Archive for October, 2013


If Tattoos Could Talk: fangs, gangs, and the pangs of youth

October 29, 2013
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Humans have been tattooing skin, filing teeth, and spiked with ornaments since prehistoric times: sometimes to stand out, sometimes to blend into a group. The 5000+ year old Ice Man (Oetzi) uncovered in the Alps has tattoos that may have telegraphed identity or magical thinking, or worked to relieve, physically or psychosomatically, his local aches and pains. Or all of these.


Today, tattoos have proliferated. While rationales can be as varied as the designs, all tattoos modify self-esteem as well as bodies. Like cosmetics, tattoos are prosthetic, since like an artificial limb they make up for something felt to be missing or inadequate. We’re always devising ways to enhance parts of our bodies, from diets and wigs to a Michael Jackson makeover. Once we’re self-aware, there’s really no such thing as a wholly “natural” body. We compete with others and ourselves to envision a more perfect us.


As a symbol and a behavior, the tattoo has power. The quest to be better than ordinary is an appetite for more life, more good feeling about yourself and more response from others. The tattoo also promises to stop time. The tattoo implies you’re in an eternal present, willing to change your body permanently, not worried that the image will eventually become an embarrassing cliché or a maze of wrinkles on grandma’s tired skin.


Tattoos idealize youth and fertility by drawing eyes to youthful skin and often erotic parts of the body. In the process they counter anxiety about aging and death. Nothing beats a butterfly for signaling rebirth. Many symbols, including hearts and ancient Egyptian ankhs, are comforting. And this is no surprise, since terror management experiments in social psychology show that people unconsciously honor the potency of immortality symbols such as the cross and the flag.


But you don’t have to believe in the magic of pharaonic goddesses or old glory to enjoy death-avoidance. The decision to submit to the tattoing needle is a modestly painful initiation rite. The design substantiates your choice: makes it physical, touchable, enduring. The commitment can be a kind of conversion experience, a mark of independence from parents and conformity. In opening toward ultimate concerns—self-esteem, fertility, death—the ritual is doing the sort of work religion does.


Like a vaccine, fear of death can stimulate useful defenses such as anxiety that scouts for dangers ahead. But death and anxiety are pretty nebulous, especially when denial fuzzes them out. Hence the urge to confront the threat head on in order to subdue it. By putting a skull on your skin, for instance, you—and everyone who looks at you—honor your control over death. The skull insists you’re not afraid, and even “own” death. If you emphasize teeth, as in images of wolfish jaws and fangs, the signal is a threat display that should intimidate potential adversaries and pump up you, the beast’s owner, turning nervous system flight into courage and fight.


Once upon a time skulls and fangs were mostly military insignia. Like the jaguar-masked warriors of Aztec Mesoamerica, combat soldiers sometimes cope with fear and rage by identifying with death’s heads and ferocious animals. Closer to home the ravenous beast is mascot to sports teams pumped up to “wipe out” opponents. These days you can even spot a petite blonde teenager sporting a ravenous beast on her arm. What gives?


For one thing, that devouring maw is open to swallow more life: more food-energy, but also, as a tattoo, more vital attention. We’re social animals. It’s how we’re built. Remember: the self is an event, not a thing. In the neurochemical conditions of deep sleep, the self disappears. We rely on social behavior—attention—to substantiate us and make us feel real. Exile, solitary confinement, and social death punish by starving the self for attention.


Tattoos promise to make you attractive, as if you have a personal force akin to gravity. Notice me. The more attraction you command, the more attention you get, and the more life you have—as we see in the public’s devotion to celebrities and leaders. As the name says, hero-worship, too, has a religious character, and if you’re the hero, you’re superhuman. The more people you have thinking about you, the more of you there seems to be. In the wisdom of slang, you can be, if not godlike, at least a “bigshot.”


The devouring beast tattoo is one way of compelling attention. It’s threatening but also appealing as a sign of outsized appetite. Greed for attention—and more life—inspires fear and envy, so one function of groups is to regulate competition for attention. Gangs use tattoos to boost a feeling of unique but shared status and power. When it works, the gang emblem pumps up self-esteem even as it absorbs the individual into the group. Tattoos spotlight the individual but also signify membership in the group of similarly marked folks.


But let’s keep that ferocious beast in focus. It speaks to the peculiar conflicts that beset the young. They’re hungry for life and yet constantly held in check by rivals and the generation ahead of them—which is also hungry to “make it.” American culture celebrates freedom, individualism, and entrepreneurial aggressiveness. But in the current economy, the young earn up to 40% less today than a few decades ago. Aspirations go to bed hungry, scraping by on a dead end job and food stamps. Marriage, a house, retirement—these look increasingly chimerical. If you don’t have “enough to live on,” well, you’re dying. The tattoo suggests living for the present rather than emulating the traditional dream.


In today’s economy the big fish swallow the little ones. The rich consume the energy of the working poor, and especially the underpaid young. It’s like a fairy tale inasmuch as the nation fibs and finesses the reality. In a culture of employment sharks, the ferocious beast tattoo works as a guard dog protecting morale. If the workaday world opens its jaws, the beast tattoo threatens to bite back.


The air is full of biting terrors—literally, if you recall the summer flick Sharknado,

in which a tornado flings monstrous sharks into your backyard. No less startling is Werner Herzog’s documentary film Grizzly Man, which recounts how Timothy Treadwell escaped the jaws of workaday life by role-playing the innocent friend of ferocious Alaskan grizzlies, one of whom devoured him and his companion. Or consider the judicial killing of Todd Willingham in Texas because, among other hysterical testimony, a witness regarded his heavy metal skull tattoo as a demonic sign making him capable of murdering his young girls in a house fire.


What’s striking about threatening tattoos is how equivocal they are. They’re frightening signs of real conflicts, yet also just playful abstractions. They wink and snarl at the same time. They make a passive aggressive protest rather than openly defy injustice and abuse. This may be a logical reaction in an era when people feel haunted by a sense of oppression whose sources are masked and too big to confront. Government surveillance crystallizes unease about invisible systems of control and invasions of privacy—really, of self.


In the real economy, for the young and those not “making a living,” corporate machinery and slick media have enabled the rich to undermine organized labor, minimum wage and health care initiatives, and lately even the foodstamps that make peonage survivable. In this way the tattooed beast of youth growls at the unseen masters that feed it but keep a tight choke on the collar.





Ernest Backer, Escape from Evil

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

Jerff Greenberg et al, “The Causes and Consequences of a Need for Self-Esteem: A Terror Management Theory,” in R. F. Baumeister (ed.), Public Self and Private Self

“A Terror Management Theory of Social Behavior: the Psychological Functions of self-Esteem and Cultural Worldviews,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 24.


“You Should Die”: Bullying, ambivalence, and the tyranny of expectations

October 10, 2013
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

The idea of “ambivalence” is out of favor. People confuse it with “ambiguity” or “equivocation.”  In an earlier essay here, I offered a theory of why the term may be in eclipse. It’s stressful to acknowledge ambivalence, because it means having contrary ideas or feelings about things. You love growing up, say, even as you loathe prospect of adult restrictions, loss of childhood, and proximity to death. Ambivalence may be manageable, but it’s also unavoidable. It’s the way we’re built. If you try to escape the tension by embracing one side of your ambivalence, you’ll be tempted to blame the negative side on a scapegoat. That can simplify life, but it makes you a bully.

Here are three stories recently “in the air” in American culture. In different ways each of the stories shows bullying and ambivalence interacting. In the first, schoolmates bullied a 12 year old Florida girl, Rebecca Sedwick, and she killed herself. In the second story, a documentary film called “Blackfish,” directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, recounts how a “killer whale,” a 6-ton bull orca named Tilikum, killed two trainers while in captivity at SeaWorld. In the third, Washington was trying to rouse public support for an attack to punish Syria’s use of nerve gas to slaughter over 1400 people, a third of them children—even though any US attack would probably kill some civilians too.

Accounts of Rebecca Sedwick’s death follow a familiar scenario. Teenagers gang up on a scapegoat, whose suicide dramatizes a crisis of self-esteem and rouses public sympathy and indignation. Bullying behavior can be understood as a tragic battle for self-esteem. The bullies attribute to a scapegoat failings they would hate in themselves. Consigning her to social death, they’re heroically driving out their own “bad” qualities. They behave like vigilantes pursuing an “outlaw.” The self-intoxicating hunt blurs into fantasy, as when someone wrote “You should die” to the 12 year old Rebecca Sedwick. As a group, often under a ringleader, they form an army invading the life-space of an “enemy,” rewarding one another for their heroic victory.

Bullying is fueled by ambivalence. From childhood, society pressures everyone to be better than they are. Parents, bosses, teachers, preachers—virtually everyone encourages—or demands—more success, a better you. Teenagers are acutely ambivalent about it. They dream of, and rebel against, the idea. As bullies, they “kill off” failings through a scapegoat, pumping up nervous system “fight” to counter depressive “flight.” In reaction, the scapegoat acts out the fears, helplessness, and self-hatred that the bullies want to expel from themselves. Bullies enjoy the comradeship of soldiers, and also the exaltation of survivors. And social media arms them with “smart weapons.” Safe behind a social network screen, one kid can tell another to die, as in Rebecca Sedwick’s case, exploding the “enemy’s” self-esteem. That death-wish is a curse, and cursing originated in the belief that powerful words can kill.

Meanwhile, the victim may be driven to bully herself, punishing herself to kill off the “bad” qualities attributed to her. Carrying out the bullies’ fantasies, she may also be ambivalently retaliating against them, since her self-sacrifice will get them censured. This is the sort of heroic martyrdom romanticized in Romeo and Juliet, whose suicides supposedly end their parents’ feud.

Tragic though it is, bullying acts out tensions present everywhere in culture. Everybody pressures the young to “grow up,” “shape up,” and be successful. But adult encouragement masks an implicit threat of social death for losers. And adults, too, are bullied by bosses and other authorities. It’s a system, and treacherous when adults goad each other with impossible photoshopped  ideals—what Karen Horney called “the search for glory.” Bullies act out this dark side of adult expectations. They caricature frustrated parents “disinheriting” a failed or bad child. As tacit siblings, bullies drive out the “loser,” leaving more parental approval for themselves.

Bullying warps society because it’s unrealistic and dishonest. Bullies emulate the adult demands that they also hate, and then hide their aggression knowing that it’s a shameful rebellion. As Karen Horney understood, unrealistic expectations turn into a “tyranny of the should” that warps cultures as well as individuals.

This ambivalence is echoed in the SeaWorld audience that resents but also rejoices at the captivity of the whale Tilikum. The 6-ton beast’s awesome stunts dramatize nature’s ability to overpower us, but also our ability to tame nature. The spectacle honors the beast as a cooperative ally, heroic like the lion “king” of beasts. At the same time, we sympathize with the whale and detest the business tyranny that enslaves Tilikum like King Kong, Spartacus, Nat Turner, or victims of the Holocaust. The film “Blackfish” argues that the orca killed his two trainers in protest. We sympathize with the rebellion, though the trainers were in part scapegoats for invisible executives and business culture. This is a poignant conflict at a time when the rich advertize freedom while using corporate power to trap working people in debt and in jobs that no longer pay a living wage.

There’s a lot going on here. Like Moby Dick or Jonah’s whale, Tilikum has mythic potency. He’s nature incarnate, and his rebellion has uncanny overtones. You can see his violence as “mother nature” protesting against abusive humans. And yet as whale, Tilikum is all heft and mouth, a caricature of us humans, who live by killing and consuming living things. So in human eyes, the bullied victim is also a formidable predator.

The fact is, we’re tragically ambivalent about underdogs. We sympathize with them, but a twist of the lens also reveals them to be losers threatening us with contagious failure. These days the cruelty of this contrary mentality is brutal. Tea Party folks envision themselves as victims of “big government” even as they scapegoat the working poor as  “illegal immigrants” and “welfare bums.” The faux underdogs can be ruthless about stripping food stamps, not to mention unemployment and medical insurance, from the despised poor.

The recent controversy over whether to bomb Syria also resonates with this ambivalence. Bill Maher nailed the analogy in an article titled “The US: World’s Policeman or Schoolyard Bully?” Here’s where the association of bullies with armies strikes home. At least since the Vietnam War, the righteous “global policeman” has bullied a number of embarrassingly weak “enemies” to counter president Nixon’s propaganda that the US is a pitiful, helpless giant” (like a 6-ton captive orca). When diplomacy preempted the bombing of Syria, Fox broadcasting screeched that the nation was being (I kid you not) “castrated,” thanks to the demonized Russian PM Vladimir Putin.

Although the Assad regime in Syria has a long history of atrocities, many superhawks are contemptuous of the black US president who proposed the attack, and therefore some ironically took an antiwar stance. But it’s also likely that after the tragic waste and folly of the “war on terror,” ordinary people were using critical judgment to say no. As in all bullying, the president claimed an attack onSyria would be moral: to save children (SeaWorld presents itself as ecologically friendly, saving endangered species). But “smart” weapons, rocketing out of the aether like vengeful messages from social media cyberspace, are likely to kill innocents too. Stories of drones accidently killing kids and neighbors are so common they’re familiar material for comedians.

The point is not that these three public stories are equivalent. Rather, they’re variations on a preoccupation with victimization and aggression that is particularly strong these days in the US. The fantasy’s power isn’t new, though it may seem especially acute because of the economic stress afflicting all but the “1 percent” of wealthy Americans. With living standards under pressure, you can feel less selfish and less guilty about the neighbors’ distress if you can harass them for their imagined failings.

It helps if we can recognize and understand ambivalence in the stories in the air around us. To minimize bullying in the cafeteria, schools need to put more anthropology and psychology on the menu. With some help from a voiceover, even the “killer whale” jumping through hoops in TV clips of SeaWorld could encourage self-awareness and reality-testing in his fellow creatures—us.


Resources Used in this essay:

Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

Robert C. Elliott, The Power of Satire

Kirby Farrell, Berserk Style in American Culture

——, “Ambivalence and the Decision Tree,”<<

Thomas Hachard, “A ‘Psychological Thriller’ About SeaWorld’s Resident Killer” (July 18, 2013), <<…

Mary Midgley, Beast and Man

Amy Pavuk, “Rebecca Sedwick’s suicide highlights dagers of cyberbullying,” Orlando Sentinel (Sept. 16, 2013)