Re: mutilation and ritual

Robert Snower (rs219@IDIR.NET)
Thu, 4 Jul 1996 16:55:29 -0500

At 11:44 AM 7/4/96 -0400, Adrienne Dearmas wrote:
>In a message dated 96-07-04 00:02:39 EDT, rs219@IDIR.NET (Robert Snower)
>> I do not think there is anything too mysterious about the custom of
>> tatooing, except the great mystery of how the emotional value of such
>> can get into our bones, and stay there for thousands of years--how there
>> be such a thing as the "deep structure" of Dwight Read's recent post. I
>> not very optimistic about your interviews. People have no idea, on an
>> articulate level, why they get a kick out of, e.g., a Pollock and not out
>> a Picasso, or vice-versa, and likewise they are unable to tell you why
>> tatooing turns them on, and stamp collecting doesn't. Tatooing harks
>> to totem days, and that is a long time ago. I spoke in previous posts of
>> ethnic identity of the present day as a descendant of the totemic
>> device. That's what it is, and there is where the story of tatooing lies.
>Ah, a negative voice! I disagree that all people have no idea. I do. Miro
>confuses me aethetically, William H. Johnson has rich deep meaning evident in
>each brushstroke (now, that's personal, but it is my idea of why I get a kick
>out of what I get a kick out of). Not all tattoos are about totems. There is
>merit in what you say, but it is too generalized. Totems may have been the
>origin of many tattoos in many cultures, but so many other aspects have crept
>in an affected the practice. Nothing exists in a vacuum in any culture!
>Japanese irezumi (sp?) or full body tattooing was once a man's real clothing.
>Now, I understand it is the mark of the "old fashioned" John, have you
>noticed anything in Japan about the waning of tattooing?
>- Adrienne

Not a negative voice at all. Just one that wants to be. I happen to find,
not your confusion, but clarity, aesthetically, in Miro's sguiggles and deep
boredom in each brushstroke of William H. Johnson. But my saying that, and
your saying the opposite, does not express why. Both of us are merely
repeating the question, why do we get a kick out of what we get a kick out
of? The fact remains, neither of us has much of any idea. Right?

You say not all tattoos are about totems. Of course not. Like when I say I
always enjoy taking long walks. Of course, not always. You say, "Totems
may have been the
origin of many tattoos in many cultures, but so many other aspects have crept
in and affected the practice. Nothing exists in a vacuum in any culture!" I
agree more. But I would like to point out that the ORIGIN, as you are now
using the word, represents the tatoo phenomenon when it had an authentic,
vital, and essential cultural purpose. The present day survivals of the
taboo phenomenon are, more often than not, as you so skilfully depict, the
refuge of those who cannot cope with their contemporary culture--a moribund
regression into the past, rather than a creative response to the present.
Not so, the original tatoos.

But you give an entirely different meaning to ORIGIN in your response to my
previous post:
You say:
"I'm not sure it is a lack of sophistication. At least, I'm not sure what you
mean by sophistication. I think, instead, we have gotten away from the
meaning of things (i.e. their origin). Tattooing in Western culture has its
origins in many aspects of sub-culture life. The military (even with its
ritualistic getting drunk and getting a tattoo), sailors, carnies (the
tattooed lady as a career for women who have chosen to live outside the norm
of marriage and having children), bikers, and prison inmates (see Margo
DeMello and November 1994 (?) issue of Natural History magazine)."

Surely, tattooing in Western culture does not have its origins in
sub-culture life. That is so opposite to what I believe. Or in the
military, etc. As I tried to say above, these are the vestigial remnants of
a vital past. True, these remnants reveal themselves frequently in the
sub-culture; but it is misleading to use the term 'origins.' Do you really
think we can find "the meaning of (these) things" in the sub-culture, rather
than in the past? In regard to "sophistication," I was trying to say
Western culture is more, not less, sophisticated, than some others in this
regard, and as a result the tatoo data are more condensed and less
ceremonial than in those cultures where the data are closer in form to that
long ago era when tatoo was, far from sub-culture, the most sophisticated,
avant-garde, thing going.

And I still wonder, how do those avant-garde days survive, even to this day,
if only as a bankrupt refuge?

Maybe you are right about that negative business. Let me know.

Best wishes. R. Snower