Re: Mutilation and permanence

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Tue, 16 Jul 1996 10:10:25 +0900

>-- [ From: Timothy Mason * EMC.Ver #2.5.02 ] --
>>From : Timothy Mason
>Adrienne Dearmas says
>>I look at cosmetic surgeries from the same perspective as tattooing -
>modifying the body permanently >to achieve a sense of self in relation to
>other, or that which one does not want to be
>This idea that mutilation is permanent whereas fashion is not appears to
>have become a given. I would disagree ; in a number of modern uses of
>mutilation, permanence is not at issue.
> 1. Heavy mutilation appears to have originated in the sado-masochistic
>milieu that favoured some of the more outrageous San Francisco bath-houses.
>Michel Foucault, who has cropped up from time to time on this thread,
>remarked that the appearance of so-called gay cancer gave an added piquancy
>to the bath-house scene. There may be a sense here that one is free to
>mutilate one's body for the very reason that the long-term is no longer an
>issue. Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful cadaver.

Shouldn't we be careful here to distinguish two senses of "permanence": (1)
permance in relation to the body (circumcision, for example, is permanent,
i.e., irreversible; tattooing is somewhat less so; there are tattoo removal
services) and permanence in identity, a much more problematic thing.

> 2. The idea of permanence as used here may itself be contingent
>upon the
>concept of a career. Most of the people on this list see their lives as
>oriented towards a future which will be different - they see their lives as
>a progression. For a number of groups within capitalistic societies, this is
>not the case. Prisoners, gang members and other inner-city young people see
>forever as either very much the same as now, or as simply too inconceivably
>far away to have any effect on present behaviour. In this case, getting a
>tattoo may be very much like getting a new and neater hair-cut. Adrienne's
>tattooed fashion models come to much the same conclusion the other way
>around - they have an earning life-span of about five years. Afterwards is
>another planet.

What Mason says here is absolutely consistent with the model I have been
building. It is precisely those whose lives are are seen as short and
chancy who assert a claim on permanence through tattooing or other body
modifications. Given their social situations, forever is a short, short

>By the way, may I here register an objection to the typification of such
>groups as prisoners, gang-members and homosexuals as 'marginal'. I would
>argue that they lie at the very centre of our present culture. Durkheim
>pointed to the importance that the criminal has for normal society, and it
>is likely that he has taken on even greater importance, rather than lesser -
>John Gerassi argues that crime is particularly important to American society
>. Foucault sees the prison as emblematic of modernist modes of social
>control. Today, somewhere between 20 & 25% of young black males in America
>are under CJ control of some kind - marginal?

It would be a great mistake to believe that the salience of "Prisons,
gang-members, homosexuals" in contemporary popular culture is an index of
centrality in modern society. Symbolic reversals of social order are common
in "ritual" the world over; so much so that British social anthropologists
have argued for years that rituals tend to occur at exactly those points
where the social system is weak and needs shoring up.(See Turner, _The
Ritual Process_, Gluckman,_Politics, Law and Ritual in Tribal Societies_,

> Best wishes to all
> Timothy Mason

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo