Circumcision, Text Messaging, the Guillotine and Photography

In one of my classes, our professor pointed out a structural parallelism between the traditional practice of male circumcision and text messaging using cellphones.

In circumcision, a practice widely observed here in the Philippines, the foreskin is cut from the penis. This is done for religious and hygienic purposes. Meanwhile, in text messaging, words are truncated or shortened for convenience and faster communication.

Both practices involve the removal of an inessential part. In the former, you can still urinate or engage in sexual activities with your penis even without the foreskin. In the latter, you can still understand a word even after the truncation. “Never” for example, becomes “Nvr” while “Someone” can be put in text lingo as “Sum1.”

Apropos the said parallelism between circumcision and text messaging, one can also add the structure of cropping in photography wherein the inessential portions of an image are cut off from the original. All these three practices can be associated to the act of cutting or severance.

Obviously, not all acts of cutting hold a homologous structure. For instance, the act of beheading a person, by using apparatuses such as the Guillotine or even just the sword or axe, has a different configuration to that of cropping in photography.

Cropping preserves the essential part in an image while beheading, which severs the head from the rest of the body, cuts off an essential part. Cropping, as well as photography, involves the preservation of life, of memory. Beheading, in the meantime, is about taking away lives.

On the other hand, the act of taking a picture with a camera can also share the same coordinates as beheading. When you speak of taking a picture, you don’t only preserve a memory into film or a digital container. It also involves a rupture, the violent ripping of a scene off its original circumstance in the world.

By clicking the camera, we remove a specific scene, a particular memory – which we take to be essential – from its original spatio-temporal context. In place of the imaginary fullness of our worldly reality, we replace a flat, static picture. ■

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13 thoughts on “Circumcision, Text Messaging, the Guillotine and Photography

  1. Dunno Karlo, some of these professors get a little WEIRD. Must be all those dusty text books….

    I took a course focusing on Elizabethan literature and the professor SWORE that the lute was symbolic of the male sex organ (his words not mine.) According to him, these Elizabethans couldn’t write the word PENIS (or its many alternatives) in their sonnets so they concocted the idea of using the word LUTE instead. The course was hysterically funny as the Prof. would read aloud all these wonderful sonnets with this sort of lewd, suggestive emphasis. I’m sure he thought he was proving his point as he seemed to get more excited as the hour wore on. Excuse me all the way to hell and back but I couldn’t stop myself from laughing out loud. Really, this man needed to get out more.

    • Guy Savage,

      Perhaps we are reading things differently? The comparison in class was not presented for purposes of elucidating some historical fact (or whatever fact). It was done, rather, as an example of uncovering some uncanny commonality between seemingly different cultural practices, technological innovations, and whatever… So yes, it should be (not just a little but) VERY WEIRD.

      Anyhow, I find your own professor’s assertion not only hysterically funny, but also totally agreeable. I think I’d like to read all those old English sonnets with that in mind! :)

  2. Truncating text (which I never do) is done to save time and effort both for the typist and the reader. It is an informed choice made by someone who is aware of the trivial consequences.

    Philippine circumcision on the other hand is done to infants, or to children, or to adolescents under intense social coercion – hardly ever with full informed consent. It harms and reduces sexual pleasure-receptive capacity 100% of the time, and often causes unexpected results. It also eliminates the exquisite frictionless rolling/gliding mode of stimulation for a man and his partner. When done to infants it increases the risk for meatal stenosis. When done to adults in increases the odds that HIV will pass from an infected man to his partner.

    Text truncation is a modern innovation with a clear benefit.

    Circumcision is a superstitious barbaric blood ritual with conformity its only reward.

    • Ron Low, those are extremely disturbing facts (not to mention a convincing reversal: what we originally thought of as a parallelism actually involves an opposition!). I think I’ll have myself checked by a male genital doctor (or whatever they call the counterpart of a gynecologist)! :)

  3. Yes, you can understand “nvr” and “sum1” but it takes a little more work. In the same way, by removing ~20,000 nerves and a unique rolling action, circumcision makes sex less enjoyable and more work. Cropping a picture makes it more utilitarian and sometimes less artistic. In the same way, though indeed most men can still urinate and have sex after circumcision – if nothing goes wrong! – it removes much of the art from the art of love.

    And what is the religious purpose of circumcision, especially for Christians? The Apostle Paul said “If you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing” (Gal 5:2) and the Catholic church forbids it except for medical need. See http://www.circumstitions.com/Xy.html#catholic

    Most men in the world are not circumcised, and they’d kill you if you tried to do it to them. What right have we to impose in on those too weak to resist?

    • Well, those are cool facts (especially the one about the nerves and sex). :)

      But then, I’m not advocating the imposition or non-imposition of circumcision here. As for “art” in the “art of love”: what is “art” but a historical invention, a label placed on an object by those who stand to benefit from this labelling? :) And “love”? Isn’t it an even more problematic formulation?

      Yes, most people here understand the use of such “truncated” language in text messaging because we are used to it. It has become a convention here not only to conserve effort and time, but more importantly for economic reasons. Text messages with complete words involve longer or more messages which would cost the sender more.

      • No, you weren’t advocating the imposition of circumcision, but you did repeat the professor’s claim that the foreskin is “inessential” and circumcision has a “hygienic” purpose.

        While no-one can say the foreskin is “essential” (many men manage without one), there is a middle ground of “very nice to have”. And there are many body parts (especially women’s) that are equally “inessential” and that it would be equally “hygienic” to remove.

        I’m sad that you decry art and sadder that you decry love. Label or not, benefit or not, art is one of the things that make being human such a joy. Love is another. And “problematic”? Long live such problems! Love and being in love make the world go round, figuratively speaking. But I should more accurately referred to “the finesse of lovemaking”.

        Do they really still charge text messages by the letter anywhere? Mine have gone at a flat rate for the last four years.

      • Indeed, it is nice to know that a practice which we misrecognize here as normal is actually formed by socio-cultural strictures (in the same way that what we commonly take as ‘art’ or ‘love’, concepts which are presented as neutral or universal, actually privileges or are expressive of the preferences of certain groups – usually the dominant ones – in a given field). To problematize the commonsense understandings of the terms ‘art’ and ‘love’ is not at all equivalent to decrying them… :)

  4. A circumcised penis is usually shorter then a cell phone as the lack of skin does not allow it to grow like an intact penis

  5. Hey Karlo: Yes but I got the commonalities. The post sparked a memory of the professor breathing heavily as he read those sonnets.

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