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The Shifting Urban Body: In the Culture of Recognition

Shifting Urban Body: In the Culture of Recognition

The Shifting Urban Body: In the Culture of Recognition.

Copyright &copy 1995 Mike McCabe

On their voyages across the surface of the earth, 15th and 16th century maritime explorers referred to the unknown regions of the globe as Terra-Incognita or uncharted territory. They roamed the surface of the world blindly, unaware of the significance of its contour. Without the luxury of a map, early explorers had no meaningful framework that could orient them in their travels, there was no top or bottom to anything. There was nothing but the stars to help them understand their relationship to the vastness of the horizon.

Like the unrevealed surface of the earth, the animal body exists as a Terra-Incognita. Deprived of a sense of self, the animal develops as a complete package and is maintained by a complex of instincts that have been a part of its system since birth. Unencumbered by the burden of self awareness, the animal body is divorced from the complexity of consciousness.

Contrasting this, humankind is born into a state of incompleteness or persistent foetalization. Due to the large brain and head and the problems they would present at the time of birth, humans are born biologically premature and continue the initial growth process outside the protective realm of the womb. In response to this unfinished process, humankind labors to use its gift of intelligence, and complete its gestation ex-utero, in the form of cultural creativity. In other words, like the 15th and 16th century explorers, humans are somewhat lost and in need of maps. We have not been given the necessary information we need to orient ourselves properly and locate just where we have to go. Our cultural creations in turn, become our maps.

Early humans explored the finite dimensions of their body in search of a complete self. Their manipulations became the first tangible examples of "cultural" experimentation and represented the initial seperation from the animal world and animal body. Like the early maritime explorers, these early humans imposed a logic onto the human form in their search of self discovery. This early body logic became a map of humankind's consciousness as it charted out a path in pursuit of an essential truth of being.

In traditional, pre-technological societies, the human form exists as a recognizable landmark for the members. There are specific features that are given to the body that act to preserve the identity and integrity of the group and everyone in the group shares in adopting the distinguishing characteristics. Individual values of identity are surrendered for the good of the group. The recognizable landmarks act to reduce social stress as they underscore a predictable nature to life. People in the group recognize these landmarks and are reassured by them.

Modern human kind exists as a complete contradiction to our early ancestors. The original significance of the group has been surrendered in large part to the novel construct of the individual. A new system of personal ideals that reinforce the values of individual identity, freedom and destiny has reshaped how we define ourselves as human beings. In developing urban areas, beginning with the upheaval of industrialization, the cultural back drop of the 19th century was transformed into a new set of variables, as modern society started to develop. The contributing factors of increased population, education, employment and income all contributed to an expanding notion of self. People who were immersed in this new modern society were free to digest a new assortment of options as they experimented with recreating themselves. Everyone became the byprodust of the new social process of choice.

People consumed their new options of life as they were communicated to them through the lenses of varied urban information outlets. Those living in the newly developed, fast paced, sophisticated urban settings of the early 20th century, readjusted quickly to the rewards of their new lives. People had the option to respond to an assortment of voices that were competing for their attention in this newly commodified world. The Urban Body and its Culture of Recognition, developed in this new modern setting that was promoting the values of personal expression and uniqueness for those individuals who could consume the trends, either as information or commodities. In this modernizing urban information environment, notions of "Self" were liberalized by a popular culture which was rejecting the Victorian values of exclusion and privilege. People experimented with themselves within the context of this new inclusive arrangement and looked for new choices that were materializing in the form of goods and services.

As an example of this new process, modern mechanical tattooing as we know it today was invented at the turn of the century in the bustling environment of New York City. Tattooer and inventor Samuel O'Reilly modified Thomas Edison's "Electric Engraving Pen". and adapted it to be used as the first tattoo machine. From his small studio in Chatham Square on the Bowery, O'Reilly revolutionized tattooing, and integrated it into the surrounding culture that was becoming increasingly mechanized. While many of the tattoo designs that were available to O'Reilly's customers were traditional in nature like the iconographic heart and dagger, new design options taken from various print sources of the time soon caught on. People quickly adopted imagery from other evolving pop culture sources like magazines and comics. Tattooing became popularized by a public that was impressed by the ability to decorate itself as much as it was seduced by the practice's new mechanical aura. The pairing of the body with technological answers to the transformation of its significance was soon to follow.

Today, with the increase in medical sophistication, the mechanical refiguring of the human package had become both affordable and desirable. Under medical supervision, individuals can become participating creative agents in the altering of their exterior self. In purely cosmetic cases, people now alter themselves into forms that are "recognized" by the surrounding culture as having the approved corporeal values of our modern western society. Destabilized by the constant movement of trend, the values of the modern human form, are as plastic as the body itself. The specter of this process of constant reinvention, in hopes of being accepted by the culture of recognition, lapses at times into the realm of the pathological.

Drifting in the swell of post-modernism, the Urban Body now finds itself rebounding to a compilation of values and images. In short, life has become a grab-bag, the ethos of our time is searching for a stable footing on a cultural high ground that does not necessarily exist. The once refreshing and liberating power of choice has exploded into a diversity that humbles us all.

The new post-modern urban body is grounded solidly in the expressions of "youth culture". Borrowing from the vocabulary of The New Tribalism, urbanized youths describe themselves increasingly through the grammar of body alteration. Communicating to the rest of society through their tattoos, piercings, brandings and cosmetic stylizations, contemporary youths are borrowing from the tribal body mystique in their attempt to eclipse the hegemony of the statu-quo, and make their world relevant.

Reinforced by the electronic and commercial tribal elders of MTV and the greater pop-culture, today's youths are creating dialogues in their skin between themselves and their society. Because of the internationalization of everything, today's body alterers have a reservoir of options to choose from. Tattoo images from Japan may have more relevance for today's western consumer, than the traditional tattoo designs of their own culture. The traditional piercings of an exotic equatorial tribe may solve problems for the western imitator and promote a revealing dialogue.

Just as the early global explorers imposed the logic of their mapping onto their Terra-Incognita, the contemporary world of the Urban Body is imposing its mapping onto ourselves and our Culture of Recognition. Answering to the positive and negative influences of the modern media, advertising and the commodification of life, our bodies represent a shifting map that illustrates a path, that leads us through the open question of our significance in this world.


submitted by: Anonymous
on: 01 Jan. 1997
in Ritual

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