The Art of Mutilation

You may have noticed that a lot of people are getting pierced and tattooed these days. I call these art, a point that I'm not really going to argue about at the moment. All cultures, of course, practice body adornment of various kinds, from cicatrization to high fashion, and many cultures practice extreme or painful forms of body transformation. Call these art or not, but I suspect we could agree that they are aesthetic activities in some broad sense. Like dance, they have the human body as their medium. What I want to do here is speculate on some of the reasons why such transformations of the body are practiced in Western culture and what they mean.

To paint on the body with needles, or to make holes in it and push jewelry through those holes, is to try to transform the body into an artifact. Or, to give an alternative formulation, to do these things is to emphasize the fact that the body is an artifact. I give these two formulations to satisfy both sides of a familiar pomo debate about whether there is any decent distinction between culture and nature. Many folks argue, for example, that the gendering of bodies is a cultural or discursive formation rather than a natural biological fact. But whether the human body is always already a cultural artifact or not, to pierce and tattoo the body is to try to take some control over it as an artifact. Many things about us can be changed by efforts of will: we can learn new skills, buy new clothes, perfume ourselves, get a haircut. But tattooing and piercing can be distinguished from these in that they introduce more enduring transformations to our bodies and in that undergoing these transformations is painful . Tattooing, in particular, is relatively permanent, though less so in the face of new laser technologies, and in this it resembles such practices as footbinding, skull shaping, and the elongation of lips and earlobes.

We could think of these activities as attempts to reduce the recalcitrance of ourselves to our own wills. For whatever your position on the artifactuality of your body may be, you have noticed that your body responds only in very limited ways to your desires. You are not going to be able to stay awake forever, for example, or jump over the moon. In fact you are not going to be able to desire what you think you ought to desire: like all of us you are at times anyway the victim of your own desires. That is, you are recalcitrant to the operations of your own will. We maybe have this kind of commonsense notion that we are our own masters (and hence our own slaves) that we can want what we want to want and maybe achieve it. But this is really crazy. You cannot want what you think you ought to want; you cannot even want what you want to want; from which it follows that you cannot decide what to want. Are you with me on this? It is not too much to say that we are the victims of our own desire, and actually I think that is a very good thing. For one thing, it means you can get swept away into desire, that you can have the very human experience of being seduced or swept away in virtue of your own desires. It is almost as though you could ravish yourself. Creatures who were the arbiters of their own desires (and I think, again, that that notion is literally nonsensical; certainly it would entail a bizarrely fragmented account of the self; not that our selves are not bizarrely fragmented, but they can't be fragmented in just this way); creatures who were the arbiters of there own desires would find themselves utterly boring, you see? Desire is what takes ahold of you from somewhere outside your will or it is not desire.

To get back on track, it is certainly right to say that none of us fully chose our own bodies, or fully chose to be who we are. In that sense we are our own victims or the victims of fate: for the most part we all have to play the hand we are dealt. But we also all engage in an attempt to expand the operations of our own wills in the arena of our selves, to get some kind of rudimentary command over something about ourselves. That we actually can get any command over our bodies is probably a pathetic delusion; nevertheless we're out here trying. Now I suggest that many of the things we do, and indeed many of the things we think of as pathological, are attempts of this sort to make ourselves the objects of our own will and hence to transform ourselves into things that are free. You see? We're trying to make ourselves free by treating our own bodies as material that is subject to the operation of our wills, trying to make ourselves free by enslaving ourselves, by taking command of ourselves. We're trying to carve out a zone of control in the absolutely uncontrollable crushing chaos of the universe, even if this zone extends no further than our own skins.

To this extent, it does not really matter what is tattooed on your body; what matters most is simply that your body is somehow marked. The tattoo is a sign of sign; that is, it inscribes the resolution to make your body a semiotic site. It is a kind of pure syntax: you might notice that for the most part, even in the case of good tattoo work, it is very difficult to tell what the tattoo is unless you are standing very close, in good light, with some time to inspect. Mostly what you notice is just the sheer fact that someone is tattooed. This used to mean something fairly specific: bad boy. It identified you by class, gender, and by propensity; you were maybe a biker type, anyway probably a substance abuser and a "rebel": kind of out of control: willing to do crazy shit. Now of course people of all classes and genders are getting tattooed and its significance has shifted: it still means something, but not as much. What it expresses these days is fairly amorphous: again the sheer will to mark your body, to turn it into a text or an image, or to incorporate the text or image on your body. This has also, and appropriately, corresponded to an increase in "abstract" or "tribal" style tattooing, where obviously what the sign or image is a sign or image of is not the point: it's just that you want a cool design which displays your body as marked. Here tattooing becomes a pure syntax, a system of signs without signifieds. In this it resembles most of our talk and most of our writing and most of our singing and most of our painting and so on: the point is not ultimately "what you are saying" but just to keep yapping, keep communicating, keep making some kind of quasi-organized noise. Your body is intentionally marked, which signals a kind of power over the self; the content, if any, of such marks, are secondary.

Again, I suggest that a lot of what people do, and a lot of what we think of as contemporary body pathologies, can be understood from this angle. For example, there is a certain story about what anorexia is supposed to be; it's supposed to be a response to magazine spreads of skinny models, an attempt by young women to bring their bodies into conformity with what they see as a cultural norm of beauty. Maybe it is sometimes that. But it is also sometimes this: an attempt to gain control of one's own body or even to transcend one's embodiment altogether: it is an attempt to become a free spirit, to seize control of oneself and hence also the attempt to enslave oneself. Anorexia may be about beauty, but it is above all about power. As we know, food can be a vector of power between parents and children: children can be punished by having food withheld or by being forced to eat. This form of power may be experienced as particularly violating because it reaches inside the body of the person over whom it is exercised. Thus, refusing to eat, or taking control over one's intake of food, can be a resistance to domination and an expression of self-control. And it is an assertion of power over one's own body through an assertion of power over its desires: its hungers. It is an attempt to make oneself autonomous or to refuse to be penetrated; one disavows one's dependence on a world of things. And it is, as well and relatedly, a kind of ascetic spiritual expression of self-overcoming.

That is, the power one asserts in resistance to the blandishments to eat is also and primordially a power of the self and its appetites; for though we cannot control what we desire, it seems, at any rate, as though we can sometimes control whether we act on those desires. And any assertion of power over other people, even the power to resist or rebel against their power, can only be legitimated by one's power over oneself; the threat of violence is always an expression of one's own courage, for example. The basic site of power is within the self; the basic dramas of power are enacted within the self or transacted between the "parts" of the self. To assert the will's power to resist one's own desire it to assert one's "self-command" or "self-control" and hence signals, for let us say an adolescent girl, that one has achieved the forms of self-division and the internal arrangements of power among the portions of a divided self that we associate with adulthood or maturity. The child starts out as "the slave of his own desires": that is every desire is immediate, whole, and cannot be resisted. We mature, at least in this culture, by instigating, or receiving from others, various fragmentations of the self that make the self a transaction of power.

Here is another example: substance abuse. One thing that motivates the use of drugs is an extreme desire for self-control. It is sometimes said by folks who don't know any better that addicts lack will power. But it takes a hell of a lot of will power to keep swilling cheap vodka until you pass out: you must have a very firm resolve and not listen to what your body is telling you. Being an alcoholic requires iron self-discipline. Addiction is an attempt to control how you feel. A typical addict wants to wake up instantly with cocaine or caffeine, wants to feel ecstasy on demand, wants to go to sleep by knocking himself unconscious: he wants perfect control over his brain chemistry. The things he puts into his body are toxic: he is damaging his body, but he is seeking a transcendence of the mundane limits of his biology: he is seeking to make himself safe and independent of the world by perfect control and transformation of his body. Do you see? He has turned against his own body or pitted one desire against another until the inner conflict begins to rip him apart or collapse him into permanent coma. Will/body/desire: and all of them themselves multiple and mutating at all times: self as war/as weapon/as hive/as electric chair/as stone/seed/secret/feather/father/fear.

Or think about body-building. I am attempting through exercise to transform my own body; I make my body the object of my own will in an enduring way. I am refusing to agree to the body I have and, as it were, growing a new body according to my own specifications. And of course the body I am making is a powerful body, a body armored in muscle, a body that does not need and which cannot be penetrated. I am making my body into my own artifact by a discipline or a craft, and the fact that I am disciplined is signified by the look of my body, which says: this has taken years of hard exercise to achieve. My body is hence a sign of power, of my power over myself, my self-possession, self-domination. It is relevant here as well that I am also trying to heighten the sexual desirability of my body, just as perhaps the anorexic is trying to heighten the sexual desirability of her body. But of course, that, too, is a kind of power: to be desired is in some ways to master the one who desires. Very simply: if you want me, I can manipulate you; I can make you pay; I can make you flatter; I can make you perform. One comes to control, through anorexia or body-building, at least in one's own imagination, not only one's response to one's own desires, but the desires of other people.

It is relevant in all these cases, as in other cases of physical self-transformation--think of plastic surgery--that the process hurts. That you have mastered yourself can only be demonstrated by the fact that you can inflict pain on yourself and tolerate or come to desire that very pain. The pain is the sign and the measure of your self-enslavement, that is, of your self-command. That you have the will to transform or transfigure yourself is shown by your willingness to do what you don't want to do; that you have mastered your body is demonstrated in your refusal to accede to its demands. Indeed, finally the desires themselves are transformed, so that one no longer hungers, so that one takes pleasure in the pain of exercise or the disability of intoxication: one wants, finally, what hurts, or finally becomes someone for whom pain and pleasure are not firmly distinguished or are inverted. That is the dirty secret of ascetics everywhere: they get off on it. And tattoos and piercings hurt too: not excruciatingly, but enough to signal power and transcendence. Because I believe that all these forms of self-command and self-enslavement through pain and mutilation are strategies for transcendence: think of the figure of Christ, who must be pierced and lacerated in his journey from sinful human body to godhead. Nailed and bound and displayed in his suffering, he arouses our desire.

If this is beginning to sound like sadomasochism, it should. A sadomasochistic couple is an ascetic machine, a system dedicated to transcendence. Foucault once said that "power comes from the bottom," a scary and profound statement. He had in mind power in big social systems, but he also had in mind bondage and discipline. When I tie you up and hurt you in small ways, I do so by your own consent: I do so because that is that you want, a fact about which I will take care to remind you. Your own desire is the instrument of your pain and humiliation. And you seek by this experience a transformation or transcendence of your desire, or a perfection of your desire, or an annihilation of your desire. (Those are all the same thing; or they can all be achieved simultaneously: the perfect satisfaction of desire is precisely its annihilation: desire consumes itself in its own satisfaction: what one seeks through the intensification of desire is the transcendence of that very desire: its surcease in ecstasy.) What I the sadist seek, on the other hand, is an intensification of agency, a transposition into the realm of pure will; I seek annihilation of my objecthood as you seek annihilation into yours. I want to become pure action, agency; I want to disavow my passivity. All this requires pain, or at least it requires that pain be signified. I impose my will in a simulated rape, as you let your will go.

The point of this is that we together form a system for the transcendence of desire by the indefinite intensification of desire and the indefinite deferral of its satisfaction. Your will is annihilated precisely by the act of your own will: you will your own disappearance, like the anorexic: that is ecstasy. You are overcoming yourself. I am intensifying myself into a pure will, a pure power to command, a sheer imperative statement of what will satisfy my desire. But I am relinquishing my will in the very act by which I impose it: I am releasing myself from myself into your desire, annihilating myself into you. Together we are making pain; we are making pleasure; we are letting go of ourselves and seizing control of one another. We are playing with desire, playing with will, playing, in short, with power, and merging into a system that transcends itself.

Freedom or transcendence is the state in which your desires and your world match utterly, where everything is exactly as you desire it to be or where you desire everything to be as it is. That is: there is a sadistic transcendence wherein one is perfectly empowered and bends the world to one's will and one's will to one's desire. That is why absolute power corrupts, because power is not absolute until the flow from desire to reality is uninterrupted by will: absolute power is, hence, a complete annihilation of self-control, a sadistic transcendence. There is also masochistic transcendence in which one gives up one's will entirely not to one's own desire, but to the desire of another, to an external reality: here the channel is also worn smooth and there is no gap between will and desire, though it runs the other way and issues in the perfect transcendence of self-annihilation.

That there is a masochistic element in the self-mutilating adornment of the tattoo or the piercing is too well understood, I suppose: it is important that one experiences pain. But that there is a sadistic element is not well-understood, because it is not well-understood that sadism and masochism always appear as a system or machine. I am experiencing pain and I am taking a certain pleasure in that. But I am also inflicting pain on myself, willing to cause myself pain. I am a sadomasochistic system for self-overcoming. When I am pierced, I am figuratively raped, damaged, penetrated: someone is sticking a stud through a hole in my body. But I am also doing this through my own agency: I am penetrating myself in an act of self-revelation and self-reflection. I have, in fact, pierced my own ears, using a safety pin. Was that a sadistic act or a masochistic act? I think you can see that the question no longer makes any sense: either is always both. And I am claiming, like the addict, the right and the ability to be the maker of my own consciousness, to control my own body. My power over my own body is signaled in the self-infliction of pain. And through that pain, the body is adorned: I perform a small act of self-veneration; I celebrate my body and draw attention to the point at which by my own will its integrity has been violated. The piercing is a site of degradation, decoration, and celebration. It damages and exalts the body at a perfectly particular point.

A tattoo is a complex signifier: it signals class; it signals sexuality; and it has specific content as a signifier: a depiction of an animal, a person, an abstract tribal design. The most usual motifs are signifiers of power and masculinity, especially totem animals such a birds and beasts of prey. But what the tattoo signals above all is the power one seizes over one's own body: it signals that one is the predator of oneself and hence also one's own prey. Again, the content of the tattoo is secondary to the general content of tattoos, as the point is just to be pierced in various conspicuous ways: it doesn't matter so much specifically whether it is your eyebrow or your tongue or both. The point is simply that one has seized control of oneself: a contradictory act that renders the body a contradictory location, because it is both sadistic and masochistic, both masterful and slavish, both self-division and, potentially, a site of self-reunification. To see this, simply note too that the extremely tattooed body also signals someone who is out of control, dangerously impulsive, compulsively kinky, and so on. By the very act through which one accomplishes control over one's own body, one may signal that this control is actually out of control, if you follow me. Again here, we see the parallel to addiction, where one controls one's conscious state to the point where one can no longer control one's control over one's conscious state.

The height of the sadomasochistic relationship is the permanent contract, specifying the forms of cooperative subordination. To understand what tattoos mean, it is absolutely crucial to keep in mind their permanence. A tattoo is a mark of resolution or bravery for that reason: one is not only transforming oneself, one is inscribing one's willingness to transform oneself once and for all, permanently. For that reason, tattoos are excellent markers of passage or initiation, and many fraternities, military units, athletic teams, motorcycle gangs, and so forth tattoo or scar their members in order to signal on their bodies the permanence and the seriousness of their commitment. To be branded or tattooed shows also that you have the requisite guts to join the group. It is not the most extreme or painful form of initiation, but it serves as a sign of pain and hence of resolution. You see, the seriousness of the anorexic's commitment to transform herself by the power of her own will is inscribed on her body: it is an enduring discipline that can be read on her body as pain. There is no sense in overcoming something painful: you have to overcome what is pleasurable, and you have to do it by inflicting pain. And to show this forth as a permanent transformation is to signal it as a discipline, an ongoing state of the self, an identity.

Two of my tattoos are tributes to the dead. After my brother Bob died in 1983, I got a rose on my arm. He had a rose tattoo. When my brother Adam died a few years ago, I asked my parents what animal Adam reminded them of and put an owl on my shoulder. I have talked to other people as well who used tattoos to commemorate the dead. What is relevant here is, first of all, the permanence of the tattoo; I wanted to transform myself permanently outwardly to show that I felt transformed permanently inwardly by their lives and by their deaths. And I wanted a way to show the seriousness of my mourning, both to myself and to other people. I wanted to mutilate myself, which is a very typical response to the death of someone you love. People rend their flesh, pull out their hair, or shave their heads. They are marking themselves as mourners, and they are entering into solidarity with the dead: with the pain of the dying. We signal in a small way that we want to die with them or that a part of us has died with them. We want to perform a small annihilation of ourselves in public space, a small act of masochism by which we can be transfigured and participate in the transfiguration of the dead. We signify the transcendence of our embodiment on our bodies.

I know I have made these things sound unbearably perverse and kinky; I've probably embarrassed those of you who are tattooed and repelled those of you who are not. Sorry about that, but I think that we're all kinky, at least in small ways, and that's ok. If you are expecting me now to start condemning anorexia or bodybuilding or alcoholism or sadomasochism or tattooing or describe them as sicknesses or start designing treatment programs, you'll have to wait for another day. Because what I am trying to say is that these things respond to a fundamental human dilemma and dynamic. We are powerless over much of the world; we are powerless over ourselves, and it is the latter powerlessness which is most intimate, most acute, most important. Finally, what we seek by ascetic discipline, what we seek by mystical ecstasy, what we seek by self-starvation, what we seek by intoxication, what we seek by self-mutilation, what we seek by sadomasochism, is a letting-go into that powerlessness, a reconciliation with ourselves as objects, a destruction or releasement of subjectivity. The tattoo, finally, is an emphasizing of embodiment, a way of drawing attention to the body, including one's own attention; it is a monistic gesture, an attempt to reconcile oneself with one's embodiment. The sadistic moment is a dualistic moment, but the masochistic moment is a moment of release into objecthood. We take command of ourselves in order that we might be commanded, that we might feel even more acutely the power that hurts us, that mutilates us, that kills us. This power is the world, a fearsome senseless world of sheer objects. And you will have guessed by now what I think we are in this world: also fearsome, senseless, also objects.

We intensify our power over this world and ourselves in a thousand ways and I have been talking only about the most personal of them. We seek to control the environment as a whole, seek its total technological transformation into an object of will. In bondage and discipline, the technology is very, very important: you want to have exactly the right restraints, exactly the right devices so that the transformations that you visit on the body of your lover or which are visited on your body by your lover, are exactly as you will them to be. And we are in a sadistic relationship to our world as a whole. Every attempt to transform out environment shows exactly this dynamic. Art, at its most intense as absolute mastery of the medium, is a most effective expression of this impulse: Vermeer or de Kooning are masters of paint; their paintings are enduring signs of their ability to transform materials exactly as they willed. Their art is an overcoming of the world that is born in self-overcoming; their craft is a discipline that has its origin in self-discipline, in obsession.

But finally what they seek is the moment at which will and world become identical; in which the paint assumes the perfect form by an effort so intense that it appears only as a perfect letting-go. Their self-expression, in its ecstasy, is a self-annihilation: they have expanded into everything and disappeared. There are two ways to find this place: first, by simply falling away into immersion, by refusing to be, by self-annihilation: the fantasy of the masochist. Second: by total control and total transformation, by acts of self-discipline and world-discipline by which the world and the will are made to merge: the fantasy of the sadist. What I'm saying is: these are the same thing, finally. What I am saying is: we are all engaged somewhere in this dynamic, in an accumulation or a letting-go of power and desire that is a self-control and an ecstatic release.

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