Sunday, September 11, 2011

Elaine Scarry: On Beauty and Being Just (1999)

            In this work, Scarry first looks at the nature of beauty, which then leads her to a focused look at what she sees is a intimate relationship between beauty and justice in the world.  I am most interested in how her evaluation of beauty focuses on the interaction between the beautiful and the perceiver; to Scarry, it is in this interaction that the power of beauty is felt, as both provide a sense of life for each other.  Beauty makes the heart beat faster, makes the perceiver feel alive; and the attention of the gaze bestows life upon the beautiful.
            One important distinction that Scarry makes is the idea that,“Beauty always takes place in the particular, and if there are no particulars, the chances of seeing it go down” (18).  This is one explanation for cultural differences in ideas of beauty, because of lack of familiarity.  She also talks about how we assume our idea of “beautiful” arises from a “composite of particulars, and so erasing the particulars” (19).  This seems to speak to Nancy Etcoff’s claim in Survival of the Prettiest that our ideas of beauty are an average of what we have seen before, which in her schema explains cultural differences in ideas of beauty.  I like Scarry’s specification, however, that the particulars part of the definition is as important as the composite part.
            I also like her delineation of the common and necessary elements contained in that which is deemed beautiful.  According to Scarry, beauty is (1) sacred; (2) unprecedented; (3) lifesaving; (4) incites deliberation; and (5) encourages replication.
            I do take exception at her discussion of those who claim that the gaze has a destructive potential against that upon which it gazes.  Scarry says, “It is odd that contemporary accounts of ‘staring’ or ‘gazing’ place exclusive emphasis on the risks suffered by the person being looked at, for the vulnerability of the perceiver seems equal to, or greater than, the vulnerability of the person being perceived” (73).  However, she is not taking into account the fact that, typically, when “the gaze” is being discussed, the perceiver is typically in a position of more power, a less vulnerable position, than the person being seen.  And in this schema, the person being seen is being framed solely in terms of (usually) her beauty, which takes away her own personhood.  The gazer has the ability to frame that what is deemed beautiful, and the frame/pedestal functions to restrict the agency of the person being gazed at.
The traditional stories of men being struck dumb by beauty?  They seem to want to blame the beautiful for their own reactions.  They are shirking responsibility for their own reactions.  This seems an awfully dangerous road—like, so much beauty can overpower you and you just can’t help but ravish the object of beauty.  These stories strike me as the kind that would use the word “ravish,” trying to deny the reality of rape.  Yeah, it’s the excuse given for all of the times Zeus raped a woman.  I don’t buy it.
            However, to Scarry, beauty is responsible for the pursuit of justice in the world.  Beauty “has been perceived to be bound up with the immortal, for it prompts a search for a precedent, which in turn prompts a search for a still earlier precedent, and the mind keeps tripping backward until it at last reaches something that has no precedent, which may very well be the immortal” (30).  This explains its connection to truth, as truth is also of the immortal realm (31).
She then brings in the notion of fairness-both in its meaning of being beautiful, but also in terms of justice.  She quotes John Rawls, who defined fairness as “‘a symmetry of everyone’s relation to each other” (93).  Intriguing that the idea of symmetry—so important in Etcoff’s discussion of the evolutionary importance of beauty—comes up in more abstract theorizing of beauty, too.  And this is how Scarry gets from beauty to justice.  To Scarry, beauty acts as a concrete example or representation or reminder of much more abstract laws and principles of justice in the world (102).  Further, it inspires and calls out for justice.  The vision of beauty requires the existence of truth and order in the world.

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