More Kantian Tattoos, But This Time a Different Angle

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Last time I talked about Kant and tattoos, I took stuff from the 3rd Critique. This term I have been back to teaching the 1st Critique again, and the more I think about it the more I think I can actually bend it to tattoos as well.  

One of the most famous distinctions in the 1st Critique occurs during the discussion of Space and Time in the Transcendental Aesthetic.  When Kant speaks of these pure forms of intuition, how they apply to the manifold of chaotic sense data that floods in through your senses, this is the flood of stimuli that later becomes processed through the imagination, then the pure forms of the understanding, and finally unified by the original unity of apperception (the I), resulting in a cognitive output by a being with a unified consciousness …. Kant first mentions his famous distinction results known as phenomena-noumena. Basically, the pure forms of space and time as well as the pure concepts of the understanding can only apply to empirical data that has come in through the senses, and what results (the unified cognitive output) reflects the process it has undergone – aka since it has been processed by a being with 5 senses, 12 categories (pure concepts of the understanding), a spontaneously creative imagination and rule-oriented faculty of understanding, the resulting ‘picture’ has boundaries – the apparatus that assembled it has set the shape. So, if objects in the world have stimuli for 13 types of senses and 5 dimensions, maybe a trillion colours, we simply cannot know these aspects because our cognitive apparatus cannot pick up or process those cues. I will flag the word ‘know’ here, since he is talking about what we can known, not what exists. Kant is leaving room for the fact that there maybe many things about the world we simply cannot perceive or process through our 5 senses and human brain, not yet anyway (we have yet to evolve more senses or apprehension of more dimensions). So many people have taken this distinction to be metaphysical when in fact it is largely and intended to be mainly epistemological:  these two distinctions are actually two aspects of the same reality, speaking to what we can know of reality, not what exists or the status that thing has in the world. If a creature could only see in black and white, and two dimensions, then their picture of the world will be composed from that. Now, I’m not saying Kant didn’t make some claims that sound rather metaphysical … he did at one point say noumena cannot be in space and time. He should have just shut the fuck up and said we cannot know – end of story. But I digress…..

Participating in a tattoo art history panel all day got me to thinking about several threads, one of which I will discuss now. What can a phenomena be?  The normal answer usually consists of mental contents or ideas that form as a result of the stimuli, but I think what we overlook is the question of where meaning fits in here.  Is meaning phenomena or noumena? If it is phenomena then it is entirely knowable by us and if we take a literal understanding of Kant, it would be a subjective cognitive creation, rooting in some type of objective validity and be something we can judge.  If it is noumena, then it is described as unknowable to us and independent of our minds, acknowledgment, and our language or art.  If we take tattoos, both notions here are unsatisfactory really because their limitations – meanings can be subjective and personal, but they are often larger than ourselves and never fully given, but meanings do feel at times utterly beyond ourselves, sublime really, many times determined by others than ourselves, and so difficult to pinpoint with certainty that maybe they are unknowable and we refuse to admit that. If one asks a tattooed person what their ink means, even then they only get a picture of the present, possibly the past, but never the completed, never the future. Meaning is constantly in motion, constantly evolving, and so one can never have the end point. But meaning seems to be something we create and have as a human species – I’ve yet to see plants talk about what sunshine means to them or what the trees are saying with their canopy designs. So, what am I saying? Meaning seems to be both, it has both aspects. This phenomena-noumena distinction seems to be one of access and experiential background: the tattooed person has full access to their memories, feelings, preferences, and empirical situation in the world, and hence they have most of the noumenal aspects concerning their ink. They are even along for the ride as their ink takes on new meanings and significance, and this is a sign that even they lack to have all knowledge of the noumenal side. Maybe that is okay though, a little mystery in the mix. But the onlooker, the witness, has only the phenomenal side of things. Even when they ask the tattooed person what it all means, they only gain a better glance at the phenomenal.

Tattooed bodies actually exemplify the phenomena-noumena distinction. The person who bears tattoos has their own meanings, their own memories and significance for each piece of inked splendour. A person who witnesses another’s tattoos forms their own ideas of the meaning and significance of the inked artwork based on their life experience. This interpretation maybe right, it maybe wrong, but it speaks only to what can be known through the cognitive process of experiential things and not to existence of them. The fact that you are even thinking about what a tattoo means says you have already accepted it exists – to judge it means you’ve made this assumption. Unless you are dreaming or maybe being tricked by that evil Demon that had fun with old Descartes, then reality isn’t so certain. So, then you’re fucked and this distinction is just not going to help.

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