Body manipulation and so on and so on

Timothy Mason (mason@CIE.FR)
Wed, 17 Jul 1996 19:53:03 -0500

-- [ From: Timothy Mason * EMC.Ver #2.5.02 ] --

>From Timothy Mason (

Robert Snower says:

> 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
>sacrificial dismembering of his daughter Iphegenia, or ritualistic
crucifixion? Heavy and outragious >ritualistic mutilations are undoubtedly
of pre-historic origin.

Try this -
What are the origins of the Second World War?
What are the origins of war?

Several historians have had a stab at the first question, and a number of
anthropologists, neo-Darwinians and sociologists at the second. My remark
was of the first kind, as the context implied, and neither made nor implied
a judgement concerning the second. I would think that the link between
present body modification practices and those cited by Snower are pretty
weak, but I may be wrong. My feeling about this is that tattoo parlours and
the houses within which bodily mutilation are practiced are probably well-
stacked with back copies of National Geographic - hey man! give me one of
those - it looks really neat! Thus do the well-integrated ritualised
behaviours of hunter-gatherers and pastoralists find their place upon the
display counters of the world market-place. Whether it makes much sense to
give the image caught in a fleetingly-glimpsed photo the status of origin, I
do not know.

I would suggest that both my suggestions are, at least, open to verification
- the first through the use of the kinds of techniques used by
epidemiologists, which have been successfully applied by both psychologists
and sociologists, the second through (participant) observation. Of course,
it may be that, as the adage has it, there are two kinds of statements in
the social sciences - those that are profound but untestable, and those that
are testable but trivial.

John Mcreery claims that my observation that the S/M homosexual community
which I posit to be at the origin of this social practice *as it is lived in
Time-magazine reading societies* simply proves his point about permanence.
Perhaps, but I fear that we have here an example of the well-known theory-
saving practice of 'moving-the-goal-posts', which I will counter with the
classic response, known as the 'Popperian defense'. Can you tell us, John,
under what conditions you would be willing to accept that a real-world
example of tattooing, etc, was *not* an example of a search for permanence?
I would also reiterate that if you *do* see such examples as grist for your
mill, you lose the distinction between fashion and body modification - by
the way, is the phrase 'She was wearing a fashionable tattoo' a
contradiction in terms?

Finally, John Mcreery also accuses me of making some ghastly mistake or
other. I have to admit that I do not see the link between the mistake as he
outlines it, and my posting, but would be the first to admit that it may
well be there. However, I will still argue against the use of 'marginality'
as a particularly useful analytic category. Indeed, I would suggest that it
is a cultural construct that stands in need of deconstruction. The salience
of the criminal, for example, is not simply a factor of popular culture (do
you mean 'the people's culture' or 'culture that sells well on the market
place'?) - the existence of the criminal, and of a population from which he
can be drawn, is of central importance for one of the few thriving
industries that the 'advanced' societies can boast of - what proportion of
the GNP of the United States is spent on the CJ system, and related stuff?
When we successfully depict a population as 'marginal', it enables us to do
things to them that we could not otherwise do.
This is of direct interest to anthropologists, as the fate of those peoples
collectively referred to as Bushmen illustrates - see recent article in The
New York Times, reprinted in the London Guardian of July 16. Just as with
the people reported on by Colin Turnbull in 'The Mountain People', they had
to be *incorporated* before they could be imagined as standing on the
margins. Similar things could be said of many of the peoples whose lands
were taken from them in the age of the great conquests. The pastoral way of
life, for example, becomes marginal to the 'dominant culture' once the
pastoralists have been defined - without consulting them - as citizens of a
given, modernizing state. Their behaviour then can be construed as strange
and incomprehensible, justifying governmental efforts to change, control or
contain it.

As I must now get back up that ladder with paint-roller in hand, I shall
wish you all a fond farewell
Timothy Mason