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.