Re: Mutilation and tattoos

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 13 Jul 1996 21:02:07 +0900

>In a message dated 96-07-04 19:14:11 EDT, jlm@TWICS.COM (John McCreery)
>> Easy, but too easy. Global generalizations don't explain the variation,
>> e.g., why some people would settle for a discrete butterfly above the
>> while others go for total bodycoverage, or why some people make their mark
>> by wearing Gucci while others go for tattoos and sometimes they may be
>>the same people.
>Now, you say easy - so tell me why reams of stuff have been written on
>fashion, but nothing much looking at body mutilations cross culturally.

Allow me to speculate: Fashion is a major industry; tattooing is not.
Fashion can be a major industry because, being literally superficial,
fashion is an ideal vehicle for status competitions. Each new fashion
statement rejects its immediate predecessors and then becomes a target for
further innovation. Consequently, fashion creates a market that is always
open to new products.Innovation generates history--a subject of great
interest to intellectuals who are, themselves, involved in status
competition. In contrast, tattooing implies a permanence in the statements
that it makes. Yes, tattoos can be embellished, but getting untattooed is a
good deal more difficult, painful and expensive than than acquiring new
clothing, make-up, etc. Tattoos signal *frozen* identities--the tabooed
antithesis of the fluid, mobile, constructed selves that market economies

>To me, the variation is much less intriguing b/c it
>reflects individual taste - something that has no pattern or reason.

I couldn't disagree more.

First, on general philosophical grounds: Explanations that fail to account
for variation are not explanations at all. Consider the law of gravity.
Newton's accomplishment wasn't to observe that dropped objects fall toward
the center of the earth. It was writing a formula that accounts precisely
for the acceleration that in turn allows us to calculate the precise speed
at which objects will fall toward each other, which leads, in turn, to
calculations of planetary orbits, missle trajectories, etc. Darwin's
achievement was the recognition that species, once seen as God-given types,
are, in fact, evolving populations that can change radically in adapting to
particular circumstances. Global descriptions at the level of "tattooing
asserts an identity" are vacuous until we can say with some confidence why
particular tattoos assert particular identities in particular historical
moments or social and cultural circumstances and explain the variations

Second, as an anthropologist I find the proposition that variation reflects
nothing more than individual tastes highly dubious. Suppose, for example,
we start with Mary Douglas' thesis that the way the body is treated mirrors
social organization (with, for example, the strength of food taboos
correlated with with the strength of concern for group boundaries). What,
then, can we say about taboos? Again I speculate. Is it accidental that
submitting to the tattoo artist's needle seems to be characteristic of
those who are literally "stuck" (or "stick" themselves) with identities
seen as marginal in market dominated societies?

Glad to be back.

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