Mike Featherstone (ed.) (2000) Body Modification.

London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage. ISBN 0761967966

No Pain Like This Body

Pramod K. Nayar

The human body is the new fetish of cultural studies. Feminists, psychoanalysts, phenomenologists, geographers, literary theorists and anthropologists have developed divergent and incisive theories of the body. Thus spatiality and proxemics, cognition, disability, sexuality and gender have provided focalising perspectives in the analysis of the body. This volume, for the first time in contemporary sociology of the body, surveys the practice of body modification. Body piercing, cosmetic surgery, fitness programmes, prosthetics, fashion norms have, in the past decade, used the body as the actual site for experimentation. Stelarc, Annie Sprinkle and Orlan treat the body as not merely a tool to create art, but redefine the body itself. In 1995 the South African performance artist Richard Kilpert surgically attached the discarded foreskin from his student’s ritual circumcision to his own penis, thus marking an aesthetic use of reconstruction as multicultural performance art. More significantly, such an art interrogates several established notions: What are the limits of the human body? Does the addition/subtraction/modification of the corporeal/material body alter the ‘essential’ human? What does the modified human body – especially with neural implants, nanotechnological or surgical alterations – imply in terms of gender, sexuality and politics? Is the procedure of modification liberatory or does it enslave the body in terms of technology? Does the modification mean that a mind-body dualism is reiterated? This last question leads to a crisis in the definition of the self, for, if the body is something that can be constantly changed (as in the case of Orlan or Stelarc), where does one situate the self? Does the self remain stable and unchanged even when its ‘container-body’ has been changed, connected to other selves (through Internet Upload, for instance)? Obviously, these are not questions that can be resolved immediately. The concern of the essays in Featherstone’s volume is to disentangle the various threads that such questions invariably conflate.

Christian Klesse’s essay on the subcultural movement ‘Modern Primitivism’ addresses the issue of racial identity in such a body-project (Shilling’s 1993 term has now acquired a wide currency). A practice rooted in the revival of ‘tribalism’ may have important consequences for community and identity. Klesse suggests that the romanticised primitivist turn is closely aligned with colonial anthropology, and therefore the binary opposition primitive/modern remains firmly in place. The foremost sociologist of the body, Bryan Turner invokes the metaphor of the airport waiting lounge to describe contemporary ‘cool societies’. Suggesting that tattoos are ‘ironic’ marks within consumer culture, Turner argues that this cliche marks the ‘exhaustion of the idiom’ in postmodern cultures. Turner claims that a ‘committed primitivism’ is not possible in the current age of ‘thin solidarities’ and ‘cool commitments’ (fragmented and fleeting relationships, dispersed loyalties). He thus concludes that ‘modern primitivism’ becomes a fashion statement, a set of ‘surface indicators’ in a society of ‘postemotional’ individuals (lacking traditional signs of commitment, attachment and identity) driven by the need to demonstrate commitment. Arguing along similar lines, Paul Sweetman claims that tattooing and body piercing are practices that seek an incorporation of the exotic into mainstream consumer culture. These modifications also become ‘accessories’ for fashion. However, Sweetman accepts that the semi-permanent nature of such modifications, the problems (and pain) involved in altering the alterations, signifiy a rejection of the notion of social mobility, and as such articulate fixity as opposed to flux.

Margrit Shildrick’s fascinating reading of Siamese twins suggests that morphology and corporeal ‘solidity’ and unitariness become normative standards in society. Thus the ‘monstrous’ is seen as threatening the very definition of the human. Such a perception, Shildrick demonstrates, is based on the assumption that morphological ‘clarity’ and separation are essential to identity. The monstrous (or abhuman, as Kelly Hurley terms it) defines the limit of the singular embodied subject. The debates surrounding the surgical separation of Siamese twins, argues Shildrick, is symptomatic of a discursive closure. What is needed is a new ethics which eschews determinacies of singularity and unity, and which reconfigures ‘relational economies’. Nicholas Zurbrugg in his essay on Marinetti, Henri Chopin and Stelarc reads the ‘past-modern’ (his term for postmodern) as desingularising and resingularising auratic subjectivity. Techno-bodies like Stelarc’s actually reconfigure the singular rather than erase the aura. Zurbrugg’s sophisticated analysis suggests that the incorporation of limits, the heightened sense of ‘tactilism’ (in Marinetti, for instance), and hybridisation, are in fact attempts to make the body more auratic and not ‘handicapped’ or ‘spastic’ (as Jameson, Baudrillard, Virilio and other critics of body projects have argued).

The best sections of the volume are the interviews with Stelarc and Orlan, and Stelarc’s own essay on ‘Parasite Visions’. Stelarc, pinned down by Ross Farnell to specific issues like the role of desire and the links of his art with SF, is emphatic in his belief that ‘the body is obsolete’. Arguing for the body as structure rather than psyche, Stelarc suggests that art forms like Ping Body, Parasite and Movatar indicate a post-evolutionary state which may be voluntarily ‘implanted’. Stelarc suggests that bodies will soon have to alter to match the machines the body itself designs. Orlan’s work, rooted mainly in a series of surgeries designed to alter her face, marks a movement from ‘endowed’ morphology through acquired beauty to a new identity itself. Jane Goodall, Julie Clarke and Robert Ayers (the later, interviewing Orlan) analyse these ‘interventions’ (the title of Orlan’s work) and explore issues of aesthetics, identity and image in such body projects. While Goodall focuses on the role of individual agency (as evidenced in Orlan’s art) that refuses to accept a given identity/morphology, Clarke sees Orlan’s ‘sacrificial’ work as a resistance to society’s ‘homogenisation of body images’ (Orlan, with her whole new face, plans to apply to the authorities for a new identity). Thus Orlan’s work may be seen as extremely political, suggesting a ‘trans-human aesthetics’ which seeks to uncover what is human. Goodall is one of the two contributors (the other being Shildrick) who meditates on issues of freedom of choice, the role of ‘risk’, the threat of scandals, and ‘unnatural selection’ in such practices. Goodall suggests that the responses to Orlan’s work are located in current debates on free will and value systems that appeal to the ultimate authorities like God and Nature. She argues that a whole new ethics of individual agency is gestured at in Orlan’s work (interestingly, in her feminist study of aesthetic surgery, Kathy Davis states that ‘Orlan is just an example of what is basically the same phenomenon: women who have cosmetic surgery want to be “their own Pygmalion”‘, 31).

Roberta Sassatelli analyses the role of fitness gyms in body modifications. Her focus, via the principle of ‘interaction’ (she notes the role of peer gaze and local meanings in fitness programmes), is primarily on the institutionalisation of certain values (of the fit body/well-shaped/muscular body) and their transmission. Lee Monghan’s essay on the drive for fitness and the ‘perfect body’ also focuses on social processes which create and transmit an ‘ethnophysiological appreciation’, and which assume the form of an ideology that normativises behaviour. Neal Curtis shifts the focus onto the massive Visible Human Project, approaching this text through Lyotard’s famous reading of Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’. Curtis argues that the VHP conceals and silences the differend by discursively ordering the body in terms of medical science. His focus on the ‘law’ enables him to argue that with the inscription of law on the body, its [the body’s] aesthesis (a bodily mode of openness and receptivity prior to the law) is effaced. The openness of the body threatens the discursive rules that ‘order’ the body, and must hence be encouraged as resistance to totalising and freedom-closing projects like the VHP. Victoria Pitts analyses the newspaper and published reports on body modification. Pitts argues that these critical responses, especially based on and proceeding from medical authorities, expand their disciplinary regimen into new realms. At stake here, then, are alternative knowledges and practices that do not conform to ‘acceptable’ forms of behaviour. Heroin and tattooing constitute the subjects of Kevin McCarron’s essay. Analysing the fiction of Angela Carter, McCarron suggests that the body becomes a text of shame and horror, which the ‘owner’ seeks to ‘transcend’ with the use of heroin. RealVideo surgery, for Eugene Thacker, marks the imbrication of modern anatomical science with digital technology. He also explains how such a linkage redefines bio-medical normativity. The ‘anatomical performativity’, as Thacker terms it, necessitates a renegotiation of the medical body, the surgical event and the distributed media. Thacker suggests that RealVideo surgery may be a productive site to locate the slippages in the discourses of medicine and anatomy, for these mark instances of formlessness and embodiment.

The essays in the collection, hinged upon the body as site, are a significant contribution to contemporary debates on identity, race, gender and discourse. While most of the essays treat the issue of political empowerment, subversion and renegotiation of identities, certain problems remain unaddressed. Even though the efficacy of body modification practices in interrogating normative discourses of, say, identity is beyond doubt, it is also imperative that some space be allotted to a consideration of ethics. For instance, the assumption of the essayists that technology is a ‘given’ rather than socially sanctioned/funded/legitimised ignores the role profits and corporate ethics (or the lack thereof) play in such ‘revolutionary’ developments. As Paul Latour and others have demonstrated, laboratory facts and technologies are social ‘events’. Secondly, the proliferation of such a technology is seldom egalitarian in terms of nations. Thus the gross inequalities in terms of technological capabilities might mean an appropriation and dissemination of the same in terms not only of class, but also nation and race (paralleling the unequal nuclearisation of the world with its continuing crisis of poor nations/budgets, aid, food and international arms deals). Thirdly, with social welfare becoming an increasingly threatened sector of economies, the issue of the affordability of technologies that ‘produce’ better/more beautiful/efficient bodies (which may become norms in themselves) must be addressed. The effect that such technologies – in spite of optimist views like Stelarc’s, I must sound the cautionary note – may have on eugenics, standards of beauty/efficiency, and thus the class divide must be explored. The issue of desirability (in terms of human desire to possess cultural capital in the form of that extra degree of fitness or beauty) is always a factor in such developments (Nazism, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and the Bell Curve debate are not so far back in time). Fourthly, a study of the distinction between aesthetic and reconstructive surgery/body modification, discussing the grey area of surgery for beautification, the restoration of ‘natural’ functions (prosthesis) and performance-enhancing practices, might be interesting. Does the enhancement of a natural function, in Stelarc’s case, for instance, constitute an aesthetic or prosthetic procedure (this issue is also linked to others, such as insurance coverage for aesthetic surgery)? Fifthly, there is the issue of individual happiness and the means – financial, willingness to endure pain and such – to secure it. This issue, touched upon in Goodall’s essay, is partly derived from the four problems I have outlined above. The individual’s pursuit of happiness through such body modification practices is ‘contextualised’ in the following: the capacity to pursue the same, the social acceptance of such ‘radical’ pursuits, and peer pressure in favour of or against these modes. These elements thus become central to any discussion of body modifications. Social acceptance, society’s ‘moral panics’ (to adapt Kenneth Thompson’s terms), or even social insistence (where such measures are demanded of the individual) upon these practices may affect the trajectories these body projects take in the future. Sander Gilman’s recent work on the cultural history of aesthetic surgery (appropriately titled, Making the Body Beautiful) is a movement in this direction of linking the unquantifiable factor of individual satisfaction with such cultural practices. Finally, while these technologies and practices mark the predominance of the narcissistic body (as opposed to cenesthesia, to invoke Jean Starobinski’s categories), they also endanger the same. For (and this is hinted at, but not explored, in the essays), these technologies also open up new spaces for the tele-techno-military complexes to create newer forms and practices of subjection. Now that legislation to allow corporate management’s access to employee email is a reality, is a fear that the Internet Upload/human body-WWW identities are open to more pervasive and intrusive forms of invasion/control all that misplaced? Pain – actual or imagined – is the ‘framing event’ (Elaine Scarry) within which all human somatic, perceptual and emotional events occur. The possibility that newer forms and levels of pain are being created within the space of new technology is a central issue that must be addressed. Forced/imposed body modifications, the accompanying pain and the fear of losing one’s identity could thus be a new instrument of power (the fear and potential of such ‘reconstructions’ of identity, whether voluntary or forced, has been articulated in popular culture several times: for instance, in Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels, and films like Face/Off and Eraser). Hence a discussion of ethics (does that sound like a neo-romantic humanism?) must be an integral part of such sociologies, for, if the very definition of the human is being redone, then it is essential that a new ethics of ‘operability’ of such ‘humans’ and technologies accompany the change.

However, the above problems notwithstanding, I feel congratulatorily enthusiastic about Featherstone’s volume for opening up a whole new space for the sociology of the body.


Davis, Kathy (1997) ‘ “My Body is My Art”:Cosmetic Surgery as Feminist Utopia’.
The European Journal of Women’s Studies. No 4: pp 23-37.

Gilman, Sander L. (1999) Making the Body Beautiful: A Cutural History of Aesthetic Surgery, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Scarry, Elaine (1985) The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shilling, Chris (1993) The Body and Social Theory. London: Sage.

Starobinski, Jean (1989) ‘The Natural and Literary History of Bodily Sensation’.
Trans. Sarah Mathews. In Michel Feher, Ramona Nadaff and Nadia Tazi (eds).
Fragments for a History of the Human Body. Part Two. New York: Urzone.

Pramod K. Nayar is Smuts Visiting Fellow in Commonwealth Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK.