Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Meaningful versus the Meaningless

While reading They Who Do Not Grieve, I was particularly struck by the contrasting attitudes of the Samoan culture and contemporary American culture regarding tattoos and their significance for the community and the individual. Though it is fad that may be (thankfully) dying down, the end of the twentieth century saw the transportation of the tribal tattoo from the Pacific into American culture in the form of the comparatively simple “tribal band.” These tattoo designs seemed to be wrapped around an astounding number of people’s arms and ankles – from rebellious college students to middle aged adults. In becoming a trendy piece of American pop culture, the most important element of the tribal tattoo was lost in translation: its significance for the community. As Figiel discusses, the Samoans considered tattoos an essential element of their community structure. An incomplete tattoo is tantamount to light cultural treason, as evidenced by Lalolagi’s social exile along with that of her entire family. Community members are bound through the mutual experience of pain and the outer markings they display to others. It is this unifying element that has seemingly been lost in the American pop-culture adaptation. Paralleling the Winterson’s view of Fiji and Samoa, most individuals that choose such a tattoo view the design as wild and exotic; rather than binding them to any culture or tradition, it is supposed to make the person “unique.” Upon closer analysis, however, this conception of the “tribal tattoo” is utterly shallow and self-defeating: in my experience, I have seen only a handful of variations of on this imported theme shared by hundreds if not thousands of people. The result is that an important Samoan tradition has become devoid of meaning in American culture because of a wide-ranging misconception about what it signifies. Whenever I see such a tattoo, I tend to think not of how the person has made some great physical and emotional sacrifice that binds them to others with similar designs, but rather how in an effort to differentiate themselves they have become representatives of a poorly translated and probably meaningless signifier.

This relationship of perception versus reality and the disjunction between the signifier and the signified is readily apparent in Figiel’s story. The story of the Wintersons is one example. Mrs. Winterson strives to appear as her perception of the perfect wife: subservient and beautiful. In place of something like a tattoo, Mrs. Winterson and Mrs Harcourt let the physical stature of their bodies to signify who they are; they are the hyper-image-conscious Americans. As a result, however, they are devoid of a real life and therefore a real story. It is more than ironic that the second book opens with an image of food: “It always starts with food. Potatoes. Pasta. Brown Rice” (133). This image of the carbohydrates these two women studiously avoid (or later discharge) quickly becomes associated with the mouth and the idea of oral storytelling. Stories start with the stomach or the cut, two bodily functions that these American women refuse to relinquish the reins to because they perceive it will communicate an unpleasant reality. Ela, on the other hand, is an example of a character that embraces reality: while her story is far from ideal, she becomes empowered enough to achieve her dream and have “the freedom to be” (123). She refuses to allow her society’s perception of her as an outcast to hold her back from achieving her goal and takes the necessary steps to accomplish it; the signifier did not accurately reflect the being that was signified.

No comments: