1 February, 2019 • • 39.3AcademiaPhilosophy

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A Terrible Beauty

Rachel Elizabeth Fraser

Heather Widdows
Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal




In a late interview—given just a month or so before his death—Foucault remarked:

I do indeed believe that there is no sovereign, founding subject, a universal form of subject to be found everywhere. I am very sceptical of this view of the subject and very hostile to it. I believe, on the contrary, that the subject is constituted through practices of subjection…

So far, so Foucault; here, he could almost be writing his own Wikipedia page. But things quickly get more interesting. He goes on:

…the subject is constituted through practices of subjection, or, in a more autonomous way, through practices of liberation, of liberty, as in Antiquity.

The self remains unsovereign, but the techniques (or “technologies”) of its production take on a dappled character: there are practices of subjection, yes, but practices of liberation, too. A terribly glamorous, terribly male tradition—Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Wilde—gives the latter an aesthetic gloss, Adornment and artifice, often deliberate and self-conscious, allow (so the claim goes) the self to become self-fashioning, rather than perpetually “disciplined” into existence. Women, on the whole, have taken a rather different view: hair removal, dieting, and toilette are all technologies of the self, and aesthetic through-and-through, but none seems a good candidate for a ‘practice of liberation’. (If you disagree, ladies, be careful not to frown.) We may fashion our own faces, but painting the face, notes Sandra Bartky, is not like painting a picture; the same image must be produced over and over again, and it is a painting which marks its canvas as wanting. The puzzle, then, is why I do this painting every day, and often with considerable pleasure.

Enter Widdows’ foil, the second wave feminist. The second waver offers a rude diagnosis: my macquillage is an artefact of false consciousness; I am “deluded, tricked, or duped”, a “dope”, a “passive adopter of the message of patriarchy”. Ventriloquised thus, the second wave feminist sounds like a total bitch. Bitches, though, are often right, and there is, I suspect, rather a lot to be said for even this dummy version of the second wave position. But dummy version it is: a diagnosis of false consciousness is not a diagnosis of dopiness. To see why, it’s helpful to go back to Kant.

Kant claimed that to exist at all as practical agents—to make any acts or choices whatsoever—we must regard ourselves as free. Korsgaard illustrates the thought thus: suppose you find out that for the coming week, all your actions and decisions have been programmed. You wake up in the morning and decide to go to the library. “That must have been programmed”, you think. “I will cheat the machine—I will go shopping instead.” Of course, it then occurs to you that the impulse to go shopping has been programmed too. Maybe you continue trying to second guess the programmer, trying to dig your way down to a reach of the psyche that remains your own. You won’t win this fight—you’ll never arrive at an inclination which cannot be attributed to the programmer. But, Korsgaard observes, all this second-guessing will never help you to decide what to do. If you want to act at all—if, that is, you want to occupy the standpoint from which decisions are made—you must give up on all this second guessing.  To act at all, you must treat your inclinations as your own, and so, to act at all, you must act just as if you were free. (Can’t I act without making my inclinations my own? No more than a puppet raises his arm when a string is pulled—he is acted upon, not actor.) Kantian freedom, then, is a kind of primoridal false consciousness: our commitment to our own freedom is not a theoretical posit, but, a commitment generated by the structure of deliberation itself.

The false consciousness at issue for second wave feminists is not the work of the deliberative standpoint per se, but Kant makes for a helpful model. Patriarchy, like the programmer, inculcates me with certain inclinations which are not, in some important sense, my own. But in the case of the patriarchy, as in the case of the programmer, I come to claim these inclinations as my own—to feel myself free in the midst of them. But I am not the programmer’s dupe when I give up on second guessing him and decide to go shopping, and I am not the patriarchy’s dupe when the shopping is for lipstick.  In both cases, my conviction of freedom is the work of practical necessity, a residue of my agency. The ubiquitous claim that attributions of false consciousness erase agency gets things quite back-to-front: agency is the engine of false consciousness, not its victim.

Widdows’ reservations about the second wave position outstrip the standard worries about agency-erasure. She argues, first, that “women are not deluded about at least some of the rewards of beauty”, citing evidence that shows that the attractive (conventionally construed) earn more, have better call-back rates at interview, and are more readily interpreted as competent, friendly, and clever.  It’s not clear whether Widdows thinks an ability to correctly track external benefits falsifies attributions of false consciousness, or whether her thought is that, so long as beauty really does pay, claims of false consciousness can do no distinctive explanatory work, and so count as ill-motivated. Neither way of spelling out the argument looks promising: on even the crudest renderings, someone can both suffer from false consciousness and rationally respond to an incentive structure. (The worker may be blind to his exploitation and prefer exploitative employment to starvation.) But if the worry is one of motivation—no need to posit false consciousness so long as the prettier are higher-paid—it threatens to make the whole book a pointless exercise. If second-wave analyses are idle cogs in the face of raw cost-benefit analysis, why is Widdows’ preferred explanation of our investment in beauty norms (for which, see below) any less obsolete?

Widdows’ second reservation yokes together more practical concerns. Consciousness-raising, she argues, has failed to dislodge beauty norms, and calls to resist these norms are both alienating and elitist; alienating because beauty is often something that makes a life feel meaningful “from the inside” (what Bernard Williams would call a “project”); and elitist because beauty norms can often be resisted only by the privileged. This is all very well, but theories can be true without making for appealing slogans. Feminist theory may be answerable to feminist practice in a way that, say, the work of left wing mathematicians is not answerable to the trade union movement, but the connection is not so tight as Widdows’ objections suppose.

Widdows’ project is not only critical. She does more than reject the second wave solution to the puzzle of my morning routine; she offers an alternative. Beauty, she proposes, has become “an ethical ideal” and the norm of aesthetic self-improvement, a moral imperative. My pleasure in face-painting, then, is the pleasure felt in conscious exercise of virtue; the pleasure of the diet becomes the pleasure of the fast. The idea, to be clear, is not that aesthetic norms have any genuinely moral character, but that they play their social role as if they do. Aesthetic norms are not moral; they are moralised.

But what is it for a norm to be moralised? Widdows offers three diagnostic criteria—they are not, even jointly, supposed to function as either necessary or sufficient conditions. First, moralised norms provide “shared standards” by which to apportion praise and blame. Second, satisfaction of the norms is thought to “deliver the goods of the good life”. Third, failure to satisfy them “is regarded as a failure of the whole self, rather than a local failure”. The content of this last condition is rather opaque—the idea seems to be something like this. Suppose I am bad at spelling. This is a real failing; it should matter to your assessment of me. But it should not matter to your assessment of my overall character, to your estimation of whether I am (horrid phrase) a “good person”. The failure is local, easily contained. Moralised failings, on the other hand, cannot be so boxed in—they stain the whole personality.

I’m not persuaded. By these criteria, if beauty counts as a moralised norm, then so do dozens of others: norms of cleanliness (hoover often!), of punctuality (don’t be late!), diurnality (get up early!), and industriousness (work hard!). But none of these norms have quite the hold on us that beauty does. Either Widdows’ proposal cannot do the explanatory work she wants it to, or she fails to capture the relevant sense in which beauty’s social role is that of ethical ideal. But even if we spot [in?] Widdows an asymmetry between beauty norms and those of diurnality and co., her story risks getting the phenomenology of beauty-pleasure wrong.

For Widdows and I agree that the delights of beauty, and its scaffolding of female intimacy, are real. From the age of ten, Widdows tells us, she and her best friend “painted each others’ nails, shopped for and shared clothes, and spent hours brushing and styling each others’ hair”. There is a sweet, infectious intensity to these recollections; in them, I recognise my own adolescence and early adulthood, remember the caress of hand and brush, and the soft frisson of a friend making up my face. There is real tenderness, too, in Widdows’ discussion of touch. “Most human beings, she notes, “have a desperate need to touch and be touched if they are to flourish”, but in a visual, virtual culture, this need is often mute, only articulable when the touch we have in mind is sexual. But “in many beauty practices … touch is central”, and so they can offer a much-craved intimacy that is otherwise inaccessible: “the only prolonged nonmedical touch an elderly person may receive is the hour a week she spends having her nails done”. Widdows doesn’t remark, but could have done, on the sheer sensual pleasure that many beauty products bring. My dressing table is tactile as a sweet-shop: there are bottles full of delicious smells, there are fabulous, strange blue jellies, there are glittering powders and vanilla creams.

We agree, then, on the pleasures of beauty. But I doubt that Widdows’ ethically freighted proposal helps us capture the texture of these pleasures. Certainly, pleasure can be the product of self-conscious virtue. But the exercise of virtue, and the delight we take in our attendant self-image, is never self-consciously frivolous; the pleasures of lipgloss, though, are just that. Virtue-pleasure may be real, and deep, and gripping—close to what C.S. Lewis called “the kind of happiness and wonder that … is too good to waste on jokes”—but it cannot be silly, or camp, or (easily) sexy. Beauty is all these things. It is never too good to waste on jokes.

There’s a broader worry here. Widdows’ basic strategy is assimilationist: beauty has a hold on us, she thinks, insofar as it appears in the guise of the moral. But it’s not clear that it’s easier to explain why we care about the moral than it is to explain why we care about the aesthetic, or that our moral sensibility, such as it is, is more than a mystified aesthetic responsiveness. My own hunch is that the hold beauty has on us is all its own, quite unborrowed. This takes us back to Kant, one of the few philosophers to take seriously the distinctiveness of the aesthetic. For Kant, aesthetic judgements have a peculiar dual status; they are at once both subjective, and universal; subjective, because:

If any one reads me his poem, or brings me to a play, which, all said and done, fails to commend itself to my taste, then let him adduce Batteux or Lessing, or still older and more famous critics of taste, with all the host of rules laid down by them, as a proof of the beauty of his poem; let certain passages particularly displeasing to me accord completely with the rules of beauty, (as set out by these critics and universally recognized): I stop my ears…

I stop my ears—I am lordly, my own taste is sovereign. And yet, I am not alone. When something strikes me as beautiful, I am compelled, thinks Kant, to “make my pleasure public”: it is partly constitutive of the judgement that I want to announce it to you, and find that you announce the same to me. As Sianne Ngai puts it, “for Kant, what one judges in the pure judgment of taste is less the feeling of pleasure that follows … judging, but rather the communicability of that feeling” (my emphasis). There is a clue here, I think, as to why aesthetic projects play the roles they do. The dualness of aesthetic judgement offers a dream picture of ourselves as both fully autonomous and fully social, answerable only to ourselves, and yet discursively embedded. Aesthetic judgement, on this view, is always shot through with something like a will to power, a fantasy in which I have a spectator without a critic, and peers without peer disagreement. And if, as I suspect, the power of beauty norms depends, at least in part, on the fantasy embedded in the very structure of aesthetic judgement, an assimilationist treatment of the aesthetic will always be wanting.

Widdows ends her book optimistically; her conclusion is called “Beauty Without the Beast”. The beauty ideal, she says, is not merely an “evil taskmaster”, it also “empowering, hopeful, and positive”. She sketches two possible futures, one “inhuman and hypercritical” in which the ageing, imperfect body is both shameful and ashamed, another in which beauty norms remain, but, softened and humanised, offer ways to embed the body in our social imaginary. How might we realise one future rather than the other? Widdows’ suggestions are sensible and unimaginative: a bit more regulation of plastic surgery more diverse models, and a healthy dose of #nomakeup selfies. I have no quarrel with the first two suggestions. But as for the third? No way—I’m much too vain.


Rachel Elizabeth Fraser is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Oxford, and a Tutorial Fellow of Exeter College.