Archive for the ‘identity’ Category

Regimes of signs: the marked body

November 14, 2009

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).