Similar to past readings concerning postmodern fashion, this week’s topic concerns the disassociation of a particular “fashion trend” within marginalized groups and its incorporation into a larger consumer culture. Transgression, particularly pertaining to bodily aesthetics extends far beyond its literal form and rather suggests important social and political meanings at both a connotative and denotative level.
FROM CARNIVAL TO TRANSGRESSION
Peter Stallybrass and Allon White
Peter Stallybrass and Allon White investigate the various contributions made to the discussion of Carnival as a practice imbued with deeply meaningful social and political symbols. They introduce the concept of carnival as “a mode of understanding, a positivity, a cultural analytic” (293). It evokes the ethos of the populist utopian experience, driven by the lower, less powerful classes of a culture and celebrates the razing of the established order. It typically manifests in excess: drinking heavily, overeating, nudity where nudity is typically thought to be inappropriate. For a modern understanding (of what is, however, not unique to any one specific time or culture) think Mardi Gras, Halloween, Burning Man or Spring Break.
There is an emphasis on sexuality, an embrace of the grotesque, and a recognition that we are all embodied and yet simultaneously that we can transgress that embodiment. Stallybrass and White take most of these notions from Mikhail Bakhtin, who according to other theorists may be wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to carnival. Terry Eagleton, for example, suggests that carnival exists only by licensing by and permission from the “official” class and therefore is bound to the confines of that established order which it aims to deny. The general argument here is that permissible ruptures can’t exist free from normalized political and social hierarchies. The issue of licensing is not to be forgotten, but at the same time it doesn’t demean the actual symbolic struggles that are displayed during such events. Despite being, by nature licensed and therefore subject to control, Carnival still reveals that if given the chance, people will choose to engage with the kind of grotesque realism, pushing boundaries and transgression that they do. It alludes to a “mobile set of symbolic practices, images and discourses which were employed throughout social revolts and conflicts before the nineteenth century” (297). So while it may be ineffectual as an catalyst of significant social change lasting beyond the duration of the event, it shows that people always have had some desire to act out against social and political restraints. The authors mention Barbara Babcock’s theory of ‘symbolic inversion,’ which also helps place carnival theory into more broad terms whereby it is an expression of contradiction, abrogation or alteration of cultural codes, values or norms.
Stallybrass and White argue that it is best to approach the carnavalesque as a broad demonstration of transgression rather than to harp on the discussion of “whether carnivals are politically progressive or conservative” and therefore understand that the “underlying structural features of carnival” are parallel to those that exist in dialectics of social classification in general.
Catherine Lundoff explores her personal experience with tattoos and transgression to shed light on a rarely written about subject. Through her own self-reflection she comes to some conclusions about why people engage in these practices in a more general sense. Threaded throughout the piece is a repetition that tattoos allow the tattooed to reclaim their bodies. They seem to be a way of saying two things. For one, they allow a person who has been cast as an outsider to say for themselves what they are. You may say I am an outsider but I, too, say I am an outsider. In another sense, as Lundoff explains, “In a world where…someone always seems to want to control your body and what you’re doing with it, a tattoo or piercing is a way to take it back…” (127).
Marcus Boykin is a member of the Freakshows, a group of outsiders with strange and bizarre talents and bodies that perform together in Venice Beach. I met Marcus two years ago at a party where he explained that he modifies his body every day. It is a way of telling his story in a world where too many people are repressed and silenced. While people who see Marcus may not take the gages in his ears to mean he felt a certain way or did a certain thing on a particular day, but they sure take some kind of meaning from it. Instead of letting people tell him who he is or what his story should be, he is telling it for himself, and he is doing so through his modifications.
While tattoos are a way of embracing a marginalized identity, they are also a way of being a part of something. “It’s like joining a club; get on, flash it, and sooner or later someone wants to show you theirs” (126). Although seemingly contradictory it makes a lot of sense. Closely tied to this paradox is the actual act of marking the skin with ink. It is a process—painful and permanent—that signifies, as Lundoff says, endurance and strength. The actual piercing of the skin for extended periods of time is a commitment. It says to others who have endured the same experience, that you understand what each other went through and that you are both committed to this for forever.
In class someone brought up recovery tattoos and specifically eating disorder recovery tattoos. Lundoff writes, “The tats place me in my body, some place that I have often not wanted to be, and let me be strong and powerful in that body. They are outward manifestations of how I feel about myself, reclaiming my body for me the way I want to” (127). For many in recovery, a tattoo is a reminder to be strong and be in control of your body and you decisions about how you feel in you body. In many ways this returns to the idea that a tattoo can help you feel part of something more than just yourself. For eating disorder recovery, tattoos are a way to claim your experience with the disease and others who have struggled with it as well.
ANCHORING THE (POSTMODERN) SELF?
Sweetman’s article discusses the debate over the “true fashion” aspect of tattooing and piercing. The divide of opinions concerns the permanency of tattoos and piercings in contrast to the “continual and perpetual change of the fashion system” (Polhemus, 1995; 13). The postmodern period promoted the appropriation of these “body projects” in terms of establishing one’s identity.
The postmodern self is not concerned over acceptance within sub cultural groups, but in how to create marks of individualism. Sweetman emphasizes the relationship between the body and identity; the body is deemed as a “project through which a sense of self-identity is constructed and maintained.” In a convoluted postmodern world, tattoos and piercings’ permanence are forms of anchoring “a sense of self-identity.” Sweetman isolates a quote from one of his many interviewed subjects connecting tattoos as an “act of self creation.”
“It makes you feel individual… you know like, everyone’s born with roughly the same bodies, but you’ve created yours in your own image [in line with] what your imagination wants your body to look like. It’s like someones’s given you something, and then you’ve made it your own, so you’re not like everyone else any more.” (Sweetman,306)
Sweetman refutes the claim that tattoos and piercings are simply accessories. Accessories as with other commodities can be bought without the participation of the consumer concerning its production. Tattoos and piercings involve the consumer from start to end. Tattoos/piercings are unique “commodities” because they can not simply be bought through monetary exchange, but require the consumer’s submission to pain as well.
Tattoos and piercings are noted as being anti-fashion due to its permanence, but the fashionable elements of the practices are not dismissed. As a classmate noted in her class pin, certain tattoo imagery are representative of specific time. The leaf tattoo was quite popular a couple years ago, but the trend has passed and another image has taken its position. The fashionable aspect of tattooing and piercing can then be related to its content rather than its practice.
V. Vale and Andrea Juno
Ed Hardy, a well renowned philosopher and tattoo artist is the subject of the this article piece. In interview form, the article presents Hardy’s quest to “raise artistic standards and extend the range and complexity of symbolism.” (Vale & Juno, 50)
An ancient practice, Hardy discusses his admiration for the process. Similar to Sweetman’s article, Hardy also discusses the possibility of a tattoo being a form of self creation and in his words affirmation.
“A tattoo is an affirmation: you put it on yourself with the knowledge that this body is yours to have and enjoy while you’re here. You have fun with it, and nobody else can control(supposedly) what you do with it.” (Vale & Juno, 51)
This is why during wartime tattoos are popular as well as in prison. Strong personal emotions are commodified and codified. Hardy claims nowadays it is extremely difficult to be creative and original, most artwork has already been done and we presently live in a world of replicated images.
With the body of his work, Hardy has strived to transform the perception of tattoos from marginalized groups to an elevated art form of expression. Although sought for worldwide, Hardy accepts his celebrity like status, but his popularity has not enlarged his ego. The interviewer compares Hardy’s job to a therapist, “(tattooing) as a vehicle to help people channel their unconscious urges to the surface.” (53)
Another take away from this interview is the distinction between connotative and denotative meaning. A tattoo is never simply ink on skin. A tattoo is a story, a metaphor, a signifier; “nothing has meaning solely in itself; the meaning lies in it’s relationships.” (55) As discussed in class a “tattoo may speak more of the person judging the tattoo, rather than the tattooed.” Many classmates noted, a tattoo is not truly owned solely by the tattooed, since it is on display to others (unless hidden ). When viewing a tattoo without knowing the reasoning behind it, we project our own beliefs as to what is represents. Our acceptance or refusal of the tattoo depends on our own personal standing towards the practice. Case in point is Ed Hardy’s work, which currently outside of the constraints of the Jersey Shore is deemed tacky or in his terms kitsch. The appropriation of his work by celebrities and designs being transferred onto t-shirts and easily produced has made his work less reputable throughout the years. The association to D list celebrities (Jon Gosselin below) has lowered the interest within the general non ‘fake tan’ community.
Although not considered by all as ‘artwork’, the class discussion led to a debate over the differences between plastic surgery and tattoos/piercings. Both permanent (relatively), and considered as body projects why is plastic surgery more commonly accepted within society? As discussed in almost all the articles aforementioned, to those being tattooed the tattoo is a form of self affirmation and an additive form of beauty. Just like breast implants or tattooed permanent eyeliner, a tattoo is an addition to the body with the intent to make a person more confident and confirm the agency over their bodies.