Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 10.1 (2003) 25-27
THE CENTRAL THEMES OF "Commodity Body/Sign: Borderline Personality Disorder and the Signification of Self-Injurious Behavior" reflect issues that cut across the disciplines represented by this journal and have received increasing attention from anthropologists. Medical anthropologists, as well as psychological anthropologists and others interested in symbolic analysis of the body, have addressed such topics as the culture of biomedicine and the cultural shaping of psychiatric classification, the multiple meanings of body modifications, power relations in therapeutic interactions between doctor and patient, and cultural variation in understandings of normality and abnormality.
Curiously, there is little anthropological literature that directly focuses on either borderline personality disorder (BPD) or self-injurious acts per se. Indeed anthropological research on psychiatric diagnosis, classification, and treatment, as well as ethnopsychiatry, include scant reference to personality disorders. One exception is Nuckolls' 1992 article, "Toward a Cultural History of the Personality Disorders," which raises pertinent questions for one of Potter's introductory statements—that the majority of those diagnosed with BPD are women. Nuckolls directly addresses gender ideology and gender roles in the United States in his comparison of antisocial personality and histrionic personality diagnoses. In his paper, he argues that these personality disorders have cultural histories and are strongly congruent with prevailing gender stereotypes, such that men are many times more likely to be diagnosed as antisocial than women and women much more likely to be diagnosed as histrionic (Nuckolls 1992, 37). He also historicizes the emergence of certain behavioral styles that have been seen as characteristic of women and men, and the evolution of psychiatric diagnoses that classify extreme manifestations of these behavioral styles.
The issue of why women, rather than men, are more frequently diagnosed with BPD is not elaborated in Potter's article, although she notes the importance of considering the intersection of gender and "identifying behaviors" associated with BPD. Cultural analyses of gender ideology in the United States might suggest that the connection involves gendered expectations concerning emotionality and relational context but these articulations remain intriguing and underexplored. One might speculate that BPD/self-injury occurs in the context of particular gender ideologies, perhaps in class-based, industrialized societies where the body is highly commodified. It appears that the history of this constellation of symptoms and behaviors remains to be written.
Cultural analysis of self-injury, a theme that runs through Potter's article, tends to be embedded in the anthropological literature on body ornamentation, initiation rituals, and "culture-bound" syndromes. Mascia-Lees and Sharpe (1992, 1) describe the body as "a site of adornment, manipulation, and mutilation," practices with roots reaching back as far as 30,000 years, and include as examples head deformation, scarification, foot binding, tooth filing, lip plates, nose rings, tattoos, subincision, and genital cutting.
However, the concept of self-injury, as Potter notes, is problematic in the discipline of anthropology given the significance historically accorded to cultural relativism. Correspondingly, body "modification" is not "self-injury" as long as it is socially normative, for example, a facet of an initiation ordeal or body ornamentation (e.g., circumcision, scarification, piercing). Among the rare examples of acts that seem readily identifiable as "self-injury" are New Guinea practices of cutting off a finger to demonstrate mourning and Baatombu (West African) male finger amputation to show grief and anger over a wife's infidelity. Both are, however, considered culturally legitimate and not indicative of pathology.
Potter's argument draws heavily on the notion of "body as text," derived largely from literary theory and feminist philosophy (Butler 1990; Jaggar and Bordo 1989). The perspective of "body as text" has influenced anthropological theory over the past two decades, particularly in the interpretive and postmodernist schools of thought. The body as a text of femininity is aptly characterized by Bordo, who argues that the continuum between female disorder and normal femininity is revealed by means of an analysis of symbolic meaning of gender in historical context. Thus, "we find the body of the sufferer deeply inscribed with an ideological construction of femininity emblematic of the periods in question . . . The bodies of disordered women in this way offer themselves as an aggressively graphic text for the...