Agamben + Tattoos

I once got in a fight with an older man at Angelika’s Kitchen about sharing the meaning of my tattoos. I was on a date. We’re still together by some act of god. I’m pretty sure I ruined that guy’s meal. At that point I began to realize it was me making a fuss over my tattoos, not anyone else. And I wasn’t sure why.

When I first started getting tattoos it seemed rebellious because they were permanent. Now they seem rebellious because they are clear signs of our own human impermanence. It’s just flesh. I’ve noticed that people don’t necessarily like when I point this out. Either it comes off like I am negating the importance of their own tattoos or I am a member of some death cult.  It isn’t either of these things. I like the notion of impermanence. For what it’s worth it’s making this life a lot more pleasant.

In Daughter Buffalo, a novel all about death and dying, Janet Frame writes:

“In my early life it was the cemeteries which gave me relief from the attachments of living.”

Death is permanent; but these cemeteries remind the narrator of how clinging to materialistic elements of life is effectively useless.

My best friend has tattoos everywhere. She is pretty much the most alive person I know because of her constant disregard for our cultural fixation on permanence and stable knowledge, on our societal obsession with having a handle on things. There is the ancient proverb verba volant, scripta manent. Tattoos kick that sayings ass. Words are not permanent at all. Not on our bodies and not once we’ve written them on a page. Acknowledging this fact makes both writing and tattooing a lot less riddled with self-doubt.

In The Idea of Prose Giorgio Agamben writes about the idea of a number of things. One of those things is light and dark. In The Idea of Light he writes:

“I turn on the light in a dark room: naturally the lit room is no longer the dark room: I have lost it forever. Yet isn’t it the same room? Isn’t the dark room the only content of the lit room? That which I can no longer have, that which infinitely flees backward, and likewise thrusts me forward is only a representation of language: the dark which light presupposes. But if I give up the attempt to grasp this presupposition, if I turn my attention to the light itself, if I receive it- what the light gives me is then the same room, the non-hypothetical dark. That which is veiled, that which is closed in itself is the only content of the revelation- light is only the coming to itself of the dark.”

Our ideas go to the page to die. This is so Platonic: light v. dark. Is it promoting a dualistic view of the universe? God, I hope not. Ok. I am ready to say it isn’t, because in Agamben’s scenario light and dark are still present in the same room. When we stop associating the written utterance with permanence we are much freer to write as and what we want and from any number of positions we choose for ourselves. If we are able to accept as inevitable the giant gap between light and dark, between thought and word, when we see everything as translation we can stop fooling ourselves into thinking that words are permanent or that words can provide accurate representations of reality. We must accept light as the best representation of dark we have, but this doesn’t mean we must enshrine it with the same meaning we grant to darkness. Language can only represent.

Agamben moves through his the series of various ideas and arrives a bit later at death. The Idea of Death:

The angel of death, who in some legends in called Samael and with whom it is said even Moses had to struggle, is language. Language announces death- what else does it do? But precisely this announcement makes it so difficult for us to die. From time immemorial, for the entire duration of man’s history, humanity has struggled with this angel, trying to wrench him from the secret he restricts himself to announcing. But from his childish hands one can wrench only the announcement he had in any case come to bring. The angel is not at fault for this, and only those who understand the innocence of language likewise grasp the true sense of the announcement and may, in the event, learn to die.”

Our tattoos announce our own end. Our writing does the same. I find it difficult to take my own advice on this matter (when it comes to writing, not when it comes to tattoos). Language is innocent because it stares back into our faces hoping to convey something that is ineffable and it does so unwittingly over and over again.

The Saturday evening before Easter Sunday 2008 my parents walked into our South Williamsburg apartment only to find me and three of my best friends sticking each other with needles and ink. They didn’t know it but it was my third tattoo. They weren’t happy. As a young person I dealt with a fair amount of obsessive compulsive disorder that probably would have warranted visits to a psychologist. Instead, I went to Catholic school. Expressing personal desires as a child is a break with the parent (I now have a great therapist). And for me, writing was a way of rebelling from an early age, to express things I didn’t yet have the courage to say aloud. That night in 2008, maybe it had something to do with seeing their once neurotic child letting go of something, letting go of an attachment to the illusion of perfect flesh and accepting the impermanence of life and meaning. Or else, maybe more likely, they were worried I wouldn’t ever get a normal job with all those weird tattoos.

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