Over the last couple days, I have been drinking an herbal tea that contains Senna Leaf (Cassia Angustifolia), which a roommate had brought in with a large variety of other tea leaves. The front of the box was marked in all caps: REGULAR STRENGTH and DIETARY SUPPLEMENT. I had expected that like many other teas, the latter description was simply a palliative term that attracted individuals looking for anything that mentions “diet” as a means for weight loss.

However, after waking up with intense abdominal pain this morning and several rounds of diarrhea, I realized that I was not shortchanged on the concept of DIETARY SUPPLEMENT.

I have always kept an interest in oral supplements: as a child, I would start ingesting whatever new age pills that my stepmother stocked every few months; St. John’s Wort sticks in my mind. With the odd name and the very ambiguous benefits that the bottle implied (as some kind of treatment for depression), I became an optimistic skeptic for the supplement and others. A few years ago, I found online communities revolving around these treatments and member’s own cocktails for a supposed healthier life. The term was “Nootropics”, a fancy word for cognitive enhancers. Not only was St. John’s Wort the tip of a very large iceberg, it was at times barely registered as a legitimate substance compared to others.

To ingest selected parts of nature and gain physical or mental benefits — is that not the dream of an age (more than two thousand years old) seeking immediate effects over long-term processes? And it continues to be a dream: read into a nootropic substance long enough and all are validated and invalidated at the same time, creating enough doubt that I don’t fly out of my room to purchase a couple bottles, but instead keep reading about new developments in studies and individual stories.

Start from the benefits and drawbacks of St. John’s Wort (via NCIH):

“St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), a plant that grows in the wild, has been used for centuries for mental health conditions. It’s widely prescribed for depression in Europe.”

One starts with validation: “widely prescribed in Europe.” The dream appears! Society has deemed this ingestable substance as worth prescribing, worth speaking of in the same sentence as a treatment for something.

“St. John’s wort isn’t consistently effective for depression. Do not use it to replace conventional care or to postpone seeing your health care provider.”

And then the dream dissipates: “not consistently effective.” For all of its wide acceptance, studies put the supplement just above a placebo. And then:

“St. John’s wort limits the effectiveness of many prescription medicines.”

So at its worst, St. John’s Wort does do something; it can have the surprising effect of dampening the benefits of pharmaceutical medicines. And that’s the magic of nootropics: it does everything and nothing and sometimes exacerbates. It is akin to the old gods and the new: vengeful, merciful, loving, and most of all: ambivalent.

Despite my push-pull relationship with nootropics, I am still fascinated with the dream. So I ingest psyllium husk dietary fiber and take multivitamins and take laxatives: I want that immediate effect, and I know that these do something physical. I can feel my insides crawl and settle, my urine change colors. I am fascinated with my changing self, my changing excretions because of these supplements. They are beyond magic: they are real, passing through my body and taking their toll, positive or negative. They are the elementals of earth, allowing me to have one iota of understanding of the unknowable: my physicality, my mentality.


One could incorrectly surmise that the audio medium has hit cultural lows as its monetary value spirals to zero. Instead music has profoundly grown in importance – as a marker for personal identity. No other art form could attain such a status: there are no more political movements (in its most unpolitical definition) in the name of paintings or statues; populist movies are reduced to products of entertainment, inciting nothing but inane discourse on fantasy. Music burns at the heart, riles people into moving in fantastic and cruel ways, attacking naysayers and reveling within their in-groups. It is not surprising that movie prices will rocket as music becomes more convenient to access, freer — it will always be the eternal, priceless, art, where visual mediums pass on as trite affairs, begging its audiences to delight in repetitive Image-Effects.

How could capitalism contain the music form? Its major advantage is light feet: a musician could meld three or more genres at once, play a single note, remix existing tracks – there is no end to music’s destruction and resulting construction; how could a monetary system that survives in the obfuscation of arbitrary value continue to surround a form that wholly deals in arbitrariness? Music at its most essential is madness incarnate, illogical, and wholly aesthetic. Music is immoral, relishing in beauties that may not be discovered in decades or centuries or millennia, only to be appreciated once another individual has “progressed” or even “regressed” enough — or “moved left”?

Capitalism was successful with music when it could in fact obscure its pricelessness: the days of consolidated production and dissemination, when there was even price to creating something that would be heard — yet this era of physically recorded music was simply a subsection of the entire experience, the consumer subsection. My readers should understand that by tackling the subject of music in the 20th century, where consumption was determined by several companies dedicated to recording, mastering, manufacturing, marketing, and selling of music, I am trapping within the high walls of capitalist/anti-capitalist discourse. Remember my friends: what is visible may not be what is true. Just as the myth of the “successful”, money-making musician pervaded the 20th and 21st centuries – so did the myth of un-success: the decrepit group with no single recorded song, traveling through the United States without one producer discovering them.

And lo and behold capitalist music, conveniently discovered and recorded and mastered and manufactured and marketed and sold to the consuming individual – but did you miss it? Unlike the Marxists and the anti-capitalists, I do not understand all modern music as a product of this mode of production, but I have relegated the phenomenon as just a small slice of the entire pie. The myth that both the capitalists and their “antis” maintained was that the music “industry” solely consisted of that which is “visible” to the public at large. How myopic, how shortsighted, how fearful it must be to think that music could be confined to an economic system — a system not apart of human nature, even when anti-capitalists say it is! For those that have taken the opposite of capitalism are merely working within its confines for negation – I have negated both and have found capitalist music to be such a small part of the whole experience!

How fearful it must be! And how frightful for anti-capitalists to discover that their efforts were so small, for their adversary determines so little of music and culture at large — that they have swum among shallow waters and ignored the darker depths of greater self-honesty. At times that which is discussed does not exist — but does it occur to these people that topics not discussed – may indeed exist? The “unknown unknown”, as Donald Rumsfeld said; that which is still “invisible”, murky, cold, and unfamiliar. May the anti-capitalist look away from the honesty of the world outside of Capitalism!

Then let us be honest: “visible” music resides in a digitized ocean froth carried around via fiber wire and radio waves and copper cables. And let us be honest that the “invisible” may choose to piggyback on the Information Age’s technological currents, but may also — more commonly, choose  — the air between musicians and their appreciators. Live, local shows, “invisible” openers for “visible” bands, attended by invisible friends, family, and supporters; invisible communications at parties and gatherings, discussing new ideas for music and rejection of the old; invisible house shows at which audiences can discover a new sound while supporting their own. The death in the public space may be attributed to Capitalism – but has it been attributed to the private passions of individuals for their arts?

Human nature may have been visibly drawn to the convenience of Capitalist products, with music included. Capitalist music is a drop in the bucket compared to an art tradition forged over tens of thousands of years. The vanity of economic skeptics! To think that they could own a part of human nature -—rhythm and melody — and to think that one would have to resist those that were supposedly in control!

I’m no expert in this field of anthropology/sociology, but I wanted to search around academic articles on the possibilities of tattoo’s expanding popularity. Margo DeMello (“Bodies of Inscription”) argues that bringing non-Western (largely East Asian among other cultures) techniques and imagery to the West allowed for an artistic distance that was more acceptable than simply skulls and MOM tattoos:

Where is today’s version of the Rock of Ages or the Rose of No-Man’s-Land? These classic American tattoos have been replaced by a more “authentic” tattoo, one which distances the wearer from his or her white, American, middle-class standing-a position that is simultaneously confirmed and rejected through the tattoos. It is confirmed because to wear tribal or Japanese tattoos is to mark one as middle class, educated, and artistically sophisticated; yet it is rejected, because for many the non-Western tattoo is a way to rebel against middle-class values. The irony here is that neither tribal tattoos nor the Chicano tattoos that have recently become popular among whites originated in the middle-class tribal tattoos were first worn by punks and gays, and Chicano tattoos were worn by Chicanos and convicts. Yet they have become popularized through middle-class wear, and the tribal tattoo, at least for a while, stood with the Japanese tattoo as the ultimate middle-class adornment. (Margo DeMello, 2000)

So the tattoo is a political act: to symbolize rejection of middle-class values but to also avoid lower-class stereotypes (gang/biker/sailor tattoos) – thereby solidifying middle-class values to appropriate but modify to maintain class positions.

Angela Orend and Patricia Gagné bring up an interesting point of view in their article “Corporate Logo Tattoos and the Commodification of the Body (2009)”:

Turner (1997, 1999) contends that tattoos are a routine feature of consumer culture. Drawing on Baudrillard’s (1995, 1996, 1998) argument that the mass production of signs in postmodern society has led to a loss of meaning, with the sign bearing little, if any, connection to its original referent, Turner (1999, 41) maintains that tattoos are part of a crisis of identity in postmodern times where “body marks are commercial objects in a leisure marketplace and have become optional aspects of a body aesthetic, which playfully and ironically indicate social membership” whereas “tattoos have no cosmic foundation from which meaning could be derived.” As such, they are part of the spectacle of signs that are vacuous messages to the self (also see Bauer 2002; Foster and Hummel 2000)… Accordingly, tattooed bodies are “commodities on display,” with tattoos having little connection to the referents they once symbolized (Featherstone 1991a, 173; also see Scheper-Hughes and Wacquant 2002).

This one is quite the downer on tattoos, but as a tattooed person myself, I quite agree to with the sentiment: that middle-class consumer culture has found a new frontier to solidify self-identity through bold and understandable (“spectacle”) signs that invoke membership and rejection – but in the end become hollow signs by decontextualizing them upon the body – what exactly does a “Harley Davidson” tattoo actually mean once upon the body? The simple statement of “I like Harleys”?

An important point that several articles I’ve read mentioned (though others directly mention secularism):

Specifically, as individual identities are less rooted in kinship and geographic communities, individuals are influenced by consumer culture to believe that they can purchase individual and group identity through the products they buy. (Orend and Gagné, 2009)

Deniz Atik and Cansu Yildirim proposed a rather uninspired explanation of the rising popularity of tattoos, citing various celebrities and other famous individuals who have paved the way tattoos to be more culturally acceptable. However, it jumps the gun on the second and third “why”:

  • Why One: Why have tattoos grown in popularity? Proposition: because of celebrities and popular media.
  • Why Two: Why have celebrities and popular media perceived that it would be more acceptable to broadcast and popularize tattoos? ???

We can answer Why Two with Orend and Gagnés summarization: that middle-class/consumer culture has found identity in a previously stigmatized practice.

  • Why Three: Why has consumer culture found identity in tattoos?

Why Three could be answered with the innate properties of the modern tattoo: they are easy-to-understand signs that have paralleled the expanding iconography consumer culture – where Apple has its logo, a middle-class consumer can also self-brand with a tattoo that can refer to preferred characterizations: intellect, worldliness, creativity. Otherwise summarized in “Reasons Behind Body Art Adoption: What Motivates Young Adults to Acquire Tattoos”:

The differentiation of tattooing from other body modification techniques (e.g. scarring, piercing, painting, and shaping) is based on its relative permanence, symbolism embodied in the creative potential of tattoo designs, and rapid dissemination across social strata, which represents interest for marketers due to impressive sales potential (Pentina and Spears, 2011).

Tattoos are at the intersection of the changing meaning of images in the modernist/postmodernist world, middle-class/consumer identity, and general bourgeois appropriation of lower-class aesthetics in order to self-differentiate – consequently maintaining class divisions in the process.

Hope this is not totally wrong! But it’s a fascinating subject cause I have a love/hate relationship with tattoos – it’s viscerally satisfying but symbolically a minefield.

Posted in /r/askanthropology.