Absurdly yours ….

Camus: The Sexy Existentialist ...

Okay, I’m back and what better way to begin than with Albert Camus — the dreamiest, sexiest philosopher ever. The ‘James Dean’ of existentialism, you could say. Camus had it all: good looks, great ideas, and a wonderful writing style to boot. He won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1957. Too bad he died young and unfinished, and in a terribly ironic way. Camus died in a car accident, he was motorphobic (afraid of cars) and had a train ticket in his pocket. His publisher friend convinced him to get in the car instead of the train, and the rest is ironic and sad history. One of his most important contributions to existentialism is the notion of the absurd: humans strive their entire life to define themselves, to find meaning and happiness, and all that achievement is snuffed out in death, in an instant. Death is the great equalizer in that it will happen to all of us, no matter how rich or poor, saint or sinner, man or woman, smart or dumb, and no matter how little or much effort you put into life, we all end up in the same spot — nothingness. The universe is irrational and chaotic, completely indifferent to human endeavors, and yet people seek purpose in it, reason from it, and an explanation for why things happen to them as they do. The atheist existentialists will even cite belief in God or any form of religion as another example of an absurd attempt on the part of humans to make sense of an irrational, indifferent universe, our place in it, and make death meaningful. The best articulation of the absurd can be found in his essay titled “The Myth of Sisyphus”. I can never forget the last line: one must imagine sisyphus happy.

So why am I bringing up the sexy Camus in tattoo blog? There is something absurd in getting tattooed, and this occurred to me the last time i was on the table. Tattoos are absurd in at least a few ways. First, any tattoo is negated in death. Someone who spends hundreds of hours and tons of cash to get a full bodysuit has to realize that all the time, money, and meaning is negated in death … when your flesh rots off your bones. Second, tattoos often reflect life experiences and those experiences are had in relation to an irrational universe that doesn’t give a shit if you exist or not. While the experience itself is yours, the act of tattooing means you are applying meaning to an event or instance that has no meaning of its own, no reason why it occurred. Interpreting meaning where there isn’t one, or rather applying a meaning to make sense of something that has no meaning, is a tad absurd. Third, and what I find most interesting, tattooing is a process that creates an absurd situation in that you force your body against its own instincts. Your body is wired with “fight or flight” responses to survive, and when getting tattooed you put your body into a situation of stress and pain, and while sitting there you actively attempt to control the instinct to run away or punch the artist in the face. You are enforcing control over something that is irrational, something that is biological and natural. Now, for some people this is no tall order: it takes little energy to sit through the tattoo process, and the pain felt is tolerable, even at times enjoyable. Now thinking about this led me to thinking about Freud. Yeah, this might get weird ….

Freud speaks of Eros, the life drive, and the death drive (Todestrieb, later called Thanatos). Where does tattooing fit in here? Eros is a life-producing drive – propagation, survival, and creative energies are all examples of Eros at work. Eros is often expressed as sexual energy, as well as love. The death drive is said to denature or push towards extinction. It is said to involve negative emotions like fear, hate, anger, and aggression. In The Pleasure Principle, Freud describes how there is a compulsion to repeat trauma, in actions or in dreams, and this repetition is rather counter-intuitive to the lessening of stress and pain to oneself, it is counter-productive to feeling pleasure or happiness. This was evidence of a death drive, something in us that strove for pain, strove to repeat the pain. So, I ask again: where does tattooing fit in? As beautiful as tattooing is, it is an act of carving up the body, spilling blood, and causing pain, and even involves the risk of infection. For most of us, it is a repeatable experience, almost a compulsion: One returns to the table again and again, and with time one will get more sensitive or pain-promoting areas tattooed. Feeling pain is normally not something someone would describe as pleasurable (dare I mention the dentist?). It seems tattooing is related to the death drive. However, tattooing has a creative energy, and even a sexual or erotic energy to it, and the pain felt is intimately bound up in this. The pain can be pleasurable and sexually exciting: The touching of bare skin by a gloved hand (for some latex is very stimulating), the feelings of adrenaline coursing through the body, the scratching sensation of the needle, just to name a few ways tattooing can be sexually charged. In many cases, tattooing can make a body more sexually attractive, often more erotic, and this increases one’s chances for sexual encounters as well as increases one’s own sexual confidence. Tattooing is a creative force in that it resurfaces the body, so to speak, and can enhance curves and hide scars or skin blemishes. Here, it seems tattooing is very much a part of the pleasure principle, an example of Eros. From these two conclusions, Freud would say that tattooing is a fusion of both the death drive and Eros: the death drive is fused with libidinal energy. And while that seems like an acceptable answer given what is said, for those unaware of Freud’s theories this lands tattooing in the realm of sadism and masochism. But does it belong there, with what he and others call ‘the sexual perversions’? Does getting tattooed necessarily mean you’re a masochist? This point I think I will return to in a mother discussion, I mean another discussion. Later on.

Isn’t describing the human body as full of these kinds of drives (life, death, and the like) absurd, since Freud is essentially applying meaning to human actions and a human being (brain, body, etc) is a part of nature, a part of the universe you could say …. according to Camus, the natural universe is naturally meaningless? I think I like this idea better, being absurd, since it doesn’t involve my parents, my asshole, or repression. Plus, Camus is sexier to think about. Maybe Freud’s right, it is all about sex ….

Freud: No doubt, thinking about sex. Picturing you naked.

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Future Publication News

FYI to my readers ….
The entries I did on Gadamer will be included in a paper that will appear in a book sometime in 2013 – Tattoos & Philosophy: I Ink, Therefore I am (Philosophy For Everyone series). I am co-authoring this paper with Tanya Rodriguez (John Jay College, CUNY). So excited!! Tanya and I work well together, so this should be a blast (and it’s not often that writing a paper is fun).

The abstract we submitted that was approved looks like this:

Fleshy Canvas: The Aesthetics of Tattoo
Tattoos challenge traditional philosophy of art by demanding that we expand the core conceptions of aesthetic experience, interpretation of meaning, and the judgment of beauty. To understand how tattoos express meaning, one must consider more than final product or pure form, for an illustrated body is more than just painted canvas. The tattoo is a dialogical art form that engages several elements: the artist, the subject, the subject’s body as canvas, as well as community, which serves as context and audience to the artwork.
Contrary to canonical western aesthetics, we argue that one is never a disinterested onlooker when approached by art; one is deeply affected, altered. The relationship art provides is ongoing and deep; it is filled with meaning. Tattoos invoke a unique kind of aesthetic experience in that they create a dialogue where understanding is constantly re-negotiated. In this paper, we apply the hermeneutical aesthetics of Hans-Georg Gadamer to the experience of tattoos, and consider feminist conceptions of beauty by Peg Brand and Marcia Muelder Eaton. Drawing upon the tradition of Kant and Hume, then breaking away from its commitments, we argue that tattoos can be deemed something of beauty and worthy of being considered art.

I will be back to my usual blogging soon, once I manage to get through a conference and a pile of work that requires immediate attention. A philosopher’s work is never done, and sadly that is even true for an unemployed philosopher … the pile of ‘stuff’ seems to regenerates itself as if it has Logos.
Stay tuned.

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