Re: Mutilation as a legitimate object of inquiry

mike shupp (ms44278@HUEY.CSUN.EDU)
Sun, 14 Jul 1996 10:28:32 -0700

On Sun, 14 Jul 1996, KRISTIAN PEDERSEN wrote:

> At the risk of eliciting the censure of Mike Scupp, the most
> strident critic of the recent debate on Anthro-L concerning mutilation,

Strident? I've noticed a not very deep discussion of an
emerging cultural trait, which may or may not turn out to be
significant in the future but which clearly fascinates for some
bizzare reason some present day observers, and said as much.

If this seems strident, I have to conclude the tattoo-fetishists
among us have very thin skins indeed.

> 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.

Let's be more specific, and consider some concrete examples of
body mutilations/markings:
A. Perforation of the ureter in Australian aborigine males
B. Removal of the clitoris in African native women
C. Circumcision of infant males in Jewish/ANE cultures
D. Foot binding, head binding, etc.
E. Maori (and other) facial scarring and tattooing
F. Tattoos voluntarily acquired by seaman, soldiers, and
related groups (outlaw bikers, prisoners, etc.)
G. Other decorative mutilations, cultural sanctioned or
traditional, such as earlobe piercing
H. Flagellation, hair shirts, etc. when self-inflicted
I. Role-related castration (eunuchs and singers)
J. Mutilation and tattooing beyond usual cultural norms
K. Mutiliation as punishment (whippings, amputations and
ear lobe cropping)

A, B, C, and K and perhaps E are involved with rituals of one
sort or another. D, F, G, H, and J are not.

> 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.

A, B, C, I, yes. D, E, J, maybe. F, G, H, K, no.

> 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.

Almost universally, modern humans think of their consciousness
as residing within the skull. This seems reasonable, since our
eyes and other important sense organs are in the skull, and we
have knowledge of the importance of the brain. However, I'm
reluctant to assume such an impression is/was true for all people
in all times. The Greeks, for example, thought of the heart as
the central organ and possibly regarded consciousness as seated
there. The coincidence of current and Paleolithic beliefs about
the location of consciousness might simply be coincidence.

> 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.

A, B, sort of. I, definitely. Others, not at all.

> 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.

Fine. If that's what you're asking for here, you've got it.
You've been shot down. Don't take it seriously. My own early
notion of tattooing as a rite-of-passage act looks pretty
silly at this point as well.

> 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 :) !

Bah, humbug!

------------------------------------------------------------------------------ | "Oh no! Don't tell me we're back to
| the originality thing again! Forget
Mike Shupp | originality! It's been done before!"
Department of Anthropology |
Cal State University, Northridge | (Tim Keene <tkeene@TENET.EDU>)