Modifying the Body (Was Mutilations, Tattos, etc.)

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Tue, 16 Jul 1996 09:51:43 +0900

Cyril Belshaw has made an important point. Our casual use of "mutilation"
to refer to modifications of the body does have a nasty, ethnocentric ring
to it. We need a more neutral terminology. For lack of a better
alternative, I will use BMODs (short for "Body MODifications) below.

Belshaw's comments on the need to examine BMODs in specific cultural
contexts is one with which I generally agree. To take for granted that
BMODs observed in one context will carry the same meaning or perform the
same function in another is lousy methodology. Still, however, I think that
Belshaw goes too far in suggesting that Maori and Biker tattooing are,
because of their cultural settings, totally incommensurable.

To the best of my knowledge (Do correct me if I'm wrong), homo sapiens
sapiens is the only extant terrestrial species in which BMODs are
deliberately performed with intent to convey meaning. From this perspective
both Maori and Bikers are variants in a range of pan-*human* behavior. At
this very general level they are, in fact, *doing the same thing*. That
there are also local variations in the placement and style of BMODs and in
meanings attached to them is equally undeniable. Whether or not these are
so radically different that they belong, in effect, to totally different
species of behavior is a matter for empirical research.

The approach I use combines, in effect, the methodology of Victor Turner
with ideas taken from Levi-Strauss and James Fernandez. The starting point
(1) is *observable* differences in behavior and its products. In analyzing
what these differences mean, we can draw (2) on what those most directly
involved *say* that they mean; where what they say can more or less
variable, consistent or contradictory, and take any number of forms, from
fragments of conversation to long, coherent narratives or theoretical
analyses. We can also build *inferences* by situating both (1) and (2) in
contexts that can range from the very local--the history of quarrels in a
village populated by relatives, for example; Turner's "extended case"--to
the pan-human and non-human as well; comparisons with other species, the
physics and chemistry explored by biomedicine...there is no upper limit.
The result is a body of "knowledge" that is more like the nebula described
by Levi-Strauss in the Overture to _The Raw and the Cooked_, where
criss-crossing inferences gradually crystallize, leaving the edges blurry,
than a jigsaw puzzle whose borders will eventually all be filled in.

In thinking about BMODs, I start with the observation that everything we
have talked about falls on a range from permanent and irreversible
(circumcision, for example; I know of no way to reverse the operation) to
transient and easily changed (choosing a new hat or lipstick
color).Somewhere toward the middle of the range is a boundary between
things that are done *to* the body (changing the body itself) and things
done *on* the body (without changing the body itself). There is also a
class of practices that *augment* the natural body (fitness, regimens,
body-building, plastic surgery); though how these fit into the overall
picture is still far from clear to me.

"Tattoo" and "fashion" have, for me, been prototypes of things done *to*
and things done *on* the body respectively. My intuition is that the former
assert what are, at least, intended to be permanent identities; the latter
assert positions in on-going status games. I know that historically
attempts have been made to freeze the positions in question, through
sumptuary laws; but these have rarely been enforcable. I also know that
modern mass culture is market driven, addicted to innovation, and ready to
cannibalize any and all practices for temporary shock value. Someone who
gets a tattoo today may intend to make a strong statement about identity,
but also know that (thanks, Rosemary Gianno!) there are tattoo removal
services listed in the Yellow Pages. In this respect they are not unlike
someone who takes wedding vows, but also recognize that divorce is a
possibility. Both are in very different situations from members of
traditional communities where removing the tatto is, like, perhaps,
divorce, unthinkable.

[More later, gotta run now]

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