Body-Modification, the Market, and Identity

This post follows on from On Tattoos. It might be best to read that first.

Following my recent post on the subject of tattoos, John H suggested a connection between the practice of body-modification and Christian consumerism. Both are attempts to secure identity, one through marks upon the body, the other through commodities. Both involve a sort of tribalism. I questioned this account, arguing that this relationship between the two is rather less straightforward.

The fact that body-modification seeks to establish identity by means of permanent marks upon the body is significant. In these respects, body-modification provides a (frequently co-opted) counter-narrative to the market and its modes of identity.

The ‘Culture’ of Consumption

Alan Storkey suggests that the heart of postmodernism is consumption.

[M]uch of the erudite and even arcane discussion of postmodernism misses the most powerful theory of all. Postmodernism is consumption. The deconstruction and fragmentation which is often identified with changes in approaches to text and philosophy is actually buying, advertisements, TV culture, in-your-face entertainment, shopping, pressure, thing-filled living – in a word, consumption. This is where the fragmentation is located and initiated, and much of the culture merely reflects these pressures.

I think that there is something to this.

The culture of consumption is characterized by ephemerality and the constant distractedness of desire, which renders it incapable of desiring any one thing deeply. The culture of consumption is, as William Cavanaugh observes, not about always wanting ‘something more,’ so much as it is about always wanting something ‘something different’. ‘In consumer culture, dissatisfaction and satisfaction cease to be opposites, for pleasure is not so much in the possession of things as in their pursuit.’ The postmodern is the vagabond tourist, the consumer of places who no longer has a home of his own. The desire of such a person cannot finally settle on one thing, but is always kept on the move (lacking the capacity to fix on any item, and in the context of an increasingly undifferentiated society, it is ever more vulnerable to the whims of mimetic desire – when culture is uprooted and persons are free to follow their own desire, they tend to desire what everyone else desires). Within this context, ‘relationships’ with products are transitory and easily abandoned when something better comes along.

Consumption is also anti-cultural. Consumption erodes cultural identities by idolizing choice over all else. As I suggest in this post, culture can cease to exist when choice is absolutized and the taboo or cultural prohibition is denied. Culture ceases to exist where there is no ‘thou shalt not’. The marketplace commodifies culture in the form of marketable simulacra, while destroying the originals. It uproots and dilutes culture in order to render it marketable. In an age of globalization, the ‘authentic’ culture that it markets is almost invariably an entity that no longer exists. Perhaps the perfect example of this is a nation that goes crazy about ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mugs and tea towels, buying an ‘authentic’ Britishness of whose passing they serve as definitive proof.

The globalized marketplace detaches us from all times, places, and cultures. In the context of the universal market, there is nothing truly other, everything is merely different. Things are rendered interchangeable, replaceable, and exhaustively commensurable.

In this context of detachment and disconnectedness, few things are more desired than ‘authenticity’. The marketplace offers us (a specious) ‘authenticity’ in the form of such things as highly specialized cultural and exotic commodities, organic produce, and through its facilitation of the cultural meme of being ‘true to oneself’, undermining any cultural norms that might stand in the way of the lifestyle consumer.

The marketplace also offers us ‘branding’, creating intimate relationships between people and things. Cavanaugh writes:

Associating in one’s mind with certain brands gives a sense of identity: one identifies one’s self with certain images and values that are associated with the brand. Branding offers opportunities to take on a new self, to perform an “extreme makeover” and become a new person.

Nevertheless, these relationships aren’t built to last. Ultimately, all comes down to the immediate desire of the consumer, fickle, and subject to continual destabilizing mimetic crosswinds. Cavanaugh claims that

the subject is radically decentered, cast adrift in a sea of disjointed and unrelated images. If identity is forged by unifying the past, present, and future into a coherent narrative sequence, the ephemerality and rapid change of images deconstructs this ability. The late capitalist subject becomes “schizophrenic”, in Lacan’s terms, and experiences only “a series of pure and unrelated presents in time”.

The Appeal of Body-Modification in the Postmodern Context

I believe that the appeal of tattooing and body-modification needs to be understood in such a context. In a society where all is subject to the immediacy of the desire of the moment, it is the tattoo or body-modification that represents a genuinely ‘cultural’ choice – a choice that marks you for the rest of your life, whatever your future choices might be. It is a way of recording your past in the one place where it can’t easily be dislodged by the movement of the marketplace and the dislodging of desire and forgetfulness that it induces in us.

It is in the pain and bodily record of the tattoo that memory and identity are secured, and the past and future united to the present. The tattoo provides a relationship that will last, something permanent in a world of ephemerality. If one can dispute the ‘authenticity’ of all else, one cannot dispute the authenticity of one’s own body. The tattoo is more real than anything offered by the rapidly changing products on store shelves. The tattoo is something that overcomes detachment, as one cannot easily detach oneself from one’s own body. Finally, the tattoo is an attempt to be truly different in a society of the merely different.

A Christian Alternative to Consumerism

I believe that the culture of body-modification, as an attempt to shore up identity against consumerism is a futile cul de sac, even though it arises from a genuine appreciation of the spiritual emptiness of the contemporary marketplace and the meaninglessness of the identities that it offers. More importantly, I believe that as an attempt to secure identity through the marking of the body, it is driven by an impulse that is inconsistent with the Christian message.

The Christian alternative to consumerism involves our cultural inscription into a new body, and the inscription of a new social identity into our bodies, as we are conformed to the person of Christ, and bear the mark of his character and his Church upon us. It involves the fixing of desire upon the inexhaustible and unchanging good that Christ represents. It involves a surpassing of the logic of the merely different through the uniqueness of a Christ beyond and without price. It finds authenticity in the one who is closer to us than we are to ourselves, the one in whose image we were formed, and to whose image we are being transformed. It finds memory and persistence of identity through time in the constant re-membering of Christ that the Church undertakes.

This Christian alternative, however, does not adopt the tribalist or individualist route to securing identity. Baptism creates universal and decentred subjects, unplugged from their particular cultural substance, who find their identity in something far more determinative – the love and body of Christ. Our own flesh is a weak place in which to secure our identities, but Christ has given his own flesh for the life of the world. It is in relationship to the genuine otherness of Christ that our distinct identities can most flourish without being rendered merely different, as God himself names us. The Church is also a place where desire is trained and strengthened. When our desire is strengthened it can fix itself on one thing and no longer be at the mercy of market trends.

Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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7 Responses to Body-Modification, the Market, and Identity

  1. Matt J. says:

    Good analysis. Some of John H’s account still rings true to me though, mostly because tattoos, especially large well-done ones are very expensive. A nice one will run you as much as a shiny new Apple product. I know young men who can’t pay their rent but who carefully save up for more ink.

    Another interesting feature of tattoos is that the deplete at about the same rate as our bodies. The tattoo on an old man, marked in his youth, is barely discernible. As an alternative method to “security identity”, as you put it, it’s effectiveness is gradually exhausted.

    The problem with Baptism is that the water dries up and you can’t tell who was wet! I am not a fan of body art, but I had to pause when reading Andrew Jone’s account of his recent trip to Egypt. Many of the Christians there have Coptic crosses on their wrists. In in place with much open hostility to Christians, getting a tattoo like that requires some bravery – something not usually found alongside consumerism.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Matt.

      Like most things, the tattoo is wrapped up in the consumer society in many ways, even when it is presented as and pursued as an alternative to it. Christianity and anti-capitalist socialism have both been co-opted in their own ways too.

      The ‘Christian tattoo’ can certainly be a brave action in many contexts. Nonetheless, I think that it is generally a misguided one, well-intentioned though it might be.

      This is obviously not any sort of hill to die on, though.

  2. John H says:

    Thanks for this response. I think the “Keep Calm And Carry On” merchandise is a good illustration of what I was getting at: the fact that even to try to escape from modern consumerism involves participation in it.

    Which was my point about tattoos: they are indeed a means of trying to establish (and preserve for the future) an identity, a “cultural choice”. But they are still a choice made within consumer capitalism rather than an escape from it.

    The Coptic cross is another interesting example. From what I understand of the context (the fear of infiltration by potential persecutors), I can see why that tradition has arisen. Maybe (I don’t know enough to say for sure) there is now also a strong element of “tribalism” to it, of the tattooed cross as a cultural marker rather than just a precaution against persecution – though, sadly, that latter function is still highly relevant.

    But the situation we’re in now is as if young Christians in the UK or the US decided it was a “great witness” to get their wrists tattooed with a cross, and proceeded to go to the tattoo parlour. I’d say that that would probably amount to a consumer choice within capitalism, which is distinct from the “pre-capitalist” tribalism to which tattooing can be a (futile) attempt to return.

    • Yes, postmodern tattooing is definitely distinct from premodern tattooing. What I am trying to maintain is that, although tattooing is a choice that is frequently co-opted by consumer capitalism, it is also an attempt at a self-protective counter-logic.

      Also, more generally, the fact that a choice occurs within consumer capitalism does not render it incapable of becoming a site of genuine resistance.

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  5. Insofar as Christ and baptism into him are the restoration of God’s image in us, which is humanity itself, I don’t think I would go as far as to say national and similar identities were not part of a Christian’s self-understanding. As De Maistre said, ‘The constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, has been drawn up for Man. Now, there is no such thing in the world as Man. In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; I am even aware, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian. But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.’

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