Mutilation as a legitimate object of inquiry

Sun, 14 Jul 1996 03:31:03 EDT

strident critic of the recent debate on Anthro-L concerning mutilation,
I thought I might suggest a profitable direction of research regarding
the significance of mutilation.
If we consider 'mutilation' to mean any marking of the body by
tattooing, scarring, amputation or the infliction of a deformity (such
as, for example, skull or feet binding), we are able to include a
number of practices in our analysis that are commonly encountered in
ritual contexts in non-Occidental cultures. It is curious to note that
the majority of these mutilations concern three regions of the body: the
skull (including the face), the genitalia and less frequently the hands
or feet. These mutilations occur during ritual or are undertaken in
prepatation for a ritual, often during one of the prescribed rites of
transition, such as from childhood to adulthood, from celibacy to
conjugal union or upon entrance into a secret society or a profession.
The regions of the body selected for this mutilation is often
identical to that of especial significance with respect to the
localisation of vital or ontological essence or substance. Here I borrow
strongly from the Oceanic ethnographic record, where 'substance' plays a
central role; but if we adopt elements of Weston La Barre's argument
(broached in a fascinating book written in 1984 entitled 'Muelos: A
Stone Age Superstition About Sexuality') regarding an archaic belief in
the localisation of vital substance in the skull or bones (brain or
marrow) with conduits attaching these sources of vital essence to the
sexual organs, this belief might have been common to all of the Old
World and dates to the Upper Palaeolithic. The marking or mutilation of
the body may be associated then with the control or 'domestication' (for
want of a better term) of vital or ontological essence in the service of
entrance into a ritually and socially defined role. It seems that only
in the contemporary Occident do people 'choose' to mark themselves and
choose their own motifs for tattooing or form of mutilation. This
mutilation or manipulation of body parts can been seen to continue after
death, where aspects of the corpse, whether bones, flesh or hair, or
specific parts of these elements of the corpse, are accorded
differential treatment.
I have had neither the courage nor the audacity to develop these
ideas beyond the mere noting of a potential relationship, but perhaps
this may be a profitable direction of inquiry if for no other reason than
it is held up for repudiation in the face of a better or more
comprehensive discussion of the matter. Nonetheless, the matter
certainly does have potential for worthwhile research -- to add to the
list of examples, one might also wish to include consideration of
toyrtures directed towards certain regions of the body depedning upon the
crime during the Middle Ages. It may be illegitimate to try to develop
an argument that encoompasses such disparate practices, but a grand
mistake is more satisfying to make than just a little one !
I expect alot of censure now :) !

Best Regards,