the seriousness of mutilation

Holly Swyers (swyersh@INTERPORT.NET)
Sat, 13 Jul 1996 19:08:50 -0400

Hi all-

First off, I hope those of you in the path of Bertha have weathered her
well. By the time it got here (NYC) it was pretty mellowed out, although I
think Long Island felt it a lot more than those of us on the Sound Shore.

Now, it seems a strand of pettiness has crept into the thread on
mutilation, tattooing, etc. - and it seems it was prompted by a not
unreasonable comment from Mike Shupp.

The question before us is whether issues of body mutilation qualifies as
"Serious Stuff." To my mind it does. Here's why.

Humans are, to my knowledge, the only animals that deliberately disfigure
their own bodies and the bodies of their young. These alterations to human
bodies include tattooing, scarification, circumcision, clitorodectomy
(sp?), and other "mutilations" discussed throughout this thread. Humans
will also seek to improve upon nature by altering the bodies of animals (no
value judgment attached, just an observation). Examples include "docking"
the tails of sheep, removing extra teats from dairy heifers, dehorning
cattle, clipping pigs teeth, etc. We also use genetic engineering to
improve crop yields, stretch growing ranges, etc. In short, humans seem
universally determined to demonstrate their dominance over nature, whether
it be over their own bodies, the bodies of other creatures, the climates
they live in, the plants they grow, etc. Why on earth is this? And is it
in fact universal, or not? What does it mean?

Many cultures associate nature with the work of god(s). Is our inclination
to modify or "improve upon" nature an attempt to challenge our gods?

Humans are social animals (or so we are taught to believe). Part of
"socialness" appears to include efforts to clearly demonstrate our alliance
with a particular group - especially where there are higher population
densities. There has been much talk on this list about egalitarian vs.
hierarchal societies and how population figures into the nature of a
society. The issue of how people mark their bodies to indicate their group
alliance offers a sideways entry into this conversation. Perhaps there is
a maximum number of people that humans feel comfortable being grouped with.
What is the largest egalitarian society that we know of? What is the
largest sub-group in American culture in which all members have frequent
contact? Or in another culture? Is there a limit to how much human
contact that a human can by nature tolerate? Or is this a culturally
determined aspect of the human creature?

The entry point to this conversation has largely been through individuals'
experience with tattoos or other body mutilations within their own culture.
Is this not telling about the nature of how humans learn (even
anthropologists)? When we stumble across new things, how do we understand
them? When I learn a new word, I learn it by defining it with other words.
I use what I know to construct an understanding of what I don't know. The
conversation itself and the way participants have interacted could tell us
something about human nature.

I feel like I have only touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of the
sorts of "Serious Stuff" this thread has prompted me to think about. One
interesting observation - proportionate to other threads on this list, this
one on body mutilation seems to have a significantly larger female
response. Does this mean anything?

Keeping all this in mind, however, I do not begrudge Mike Shupp's boredom
with the topic and his sense that this is not "Serious Stuff." I'm
disappointed in a couple of his responses to the protests about the
seriousness of this thread, but to be fair, I think he's been provoked. By
challenging the value of the thread, Mike has presented everyone with the
opportunity to articulate why this thread is valuable - and to reassess
whether it is or not. It is hitting some kind of nerve, since it seems to
be lasting longer than the average thread on this list. If we decide that
Mike's challenge is an excuse to denigrate each other and flame people -
WHAT ARE WE LEARNING? Personal attacks only serve to shut the conversation

Or maybe I misunderstand the point of anthropology?

Any thoughts/comments/retorts?

Thanks for listening-

"...for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
- William Shakespeare, _Hamlet_ (II, ii, 247-48)