A search of the WWW will not uncover a plethora of information concerning originary anthropology. Not directly, that is. For all cultural activities inform us of our origins. Does not the greatness of market society lie precisely in its indifference to theory and its concentration on the cutting edge where history is made? Or on the focusing of that edge into a point, in the curious activity of body-piercing.

We are privileged to observe the emergence within our own culture of a sacrificial phenomenon of the sort that ethnologists have traveled thousands of miles and endured unspeakable conditions to experience in medias res in societies they can never fully understand. The pioneer Australian ethnologists Spencer and Gillen, in order to become more fully integrated into Aboriginal culture, underwent an initiation rite that included subincision of the penis. What would they say to be able to examine at the click of a mouse the ceremonial jewelry worn by young Americans in their body’s most intimate recesses?

Body art compels our interest because it is sacrificial, or in other terms, irreversible. A paste-on tattoo is as trivial as a sculpture made out of modeling clay. A hole in one’s anatomy, on the other hand, is a serious matter. The body has many nooks and crannies, and we cannot help but identify with what happens to them and in them, since our bodies are mutually mimetic. Instead of imprinting on the body a predetermined structure as Lévi-Strauss theorized about the Amazonian Indians he described in Tristes tropiques, piercing inscribes a message of personal identity.

Considering the number of different places to pierce and the various types and sizes of jewelry wearable in them, piercing encodes a message of considerable informational content. No corporeal activity, except perhaps tattooing, which in men at least is not new, has the capacity to generate so much information. Even if we assume a modest total of 100 mutually independent pierces including the jewelry, 2¹°° is a 30 digit number. But information of this sort cannot be measured in bits. What counts is how long, how often, and with what effect one can maintain the interest of one’s audience, sharing with some, shocking others, arousing the curiosity of still more, especially their erotic curiosity. The healing problems, the need for continued care, the possibility of enlargement leading to new gauges of rings (gauge measurements figure prominently in this literature–the smaller the gauge, the larger the size), the narratability and photographability of the piercing operation and its results generate an immense wealth of data. For the investment in time and effort, a generally nondescript adolescent is compensated by a payoff in significance far exceeding what he or she could dream of obtaining by more conventional means.

How is such significance generated? Mere difference from the norm does not suffice. A short time ago, any body-piercing at all would have been stigmatized as weird, and the Saussurean difference between one pierce and another, merely ignored. The phenomenon must be sufficiently abnormal to arouse a sense of social danger, but not enough to be simply unacceptable. On the frontier, negotiation proceeds anonymously, following the market model: children with parents, lovers with lovers, workers with employers… At first the single male earring is introduced by a fashion-setting minority, then multiple ear piercings, then nose rings… At each step, there are obstacles; the body’s topography is uneven and the forces flow along the lines of least resistance.

The end of the fad is also clearly predictable. The banalization of the activity, which despite the infinite variety of detail is quite monotonous in its overall result, leads to boredom with others’ stories, with repeating one’s own, with displaying and soliciting interest. The real payoff is, after all, quite limited; a bit of erotic stimulation at the price of possible infection, partial stigmatization, and (I imagine) just plain inconvenience in having that ring there to put in and take out, to wash around, etc. One day, the whole phenomenon is exposed as a Ponzi scheme built on the expectation of further gain from drawing others into the semantic orbit into which one has been seduced. The trend collapses, and another, unpredictable until that moment, begins its take-off.

As with any market phenomenon, the sudden rise of body-piercing results from the confluence of numerous factors. Perhaps the most historically specific is the imperative of control over one’s body in the era of Roe vs Wade. Parents are confronted with a new kind of demand for self-determination. Instead of a girl’s negotiating for the traditional symbols of adulthood, or something easily reversible like a punk hairstyle, she requests permission to wear a ring in her nose–or insists on it, or has it done without parental consent. The mark of adolescent revolt is borne as an ornament that leaves a permanent scar.

The new freedom is not one of pleasure but of pain; this is a sacrificial practice, a personal initiation rite. To undergo the operation and care for the wound, to enlarge the aperture in the hope of a larger gauge, these things call for self-discipline and the cultivation of pain. The gratuity of the practice may strike us as narcissistic, but its actuality is ascetic. Like saints climbing pillars, one suffers for effect, but one suffers nonetheless.


I will spare the reader the usual recitation of youthful alienation and hopelessness. I will even spare the usual condemnation. I can claim impartiality. Not only am I too old for piercing, I would never have engaged in it; it is too transparent an example of the conformist nonconformity that has defined adolescent culture since the romantic era.

But only one person can discover the origin of language, while many can experience the meaningfulness of piercing. This sacrificial, ultimately sacral claim for recognition makes a visceral case for human solidarity. We must give significance to our bodies, to their pain. The underground man’s aching tooth trumps the crystal palace of science. Just as there are no atheists in the foxholes, there are no indifferent viewers of the body’s capacity to be wounded, to be pierced.

In an earlier column, I defined love as tenderness for the vulnerability I share with the one I love. By both enhancing and controlling this vulnerability, body piercing plays on the familiar but ever-renewable paradox of mimetic desire: I control my pain, so I don’t need your love, yet my vulnerability is revealed in the wound I so proudly display. Like all other human activities, however charged with resentment, body-piercing is a plea for love.