Emily VanLeuvan-Reflections on Readings for August 4, 2014
As an avid viewer of the television show Girls, I have found that I am quite familiar with Lena Dunham’s tattoos. Dunham’s tattoos are certainly untraditional-they are large, indiscreetly placed, and very inky. In short, they most certainly draw attention. I recently read an interview with Lena Dunham, and she talked about her childhood and her tattoos. As a child/adolescent, she was teased for being overweight. At the age of seventeen, she got the first of her many tattoos. Her tattoos represent characters from her favorite storybooks. For example, one of the tattoos depicts the infamous Eloise. In the interview, Dunham also said that her tattoos were the main reason why people recognized her on the street. I don’t have tattoos of my own, but I found that I read “Tattoo and Piercing: Reflections on Mortification” with Dunham in mind.
In “Tattoo and Piercing”, Phebe Shih Chao draws on the psychology of Burke’s Model of Redemption to shed light on the two practices. Chao asserts that, “…both practices are purifying acts of self-sacrifice, or mortification, that yield visible emblems of transformation, or rebirth” (329). To examine Lena Dunham’s tattoos in relationship with this theory, one might say that her tattoos represent a desire to disassociate herself from the painful memories of her childhood. However, it is ironic that her tattoos are from storybooks, and therefore closely associated with her younger years. Perhaps her tattoos represent a desire to exercise her own control over the traumatic experience of being teased, to replace negative memories with more positive ones. I think that some of the appeal of tattoos lies in their ability to endow an individual with control over his or her body, or as Burke says, they allow a person to “feel as if one is an innovator” (336). While the teasing Dunham experienced as a child was most certainly beyond her control, tattooing is a means of exercising autonomy over her own body.
I also found the idea of the “corporeal absolutism” that exists in the United States to be interesting. Chao cites the following definition of corporeal absolutism: “That it is through the body and in the body that personal identity is to be forged and selfhood sustained” (335). While I find this to be unsettling, I cannot say that it is not true. Our culture draws on perceptions of one’s physical appearances, their exterior, to draw inferences about an individual’s personality, or interior. For example, a person who is in shape and sharply dressed is assumed to be motivated and disciplined. In our first class, I remember that it was mentioned that these assumptions are in a way a defense mechanism. When we aren’t sure if we should trust someone, we rely on reading the visual rhetoric of his or her exterior to gauge trustworthiness. Through looking at corporeal absolutism through the psychological lens, the practice makes sense. Thus, since so much emphasis is placed on expressing oneself through the body, it is easy to see why tattooing and piercing is so popular.
At the beginning of the article, Chao introduces her thesis by illustrating the prevalence of tattoos in today’s society. The author notes, “…the gender and class of those getting tattoos has changed: from mostly men to almost equal numbers of women; from people at the periphery…to members of the establishment” (327-328). While tattoos are no longer simply associated with the lower class, I think that people have still created a hierarchy where certain tattoos thought to be “classy” (wrist, ankle), and other tattoos are considered “trashy” (tattoos on lower backs are referred to “tramp stamps”. Perhaps creating this type of hierarchy is a side effect of corporeal absolutism?
As someone who highly enjoys tattoos and piercings, there were a number of ideas in Phebe Shih Chao’s Tattoo and Piercing that piqued my interest. For example, the idea that tattoos and piercings are most often associated with one another seems rather accurate. Chao writes, “Tattoo and piercing often blend into one entity, one category, in public perception. Both require the skin to be pierced, though in varying degrees. Both are ways of decorating/transforming the body. The fact that ‘tattoo parlor’ is the generic term for a place where tattooing and piercing take place also helps us think of the two as parts of the same phenomenon” (328). Personally, I have found this to be quite true. Most tattoo shops I have visited also contain a piercing room/section, and if they did not, they at least sold body jewelry for a plethora of piercings. Given the many similarities between them, it is only sensible that we relate the two arts.
Upon reading more, I wanted to immediately contest Chao’s explanation behind the desire to obtain an erotic (for lack of a better term) piercing. She claims that the want to have one’s nipple, tongue, or penis pierced is driven by the desire to turn your partner on. She further claims that it is essentially pornographic. I found this rather offensive as she offered no other explanation. That can’t be the only reason, can it? No. I have one of these “erotic” piercings and the reason behind my decision did not involve the desire to turn my partner on. In fact, it was quite the opposite. No matter, I was still a little thrown off by this claim. However, I did feel better when she delved deeper into piercing motivation and the incorporation of the notion of mortification. She writes, “Piercing has almost all the requisites for ‘pure’ mortification: punishing one’s body through pain; a relative lack of other considerations such as the aesthetic (the tattooed one’s belief that his designs are beautiful or that they enhance his look in terms of desirability or fashion). The motives for piercings include the need to make private pain public” (338). Four and a half years ago, I suffered a miscarriage and became incredibly depressed. About three months into my depression, I decided that I needed a better way to cope with my pain and thus made the decision to obtain an “erotic” piercing. I wanted to feel any kind of pain other than the type I had become so used to. I had had plenty of piercings done before, but this time it was different. Unlike my previous piercings that were done for decoration, this served a more serious, personal purpose. I now know that I was both suffering and looking to make my “private pain public” to my boyfriend at the time. The piercing served as both a coping mechanism for me as well as a form of punishment. Luckily, Chao redeemed herself and I no longer wanted to contest her argument.
Now, Jay Dolmage’s Metis, Metis, Mestiza, Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies across Rhetorical Traditions was fascinating as Medusa has always been one of my favorite stories. In the “Medusa” segment of this article, Dolmage discusses a rather intriguing theory that Medusa’s story not only tells a story of a woman’s jealousy, but one of male fears as well. He further states that “When women are recognized as cunning, thus powerful, they can be seen only as a threat and thus must be appropriated, silenced, slain” (16). He then goes on to include Cixous’ point as well. Cixous suggests that Medusa’s beauty lies in her ability to threaten and shake up a male-dominated society, and that this is in fact where her “monstrosity” and beauty come from. I thought this was a clever way to interpret such a classic, well-known myth. Dolmage definitely impressed me!
Finally, The Tattoos of Epimenides, although moderately interesting, did not resonate with me very much at all. I found that this article did not focus enough on the actual tattoos of Epimenides. In fact, at one point I found myself wondering whether or not this was even an article about Epimenides’ tattoos. It jumped around quite a bit and although it was not difficult to comprehend, it left me questioning its purpose.
Both Page du Bois’ chapter, “The Tattoos of Epimenides,” from Out of Athens, and Phebe Shih Chao’s “Tattoo and Piercing’ Reflections on Mortification” from Rhetorics of Display offer a new twist to the classic idiom, “Wearing your heart on your sleeve.” I intend the pun lightly and with tongue in cheek, given the topic of tattoos and the term “sleeve’ a tattoo or collection of thematic tattoos covering an arm from wrist to shoulder. In the case of Epimenides after his death, legend has it that his poems “emerged from inside the body to take up residence on the outside.” If pared down to the simplest of plausible definitions of poetry, it can be said that poetry serves to express the emotions of the poet, regarding topics of import, perhaps plaguing the soul, to evoke responses of the emotional nature. In terms of the meaning of the idiom, “Wear your heart on your sleeve,” indicates the individual displays their emotions, or their “secret things” hiding below the surface of the “border zone” of the skin. Continuing with the premise that “the skin, the border zone between the bounded self and the social world” as Benson is quoted as an introduction to Chao’s exploration of the meaning of tattoos, the phenomenon of the current tattoo trends, and the associative mortification quality of tattoos, the skin may ‘protect’ and ‘conceal.’ This border zone, or protective “Epimenidian skin” hiding or revealing, “secret things’ is used, as a canvas by those who choose to be tattooed, displays “the bearer’s identity,” which can only be understood as the emotions and beliefs of the poet tattoo bearer.
Of considerable interest is Chao’s investigation of the construction of identity and the ‘in your face’ or ‘this is me’ aspect of tattoos and piercings, specifically as “an emblem of transformation,” an “in your face statement of difference,” or a “landmark along the lifelong path of establishing identity.” Rather than leaving the determination of a person’s identity upon the observer or other, the tattoo bearer asserts their voice, bears what it is inside on the outside, to determine others ascertain their identity according to the bearer’s own definition, or at least to diminish the potentiality of judgment based on natural, born with qualities of their appearances. This “this is me” aspect of tattoos and piercings may be a protection against adverse judgments of what the bearer cannot control, outside of cosmetic surgery. Instead of being victims without control, the bearers, especially those who opt for overt displays of tattooing and piercings, controls the disdain, deciding to use the skin as a protective layer, saying “look at my choices,” but no deeper, and call me a ‘freak’ if you will, as I will. The fight against anonymity or true reveal may also be a means of retaining anonymity and true conceal. Certainly, the rhetorical aspects of tattoos and piercings are open to vast interpretations. The one presented here being one of many, is contestable, but certainly mine.
Considering vast interpretations, Jay Dolmage’s, “Metis, Metis, Mestiza, Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies across Rhetorical Traditions,” offers many, the most interesting of which indicates the plausibility that as he references Anzaldua’s” advocating for a return to the “gynecentric ordering of life” that used to exist.” Within these varied interpretations presented by Dolmage, is the concept of as he credits Anzaldua again, the “putting of history through a sieve.” Perhaps tattoo and piercing bearers are doing just that, “putting their own histories through a sieve.” Again I am reminded of Clifford, “The time is past when privileged authorities could routinely “give voice” (or history) to others without fear of contradiction.” (p.7)
With the article “Rhetoric on Display” by Larence J. Prelli, I found the writer to make many assumptions in regards to the reasons behind why people get tattoos/piercings that just simply aren’t true; you can’t generalize a group of people just because they share a way of expressing art on their body. I personally have a tattoo, but it is hidden. As Prelli describes, “Tattoos and piercings must be acquired, and they are meant to be seen, if not by all, at least by someone” (338). While my tattoo remains hidden most of the time, I do have many piercings that are out in the open. Prelli explains how tattoos and piercings lead to a new identity. While I do agree that this is the case for some, it is not the case for all. I especially do not agree that people acquire these aspects of body art as “symbolic acts that expiate hierarchical guilt through purifying acts of mortification” (328). Specifically, in terms of the connection between people in prison acquiring tattoos as an attempt to “wish to purify himself” (330). I find myself watching a lot of late night prison shows when I can’t sleep and many of the tattoos people get in prison are not a way to purify their soul, but rather to make themselves appear intimidating, such as getting tear drops for the number of people they have killed, or affiliating themselves with a gang or racist group. While it may be true that some use tattoos to seek redemption, I do not feel that this generalization can be accurately made for all. For myself, I got my tattoo because I was eighteen; not much thought was put into it, and while I do not regret it, I wish I had waited to get something more symbolic.
I also found myself bothered when the author discusses the need people feel when they want to display their hidden art. The author describes how “I recently heard of a woman who has a large pair of beautiful sinuous carp covering her entire back…The massage therapist thought the client came for a massage because she needed someone to see them” (333). How about she just wanted a massage? This entire article I feel is something that I confront with my students quite often. When discussing themes and symbols within a book, many times they question how we know exactly what the author means and what he/she is referencing. We do not have a chance in most cases to go and ask the author what he/she means. In class, we have talked about how it may not specifically be the author’s intended purpose, but rather what meanings the symbols/messages invokes within us. While Prelli is offering one interpretation into the reasons behind tattoos and piercings, I feel that he has made too many generalizations and has not received a full range of all types of people who get these art forms done on their body; especially when he claims that tattoos and piercings are a form of “mortifying one’s own flesh” (339). They are a way to express and individual’s unique identify and to provide a deeper symbolic meaning to their body.
“The Tattoos of Epimenides” connects to the other article when it is explained how he was a poet who inscribed “his own verses tattooed on his skin, like a scar” (68). Epimenides is explained as being abnormal and unnatural in the sense that he “violated many of the natural rules governing human existence, defying death by returning after his long life to visit the mortal, decaying, human world again” (61). It is not sure how long Epimenides fell asleep for only to re-awaken (about 57 years) but after this, he cured the Athenians of a plague ruining their city. I like how at the beginning of the article it talks about how humans are fascinated with the abnormal and “freak shows” and that while most people involved with these freak shows were born with differences, “only the tattooed Circassian has, perhaps, made himself a freak” (58). Tattoos are no longer really considered to be “freakish,” except for a few, but I like how the article comes full circle at the end when Epimenides’ skin is saved for his poetry inscribed on himself. This is the way that writers can live on forever. While Epimenides lived an outrageous 157 years or so, he continues to live on in his words which makes writers live on forever.
Finally, I enjoyed reading Jay Dolmage’s work, especially when he explains about the Metis, Zeus, and Medusa. I have always been fascinated with Greek mythology, but unfortunately have never had the time to read/explore it. I am hoping to find a grad course that focuses on this. While I know a few stories, I did not know about Zeus eating Metis in order to obtain her wisdom and the explanation of how wisdom is greater than brute strength. Also how in the story of Medusa it is explained that proud women who speak out will be made ugly. Of most importance is mentioned at the en
I found this week’s readings very interesting. They all dealt with the idea of marking the body in some way. Throughout this course, I’ve been intrigued by the discussion of the rhetorical significance of the human body. In Jay Dolmage’s “Metis, Metis, Mestiza, Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies across Rhetorical Traditions” I was interesting in the idea that in Greek mythology, Metis was literally the embodiment of wisdom. Andalzua is quoted in this piece: “For images, words, stories to have transformative power, they must arise from the human body – flesh and bone” (12). The reason that we, as readers, relate to stories, to literature, is because we can relate to the feelings, both emotional and physical, of the subjects. In this way, the body can contain, or represent, stories. The stories contained in Metis’ body, her wisdom and cunning, are too valuable and threatening to Zeus. He eats her and therefore gains her wisdom, illustrating that she literally “embodies” wisdom. Her wisdom is now in Zeus’s head, but it is his wisdom because it is now in his body.
I also found it interesting that in “The Tattoos of Epimenides,” the author links Epimenides’ tattoos to the ones featured on the “Tattooed Circassian” in freak shows of antiquity. In the freak show, the tattooed man is the only one who “deliberately” set himself apart from the norm. The “freaks” in these shows were “viewed with horror, not admired for their special power nor emulated b possessors of ordinary bodies.” I’ve always viewed reality TV as an offshoot of the old “freak show.” Shows feature those set apart from society. I recall a man on a discovery channel special who had tattooed his entire body to resemble a leopard. Epimenides’ tattoos, interestingly enough, seem to indicate his wisdom. He is tattooed like a shaman; there is a purpose behind his difference.
In Rhetorics of Display: Tattoo and Piercing: Reflections on Mortification,” Phebe Shih Chao describes the wide array of people who sport tattoos in contemporary society. Tattoos and piercings, according to Chao, are enactments of a symbolic mortification ritual that purifies those who wear them and leaves a lasting display of their identifications within some desired tribe.” I thought this was an interesting way of looking at the motivation to get a tattoo. Like Chao writes, whether it’s a young woman with a rose tattoo or a biker with an entire sleeve, people all have their own reasons to get a tattoo. The permanence of the tattoos seems to make them special; not only have you joined this “tribe,” but you’ve joined it forever. I had a friend in college who had “straight-edge” tattoos down her legs. Straight-edge was a movement that specifically forbid drinking and drugs and promoted “straight” partying with no substances involved. “But you do drink,” I said. “Yeah, I’m not straight-edge anymore” she said laughing. She said she didn’t mind having the tattoos, though; they reminded her of a specific time in her life. Just like memories are often permanently etched in our minds, tattoos are permanently etched on our bodies. To her, the tattoos were just like a part of a scrapbook of who she was in the past and of who she’d become.
This blog is designed for us to share responses to readings and to engage in conversations about Cultural Rhetorics.