In Patrick Süskind's 1985 novel Perfume, a psychotic perfumer goes to murderous lengths to create the ultimate scent. He kills a young woman to incorporate her natural smell into his latest cologne - and he is himself later ripped apart by people driven into a state of bloodlust by the power of his creations. But the outer limits of personal beauty may no longer require us to kill. Indeed, it's now possible to grow human flesh specifically for the cosmetics industry - bypassing murder with a trip to the specialty science lab.
Among the many "delicate hybrids" that a writer for The New York Times recently found "thriving in the balmy climes of Provence, southern France's traditional perfume region," were "sweet jasmine, May roses - and fresh layers of artificial human skin."
One of the companies discussed in the article uses an inspired combination of amino acids, collagen gel, sugar, water, and low levels of ultraviolet light to cook up (and then "air dry") collections of fake skin. It's worth noting that many of these skin labs are located in Grasse, once a center for French leather-making, complete with disused tanneries (and now one of the world's perfume capitals). But I digress. Scientifically, the skin-making process seems to fall somewhere between Frankenstein and Campbell's new Chunky soup - by way of late Renaissance hermeticism - and, surreally, its real purpose is to eliminate animal testing from the European cosmetics industry.
In other words, the existence of this "artificial human skin" has everything to do with an impending EU ban on animal testing. That ban, which comes into effect in March 2009, means that cosmetics companies will no longer be able to test their perfumes, eyeliners, and blemish creams on animals - so they're looking frantically for new things to run such tests on.
One of those things is fake human skin.
The New York Times thus informs us that cosmetics firms are "striving to shape a new world of beauty research - and at the same time spare the lives of thousands of rabbits, mice, rats and guinea pigs."
All of this top secret "beauty research" means that there are now "advanced materials" entering the global marketplace - and these materials include "reconstructed eye tissue and tiny circles of skin developed from donor cells harvested from cosmetic operations." It's a whole new chapter in the global organ trade: a general economy of human body parts, broken down into germ lines and tissues.
Beauty giant L'Oréal has even devoted more than $800 million to finding "alternatives to animal testing." After all, we read, the "stakes are high."
Europe is the world's leading cosmetics market, and it also exports more than $23.4 billion worth of cosmetics every year. Cosmetics exported from the United States to Europe amount to nearly $2 billion a year, about 7 percent of the European market. After the United States, Japan is the second leading provider of cosmetics to Europe.
Because of increasing commercial pressure, professional alliances are now beginning to form between formerly competing cosmetic giants and private science labs.
There is a firm called SkinEthic, for instance, that has been "developing and manufacturing a line of cellular tools that includes a wide range of human tissues." SkinEthic was bought by L'Oréal last year, an investment "which propelled the parent company into a dominant position in the testing field, with two critical patents on reconstructed skin." Patented skin! Where intellectual property and the human body collide.
In any case, as cosmetic scientists continue to "develop" entire new lines of human skin and the "cellular tools" that maintain them, are we simply witnessing the further privatization of human anatomy? If there is a market in body futures, in other words, with whole new types of specialty organs being developed in top secret labs, then the cosmetic industry is surely one of that market's most interesting examples.
Perhaps implying that legendarily deranged Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, the real-life inspiration for Leatherface, had, in fact, been a futurist, we might yet find that the Michael Jacksons of tomorrow will simply FedEx themselves special orders of patented skin - a kind of dead skin mask that you wear to the Oscars ("Just where did you get that face?" nervous reporters ask) - to make the fashion statement of a lifetime.
We'll simply wear new skin.
For now, though, these patented expanses of lab-grown flesh are being used as nothing but test swatches: Apply mascara or blush or a new perfume and watch for allergic reactions. 4-inch by 4-inch squares of raw skin tremble under harsh fluorescent lights in unmarked factories outside Marseilles.
Or so the cosmetic companies say. What else are they growing in their climate-controlled labs, where the manufacture of human flesh can proceed without cause for alarm? Given time, will we all learn of some new horror, like something out of H.P. Lovecraft's "Herbert West, Reanimator," in which a terrified journalist records his midnight flight from another lab, an unacknowledged lab located somewhere high in the Pyrenees, with dark curtains drawn over bulletproof windows, claiming that those secret acres of fake skin have started to move, self-assembling into a recognizable shape, something all too human to ignore...?