Re: mutilation and ritual

Robert Snower (rs219@IDIR.NET)
Wed, 10 Jul 1996 00:16:26 -0500

In reply to Adrienne Dearmas' message of 12:03 PM 7/9/96 - 0400, Robert
Snower writes:

I now see I misread your original comment about the polarity of our voices.

You wrote, in response to my suggestion that the meaning of tattooing is to
be found in the past, namely as a component of the totemic system, as
outlined previously in my quote from Jane Harrison:

>I am a little wary of glorifying the past, especially with regard to tattoos
>and I think it is dangerous to generalize about individuals from the past and
>their personal reasons for the tattoos they wore. Whereas I generalize about
>the pan human need to mutilate the body, it is my impression that every
>individual (be it person, family, tribe, community, sub-culture, whatever)
>will give a myriad of reasons why they do it. Who's to say they are wrong or

But you said in answer to a different post:

>Now, you say easy - so tell me why reams of stuff have been written on
fashion, but >nothing much >looking at body mutilations cross culturally.
To me, the variation is >much less intriguing b/c it reflects individual
taste - something that has no pattern >or reason. But why do we wear clothes
at all? Why do we mutilate the body? These are >cross cultural phenomenon.
Individual preferences demonstrate the wide variation and >provides the
supporting documentation that all cultures mutilate the body.

Here you are saying, far from its being inappropriate to generalize about
individuals and their personal reasons, such variations are not intriguing,
since they have no pattern or reason, and it is the cross-cultural
generalization that all cultures mutilate that you are interested in.

I want to take it a step further. I don't think the cross-cultural analysis
will get us to a satisfying explanation of tattooing, or of mutilating. I
think it is necessary to go cross-generational. It is intriguing that
tattooing and mutilating are widespread, culturally, and it is even more
intriguing that they are cross-generational. For the time dimension allows
us to ascribe a far greater significance to these phenomena than if we limit
ourselves to the present. The contemporary perspective is really not very
substantive, is it? That prisoners, or the military, find solace in
tattooing is not very substantive dimension of our society. Nor that the
sub-culture indulges. Unless you believe the sub-culture is a nascent trend
that is about to take over. I am not of that persuasion.

That your cross-cultural analysis needs bolstering from the past is
indicated by another intriguing feature. Why is it generally true that so
many of these phenomena are found not only in so many cultures, but that
they are ALL found is in so many cultures? Thus, tattooing, circumcision,
totemism, dietary taboos, menstrual taboos, mutilation, veneration of the
dead, fear of ghosts--they are all usually represented. This variety needs
a theoretical unification. A lot of people have thought the way to get at
this problem is by a way of a reference to the past: to primeval situations
which revealed both the unity in these disparate parts, and the intensely
significant social role they played. These people would include not only
Harrison and Frazer, but Weston, Cornford, Gilbert Murray, Freud, Jung, and
most of all, Shapiro, in terms of sociobiology. Of Freud, one might note
that he started out by referring everything to the infantile source, and
ended up talking about "the infantile recurrence of totemism."

This kind of thinking renders you, the military, prisoners, and the
sub-culture anthropologically important not for the differences in the
personal reasons each participates in tattooing, but because each is
reenacting in his own way, in his own day, in his own cultural role, a
critically important stage of social evolution, and thereby providing us
with a clue to and a confirmation of its nature.

R. Snower