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Reading the Body

ef = "/cgi-bin/vote/votec.cgi?/culture/990515/reading.html"> "In the two hundred years since tattooing has been (re-) introduced to the West, the phenomenon has gone through cycles of acceptance and rejection as an art form" (Campbell, DAI).

A few weeks ago I was sitting in on a professor's 
'Disability Lit.' class. She utterred the phrase; "Body as 
text." The phrase, in this setting, referred directly to a 
disabled person and how a person's body could literally be 
read. Even though that particular phrase was a direct 
reference to a disabled body I started to think of other 
instances in which the body could be seen as text. I thought 
of tattooing as body text, and the possibility of seeing the 
tattooed as walking literature. With the rising popularity of 
tattooing, along with other forms of body art, the tattooed 
body has become a platform on which messages can be read. Body 
art, I argue (and hope), is slowly becoming a post-modern 
literature genre and basis for literary study.

What, exactly, is literature? That is an age-old question 
asked in every literature class I have ever taken. Everyone 
seems to have a different idea of what constitutes literature, 
and those ideas are constantly changing. So someone is bound 
to buy the argument of tattooing as a new form of literature. 
I often wonder why Hemingway is so often considered great 
literature and Kerouac is so readily cast aside by most 
literature professors. Perhaps this differentiation has 
something to do with certain social deviations so prevalent in 
Kerouac's work -- the use of drugs, the portrayal of premiscuous 
sex, homosexuality, and so on. If deviation is a sound case 
for not studying certain texts as literature, then perhaps 
that is why the argument for body as text is such a precarious 
literary platform. The human physical body, aside from body 
art, is full of deviations, and tattooing is yet another 

Body art is seen by the social mainstream as highly 
deviant, a taboo and it's difficult for people to accept 
deviance in any form. We have to let go of classically 
accepted literary study to accept the body as text. But, isn't 
discovering new forms of literature the ultimate goal of 
literary study? At least, I argue, it is in this post-modern 
age of critical study. New schools of criticism are 
continually popping up. My hope is to incorporate the body 
into literary critical study. Cordell Terrien argues for the 
universality of the body art phenomena in his essay "Body 
Adornment"; "Body adornment and decoration is a cultural 
universal. All cultures everywhere have attempted to change 
their body in an attempt to fulfill their cultural construct 
of beauty, religious or social obligations" (1). Isn't 
conventional text used by most to fill the same constructs?

I now ask; 'What is the body?' Is the body -- as Buddhists 
and Hindus believe -- simply a material vessel which houses the 
real us? Or is the body, alone, sacred in itself? It is 
against the Jewish faith to have any body art in which case 
tattooing bars one from rightfully being buried in a Jewish 
cemetary. Within many other cultures and religions bodily 
ornamentation heightens one's social standing. Members of the 
Maori tribe of New Zealand are more socialy revered if they 
are heavily tattooed. In India Hindus take a regular 
pilgrimage in which male members practice sacred body 
scarification rituals, called Kavadi, in order to pay 
religious homage. In many non-western cultures body art 
(scarification, tattooing, and piercing) is seen as an 
important, sometimes sacred, statement. Non-western people, 
because of the importance of body art, more readily regard the 
body as text.

The correlation between body art and religion is 
important. Religiosity is the main reason that the modified 
body may be seen as text. Buddhist monks are tattooed for 
protection, members of the Masai African tribe are scarred 
with animal shapes to bring themselves closer to the animal 
world, and the Maori also have tattoos to ward off evil 
spirits -- to name a few examles of the correlation. The 
religiosity of body art gives rise to bodily textuality in 
that religious symbols upon the body are meant to be read. 
Ancient body art practices have paved the way for the 'modern 
primitive', thus allowing one to view the modern body as text. 
I quote from Anthony Synnot's The Body Social to 
further the previous argument;

    The body has been regarded as a tomb of the soul, a 
    temple, a machine, and the self, and much more; and 
    it has also been treated accordingly. Bodies may be 
    caressed or indeed killed, they may be loved or 
    hated, and thought beautiful or ugly, sacred or 
    profane. Ideas about what the body is, what it 
    means, its moral value and the values of its 
    constituent parts, the limits of the body, its 
    social utility and symbolic value, in sum, how the 
    body is defined both physically and socially, vary 
    widely from person to person, and have changed 
    dramatically over time. The one word, body, may 
    therefore signify very different realities and 
    perceptions of reality (7).

With the popularization of tattooing in today's culture 
the 'modern primitive', I argue, has become a new form of 
literature. The modern primitive as literature, or seeing the 
body as text, seems a radical idea. One is used to the notion 
of conventional literature as being words contained on a page 
by the likes of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. Elizabeth 
Grosz in her essay "Iscriptions and Body Maps: Representations 
and the Corporeal", offers a sound argument for viewing the 
modern human body as text;

    The body has figured in many recent texts as a 
    writing surface on which messages can be inscribed. 
    The metaphorics of body-writing poses the 
    body, [etc.] as corporeal surfaces on which 
    engraving inscription or 'graffiti' are etched. The 
    metaphor of the textualized body affirms the 
    body as a page or material surface on which messages 
    may be inscribed (236).

With the help of Grosz's argument I hope to break the 
conventional notions of what literature is or should 
be. Richard Hargrove, in his dissertion abstract, argues 
for the shift from classical literature studies to a more 
modern or post-modern approach to literary theory; 
"Traditional explanations for the movement of artifacts 
between cultures have relied on theory drawn from the  
diffusion of innovations literature" (DAI).

Grosz's argument is ultimately built upon a more feminist 
foundation, but I think her argument for the social importance 
of body inscription can (and does) cross gender lines. A 
woman's body -- apart from tattoos -- is left to be read by 
society. This idea of reading the body, however, goes beyond 
the female body for me. Society reads my body, aside 
from my own body art, because of my disability. Society is 
very dependant on physical appearance, and body art takes this 
dependance to a whole new level. Through body art the body 
becomes a text which society can read; this reading, in 
general, is sexually non-spacific.

    The subject [body] is named by being tagged 
    or branded on its surface, creating a particular 
    kind of 'depth-body' or interiority, a psychic layer 
    the subject identifies as its (disembodied) core. 
    Subjects thus produced are not simply the imposed 
    results of alien, coercive forces; the body is 
    internally lived, experienced and acted by the 
    subject and social collectivity. Messages encoded 
    upon the body can be 'read' only within a social 
    system of organisation and meaning. They mark the 
    subject by, and as, a series of signs within the 
    collectivity of other signs, signs which bear the 
    marks of a particular social law or organisation... 
    (Grosz 238).

Various authors throughout modern literature have used 
tattooing as a thematic basis for some of their writing. Ray 
Bradbury, in The Illustrated Man, developed a tattooed 
central character whose tattoos tell each story in the novel. 
The illustrations contained within each tattoo move about the 
character's skin to visually tell each short story contained 
within the novel. "So people fire me when my pictures move. 
They don't like it when violent things happen in my 
Illustrations. Each Illustration is a little story. If you 
watch them, in a few minutes they tell you a tale" (Bradbury 
3). In Franz Kafka's In the Penal Colony tattoos are 
used to inscribe a prisoner's misdeeds upon his flesh. The 
prisoner's flesh is left for everyone to read -- his physical 
body becomes an open book. " 'This man for example' -- the 
officer indicated the man -- 'will have inscribed on his body: 
'Honor thy superiors!' " (Kafka 130).

To further my argument, I intend to look at two pieces of 
conventional literature, Bradbury's The Illustrated Man 
and Kafka's In the Penal Colony, which use tattoos as a 
thematic basis for each story. Within both Kafka's and 
Bradbury's texts tattooing is used, much like conventional 
text, to convey meaning on one level or another. The modern 
primitive, clad in his or her tattoo finery tells a story with 
each tattooed illustration. With the growing influence of and 
interest in post-modern theory the idea of what, exactly, 
constitutes conventional literature has become obscured. For 
hundreds of years conventional literature was contained on the 
printed page. As we enter the twenty-first century, however, 
the idea of the body as text becomes much more plausable.

Grosz looks at Niezsche to further her argument that body 
inscription is sometimes used to display guilt or suspicion, 
as in In the Penal Colony, upon the individual. "For 
Nietzsche, civilisation instills its basic requirements by 
branding or tattooing the law on bodies through a mnemonics 
of pain" (239). Franz Kafka uses this "mnemonics of 
pain" as a thematic basis for his short story, "In the 
Penal Colony." Within the story the prisoners are forcibly 
tattooed with there misdeeds. A machine is used to inscribe 
the misdeed upon the prisoner's naked torso. The pain from the 
forced inscription is excruciating; the prisoner is put to 
death immediately following the inscription. Civilians are 
invited to watch the inscription, and read the prisoners guilt 
upon his body. The prisoner's body transforms into a definate 
text for everyone to read.

    The condemned man is laid here on the bed -- you see, 
    first I want to explain the apparatus and then start 
    it up, that way you'll be able to follow it 
    better... -- well, so here is the bed, as I said 
    before. It's completely covered with a layer of 
    cotton wool, you'll find out what that's for later. 
    The condemned man is laid facedown on the cotton 
    wool, naked of course; here are straps for the 
    hands, the feet, and here for the neck, in order to 
    hold him down. So, as I was saying, here at the head 
    of the bed, where the condemned man is at first laid 
    facedown, is the little felt gag that can be 
    adjusted easily to fit straight into the man's mouth 
    (Kafka 128).


submitted by: Anonymous
on: 15 May 1999
in Ritual

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