On a summer day in 1995, an Indian newspaper shocked the world with news of the abduction of five foreign tourists by Kashmiri militants. Two of the tourists were eventually found dead. The body of one of them bore the name of the militant group carved in its flesh. The crime was indeed ghastly—but it was also curious and thought provoking. What did it mean for these militants to write their name in the body of their captive? Did "writing" on this particular body signify conquest? The act suggested a new consciousness about writing and a changed stance toward its very nature.
The event prompted my exploration of the different schools of thought about writing in the past few years. Jack Goody, an anthropologist and a pioneer of the field of literacy studies, has consistently given priority to understanding the role that written communication has played within contemporary societies in the emergence, development, and organization of social and cultural institutions, i.e. religion, law, commerce, bureaucracy, and the [End Page 63] state (Goody 1977, 1986, 1987). Literacy studies following Goody have, however, branched out in many directions. In the field of language socialization, Elinor Ochs and Alessandro Duranti have shown how literacy studies are the key factor in the language socialization of young children (Ochs and Duranti 1995). Niko Besnier's ethnography has analyzed the changing concept of personhood that accompanies the acquisition of literacy (Besnier 1995). In the case of ancient Greece, Michael Herzfeld has shown that claims for civilization were closely tied to literacy (Herzfeld 1989). William Smalley's work among the Hmong community is a classic case study of politics and nationalism in literacy studies illustrating the community's quest for a new writing system in a wake of a political upheaval (Smalley 1990).
The interface between literacy and gender has also been productive. Nushu, the writing system used solely by women in China, has attracted the attention of feminist anthropologists (Liu 2004), and a recent innovative ethnography on female literacy in Nepal describes literacy as an agent of power, as a new generation of women now choose life partners through written correspondence, thus moving away from traditional arranged marriages (Ahearn 2001).
The body as a trope of analysis is not unknown in studies of language. William Hanks's research on the cultural definition of the living body in Maya, including its orientation and space usage, illustrates the consequences of social relations for conversational practice in Maya (Hanks 2000). Joao Biehl has shown the interconnectedness among language, writing, and the body in his portrayal of Catarina, a mentally ill woman confined in "Vita," an asylum in Brazil (Biehl 2005:21). Catarina's "dictionary," a book in which she records down words or phrases, gives the reader a view into her world. Using Catarina's writing, Biehl challenges common perceptions of the "mentally ill" in Brazil.
This collection of essays represents a departure from the works noted above and argues that writing using any known letter forms on the human body elevates those signs and places them outside of the realm of everyday literacy. In making this argument, the essays approach the discourse on literacy in a different light. The human body is a space that mirrors subjective will and desire, and imposing a known alphabet on that very personal space assumes a meaning that is larger than the letters themselves for the reader. The process of writing on the flesh can be painful and long, and difficult, but that difficulty becomes an integral part of the meaning of the letters. This altered meaning—a letter on the skin as opposed to simply a letter—influences [End Page 64] the environment in which the writing is being produced. Both Susan Phillips and Daphne Lei take this position in their essays on popular culture. Each argues that letters inscribed on the body have an elevated meaning.
Yet another approach to power in literacy is found in the essay on religion. I argue that in a case in which the shapes of letters resemble parts of the human body, the letters convey meanings that are larger than the phonetic symbols they represent. Sacred letters are divine...