Modern Primitives and Body Modification
nter>Modern Primitives and Body Modification
An Examination of Pain, the Body and Resistance in a Contemporary EuroAmerican Subculture
By Anja Nyberg, Anthropology B. Sc. firstname.lastname@example.org
3) The Body and Pain in EuroAmerican Discourse 3.1 Pain 3.2 The Body 3.3 Summary
4) Case Study - Modern Primitives and Body Modification 4.1 "Modern Primitives" and "Modern Primitivism" 4.2 The Emergence of the Modern Primitives and the Body Modification "Revival" 4.3 The "Modern" and the "Primitive" 4.4 Modern Primitive Body Modification and the Relation to the "Mainstream"
5) Discussion 5.1 Modern Primitive Understandings of Pain 5.2 Modern Primitive Understandings of the Body 5.3 Power and Resistance
The study examines modern primitives and body modification, concentrating on three factors - the body, pain and resistance. It is primarily based on research of academic and popular text.
First, discussing the construction of pain and the body in EuroAmerican discourse, science and religion are seen as contexts within which pain and the body are constructed. In biomedicine, pain and the body are reduced to biological phenomena and, in Christianity, they are understood through penance, on one hand, and visionary suffering and sainthood, on the other.
Second, it provides a case study of modern primitives and body modification, discussing the history of modern primitives, the concepts "modern" and "primitive", what body modification is to modern primitives, and how these practices relate to "mainstream" society.
Third, combining the sections above, modern primitive understandings of pain and the body are discussed and, comparing them to those of Christianity and biomedicine, it is asked if they constitute resistance to hegemony. Drawing largely on Foucault, there is a consideration of issues around power and resistance.
Finally, it is concluded that the modern primitives simultaneously resist and conform. Albeit syncretic, they are understood as primarily culturally situated in EuroAmerica.
Bound feet, stretched necks, deformed skulls, flesh permanently
marked and scarred, elongated ear-lobes - as suggested by the standard terminology of "mutilation" and "deformation" itself, these are practices that have long fascinated the West where they have been viewed as exotic distortions of the body (Mascia-Lees et. Al. 1992: 1). Still relatively unusual, but perhaps no longer quite as exotic, practices of body modification are becoming increasingly prevalent in EuroAmerica. The "modern primitives", as a subculture constructed around practices of altering the body, have been pivotal to their promotion and conceptual framing. In their book - Modern Primitives - V. Vale and A. Juno spoke of the modern primitives and body modification, in 1989, as `a vivid contemporary enigma' (Vale & Juno 1989: 4).
It is my intention, for the purpose of this study, to explore this "social enigma", to examine modern primitives and body modification with particular reference to two central factors - physical pain and the body. Considering first the construction of physical pain and the body in EuroAmerican discourse, in the contexts of Christianity and science in specific, I will discuss the extent to which modern primitives, in their controversial practices of body modification, can be perceived as rejecting accepted categories and constituting resistance to cultural hegemony. Combining context and case study, this will be facilitated through a discussion of modern primitive understandings and experiences of physical pain and the body and an exploration of the differences between these and their culturally sanctioned counterparts. The study is in no way intended to be exhaustive but rather to function as an open-ended discussion of some major areas of interest with respects to modern primitives and body modification.
This study is primarily, but not exclusively, based on research of both academic and popular texts on the subject of body modification in contemporary EuroAmerica. I have also made additional use of the internet in research. Considering the intensely visual and relatively unusual imagery of modern primitive bodies, I have made liberal use imagery throughout the study as an additional way of familiarising the reader with the modern primitives and body modification.
3) The Body and Pain in EuroAmerican Discourse
Pain and the body are both pivotal to my investigation of modern primitives and body modification. Their body modifying practices, as suggested by the term itself, are performed on the body and their experience is felt though the body, generally in the form of pain. It is often as in terms of their relation to pain and the body that modern primitives define themselves; they constitute factors that are, in short, definitive of modern primitive being. In order to examine their relations to, understandings and experiences of pain and the body, we must first situate them in a wider framework. In the following section thus, I intend to examine the body and pain in EuroAmerican discourse, discussing Western constructions of the two in two main settings - science and religion. The two sections, one, on pain and, the other, on the body, are intimately interrelated, covering similar ground. They are not meant to be taken separately, thus, and can only be understood in conjunction.
Pain, undoubtedly, is a central aspect of the lived realities of human experience. A universal feature of the human condition, it is `as elemental as fire or ice' (Morris 1993: 1). Following the studies of Zborowski1, however, there has been a growing recognition of the endless complexities of the human encounter with pain. A rather opaque phenomenon, not only does the experience of pain appear to defy objectification and verbal expression (see E. Scarry 1985), its very nature resists categorization.
~ The construction of pain in science and biomedicine
In the discussion of EuroAmerican understandings of pain, we
must examine Western scientific and biomedical interpretations and
treatments of pain. It here becomes of monumental importance to
recognize that, as an institution, biomedicine is culturally and
historically situated. Mary Jo Del Vecchio Good et. al. discuss the
deep cultural logic of biomedicine' in which a patient's
essentiallyunified experience' of pain is fragmented into a series
of dichotomies -
physiological, psychological; body, soul; mind,
body; subjective, objective; real, unreal; natural, artificial' -
that are deeply rooted in the Western world (Del Vecchio Good et.
Al. 1992: 8). Similarly, Gordon speaks of thetenacious
assumptions of Western medicine', stressing those of
of nature' andthe individual as a sovereign being' (Gordon cited
in Del Vecchio Good et. al. 1992: 8-9). Nature is seen as
diametrically opposed to and autonomous from subjective experience,
not only independent from culture but prior to it'
(ibid.). It is, unquestionably rational, the very basis of
truth itself. As the individual is perceived as similarly autonomous
from and prior to society and culture, pain felt resides wholly and
completely in individual physiology, the exclusive focus of
biomedicine. Merely a biological function then, pain is a symptom of
something wrong with the body. Thomas S. Szasz demonstrates what he
refers to as theone-body reference' of the primary model of pain
utilized in biomedicine (Szasz 1975: 85);
...pain is objective; that is, the experiencing system has
nothing to do with it. The system simply registers 'pain'
whenever apainful stimulus' is present. This view of pain is
modeled after a simple stimulus-response concept, the physical
basis of which may be thought of as a bell that rings whenever
an electric current is sent through the wires to which it is
connected' (Szasz 1975: 83).
In this interpretation of pain as the straightforward symptom of illness or injury, its cause can be located and addressed, facilitating a cure, the very notion around which biomedicine is built and sustained. Interestingly, the cure of pain in biomedicine, has revolved increasingly around the notion of suppressing pain through the use of painkillers, sedatives, etceteras.
Having officially emptied our pain of meaning; rendering it
blank, the mindless and mechanical buzzing of neural impulses,
biomedical thought constitutes an abstraction of reality. As David
B. Morris observes,
to signify nothing... is very different from
not signifying at all' (Morris 1993: 35). Far from stopping at
traditional biomedical convictions thatpain is simply and entirely
a medical problem', we need to examine `the cultural construction of
pain' (Morris 1993: 2).
~ The construction of pain in Christianity
Another framework that has been formative in the construction
of EuroAmerican understandings and experiences of pain is religion.
The position of pain and suffering in the Christian2
context is central; its meaning significant. This is perhaps most
clearly suggested by the fate of Christ,
the central Christian
mystery of a being who suffers pain in order to redeem others'
(Morris 1993: 129). In Pain and Truth in Medieval
Christianity (1993), Talal Asad looks at the intimate
association of power, pain and truth in medieval Christianity, as
played out in the religious history of penance. Following Foucault,
he approaches pain inflicted on the body in penance as a crucial
part of atechnology of the self', part of the discipline for
confronting the body's desires with the desire for "Truth" (Asad
1993: 110). Not only did the body have to be chastised as it was
an obstacle to the attainment of perfect truth', he
demonstrates, but it was primarily seen asa medium by which the
truth about the self's essential potentiality for transgression
could be brought into the light' (ibid. : 106, 110). Pain, in
these processes, was an inescapable element. Asad isolates two
notions employed in the discipline of penance that may explain why
the body was to be tormented as part of the process of achieving
truth and obliterating spiritual sickness. First, in relation to
purgatory, the concept of pain as punishment which is the measure of
transgression meant that the application of pain therefore
apprehended greater reprehension in the afterlife, thus restoring
the sinner to divine justice. Second, in relation to the medicinal
metaphor of suffering, pain was conceived of as purging, as the
remedial effect of treatment that restored the sinner to spiritual
health (ibid. : 105).
David B. Morris, however, brings to attention that pain in
Christianity has sometimes provided access to vision and experience
so alien from our normal consciousness that it can only be called
prophetic, utopian or revolutionary' (Morris 1993: 126). To me, it
seems that this broadens our understanding, beyond Asad's assertion
thatpain has [always] been associated with guilt, error, sickness'
(Asad 1993: 123). In his discussion Antonio Pollaiuolo's rendering
of The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (1475), Morris suggests
that Saint Sebastian's appearance indicates his suspension between
the world of the body and the world of the spirit, representing thus
the pain of martyrdom... as a crucial moment of transition' (Morris
1993:127). Attributing hisbodily torment... specific meaning as a
sign that points to a realm of eternal truth beyond the perishable
body', Saint Sebastian's elevated gaze may be interpreted as
indicating his power to see a truth beyond earth and matter (Morris
1993: 129). As we will see, Sebastian's experience of pain is
inescapably implicated in this moment of transcendental vision.
In his account of the suffering of Saint Sebastian elicited in Guido Reni's Saint Sebastian (1615), Yokio Mishima describes the arrows as having `eaten into his tense, fragrant, youthful flesh... about to consume his body from within with flames of supreme agony and ecstasy', illustrating thereby the potent element of beauty, sensuality and eroticism in pain and suffering (cited in Morris 1993: 130). The experiences of Saint Teresa of Avila, for whom bodily pain was joyful suffering, a means and symbol of her union with God, may serve to develop this point. Describing her most famous visionary experience, Teresa wrote of an angel that appeared to her:
`I saw in his hands a large golden dart and at the end of the iron tip there appeared to be a little fire. It seemed to me this angel plunged the dart several times into my heart and that it reached deep within me. When he drew it out, I though he was carrying off with him the deepest part of me: and he left all on fire with the great Love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan, and the sweetness of this greatest pain caused me was so superabundant that there is no desire capable of taking it away' (cited in Morris 1993: 131).
In his sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1645-1652),
Gian Lorenzo Bernini has represented Teresa in a state of intensity
and abandonment commonly interpreted as the orgasm, the "little
death". Like the agony of Christ dying on the cross, her suffering
is eroticized (Bruno 1998: 393). In Eroticism (1962) ,
Georges Bataille observes that the saintly experience evokes
eroticism in that the saint prompted by desire alone.
The desire to
go keeling helplessly over', he argues,may well be a desire to
die, but it is at the same time a desire to live to the limits of
the possible and the impossible with ever-increasing intensity'
(Bataille 1994: 239). It is, in fact,
the desire to live while
ceasing to live, or to die without ceasing to live, the desire of an
extreme state that Saint Teresa has perhaps been the only one to
depict strongly enough in words - "I die because I cannot die"'
(ibid. : 239-240). Sanctity here, as a movement from
eroticism, is the transition from the damned to the blessed that,
like the erotic,opens up the possibility of pushing as far as it
will go the experience of that final convulsion ultimately leading
to death' (ibid. : 262).
Pain, in Christianity, thus, paints a radically different picture that that of pain in biomedicine. However disparate, the two are nonetheless crucial factors in shaping EuroAmerican conceptions of physical pain. Finally, Morris' echoing of Foucault and Asad's discussions of the specific conjunction in Christianity between bodily pain and the pursuit of truth is telling:
`Modern pain, of course, normally chains us down to the material world. It keeps us centered in the flesh. It places us within the secular circle of medical science. The visionary pain of Catherine, Teresa, and Sebastian, by contrast, contains the power to transcend the world and the flesh. In providing release into pure communion with the divine, it becomes not something to be cured or even endured but rather but rather as a means of knowledge, offering access to an otherwise inaccessible understanding. Visionary pain employs the body in order to free us from the body. It initiates or accompanies an experience that escapes the time-bound world of human suffering' (Morris 1993: 135)
3.2 The Body
When speaking of the body in EuroAmerican discourse, one might well speak of a Western cult of the body. Comically, perhaps, but also tellingly, Horace Minor reports this bodily obsession in his Body Ritual among the Nacirema (1956). Below, it is my intention to briefly discuss some important currents in the construction of the Western body.
~ The construction of the female body
The examination of the cultural contraction of the body has, to a
considerable degree, been facilitated by feminist debates
surrounding the constitution of the female body. Since the 70's,
Nancy Oudshorn argues, academia has in fact come
under the spell of
the body' (Oudshorn 1994: 3). Preceding the rise of "the social
constructivist school", "biological facts" about the body
nonetheless went largely unchallenged. The perceived factualness of
the human body, it seems, has been an obstacle to movement beyond
ideas ofthe unadorned, unmodified body as the unspoiled, pure
surface on which culture works' (Mascia-Lees et. al. 1992:
3). Although recognizing the impact of culture on the body, writing
on the culturally and individually elaborated differences in the
experience of the body `still leaves room for the argument that,
despite differences in bodily experiences, these experiences do
refer to a universal, physiological reality, "a non-historical
biological matter"' (Oudshorn 1994: 3). It is instrumental that we
examine, not merely the elaborations of culture on the physical
body, but the actual construction of the body through culture.
An example of the cultural construction of the female body is
supplied by Anne Bolin in her Vandalized Vanity: Feminine
Physiques Betrayed and Portrayed (1992). Bolin examines the
culture of beauty' and the ramifications it has for the
female body.Intimately tied as a symbolic structure to fashion,
adornment, dieting, and exercise and as a economic structure to
capitalism', she maintains that the culture of beauty chronicles the
modification of body and self. (Bolin 1992: 82). Despite the
extensive contortions women's bodies have gone through to conform to
a narrow ideal of beauty, however, the related practices have tended
to be contrived as natural and normal and thus gone unseen (Mascia-Lees
et. al. 1992: 7). Discussing corsetry in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries as
outside-inside' transformation of the
body and the regimes of diet and exercise of the late twentieth
century asinside-outside' transformation, Bolin nonetheless
identifies some consistencies in the culture of beauty. She invokes
intimate linkages between restraint, power and beauty and observes
that, despite historical changes, cultures of beauty as applied to
the female body have generally involved a central notion of a denial
of desire. Since the 1960's, especially, she argues, we have
`witnessed the emergence of diet and exercise and modern correlates
of the nineteenth century corset' (ibid. : 88).
~ The construction of the body in Christianity
This restraint or denial of desire in cultures of beauty of the
female body is reasonably suggestive of attitudes to the body in
Christianity in that it has tended to hold
a fundamental antagonism
to sensuous culture of all kinds' and has required constant self-control
(Weber 1997: 105). Invoking its characteristic mind-body
divide, Christianity is generally concerned with the soul, not the
body per se, and has tended to see the flesh, according the
Foucault, asthe root of all evil' (Foucault 1997: 19). Weber notes
in The Protestant Ethic (1930), that Christianity, and
Puritanism in particular,
absolutely repudiated the idolatry of the
flesh as a detraction from the reverence due to God alone' (Weber
1997: 146). Sinful and lusting, the body here appears a liability to
the project of the soul, although the medium for expression of the
soul, a hindrance to the nobler yearnings of the soul. Asad suggests
thatChristian life is a combat against oneself' (Asad 1993: 105).
Through penance, a process of disciplining the soul through the
discipline of the body, the body, seen as
an obstacle to the
attainment of perfect truth', was to be chastised (ibid. :
106). "The weakening of the flesh", through fasting for example,
providedthe soul's weapon against sin'; effacing the marks of sin
made on the soul and the body, penance inscribed in their place the
signs of truth in a steady ritual repetition (ibid.).
Nakedness, the body bared and unclothed, is also at issue in
Christianity. Whereas the nakedness of Adam and Eve, symbolizing the
glory of their innocence, it was transformed with the Original Sin.
If the Tree of Knowledge is taken, as it commonly is, as carnal
knowledge, if we interpret it as pertaining to sex, it follows that
with the coming of lust to human life nudity ceased to be a pure
symbol of innocence and began to acquire all the connotations of
bodily temptation' (Mazrui 1978: 207). In this case, tracing back to
the rebellion of Adam and Eve in eating from the Tree of Knowledge,
there may indeed bea long-standing link between nakedness and
certain forms of rebellion' (ibid. : 205).
Finally, if we recall David B. Morris' discussion of Christian
sainthood, however, we may this time broaden our understanding of
the body in Christian thought beyond notions of the sinful body. As
previously mentioned, Saint Sebastian's bodily torment was, in
Morris' view, attributed with
specific meaning as a sign that
points to a realm of eternal truth beyond the perishable body'
(Morris 1993: 129). Visionary pain, according to Morris,employs
the body in order to free us from the body' (ibid. : 135).
~ The post-Enlightenment body
The enlightenment brought about radical changes in thinking about
the body, involving the shift from religious to scientific thought,
from a concern with the soul to that of the processes to the body.
According to Foucault, starting in the seventeenth century, there
great bipolar technology' of the anatomic and the
biological that involved two interlinked poles of development
(Foucault 1997: 139). The first of these poles, he argues,centered
on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its
capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase in
its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of
efficient and economic controls' (ibid.). Through this
anatomo-politics of the human body', Oudshorn argues, echoing Mary
Douglas' assertion that the physical body is symbolic of social
system, that the body came to be represented as a model of an
industrial society (Oudshorn 1994: 5). The body under
industrialization became an extension of the machine andefficiency, a concept rooted in the mechanical, ascended to
prominence as a measurement of bodily value' (Thomson 1996: 11). A
prosaic toward sameness' was promoted by the mass-production and
standardization of products, and as factors such as wage labor and
urbanization brought about dislocations that created anonymity,the
way the body looked and functioned became one's primary social
resource', partially replacing the importance of kinship or local
memberships as indices of identity and social position (ibid.
: 11-12). Alongside these processes, notions of progress and the
ideology of improvement `implemented the ascendance of this new
image of a malleable, regularized body whose attainment was both an
individual and a national obligation' (ibid. : 12).
The second developmental pole in Foucault's
technology',focused on the species-body, the body imbued with the
mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological
processes' (Foucault 1997: 139). In a movement similar to how
prosaic toward sameness' had madesingularity in both products and
bodies seem deviant',
scientific discourse also reimagined the
body, depreciating particularity while valorizing uniformity'
(Thomson 1996: 11, 12). R. G. Thomson's insights about the
exceptional body are here useful for a brief discussion of the
construction of the body by science and biomedicine.As scientific
explanation eclipsed religious mystery to become the authoritative
cultural narrative of modernity', she argues,
the exception body
began increasingly to be represented in clinical terms as pathology,
and the monstrous body moved from the freak show stage into the
medical theater' (ibid. :1). In fragmenting not only the
monstrous body but the body in general and transforming it into
detachable pieces, in probing the body and revealing its "secrets",
etceteras, science and biomedicine has objectified and
clinicalized the body. The body in biomedical discourse is useful,
purposeful, productive of knowledge and truth (Oudshorn 1994: 5).
Science, some say, divested the body ofits mystery and
trascendental instrumentality, leaving it an empty, soulless shell
of bone, viscera, flesh and blood' (Shelton 1996: 101). Moreover,
with the rise of modern science', according to Oudshorn,bodies
have become transformed into objects that can be manipulated with an
ever-growing number of tools and techniques' (ibid.).
Adding to the earlier points made by Del Vecchio Good et. al. and Gordon regarding biomedicine as a social institution, Nancy Oudshorn maintains that, as 'our perceptions and interpretations of the body are mediated through language and [as], in our society, the biomedical sciences function as a major provider of this language', 'there does not exist an unmediated natural truth of the body' (Oudshorn 1994: 3). `The biomedical sciences as discursive technologies (re)construct and reflect our understanding of the body' (ibid.). Additionally, their discourses are "woven from the same materials of the social imagination that go into the making of a new society" and are subject to changes in society (ibid. : 5). Each of the he conceptions and metaphors of the body that we have touched on - the sinful body in Christianity, the body as an image of industrial society, the body objectified by biomedicine - entails specific meanings and values that shape, not only our experiences of the body, but our very understanding of it, in short, our specific construction of the body.
The body and pain have been naturalized, understandings of them
shaped by biomedicine, Christianity and countless other factors, most of which could not be discussed above. It is through the naturalization of the body in biomedicine that pain, taken solely as a bodily function, has come to be naturalized much in the same way. The generally taken for granted dichotomy between nature and culture has come into question in recent theorizing and, as a result of this, the ways in which this distinction has acted to reinforce relations of power and domination have been recognized. The body in fact has become `an important site for rethinking binary oppositions' (Mascia-Lees 1992: 3). It is clear, I think, that we need to dispel the notion of the body as nature, as existing prior to culture and signification.
Having established nature as what the body is not, however, we
should purport what it might be. A physiological structure, no
doubt, but only ever as we perceive it.
The physical body as we
perceive it (and of course there is no such thing as an
unperceived body) is a segment of our "social construction of
reality"', Ted Polhemus affirms (Polhemus 1975: 28). Even the
natural body, here, as a construct of biomedical thought, is
intrinsically cultural. Similarly, the monstrous body, assumed to bea freak of nature, was instead a freak of culture' (Thomson 1995:
4) Case Study - Modern Primitives and Body Modification
The term "modern primitive" was coined by Fakir Musafar,
of the modern primitive movement', in 1967. According to Musafar, it
was formulated in response to the increasingly popular trend of
young people to get pierced and tattooed and was used, by him and
subsequently growing numbers of people, to describea non-tribal
person who responds to primal urges and does something with the
body' (Vale and Juno 1989: 13). This elusive definition is insanely
all-inclusive and hazy. Bearing in mind that the creation of an
unambiguous definition will be neither helpful nor especially
representative, but would act, rather, as an obstacle to analysis;
to arrive at some understanding of the modern primitives, we
nonetheless need to establish a more definitive framework. In this
section, it is my intention thus, not to define the modern
primitives per se, but rather to contextualize them, and to
clarify, in short, who they are and what they do. Throughout this
section, I will also touch briefly on a number of areas surrounding
the modern primitives that could not be discussed at length in this
4.1 "Modern Primitives" and "Modern Primitivism"
As hinted by the broadness of Fakir Musafar's aforementioned definition, the modern primitives, like the punks or any other "subculture", display minimal uniformity and can not, thus, be presented as a clearly delineated category. Definitions and understandings of the concept of "modern primitivism" vary and, whereas some embrace the term, others that appear, for all respects and purposes, similarly motivated and inclined, are more reluctant to identify with it. In recognition of the realization that some measure of generalization may be necessary for the modern primitives' treatment as a group, differences aside, these individuals can, nonetheless, be identified as a collection of people loosely associated with a certain set of practices and ideologies. A segment of the wider community of body modifiers, they are bound together by a shared ideology, a way of looking at body modification that is not common to the entire spectrum of body modifiers. What I refer to as shared ideology, however fluid and diverse, is characterized by some identifiable similarities and consistencies. Hence, their practices of body modification, the form these practices take, and the ideological framework in which they are carried out are the definitive factors.
Importantly, however, the group, its practices and ideologies are by no means bounded. Relatively few body modifiers are modern primitives per se, but the idea of modern primitivism traverses the boundaries of the modern primitives as a group. Perhaps due to the involvement of modern primitives at the center of the body modification `scene' - the idea of modern primitivism has seeped through the general discourse of body modification, thus affecting the wider spectrum of body modifiers. Thus, it appears that, as much as this study concerns itself with the modern primitives as a group, it must also address modern primitivism as an idea.
4.2 The Emergence of Modern Primitives and the Body Modification "Revival"
For the purposes of the identification and description of the modern primitives, we might start with a brief mention of their emergence and history. The modern primitives can be said to have been born in 1960's and 70's California, sprouting mainly out of various "underground" movements such as gay and lesbian, hard-core, SM and fetish, and were comprised of individuals sharing a collective, fundamental fascination with the "revival" in the "western" world of what they perceived to be ancient practices of body modification.
This "revival" of body modification was clearly composed of a
plethora of different factors, a few of which I will mention. First,
since the 1960's, the practice, nature and setting of EuroAmerican
tattooing has changed drastically. This progression - that has since
been dubbed the
tattoo renaissance' - wasthe result of dramatic
shifts in the social, economic and cultural environment in which
tattoo is practiced' (Rubin 1988: 235). For example, information,
equipment and supplies became more readily available, sterilization
procedures were radically improved, the traditional EuroAmerican
`international folk style' repertoire of designs was expanded to
include Japanese, "tribal" and fineline styles, and tattooing
clientele was significantly diversified. These and other factors,
combined with the movement from standardized designs (flash) toward
unique and individually customized tattoos (custom), worked jointly
toward the currently improved status of tattooing and the recent
debates surrounding its potential classification as art.
A second factor in the revival of body modification was the increasing interest in piercing, a practice that, other than piercing women's ear-lobes, was less well-established in EuroAmerica than tattooing. Amongst others, Doug Malloy (a.k.a. Richard Symington), later dubbed `the father of the modern rebirth of piercing' was central to this development (Vale and Juno 1989: 24). Shortly, Jim Ward started Gauntlet, the first professional supplier of piercing jewelry and equipment, and Piercing Fans International Quarterly (PFIQ), a magazine for piercing enthusiasts. Interestingly, writing for PFIQ, Doug Malloy supplied some short "histories" of various piercings in which he claimed, for example, that Ancient Egyptian royalty had their navels pierced as symbols of status. Although this and many other "histories" have since been debunked they still go largely unquestioned by an overwhelming majority of the body modification community (Body Art #20: 24-27). A case of constructing the past, so to say, in the present, of "inventing tradition", these "histories" serve as reinforcement and justification, claims to tradition and authenticity by a subculture often dismissed or despised by "mainstream" society (see for example E. Hobsbawn and T. Ranger 1983). Other than these two factors - the tattoo renaissance and the emergence of piercing in EuroAmerica - to the "revival" of body modification, influences like the rise of a popular romanticized image of tribal peoples as mysterious and noble savages, the newly "sympathetic" coverage of tribal cultures in magazines such as National Geographic, and the popular and academic advances of social anthropology were crucial in providing ideological fodder for the ideology of the revival of body modification and the modern primitives.
4.3 The "Modern" and the "Primitive"
A certain understanding of tribal peoples, a notion of the "primitive", then, stands at the center of modern primitivism. Fakir Musafar, earlier referred to as the originator of the term "modern primitive", has been the foremost patron of this tenet of the ideological framework of modern primitivism. Establishing the publication Body Play and Modern Primitives Quarterly in 1991, Musafar contextualized the revival of practices of body modification, using this characteristic idiom of the primitive. This conceptual shift, placing the primitive squarely at the core of modern primitivism, represented an attitude that was to become a salient feature of large sections of the growing community of body modifiers - the reference to, identification and association with the practices, ideologies and plight of tribal peoples. Not only inspiration but justification is drawn from tribal cultures for what in EuroAmerica is generally taken as essentially deviant and pathological. The common occurrence of body modification in tribal cultures, like Doug Malloy's aforementioned "histories", lends the modern primitives a sense of credibility, it effectively contextualizes and authenticates their practices of body modification. Oftentimes, entire primitive rituals involving body modification (like the Mandan Sundance [O-Kee-Pa] and the Malay Thaipusam) are adopted and repeated and primitive forms of body modification and adornment (such as stretching piercings in the ear- lobe and some patterns for tattoos or scarification) are imitated.
As indicated by the term "modern primitive", however, the allusion
to the "primitive" does not fully explain its frame of reference but
accounts only for an aspect, albeit a significant one, of modern
primitivism. In fact, the coupling of the "modern" with the
"primitive" in the term is of utmost importance. A question posed by
V. Vale and Andrea Juno in the definitive Modern Primitives: An
Investigation of Contemporary Adornment and Ritual (1989) is
Civilization, they ask,with its emphasis on logic, may
be stifling and life-thwarting, yet a cliche-ridden illusion as to
what is "primitive" provides no solution to the problem: how
do we achieve an integration of poetic and scientific imagination in
our lives?' (Vale and Juno 1989: 4). The conjunction here of the
modern and the primitive signals
an affront... to the assumption of
Progress' and the generation of a new cosmology that, in drawing on
the insights of two often diametrically opposed conditions,looks
beyond the Ideology of Progress to a possible syncretic future'
(ibid. : 157-158). `Grabbing technologies from one end of the
spectrum and ideologies from the other', modern primitives create
their identity (Wood 1999: 44). Modern influences are extensively
informed by science fiction, by books such as William Gibson's
Count Zero, by publications like Astounding Science
Fiction and television programs like Star Trek. Important
theoretical inspiration is taken broadly from post-modernist
writings and particularly from theorists like Donna Haraway and her
A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism
in the Late Twentieth Century (1991). The idea and imagery of
the cyborg, the blending of human and machine, the organic and the
technological, much like biotechnology and the body modification of
tribal peoples, is important in that the it deals with notions of
the denaturalization, mutation and transgression of the human form.
4.4 Modern Primitive Body Modification and the Relation to the "Mainstream"
I have consistently alluded to the definitive centrality of body
modification and it may here be of some use to delineate exactly
what is meant by the term in the context of modern primitivism. Body
modification - elsewhere referred to as "body art" or "body play" -
is indeed the primary thing uniting the modern primitives. In the
case of modern primitives, body modification denotes a series of
practices involving the temporary or permanent modification of the
body, generally through a ritualized process entailing some measure
of pain. The term, however, is highly elusive and general, and
includes a dizzying array of modifying practices. These may be
loosely divided into a few fluid and overlapping categories. First,
there are permanent modifications, often regarded as adornment or
decoration. Whereas more common varieties of permanent body
modification include tattooing and piercing, and scarification
(branding and cutting), less common ones cover, for example, some
surgical alterations (such as implants and tongue splitting).
Second, there are temporary modifications; these include, for
example, surface and play piercing, pocketing, and practices like
the bed of nails' and suspension by flesh hooks. The latter of
these often draw extensively on customs of tribal peoples and tend
to be highly ritualized. Thirdly, there are also non-surgical
alterations bycontortion' (high-heeled shoes, for example) or by
`constriction' (corsetry and bondage) that may be more or less
permanent depending on the extent and duration of the exercise
(Body Play issue #15: 15-23, issue #9: 19-25).
Seen in this way, body modification, as a loosely constructed categorical term, is thus often inclusive of more accepted and frequently encountered practices such as cosmetic surgery, weight lifting, wearing high-heeled shoes and even growing long nails and hair removal. The fact that these practices are classified, to some extent, as body modification, indicates an attempt, on the part of modern primitives, to situate their practices within a more firmly established framework of more or less acceptable bodily alterations and manipulations. The difference between the ideological frameworks and the motivations of "mainstream" modifications and the controversial practices of modern primitives, however, are generally emphasized. Acceptable forms of body modifications are viewed as triggered by aspirations to conform to a mainstream bodily ideal, whereas controversial ones are seen as consciously transgressing established norm, breaking boundaries, and creating new possibilities through the revolution/evolution/devolution of the human form and experience.
Not only are there acceptable forms of body modification but the
previously controversial practices of modern primitives and other
groups are gaining acceptability and becoming increasingly
fashionable. The rapidly growing popularity of tattooing, the
fad', the adoption of body modification practices by
mainstream youth culture and the appropriation of modern primitive
styles by the fashion industry have been especially controversial
among modern primitives and other dedicated enthusiasts. Here again,
efforts are made to differentiate between the reasons and conceptual
frameworks of "us", the modern primitives, and "them", the
"trendies". Oftentimes, you hear references made by modern
primitives as to what constitutes apure motive', or an
one, for acquiring, for instance, a tattoo (see for example Wood
1999: 118). Whereas some embrace the heightened status of body
modification, others denounce it, arguing, for example, that the
mainstream popularity of piercing has brought abouta continuing
devaluation of the pierced look' (Body Art issue #19: 37). In face
of the recently fashionable status of body modification, however, a
surprising majority of modern primitives insist that it will never
become an acceptable mainstream practice. The pain involved
is seen as too strong a discouragement and the permanence of
the majority of alterations is perceived as directly contradicting
to the fickle whims of fashion.
Having discussed the context of modern primitivism and body modification as in terms of the construction of pain and the body in EuroAmerican discourse and then specifically considered the modern primitives and body modification, I intend, in the following section, in pulling together context and case study, to examine modern primitive constructions of pain and the body. To what extent, I ask, are these different from or similar to the constructions of Christianity and biomedicine? This will be followed by a consideration of issues of power and resistance in relation to modern primitives and body modification. Here, the question becomes, to what degree do modern primitive practices and ideologies constitute resistance to cultural hegemony?
5.1 Modern Primitive Understandings of Pain
Let the person who wants a vision hang himself by his neck. When his face turns purple, take him down and have him describe what he's seen. - Inuit proverb (from J. Rothenberg's Shaking the Pumpkin, cited in Vale & Juno 1989: 202)
Echoing William Blake's statement that
the road to excess leads to
the palace of wisdom... for we never know what is enough until we
know what is more than enough', Fakir Musafar points to the
Kulavarna Tantra that, in speaking ofthe left-hand way' in
Hinduism, says that
spiritual advancement is best achieved by means
of those very things which are the causes of man's downfall' (Blake
cited in Vale & Juno 1989: 204, Musafar Body Play issue #13:
7). Appropriating thiswisdom', the modern primitives advocate the
intrinsic importance of bodily experience, pain especially, in
personal growth and spiritual development. This view is manifest,
most clearly, in their promotion of concepts of
- "direct knowing" by means of altered states' - achieved, as
indicated by the Inuit proverb above, by sensory deprivation of the
experience of high levels of pain in ritualized contexts (ibid.).
Describing the of pain in taking Kavandi, Arin Red Dog recallsfeeling her body as one huge raw nerve, seeing the Goddess and
shooting right out of her body in a sort of psychic orgasm' (Body
Play issue #9: 5). Altered states and extravagant ritual are
not, however, inherent to the different ways in which the modern
primitives use, experience and understand pain. Lower levels and/or
different contexts of pain, as entailed in piercing and tattooing
for example, are also appreciated. Through bodily pain, we learn,
the modern primitives argue, and in a controlled context thus, it
becomes possible to utilize pain for positive ends. Reinterpreting
pain thus as safe, positive and necessary, modern primitives
ride pain' (ibid.) [my italics].For me there is no
real pain, only one thing - sensation', Musafar comments,
`it's nice to have sensation through a body, because then you know
you're alive' (Vale & Juno 1989: 12). Drawing on the use of pain in
the rites of passage (see A. Van Gennep 1960 and V. Turner 1970) of
many tribal cultures, the modern primitives argue that, when
accompanied by some measure of self-control, ordeals of pain give
insight and maturity to us. As we face our fear of pain we gain self
confidence and pride and the experience of pain allows us to test
our physical and mental endurance under safe, controlled conditions
(Body Play issue #9: 4).
Beyond the experience of outright pain, however, and again emphasizing the importance of experience, the modern primitives also place some emphasis on discomfort in general. Living an uncomfortable life is in fact taken as `sometimes far more satisfactory than a placid, bovine existence' (Musafar cited in Vale & Juno 1989: 15). They point to the displacement of first-hand experience and creative activities by the excessive comfort of the contemporary Western world and, in particular, by the passive intake of images, watching television.
`In the absence of truly unique, first-person experience in one's own RNA-coded memory cells, how can one feel confident about one's basic "identity"? And by extension, how can one, lacking unique experiences, create something truly eccentric?' (ibid. : 5)
~ The relation of modern primitive understandings of pain to pain in general discourse
Pain, as understood by the modern primitives, appears somewhat different from the earlier discussed constitution of pain in biomedicine and Christianity. Discussing the body modification practices of the Mandan Native Americans and the Tamil Hindus, in relation to Christianity, Fakir Musafar argues that, `far from being penance, where one is supposed to bear pain stoically and not escape from it as payment for misdeeds and evil thoughts, these peoples seemed to find joy, ecstasy and release as their body gifts are taken.' (Body Play issue #10: 4). This illustration of difference between Christian thought and "primitive" practice, and thus the modern primitives, in view of our earlier discussion of pain in Christianity, I take to be insufficient.
Pain, in Christian penance, Asad argued, constitutes a device for investing and extracting truth in and from the body. This, in most respects, strikes me as not entirely unlike the way in which modern primitives use pain in relation to an, albeit differently articulated, knowledge and truth, that of personal growth and spiritual advancement. The conspicuous coupling of pain and spiritual truth appears especially reminiscent of Christian penance. In addition, modern primitives commonly invoke concepts of mind-body dualism, thereby constituting their experience of pain as the control of the soul over the body, again a familiar theme from Christianity. Finally, however, the modern primitives do not conceive of the flesh as the root of all evil and thus do not see the experience of pain as purging the sinful body. Rather they can be seen as celebrating the corporeal medium through relentless bodily experience, primarily, though the experience of pain.
If we recall Morris' discussion of Christian sainthood, Fakir
Musafar's evocation of the experience of
joy, ecstasy, and release'
in bodily suffering, draws yet another parallel to pain in
Christianity. Presumptuously perhaps, Theodore Reik suggests that
the psychological and psychoanalytical literature indicates the
widespread impression that religious martyrdom can be a form of
sexual masochism (cited in Mazrui 1978: 208). Although I do not wish
to go as far as Reik, I would suggest that Saint Teresa'sjoyful
suffering' is nonetheless indicative of a conception of pain not
entirely alien to modern primitives. In sainthood, `visionary pain
employs the body in order to free us from the body' (Morris 1993:
135). Pain and truth here are intimately joined in the medium of the
body, at times, in modern primitivism, as in the case of the saint,
for reasons of communion with the divine and, in any case, for the
attainment of spiritual truth.
As pain, Morris argues, `always contains at its heart a human encounter with meaning', I have suggested here that the meanings assigned to and encountered in pain by Christians and modern primitives are not always as dissimilar as one might think (ibid. : 3). Between biomedicine and modern primitivism, however, there exists a much clearer break. Apart from sharing a general understanding of pain as connected to truth, interpretations diverge. Modern primitive concepts of pain stands in direct opposition to the biomedical conception of pain as the mechanical buzzing of neural impulses. The modern primitives hold pain rather to be a positive and useful experience, ascribing it rich personal and spiritual meanings, whereas science sees it as negative and avoidable by the use of pain-killers, sedatives, etceteras. One, in short, suppresses pain while the other revels in it.
5.2 Modern Primitive Understandings of the Body
Describing the insights resulting from his experiences of pain and sensory deprivation `against the coal bin wall', Fakir Musafar declares:
`From that day on, I was liberated. I felt free to experience and express life THROUGH my body. A had an insight, an understanding. My body is mine to use. It is my media, my own personal "living canvas", "living clay" to mold and shape and mark as an artful expression of the life energy that flows through it. There are NO penalties, NO restrictions, NO limitations, NO shames for using it in that way. In fact, that's what it's for! I share this liberation with everyone who seeks truth. Your body belongs to you. PLAY WITH IT!' - Fakir Musafar (Body Play ssue#10: 14)
The widespread practice, acceptance and popularity of body
modification since the 1970's, perhaps more than anything, makes a
certain statement regarding the body and, specifically, about the
locus of responsibility and ownership of the body. The body, Fakir
Musafar explains, is like a house we live in.
You live in a house
but the house isn't you; it's your house and you do with it as you
please - if you want it pink, you paint it pink!' (Vale & Juno 1989:
10). The fact that you can do with "the house" as you please is
basic to modern primitivism but, nonetheless, again indicating the
bewildering diversity of the group, some disagree with the rest of
Musafar's statement. Stelarc, a performance artist, maintains thatwhen I speak of the body... that's the total "behaviors repertoire"
of this creature [and] as I see mental phenomena as part of those
processes, and as inextricable processes, there is no reason to
separate [the mind and the body]' (cited in Wood 1999: 44).
Differences aside, nonetheless, the two would agree to the central
premise that if you alter the architecture of the body you alter
your awareness and perception of the world. Merleau-Ponty's body as
both seer and seen becomes important as in
changing skin, changing
gender, changing shape, form, dimensions, [the self-made freak]
intentionally alters the perceptive from which to perceive reality
and be perceived by it' (Marenko 1999: 109). According to Betti
Marenko, the body of the self-made freakrevolves around the
concept of becoming, rather than on the fact of being'
An ongoing construction, the modern primitive body stands in
direct opposition to the tenets within EuroAmerican general
discourse that fundamentally shun the intentional alteration or
modification of the body. Based in both Christian and scientific
thought, this notion takes the physical body as an unquestionable
given. In the Christianity and Judaism, the body is created by God,
in his image, and is thus, in effect, perfect. The Bible also
clearly proscribes body modification. In the King James version of
the Bible it is thus phrased -
Ye shall not make any cutting in
your flesh for the dead nor print any marks upon you: I am
the Lord' (Leviticus 19:28). In later versions the termprint any
marks' is supplanted for the word `tattoo'. In the case of science,
however, the body is the unintentional but meticulous outcome of
natural selection, a suitably adapted and intricately functional
organism whose basic integrity can be rightfully questioned or
altered only in a project with views to biological or functional
The embodiment of the self-made freak', again according to Marenko,
is thevisible manifestation of desire', a desire in fact so
intense as to irreversibly determine the form of the body, in
effect, to become flesh and blood (ibid. : 113). As I have suggested
at numerous previous points, however, knowledge and truth are also
intricately bound up in the body. There are a number of ways, known
to "primitive" people, Fakir Musafar argues,
in which you can
express life through the body or use the body as a vehicle to learn
something about life itself' (Vale & Juno: 29). Truth here, as I
observed in the previous section on the subject of pain, is seen as
attainable through the medium of the body. Whereas, in science and
biomedicine, the body is taken, among other things, as an object of
knowledge about "nature", the body in modern primitivism is rather
an object of knowledge, on one hand, about the self and, on the
other, about spirituality. Through discomfort and pain, it becomes
possible then to lean from the body, from bodily experience. The
notion thatthe production of knowledge is a consequence of
corporeality, a pure function of intensities', is certainly
applicable to modern primitives (Marenko 1999: 114).
5.3 Power and Resistance
~ The cultural inscription of the body
In Franz Kafka's In the Penal Colony, prisoners are subjected
to the forcible tattooing of their crime and sentence on their
bodies. The text of culture which, in other forms, is difficult to
make out and understand thereby becomes clear to the condemned man:
he merely "deciphers it with his wounds" (Mascia-Lees et. al.
1992: 146). It is through the materiality of the body here that
language is made into something which can be known and felt. Kafka's
fictional penal procedure can be read as a literal treatment of
Foucault's understanding of the body in relation to power. The body,
Foucault says, is 'the inscribed surface of events' (cited in
Mascia-Lees et. al. 1992: 146). Imagining the process of
enculturation as a torturous marking of the body, note Mascia-Lees
and Sharpe, Foucault's use of the metaphor of inscription may
reinforce Western notions of the body as unitary and distinct in
that it assumes some degree of hostility between culture and the
body (ibid.). Thereby perpetuating images of outside and
inside, of encroaching environment and bounded selfhood, the point
seems nostalgic, they argue, at a time when the ingression of
technology into the body has eroded those distinctions (ibid.
: 146-47). Western tattooing, according to Mascia-Lees and Sharpe,
literalizes this vision of the body as a surface or ground onto
which patterns or significance can be inscribed' (ibid. :
147). Standard EuroAmerican tattoos, referred to earlier as
International Folk Style, relate to the body as impositions, as
labels on the body as a blank page. Other forms of tattoos, however,
"tribal" or Japanese styles, for example, tend to make use of the
body, in effect transforming it into something else. Ed Hardy, now a
legendary tattooist, wrote in the first issue of Tattootime thatthe perfect tattoo... the one we're all struggling toward... is the
one that turned the jackass into the zebra', suggesting the element
of transformation at stake in modern primitive tattooing (Vale &
Juno 1989: 51). One may ask whether this kind of transformation of
the body is important in relation to the cultural inscription of the
body and whether it constitutes as resistance.
~ Modern primitives and resistance
In the transformation of the body, through tattooing and a whole
range of other practices of body modification, modern primitives, in
effect, reinscribe the body, in a way, much like Hebdige's process
whereby objects are made to mean and mean again asstyle' in
subculture' (Hebdige 1998: 3). In his Subculture and the Meaning
of Style (1979), Dick Hebdige points to the fact in subculture
the most mundane objects... take on a symbolic dimension, becoming
a form of stigmata, tokens of a self-imposed exile' (ibid. :
2). Although I do not suggest that the body is, like for example a
safety-pin, themost mundane', nor that the transformation of the
body in modern primitivism is necessarily always a question of
style', I nonetheless appreciate the direction Hebdige has pointed
out for us. Through the transformation or reinscription of the body,
the meaning of the body is altered, not only in personal experience,
but in that it is oftena visible construction, a loaded choice
[that]... gives itself to be read', it communicates `a significant
difference' (ibid. : 101, 102). This constitutes as
resistance, in my mind, not only in the communication and outwardly
expression difference and deviance, but also on personal levels. An
act does not require an audience to qualify as resistance, indeed,
pierced nipples under a tailored gray suit are perhaps one of the
more telling forms of resistance through body modification.
`Alongside an almost universal powerlessness to "change the world", individuals are changing what they do have power over: their own bodies. That shadowy zone between the physical and the psychic is being probed for whatever insights and freedoms may be reclaimed. By giving visible bodily expression to unknown desires and latent obsessions... individuals can provoke change - however inexplicable - in the external world... (Vale & Juno 1989: 4).
As Foucault observes, power invests itself in the body, it
disciplines, determines and inscribes the body. In the field of
strategies of power', however, Foucault also includes strategies of
resistance (Gledhill 1994: 148). Once power produces effects in the
body, he states, there inevitably emerge the responding claims and
affirmations, those of one's own body against power' (Gordon 1980:
56). In this movement,what has made power strong becomes used to
attack it and power, after investing itself in the body, finds
itself exposed to a counter attack in that same body'
(ibid.). A site for cultural power struggles, it is, as we
have seen, `a site where nature and culture are encoded and
contested' (Cohen 1992: 64).
Finally, our understanding of modern primitives in relation to resistance might be further enriched by a brief consideration of their use of bodily pain in body modification. In Modern Primitives, the definitive Re/Search publication that marked the emergence of the modern primitives into the public eye, Vale and Juno argue:
`All sensual experience functions to free us from "normal" social restraints, to waken our deadened bodies to life. All such activity points toward a goal: the creation of the "complete" or "integrated" man and woman, and in this we are yet prisoners digging an imaginary tunnel to freedom. Our most inestimable resource, the unfettered imagination, continues to be grounded in the only truly precious possession we can ever have and know, and which is ours to be done with what we will: the human body' (Vale and Juno 1989: 5).
With regards to "mainstream" abhorrence when it comes to pain, the
considerable pain entailed by many of the body altering practices of
the modern primitives is one of the most controversial aspects of
their being. In fact,
it remains loaded with tangible shock-value'
(ibid.). Not only does it revolt the "mainstream", however,
in itself an articulation laden with resistant connotations, theotherworldliness' of pain, Morris argues,
serves as an implicit
critique of worldly power' (Morris 1993: 138).Always implicitly
political', it `regularly takes up a position that sets it in
conflict with competing systems of power' (ibid. : 141).
Modern Primitives', Fakir Musafar said,are born, not made' (Vale
& Juno 1989: 8). It is my opinion, however, that we have come to a
point where we can quite confidently reject this statement in
preference of Donna J. Haraway's assertion that
bodies are not
born; they are made' (Haraway 1991: 208). In recognition of the fact
that "mainstream" Western culture is onewhose principal defining
characteristic, according to Barthes, is a tendency to masquerade as
nature' and that subcultures `transgress these laws of man's second
nature', it is interesting that the subculture itself here has
reproduced the dogma of hegemony (Hebdige 1998: 102). The deviations
exhibited in a subculture, following Hebdige, nonetheless briefly
expose the arbitrariness of the codes which underlie and shape all
forms of discourse (ibid. :91).
Having approached, in the previous section, the notion that modern primitive practices and ideologies may constitute as resistance, thus, to what extent can modern primitivism be considered as resistant to cultural hegemony? Discourse and power, Foucault remarks, produce effects at the level of knowledge and even at the level of desire (Gordon 1980: 59). The embodiment of the self-made freak is a visible manifestation, Marenko argued, like saintly experience in Christianity, according to Bataille, of desire. If that desire, that motivation or knowledge, thus, is firmly embedded in discourse and power, the modern primitive appears inescapably bound to dominant discourse. The fact of their tie to the "mainstream" does not, however, mean that they can be nothing but reactionary. Their appropriation of spirituality and ideologies from tribal cultures, their "style", and their specific construction and experience of pain are factors that saturated with resistant sentiment. Existing thus, neither completely without or totally within dominant discourse, subcultural styles should be considered meaningful mutations and extensions of existing codes rather than as the `pure' expression of creative drives (Hebdige 1998: 131).
An ever-recurring theme throughout the course of this study has been the relation between the body, pain and truth. In each of the contexts discussed - Christianity, biomedicine and modern primitivism - we have encountered a connection between these factors. In Christianity, the body is simultaneously an obstacle and a medium of truth and pain is used as a device in the pursuit of truth through the body. In biomedicine, the body is an object of knowledge and truth and, pain, the route to the cause of pain, to the truth behind pain. Finally, in modern primitivism, truth, as in Christianity, is a tool, instrumental in the pursuit of truth through the body. Albeit differently constituted, one might perhaps suggest that a Foucauldian `technology of the self' could be conceptually applied to the modern primitives to further understand the relations, in their specific framework, between the self, the body, desire, pain and truth, etceteras. In any case, we can resolve, with regards to our brief considerations around pain, truth and the body, as similarly noted in relation to resistance, that modern primitives can not be isolated as clearly continuous or discontinuous with dominant Western conceptions of pain and the body in science and religion. They appear rather, in rejecting accepted categories and distancing themselves from dominant Western discourse, curiously bound by their position in EuroAmerican culture. They are clearly syncretic but, nonetheless, still "modern" before they are "primitive".
Because of their constitution in culture, thus, modern primitives, their practices or ideologies, can not be understood out of context. Although individual histories and personalities, as in any cultural phenomenon, should be considered, the prevalence of psychological material on issues surrounding body modification has resulted in reductionist views that often sustain out-dated views of body modifiers as pathological, deviant or unstable (see for example A. Favazza 1996 and A. Gell 1996 on D. Anzieu's `skin ego').
Body modification, in the West, has been clearly stigmatized. `A permanent marked body shares with the monstrous body an uncompromising otherness', Marenko points out (Marenko 1999: 109). An especially poignant embodiment of societal anxieties, the status of the monstrous body induces simultaneous repulsion and fascination. Finally, considering the recent re-emergence of the freak-show in almost unrecognizable forms, it is interesting to note that, deriving from the Latin term monstrum, etymologically, monster is "that which reveals" (ibid. : 110).
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Sanders, C. R. (1989) Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing. Temple University Press: Philadelphia
Scarry, E. (1985) The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford University Press: Oxford
Shelton, A. (1996) `Fetishism's Culture' in Sinclair, N. et. al. The Chameleon Body. Lund Humphries Publishers Ltd.: London
Steele, V. (1996) Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power. Oxford University Press: Oxford
Szasz, T.S. (1975) Pain and Pleasure; A Study of Bodily Feelings (Second Expanded Edition). Basic Books Inc.: New York
Thomson, R. G. (ed.) (1996) Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York University Press: New York
Turner, V. W. (1970) `The Betwixt and the Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage' in Hammel, E. A. & W. S. Simmons (eds.) Man Makes Sense. Little, Brown & Co: Boston
Vale, V. et al. (ed.) (1989) Modern Primitives: An Investigation of Contemporary Adornment and Ritual. V Search: San Francisco, CA
Weber, M. (1997) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Routledge: London
Wood, D. (ed.) (1999) Body Probe: Mutating Physical Boundaries (Torture Garden 2) Creation Books: London
Selected Internet References
Fakir Musafar and Body Play - http://www.bodyplay.com/
`The Rabbit Hole' and rec.arts.bodyart (RAB) - http://www.rabbithole.org/lobby.html
uk.people.bodyart (UPB) - http://bmeworld.com/upb/
Various Articles ~ `Culture' - http://bmezine.com/culture/sortchrn.html
Various `Ritual Experiences' - http://bmezine.com/ritual/sortchrn.html
1 Although Zborowski's work on differences in the experience of pain between cultural groups was highly questionable and tainted by severe racial prejudice, it nonetheless paved the way for later studies on the cultural constructedness of pain.
2 Considerations of different forms of Christianity and their articulation in different periods are compiled in this discussion. What I endeavor to examine is not the nature of one specific conviction or period but rather the ways in which Christianity informs current popular conceptions of pain and the body. The fact that the worship of saints is confined to certain fields of the Christian faith, for example, does not necessarily mean that popular notions and imagery of sainthood is not still subtly implicated in understandings of pain and the body.
submitted by: Anonymous
on: 30 April 2001