Virginia Postrel has a great post today on Dove’s "real beauty" campaign (pictured). In her clear eyed way, she takes issue with the notion that we should consider everyone beautiful. She insists that it is more accurate, more sensible to see that differences of beauty exist and that these differences confer relative advantage in the world.
I think this is right, and that it has the corrective effect Postrel intends. Some heart felt notions about the world render us incapable of thinking about it clearly. This is bad for many reasons, and especially because it frustrates our efforts to understand the operation (and interaction) of factors anthropological and economic. Advantage and a certain social capital is apportioned according to relative beauty, and culture decides, to some extent, what this beauty is.
On the other hand, I think that we may be seeing a general shift here. If we are rethinking beauty, I think this might be because we are rethinking value. Our culture is changing.
There are three propositions at work in the world of beauty:
1. beauty contest
The old fashioned one, the beauty contest notion, says that beauty is distributed with almost perfect clarity. Relative beauty makes for a single, steep, zero sum hierarchy. There may be some points of contestation, but generally speaking, we could line up all the women (and men) in the world, from the most beautiful to the least.
2. many kinds of beauty
The second proposition says there are "many kinds of beauty." In this case, we suppose that there many dimensions of beauty and that each of these may be used to fashion a different hierarchy. If it’s all about elegance, then one hierarchy results. If it’s all about voluptuousness, another. And so on.
I think in the real world we oscillate between these propositions. Ideally, we think of beauty as something absolute. Practically, we are hard pressed to show why Penelope Cruz should be considered more beautiful than, say, Aishwarya Rai or Audrey Hepburn. We end up saying things like "well, it depends, you see, there are different kinds of beauty."
There is a strong form of proposition 2. In this case, we all agree on a universe of beautiful women and then we organize this universe into different hierarchies according to the dimension in hand. Cate Blanchett takes one contest. Oprah takes another. Angelina Jolie, a third.
The weak form of proposition 2 says that there are many, many dimensions, and that it is possible to use them to give most women a claim to relative beauty. This expands the universe of women with a claim to beauty, and it expands the number and the kind of dimensions that may be used to find them so. I hope this is not demeaning, but I find that women who sell cosmetics in drug stores often fall into this category. Quite often, they have a feature or two that are remarkable, and they are otherwise unexceptional. Hippie beauty seemed to turn on this principal as well.
3. every woman is beautiful
The third proposition says that every woman is beautiful. I think this is a question of using evaluative dimension in new ways or adding evaluative dimensions if necessary. The defining phrase here is "every woman is beautiful in her own way." And I think this says that if there is no evaluation dimension, we will make one up. Finally, if this doesn’t work, the proposition resorts to the notion that all women are beautiful because they are women. The attack on zero sum hierarchy is absolute and complete.
I like the inclusiveness of this proposition 3. It’s now up to all of us (and especially every male) to discover the beauty in a female companion, and this is an interesting, generous and generative way to proceed. But I agree with Postrel. The notion that "everyone is beautiful" violates the law of non-vacuous contrast according to which no assertion may refer to everything in its universe of discourse. More simply: if everyone is beautiful, how can anyone be beautiful? If it isn’t relative, it isn’t real.
the death of zero sum
But here’s the thing. Zero sum is dying in our culture. The notion that there is one single hierarchy of any kind is now in question. No one knows this better than Virginia Postrel, whose pioneering work on dynamism helps us understand why this should be so. Ours is a splintering culture. Some of our new social species, punks and hippies say, arose precisely to take issue with conventional notions of beauty, and these groups leave in their wake new evaluative standards.
The death of zero sum is especially evident on the internet where it turns out crowds matter more than elites. The new media emerge and they create a multiplication of value, a new superfluidity of admiration. This may be because people are prepared to "pay themselves" in admiration they do not deserve…but if it works, it works. There is nothing in the anthropological rule book that says that a culture may not make every individual an arbiter of his or her own value. (And indeed the American psychological and therapeutic communities have been insisting on this approach to self esteem for some time.)
Of course, we have all by this time seen enough delusional American Idol contestants to know how tragic the outcome of this cultural approach can sometimes be. Still, it is possible for a culture to equip individuals with the right of self invention and self evaluation, and that is precisely what our culture has done, from the avant garde artist who perseveres with the conviction that some day that the world will see what he sees to the lonely entrepreneur who insists on her vision of the world in the face of an overwhelming indifference from the rest of world. Our culture of creativity depends upon the destruction of zero sum evaluation. And the more dynamic we become, the more surely we will and must move away from absolute hierarchies.
As a Canadian coming south to Chicago in the 1970s, this struck me forcibly. Americans were much more demanding of effort and accomplishment than my Canadians friends, but they were also much more prepared to expand the competitive domain to give everyone, or almost everyone, a place to play. Being the best at something was important, but it was ok if you were merely taking gold at an obscure bowling tournament in the rural Midwest (which I am proud to say I did on several occasions. Kidding.) And that’s when I came to understand the penalty of being good at nothing at all in America. I sometimes wonder if this is the unexamined motive of self destructive behavior (drug abuse, etc.). In Canada it’s ok to be unexceptional. In the US, God save you if this is so.
America has always been relatively generous in supplying extra competitive domains and evaluative dimensions with which individuals could pursue the self esteem and social capital that success makes available. And this was true before the advent of the plenitude and dynamism made possible by the new expressive domains (zines, blogs, home made music, transmedia, self made movies) that emerged in the 1990s. But again Postrel knows this perfect well.
The death of zero sum and the expansion of social capital has potentially explosive consequences for our culture. Elizabethan England makes this case quite well. The likes of Shakespeare, Bacon, Sydney, Raleigh, Elizabeth herself made the world vibrate with new ideas. There are lots of ways to explain this explosive cultural moment, but I wonder whether it was largely because Elizabethans had access to a sudden superfluidity of status. There were new ways and new dimensions for claiming rank. The (relative) decline of a zero sum social hierarchy had the effect of flooding the world with novelty. Ours is a new Elizabethan age.
Here’s my argument. The Dove campaign for real beauty and new ideas of beauty may be seen as a reflection of a larger culture shift. In every domain of taste, we are seeing a willingness to expand the tools of judgment and the size of the winner’s circle. Zero sum is dying as the logic of our evaluative activities. As a result, our culture is entering a new multiplication of capital and creativity. This is not to say that zero sum is dead in all sectors of our world. It is just subject to new cultural forces here and there that blunt its prevalence and power.
Postrel, Virginia. 2007. The Truth About Beauty. The Atlantic Monthly. March. here.
[this link is good for 3 days beginning February 13, 2007]
Postrel, Virginia. 2007. Beauty is. Dynamist Blog. February 13, 2007. here.
for the Dove campaign for real beauty, go here.
I promise to get back to the pet post tomorrow.