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This report is taken from PN Review 191, Volume 36 Number 3, January - February 2010.

Catchwords (4) Iain Bamforth

Suffering and effect. The Dadaist Hugo Ball (1886-1927) had an ingenious solution for coping with the ever increasing number of writers and ever diminishing number of readers (even the writers had stopped reading each other), which was already proving to be a problem in that experimental phase of market society known as the Weimar period. He suggested that if poets had to cut their verses into their flesh quite a bit less would be produced. ‘On the other hand they would be less able to evade the original meaning of publication as a form of self- exposure.’ No longer would poets suffer for effect; the law of bodily marks would be the revelation of their very suffering.

Hugo Ball (who fled the trenches for Switzerland) had just emerged from a war in which many of the young men of his generation suffered the most appalling and terrible bodily injuries. He had no inkling of how a generation at the other end of the century would embrace body art, which offers a cultural identity conferred by its subject possessing enough self-discipline to undergo a (mildly) painful adolescent initiation rite, and of which the tattoo or scar is permanent witness. Our generation’s freedom to mark the body aspires to something magical, while retaining an imprint of the penal and punitive.

Now that tattooing and piercing are following market principles in becoming popular mass statements of individualism, it’s more difficult to experience the sacrificial shock occasioned by anything ...


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