Re: Modifying the Body

Robert Snower (rs222@WORLDNET.ATT.NET)
Wed, 17 Jul 1996 03:55:27 GMT

John McCreery wrote:

>It would be a great mistake to believe that the salience of "Prisons,
>gang-members, homosexuals" in contemporary popular culture is an index of
>centrality in modern society. Symbolic reversals of social order are common
>in "ritual" the world over; so much so that British social anthropologists
>have argued for years that rituals tend to occur at exactly those points
>where the social system is weak and needs shoring up.(See Turner, _The
>Ritual Process_, Gluckman,_Politics, Law and Ritual in Tribal Societies_,

I say:
I wholeheartedly agree with this. (At least I think I do. Some of the
phrasing is pretty obscure.) This is in line with the thinking that those
who cannot cope with, or opt out of, the dominant culture often find useful
refuge in ritual-type behavior. Of course, this would not apply in the
case of degraded rituals which are used for reasons of fashion, fad, style,
whimsy, etc. It reminds of the Greeks of Plato's day complaining
comtemptuously of their own contemporaries who still participated in animal
sacrifice. These were THEIR subculture problem.

In today's dominant culture, we do not find very much ritual, do we, except
in its most degraded and trivial forms. The suburbanite is not into
wrapping (foot or head binding), keeps body-piecing and tattooing to the
barest fad-of-the-moment minimum, does not perforate his urethra, unless at
the behest of his urolgist, does not remove his clitoris, scar his face.
Most of his "rituals" are not rituals at all, like seeing his dentist twice
a year, or going to the country club on Thursday afternoons to join the
foursome. I think it is a stretch to call plastic surgery a ritual. It
lacks so many of the characteristics of true ritual. It lacks the repetitive
feature. But most of all, it lacks the magic; it really in fact does
remove deformities. Thus, it is, in Adrian Tanner's words, instrumental,
while ritual is non-instrumental. For example, a tattoo does not in fact
establish kinship. Nor did the totem communal feast in fact establish
kinship. The tattoo establishes a symbolic or imaginary kinship, as does
eating the totem animal. The efficacy of the tattoo and eating (or being
forbidden to eat) the totem animal is purely imaginary. It is magical,
unreal, symbolic. Without this feature, I don't believe it is ever ritual.
On the other hand, the primordial castration of Shapiro's theory is not
ritual. It is a practical, instrumental, device for obviating sexually
driven anti-social competition. But the subsequent metaphor of
circumcision, as a rite of passage, was indeed ritual. It accomplished the
same goal, but by magic, as it were--not really, but symbolically, in the
imaginations of the participants: the "initiated young man" was thereby
converted, in his ATTITUDE, from anti-social to social being.

Saying that the suburbanite is not very much into ritual, and that plastic
surgery is not much of a ritual, brings to mind that all of those
ritual-type mutilations the list has discussed are of very ancient origin.
Why is this never mentioned on the list (except by me)? I do not understand
the post that said, "Heavy mutilation appears to have originated in the
sado-masochistic milieu that favoured some of the more outrageous San
Francisco bath-houses." Isn't human sacrifice heavy mutilation? What about
Oedipus' tearing his eyes out, Agamemnon's sacificial dismembering of his
daughter Iphegenia, or ritualistic crucifixion? Heavy and outragious
ritualistic mutilations are undoubtedly of pre-historic origin. They come
down to us, first in the form of ritual, then in the form of myth, and
lastly, in in the form of literature. It seems, ritual itself has evolved,
into more modern vehicles, just as the content of ritual has evolved via a
process of degradation and condensation, from matters of substance to modish
triviality and subculture refuge. The suburbanite, except for an occasional
visit to his church, or for a wedding or funeral, has forsaken ritual. He
utilizes literature in the same service, nowadays, in the form of movies, TV
sitcoms or best-sellers, and spectator sports, for his symbolic magic.

Wrapping (foot and head binding) has very ancient roots. Shapiro: these
customs follow the transitional shift from matriarchal to patriarchal
system. "The genital member of Osiris was missing, so Isis made an image of
it . . . the pieces of . . . were joined together, and swathed in bandages.
. . . The king of the country, admiring the tree, had it cut down and made
into a pillar of his house, but he did not know that the coffer with the
dead Osiris was in it. Isis begged for the pillar, and they gave it to her .
. . the trunk of the tree she wrapped in fine linen." But with the coming
of patriarchy and male dominance, the paradigm is reversed, and constraint
on the male's anti-social sexual drive becomes a constraint on the female.
Ritually, that is. In imagination, not in reality. All the old male
constraints become female constraints. In reality, her ability to bear
children is not hampered. But in ritual, the constraint on male sexuality
has become the burden of women. She is the one who is swathed in bandages.
She undergoes circumcision. "Among the Indians of British Guiana, when a
girl shows the first signs of puberty, she is hung in a hammock, for she
must not touch the fertile earth, particularly during the day, when the sun,
which stimulates its fertility, shines. She has to fast day and night, so
that when she comes down from the hammock she is reduced to a skeleton.
Among the Tlingit of Alaske . . . she used to be confined to a small
cage,which was completely blicked up but for a small air hole. In this dark
and filthy abode she had to remain a year. She had to wear a hat with long
flaps, . . . to screen her from the sun. All this time she was regarded as
an unclean being with whom no one might hold intercourse."

The sexual constraint on the male, now blamed on and/or situated with the
female, instead of the male, appears a common thread, from foot-binding to
chastity belts, high heels to girdles, from caged young girls to the
literature of a banished Ophelia, an accused Desdemona, a wicked Goneril.

Is this the meaning of foot-binding? Who knows. It is what Freud would
call a conjecture as to its etiology, and for Shapiro it is consistent with
his evolutionary paradigm of a sexually driven male competition which needed
curbing in favor of the survival value of socialization. You have got to
have a psychological theory, or a biological-cultural paradigm of some sort.
You can't just look at the contemporary data, and figure it out. Why?
Because people don't know, and can't tell you, why they get a kick out of
what they get a kick out of.

Best wishes. R. Snower