Re: Reality check

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 3 Jul 1996 08:22:02 +0900

Rosemary Gianno writes (personal communication),

"If one attaches to body mutilation the idea that it has
to do with rampant individualism, detachment from society etc., then
doesn't one have to explain why similar kinds of body mutilations are found
in societies which are not individualistic in this way?"

Adrienne Dearmas writes (personal communication),

"One of the problems I have with this [McCreery's paraphrase of Chris
Shilling] is that body mutilations are not a
current phenomena, nor is their study. Bulwer gave us the first collection in
1650 in Anthropometamorphosis, and Flowers actually applied social theory to
the practices in 1881 in "Fashion and Deformity." I would agree that the
growing trend in America to mutilate the body is an attempt to create
identity and group attachments, as the family, community and social groups
are being broken down. As for symbolic immortality, I think this is why those
who practice fgm hang onto it so fervently - what place does a woman have
w/out a husband ?"

I've been thinking about this, and since, in other connection, I've been
reading Ulf Hannerz's _Cultural Complexity_, it has occured to me to borrow
some ideas from Hannerz in trying to sort out the issue at hand.

Hannerz approaches cultural analysis by looking at

(1) ideas and meanings in people's heads
(2) means of externalization, by which they are made public
(3) the distribution of (1) and (2) in populations and social groups.

This scheme is congenial to me because it parallels a series of
conventional approaches to the study of language, i.e.,
(1') semantics and deep structures [what speakers and hearers have "in mind"]
(2') phonology and surface structures [the audible and visible words that
pass between them]
(3') the distributions of (1') and (2') across populations and groups

Typically we learn about 1 & 1' by talking to people.
We learn about 2 & 2' by observing what they do.
To get in a serious way at 3 & 3' we have to do systematic, quantitative

As Hannerz points out, most cultural analysis [and this, I note, applies as
much to philosophers, art historians, literary critics and other cultural
studies types as it does to cultural anthropologists] stops at 1 and 2. We
leave 3 to sociologists, market researchers, and other uncouth types, whom
we accuse, often correctly, of lack of sophistication in deciding what to
count. [It is a rare researcher--Bourdieu in _Distinction_ is one_ who who
has the time, energy,inclination and other resources required to span the
whole process.]

Coming, then, to the problem at hand: Shilling's starting point is concern
with what he sees as growing sociological interest in the body, a subject
largely ignored or taken for granted in classic (aka 19th and 20th century)
sociological theory. As a reader I observe that the theory to which he
refers (Weber, Durkheim, Marx, etc.) is largely a high-modernist project.
The later authors to whom Shilling refers (Bourdieu, Elias, etc.) are, in
various ways, reacting against the separation of mind and body and the
focus on mind (neglecting or simply ignoring the body) characteristic of
the great modernists.

As Rosemary and Adrienne point out concern with the body and, indeed,
practices that do something to it (training, tattoos, mutilations,
decorations=TTMD, for short) have a near universal distribution in human
societies. We then find ourselves observing that TTMD occur both in
societies where they are *obligatory* for members of certain social
categories and in societies where they are *optional* means for those
attempting to create new identities outside established categories.

At this point, I, at least, am feeling muddled. Here is where Hannerz helps
me out:

(1) Shilling is talking at the level of ideas and meanings in the work of
social theorists. He suggests that the theorists' interest in the body
reflect wider social changes. Could those changes be largely restricted to
the theorists' own milieu? That's a distributional question.

(2) Shilling (he is a sociologist after all :-))has relatively little to
say about the means of externalization used to assert control over the
body.Could we, perhaps, describe the range of TTMD practices as, to use
Bourdieu's term, a "space of social possibles"? I am no expert on tattoos
or mutilations. I am, however, fascinated when I read about the 17th/18th
century American gentry described in _The Refining of America_ and discover
the same stress on the gentleman's standing and sitting straight that
Bourdieu describes as characteristic of French elite behavior, Confucius
prescribes in the 6th century BC, has a clear echo in the practice of Zen,
and also appeared, to close the circle, in the Boy Scout Manual. I can't
help wondering if there is a limited range of possibilities here that are
open to some sort of systematic description.

(3) With that description in hand, we might then return to the
distributional issue and ask why various forms of TTMD are obligatory or
optional/accepted or rejected by people in various social positions. We
might even be able to say something reflexively sociological about the
theorists that Shilling describes....

(4) I note, in passing, that as the case of language warns us, we cannot
simply assume that a particular visible form of behavior reflects a given
set of ideas and meanings behind it. Here an example from marketing. The
Chevy Nova bombs in Latin America. The guys at GM have failed to note that
in Spanish "No va" is "no go."

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