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A Little Death:
Hegelian Reflections on Body Piercing & Tattoos

Antonio Canova's "Amor and Psyche," 1793 [1]

Antonio Canova’s “Amor and Psyche,” 1793, Louvre

887 words

It is safe to say that urban youth culture in the contemporary West is pretty much saturated with hedonism. Yet in the midst of all this hedonism, tattooing and body piercing are huge industries, and they hurt.

It is, moreover, shared pain, broadcast to and imposed upon all who see it. It is natural for human beings to feel sympathy for people in pain, or who show visible signs of having suffered pain. Perhaps this is a sign of morbid oversensitivity, but I believe I am not the only person who feels sympathy pains when I see tattoos and piercings, especially extensive ones. Sometimes I actually shudder and look away. Furthermore, am I the only one who finds tattoos and piercings extreme sexual turn-offs?

Sexual sadism and mascochism fit into a larger hedonistic context, since the are merely intensifications or exaggerations of features of normal hetrosexual relations. But what is the place of the non-sexual masochism of body piercing and tattooing in a larger hedonistic society?

This question first occured to me when I saw Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, in which Jody, the wife of the drug dealer Lance, launches into a discourse about piercing. Jody, it is safe to say, is about as complete a hedonist as has ever existed. Yet Jody has had her body pierced sixteen times, including her left nipple, her clitoris, and her tongue. And in each instance, she used a needle rather than a relatively quick and painless piercing gun. As she says, “That gun goes against the whole idea behind piercing.”

Well then, I had to ask, “What is the whole idea behind piercing?” Yes, piercing is fashionable. Yes, it is involved with sexual fetishism. (But fetishism is not mere desire either.) Yes, it is now big business. But the phenomenon cannot merely be reduced to hedonistic self-indulgence. It is irreversible. And it hurts. And apparently, if it doesn’t hurt, that contradicts the “whole idea.”

For Hegel, history begins when a distinctly human form of self-consciousness emerges. Prehistoric man is merely a clever animal who is ruled by his desires, by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, including the desire for self-preservation. When we enjoy creature comforts, however, we are aware of ourselves as mere creatures.

But human beings are more than clever animals. Slumbering within prehistoric man is a need for self-consciousness. To see our bodies, we need a mirror. To see our self also requires an appropriate “mirror.” For Hegel, the first mirror is the consciousness of others. We see ourselves as we are seen by others. When the reactions of others coincide with our sense of self, we feel pride. When we are treated in ways that contradict our sense of self, we feel anger. Sometimes this anger leads to conflict, and sometimes this conflict threatens our very lives.

For Hegel, the duel to the death for honor reveals the existence of two different and conflicting parts of the soul: desire, including the desire for self-preservation, and honor, which is willing to risk death to find satisfaction. For Hegel, the man who is willing to risk death to preserve his honor is a natural master. The man who is willing to suffer dishonor to preserve his life is a natural slave. For the master, honor rules over desire. For the slave, desire rules over honor. Hegel sees the struggle to the death over honor as the beginning of history, history being understood as a process by which human beings come to self-understanding.

Of course not every road to self-understanding involves an encounter with death. But the primary means by which we understand ourselves is participation in a culture, and civilized life entails countless repressions of our physical desires, countless little pains and little deaths.

According to Hegel, if history is a process of self-discovery, then history can end when we learn the truth about ourselves and live accordingly. And the truth is that all men are free. Hegel’s follower Francis Fukuyama became famous for arguing that the fall of communism and the globalization of liberal democracy was the end of history. But he also followed Alexandre Kojève, Hegel’s greatest 20th-century interpreter, who argued that the end of history would not bring a society of universal freedom, but a society of universal slavery: slavery in the spiritual sense of the rule of desire over honor. And that is a perfect description of modern, hedonistic, bourgeois society.

But there is more to the soul than desire. Thus man cannot be fully satisfied by mere hedonism. The restless drive for self-consciousness that gave rise to history in the first place will stir again. In a world of casual and meaningless self-indulgence, piercing and its first cousin tattooing are thus deeply significant; they are tests; they are limit experiences; they are encounters with something—something in ourselves and in the world—that transcends the economy of desire. To “mortify” the flesh literally means to kill it. Each little hole is a little death, which derives its meaning from a big death, a whole death, death itself. Thus one can see the contemporary craze with body modification as the re-enactment of the primal humanizing encounter with death within the context of a decadent and dehumanizing society. History is beginning again.