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Bodies of inscription: A cultural history of the modern tattoo community

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Bodies of inscription: A cultural history of the modern tattoo community
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  700american ethnologist He notes that household economists appear tohave assumptions similar to those in hisatomistic model, yet he holds that his and theirviewpoints are in fact divergent. The major dif-ference, he claims, is that household (neoclas-sical) economists treat  a  household, regardlessof its constituent units, as a unitary (p. 74)model—a collectivist position Verdon doesnot share. Rather, he, like feminist scholarssuch as Folbre, assumes that such units (includ-ing different generations and different genders)incorporate separate and potentially conflict-ing interests (pp. 74-75).In the second part of the book, Verdon illus-trates the heuristic value (p. 87) of his set  oi axioms by applying it to various historical andethnographic examples, some of which havebeen described as collectivistic and others asindividualistic. In chapter 5 ( Atomism Ap- plied:  Some Paradigmatic Cases ), Verdon ex-amines the multiple family household in 19th-century Russia. In Chapter 6 ( An AtomisticView of Various Stem Families ), he analyzesthe stem families of the Western Pyrenees andthose of rural French-speaking Quebec. Inchapter 7 ( The World We Have Lost ), Ver-don turns his attention to the medieval Englishhousehold. In chapter 8 ( The World We HaveGained: Canada 1971-1986), he examinescontemporary Canadian households. In thelast substantive chapter (chapter 9, Abutia: ADifferent Residential Logic ), he reports onAbutia households in the Volta Region of east-ern Ghana.Verdon's  goal,  as he states in the conclusion,is to devise a typology of households, for ty-pologies remain our only hope of proceedingwith comparative analysis and, ultimately, ofputting forth'theories'which escape the grip ofpure interpretation, and extract anthropologyfrom the fold of literary criticism and the like (p.  186). By  itself this goal would warrant aclose reading of his argument, especially forsocial scientists (and others) who value  a  care-ful fitting of empirical evidence and theoreticalconclusions. Verdon's writing style makes iteven more rewarding to reflect upon his recon-sideration of the fundamental problems in thestudy of household organization. He creates auseful typology with the same conciseness andclarity that are evident in his critiques of alter-native analytical models and in his commandof a wide range of empirical materials in thehistorical and ethnographic literatures. Bodies  of Inscription:   Cultural History of theModern Tattoo Community.  Margo DeMello. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000. vii+ 222 pp., photographs, notes, bibliography,index. FRANCES  E MASCIA-LEES Sarah Lawrence CollegeTattoos are ubiquitous in the United Statesthese days. It is not unusual to find them grac-ing the muscular back of an Olympic swim-mer, peeking over the top of the cotton sock ofa student at a selective liberal arts college, orbarely but provocatively visible under thesheer blouse of  an  upscale store owner. Thesebody marks have become an accepted part ofmiddle-class American life despite their oncenegative association with Others—working-class sailors, bikers and other gang members,circus freaks, prisoners, and primitives. Doesthis middle-class embrace signal a genuine ac-ceptance of Otherness; or, is it just another in-stance of the all-too-familiar process in whicha deviant art form (like jazz, rock and  roll,  orgraffiti)  is  celebrated  as  outre and chic becauseof its nonmainstream roots at the literal ex-pense of its actual srcinators and practitio-ners?In  Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History ofthe Modern Tattoo Community,  Margo De-Mello shows that such either-or scenarios aretoo simplistic to explain what she calls the middle-class Tattoo Renaissance (p. 8) of thelast two decades. Her thesis is that to be ac-cepted within mainstream American society,tattoos had to be stripped of many of theirworking-class associations while simultane-ously being celebrated for their connection toan exotic Other. In the late 20th century, someOthers have become more acceptable tomiddle-class tastes than others. DeMellochronicles the process by which this transfor-mation of meaning has taken place, payingparticular attention to how the contours of anAmerican tattoo community have been re-drawn inthe process. Toexplainthesetransfor-mations, DeMello draws on familiar ideas:Bakhtin's grotesque body, Bourdieu's classbody, Hobsbawm's invented tradition, andAnderson's imagined community.Thus, there is little here that is theoreticallynew. Nor is  Bodies of Inscript ion  ethnogra phi -cally thick or conceptually refined. Indeed,some readers will protest DeMello's multisitedapproach, while others will find unsatisfactory  book reviews 7 her equating class with educational levelalone. Most problematic is DeMello's willing-ness to use  middle class  to refer to ideas, notpeople (p. 7), even as she assesses individuals'class standings by whether they articulate withwhat she  considers  middle class based on theirappearances  (p.  8).Nonetheless, DeMello provides a fascinat-ing history of tattooing in the United States andan insightful analysis of the forces shapingAmerican beliefs in the last two decades. Sheshows that the meaning of tattoos has shiftednumerous times since their introduction intoWestern societies by sailors returning from thePacific Islands in the 17th and 18th centuries.First viewed as marks of savagery, tattoos soonbecame signs of adventure, travel, freedom,and the exotic. After a brief period of signalingthe wealth and leisure of the British aristoc-racy, tattoos emerged as a predominantlyAmerican art form connected with patriotism.Not until the 1960s and 1970s did people asso-ciate tattoos with such societal outcasts as bik-ers and prisoners—an association, DeMelloargues, from which tattooing needed partialextrication to become mainstream. This disas-sociation was initiated by the convergence ofseveral developments: as disaffected middle-class youth sought external symbols of their re-bellion against what they saw as a politicallycorrupt and spiritually bankrupt social order,they looked to the non-West for alternatives atthe same time that influential tattooists turnedto Eastern societies for new design ideas.Paradoxically, DeMello shows, while tat-toos acted as potent symbols of middle-classestrangement because of their association withworking-class outcasts, their appeal to middle-class tastes also arose from suppression of theirconnection to working-class values. Tattoosneeded to be transformed from indicators ofworking-class impetuousness to symbols of anauthentic and true (middle-class)  self from asign of one's affiliation with a loved one orcountry to one of deep spiritual meaning.Hearts and eagles individually placed on theforearm or chest and viewed as working-classkitsch were replaced by Japanese dragons andtribal arm bands, newly celebrated becausethey were associated with  a  venerated, authen-tic non-West and understood as art. This trans-formation of meaning was accomplished pri-marily through media discourse and was givencultural weight by the new class social move-ments (p. 137) of the 1970s and 1980s thatfocused on personal transformation, self-actu-alization, and spiritual growth—the new age,self-help, feminist spirituality, ecology, andmen's movements.The transformation of tattooing into a mid-dle-class expression of inner selfhood, accord-ing to DeMello, has had profound effects onthe tattoo community. DeMello's focus on thiscommunity  is  the weakest part of her book. De-Mello never makes a convincing argument forwhy it matters that a  real tattoo community (p.  3 exists, even though she  is  at pains to makethis case. There is certainly a tattoo industrycomposed of tattooists, tattoo magazines, andnational tattoo organizations; there are  thou- sands of individuals who are tattooed, whoread tattoo magazines, attend tattoo exhibi-tions, and participate in on-line tattoo chatgroups. But, as DeMello herself shows, thereare large differences among the people partici-pating in such activities; there is also  a  large di-vision between those who think that a tattoocommunity exists—or at least want one to ex-ist—and those who do not. Interestingly, thedesire for a tattoo community appears to belargely felt within the middle class. Bikers, Chi-cano gang members, and old-style tattooistsseem content to be members of the subculturalgroups their tattoos signify. They may evencontest the middle-class effort to define themeaning of tattooing for everyone. Rather thanaccept this, DeMello seems intent on fulfillingher own yearning for community. This yearn-ing surely underlies the middle-class turn to thenon-West as much as the desire for authentic-ity and spirituality. In her own middle-classsearch, it seems that DeMello may find com-munity where one does not exist. Despite suchdrawbacks, DeMello's writing is clear and hertopic timely.  Bodies of Inscription  is especiallywell suited to undergraduates. Colonial Subjects:  Essays  on the Practical His tory of Anthropology.  Peter Pels  and  OscarSalemink,ed .  Ann Arbor: University of  Michi- gan Press, 1999. vii + ^64  pp.,  index. R. S. KHARE University of Virginia Colonial Subjects  contributes significantlyto the anthropologies of colonialism and thehistory of anthropology. Read against PeterPels's and Oscar Salemink's substantial and in-sightful introduction, the book, though diverse
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