Skin as Medium

Last semester, my students had a really cool conversation about whether tattoos are a medium and/or rhetorical.As I teach a new semester of digital rhetoric, I’m contemplating the nature of media and new media. Of course, I always return to Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message.” If we accept McLuhan’s premise that how a message is communicated is as important as its content, then tattoos may be the ultimate form of self expression.

For people who get tattoos, the content can be extremely personal. For example, many people get a memorial tattoo after someone close to them dies. In “‘So That They Never Forget the Holocaust:’ Memorial Tattoos and Embodied Holocaust Remembrance,” Verena Hutter (2016) argues that some of these tattoos are “embodied memory and/or performed trauma” (269). Hutter examines a New York Times piece “A Tattoo to Remember” in which the grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors remember their family’s struggle by purposefully tattooing the numbers Nazis assigned their ancestors. The tattoo represents an intersection of faith, heritage, and history.  The symbol content of the brief serial number would be empty without the medium, a tattoo.

Photo Credit: New York Times photographer Uriel Sinai

While not every tattoo has the same depth, the pain and permanence make them a deliberate statement about the self. What does that Tinkerbell tattoo on your foot say about you?  Does it say you want to be a walking billboard for Disney?  Not really. But it might say that to 18 year-old you, Tinkerbell connected to your childhood and fond memories of watching Peter Pan with your friends.

Tattoos no longer have the counter-cultural cachet they once had. Thirty years ago, tattoos usually signified drug use,enlisted military service, or carnival work. However, in the mid-90s, everyone started getting tattoos. As “alternative” music became mainstream, so did other alternative styles – tattoos, piercings, and  purple hair. More recently, the Pew Research Center found that nearly 40% of people between 18 and 29 have at least one tattoo. In other words, tattoos have different rhetorical value now.

Nevertheless, when skin is the medium and hours of pain and days of discomfort are required for communication, it seems that a tattoo is no less rhetorical than an essay. And like most writing, it’s done collaboratively, takes practice, and you usually start small before embarking on a full sleeve.

Digital Affordances

On my day off from teaching, I am sitting in a coffee shop revising an article for publication. I’ve got Run the Jewels bumping through my headphones that are effectively blocking out an obnoxious conversation happening at the table next to me. I need to online_classesfocus because I hate revision and I find it so easy to put it off (notice me writing this blog post). Nevertheless, I decided to write because I realized how much technology has afforded me this opportunity.

A year ago in the middle of writing my dissertation, I spoke with one of my mentors about revision. He talked about writing passages by hand and cajoling his girl friend to type the pages for him. Apparently, I made a face because he quickly reassured me that he paid her for her skill – after all, typing on a typewriter was a lot of work. He said she paid her way through college by typing papers; she was fast and accurate. She charged extra for last minute projects.

Despite his reassurances, I was still shocked. Not just because his wife typed his dissertation (all 250 pages), but because I was horrified by the idea of trying to do meaningful revision with out the word-processing power of my laptop. I peppered him with questions:

What if you hated the order of your paragraphs?  What if you disliked a quotation? What if you wanted a new topic sentence? What about transitions? What did your works cited look like? What if you spelled someone’s name wrong? How did you do research? How did you find timely sources?

Of course, people wrote differently than they do today. Many authors composed and revised by hand before sharing their work. In manuscript culture, authors often produced a fair copy of a draft before circulating works among their friends or submitting for publication. Unfortunately for people who study textual production, most our revision is invisible. We revise as we type. Our computers erase our work. Writing in a digital environment hides our effort.

Re-Reading Plato’s Phaedrus

The concern for how technology will change how we communicate is ancient; in The Phaedrus, Plato recounts the myth of Theuth who brings writing Thamus, king of Egypt.thothpha Theuth claims that writing will make the Egyptians wiser. However, Thamus is skeptical: “this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it … their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are not part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom” (165). Theuth and Thamus’s dialogue could be neatly transposed onto debates about the advent of digital media; Wired becomes Theuth lauding the advent of computers, while Neo-Luddite Sven Birkerts and others like him take the role of Thamus questioning the value of this new invention. New media have sparked debate for millennia.

The anxiety caused by new media may be complicated because humans use technology to communicate and make sense of their world. In The Two Virtuals, Alexander Reid (2007) ties the use of technology to knowledge: “knowledge is produced through the process of externalization, through its articulation in symbols” (29). The cave paintings as Lascaux show early humans using dyes and charcoal to share their understanding of their surroundings. Unlike Plato’s Thamus who fears externalization, Reid argues that technologies are what create human knowledge and culture. People use tools to communicate and to live, and we cannot be separated from them. Tools like the stylus, quill, ink pen, press, typewriter, and dot-matrix printer work with developments like papyrus, velum, linen paper, and wood-pulp paper to help us share and shape our beliefs, our fears, and our hopes for the future. As WELL founder Steward Brand (1993) argues in the first issue of Wired: “The cutting edge of new media is the cutting edge of human cognition, which is the edge of what it means to be human” (43). Technologies shape how we communicate with each other. For example in Orality and Literacy, Ong (1982) claims that media like radio and television resurrect oral culture: “electronic technology has brought us into the age of ‘secondary orality.’ This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas” (133). In other words, new technologies can change how we read, how we participate in popular culture, and how we remain connected to our families.

Resources to check out:
Werner, Daniel S. Myth and Philosophy in Plato’s Phaedrus. New York: Cambridge UP, 2012.