Somatexts: Tattoos as Technology, Bodies as Text

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
Northeast Modern Language Association 51st Annual Convention (Boston, MA)
contact email: 

Whereas most people employ more temporary “sign vehicles” (Goffman 1959) such as haircuts, make-up, and clothing as forms of signification that can be revised in relation to cultural shifts, the relative permanence of tattoos as a technology of body modification complicates the mobility needed by tattooed bodies to negotiate their significatory space, even as such tattoos have the potential to “speak” multiple meanings across various modes of non-verbal transmission, or become the impetus for queer or non-normative kinship. That perceptions of invasive body modification remain predominantly couched on narratives of personal mythmaking or modern primitivism belies how both a tattoo’s semantic plenitude and the signifying body on which it is inscribed are flattened into a simulated Self that can then be disciplined and regulated, especially in the case of female, queer, racialized, disabled, or mature bodies. Thus, the question “What does your tattoo mean?” and its (rational-moral) permutations “Why did you get it?” or “Why would you get it?” are not so much about the tattoo as sign as they are about the iconoclastic marking of the sacralized body.


While tattoo (and other types of body modification) discourses have traditionally focused on the practice either as acts of resistance marked by pathological deviance or a desire to be individualized, or as practices of postmodern commodification characterized by hyperfashionability and infinite customizability, this NeMLA panel seeks conceptions of tattoos and tattooing that perhaps represent points of breakdown within this conceptual binary, or otherwise depart from it altogether. Building on Elizabeth Bell’s analysis of the semiotic layering in literature and art that transforms bodies from “painted ciphers with no weight… to a second definition of cipher [as] texts encoded to conceal their meaning” through conventions of representation, this session seeks critical interrogations of diverse media sources (literature, film, art, etc.) that engage with the potentially violent corporeality of tattoos, their function as both script and scribe of modified bodies, and the manner by which they at once sediment and crystallize the Self in processes that the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin describes as “spirit moving slowly enough to be seen as matter”.


Please submit by September 30, 2019 proposals of 250-300 words (with a bio of at most 100 words) on how you intend to address one or more of the talking points above. Please submit through the direct link here:


For any questions or inquiries about the panel, please email Christian Ylagan at For more general inquiries about the Northeast MLA's 51st Annual Convention (Boston, MA; March 5-8, 2020), please email or check the NeMLA website at