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

Dwight W. Read (dread@ANTHRO.UCLA.EDU)
Tue, 16 Jul 1996 18:04:41 -0700

McCreery comments:

> Still, however, I think that
>Belshaw goes too far in suggesting that Maori and Biker tattooing are,
>because of their cultural settings, totally incommensurable.
>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*. ...
Whether or >not these are so radically different that they belong, in
effect, to totally >different species of behavior is a matter for empirical
>In thinking about BMODs, I start with the observation that everything we
>have talked about falls on a range from permanent and irreversible
[to] practices that *augment* the natural body (fitness, regimens,
>body-building, plastic surgery);...
>"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'll reply here (using first draft, unedited comments) to both this set of
comments and to earlier ones by McCreery when we were discussin surface
versus deep structure (where McCreery raises the question of the difference
between deep structure as leading to pan-human phenomena in contrast to
"deep culture" (my term) which leads to cultural distinctiveness.

I think both the previous comments, and the present comments, are all
grappling with the same thing, namely how to do we compare one instance of a
phenomenon with another instance?

At the level of the phenomena in question (tattooing as an instance of body
modification) we note:

Maori tattoos <--- are similar to ---> biker tattoos

by virtue of both sharing comparable methods of adorning the skin (though at
the level of content they are not directly comparable.

McCreery suggests similarity might be measured on the basis of permanence:

Maori tattoos biker tattoos
\ /
\ /
permanent modification | temporary modification

Assuming this diagram doesn't get totally lost in e-mail, it is trying to
show that McCreery (in my view, correctly) is looking for a process deeper/more
abstract than the phenomenon in question and where, at this deeper level,
the two kinds of tattoos share commonality as both being instances of
something like "identity marking through permanent modification." This is
an intriguing thread as it then leads to other phenomenon that may originate
via the same process but have very different surface manisfestation; e.g.,
the removal of the upper incisors in one group as part of male initiation
into adulthood, which could be seen as a means of identification, hence
similar to tattoos. This is not just old fashioned functionalism because it
is, I think, trying to do more than just make an assertion such as: the
function of biker/maori tattoos is to given identify via a permanent means
of modification. That is, I see the line of argument as one of trying to
relate surface phenomena (e.g., tattooing) to deeper, underlying structuring

Now let me bring in some of the work I do on kinship terminology structure
where the whole matter of surface versus deep structure, and the distinction
between "deep culture" versus "deep structure" are all quite apparent.
Briefly, take out terminology with its kin terms Self, Mother, Father, ....
Elsewhere I demonstrate that the set of terms, taken as a set of symboles,
can be modeled as a structure that can be generated from a small subset of
these symbols using a binary operation (concatenation) to produce new symbol
strings from the small subset. The analysis demonstrates that for the
American Kinship Terminology the generating symbols are Self, Parent
(reciprocally, Child) and Spouse. Several equations are identified, such as
Parent of Child = Self.

Deep culture would be the identification of the symbols Parent, Child, Self
and Spouse as the "atomic" symbols.

This contrasts with other terminologies; e.d. for the Shipibo Indians of S.
America (and using English glosses) the atomic terms are "Male Self"
("Female Self"), "Father" ("Mother"), "Son" ("Daughter") and "Wife"
("Husband"). (Note: only 1 set of sex marked terms is needed for the
analysis as the other set is derived by use of isomorphic structures). For
their terminology, the equations are ones such as "Son" of "Son" of "Father"
of "Father" = "Son" of "Father".

Deep culture would, for them be the identification of the symbols "Male
Self", "Father", "Son" and "Wife".

AT the level of deep culture, the American Kinship Terminologies and the
Shipibo TErminology are found to be distinct.

At the level of deep structure, the terminologies share two aspects: (1)
commonality in terms of how strucutres are generated (which may likely be
common across all terminologies) and (2) a mapping that can be made between
symbols in the AKT and the Shihpibo terminology: Self" <--> "Male Self",
Parent <--> "Father" and Child <--> "Son" that leads to a structure in the
Shipibo terminolgy isomorphic to a structure in the American Kinship
Temrinology. In the Shipibo Terminology this initial structure is then
modified and changed according to an internal logic and leads to the surface
level of terminology as spoken and used that bears no resemblance to the
American Kinship Terminology (e.g., in Murdock's classificaiton the AKT is
Eskimo and the Shipibo terminology does not fit into any of his classes).

If we consider yet a third terminology, the Trobriand terminology, we find
the same theme repeated: deep culture leads to the terms that have salience
in the culture and that serve as the atomic elements from which structure is
generated--in the case of the Trobriand these are "Father" and "Older Brother".
With regard to deep culture, we may find distinctiveness and lack of
commonality; e.g. American deep culture leads to Self, Parent, Child whereas
Trobriand deep culture leads to "Father" and "Older Brother." In contrast,
deep structure leads to principles (e.g., set of atomic elements, binary
product, structural equsations) by which structure is generated and
commonality of structures that share these principles. AT the level of deep
structure taken in this sense, the Trobriand, the Shipibo and the American
Terminology share commonality.

Surface phenomena are poor indicators of what may be valid at a deep
structure (or even deep culture) level without understanding how the various
levels play out.

Back to the tattooing and body modification discussion: the implication is
that as long as we are looking at these phenomena just at their surface
level of how they are manifested to us, we can be mislead by seeming
similarity and by seeming disparity.

D. Read