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"In what ways, and for what reasons, do we inscribe our bodies?"


"In what ways, and for what reasons, do we inscribe our bodies?"

By Benjamin Smith

The concept of bodily inscription is a fundamental consideration when undertaking a study of modern culture. Most would agree that the body is the integral component of the link between our consciousness and our material existence. Since (at least for the vast majority of people) this existence takes place within our social structure and culture, the way in which that culture acts upon our bodies is of vital importance. These "inscriptions" take a variety of different forms, from the purely literal (actually inscribing the physical surface of the body) to the metaphorical (a notion which I will discuss later in this study). At this juncture, however, the most important concept to clarify is that a study of "body inscriptions" will necessarily encompass a wide range of cultural practices, and will imply knowledge of a variety of social constructs.

What, then, do we mean when we speak of "inscribing" the body? Speaking broadly, we are referring to what Grosz (1990; 62) calls "the metaphor of the textualised body": that is, we refer to the body not as if it were literally being inscribed (although in some cases this might be so) but rather as a text upon which our cultural practices exert some kind of influence in order to provide meaningful signification which will, in turn, instil the owner of the body with some form of subjectivity. Thus, when the body is inscribed, not only is the personal inscription upon that body alone important: equally important are the inscriptions placed on the bodies that surround that body within the culture, because bodily inscriptions serve their most significant purpose in placing the body within a cultural matrix.

The above is probably the primary function of any kind of bodily inscription, and, in addition, it is a function that can be read into the majority of justifications we may be presented with for a certain kind of inscription. However, equally important are the other, more obvious reasons for which human bodies are inscribed: when a person inscribes his or her body with a tattoo, on one level that inscription provides signification of the owner of that body within the cultural matrix that I have mentioned above, perhaps by denoting the wearer's inclusion in a social group or devotion to another person: equally importantly that tattoo may have been acquired for no other reason than "because it felt good", or for purely aesthetic reasons. While some might argue that these reasons also signify adherence to the "textualised body" metaphor, and perhaps with some degree of accuracy, it is important that we endeavour not to read too much into what might otherwise be regarded as fairly straightforward reasons.

As I have mentioned previously, the types of inscriptions that are placed exerted upon the cultured body encompass a wide range. The aim of this study is to attempt to fit the inscriptions into a few loose categories, in order to examine each category and comment upon its characteristics.

One of the most significant "categories" is concerned with power and the way it is exerted upon the body. Franz Kafka's short story In the Penal Colony is a powerful exploration of power and the inscriptions it creates upon the body. In this story, a horrible instrument of torture and punishment known as the "Harrow" uses a complex system to "tattoo" a prisoner's crime into his body as punishment. Eventually, the prisoner is able to "read" the words being inscribed into him by the Harrow, and hence gain an understanding of the nature of power and punishment. Thus Kafka uses the device of the Harrow to embody the metaphorical notion of bodily inscription as agents of power, punishment and, on another level, subjectification.

Of course, not all of the methods of the enforcement of power upon the body are as literally inscriptive as Kafka's fictional harrow. Power is exerted over the human by a vast variety of means through the separation, confinement and categorisation of the body. The shutting up of a prisoner in a cell, the categorisation of that prisoner by the issuing of a number to be worn on the clothing at all times, and the physical separation of the prison from society as a whole are all examples of the enforcement of power upon a person through inscription of the body.

So why is the body inscribed in this way through the enforcement of power upon the subject? In order to answer this question, we must undertake an exploration of the reasons for which the actual physical acts are performed. Thus, why do we confine prisoners to gaol cells? Why are they separated from the rest of society? More popular answers would be that the prisoner is confined, objectified and separated because he or she is dangerous to the community, or because her or she has committed a wrongdoing and ought to be punished, or perhaps that they need to be "rehabilitated". It is not our task to evaluate the credibility or appropriateness of these reasons. However, what is most important to our subject matter is an analysis of the way in which these purposes fit into the metaphor of the body as text.

An extremely relevant text to this subject is Foucault's analysis of the way in which the body is subjected to power in his work Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison. Foucault is perhaps the best known writer on the body as a subject of culture (Shilling, 1993:75). Foucault sees power as a force, a tangible influence that works its influence upon bodies, which are not only the targets of power, but also the very means by which power exists: "power" on its own is little more than an abstract concept; when placed within Foucault's sphere of understanding it becomes tangible and effective.

An interesting exploration of this concept is given in the chapter entitled Docile Bodies (Foucault, 1977:135) in which Foucault explores the movement of the soldier from the highly individualistic, heroic figure, who was ultimately seen as the product of the right gene pool (a concept which was prevalent until at least the seventeenth century), to the modern view of the soldier: a mere man or woman who, through the enforcement of power on the body and the inscription of various drills, procedures, practices and exercises, has been moulded into the obedient, disciplined soldier: ready to fight and die without question.

Just as this wielding of power against the "docile body" of the potential soldier acts as a kind of inscription by which the person is placed within a cultural matrix (that is, as the obedient member of an army), so too does power through discipline inscribe the prisoner with an equally significant subjectivity. While one might cite the justification of public safety when questioned as to the merit of maximum-security gaols, all this really signifies is the way in which the prisoner has been inscribed with meaning as a dangerous character in relationship to the rest of society. Thus the prisoner gains subjectivity. Just as the bodies of prisoners are textualised in such a way that they are separated from the rest of society, so too are their bodies acted upon so as to create a sense of categorisation within the prison system itself: the inmates eat, sleep and exercise according to cell block category and number.

Of course, my intention is not to suggest that this category of bodily inscription is confined to the criminal justice system: as Foucault suggests, the workings of power upon the body are historically present throughout all of society:

"they were at work in secondary education at a very early date, later in primary schools; they slowly invested the space of the hospital; and, in a few decades, they restructured the military organisation"       (Foucault, 1977: 138)

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a sphere of society in which power does not inscribe the human body in some way or another, whether through violent or secretive means. I have merely chosen the prison system because of its obvious merit as an easily explorable example.

While actual, literal bodily inscription is perhaps a more blatant form of body textualisation, an exploration of its characteristics is no less intricate or necessary when considering the overall concept of meaningful signification.

Physical modification of the body is a phenomenon which has been observed in all societies. While "taboo" modifications such as body piercings, heavy tattooing and scarification (the deliberate creation of patterns in scar tissue achieved by cutting or branding) have only recently gained any real foothold of respectability in current Western culture, and hence have been, until recently, and, to an extent, even now, difficult to study from an objective point of view (in that few objectively written or up-to-date texts exist), an analysis of their nature is made easier when they are viewed as the distant cousins of some of the more culturally common bodily modifications, such as ear piercings, plucked eyebrows, clothing or even unusual haircuts. Pierced ears on a woman will normally denote normality, thus inscribing the owner of that particular body with a specific meaning that will differ entirely from the signification imposed upon a man with both ears pierced within the same cultural group.

While there may be a great difference between both the reasons for and cultural phenomena denoted by plucking and piercing one's eyebrow, it is important to remember that each is merely a form of manipulating the body to fit a certain ideal, and each functions in much the same way when viewed in light of the concept of the body as text: each functions by endowing the owner of the body with meaningful signification and placing it within a cultural matrix:

"[m]any people when they see a piercing, are able to say 'ok, that's a little strange, but it's sort of like my ears, just somewhere else'"       (Shannon Larratt, BME:1995)

What I mentioned previously as "taboo" modifications have, in reality, existed within Western culture for a great many years. Only recently, however, has it been accepted as a valid facet of our culture at all, due perhaps to some extent to the increasing prevalence of facial and body piercings in popular culture. Even a brief exploration of the world of bodyart will display just how many practices it encompasses: tattooing, the piercing of almost every conceivable body part, scarification, 3-dimensional sub- and trans-dermal implants (the insertion of metal or teflon shapes under the skin via an incision so that a shape protrudes from under, and, in some case through the skin), binding of the waist through corsetry to achieve an extremely thin appearance, the stretching of earlobes and other piercings, and surgical modification, which extends from voluntary amputations of fingers or even parts of limbs to the splitting of the tongue for the reptilian look.

Traditionally, such modifications have created a fairly constant social signification: that of deviancy. In Wojcik's book Punk and Neo-Tribalist Body Art (1995) we see a somewhat androgynous-looking woman wearing fishnet stockings, a dress made of a plastic garbage bag, a safety pin through the cheek and a swastika painted below the left eye. Wojcik (44) states that

"[t]he types of adornment depicted in this photo...exemplify the numerous taboos and offensive themes that early punks drew upon- mutilation, fascism, bondage, explicit sexuality, and self-degradation."

Thus what we see is a very deliberate attempt by this woman to signify herself as deviant from the rest of society through the quite deliberate use of offensive bodily inscriptions.

Of course, not all permanent body modifications are motivated by a desire to shock. However, it would not be presumptuous to suggest that most function as methods of metaphorical bodily inscription. Just as power exerts its influence on the body in order to create subjectivity for the object of that power, so too does permanent modification create meaningful signification for the owner of the body in relation to the rest of society. While this signification may not be the only reason for such adornment, (aesthetic, spiritual and other reasons almost always come into play) it is difficult to overstate the appeal of the metaphor.

The metaphor of the body as text does not, however, suffice for the entire spectrum of permanent body modification. It fails to offer an adequate explanation for modifications such as some genital piercings, whose major purpose appears to be sexual pleasure. While one might argue that even "hidden" modifications such as these function as social signifiers to the extent that they are meaningful to the body's owner (and, presumably, his or her sexual partners), the appeal of such an argument is somewhat limited. The concept of the textualised body, while extremely useful as an analytical tool, may be insufficient in some cases.

The domain of bodily inscription does not, however, begin at the purely metaphorical and unintentional area of social discipline, and end at the purely literal and deliberate end of permanent bodily modification. While those two are perhaps the most prominent and wide-reaching examples of body textualisation, it is important to remember that as a cultural practice, the process of bodily inscription can be extended into almost any area of society, thus marking the owner of a particular body in any number of ways. The inscription of the body is at the same time cultural, social, disciplinary and personal: this is due to the fact that the body is the link between our consciousness and the rest of the world. More than that, our bodies are the reason for our consciousness and hence its essential focus. It is not surprising, therefore, that bodily inscriptions pervade our culture to such an extent.


Butler, Judith, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, Routledge, 1993

BME (Body Modification Ezine) [internet resource] at http://www.BME.freeq.com

Foucault, M, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison, Allen & Unwin, 1977

Grosz, E, Inscriptions and Body-Maps from Threadgold, T and Cranny-Francis, A, Feminine, Masculine and Representation, Allen and Unwin, 1993

Kafka, Franz, In The Penal Colony.

Mansfield, A and McGinn, B, Pumping Irony in Scott, S and Morgan, D, Body Matters, Falmer, 1993

Shilling, Chris, The Body and Social Theory, Sage, 1993

Synott, A The Body Social: Symbolism, Self and Society, Routledge, 1993

Wojcik, Daniel, Punk and Neo-Tribal Body Art University Press of Mississippi, 1995


submitted by: Anonymous
on: 15 Nov. 1998
in Ritual

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