In the summer of 1995, I devoted the seventh of these Chronicles (the second most popular of all) to the phenomenon of body piercing. Recently, Tobin Siebers asked me to contribute a chapter on the subject to a book he is editing on Art and the Body. I thought it would be useful to devote another column to piercing, if only to try out a few of the ideas I expect to develop more fully in the book chapter.

All the “research” for Chronicle 7 was done on the WWW, and the same has been true this time. The Internet is not only more interactive and up-to-date than printed matter, it is the appropriate medium for an anarchic, “underground” activity like body piercing or, more broadly, “body modification” (BM). The Body Modification Ezine or BME is the best and most thorough of a number of highly professional and elaborate Web sites and publications devoted to the subject. The Almost Complete Body Piercing Links List contains at last update over 1100 links–including, I am proud to say, my Chronicle 7. BM ranges over a gamut from tattoos to castration; here I shall confine my remarks to piercing, its “middle of the road” and most characteristic form. [Note on 11/30/2009: After eleven years, the two external links above no longer function. A reader and fellow researcher, Ms. Taryn Carmody, has proposed as a replacement the informative link .]

In Chronicle 7, I considered BM in terms of the two fundamental parameters of modern consumption: as sacrificial and as semiotic. Like all consumption, but more explicitly than most, BM acquires its sacred aura through sacrifice; like all consumption, but more explicitly than most, BM conveys a “message.” This time around, I would like to explore a second level of approximation, that of the interactive context of the message that BM conveys through the sacrifice of part of one’s being. In contrast with the mid-level addressee of mainstream acts of consumption, BM characteristically focuses on the two extreme interlocutors of the modern citizen-consumer: the most intimate, one’s actual or potential sexual partner, and the most general, society as a whole. The erotic and the political, then, or, as some wag once put it, the public and the pubic.

Piercing eroticism

Lists of reasons are an affront to GA’s credo of intellectual parsimony. Whenever people allege five different reasons for some activity, there is a way of understanding all five as aspects of some more general “reason.” To say that X gets pierced because he wants to make a statement, Y because he thinks it looks nice, Z because it enhances his sexual pleasure, is fine at the level of the user survey, but it should be a basis for, not a substitute for, analytic reflection.

Many accounts of pierces, not limited to those in explicitly erogenous zones, refer to enhanced sexual pleasure as the motivation for, and a result of, the pierce. Sexuality is “physical” but, as its metaphoric generalization suggests, “sexiness” is inextricably bound up with the semiotic motivations of desire. Piercing stimulates nerve endings and, in certain places, the jewelry is in constant contact with erectile tissue. But these auxiliary benefits of piercing become available only once it has become possible to consider one’s body as a zone of “modificational” activity. Once it becomes thinkable to pierce holes in and hang rings from anywhere on my body, it is a foregone conclusion that these things will be done in such a way as to enhance erotic sensations, just as, once it is permissible to write about anything or display pictures of anything, it is inevitable that writing and displaying will be used for the same end.

The erotics of body piercing include the physical enhancement of pleasure, but this very possibility is itself a “spiritual” enhancement, a sign of the piercer’s freedom to act so as to enhance his pleasure. It is this sign that, in turn, appeals to those whom the piercer wishes to attract. The non-piercer is drawn to the piercer as to a possessor of Being. As a result, the pierced erotic couple, once formed, tends to assert its exclusivity, deriding non-piercers as inferior sexual partners.

Sometime in the year of 1997 a rabbit [participant in the newsgroup Rec.Arts.Bodyart] posted to the newsgroup about how disgusting kissing someone without a tongue piercing is once used to the adorned appendage. “You might as well just lick a slug,” stated dextra. (Queen Spako’s Slug Patch)

The pierce possesses the mark of difference, which is, needless to say in our post-deconstructive era, a supplement to the mark of a lack–the ring in the pierced hole. The erotic motivation of piercing is the intimate end of the spectrum of its relationship with desire in general. To encounter a metal ring in an intimate part of the other’s anatomy is to be reminded of the other’s sacrificial self-mastery in the very act of sexual self-abandonment. At such a moment, the ring/pierce is not a signifier in a paradigm but, like all sacrificial gestures, a self-confirming or “autoprobatory” sign that distinguishes its wearer absolutely from the non-pierced as the initiate is distinguished from the profane. This confirmation of absolute distinction can carry a powerful erotic charge.

Piercing politics

The erotics of piercing are very real, and no doubt principally dictate its progress or decline. Piercing will disappear when young people no longer find it sexually exciting, not because it functions exclusively as an aphrodisiac, but because any sign of the individually desirable is realized most concretely on the sexual plane. To be chosen as a sexual partner is to demonstrate one’s desirability the way our genes like best, by acquiring opportunity to exercise one’s “reproductive fitness.”

But the “statement” piercing makes to one’s potential sexual partners is also delivered to society as a whole. And here we encounter the curious contrast between the infinite variety of erotics and the banal finitude of politics. As the market exchange system stimulates the generation of increasingly more means for oppositional self-expression, the political content of this expression conveys increasingly less information. The body-piercer stands, in principle, in opposition to the strait-laced bourgeois “establishment,” but an establishment that permits him to pierce as it permits him so many other things is a difficult target for his criticism. The piercer’s antibourgeois paranoia and environmental outrage are rarely the fruit of much information or reflection.

The “hate tribe” Wendy says, is a name for people throughout the world who hate all aspects of this fucked up society, and express their frustration by hurting themselves, apparently adopting Nietzsche’s adage, “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.” She refers to scarification as “battle scars” of the tribe. (Interview with a piercer, IN THE FLESH vol 1 issue 2)

For Chico State senior, Kristie Ford, piercing her body has been a simple way for her to make a statement about herself. Ford, who has had her nose, nipple, bellybutton, and ears pierced, said that she did it because she wanted to be different.

“I’m not like everyone else and I don’t want to be,” Ford said. “For me, piercing is a way that I can say to people, ‘I don’t care what you think; fuck the establishment.'”
([California State College at Chico] Orion Online)

The more body-piercers and other members of what used to be called the “counterculture” are obsessed by their own cultural activity, the less energy they have to devote to political matters. The poverty of their political statements reflects the unfocused nature of their resentment, which in turn forestalls any concrete political activity. There is a hidden complicity between the market system and its detractors.

The ideological content of adolescent revolt has become all the less political with socialism’s retreat to a bastion manned by a few tenured professors. But I do not find it a bad thing that the energy of this revolt is expended almost entirely on the personal plane. These slogans about the environment and the establishment have been around for a while, and their sterility has not prevented them from swallowing up a good deal of potentially productive energy. In contrast, acts of body modification add real information to the world. These anarchically mimetic individual activities of self-creation are what make the market system function, not just in the obvious sense, by providing new opportunities for purveyors of piercing operations and jewelry, but in the deeper one of enriching the unpredictable dialogue among members of society.

Practitioners of BM often call themselves “modern primitives,” a term coined by BM guru Fakir Musafar and popularized in 1989 with the publication of Modern primitives : an investigation of contemporary adornment & ritual (San Francisco, CA : Re/Search Publications), and many web sites make reference to BM’s association with tribal societies. Ritual piercing, tattooing, and scarification are indeed common initiatory practices whose relative absence in modern industrial society, like that of so many things, makes it the exception rather than the rule in human history. It is easy to dismiss renewal of interest in these practices as a return to primitive sacrificial religion. But everything depends on their ethical content. The sacrifices one imposes on oneself are not comparable to those imposed by the social order. BM is comparable to the “humiliation of the flesh” practiced by mystics. Its practices are true acts of deferral, as their erotic value attests: all askesis is ultimately Girard’sascèse pour le désir,” whether the desire in question be worldly or celestial.

There is a further point to make about the body modifiers’ insistence on their primitive roots. The modern market system, as I pointed out recently in Chronicle 124, avoids wherever possible offering its goods to consumers as nothing but fungible commodities. Goods sold on the market acquire an aura of supplementary value from their association with the sacred exterior of the market. The goods circulated by the exchange system are figures of the sacred center inaccessible to exchange. In modern society, the primitive is a transcultural figure of the sacred, just as “nature” is.

The Romantics began the modern cult of the primitive by processing it into symbols, souvenirs, and tourist attractions. The smile with which we greet these nineteenth-century innovations today reflects the danger of banalization that always haunts the market’s assimilation of the sacred; the aura, once it reaches the mass market, is an aura no more. One area little explored outside of marketing manuals and corporate offices is that of the means of creating what Pierre Bourdieu called in a famous but condescendingly banal study “la distinction.” None of the product-signs of consumer society is a mere token; each seeks to connote distinction, whether it be as proof of the expense of energy, wisdom or, more predictably, wealth. Jean Baudrillard’s idea of consumption as the creation of meanings is only useful if we understand that all meanings are differential and distinctive; all are attempts at appropriating the unappropriable Being of the center.

The ethnological associations of BM make it a particularly potent source of la distinction. Whereas the return to nature is easily banalized into “organic food,” “natural wood finish,” “Amazon rain-forest ice cream,” and so on, in BM, the primitive imposes a supplementary, sacrificial cost: the “product-sign” must be irreversibly inscribed on the body. Instead of returning to “nature,” one returns to a state of culture in which ritual is more violent because higher forms of deferral have not yet evolved. The sacred aura of primitive ritual lends BM a staying power lacking in mere fetishes of the natural.

The forms of sacrificial culture cannot simply be assimilated to market transactions; they must be experienced “in the flesh.” No doubt this is true of other forms of consumption, such as tourism, sports, or “fitness.” “Body modification” is itself the goal of many mainstream activities, from exercise to plastic surgery. But BM’s distinction lies in making explicit the semiotic character of inscription on the body. Even the avid weight-lifter who practices “body sculpture” is inscribing on his body only the physiological effects of his exercise. His esthetic is one of instrumental effort, whereas, in foregrounding the gratuitousness of the inscribed sign, the pierced or tattooed becomes a witness to the radical “uselessness” of cultural meaning–a martyr to l’art-pour-l’art.

That BM furnishes us with a compelling model of the creation of significance in postmodern times is demonstrated above all by an unexpected feature that I dealt with in my earlier Chronicle: its generation of narrative. The WWW sites devoted to BM contain countless narratives of ordinary people’s piercing experiences: their fears, physical sensations, health problems, erotic and social concerns. These narratives, short or long, sloppily or carefully written, amateurishly or professionally formatted, form a genre not simply reducible to the banality of My Home Page. Each recounts a unique experience of significance, a peak on the curve of life. Piercing is something that nearly anyone can afford, that requires no particular talent or heroic character, yet that reveals a certain courage, undecidably physical and moral–the courage to suffer the pain of the body’s dissolution with the confidence that the body will survive and master its undoing.

It’s addictive,” [UCLA undergraduate Helen] Chang whispered. “It’s a rush.” (UCLA Daily Bruin 11/15/95)

Just as BM’s erotic potency is real, so is its narrative potency. By making the sacrificial significance of ritual and its supplementary mythic narrative accessible to the average adolescent, BM promises to last well into the new millennium.