Surfaces of inscription may include such things as sheets of paper, computer screens, digital writing pads, scrolls, tapestries, bank notes, invoices, receipts, postage stamps, licenses, certificates, diplomas, sheets of cardboard, and sheets of canvas.
Surfaces of inscription may also include such things as windowpanes, glass bottles or jars, coffee mugs, watch or clock faces, cement or asphalt surfaces (such as streets and sidewalks), street signs, blackboards, posters, and billboards.
They may also include wooden surfaces (such as furniture, walls, doors, and floors), medicinal tablets or capsules, surfaces of the human body, and articles of clothing.
They may also include blocks of stone (such as pillars, columns, gravestones, statues, and monuments), stone walls (such as cave walls), blocks of soap, wax, clay, or brick, and coins, medals, insignias, badges, tools, and weapons.
Surfaces of (metaphorical) inscription may include such things as thoughts, impressions, memories, emotions, feelings, attitudes, and (moral, aesthetic, and cultural) sensibilities.
Inscriptions may vary in their legibility and durability. Some may be relatively permanent, others merely temporary.
Instruments of inscription may include pencils, pens, needles, styluses, crayons, paint or ink brushes, spray guns, pieces of chalk, drills, computers, video or movie projectors, and printing presses.
To inscribe may be to write, print, draw, paint, carve, engrave, stamp, paste, or burn words, letters, symbols, or images onto something. It may also be to write a signature, personal message, or dedication (e.g. inside the covers of a book, on a photograph, or on a work of art).
The body surface may be a site, locus, or medium of self-inscription, self-identification, self-representation, and self-expression. An interesting exception to this rule, however, may be when people inscribe other people’s names (such as the names of friends or family members) on their own bodies.
We may inscribe or map our social identities onto our own bodies (e.g. through the use of makeup, lipstick, nail polish, jewelry, tattoos, and body piercings). Cosmetic surgery may be another means of inscribing or altering the surface and contour of the body. Bodily inscriptions may be markers of not only social identity, but also social and cultural difference.
Growth or shaving of facial or body hair, and the wearing of wigs, toupees, and particular hairstyles may also be ways of inscribing particular aesthetic, religious, political, social, and cultural values and attitudes onto the surface of the body.
Modes of inscription may be governed by textual (aesthetic, interpretive, stylistic, and rhetorical), social, and cultural codes. The wearing of a bodily inscription may be a kind of performance that may be governed by social performance codes (as when bodily inscriptions have to be disguised or concealed in certain social settings).
Michel Foucault (1977) describes the human body as a surface of inscription of events that are traced by language and dissolved by ideas.1 History inscribes or imprints itself on the human body. The body is the site of a dissociated self, insofar as genealogy (as an analysis of ancestral descent) requires us to maintain past events in their proper dispersion. Genealogy requires us to identify the accidents that gave birth to what exists and has value for us, and to discover that at the root of what we know and what we are there is not truth or being, but the exteriority of accidents.2,3
Jacques Derrida (1974) says that writing signifies inscription, insofar as it is taken to mean something durable and something occurring spatially. The world may be seen as a space of inscription.4
Gilles Deleuze (1986) says that the human face may be a surface of inscription, insofar as thoughts, feelings, and emotions may be inscribed on it.5
Ernesto Laclau (1990) argues that structural dislocations in society provide spaces of representation for individuals, and that those spaces of representation may function as alternatives to the socially dominant forms of structural discourse. The suturing of structural dislocations may in turn create new spaces of representation. These new spaces function as surfaces on which structural dislocations and social demands are inscribed. Structural dislocation is therefore a source of freedom for the individual subject. The individual subject’s acts of self-identification and self-determination are made possible by structural indeterminacy and undecidability. The relation between the surfaces of inscription constituted by spaces of representation and whatever is inscribed on them is therefore essentially unstable. The incomplete and unfinished nature of surfaces of inscription is the condition of possibility for the constitution of social imaginaries (which in turn are horizons of possibility for the emergence of the world of objects).6
Elizabeth Grosz (1993) distinguishes between two kinds of approach to theorizing the human body: (1) the inscriptive, and (2) the lived body. The inscriptive approach conceives the body as a surface on which social law, morality, and values are inscribed, while the lived body approach is concerned with the lived experience of the body, and with the body’s internal or psychic inscription.7 Grosz explains that “the body can be regarded as a kind of hinge or threshold: it is placed between a psychic or lived interiority and a more sociopolitical exteriority that produces interiority through the inscription of the body’s outer surface.”8
Grosz (1994) also explains that “the body’s psychical interior is established as such through the social inscription of bodily processes, that is, the ways in which the 'mind' or psyche is constituted so that it accords with the social meanings attributed to the body in its concrete historical, social, and cultural particularity.”9 This does not mean that the self or ego is “an effect of which the body or the body’s surface is the cause…The ego is derived from two kinds of 'surface.' On the one hand, the ego is on the 'inner' surface of the psychical agencies; on the other hand, it is a projection or representation of the body’s 'outer surface.'"10
Margo DeMello (2000), in discussing the social significance of tattoos, notes that the human body may be both inscribed and reinscribed by culture and society. Tattoos may be a means for individuals to write themselves into a particular kind of social context, and also to be “read” within that context. People may construct “tattoo narratives” about their own tattoos in order to provide others with an appropriate social context within which to determine their meaning.11 Tattoos (and surgical scars, and other kinds of bodily inscriptions) may “tell a story” about their wearers, and their wearers may in turn “tell a story” about them.
1Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, edited by Donald F. Bouchard, translated by Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 148.
2Ibid., p. 146.
3Foucault, “Nietzsche, La Généalogie, L’Histoire,” in Hommage À Jean Hyppolite, edited by Suzanne Bachelard, et al. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1971), p. 152.
4Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p. 44.
5Adrian Jonston and Catherine Malabou, discussing Deleuze’s Cinema 1 (1986), in “The Face and the Close-Up: Deleuze’s Spinozist Approach to Descartes,” in Self and Emotional Life: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), p. 46.
6Ernesto Laclau, New Reflections on The Revolution of Our Time (London: Verso, 1990), p. 63.
7Elizabeth Grosz, “Bodies and Knowledges: Feminism and the Crisis of Reason,” in Feminist Epistemologies, edited by Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 196.
8Ibid., p. 196.
9Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) p. 27.
10Ibid., p. 37.
11Margo DeMello, Bodies of Inscription: A cultural history of the modern tattoo community (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 12.