Adrienne Dearmas (DearmasA@AOL.COM)
Thu, 4 Jul 1996 11:45:42 -0400

In a message dated 96-07-02 19:30:32 EDT, jlm@TWICS.COM (John McCreery)

> 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.
> 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
> 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
> 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.

As I mentioned in a different post, yes, this is somewhat true with regards
to skin mutilations and genital mutilations. Now, keep in mind that it is
often difficult to discuss body mutilations on a timeline. Whereas most forms
of mutilations were originiated when the body bearing them did not wear
Western clothing, the mutilations continue regardless of the recently
acquired habit of wearing said style clothes. With this in mind, I refer to
that window of contact which elicited field notes and travelogue diaries -
the West's first encounter with decorated and marked bodies. The skin, when
exposed (non-industrial cultures), is a veritable canvas begging to be
transformed. I would think that how some see a lawn as a place to create a
horticulturalist paradise, and a blank subway wall is considered an
invitation to graffitti artists, too others, the skin is meant to be marked.
Now, we know that if you cut black skin, it will keloid into a raised, smooth
scar. White skin does not. Assuming that the origins of tattooing predate
phenotypical integration on a widespread lavel, marking of the skin (which
seems to be fairly universal), fell into two categories: tattooing and
cicatrization (both using ash, berry, dung or other natural substances to
create design, be it color or pattern). Genital mutilation seems to follow
this pattern. Be it circumcision, fgm, castration, subincision, bifurcation,
there is a logical attention to the genital area. Now, it stands to reason
that castration is not widespread as the result would be permanent zero pop.
growth. The long and the short of it is that there appears to be a
generalized focus on transforming the body which is present in every culture.
The range of possibilites are going to be restricted by environment (native
alaskans are known to tattoo, but usually restricted to the face - not much
point in tattooing a rose on your butt if no one is ever going to see it
until you die! :-), resources, and the extent to which it decimates your
culture (see castration note above) - I would assume that the royal houses of
Europe known to be inbred hemophilliacs, were not engaging in any
bloodletting activities such as tattooing or circumcisions (although it was
very common for royals to be circumcised. FYI: the House of Windsor keeps a
mohel on staff, and William and Harry are the first Princes to ever be
uncircumcised, Go Diana!). So yes, there are limitations imposed by outside
factors to the social possibilites. And this is true, I think, for most
cultural traits.
> (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.
This is an interesting point. It makes me think of other practices which
could fall under this category: bathing, education, pre-marital sex. I would
question what it is about individuals which accept or reject the status quo,
or how individuals come to the decisions they make regarding optional
institutions. And one could consider whether something is really optional,
just because there is no "law" attached to it. Like college - in the US, you
don't have to attend, but try getting a job without it. Fgm is the same way.
It is tradition, but not law (in fact, it is actually against the law in many
places (Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone) - but try getting married, much less
being allowed to live in your own village if you somehow found a way to get
around it. Hell, they'll get Ms. Kasinga if she were ever foolish to go back
home after raising all the press she did here with her asylum case!

> (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."
I love this example but question your statement "we cannot
> simply assume that a particular visible form of behavior reflects a given
> set of ideas and meanings behind it." Do you mean to say: based upon our
cultural value system and world view, that we cannot assume that what we
believe is believed or held true universally, or cross culturally? I think
that if you know enough about the ideas and meanings as held by the Jewish
community (even being an outsider), then you can assume the meaning and ideas
behind the bris ceremony. Yes? or No Go? :-)
- Adrienne