Trypanophobia: Understanding the Power of the Needle

It has been 12 hours since he started his daily routine, hunched over this pile of fabric waiting to become the glorious best seller of the summer with its complex design and its handsewn beading. His back aches from sitting in this position for so long and his tiny fingers are bandaged from the multitude of tiny stab wounds he’s received today. He can’t leave any trace of himself on the garment. That would be too telling, forcing ethics upon the masses who constantly turn a blind eye. The bandages make it difficult for him to hold that tiny piece of metal that controls his very existence. He grasps the needle tightly between his thumb and forefinger, glancing over his shoulder at the watchful eyes keeping him in place. He notices the others hunched over, enveloped in their work, making sure each of these garments are exactly like the detailed drawing from the designer. The pile of finished tops that sit in front of him each looking distinctly similar yet somewhat different all represent his hard work, but no one is ever going to acknowledge it. It’s the designer who gets all of the glory in this game. He threads the needle, missing the tiny eye a couple of times before the thread goes through. Picking up a small bead, he gently holds it in place as he pushes the needle through its hole and then through the fabric, guiding the thread that will then fasten the bead to the fabric. It’s good that he’s only 10, his tiny hands and good eyesight make him the perfect creator of these intricate designs.  


The needle, while a seemingly simple object, has shown its ability to induce intense fear in individuals. So much so that there is even a word for this type of phobia: Trypanophobia.  What is it in this slender piece of metal that has that kind of power? Is it a fear of the pain that comes from the needle’s prick, the piercing of the skin that renders people petrified? If that is the case, then the fear of the needle follows the standard definition of trypanophobia as the excessive fear of needles in the use of injections. This fear focuses on the function of the needle as it punctures the body. But what if that fear extends past the prick finding power in the effects resulting from the needle? We need to realize that the needle, even in its discreet little form, has the potential to be much more powerful than just causing brief pain. It is controlled by systems that make the needle’s power much more significant and it is these systems that give the needle the ability to dehumanize.  

Take for example the scenario written above. What powers are used to control the needle that then has the dehumanizing control over the laborer who is forced to use it? The needle is a tool for that dehumanization. It has the capacity to empower, subordinate, protect life and also remove it. But to really understand the power of the needle, we need to recognize that the needle in most cases acts as a transferor; it transfers thread to the fabric, medicine to the patient, ink to the skin, drugs to the addict, disease to the healthy, death to the convicted, and so on. It is a tool in the most primitive sense and yet also a tool of systems. In these instances, the needle must be oriented into the role of power and to better understand how these orientations assume power, we need to consider the situation or the assemblage in which the needle is used. This paper will look at three examples of the needle in varying assemblages that cause its meaning and power to change, highlighting its ability to dehumanize individuals and groups through its underlying political, social, and economic systems.

Breaking Down the Needle

Every needle has a very basic form. At one end, a pointed tip allows for penetration into a membrane. This sharp point is what allows the needle to fulfill its basic duty. As you move away from this pointed tip, the shaft of the needle often widens. This could be a slight enlargement or a significantly wider base. This all depends on how the needle will be used and what tools to which the needle will be connected. Figure one highlights the three different needles that this paper will analyze. Notice that all three of these needles follow the basic form as mentioned previously. Yet, while these all have that basic similar form, at closer inspection you will notice that these three needles are distinctly different.

Figure 1
Figure 1

The hand-sewing needle, whose function is to guide thread through fabric, is the simplest of the needle forms. This needle has what is called an eye at the opposite end of the point where thread is pushed through and held in place as the needle goes through the fabric. The sewing needle’s main purpose is to fasten things together through the use of thread. This means that the needle must be pushed all the way through the fabric in order to guide the thread through all layers. The sewing needle also requires multiple strokes. Notice how the needle guides the thread through the fabric in Figure two. The first stroke guides the thread in one direction. Once the needle has fully gone through each layer and is pulling the thread taught, the person using the needle must then rotate its direction to come through the other side of the fabric.

Figure 2
Figure 2

The tattoo needle, while seemingly similar is very distinctly different from the sewing needle. The function of the tattoo needle is to essentially create a “wound” which is filled with ink that becomes a permanent marker of the puncture. The eye of this needle is not used to thread anything through a membrane; it is used to connect to the apparatus, the tattoo gun that then mechanically drives the needle into the skin. Figure one also shows how the tattoo needle actually consist of multiple points. There are a variety of tattoo needles with multiple tips depending on the need. There are those with fewer tips that are used for detail work and those with more tips used for shading. The more tips present, the more wounds made in one puncture motion, the faster the ink can cover the skin.

Finally, the hypodermic needle is significantly different in its structure. The primary function of the hypodermic hypodermic needle is to guide or extract liquid to or from a membrane. Because of this, the needle itself is hollow on the inside allowing liquid to pass through its inner channel. This is the  opposite from the tattoo needle which is surrounded by ink that leaks into the skin as the puncture is made. The hypodermic needle is often used in connection to a syringe which has the functionality to store the liquid that is removed from or inserted into the membrane. The large open end opposite the tip is where the needle is connected to the syringe. It is through his large opening that the liquid can be pushed into the needle which is then inserted into the membrane.

While all of these needles have their distinct forms and functions, which will be discussed in detail later, there is one commonality that brings these needles together. The needle, while it is meant to penetrate a membrane, is not meant to leave evidence of penetration. This means that the needle should leave no trace of its use. Let’s compare it to another tool that is very similar in form but is used in a very different manner, the harpoon. If you compare these two devices, while you notice the size difference is quite significant, the basic functionality is the same. Both objects are meant to pierce a membrane, but the harpoon is meant to cause significant harm, hints its use as a hunting tool. The needle on the other hand is often small and sharp. It is designed to make the least amount of damage to the membrane as possible, while still performing its basic duty as a transferor. Its duty as transferor is simple, take one object (thread, medicine, ink, etc.) and insert it into another (fabric, skin, etc.). This is how the needle gains its thing-power. The needle is always in some sort of assemblage gaining its power through the “virtue of its operating in conjunction with other things” (Bennett, 2004: 354). In a sense, the needle uses a form of trickery or deceiving of the natural world, making one think that no penetration happened because of the lack of evidence from the needle itself (Flusser, 1999: 19). Yet, its role of transferor has been accomplished. Analyzing the transference at its most basic level, however, only shows half of the story; transference also needs to be analyzed in terms of what more lies behind it. What is guiding the sewing needle in the hands of the child, the hypodermic needle with its godly capabilities, and the tattoo needle that can brand in the most dehumanizing way?

The Sewing Needle

The sewing needle is a very unassuming object yet its power extends past its basic form. Humans were oriented toward the sewing needle. If we take into account Sara Ahmed’s Orientation Matters, we have to consider how and why the sewing needle came to be. In obvious form, it was created as a tool to make clothing for protection against weather conditions. Materials like bone, bronze and steel were formed into needles needing to meet the changing needs of society. It spawned from the awl, which is a small pointed tool used for piercing holes, especially in leather. Sewing needles hand-made out of bones dating back to the Paleolithic era were used for sewing skins and furs. The sewing needle then evolved to include the eye and China’s development of high quality steel making technology brought the needle to its modern form. The sewing needle becomes an object of progression. “Objects of use are after all obstructions that [we] need in order to progress…” as Vilem Flusser writes (Flusser, 1999: 61). The needle is a use object, a tool that allows for the creation of things that protect.

As the sewing needle evolved, so did the fashion industry and the social implications that came along with cheap labor and fast fashion.  

The sewing needle can be used by both hands and sewing machines and can cause its form and stroke motion to change. For hand sewing, the eye is at the wider end of the needle, whereas a needle for a machine has the eye at the pointed end. This means that the hand sewing needle must go all the way through the fabric and then be rotated in order to come back through the other side. The sewing machine needle on the other hand only partially inserts into the fabric as the machine knots the thread from the needle with the thread of the bobbin. In both cases, the eye of the needle is extremely small which means those with bad eyesight or issues with hand mobility, like those with Parkinson’s disease, have a difficult time using the needle. When assembled with a thread of some sort, the sewing needle gains a thing-power to connect things to one another, and in most cases creates a new membrane.

The sewing needle’s power is beyond its use to create a “second skin” so to say; it is a power tool for consumerism and class systems, it is a tool of the fashion industry (Figure three). Origins of the modern fashion industry date back to the 19th century and have since become a powerhouse in consumer market trends. Its rise to power, however, is the product of one object, the sewing needle. With every pierce, the sewing needle binds and empowers the industry while becoming an object of fear for the hidden figures that produce the high selling products.  


Have you ever considered who embroidered that new top you just bought on sale? In October 2007, Dan McDougall of The Guardian shed a dark light on the sewing needle. He opens the article,

“Amitosh concentrates as he pulls the loops of thread through tiny plastic beads and sequins on the toddler’s blouse he is making. Dripping with sweat, his hair is thinly coated in dust. In Hindi his name means ‘happiness’. The hand-embroidered garment on which his tiny needle is working bears the distinctive logo of international fashion chain Gap. Amitosh is ten” (McDougall, 2007).

Child sweatshops in India are the focus of this article. Children, often bought from their families, work 16 hour days hand-sewing clothing for big companies that claim to have social audit systems that prevent this kind of labor (McDougall, 2007). In this instance, the needle is a symbol of subservience acting as the laborer’s working tool. Amitosh holds the needle with his tiny fingers, pushing the tip through the sequin, then fabric making sure they are securely connected by the thread. This constant back and forth of the needle in and out of the fabric is a mundane task that he must keep up for extended hours without fail; failure would mean severe punishment. You can imagine the scene unfolding while Amitosh works, hunched over the fabric, working on the intricate detail of the design. All around him are other children close to his age using their small hands to delicately weave the beaded pattern in their fabric. Their small hands and better eyesight is what makes them the perfect users for the sewing-needle. They are able to see the thread go through the needle’s eye and hold the tiny beads in place as they fasten them to the fabric. It is the scene around the object that affects our perception, redefining the condition for its emergence (Ahmed, 2010: 240). If you were to enter this workshop seeing the needle used in this manner, how would you perceive it? Possibly as a tool for control?

While the Gap has since made comments on the investigation stating that this kind of labor is unacceptable, there have still been questions revolving around the use of child labor in regards to more current times and other big name fashion brands. It is obvious that there are limits to the control big fashion companies have over international labor. While these companies have the control to choose which suppliers they are buying their wares from, the commonality of these kinds of sweatshops make options very limited. And as consumers we know they exist, but turn a blind eye to them. Does that make us evil?

Evilness is a complex issue. One could argue that buying a cute top you see in the store on sale with its complicated decal would not make you an evil human being. But, in actuality, your purchase is feeding into the dehumanizing system upon which fashion empires have built themselves. Evil is banal, causing even “ordinary people” to become vicious without having the intentionality to be so as Richard J. Bernstein would say (2010: 135). Consumers are not intentionally evil. Many do not even realize that these beaded garments are created by hand. It is this banal evilness built in consumerism driving its violence through the needle. This structural violence not only leaves marks on the human body, but also on the victim’s minds and spirit (Galtung, 1990; 292-296). The victims are not only those in the sweatshops but those who are drawn into the consumer culture. Galtung discusses the topology of structural violence, particularly in terms of domestic violence against women, breaking structural violence into four basic classes of needs. Within his framework, structural violence is exhibited through exploitation, penetration and segmentation, as well as marginalization and fragmentation (Galtung, 1990; 292). The child laborer is the object of exploitation, marginalization, and fragmentation. Their cheap labor pushes them down to be the underdogs that are kept outside and hidden from the consumers’ eyes. Consumers who are segmented from this dark reality by their subservience to the fantasy life commercialism portrays are allowing for the penetration of this violence to be upheld by the needle. This small domestic object then becomes a very powerful and violent tool for economics and consumerism.

The Hypodermic Needle

A driving economic force behind a needle is dangerous, but what if the needle became your enemy because of an expiration notice on a label? Inmates who have been sentenced to death by lethal injection in the state of Arkansas are seeing this as a reality. In mid April of 2017, the state scheduled the rush of eight executions to be completed within eleven days due to the expiration of the drug Midazolam which is used in the lethal injection mixture (Karimi, 2017). Midazolam, which is a very controversial drug, is difficult to acquire for death penalties and as such has become the prominent figure in rushing these executions. It is in these instances that the needle is rising to a godly power, having the capability to remove life. It becomes a direct form of violence against the individual from a systemic level.

Figure 4

The hypodermic needle is constantly at the cusp of life and death. It has the power to protect life or remove it. There are several assemblages that this needle can take giving it a sense of agency and thing-power. In many cases, the hypodermic needle is attached to a syringe as shown in Figure four. The syringe is a very interesting apparatus. Neither the syringe nor the needle can stand alone as power objects. One is always in need of the other in order for them to be oriented to the role of power. Connected to a plastic tube that holds liquid, the needle, which is vastly different from the sewing needle, offers different affordances. The needle of a syringe is shaped like a tiny tube with a sharp open bevel at the point that can puncture skin and inject or remove fluids. The needle in this instance is a manual tool; it requires hands in order to function. The user of the syringe generally places their pointer and middle fingers in the leverage guards while the thumb that is anchored at the plunger head pushes the liquid through the needle’s passage. The syringe requires some sort of controlled force behind the thumb’s push as to not cause harm. As the person holding the syringe pushes farther down on the plunger’s head, the liquid that is being housed in the syringe is pushed through the opening of the needle at the connected end of the syringe. The liquid then flows through the needle’s tip that has already been inserted into the membrane allowing the liquid to reach its target accurately and quickly. Conversely, the syringe can suck fluids out of a membrane by pulling the depressed plunger head in the opposite direction. This creates a suction that allows fluid to enter the needle from its open, beveled point.

In the case of lethal injection for capital punishment, an IV needle, which is very similar to the hypodermic needle in its form and function, is inserted into the convicted by a prison employee trained in venipuncture, while other prison employees set up the three drug system by which the convicted will be put to death. The IV is then connected to three syringes that house the drugs through a tubing structure that leads to the executioner’s room. Lethal injection in capital punishment is a show of death, presented by the draw of the curtain to the public. The executioners and viewers are in separate rooms from the condemned, leaving the needle as the only thing in power in the room. There is of course debate on the ethics of lethal injection for capital punishment which in turn creates an ethical discussion of the needle’s use in killing, becoming a form of direct violence as Galtung would claim (Galtung, 1990; 292). However, lethal injection does not only come in the form of capital punishment. Euthanasia is also a way the hypodermic needle can remove life, but in a more ethically accepted way. The use of the needle for euthanasia becomes more justified in terms of being a lesser evil than the pain of a slow death (Berkowitz, 2010: 7). It is the balancing of evils that comes into play here, once again placing people on a scale of evilness.

The ethics behind the needle often extends from the fact that in most cases the hypodermic needle is used by one person onto another. This gives the person who is in control of the needle the power in the situation, which means the power to aid or destroy. We have discussed the use of the needle in death, but doctors and nurses can also use the needle to give medicine to the sick; in this instance, the needle has the power of life. But what of the ethics behind the needle that is used on the self? The syringe in general is an easy apparatus to use, thus almost anyone can choose the liquid forms they want to insert into their bodies. The hypodermic needle can be used for insulin injections for diabetics and can save a life of a person who has severe allergies. The self use of the hypodermic needles assembled with syringes can also feed drug addiction and spread disease. The counterculture of the hypodermic needle for recreational drug use is very prominent. Using a needle and a syringe, the drugs are introduced into the system faster and at a higher bioavailability. Because of this, the syringe and needle combo becomes attractive to the user wanting to experience a stronger effect of the drug. The needle then becomes a tool for addiction and a tool for spreading disease as often hypodermic needles are shared between individuals getting high together. The needle, past its destruction of the individual through the use of drugs, is also acting as a destroyer of one’s social acceptance.

The scenes in which the hypodermic needle is seen once again determines our perception. For doctors and nurses, the syringe and hypodermic needle combo is often found assembled with antiseptic wipes to clean the area which is to be pierced by the needle, cotton ball to prevent bleeding, and FDA cleared containers for the disposal of the syringe after use. This gives the needle the perception of cleanliness that often aids in health. The needle and syringe used in lethal injection by capital punishment which is separated from the individual controlling the execution puts the needle at a higher thing-power toward the convicted. The combo in drug use and the sharing of needles leads to the perception of dirtiness and disease. However, in each of these instances there are forces driving themselves through the needle. One can see the power of government forcing their hand at direct violence through the object; or possibly see the power big medicine has over the individuals that stake their lives on the use of the hypodermic needle; or even the social acknowledgement of drug addiction to the point where needle exchange programs seek to reduce the harm that these needles can cause through the spread of disease. The hypodermic needle in each of these instances turns the human into an object directly controlled by systems.

The Tattoo Needle

Turning humans into objects has never been as significantly used as with the tattoo needle. In contemporary society, tattoos are used as a form of self expression and the needle becomes a pen for which this expression is realized. The needle is used to puncture the skin guiding the ink down into the pores. Notice in Figure five how contemporary tattoo guns force the needle down into the epidermis of the skin, filling the pores with ink that surrounds the needle. These ink marks when grouped together make an image on the body. As mentioned earlier, the tattoo needle often comes in a variety of point formations allowing for the ink to be disseminated into the skin at varying speeds. The more tips there are on the needle, the quicker the tattoo will be completed.

Figure 5

The tattoo needle has no function without the use of ink. The ink is what makes the use of this needle make sense. The tattoo process often involves two people, one who is controlling the needle and the other who is subservient to it. The one in control of the needle is the person who is etching the tattoo into the skin of the other. There is a dynamic here in terms of the relationship between the person giving the tattoo and the one receiving it. The person receiving the tattoo has to have complete faith in the person giving the tattoo; they are placing their body in another’s hands. The person giving the tattoo is disconnected from the pain experienced by the penetration of the needle. The only indication that pain is felt by the person receiving the tattoo is through verbal or bodily actions that would suggest it.

Tattooing as an art form has gone from taboo to a pop culture phenomenon. Within the tattoo culture itself one can see subcultures of DIY citizenship that are shaping the full acceptance of tattoos in society. In other words, with this DIY citizenship individuals and communities are influencing and challenging the status quo of what is socially accepted (Ratto & Boler, 2014: 5).  Take for example the culture of prison tattoos that often have meanings past their face value. The “homemade” tattoo guns and needles used in prisons can be made out of gathered parts including a motor from a CD player, an empty pen barrel, a spring out of a stapler, and some sand paper (Giang, 2012). The process of creating this tattoo gun is quite involved but once done allows for the person to receive an income by giving tattoos to others. These prison tattoos become a form of DIY citizenship as the tattoos become a form of identity that influences politics within the prison.

With tattooing as a cultural phenomenon, the power relationship of trust is only visible in the recreational art of tattooing. But this is not always the case in the world of tattoos. Fear and dehumanization are present when the tattoo needle is forced upon the receiver. One of the most influential examples of this is through the marking or branding of individuals, removing their identity and replacing it with a number. One can see this form of dehumanization through the use of the tattoo needle in the Holocaust.

The Holocaust in many ways sought to dehumanize individuals making them superfluous as human beings (Bernstein, 2010: 132). As Bernstein mentions, the concentration and death camps served as “laboratories” quoting Arendt who claimed that these places were only meant for degrading humans and the elimination of those humans through scientifically controlled conditions (Bernstein, 2010: 132). One by one, the Nazis herded Jewish people into the camps like cattle ready for slaughter. Those who were fortunate enough to not be escorted to the gas chambers upon arrival found their identity stripped to all but a serial number. Tattooing in the Holocaust only occurred at Auschwitz. It was introduced in 1941 when thousands of Soviet prisoners of war arrived at the camp causing issues with identification. As prisoners made their way into the camp, they were marked with a serial number. Originally, this number was sewn into the clothes of the individual, causing dehumanization to occur once again through the use of the sewing needle, but then transformed into the use of a single needle device that tattooed  the number on the outer side of the left forearm (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2017).

Here the relationship between the person giving the tattoo and the person receiving it is focused around dehumanization. The tattoo needle, through the powers of war and religious hate, strips the human out of the individual receiving the tattoo and the humanity out of the individual giving the tattoo. Through this, the Holocaust became both a system of direct and structural violence which was legitimized through the Nazi regime. One has to ask the question then, is the person using the needle to dehumanize evil on a human nature level? Galtung asks the question, “Could there be still a deeper stratum, human nature, with genetically transmitted dispositions or at least predispositions for aggression (direct violence) and domination (structural violence)?” (1990: 295). In other words, is violence inherent in all of us, allowing for the ease of use of simple objects like the needle in degrading forms? He answers his question by saying, “The human potential for direct and structural violence is certainly there – as is the potential for direct and structural peace…[but there is a] high level of variability in aggressiveness and dominance” (Galtung, 1990: 295-296). It is the context in which the needle is assembled that determines its power of aggression.

Finding Power Beyond Function

Looking at these various types of needles bodes the question from where does an object’s power actually come? Starting with the form of the needle in its varying assemblages, one begins to realize its function. But the assemblages are what give the needle thing-power and gives one context of how the needle is used. The assemblage also alludes to individual(s) who are involved in the process of using the needle. Extending past the immediate assemblage, one can start to pick up on systems that might be influencing the assemblage and orientation of the individuals. It is then that one can see the needle as an object in a network. It functions on behalf of religious, medical, judicial, economic, social and commercial systems as a tool of power. It has a thing-power that “has an inclination to make connections and form networks of relations with varying degrees of stability,” as Jane Bennett would say (2004: 354). But power goes beyond that as the needle gains influence through integration into a sociotechnical system and becomes a tool in the network as the connecting line of sickness to health, life to death, and consumption to production. In realizing this, one can see that needle should not be oversimplified because in dark times it can be used for dehumanization. Its power is drawn through systems and ideologies, creating a scale of evilness that dictates an individual’s capacity for violence. Only through thinking and judgment, as Berkowitz writes, can one “stand as a beacon not to some particular ideology or policy, but to following one’s conscience” (2010: 8). In other words, the power of the needle can be neutralized if we are willing to think through its form, use, and influences creating a space of thoughtful conscience.


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