mutilation and tattoos

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 4 Jul 1996 07:29:06 +0900

Special thanks to Nedra Sue Davis, for actually introducing some data into
our discussion, and to Marie Conrad for her shrewd observations:

"With all this talk of a lack of ritual, etc. in Western "tattooing," is
there anyone out on this list who has actually gotten a tattoo or talked
to someone who has gotten a tattoo? We seem to be approaching this
question with an a priori view that Western tattooing has no ceremony,
symbolism and ritual, and trying to explain why this is, when in fact, I
would argue just that opposite might be true."

Mutilation and tattoos certainly have several distinguishing features
commonly attributed to "ritual" in anthropological literature. They are
communicative acts designed to "make a statement" concerning identity in a
deliberately dramatic form that involves both cognitive and emotional
elements. To the uninitiated they present themselves as puzzles, since they
have no apparent rational/technical purpose and thus stimulate
interpretation/explanation in other terms (see Sperber, Dan,_Rethinking
Symbolism_). Why, then, are we puzzled?

One factor is our dictionary definitions of ritual that tend to overstress
the "repetition of set forms," obscuring the variation that occurs within
as well as between rituals. (Just think, for example, of the difference
between the highly variable sermon and the fixed form of the creed in the
Lutheran liturgy--the one that I was brought up in.)

Another, and related, element is the unresolved confusion between ritual (=
obsessive, compulsive behavior in a clinical psychological sense) and
ritual (=an obligatory social ceremony, the usual anthropological sense).

It may, I suggest, be useful to recognize explicitly that there are two
dimensions on which human behavior can be plotted that tend to get muddled
up here. One is the social dimension on which behavior identified as
"ritual" can range from *optional* to *obligatory*. The other is a
psychological dimension, the degree of emotional involvement that can range
from *strong* to *weak*. Conventional approaches in anthropology tend to
assume that ritual is both *obligatory* and demands *strong* involvement,
in contrast to technology/everyday behavior, which is seen as *optional*
and *weak* in degree of emotional involvement. As a result we tend to have
problems dealing with behavior that may be obligatory but allows weak
involvement (conventional courtesies) and also with behavior that is
optional but demands strong involvement (the idea type of both science and

Is there any reason to assume that mutilations and tattoos could not fall
into one or more of these four categories. My gut says that
*optional*+*weak* involvement is unlikely, but that, to me, is a signal
that we need some research.

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