Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Meaning Of Face Tattoos & Penis Piercings

While summer isn't yet officially over, we know in our hearts that it's pretty much done. The kids are back at school - as are some of us - it's already getting cooler and Labour Day has come and gone. So, in the interest of easing you all into fall with something a little lighter, I thought I'd start with a review of the documentary film Modify about the phenomenon of body modification from plastic surgery, to radical piercings, full body tattoos, gender reassignment surgery and even body building.

I have to admit that I got the heebs every time some body part was sliced open or jammed with a metal object - including a dude who inserted beads into his own penis by cutting the skin.  Titillation aside, it was actually a bit unfortunate that the filmmakers used as much time and footage as they did to show us the gory details of plastic surgery, piercing and suspension (hanging from flesh-piercing hooks - see the trailer above). I get that the filmmakers are trying to normalize the less acceptable forms of piercing and modification by establishing that there are lots of commonalities between plastic surgery, tattooing, piercing, etc. Except that other than the fairly banal fact that in plastic surgery and piercing (though not suspension) the only real point of commonality is that both involve modifying the body. Even the role of surgery is different between the two types. With plastic surgery, the surgical procedure is an unwanted side effect, whereas for decorative body work the procedure, and the pain, is part of the ritual of the process. This attempt to merge different cultural phenomenon under the umbrella of modification is a general problem with the film.

It is certainly true that both cosmetic surgery and what I would call primitivist body decoration are related in the sense that people are altering their bodies as a means of asserting something about their identity. But the similarities end there. With run of the mill cosmetic surgery - breast augmentation, liposuction, botox, lip enhancement, et al - the patient is almost invariably trying to more closely approach the dominant ideas of what constitutes beauty. They are trying to more perfectly approximate the mainstream - other than those, like Stalking Cat, who are really at the extreme end of body decoration.
In trying to elide the differences between plastic surgery and body decoration, the filmmakers have missed the opportunity to look more deeply into the more relevant cultural phenomenon of primitivism/anti-modernism in North America. This is too bad because anti-modernism is a recurring theme in North American cultural expressions - from the more tame and acceptable forms such as wildflower gardens, which valorize native flowers and arrangements that look "natural" and un-landscaped, to the obviously more extreme versions such as body alteration. Both ends of the spectrum are motivated by a similar impulse that emerges organically from capitalism.

Perhaps the first coherent articulation of an anti-modernist ethic comes from Edmund Burke's conservative writings in opposition to the French Revolution. His original support for the American Revolution and the early days of the French turned to horror when he saw how profoundly the Revolution was transforming the old relations of France. To Burke's mind, the relations of the state were becoming merely the relations of commerce and thus shallow, devoid of tradition and meaning.
Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure — but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are to be born.
Of course Burke's ultimate opposition was to democracy, which was "shameless" and led to leaders who were more interested in "popularity contests", like elections, and who would become "flatterers instead of legislators" and thus the "instruments, not the guides, of the people." However, behind his elitism he had a point, which was that ultimately a social contract based upon commerce was empty and devoid of soul. This theme would be picked up time and again over the centuries as capitalism encroached on tradition after tradition and industry after industry. Or as Marx described the capitalist dynamic: "Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones ... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."

TOMORROW: Capitalist Alienation Made Me Hang From Hooks

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