Regimes of signs: the marked body

lg_tattoo_window.jpgIn Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari (D&G) propose society to be defined by the mode of representation given by its machine of expression or ‘regime of signs’, not its material relations of economic production and exchange. Society is not based just on a system of exchange, as thought by Levi-Strauss, but ‘a socius of inscription where the essential thing is to mark and be marked’ (Anti-Oedipus: p.142). The first form of inscription is territorial machine of primitive inscription. This involves tattooing, carving, sacrificing, mutilating, and so on: to inscribe the body or organs into the collective investment of desire of the whole tribe. Within late capitalism, the flows of decoded social inscription operate fast enough to destabilize such ‘primitive’ means of tribe identification. Yet, this process of performance and inscription has not ceased but expanded at an ever faster rate. Attempts to follow the territories of social identity and behavioral complexities as they emerge end in farce, leaping from one new haircut, tattoo design, clothing fashion to the next. Within modern capitalism, we promote the total inscription of the body into regimes of signs dictated by capitalist modes of production, i.e. the commodification of the body.

This post is largely inspired by my reading of D&G and the mounting pressure to get a haircut. But this is not such a simple thing. To get a tattoo, haircut, buy a brand of clothes,  mimic a popular form of fashion or social practice, is, I sometimes feel, to be the victim to the pleasure of the other. Let me explain. In situations such as tattooing and piecing, their is real pain which is inflicted during the process of inscription. As D&G note, Nietzsche understood the infliction of pain to generate pleasure in those observing. The process of tattooing is a pain for the pleasure of the tribal other. This tribal other is now the peer group or decentralized fashionable signifier which rises and falls due to the work of promotional companies, media, celebrity endorsement and counter-culture icons. The scar now encodes the power of the perpetrator onto the individual’s body. The perpetrator is not the person who performs the inking or piercing, but tribal body which recognizes and authorizes the inscription. The inscription has the effect of reinforcing the authority of the perpetrator. Thus, a reciprocal formation of alliances can endure independently of fluctuations in desire, the body becomes inscribed into the social body, the currency of which is a form of recognition which can dictate your social status.

The Maori, who are  native to New Zealand, were hunted for their heads back in the era of Captain Cook and the European colonists. A tattooed head was a valuable artifact to be traded. Eventually, out of fear of death, they stopped tattooing. Their tattoo’s cover the face and body, representing the social status and lineage in the tribe. Only into the 20th century did the Maori start to tattoo themselves again. Publically, it is still a TaMoko1problem to exhibit these tattoo’s, thus exacerbating unemployment and racism. On one documentary I saw long ago and do not remember the title, when asked ‘what does tattooing mean to you?’ one Maori male replied ‘It means I can’t get a job’. To be inscribed, signed by the tribe, is to become recoded into the desire of the tribe, against economic territorializing forces.

Although this example concerns tattoos, the logic still applies for other personal aesthetic rituals. The maintenance of hair is one such mode of encoding. The problem comes from over thinking, what I see, as a double-bind: the necessity of getting a haircut, yet recognising them as a form of social inscription that will mark me in one way or another towards a social group or interest. For D&G, capitalism’s free flowing signs, circulate and associate violently with anything that can be commodified. To inscribe oneself into a regime of signs linked to capitalist modes of production (which includes the private Oedipal family as the key site of social production) is to reproduce the conscious oppressive territoriality of capitalist desire. It is thus not a duty to be marked in any way, but only to be marked, coded into a regime of signs, that will penetrate into a nomadological desire.  The nomad occupies the smooth space of the social unconscious. An imperceptible rhizomatic movement, deterritorialized and exterior to any representation: it cannot be used to replicate capitalist control mechanisms.

That’s a lot to be thinking about before one gets a haircut. Ultimately, as  Zizek would say, the choice of haircuts if a false choice which takes focus off other non-choices. The more I think about the haircut, the more of a victim I am to the false choice of ‘which haircut?’: a mode of desire framed by the liberal democratic belief that I, as a ‘responsible’, ‘independent’, ‘adult’, homo economicus, have to decide (as those around me will identify me by my lack of decision as much as any actual decision).


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4 Responses to “Regimes of signs: the marked body”

  1. Laughin Martin Says:

    Although I do not disagree with the majority of what has been stated in this blog, I do think one might push the claim further and understand, through the inscription of tattoos, a metaphysical desire that over-arches the social desire for acceptance.

    I will relate this ‘metaphysical desire’ to tattooing for now, as I think it is at the level of ‘skin’ that the desire manifests itself most clearly. ‘Skin’ marks the limit or threshold of the body. The body marks the ‘obsession’ of the self, i.e. the ‘metaphysical self’ must relate itself to a ‘vacation’ within a body. The metaphysical dilemma of identity and multiplicity is most urgent at the level of self/body, i.e. an identical self experiencing trauma and doubt in a body that continues to change. Whether or not this problem can be overcome is immaterial: It is the condition that grounds experience, at both the ‘everyday’ and ‘metaphysical’ level.

    How does ‘skin’ fit here? ‘Skin’ is our shell, it is the boundary that offers up a demographic in which the ‘metaphysical’ ‘self’ can work its self out and reflect itself back into existence. But as the body changes so does the ‘self’; memory and forgetting constitute the possibility of a coherent Dasein within its historical landscape, of past, present and future. The ‘self’ must identify itself with its ‘shell’ otherwise it will be dragged forth into continuous change. But because the ‘self’ is primarily a being-there and must rely on memory (which is always corrupt) for continunuity, it must attempt to ‘stabilize’ the body into a presence. In all moments the ‘self’ requires a ‘universal’ body in order to parallel itself, as a universal ‘self’. The relationship between the ‘self’ and the ‘body’ is one of hunter and hunted. Suicide is the final act, an eternal demonstration of presence and unification.

    As Nancy states when explicating Derrida’s Ellipsis:

    “…there is no such thing as the skin. It is missing, always fainting, and this is how it covers, it unveils and it offers: always a fainting fit of sense, always an ellipsis, there where meaning advenes. It is the passion for a skin for writing on: “a thousand prints on our skin.” (Elliptical sense, p 189)

    There is an ellipsis at the heart of self/skin. The continual search for a boundary that is always faint and slipping away. Meaning is manifest in this continual struggle; the self is only what it is as incomplete, striving for a present skin to settle in. Tattooing is that act in which suicide is postponed, in-authentically/ authentically diverted in order to push forth for meaning, and consequently to find meaning in the ‘structure’ of this hunt. One might see the tattoo as analogous to the wounded deer: The hunter has made his intent felt, he has primed the deer for next time and yet the deer has limped back towards the forest-

    Tattoo as a literal trace of circular/elliptical struggle between ‘self’ and skin/boundary.

  2. Laughin Martin Says:

    Furthur thought: Why do people tattoo parts of their body they can’t see, i.e the popularity of back tattoos…?

    Is it because they need to be certain of their body in all its withdrawn aspects?

    A mark incites a response from the ‘other’, thus affirming my back as ‘in place’.

  3. Laughin Martin Says:

    Furthur Furthur thought: I do not think I have explicated the metaphyical desire for tattoing clearly enough.

    The above blog presents the metaphysical framework for tattoing. The tatto as manifest reality is that inscription by which the self attempts to take seige of the body. The ‘self’, via the tattoo attempts to hold its shell/skin into a presence, or present. The tattoo is like a physical memory with which the ‘self’ attempts to consolidate the relationship. That a tatto fades or become unsatisfactory (for the self) displays the contradiction at the centre of the ‘hunt’. Deleuze’s idea of an inscription displaying a desire for the others approval is important, the idea of the other causeing pain is also important….However what is primary is the choice to stamp the body (the same metaphysical choice, or at least a similar one is made in self-harm, the relation is one of control). Prior to entering into a ‘pain-relation’ with the other one must choose to inscribe. The symbol that is imprinted or the process (of pain) is secondary. The primary choice is one made out of an attempt at ownership (as in the hunt).

    One might not be able to ‘universalise’ this idea. The idea of a ‘self’ hunting its ‘body’, marking its boundary as an individual, stems from an idea of the ‘self’ post Descartes. (possibly ??)

    The prisoner who takes his own life does so through a simple choice: either I can live with a split self/body (an other is in ownership of the body) or I can unify my self/body in death. Suicide offers up the truth of life and this is the prime contradiction of life. Marking ones body in any way possible is grounded in an attempt to hold the body beyond change.
    The ‘self’ is that in which change is the ultimate fear.

  4. OJJ Says:

    I have no musings to offer up for now but just wanted to say I liked this. There seem to be some extraordinarily cringe-worthy blogs on Deleuzian thought out there, but this was really pleasant to read. Thanks

    (The point above on Ellipsis definately seems worth pondering).

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