that define Scarlett Johansson the commodity-image, an actualization of the aftermath of precisely the kind of affective, corporeal labor that the film reflects on representationally.

In La Monnaie vivante (or Living Currency), the philosopher, translator, and artist Pierre Klossowski sketches the contours of an economy that resonates with the one I’ve described here, an economy that subverts the paradoxical equivalences of capitalist exchange. Traditional commodity capitalism claims to insulate the human subject from being reduced to her labor as a slave; the abstract and neutral value of the numéraire serves as an intermediary, such that currency and goods can be exchanged in the place of a more base, direct traffic in human bodies. But Klossowski, drawing on Sade, points to the inherent perversity of this system:

“Sous le couvert de la circulation des richesses, le numéraire ne fait qu’assurer sourdement l’échange des corps au nom et dans l’intérêt des institutions. Le désaveau de la monstrusité intégrale par les institutions se retourne en une prostitution de fait, matérielle et morale.”

“Underneath the pretense of circulating wealth, the numéraire only silently ensures the exchange of bodies, in the name of and in the interest of the institutions. The rejection of integral monstrosity by the institutions is organized as de facto material and moral prostitution.”[3]

The object of currency, for Klossowski, like the goods and tools it purports to stand in for, can never be neutral or stable in value. Objects are perpetually subject to the needs, desires, and emotional pulsions of those subjects who generate their value. As such, objects can take the form of immaterial phantasms and simulacra, exceeding and overturning established notions of worth. Within this trade, subjects often similarly begin to circulate as objects of exchange, assuming the form of a libidinal currency, a shadow economy in which bodies become tools of trade, and sources of revenue.

La Monnaie vivante is an odd, hybrid volume, combining Klossowski’s economic treatise with a series of drawings (by Klossowski) and photographs (by Pierre Zucca), staging scenes from Klossowski’s erotic novels featuring the character Roberte. These images, which feature Klossowski himself and his wife Denise Morin-Sinclaire, depict frozen tableau in which the characters are engaged in ambiguous and sexually-charged exchanges. These scenes, indeed like the prose of the Roberte series, are somewhat cold, impenetrable, and oddly clinical. In one photograph, for example, Roberte and a soldier appear to vie for a wooden cane, although it is unclear who is in control of the object, and the positions of their bodies do not indicate motion. A figure in a starkly patterned dress watches the couple impassively from the right side of the frame; a plush white fur rug splays out beside her. This image, like all the plates in the book, bears no direct relationship to the text, but it does serve to illustrate the complex circulation of bodies, symbols, and simulacra that populate Klossowski’s economy.[4]

A wide swath of slippages occurs here: between the phantasmatic and the real, the philosophical and the sexual, the spectacle and the document, the symbolic and the utilitarian, the economic and the psychological, coercion and pleasure, subject and object. The inversions and doublings that occur are, for Klossowski, both productive and perverse. The “neutral” exchange of objects purported by capitalism is driven by “voluptuous emotions” and bodies whose value is determined by their “productive yield.” Paradoxically, the best means of exposing these circuits and rerouting the system, Klossowski argues, is to cease imaging one’s own value as distinct from one’s earning potential or market rate, but instead to recognize the self as “living currency,” fully part of this symbolic traffic.[5] Klossowski offers the example of the actress in discussing these relations, an “industrial slave” whose value and labor is indistinguishable from her image:

“Dès que la présence corporelle de l’escalve industrielle rentre absolutement dans la composition du rendement évaluable de ce qu’elle peut produire—(sa physiognomie étant inseparable de son travail)--, c’est une distinction spéciuse que celle de la personne et de son activité. La présence corporelle est déjà marchandise, indépendamment et en plus de la marchandise que cette présence contribue à produire. Et désormais l’esclave industrelle ou bien établit une relation étroite entre sa présence corporelle et l’argent qu’elle rapporte, ou bien elle se substitute à la fonction de l’argent, étant elle-même l’argent: à la fois l’équivalent de richesses et la richesse meme.”

“As soon as the bodily presence of the industrial slave is absolutely included in figuring the appraisable yield of what he or she can produce (their physiognomy being inseparable from their work), it is specious to draw a distinction between a person and their activity. Bodily presence is already a commodity, independent of and over and above the commodity itself that such presence contributes to producing. And now, industrial slaves must either establish a strict relationship between their bodily presence and the money it brings in, or replace the function of money, and be money themselves: simultaneously the equivalent of wealth, and wealth itself.”[6]

This act of replacement/becoming is not posited as necessarily liberating, and Klossowski remains vexingly vague about what such a submission might mean in practice. [FIG. 16] This is in fact the last paragraph of the text, and it is printed in the original version facing a photograph of Morin-Sinclaire in lingerie, seated confidently astride a bearded man wearing a watch, shoes, and socks and little else, on a stool before a velvet curtain, with 50 Franc notes strewn across the floor beneath them—an image in which the real wife of the author re-enacts a scene from the author’s novels in which a man repeatedly gives his wife away. It is a provocation that is outrageously confrontational, and difficult to translate into a coherent philosophical or political call to arms.

Yet if one could imagine submitting to one’s status as living currency, such an act would serve as a radical refusal of the false partitioning between symbolic and economic value, and the illusory distinction between objects and subjects as they orbit through shifting markets. It strikes me, too, as a devastating means of acknowledging the false unity of the self, and for disrupting the existing social machinery, and opening it to further misuse. If such an act were even possible, it might be suicidal. But perhaps not unlike Gilles Deleuze’s “body without organs,” living currency might function not as a model for being, but as a figural pole at the outer limits of a given social regime, a formulation that spurs new modes of thought and practice by laying bare covert aspects of the current operating system.[7] In the case of living currency, the outer limit gestured toward is one in which subject and object collapse, and value is no longer abstractly quantified.

Scarlet Johansson, I suspect, remains more closely aligned with the industrial slave in Klossowski’s formulation than she does with the radical disavowal of living currency. But the almost seamless traffic in her voice and physiognomy through this array of representational registers signals something about the already collapsed functioning of subject and commodity in our contemporary economy. I’m influenced, too, along these lines, by Alessandrea Raengo and Alexander Weheliye’s work on race and the intersections between the human and non-human. In Habeas Viscus, Weheliye draws on black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers’ notion of “pornotroping,” tracing the origins of “porno” from the Greek term for female slaves sold for prostitution through a long history of fetishized spectacles of the tortured black body. He writes, in language not dissimilar to Klossowski’s,

“The violence inflicted upon the enslaved body becomes synonymous with the projected surplus pleasure that always already moves in excess of the sovereign subject’s jouissance.” [8]

Raengo’s discussion of blackness and principles of visibility tied to the commodity form is also particularly salient here as well. She draws on the same Walter Benjamin quote that guides my query in this paper to ask, as she puts it, what face the commodity puts on, what sits on its surface.[9]

I would suggest that it is no accident that several of the themes this dossier grapples with coincide with the two primary examples of living currency: the slave and the prostitute. Blackness and femininity haunt this boundary between the human and the nonhuman, and are core to the myriad and often violent exchanges that take place there. I would argue that the complex traffic in objects in which we find ourselves currently circulating cannot be understood without fully considering the ways in which particular forms of difference are foundational to that economy, an economy that is founded on the circulation of all kinds of bodies, with dire repercussions that are not limited to the realm of the human.[10]

Hence my fascination with the assemblage Scarlett Johansson that puts her face, her voice, and her brand in dialogue with a series of cinematic objects and surfaces. This includes her performance in Under the Skin as well as her star turn in Spike Jonze’s aptly named Her. There, Johansson never appears, but her voice provides the aural interface of a sophisticated, personalize operating system; her vocal self is warm, round, raspy, halting, overflowing from the outset with a flirtatious humor at once seductive and suspiciously canned.[11] She is a placeholder, a sonic “absent one” that no longer limits itself to directing our gaze; it seduces us, organizes our data files, plans our appointments, rewrites our virtual selves. The notion of ScarJo as vehicle, however, reaches its most absurd heights in Luc Besson’s Lucy. Here her character is kidnapped and forced to take a job as a drug mule, surgically implanted with a sack of mind-expanding narcotics synthesized from the hormones released by women during pregnancy. The drug packet bursts, and Johansson evolves into a superhuman able to utilize nearly all of her brain capacity, with beneficial side-effects including the able to heal herself, to shoot like an expert marksman, and to have a fan always blowing her hair while engaging in battle. She is literally a vehicle for a product, she is a scientific specimen, an instrument of vengeance, and a vessel for data. In the climax of the film, her body undergoes a strange, black, liquification process via which she transforms her body and brain into a USB thumb drive, a ludicrously quaint and backwards compatible holder for all of human scientific knowledge, if human beings could, like her, overcome their humanness.

It is hard to contemplate the entity that is ScarJo outside the realm of the commodity. [FIG. 19-25] She is a spokesface, capable of selling champagne, and advancing the agenda of an antipoverty NGO confederation, at least until her affiliation with another brand interjected her into political theater. Scarjo, a moniker that Johansson herself loathes, is a loose signifier, a NY Times crossword puzzle answer, a face, a function.

Across these forums, we can trace strange correlations that cannot be attributed to a singular intentionality or agent. The eternal return. The living commodity attempts to look itself in the face, it contemplates its past, it writes its name, but finds in the refractions only a slick surface, no point of origin, a simulacrum, endlessly circulating.


1. Michel Faber, Under the Skin (New York: Harvest, 2000). The alien in Faber’s novel is given a name, Isserly, and the third-person narration hews closely to her perspective, offering detailed insight into her history and inner life. Readers are given full access, too, to the messy work performed on the human subjects in the Processing Hall. [return to text]

2. Ara Osterweil, Film Quarterly 67, no. 4 (Summer 2014): 47.

3. Pierre Klossowski, La Monnaie vivante, photographs by Pierre Zucca (Paris: Eric Losfeld Editeur, 1970), n.p.. Jordan Levinson’s English translation of the text (which I have adapted here) is published online: Klossowski, “Living Currency,” trans. Jordan Levinson, <http://anticoncept.phpnet.us/Livingcurrency.htm>.
A new translation of the work is forthcoming: Klossowski, Living Currency, trans. Vernon W. Cisney, Daniel W. Smith, and Nicolae Morar (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017).

4. I am indebted to Eleanor Kaufman’s extensive and insightful analysis of this text in The Derlirium of Praise: Bataille, Blanchot, Deleuze, Foucault, Klossowski (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 111-129.

5. I discuss Klossowski’s work, and the passages on “industrial slaves” in particular, in a different context in “Architectures of Exchange: Feminism, Public Space, and the Politics of Vulnerability,” Feminist Media Histories 1, no. 3 (Summer 2015): 66-94.

6. Klossowski, La Monnaie vivante, n.p., and Levinson’s translation.

7. Deleuze reflects on the concept of the body without organs, a body or assemblage that lacks an organizing structure: “It goes without saying that one never finds oneself facing anything but mixtures.… [W]hen we spoke at length of the body without organs, and the necessity of making ourselves one, I never thought that one could live without the organism… because subjectivation, organism, pulsation of time, these are the conditions of living. If one leaps over that, it’s what we call a suicide.” Gilles Deleuze, “Sur la musique,” transcription of a seminar on Anti Oedipe et Mille Plateauxat the University of Vincennes, 3 May 1977, trans. Timothy S. Murphy. Both the original and translated versions available under Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze, “Anti Oedipe et Mille Plateaux” at <http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/sommaire.html>.

8. Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham, NC: Duke, 2014), 91.

9. Alessandra Raengo, “Optic Black: Blackness as Phantasmagoria,” in Akil Houston, ed., Beyond Blackface: Africana Images in the US Media, 3rd ed.(Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing, 2010), 160. Benjamin’s formulation of the prostitute in relation to modernity and capital almost certainly had a direct influence on Klossowski’s living currency, as Klossowski was Benjamin’s first French translator, and he and Benjamin engaged in heated debates in several shared intellectual forums in Paris. See Pierre Klossowski, “Letter on Walter Benjamin,” trans. by Christian Hite, Parrhesia 19 (2014): 14-21.

10. An expanded notion of bodies and actants allows us to see the heavy burdens borne by certain classes of human and animal bodies in our current economic markets, as well as the cascading impact of these transactions on other ecological, technological, and sentient bodies. See, for example, Lisa Nakamura’s work on the history of computer chip manufacturing using Navaho women laborers. Nakamura, “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture,” American Quarterly 66, no. 4 (December, 2014): 919-941.

11. For New York City public radio audiences, Johansson’s voice is a ubiquitous presence, periodically interrupting the programming to remind us to “just keep listening.” See WNYC’s Tumbler account, <http://wnyc.tumblr.com/post/110551638148/