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Modern Primitives Excerpt: Introduction

Modern Primitives examines a vivid contemporary enigma: the growing revival of highly visual (and sometimes shocking) “primitive” body modification practices – tattooing, multiple piercing, and scarification. Perhaps Nietzsche has an explanation: “One of the things that may drive thinkers to despair is the recognition of the fact that the illogical is necessary for man and that out of the illogical comes much that is good. It is so firmly rooted in the passions, in language, in art, in religion and generally in everything that gives value to life, that it cannot be withdrawn without thereby injuring all these beautiful things. It is only the all-too-naive person who can believe that the nature of man can be changed into a purely logical one.”

Civilization, with its emphasis on logic, may be stifling and life-thwarting, yet a cliche-ridden illusion as to what is “primitive” provides no solution to the problem: how do we achieve an integration of the poetic and scientific imagination in our lives? There are pitfalls on both sides, and what is absolutely not intended is any romanticization of “nature” or “primitive society.” After all, advances in science and technology have eliminated much mind-numbing, repetitive labor, and inventions such as the inexpensive microcomputer have opened up unprecedented possibilities for individual creative expression.

Obviously, it is impossible to return to an authentic “primitive” society. Those such as the Tasaday in the Philippines and the Dayaks in Borneo are irrevocably contaminated. Besides having been dubiously idealized and only partially understood in the first place, under scrutiny many “primitive” societies reveal forms of repression and coercion (such as the Yanoamo, who ritually bash each other’s heads in, and African groups who practice clitoridectomy – removal of the clitoris) which would be unbearable to emancipated individuals of today. What is implied by the revival of “modern primitive” activities is the desire for, and the dream of, a more ideal society.

Amidst an almost universal feeling of powerlessness to “change the world,” individuals are changing what they do have power over: their own bodies. That shadowy zone between the physical and the psychic is being probed for whatever insight and freedoms may be reclaimed. By giving visible bodily expression to unknown desires and latent obsessions welling up from within, individuals can provoke change – however inexplicable – in the external world of the social, besides freeing up a creative part of themselves; some part of their essence.

All sensual experience functions to free us from “normal” social restraints, to awaken our deadened bodies to life. All such activity points toward a goal: the creation of the “complete” or “integrated” man and woman, and in this we are yet prisoners digging an imaginary tunnel to freedom. Our most inestimable resource, the unfettered imagination, continues to be grounded in the only truly precious possession we can ever have and know, and which is ours to do with what we will: the human body.

– V. Vale

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