Re: mutilation and ritual

Adrienne Dearmas (DearmasA@AOL.COM)
Thu, 11 Jul 1996 10:39:24 -0400

In a message dated 96-07-10 01:30:13 EDT, rs219@IDIR.NET (Robert Snower)

> Here you are saying, far from its being inappropriate to generalize about
> individuals and their personal reasons, such variations are not
> since they have no pattern or reason, and it is the cross-cultural
> generalization that all cultures mutilate that you are interested in.
> I want to take it a step further. I don't think the cross-cultural
> will get us to a satisfying explanation of tattooing, or of mutilating. I
> think it is necessary to go cross-generational. It is intriguing that
> tattooing and mutilating are widespread, culturally, and it is even more
> intriguing that they are cross-generational. For the time dimension
> us to ascribe a far greater significance to these phenomena than if we
> ourselves to the present. The contemporary perspective is really not very
> substantive, is it? That prisoners, or the military, find solace in
> tattooing is not very substantive dimension of our society. Nor that the
> sub-culture indulges. Unless you believe the sub-culture is a nascent
> that is about to take over. I am not of that persuasion.

I almost want to say that comparing contemporary tattooing of prisoners as a
subculture of American culture and Maoris of the past who tattooed is like
apples and oranges. Now I'll admit I am in over my head here, but I'm going
to try and muddle. Time has not stood still and the circumstances which
affected Maoris then are not the same that affect Americans now. Perhaps if
we put every culture or subculture on a timeline of their own in terms of
development, we might see a trend. An engineer friend of mine wants to put my
research onto a 3D timeline which looks at the practice, where it occurs,
what the population numbers were/are, how long it lasted/lasts. I think that
the culture practicing the particular form of body mutilation has to be
examined at the time it is being done (if in the past, then as best as
possible based on oral history, primary source accounts, etc). Then each of
these cases can be compared and analyzed against each other. I realize this
is contradictory to what I first said. I sometimes wonder if a
Euroamericancentric bias prompts us to glorify "native" cultures and devalue
American "sub" cultures. Y'all are certainly giving me lots to think about!
> That your cross-cultural analysis needs bolstering from the past is
> indicated by another intriguing feature. Why is it generally true that so
> many of these phenomena are found not only in so many cultures, but that
> they are ALL found is in so many cultures? Thus, tattooing, circumcision,
> totemism, dietary taboos, menstrual taboos, mutilation, veneration of the
> dead, fear of ghosts--they are all usually represented. This variety
> a theoretical unification. A lot of people have thought the way to get
> this problem is by a way of a reference to the past: to primeval
> which revealed both the unity in these disparate parts, and the intensely
> significant social role they played. These people would include not only
> Harrison and Frazer, but Weston, Cornford, Gilbert Murray, Freud, Jung,
> most of all, Shapiro, in terms of sociobiology. Of Freud, one might note
> that he started out by referring everything to the infantile source, and
> ended up talking about "the infantile recurrence of totemism."

There is no question that examining past practices is intrinsic to this
research and I apologize if I have created the impression that I was
excluding the past. Not so at all. I just think that tattooing today in
Americna subcultures may be just as vaild to the people who do it as the
tattoos of the Maoris 200 years ago. Maybe the fact that everyone had them
(Maoris), made them less meaningful.

> This kind of thinking renders you, the military, prisoners, and the
> sub-culture anthropologically important not for the differences in the
> personal reasons each participates in tattooing, but because each is
> reenacting in his own way, in his own day, in his own cultural role, a
> critically important stage of social evolution, and thereby providing us
> with a clue to and a confirmation of its nature.

I agree with you here (except that I don't believe the social evolution is
restricted to the individual reenaction but is more like a movement which
individuals particpate in which evolves into a something that is looked back
upon as social evolution) and you've reminded me of a point I wanted to make.
In the last 2-5 years, a very gradual shift has occurred in the piercing
community. Labretifery! Mostly confined to the ears so far, piercers have
taken to stretching the holes in their ears to accomodate larger and larger
gauge studs. This makes me wonder if labretifery as it is practiced in South
America and parts of Africa are vestiges of a cyclical phenomenon which began
who-knows-when with piercing and will we see labretifery become a prescence
in this industrial, far removed from nature culture we call American which
already accepts ear piercing in both sexes?
- Adrienne