Re: Mutilation as a legitimate object of inquiry

Adrienne Dearmas (DearmasA@AOL.COM)
Mon, 15 Jul 1996 11:58:05 -0400

In a message dated 96-07-14 03:41:07 EDT,

> If we consider 'mutilation' to mean any marking of the body by
> tattooing, scarring, amputation or the infliction of a deformity (such
> as, for example, skull or feet binding), we are able to include a
> number of practices in our analysis that are commonly encountered in
> ritual contexts in non-Occidental cultures. It is curious to note that
> the majority of these mutilations concern three regions of the body: the
> skull (including the face), the genitalia and less frequently the hands
> or feet. These mutilations occur during ritual or are undertaken in
> prepatation for a ritual, often during one of the prescribed rites of
> transition, such as from childhood to adulthood, from celibacy to
> conjugal union or upon entrance into a secret society or a profession.

Yes, body mutilations are often associated with rites of passage, in an
effort to mark the body permanently in celebration of the transition.
However, these events are not always clear (consider cosmetic surgeries,
cranial deformation, adult circumcisions, etc).

> The regions of the body selected for this mutilation is often
> identical to that of especial significance with respect to the
> localisation of vital or ontological essence or substance.

How would this relate to footbinding?

>Here I borrow
> strongly from the Oceanic ethnographic record, where 'substance' plays a
> central role; but if we adopt elements of Weston La Barre's argument
> (broached in a fascinating book written in 1984 entitled 'Muelos: A
> Stone Age Superstition About Sexuality') regarding an archaic belief in
> the localisation of vital substance in the skull or bones (brain or
> marrow) with conduits attaching these sources of vital essence to the
> sexual organs, this belief might have been common to all of the Old
> World and dates to the Upper Palaeolithic. The marking or mutilation of
> the body may be associated then with the control or 'domestication' (for
> want of a better term) of vital or ontological essence in the service of
> entrance into a ritually and socially defined role. It seems that only
> in the contemporary Occident do people 'choose' to mark themselves and
> choose their own motifs for tattooing or form of mutilation. This
> mutilation or manipulation of body parts can been seen to continue after
> death, where aspects of the corpse, whether bones, flesh or hair, or
> specific parts of these elements of the corpse, are accorded
> differential treatment.

Although I am not sure I follow your argument, Maori would re-tattoo the
faces of their dead to preserve the markings, which apprarently faded after
death. Not sure if this is relevant.

> I have had neither the courage nor the audacity to develop these
> ideas beyond the mere noting of a potential relationship, but perhaps
> this may be a profitable direction of inquiry if for no other reason than
> it is held up for repudiation in the face of a better or more
> comprehensive discussion of the matter. Nonetheless, the matter
> certainly does have potential for worthwhile research -- to add to the
> list of examples, one might also wish to include consideration of
> toyrtures directed towards certain regions of the body depedning upon the
> crime during the Middle Ages. It may be illegitimate to try to develop
> an argument that encoompasses such disparate practices, but a grand
> mistake is more satisfying to make than just a little one !

For my own purposes, torture does not meet criteria for inclusion in the
definition of body mutilation. Nor does body building or anorexia. Body
mutilations are a culturally sanctioned practice which results in the
alteration, transformation, deformation or modification of the human form in
a permanent or visibly distinguishable manner. Permanence or intent of
permanence is important, as is it being culturally sanctioned.

- Adrienne