Re: Body manipulation and so on and so on

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 18 Jul 1996 09:06:22 +0900

Time Mason writes,

>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.

Doesn't the status of the "links" depend on the nature of the link in
question? At the level of style and situated meaning, the historical links
may be very weak. At the level of basic human possibilities realized
differently in different situations (Read's "deep structure") the links
could still be strong and real.
>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.

Couldn't agree more.

>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?
When the BMODin question is easily reversible and intermittent. Lipstick
and fingernail polish, for example.

"Fashionable tattoo" is an interesting concept. On one reading it is simply
a style of tattooing that is currently popular in some social milieu. It is
possible (only a speculation) that tattoos becoming fashionable may reflect
a search for permanence in world where meaning and identity seem all too


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.

An interesting argument. Still it seems to me that while Tim and I see the
same world he sees "marginality" as a morally outrageous concept that
denies the inherent equality of any and all lifestyles, while I see it, a
la V. Turner, etc., as a morally neutral description of a peripheral
relationship to the centers of political and economic power in society. I
would certainly agree that populations only become "marginal" when they are
incorporated in some larger system to whose centers of power they are
peripheral. Beyond the pale they are simply irrelevant. It is
characteristic of the late capitalist world, however, that there is no
outside, no beyond to escape to. Except, perhaps, for those who hold the
levers of power, we are all marginal now.
> As I must now get back up that ladder with paint-roller in hand, I
>wish you all a fond farewell
> Timothy Mason

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