Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

by Michael Taussig


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Beauty and the Beast begins with the question: Is beauty destined to end in tragedy? Drawing on extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Michael Taussig scrutinizes the anxious, audacious, and sometimes destructive attempts people make to transform their bodies through cosmetic surgery and liposuction. He balances an examination of surgeries meant to enhance an individual’s beauty with an often overlooked counterpart, surgeries performed—often on high profile criminals—to disguise one’s identity. Situating this globally shared phenomenon within the economic, cultural, and political history of Colombia, Taussig links the country’s long civil war and its bodily mutilation and torture to the beauty industry at large, sketching Colombia as a country whose high aesthetic stakes make it a stage where some of the most important and problematic ideas about the body are played out.

Central to Taussig’s examination is George Bataille’s notion of depense, or “wasting.” While depense is often used as a critique, Taussig also looks at the exuberance such squandering creates and its position as a driving economic force. Depense, he argues, is precisely what these procedures are all about, and the beast on the other side of beauty should not be dismissed as simple recompense. At once theoretical and colloquial, public and intimate, Beauty and the Beast is a true-to-place ethnography—written in Taussig’s trademark voice—that tells a thickly layered but always accessible story about the lengths to which people will go to be physically remade.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226789859
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/30/2012
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Michael Taussig is the Class of 1933 Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. He is the author of many books, includingI Swear I Saw This, Walter Benjamin’s Grave, and My Cocaine Museum, all published by the University of Chicago Press.

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beauty and the beast



Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-78986-6

Chapter One

gift of the gods


What a question! Does it not incur the worst of superstition, a dimly sensed unease that too much of something wonderful leads to too much of something terrible? Does it not suggest that beauty is at root inseparable from terror? Meanwhile, most everything else in the world around us, at least until yesterday, was saying you can have it all, the more the merrier. So what gives with this flash of recognition that beauty lives cheek by jowl with tragedy, or that now as I write, in 2009, we are being told that capitalism is tanking because of years of living high on the hog? Even the economists, masters of rational analysis, know deep down that the economy is but a gloss on fairy-tale logic. Take this recent statement by a Nobel Prize winner in economics: "If you want to know where the global crisis comes from, then think of it this way: we're looking at the revenge of the glut."

Could it be that beauty is a gift of the gods that, like all gifts, comes with a measure of anxiety, only in this case, being a gift of the gods, the burden is close to overwhelming? And is this not just as likely to hold for the fairy-tale realities woven around that euphemism known as progress—more accurately, "the domination of nature"—which now very much includes the surgical intervention on the female body we call cosmetic surgery but which, after due consideration, I now call cosmic surgery? In Latin America this is but the latest expression of the colonial baroque, with its "exaggerated aestheticism," artificiality, and transgression. What else can you call the current irruption of surgeries to produce bigger and better breasts and asses and calves, not to mention surgeries on the eyelids and labia, vaginal rejuvenation, face-lifting, and, of course, becoming thin with liposuction? And that is just the start. There are so many more interventions, inventions, and return visits, like the monthly Botox and "touch up," the retoque.

Surely it is the case that cosmic surgery was among the first technologies in the great drama of the domination of nature, and that beauty has been as much a goal in life as the quest for food and shelter. Surely the aesthetic saturates the arts of survival in the societies studied by anthropologists well into the twentieth century. If hunting and gathering technologies, making bows and blowpipes and canoes, along with techniques of voyaging across vast deserts and oceans, spinning fibers,weaving cloth, building houses, and the great galaxy of the arts of kinship and ritual are bountifully present, so is being gorgeous and handsome and fastidious about one's appearance. In what the celebrated Marcel Mauss called archaic societies, the economy (based on the gift) is at once religious, magical, political—and aesthetic.

Take heed of the dazzling body painting, fantastic hairdressing, incisions of one sort or another, genital and elsewhere, filing or removal of teeth, amputation of fingers, stretching of earlobes, labia, and necks to unbelievable lengths, flattening of heads of newborn babes, fattening of calf muscles, pharmacopoeias of potions required for beauty magic and love magic (see Malinowski's Sexual Life of Savages for starters), and so forth, on and on, very much including surgical intervention. And in all these triumphs of the "domination of nature" it would be most difficult to separate religion or magic from aesthetics, as both join the emotional power and bodily excitement of the beautiful as force.

What sort of force? To read Evans-Pritchard's account of the love of cattle by the Nuer of Africa in the 1930s is to be struck by the role of beauty and cosmic surgery as sacred force in this relationship of man with beast. A young man takes his personal name from the ox his father has given him at initiation, at which time his forehead is incised with markings and the horn of the ox is cut at an angle so it will eventually cross the muzzle or veer upward. If he can procure metal, the young man will at that same time bind his left arm in such a way as to render it useless, just as the left horn of the ox is rendered useless—making the ox more beautiful and therefore all the more perfect for sacrifice.

For underlying this identification of man with ox is the sacrifice of oxen, it being Evans-Pritchard's opinion that the fundamental idea behind the ritualized killing of this beautiful and beautified animal, which is frequent among the Nuer, is the giving to God of the gift of life, what the philosopher, pornographer, aesthetician, and surrealist Georges Bataille conceptualized as depense, or toomuchness. Indeed, to read accounts of sacrifice is to be struck by the connection between beauty and life, meaning the taking of life, as with the beautification, hence deification, of the human victim for several months prior to his murder in Aztec sacrifice and of the Vedic Hindu preparation of the person for whom the sacrifice of an animal is being made.

Anthropologists have spent a great deal of energy describing symbols active in social life, and this is well and good. But have we not because of this very focus missed the larger and more important influence of beauty in shaping and energizing society and history, beauty not as form but as force? And likewise, have we not ignored not only the aesthetic shaping of everyday life but the aesthetic shaping of terror as well? Is not the synergism between beauty and what I will call the "negative sublime" as much the motor of history as are the means of production of material life?

It was all there, actually, from the beginning, in Malinowski's patient attention to the islanders' untiring attention to the aesthetics of every phase of their farming—the clearing, the planting of tubers, the weeding, the tending of the sculptural quality of climbing vines, the magic associated with each stage, and, of course, the exquisite care for the display of those ungainly tubers at harvest, left in the center of the village till they rot. It was all so beautiful, beginning with the title, Coral Gardens and Their Magic (two whole volumes). It was all so aesthetic, not only the dances with the oiling and perfuming of the body and the sculpture of the gardens, but the kula ornaments too, the red shell necklaces and the white shell bracelets, around which interisland trade revolved and depended, not to mention storytelling of fantastic voyages and dreams of untold excess:

My fame is like thunder My steps are like earthquake

It was all there, actually, from the beginning, in Malinowski's description of women witches who make themselves invisible, flying though the night to feed off the eyes, tongue, and intestines of a fresh corpse, striking terror in the hearts of men. They turn beauty inside out; that is the way of the witch, that is how you can tell a witch. As young girls, potential witches can be detected by their crude tastes. When a pig is quartered they will drink its blood and tear at its flesh.

Shipwrecked sailors dread witches and therefore recite spells over a root of ginger, spells uttered in a rhythmic and alliterative manner, so as to create a mist that will befog the witch. Maybe it is to befog themselves as well and prevent them seeing the witch's loathsome being:

The mist springs up The mist makes them tremble

Like Evans-Pritchard describing the beliefs in witches among the Zande of Central Africa, Malinowski hastens to assure us that the native "feels and fears his belief rather than formulates it clearly to himself:" Feels and fears. In other words, not so much words and not so much "belief" as feelings and fears that arise from images and potent shapes. Is that something emotional or aesthetic, or both? Surely the fear at issue here, the fear of aerial witches roaming the night skies like fireflies, is emotional and aesthetic, and it would be wrongheaded to translate such affective and aesthetic intensities into a principle of belief. The idea of the witch is at once an emotion and a picture cast in cascading images of repulsion. It is the possibility, the haze on the horizon of possibilities associated with death and the corpse. To talk here of belief, let alone principles of belief, is to forsake what is potent so as to claim the safe ground of a verbal terra firma hostile to the dangerous realm of images and feeling. Plato's Republic is built on this terra firma.

The belief in evil here is patently aesthetic, a chilling sense of the ugliness of the unappeasable appetite for all that is morally wrong—indeed incomprehensible, a veritable charter of the loathsome and the tabooed. How fitting that another aesthetic force should be mobilized against these awful creatures, and those corpses and eyes and tongues, namely the aesthetic of the spell as poetry, which extends for two pages of closely written text, with wondrous metaphors, rhythm, and alliteration, ending with the poet-magician covering the naked body of the imagined witch:

I take thy sleeping grass skirt I cover thy loins Remain there; snore within

Be it noted that to the extent that beauty magic is equivalent to love magic (as described by Malinowski), such beauty is likely to be aimed at feeling the charge, making the charge:

My head, it flares up It flashes, My red paint, it flares up It flashes

Which I assume is more than enough. Who wants more than to put charge into the world, beginning with oneself? But beauty is more than a thing-in-itself. It speaks to someone or something. There is that other person or god to be attracted, to be attractive to, to be seduced—not just for sexual love but as trading partners, man to man, as in the charged exchange of kula valuables. But then who said trade was sexless, especially when it is conducted under the magical auspices associated with gifting the gift?

Could it be, then, that aesthetics are what prime the pump of life? Only in our modern haste to reduce everything to a means to an end, an efficient means to an ever-receding end, we are confused, and mightily so, by the place of art. Having elevated art as both commodity and metaphysical substance, having imprisoned art in museums, galleries, and boardrooms, having thus separated art from the artisan, having opposed "are' to the "useful," have we not become blind to the force of the aesthetic, of beauty, if you will, coursing through everyday life? Surely beauty is as as much infrastructure as are highways and bridges, storytelling and the Internet, rainfall and global warming?

But I sense something wrong in this way of looking at things. Simply inverting what was superstructure, namely the aesthetic, and calling it infrastructure is not good enough. What is lacking has to do with what Mauss in his book on the gift called "the total social fact," in which magic and the aesthetic are inseparable from the economic. He had in mind the economy of the Trobriands and the American Northwest, famous for the potlatch. But what I have in mind is the contemporary globalized economy. Not only is the inseparability of the aesthetic and the magic of the economy now back in the saddle but, under the rubric of the postmodern, new worlds of aesthetic intensification and libidinal gratification bound to a new body have taken center stage.

Not only gardens but the gods too are to be won over by beauty—and all this aesthetic lore and artisanry beautifying the work of man can be seen more generally as what goes into designing the world, giving it its "makeover" as well as its retoque, or "touch-up," as we say today with regard to cosmic surgery. We may call this culture, and the point then seems obvious that cultures have an aesthetic or several thereof perhaps in stark conflict. More to the point is the dependence on the aesthetic. Something as basic as a language, for instance, not only has its aesthetic but is dependent on such. The flow of sound, the rhythms and cadence, let alone the play and inventiveness, respond to aesthetic desires and aesthetic principles as much as semiotic considerations. And as for language so for all of culture, which can be viewed as design, continuously entertained and indulged. Cosmic surgery provides a stark example of this poesis, which to my mind is present as an active force in designing a new body, a new face, a smile for a paramilitary mass murderer, an airplane, a spark plug, a computer chip, in giving a name to a person, or in a Ronald Reagan ("the Great Communicator") using communication to win elections.

How strange, then, that in this our modern culture we feel it right and natural that design, as such, that beauty, as such, from gods to gardens, should be understood not as infrastructure but as mere ornament—and too much ornament as distasteful. For if my examples so far indicate that bodily beautification entails cosmic concerns, implicating therefore magic and ritual as well as a sense of myth, poetry, and the marvelous, I have to ask, what is bodily beauty today, now that the connection between the body and the stars has long since been cut?

Yet despite—or because of—this free fall, are we not experiencing a sudden rise, nay, a revolution, in surgeries meant to make us look good or better? Do not these procedures, like damming rivers and moon shots, no less than trading in bicycles for automobiles, test, in the language implicit to fairy tales, the patience of the gods? For unlike fairy tales with happy endings, in which Jack defeats the giant and Beauty's tears restore the Beast to his handsome princely self, the tales I have in mind from the agribusiness slums of Colombia are emissions from the dark side of beauty, tales of misfortune that find grim satisfaction in attempts at beautification gone tragically wrong: the breast enlargement that ends with infection and double mastectomy; eye surgery that instead of making you a wide-eyed beauty ends with you not being able to close your eyes day or night; the facelift that twists your most prized possession into horror-movie grotesquerie, neck tendons standing out like the guylines supporting a circus tent; ass uplift or enlargement that slowly slides down the back of your legs—or kills you, as happened to the abolutely gorgeous Solange Magnano, thirty-seven years old and a former Miss Argentina, in 2009; or liposuction that not only sucks out your fat but kills you on the operating table on account of the anesthetic or a day or two later because of desanguination. So the gods return, the connection with the stars returns—this time as disaster.

I imagine most fairy tales were like this, horror stories mixed with potent fantasies about the body and heedless ambition, before they were sanitized by Disney as bedside pabulum for children and their parents. "And they all lived happily ever after:' The hope that lives in the fairy tale is there in every story, says Walter Benjamin, who is of the opinion that the fairy tale lives on secretly in every story—and yet he insists it is death that grants the storyteller authority. Death and hope are reconciled—if that's the word—because what death does is refer the story to natural history no less than to the supernatural. And what could be more natural, may I ask, more historical, or more supernatural—all at once—than the human face and human body reconfigured by cosmic surgery?

Let us for the moment think of the face and the body as a jewel and recall Bataille's argument that a jewel—magical and glowing with an inner fire—lends itself to what he called depense. This is usually translated as "expenditure," or "profitless expenditure," but that does not seem to me nearly strong enough for what Bataille wants to get at, which is the big flame-out, the passion within the gift, going for broke, living in the fast lane, burning your bridges, etc. Excess is another word that looms large here: excessive wanting, excessive spending, excessive consuming and the devil take the hindmost. High on a mix of hashish and a morphine derivative in 1931, Benjamin put it rather well: "To cast purpose to the winds is a properly sporting activity!" As for Bataille: "The sun gives without receiving."


Excerpted from beauty and the beast by MICHAEL TAUSSIG Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Author’s Note 

The Gift of the Gods
El Mexicano
A Rare and Delightful Bird in Flight
The Designer Smile
The Designer Body
Mythological Warfare
Beauty and Mutilation
The Exploding Breast
Virtual U 
The History of Beauty
History of the Shoe
Surgeons of the Underworld
The Designer Name
Law in a Lawless Land
The Tabooed Cleft
The Fat Kid and the Devil

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