Thursday, September 8, 2011

Capitalist Alienation Made Me Hang From Hooks

Ophelia by John Everett Millais, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
In the first part, we discussed how primitivist body decor is driven by the anti-modern impulse to restore something that has been lost - a sense of purpose and organic connection to a community - and that this was perhaps first articulated by the British conservative Sir Edmund Burke. But if Burke was the first to note the emptiness of capitalist commodity relations, he was certainly not the last to harken back to a more integral past. There thus arose with each generation a new attempt to recapture what was being lost, to preserve the deeper sense of meaning of the old traditions, to find something that was untainted by the modern drive to reduce everything to commerce. In art this led to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the mid-19th century - a movement that sought to return art to the romantic forms and ideals of an earlier period. This bled into the Arts & Crafts Movement, whose most pre-eminent exponent was the designer William Morris. The ACM spurned machine manufacture of furniture and designs, instead valorizing the ideals of handicrafts. Morris ultimately became a Marxist and quite critical of the ACM, since it was only the very wealthy who could afford to "reject" the modern manufacture methods. Many of the other recognizable forms of anti-modernism were born in the period of the late 19th century and are still recognizable to us today - Aleister Crowley and modern paganism, gardening, do-it-yourself movement, military/chivalry and outdoorsy hobbies like camping, the boy scouts, even tourism - particularly the spiritual tourism made popular since the 1960s, et al.

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?
And, yet, ultimately body modification fails to resolve the systemic problems that give rise to it for the simple reason that it fails to alter those social relations. What's more, it participates in those social relations and is potentially - and without much ado - incorporated into the system. Twenty or thirty years ago tattoos were avant garde and taboo. They were seen as the markings of criminality or lower class identity - or perhaps something foreign and dangerous. They certainly weren't mainstream. Nor were men with pierced ears. And when they were pierced there was a real danger, much discussed in the 1970s and early 80s, that you would pierce the wrong ear (I believe it was the right ear, though we believed that it was the left ear in Quebec) and be advertising yourself as gay. A simple, single piercing put you on the borderline of what was then an even more "deviant" identity than today. Yet now these things are commonplace - tattoos, including tribal designs, are everywhere. Large numbers of men have their ears, nose and lips pierced. The border between acceptable body decor has shifted. This is for the simple reason that capitalism can - as the Marxist cultural theorist Terry Eagleton put it - incorporate anything except its own political defeat. Capitalism may need certain subsidiary political forms to sustain its smooth running - racism to justify imperialism and differential wages, sexism to reinforce the privatized family, etc. - but most other social forms are mutable. Capitalism can live without them or, even better, can find a way to make money off of them. Yesterday the full sleeve arm tattoo was edgy, today it is implanted horns and facial tattoos or decorative scarring.

A Hindu ritual.
In some ways the present subculture of body modification is the bastard child of the 1960s. One of the many expressions of that period of international upheaval was a strong strain of anti-modernism, as well as a strong cultural identification with the recently decolonized parts of the world - India, Cuba, Africa, etc. When the cultural expression of that identification - setting up ashrams and communes in North America, following a yogi/eastern spiritual guide, adopting international fashion, etc - was a side-product of the political solidarity, it could be a distraction at worst and a symbol of solidarity at best. But now that those movements have long since receded and decolonization is now post-colonialist re-incorporation into the international system of capitalism, with its attendant corruption and division of labour, the cultural identification with non-modern or pre-modern societies lacks almost all social or political content. It becomes merely another form of cultural utopianism - a desire for the integration of the pre-modern world without the means to achieve it. So, the pagan dances to the new moon and then returns to his/her apartment in the city where they don't grow their own food but, rather, buy it and work a job where they are exploited like every other worker. The piercing and suspension aficionado hangs from hooks or wears gear that causes them to be pierced over their entire body - but the experience is about individual experience not very different from bungie jumping rather than being about affirming the values of the community using symbolic language that makes sense to the community in terms of its day to day social & ecological relations.

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.

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