The uses of beauty

May 8, 2011 § 4 Comments

There are some major things going on in the world right now. Every minute is a breaking news-minute.

I’m going to post some quotes on beauty.

From Mimi Thi Nguyen’s brilliant essay, ‘The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror’:

Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (1999) aims to rescue beauty from its enemies on behalf of beauty’s mandate to love truth and pursue justice. Scarry proposes that the encounter with beauty stimulates the senses and provokes a desire to sustain the beautiful in order to prolong its presence. Our attachment to its presence, she claims, induces in us a “heightened attention” that “is voluntarily extended out to other persons or things. . . . Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care” (1999, 81). Scarry’s generalized, unlocatable “people,” in whom she invests the promise of beauty’s attachment, “seem to intuit that their own self-interest is served by distant peoples’ having the benefit of beauty” (123). This is how beauty exerts a distributional power (with potentially geopolitical dimensions): extending life in all directions, traversing distances between the viewer and the object of her gaze, pressing the attention given to the beautiful thing into new forms toward other (if less beautiful) things, rescuing beauty from the past and preserving it for the future. For Scarry, an education in beauty that alerts us to the “aliveness” of all persons is necessarily an education in justice.

But Scarry’s concern for training individuals who are responsive to the beautiful, and for building imagined communities committed to its care, suggests for me how an attachment to beauty might recruit beauty as governmentality, as a mechanism of internal and external monitoring that replicates the form, and the norm, of beauty’s promise. The measure and the means through which beauty takes up the ability to “make live” by making beautiful enter into the realm of the biopolitical, from the level of the individual guided in the recognition and care of beauty to the establishment of an attachment to beauty that one emerges from to engage with the world (Foucault [1975–76] 2003, 241). Acknowledging with delicacy that “the surfaces of the world are aesthetically uneven,” Scarry imagines that the pressure beauty exerts toward the distributional, toward the reproductive act of aliveness, might remedy aesthetic inequality and social asymmetry (1999, 110). But as Rita Barnard observes, Scarry “sh[ies] away from the very possibility that one person might find another’s beautiful person or thing not simply ‘lack[ing] the perfect features that obligate us to stare,’ or ‘less endowed with those qualities of perfection which arrest our attention,’ but, quite simply, ugly” (2006, 106). In thus marginalizing those aesthetic judgments that might have fuelled racist disgust, for instance, as errors of imperfect vision, Scarry cannot account for how to judge, let alone redress, this aesthetic unevenness. Nor can Scarry explain how to parse the judgments that acted as alibis in so many colonial and imperial encounters from her (supposedly) more fair assessment. Diverting attention from those imbalances of power that are inevitably at stake in the business of measurement, care, and instruction, Scarry’s vantage point reveals how an education in beauty might dangerously contribute to the annihilation of its antithesis, ugliness, as a prerequisite.

That is, we can see how beauty as a measure of moral character and feeling, which has a clear geopolitical dimension, also functions to regulate moral character and feeling, especially as a geopolitical exercise addressed to the individual and the collective as power’s problem and beauty’s mandate. As a glimpse of a desirable future, beauty is imagined to inspire contemplation, to foster respect for aliveness, to jar a viewer into “unselving” (Scarry 1999) on behalf of the world. But these are not neutral mandates. When beauty is called upon to tell us something significant about the paths and places that the good and the moral might be found, the partisan nature of beauty’s perception becomes all too clear.

[I have not read Scarry’s book, but I did watch this.]

The quote above made me think about what Judith Thurman wrote about Galliano, and in a larger sense, the fashion industry, back in March:

That said, Galliano lives in the bubble of the high fashion world, a club restricted, almost without exception, to the comely, and the magazines that feature his work have been cleansed—if not ethnically, then aesthetically—of bodies that are not superhuman. Galliano, an anointed high priest of chic, has been accused of calling a bar patron—who, for the record, is not Jewish—a “dirty Jew face,” and, in the video, called a woman “ugly” and deplored her clothes and grooming. Their physical appearance, in other words, inspired his desire for their extermination. We should perhaps stop to consider to what degree, wittingly or not, the fashion world has the same fascination as the Nazis with eugenics.

This quote came to mind recently when I was reading Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, when Danticat writes about Haitian photojournalist Daniel Morel. Danticat recalls talking to Morel about photography, and death, and what happens to the subjects in the moment of photographic capture, and they recall parts of a Haitian poem, ‘Tourist, by Felix Morisseau Leroy:

Tourist, don’t take my picture

Don’t take my picture, tourist

I’m too ugly

Too dirty

Too skinny

Don’t take my picture, white man

Mr. Eastman won’t be happy

I’m too ugly

Your camera will break

I’m too dirty

Too black

But, of course, there is another refrain to the poem:

Jounalis la, please take my picture

Please take my picture, atis la

I’m needy



Please take my picture, jounalis

Screw Mr. Eastman

I’m not too ugly

Your camera will not break

I’m not too dirty

Not too black

Last week I went to get my hair cut. I always “forget” to bring a book even though I complain about having to read the trashy magazines they always have on-hand, and I suspect  I just really enjoy being able to read the trashy magazines without having to think about defending my reading material. I flipped through an older issue of Malaysia Tatler. I’m sure Malaysia Tatler considers itself the crème de la crème of the magazine world, just like the people it features consider themselves the crème de la crème of humanity, but it’s basically trash featuring unforgivably rich people throwing “wild” yet possibly boring parties. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been.

Casting bitterness aside, there was an interview with a socialite who is known for being beautiful and a socialite. I can’t remember her name; but she made a comment that has stuck with me. I paraphrase, largely, but it went something like this:

All my friends are beautiful. I think beauty is important. I don’t understand girls who don’t make an effort to look beautiful and expect to be accepted.

The emphasis is mine and the words may be different, but that was the gist of it. The idea that girls who don’t make an attempt to be beautiful somehow lack the fundamental human right to be “accepted” is quite powerful, I think, in a way that makes you want to slit your wrist.

Beauty is regularly desired, but it is also regularly a shock

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§ 4 Responses to The uses of beauty

  • Rebekah says:

    “All my friends are beautiful. I think beauty is important. I don’t understand girls who don’t make an effort to look beautiful and expect to be accepted.”

    Good lord, that’s depressing. But I’ve known a lot of women who seem to think this way. Hell, sometimes I AM that woman, and it’s an uneasy way to live, especially when beauty is an uneasy fit.

  • Autumn says:

    That last quote is so unfortunate. I think that there’s a way to have the same genesis of a thought and come out not grossly–I’ve heard people say something similar but mean it more in the sense of: “Honor the occasion and show the people around you that you’re putting in the effort to make yourself look as good as you can.” That is, instead of “being accepted” as the end point, displaying your desire to be in sync with those around you is, and there is a difference, you know? Certainly what she’s saying is icky…

    Marginal Utility just gave me a copy of that Elaine Scarry book, coincidentally, and I’m looking forward to diving into it! Thanks for the prompt! (And for the just generally good thought; I’ve included this in my weekly roundup:

    • Subashini says:

      Yes, definitely. I think I subscribe to that idea, to some degree, myself – the idea of honouring the occasion and the people you’re with by paying care and attention to how you present yourself. But like you pointed out, that’s very different from the hyper-rigid policing of “If women aren’t beautiful, how can they expect to be accepted?” It’s the use of the word “accepted” that still freaks me out. Human beings should be allowed to be as schlubby or as beautiful as they want and still be accepted. I mean, I don’t mean be naive – it’s a fairly accepted idea that one can “reject” others based on any damn thing you please, and this person isn’t the first to say something to that effect.

      The quotes by Edwidge Danticat, Judith Thurman, and Mimi Thi Nguyen emphasise the fine line between appreciation of beauty, which I think we all have to a greater or lesser degree, and the expectation of beauty as a human right. Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman has a great critique of self-presentation in the labour market, for instance: “you’re like an advert for yourself” in this new economy, a walking, talking CV. It’s interesting – or scary, rather – that ties like friendship are also increasingly bound by this sort of capitalist rigour of always being “on”, that is, presentably beautiful. And beautiful by whose standards? With the recent Psychology Today atrocity, I’m just really wary of sentiments like this one, especially coming from someone rich and privileged as the woman quoted in my post. This type of statement is usually ascribed to an individual and his or her particular, individual preference for beauty, which tends to elide how it plays into larger social structures of discrimination and exclusion.

      Thanks for the mention in the weekly roundup. 🙂 And I want to get around to reading Scarry’s book, too. Do you want Mimi Thi Nguyen’s essay? I could email it to you, if you’re interested.

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