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

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 17 Jul 1996 23:42:56 +0900

>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

Yes, but

(1) To me the question remains open whether the different sets of deep
culture primitives are reducible to a deeper set of pan-human primitives.
That we haven't yet discovered the deeper set doesn't rule out its
existence: See, for example, the gradual development of more and more
comprehensive versions of quantum mechanics; the replacement of the Bohr
atom with subatomic particles; the derivation of both the calculus and
Euclidean geometry from set theory, or number theory from the five Peano
postulates...I remain fascinated by Levi-Strauss' search for "a Mendelevian
table of the mind."

(2) The derivation of surface structures from strings of "deep" primitives
is a powerful model for knowledge. I am, however, inclined to see, for
example, the raw and the cooked, the permanent and the transient as the
poles of continua with metrical (perhaps even scalar) properties, i.e., as
dimensions in Jim Fernandez' culture as an n-dimensional space. I could use
some help in understanding how these models fit together.

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