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Body Modifications: Cultural Construction of the Inscribed

Body Modifications: Cultural Construction of the Inscribed
© Photograph by Samuel PH

As possibly the first, and certainly the most obvious, a canvas upon which human differences can be written and read, the skin has been a topic of continuous interest in anthropology and related disciplines from the earliest descriptions of exotic people to postmodern theorizing about the body in contemporary society. Skin, as a visible way of defining individual identity and cultural difference, is not only a highly elaborated preoccupation in many cultures; it is also the subject of wide-ranging and evolving scholarly discourse in the humanities and social sciences.

Although my focus is mainly on the anthropological literature, it is impossible to ignore work in other fields. Today, archaeologists and historians are rewriting the history of the body using evidence from newly discovered ancient bodies, artworks, and texts. Discussions of contemporary “bodywork” (Benson 2000, p. 236) merge the perspectives of anthropology, sociology, psychology, cultural studies, philosophy, and gender studies, each discipline mapping onto the body its shifting theoretical preoccupations.

Much recent theorizing on the body is devoted to the idea of the inscription. Jacques Derrida’s focus on writing (1976, 1978), and Paul-Michel Foucault’s on the body as a text upon which social reality is inscribed (Csordas 1994, p.12; Frances E. Mascia-Lees and Patricia Sharpe (1992, p.147)), have led to many discussions of corporeal inscription and differing definitions and interpretations of what “inscription” and “body” actually mean. In much poststructuralist writing, the concepts of inscription and body are approached more in a metaphorical sense than in terms of the actual material modification of flesh through cutting, piercing, painting, or tattooing. Feminist scholarship, in particular, in its concern with the culturally constructed body and the embodied subject (Butler 1990; Braidotti 1996; Grosz 1994; Kristeva 1982, 1995; Lyon & Barbalet 1994), often uses the idea of inscription in this general sense. One notable exception is Alexander Fleming (2001), who acknowledges Jacques Derrida’s broad notion of writing but focuses on the “ostentatious materiality” of writing in sixteenth-century England in graffiti, on monuments, buildings, pottery, and on tattooed bodies.

Reacting against the idea of the “disembodied” poststructuralist body, several writers have called for a greater focus on the body as subject and as the material object, the body as “being-in-the-world” (Csordas 1994). Turner (1994, 1995) critiques theories of the disembodied poststructuralist body and argues for a renewed concern with subjectivity, the body as flesh, and personal agency. Brush (1998), discussing cosmetic surgery, writes: “If the body is — metaphorically — a site of inscription to various degrees for various theorists, then cosmetic surgery can be seen, at one level, as an example of the literal and explicit enactment of this process of inscription” (p. 24). Ahmed & Stacey (2001) explore “dermographics,” the question of how the skin becomes, rather than simply is, meaningful in different cultural contexts. Jeffreys argues that contemporary body arts have to be seen in terms of their effects on real “flesh and blood” people; she argues for a human rights perspective rather than for either “the individualist explanations of self-mutilation offered by psychology” or “the liberal intellectualizing of postmodernists” (2000, p. 425). Taylor compares the relationship of tattooing to other art forms in contemporary Western culture and says that the tattoo renaissance as described by Rubin (1988) is more than a trivial fad precisely because of the powerful materiality of the body. In a world where virtual bodies seem to be everywhere, “body art represents a sustained effort to reverse the dematerialization of art by making the body matter” (Taylor 1995, p. 34).

These critiques of what Turner calls the “antibodies” of postmodernism and poststructuralism all point toward a renewed focus on a literal bodily inscription. These practices, including tattooing, branding, and piercing, may be highly symbolic, but they are not metaphorical. They represent a kind of “border skirmishing” (Fleming 2001, p. 84) between selves and others and between social groups. They inevitably involve subjects who experience pain, pass through various kinds of ritual death and rebirth, and redefine the relationship between self and society through the skin.

It is not surprising, given this ambiguous terrain at the boundary between self and society, that skin has been a subject of theoretical interest by scholars in many disciplines. In psychoanalysis, because of its obvious concern with the individual, scholars have recognized the liminal quality of the skin. Anzieu (1989), discussed at length in Gell (1993, pp. 28–38), writes about “the skin ego” as the interface between psyche and body, self and others. Prosser (2001, p. 53) and Fleming (2001, pp. 73–74) note that Sigmund Freud also considered skin in conjunction with writing in his idea of the “mystic writing pad,” referring to the way in which perceptions and memories are entangled inside and through the body’s surface.

In anthropology, the study of the body as a boundary phenomena has a long history. Arnold van Gennep (1909) described bodily transformations, often involving tattooing, scarification, or painting, within rites of passage. Levi Strauss (1963) discussed the body as a surface waiting for the imprintation of culture: “[T]he purpose of Maori tattooings is not only to imprint a drawing onto the flesh but also to stamp onto the mind all the traditions and philosophy of the group” (1963, p. 257). Douglas (1966), in exploring concepts of purity and danger, described the body as a boundary that can be used metaphorically to describe other socially significant classificatory systems. Turner (1980) first used the term “social skin” in his detailed discussion of how Kayapo culture was constructed and expressed through individual bodies. Using Bourdieu’s (1977) “socially informed body,” he explored Kayapo theories about “the nature of the human subject, the socialized body, and the relation between the two” (1995, p. 167). Kayapo body modifications, especially as performed in life-cycle rituals and everyday life, are part of the process of social production, creating a relationship between Kayapo subjects and the world in which they live (on Kayapo see also Conklin 1997, Verswijver 1992, Vidal & Verswijver 1992).

Gell (1993), in his monumental work on tattooing in Polynesia, referred to a “double skin folded over itself,” mediating relations between persons, the sacred, and the present and the past. With a tattoo, “the body multiplies; additional organs and subsidiary selves are created; spirits, ancestors, rulers and victims take up residence in an integument which begins to take on a life of its own” (p. 39). Tattooing, Gell wrote, is “simultaneously the exteriorization of the interior which is simultaneously the interiorization of the exterior” (pp. 38–39). Not only does the tattooed skin negotiate between the individual and society and between different social groups, but also mediates relations between persons and spirits, the human and the divine. Comparing Western and Melanesian ideas about skin and self, Benson (2000) describes anthropology’s contribution to the study of contemporary Western bodywork in terms of how it elucidates the relationship between the surface of the body and the idea of the person, within specific cultural contexts.

To describe masks, wigs, body paint, and other impermanent forms of body art, anthropologists and art historians have often used the term second skin. Levi Strauss wrote about “mask cultures” (1963, p. 261), where masks replace tattoos as the mark of culture. Whether with tattoos, paint, or masks, the face is “predestined to be decorated, since it is only by means of decoration that the face receives its social dignity and mystical significance. The decoration is conceived for the face, but the face itself exists only through decoration.” O’Hanlon (1992, p. 602) says that among the Wahgi in Papua New Guinea, a type of shoulder-length wig can be interpreted as a second skin, momentarily acknowledging the constitutive power of maternal kin at a festival otherwise given over to the celebration of agnatic values. He compares his use of the term second skin to the way in which scholars working in Australia have explained Aboriginal landscapes and paintings. Like skin, landscapes, revealed through “the Dreaming,” are constituted by the act of inscription, what Biddle calls “ancestral imprintation” (Biddle 2003, p. 65; see also Gould 1990; Munn 1986; Myers 2002, pp. 36, 88–92). Similarly, Boas’ descriptions of Northwest Coast masks, body paint, and tattoos (Jonaitis 1995; also discussed in Levi-Strauss 1963, pp. 245–68) show an isomorphism among these forms, all of which involve effacing the boundaries between past and present, animal ancestors and human beings.

Following this line of analysis, there is no question that the topic of inscribing the body could lead us into a consideration of masked performances, ceremonial clothing, and many other kinds of transformations related to the body. Although I touch on these matters briefly, for the most part, I restrict my discussion to the more literal practices of inscribing actual human flesh. Partly because of its universality in human culture, and its significance in defining the cultural difference, this topic has a long history in anthropologic and ethnographic literature. Inscribed skin highlights an issue that has been central to anthropology since its inception: the question of boundaries between the individual and society, between societies, and between representations and experiences. In this article, I do not discuss the related and vitally important topic of the social construction of unmarked skin, particularly the idea of race. And because my focus is on the cultural readings of inscribed skin, I am not concerned with the fairly copious literature in psychology and medicine that treats bodily inscriptions as a manifestation of individual psychopathology.

Thus there remain three bodies of research relevant to this article. They all cross boundaries between disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. First, recent work has been done by historians, anthropologists, and literary scholars using historical sources, including early accounts of tattoo, newly discovered historic images, travel writing, and archaeological data. Second, recent ethnographic works exist on inscribed bodies outside Europe and North America, what one might label “new ethnography.” Third, a body of literature addresses contemporary Western body modification. In the past three decades, Western body art has not only become a practice, and in some quarters a fashion, that has crossed social boundaries of class and gender, “high” culture and “low,” but also it has been greatly influenced by “tribal” practices, past and present. The scholarly literature on contemporary body art focuses on issues of modernity, identity, hybridity, deviance, popular culture, gender, appropriation, authenticity, and globalization.

Whereas tattooing, branding, and piercing are technically distinct, and are used to express different kinds of identities in different social contexts, for the purposes of this review these topics are considered together. Among contemporary western body art practitioners, important distinctions are made sometimes between people who focus on different practices, although all these techniques can be combined in the assertion of particular identities. Tattooing and scarification, or cicatrisation, as it is generally called in the European literature, are similar in that both involve the insertion of pigments under the skin to create permanent marks, either with pigment or texture, on the surface.

Some authors, for example, Gengenbach (2003) and Drewal (1988), use the term tattooing as a generic term for both, a practice I generally follow here. Branding is often associated with involuntary marking and the denial of personhood but has also been adopted in contemporary Western body culture as an assertion of group identity, for example in college fraternities. Piercing is not “inscription” in the literal sense of writing on the body, but in the contemporary western context, it too is often combined with tattooing as an assertion of neo-tribal identity. Historically, evidence of piercing is more abundant than that for tattooing because ornaments usually outlast bodies. In its engagement with objects used as ornaments, piercing is often used as the basis for displaying signs of status, but the act of piercing itself, like tattooing, branding, and scarification, is embedded in rituals of personal transformation.

Also published on Medium.


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