|Ophelia by John Everett Millais, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood|
All of these "movements" were rooted in the sense that there was something empty in modern society's obsession with turning everything into an object for sale. The drive to feel something of the traditional organic connection to the world and to one's body emerged out of the disconnection - the alienation - that people increasingly felt from the world around them. Where once we were connected to the soil and the turning of the seasons and the product of our labours ended up directly in our hands, we now worked for someone else to serve distant economic forces that we could only dimly understand. And the products of our labours were taken from us and, instead, we were given abstractions - pieces of paper that could be exchanged for goods that we played no part in creating. This was a profound change for people in the 19th century, most of whom lived in recent memory, or still retained one foot, of the old ways of doing things. That alienation has deepened radically since the days of the pre-Raphaelites and the Arts & Crafts Movement. Everything that we consume is mediated through commodities, even where we put our own labour into it to complete it - whether it is assembling a piece of furniture from IKEA or buying the manufactured products from Home Depot that we will assemble into a new bathroom or shed. With our further removal from any organic connection, the radical alienation inevitably creates a profound longing for "authentic experience".
For some the only way to restore a sense of connection to a body that threatens to be dissolved in soulless economic relations is to violently seize control of the body, to hurt it as an affirmation of its existence. But if it is not just to be mere "cutting", which also appears as meaningless sensation, the obvious (though not the only) choice to engage in this "reconnection" is through forms that have a primitive resonance - sometimes resonating with the distant past of Maori or indigenous tattoo designs, and sometimes even the far more recent "naive" images of an earlier time in the 20th century, such as retro tattoos of mermaids or pin-up girls. That which is past denotes a rejection of modern manufacture with it's pre-package and mass directed homogeneity. It is an affirmation of the authenticity of the past when what people wore and experienced was inseparable from their lived experience.
A third element to the body decor movement revolves around the desire for community. Part of the experience of modern alienation is our sense of isolation from our fellow humans. Most North Americans and Europeans live in suburbs in which we have no integral connection to the people who live around us. Even as recent as the early part of the 20th century, before cars became widely available, people tended to live close to their work so their neighbours often were also their co-workers. As older forms of social bonds were breaking down, like the extended family living in one house, this still allowed there to be a more organic connection to the people in your direct vicinity. But today it is very unlikely that we work with our neighbours. Often we never even know their names or socialize with them beyond the occasional conversation across the backyard fence or in the laundry room of our apartment. This geographic atomization exacerbates that other trait of capitalism: to make all other people competitors for socially limited resources. We fear the people who will "take our jobs", whether they are foreigners or the population of the next city, which offers lower taxes. And we rightly feel a constant sense of suspicion that we are at risk of being ripped off - not to mention the more recent political tool of crime hysteria that has no basis in real crime statistics but serves a real social purpose.
But humans are profoundly social beings. Consciousness itself is the product of social intercourse and doesn't become possible until the evolution of language reaches a certain point. Language, obviously, assumes a community of shared experience that forms its foundation. It is no surprise then that humans who are isolated for long periods of time go mad - social experience is fundamental to our nature. The creation of a new identity on the basis of extensive and "extreme" body decor creates the conditions for a sub-cultural community. Thus the tattooed, pierced freaks constitute an identifiable group of people who can connect with one another on the basis of their differentiation from social norms in general and with a longing for authentic and primitive rituals and body decoration. The body alteration and the mirroring of various forms public, primitive and/or ascetic ritual provides a sense of relief from the atomization and alienation that is modern life.
|A hipster ritual?|
|A Hindu ritual.|
While there is something fascinating and worthwhile in a lot of body modification, it ultimately fails to achieve the goals it sets for itself - to overcome alienation, atomization and the cultural degradation of capitalist social relations. Instead, like all past anti-modernist movements, as William Morris discovered, the spiritual and cultural revolt from capitalism is reincorporated, becoming another commodity for purchase, displayed at conventions that charge entry fees and where the more money you have, the better the tattoo artist you can hire. It can even take the nascent revolt desired by many practitioners of body modification and not only turn it trivial - it also can lead people into a form of self-isolation from the mainstream. Yet, ultimately it is only by convincing and mobilizing the mainstream against the depredations of capitalism that there is the possibility of regaining the lost experience of authenticity, totality and integral connection to a broader community of purpose and shared experience. At its worst, primitivism can even become an ideological component of odious, far right politics, with their emphasis on blood and tradition and ritual, something that Adolph Hitler certainly never forgot. By all means pierce and tattoo away - I have several earrings and a visible tattoo on my forearm. But be aware that you aren't really a rebel, just another customer in a specialty shop.