I pity old bikers with armloads of tattoos. They acquired their ink at a time when having a tattoo still identified you as an honest-to-God outlaw. Today, everyone has tattoos. I have tattoos. I am not an outlaw, just one more guy who wants to look cool while still being able to work in a professional environment.
The question I wish to address in this essay is the following: are tattoos a passing fashion trend like any other? Or is there some qualitative difference between tattoos and other ephemeral fashion phenomena? Can the sudden explosion in popularity of tattooing in the early 1990’s, an explosion that, twenty years later, shows no signs of abating, be articulated with some deeper mutation in the nature of the social bond?
The most obvious difference between tattoos and more traditional fashion phenomena is the fact that tattoos are permanent. When I was getting my first tattoo, I had a vision of my dead, wrinkled, body lying in a coffin sometime in the late 21st century with the same idiotic drawing of a pair of dice still there on my ankle. Unlike Crocs, old tattoos cannot simply be donated to Goodwill when they stop being cool. It could be argued that the very permanence of tattoos actually amounts to a sort of guarantee that they will never go completely out of style: too many people with tattoos are too invested in remaining fashionable to allow them to become uncool. It is of course possible that younger generations will react against the elders whose status they wish to usurp by leaving their skin unblemished: after all, this is the basic mechanism of the fashion cycle.
Nonetheless, it is precisely here that tattoos must be distinguished from more traditional fashion phenomena. The essence of the attraction that tattoos exert is of a qualitatively different nature than that of typical fashion objects, and as such cannot be abstracted from its form. A tattoo is above all an inscription, which is to say it participates in the logic of the Symbolic register in a way that clothes do not. The fascination exerted by the Symbolic register in general and by the act of inscription in particular is permanent and eternal. We are only subjects inasmuch as we have submitted to a primordial inscription, one that ties us to a name and thus to a place in the symbolic edifice of society. It is only by draining the center of one’s being from the body to the name that one comes to be as a subject proper. The appeal of tattoos is universal and eternal for the simple reason that they constitute above all a visible performance of the invisible mechanism by which we are born as subjects.
The question remains, however: how can we explain the sudden increase in the popularity of tattoos? If our fascination with tattooing is permanent and universal, why should we all suddenly be more fascinated with tattoos than we were thirty years ago? Before answering this question, we must take a brief reckoning of the psychoanalytic concept of the phobic object. Freud illustrated the basic functioning of the mechanism of phobia in his 1905 case study of a four-year-old boy named “Little Hans” who was afraid of horses. Over the course of Hans’ analysis by his father, a student of Freud’s, his phobia evolved metonymically: from horses in general, to being bitten by horses, to horses falling over, to the muzzle of the horse, and so on before finally dissolving when he successfully overcame his castration anxiety. The phobic object condensed and concentrated this castration anxiety, localizing it and preventing it from saturating his psyche completely. In his 1956 seminar on The Object of Psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan offered a new reading of the Little Hans case, one which highlighted the signifying dimension of the phobic object. Lacan would go on to formulate the following definition of the phobic object: the substitution of a signifier that frightens for the anxiety-object. In other words, the phobic object is a symbol elected by the subject that allows him physically to modulate his distance from the jouissance that might otherwise engulf him. The alchemy of the Symbolic register is here explicit: the signifier is that agency that expels something from the register of inside – anxiety – to the register of outside – phobic objects that may be physically avoided or confronted. More precisely, the dimension of what we call outside is nothing but the mode of appearance of the Symbolic register itself. Lacan described phobia as the “revolving door” of neurosis because the phobic mechanism amounts to nothing less than the process by which we enter the Symbolic register and, by extension, subjectivity proper.
The specificity of tattooing is that it modifies the body itself, and in this respect it is uniquely suited to metaphorize and (re)perform the subject’s (always incomplete) passage into the Symbolic register. There is no human society, other than our own perhaps, in which the dimension of the sacred is not acknowledged. The sacred – etymologically the word means simultaneously holy and cursed – is the name for the leftover psychic space into which jouissance is crammed and quarantined at the moment the subject passes into the “outside” of the Symbolic. All stable primitive societies are held together by the rituals whose fundamental purpose is to acknowledge and perform the incidence of the symbol on the Real constitutive of humanity. A series of symbolic elements are mobilized and metaphorically projected into the substance of the world itself, either the body (rites of passage into adulthood) or nature (rain dances, etc.). The ritual is performed at a moment of crisis, which is to say a moment at which the Symbolic risks losing its hold on the Real: the advent of the Real of puberty that so often triggers the slippage of the Name-of-the-Father, unexpected irruptions of the “natural” Real such as droughts, famines, eclipses, etc. The dimension of the sacred that is present in the rituals that have always served to shore up symbolic efficiency seems to be unnecessary today: if people no longer go to church in Western Europe (only five percent of the French population goes to mass regularly today, whereas only sixty years ago, Catholicism formed the matrix of French social life) it is simply because the Real no longer appears to us as a threat that must be dealt with by appealing to anything resembling the magical power of the signifier.
The rise of tattooing might be considered a response to the rapid liquidation of the dimension of the sacred in modern society. The counterpoint of this liquidation of the sacred is the increasing vagueness and fluidity of the Symbolic sphere itself, which depends on the existence of a prohibited sacred dimension for its very consistence. More and more people today find themselves outside of any stable symbolic role. The permanent revolution of global capitalism is rapidly transforming our societies into non-societies, the main characteristic of which is the brutal, wholesale erosion of the dimension of permanence, from the permanence of structures (no longer considered desirable by many architects) to the permanence of careers to the permanence of identities. (Paradoxically, the fluidity of our social identities is counterbalanced by the absolute, Real permanence of our digital identities.) In such a universe, tattoos thus furnish a stable inscription in the Real allowing the subject to name himself in the absence of a permanent inscription in the Symbolic. In Idiocracy (2005), Mike Judge’s brilliant satire on modern life, tattoos have come to replace names entirely as the basic mechanism by which people are inserted into the social bond. Indeed, the entire film can be considered a meditation on the passage from a social bond anchored in the Symbolic to one anchored in the Real.
Tattoos also might be considered a form of nostalgia for the Real. We live in a world in which the Real irrupts with less and less frequency and intensity than it did in the past (and with which it continues to irrupt in the developing world – a hundred and thirty thousand deaths in Haiti from an earthquake that might have killed a thousand people in California). We must be careful not to make the mistake of assuming that the Real itself is in danger: rather than disappearing, it has simply passed into the dimension of the Symbolic itself, the dimension that once served as a very barrier against the Real, just as the force that vanquishes Evil becomes evil itself once the external Evil has been vanquished. The Real is the part maudite that will always haunt existence and as such must be considered evil, the original avatar of Evil. As Slavoj Zizek has noted, it is the very dimension of symbolic exchange, and more specifically the dimension of capitalistic exchange, that today occupies the role of the Real that irrupts unpredictably and destabilizes the human world (such as the recent economic crisis, which emerged not in the Real but from within the Symbolic itself, i.e. from within the supposedly transparent symbolic system by which we represent wealth to ourselves). In other words, a point of dialectical reversal has been crossed beyond which the very forces that for so long served to banish and control the real – symbolic exchange – have now become vectors for the very Real that they had so effectively combated. The symbolic essence of tattoos might thus also be considered a manifestation of the Real, an attempt to summon a piece of the vanishing Real and attach it to the body.
Tattoos thus serve two superficially contradictory purposes. On the one hand, they conjure the Symbolic against the Real (by giving the subject a name). On the other hand, they conjure the Real through the Symbolic. Such a double structure is the hallmark of the symptom, which is always a compromise between two conflicting psychic needs. Tattoos simultaneously protect us from the Real and offer us access to it.
We might here make reference to the theory of so-called perversion ordinaire elaborated by Jean-Pierre Lebrun. For Lebrun, we are entering a world in which a neo-perverse psychic economy is replacing neurosis as the standard form of the social bond. How might we distinguish perversion proper and ordinary perversion? The essence of “classic” perversion is the fetishization of the Law: in other words, the Symbolic is not recognized as opposed to jouissance but is rather treated as an instrument of jouissance, a medium for manipulating jouissance.* What differentiates “ordinary perversion” (perhaps a better translation would be “everyday perversion”) from classic perversion is that this transformation of the Symbolic from a reservoir of restrictions to a reservoir of jouissance is no longer a distortion willfully imposed by the subject against the paternal order but a positive feature of the “neo-Symbolic” itself or, rather, a consequence of the disappearance of the external Real. The return of tattooing as a popular cultural practice would thus correspond to the newfound proximity of the Symbolic to the Real. The nature of this new proximity must not be confused with the old proximity, which was essentially a result of a lack of symbolic efficiency: at any moment the fragile Symbolic risked being exploded by the overpowering Real (witness the bloody, sacrificial chaos that accompanied the devaluation of the symbolic rituals that held Aztec society together in the face of a natural Real that steadfastly refused to acknowledge them). On the contrary, the new proximity of the Symbolic and the Real is a result of too much symbolic efficiency. This is Jean Baudrillard’s “hyperreal”: a Real that manifests itself between the lines of the Symbolic, in the very typographic curves of the Symbolic, a Real that slips in through the window after being kicked out of the front door.
Freud described perversion as the “negative” (in the sense of a photographic negative) of neurosis: instead of repressing sexuality, the perverse subject cultivates it. This metaphor must not be passed over too hastily. The two structures are not opposed to each other but, rather, they are essentially identical, the only difference being that between foreground and background. The image is negated in the sense of a Hegelian negation, a process by which reality is left untouched but dialectically transformed. The Law is equally present for both the perverse subject and the neurotic subject, it determines both of their actions, but its content is flipped. For the perverse subject, jouissance is located “inside” the space demarcated by the Law – perceived as an instrument of jouissance – whereas for the neurotic subject, jouissance is located outside of the Law. Martin Scorsese provides us with a wonderful illustration of this phenomenon in his 1991 remake of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear. Max Cady, played by Robert de Niro, is sent to prison for fourteen years for brutally raping a woman. While in prison, he spends his time studying the Law, ostensibly to defend and exonerate himself. Once out of prison, however, Cady immediately begins using his knowledge of the Law for his own jouissance, finding ways to manipulate legal statutes to cause subjective division in Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), the lawyer who sent him to jail. Although he claims to desire only justice, Cady’s true desire is to seduce and rape Bowden’s teenage daughter. Scorsese, in an inspired gesture, decided to cover Cady’s body with prison tattoos, most of which refer to law and justice in one way or another. More generally, the differences between the 1962 film, in which Sam Bowden (played this time by Gregory Peck) is an entirely just and upright citizen, and the 1991 film, in which Bowden is a more ethically ambiguous character who (sort of) cheats on his wife and withholds evidence, mirror the transformations that have taken place in the symbolic register itself. The boundary between Law and jouissance has effectively become blurry: whereas in the first version everyone knows that Cady is bad, in the second version, de Niro is more successful in convincing others (as well as the audience) that his “cause” is just. Although both the 1962 Cady (played by Robert Mitchum) and the 1991 Cady give a number of similar speeches in which they attempt to justify themselves, the reactions that they provoke in Bowden are quite different. In the 1962 film, Bowden does not dignify Cady’s diatribes with responses, electing rather to respond with the noble silence of the man who knows he is right. In the 1991 film, however, Bowden is constantly forced to defend himself to his family as well as to Cady, not because he is guilty himself (he repressed evidence that would have freed Cady on a technicality) as it would superficially appear, but because the big Other of the Law that responded through Gregory Peck’s silence in 1962 has been eroded to the point where it no longer forms the implicit background of Bowden’s speech. Instead of dutifully ceding to his paternal authority, his wife and daughter immediately take Cady’s side out of pure hysterical perversity. Unlike the 1962 Bowden, the 1991 Bowden is a castrated master, and as such he can inspire nothing but scorn and derision in his subjects. We are also reminded of Lacan’s dictum that what a hysteric wants is above all a master that she can reign over. Conversely, Jessica Lange’s 1991 Leigh Bowden is a desiring subject where Polly Bergen’s 1962 Peggy Bowden is little more than a shadow of her husband.
Nolte’s Bowden is a perfect neurotic in that his attempts to procure enjoyment by transgressing the Law fail: he does not manage to actually go through with cheating on his wife, for example. Likewise, the crime of which he is accused by Cady – withholding evidence in his favor – is ultimately carried out in the service of justice, not in the service of jouissance. Bowden is a man for whom the Law is supported by the perverse fantasy of transgressing it – a fantasy with which he flirts but to which he ultimately does not cede. In a sense, Nolte’s Bowden behaves in an exceptionally moral way: his actions are, ultimately, carried out in the service of (paternal) justice, which is to say that nothing he does at any point in the film procures him any enjoyment. Cady, on the other hand, with his giant cigars, his convertible, his smirk, is a figure of pure enjoyment, from his first appearance to his bizarre death, speaking in tongues in a frenzy of jouissance as he drowns. Whereas Nolte’s Bowden follows the Law by pretending to transgress it, Max Cady transgresses the Law by pretending to follow it, and it is only by appealing to a metric of jouissance that the true ethical value of their actions can be measured.
What the Scorsese version of Cape Fear illustrates so well is the transformation that has taken place in the Symbolic itself. Bowden and Cady’s convergence towards a single point at which Good and Bad are nearly indistinguishable is not simply a gratuitous variation on the original story but a necessary updating of the story to conform to the new world in which we live. (We might even imagine what the 2020 remake will look like: perhaps Bowden and Cady will be portrayed as ethically indistinct from each other.) What was lost sometime between 1962 and 1991 is above all the myth that the Symbolic is empty of jouissance. As Lacan reminded us, however, les non–dupes errent: those who were not duped by the purity of the paternal myth in 1962 (as represented by the faultless but also sexless and desireless Gregory Peck, who we can presume must also have buried evidence and fantasized about cheating on his wife off-screen) miss the point completely, namely that hiding the hypocrisy of the Law (its dependence on a perverse fantasy of transgression) is precisely what allows the Law to operate at all. By concealing the hypocrisy of the Law, by concentrating the hypocrisy in his own hands, the traditional father nonetheless dialectically opens up a space free of jouissance. Here is where everyday perversion appears: by abolishing the hypocritical Law we lose the Law itself; by insisting that the Law has never been anything but jouissance, we ensure that it never will be. The Law’s hypocrisy was once tolerated because, grosso modo, we needed the Law to protect us from the Real, but with the transformation of the external Real, increasingly mastered by technology, we (think we) no longer need the Law. This is the decadence of the hypermodern world. Whereas the classic perverse subject was someone who willfully inverted good and bad, Law and jouissance – categories which determined the contours of the external world into which he was born – the everyday pervert is someone who is born into a world in which any externally given distinction between the Law and jouissance is blurry if not entirely absent. He is a pervert by default instead of a pervert by choice.
Max Cady’s tattoos render directly this mutation. They unveil the Real core of the Symbolic in exactly the same way that the perverse core of the Law has been unveiled by liberation ideologists.
The tattooed hordes of young people that can be found in New York, London, and Berlin suffer above all from the confusion of foreground and background that typifies the future of the social bond. The background of bourgeois norms against which their tattoos would have once had some meaning has been liquidated, replaced with the imperative to transgress. Zones of polymorphous perversity in which the final signification of any identificatory gesture are permanently undecidable – places like Berlin which are at the vanguard of urban transformation – represent the future of the city. These are places in which the Symbolic no longer exists as a stable edifice, a background, but simply as a reservoir of Real and Imaginary elements that can be mixed and matched at will with aesthetics as the only guiding principle. The essence of our new world is not that the Symbolic is refused, it is that it is eternally deferred. Although it is customary to denigrate the residents of places like Brooklyn, Berlin, etc. as pretentious, ironic agents of the destruction of Law and meaning (“who do they think they’re rebelling against?”), they are in fact those who are closest to the truth of what is happening to the social bond. Their feeble attempts to introduce some sort of line into the increasingly diffuse substance of modern reality – a line between Law and jouissance, inside and outside, with tattoos for example – are perhaps nothing but consequences of a certain clarity concerning the new order of things. The new tattooed class is composed of people who have caught a glimpse of the fragility of the Symbolic order and have no choice but to piece together some sort of response. It is rather those who cling to the illusion that some stable social order still exists – those who still believe that we live in a world and not a floating non-world – that are in denial regarding the true nature of the social bond to come.
* Incidentally, from a clinical and anecdotal point of view, I cannot help but mention that the profession of tattoo artist must be considered a perverse career par excellence: the tattoo artist is above all someone who makes himself the instrument that causes subjective division in the other. I have been tattooed by a number of different artists, and rarely have I failed to detect the perverse jouissance that animates them as they pull my skin painfully tight with one hand and cut a permanent mark into my body with the other.