The Cartelization of Beauty – Thomas Harrington 2/20/24


Who at one time or another in their lives has not wondered about the suitability of their looks, and their adequacy as currency in the popularity and mating games? I would have to guess pretty much everyone, especially between the ages of, say, twelve and twenty-five.

Historically, however, these anxieties have tended to decline sharply after those years as people are driven by fate or by choice toward life activities that force them to discover new feelings and competencies within themselves, and as a result of this, to contemplate the many ways in which one can perceive beauty, and be perceived as beautiful by another.

As anyone who has read thinkers like Bourdieu or Even-Zohar can tell you, our sense of taste, which of course includes what we find beautiful, is heavily mediated by the cultural environment that we inhabit, and in a more particular sense by the semiotic materials produced by a reduced cadre of “cultural entrepreneurs” working much more often than not at the behest of the society’s most powerful people, and thus heavily inclined to generate life images that naturalize the values undergirding the behavior and the dominance of those same elites.

But to have one’s aesthetic gaze “heavily mediated” by the images produced by elites and their idea-makers is not the same as having one’s taste “determined” by them.

This is why, despite suffering an intense and often suffocating bombardment centering on the relatively few human qualities and looks that are considered beautiful as adolescents and young adults, most of us emerge from that period with at least some of our own non-mediated sense of taste intact.

And it is from this remaining islet of intrinsic aesthetic sensibility that we can begin to broaden our sense of what beauty is, a process that, if my own experience is any guide, is greatly deepened and accelerated by exposure to nature, and to people, landscapes, and cultures different than those that surrounded us in our formative years.

In many ways, what I’ve just described is a microcosm of what we often refer to as the larger human struggle for freedom and dignity.

But what if, in their ever increasing lust for power today’s elites, emboldened by “advances” in technology, decided the world would be a much better place for them if they could eradicate that island outpost inside of us from whence we gaze upon the world with relatively unmediated eyes?

And what if they could, through organized campaigns of social forgetting, convince significant numbers of people in subsidiary power centers such as the family and our schools—institutions that are supposed to support the individual’s search for his own sense of freedom, dignity, and beauty—to join them in obliterating that personal sanctum sanctorum within as many of our children and our youth as is possible?

My guess is that the results would look an awful lot like what we see going on around us today. …

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