Posted by: Harold Knight | 02/16/2011

I need– No, Really– I NEED a Tattoo



I need a tattoo. No, not a tattoo. Tattoos all over my body. Not a circus freak. One of those guys with black lightning-strike-looking figures in various strategic places around my body and Greek-key bands around my biceps and stark geometric (pseudo-tribal. i.e., Maori) designs outlining the natural contours of my washboard-abs physique. I need to be covered in ink.

Every semester about this time I begin serious research looking for new ways to approach the phenomenon of “body modification” to present to my classes. Their research project is to find background material on body modification in general and then choose a single limited type of body modification to research for their individual projects. This semester I am, however, going to be much stricter than in previous semesters about the topics they may choose. (See my posting of 04/12/2010 for a discussion of last semester’s near-disaster).

This semester we are going to begin our research by finding all we can about Orlan, the remarkable French performance artist who uses body modification as performance—going so far as to project the operations she is having onto the big screen so the audience can watch the modification in progress.

OK. So I’ve grossed nearly everyone out already.

Orlan asserts that

. . .  the natural human body is not at all natural in our age, therefore in the age of technology the body must be adjusted to the technological, political, and social milieu wherein we live. The solitary creation of the solitary artist has come to an end; the artists must cooperate with physicists, technicians, engineers, computer technology professionals, plastic surgeons, etc. (1).

Orlan fascinates me because with her body she asks (I think this is true, although I will not pretend to understand, only to be fascinated) questions I would like to be able to ask in writing. What is real? How (why) have we so constructed our society (our concept of reality) to reflect not our understanding of our place in the universe but our understanding of our place in the power/economic structures we ourselves have created? Orlan presents a

. . .  theoretical explanation of her unusual activity, interpreting her work as a peculiar kind of existential criticism. For Orlan the primary boundaries are not the social determinations; what she is not satisfied with is the human body’s nature of ‘being given’ once and for all. Carnality is exactly the place from where the world can be rendered questionable. In the eyes of Orlan and other body-artists like her, the body is not something given, but something ‘proposed’. . . (2).

The body (my body) is not “given.” It is “proposed.”

We believe that we live in our bodies and do everything in our power to embrace their physicality. Their “reality” is the way we relate to and understand the world (the universe).  In fact, we must be able to see (or perceive in some way) the world in order to believe it is real. Flannery O’Connor (like Orlan?) says, however, that what we see may not be all that important.

Fiction begins where human knowledge begins–with the senses–and every fiction writer is bound by this fundamental aspect of his medium. . . the kind of writer I am describing will use the concrete in a more drastic way. . . [Her way must] much more obviously be the way of distortion. . . [She looks] for one image that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye. . . but. . . just as real. . . as the one that everybody sees (3).

A point not visible to the naked eye but just as real.

One difference between Orlan and O’Connor, I think, is that O’Connor believes in a reality—God—at the point not visible, while Orlan does not. “My work,” Orlan declares, “is a fight against in-born dispositions, inflexibility, nature, DNA (which is in fact the direct rival of performance artists like us) and God” (4). O’Connor creates literature from the reality of what is seen in order to make available to the reader the “point not visible to the naked eye,” while Orlan works to demonstrate that what is seen (and felt) is not reality so “the point not visible” most likely does not exist either.

So now I’ve (at best) parodied any belief/practice of those two artists. Of course, some folks will be offended by my writing of Orlan in the same breath with O’Connor. But O’Connor can take it.

We are the only known animal aware of its own death, but we are still endowed with the profound terror of death instilled in us by our animal past. As a result, the denial of death is one of the deepest motivations of humanity, and. . . the deepest function of cultural belief systems is to serve this denial (5).

But what if the “point not visible” is not empty for Orlan. Since the beginning of modern medical science (the 18th-century Enlightenment, perhaps), we humans have been working and working and racing to cheat the natural process of dying. We get better and better at keeping each other alive. Tubes, wires, machines, and gizmos. Perhaps Orlan’s project is not to see God, but to cheat God of God’s prerogative to create, sustain, and end life. If not God’s, then Nature’s.

Stenger proposes that

The scientific project of life prolongation no longer assumes that a miracle needs to overrule the laws of nature to put death off indefinitely. It assumes that instead by deciphering the laws of nature on the microlevel, we will be able to change seemingly immutable laws on the macrolevel, like aging and death (6).

If we can change the immutable laws of aging and death scientifically, then perhaps we can change them through other processes as well. If we can change our bodies enough, if we learn more and more modification, perhaps we can reach the ultimate modification: immortality.

From this perspective Orlan’s project of far-reaching body modifications pushes a desire to the end that can be found behind the most ordinary facelift. Every act of surgery, plastic or other, is an assertion of the enlightenment project that laws of nature at the macrolevel can be dominated by the human will. . .  to the quest for prolonging life indefinitely (7).

I need a tattoo—not to shock you or find a lover. No, I want to live forever.
(1) Kiss, Lajos András. “Human Nature as a Social Construction.” Trans. Emese G. Czintos. Philobiblon XIII (2008).
(2) Kiss, ibid.
(3) O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” In her Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962.
(4) Le Breton, David. L’Adieu au corps. Paris: Métailié, 1999. Quoted in Kiss.
(5 )Stenger, Carlo. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.”  Studies in Gender and Sexuality 10 (2009): 166–171.
(6) Stenger, Ibid.
(7) Stenger, ibid.


  1. […] see my posting of February 16 for the latest writing on this […]


  2. […] I have written many times about students’ attempts to deal with body modification, and about Orlan, whose body modification fascinates me […]


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  5. […] my “body modification” has always felt incomplete without a tattoo. Don’t ask me why. I wrote about it on February 16, […]


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