Re: Mutilation as a legitimate object of inquiry

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Mon, 15 Jul 1996 07:40:30 +0900

Mike Shupp writes

> 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.

First, a word of thanks to Mike (along with Kristian Pedersen, to whom Mike
is replying) for beginning, at least, to sort out the *range* of phenomena
that we are talking about.Getting some sense of the the range of things
under discussion is a vital first step toward explaining their
variations,which (I will continue to insist) is the proper goal of
anthropological analysis.

Then, however, a question for Mike. What are the criteria you are using for
ritual? My impression is that you have in mind some form of *obligatory*
*public* ceremony, which makes *private* non-obligatory *choices*
non-ritual. As I have indicated before,the restriction of ritual to
obligatory forms creates problems in accounting for non-obligatory elements
in what are usually taken to be "ritual" situations: Sermons (where
preachers enjoy a wide range of freedom in what they talk about) and spells
in, for example, Azande and Trobriand magic are classic examples. The
degree to which "rituals" are, in fact, formalized/stereotyped/obligatory
is, to my mind, something that always needs to be considered.

In the cases you cite, I would note that when D (footbinding) was practiced
in China, it was, from the point of view of the women most directly
effected, obligatory. They were forced, typically by other women, their
mothers or grandmothers, to do it. The process was, like adult circumcision
and mutilation as punishment, painful. The result signaled a change in
status. How, then, is this not ritual? Is it because the process in
question was usually performed privately? What, then, of initiation
ceremonies that involve the deliberate seclusion of those being initiated?
This all gets very messy, very fast.

Even G, the relatively painless process of earlobe piercing offered by junk
jewelry stands at shopping malls, can, as a cultural signalling process, do
much the same work as D, indicating (in the classic form I resisted as the
father of a daughter) that a woman sees herself as "grown-up" and available
for the rites of sexual courtship.It may also seem obligatory to the woman
in question("Everybody is doing it!") That it *may* mean something else to
men and *may* (not always, consider India) contrast with nose or nipple
piercing in being more acceptable in *mainstream* society demands
ethnographic research to see what it means in particular cases. But again,
what are your grounds for saying that this is not ritual?

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