On Beauty and Being Fair

If the first part of this essay had its redeeming features, the second managed to enrage me.

So why is it that we no longer talk about beauty? It is, Scarry tells us, because we wrongly believe beauty to contribute to social injustice in two main ways:

1. Our focus on beauty distracts us from other things, namely from the fight against social injustice.

2. Our focus on beauty harms the beautiful things we're focused on by objectifying them.

In the first case, our attention is presumed to be a good thing and the problem is that we don’t bestow it on the right things. In the second case, our attention itself is the problem; it seems to be inherently harmful. Is this a contradiction? I’m not sure. Scarry obviously thinks it is, but I don’t trust her analysis. I particularly don’t trust her account of objectification. She’s fighting against a view that extends the terms “objectification” and “reification” (created to describe the way we treat persons) to the way we treat all objects. But surely, if such a view exists, it is so absurd as to not be worthy of lengthy refutation. One cannot declare it the official stance of the Misguided Others – an unidentified, but presumably influential academic legion – at least not without some citations to back it up. I refuse to believe, on the basis of the thin-to-the-point-of-translucence evidence presented by Scarry, that there is an influential current in academic thought whose position can be simplified to: all perception of beauty is objectification. And, of course, Scarry herself admits that, apart from her undergraduate students, no one is saying exactly that. (I will excuse her students, they've been getting subpar instruction.)
First, the complaint is often formulated in such a way that, in its force and scope, it seems to be generalized to all objects of beauty—the poems of John Donne or John Keats, mother-of-pearl poppies, gods from both the East and the West, human faces, buildings—even though the particular instances explicitly cited are almost always consigned to one particular site of beauty, the beauty of persons.
Now, reading through Scarry demolishing the Objectifying Objects strawman is tedious enough, but then she gets to the reality-based core of that strawman, the objectification of persons, and... we learn that there is no such thing. The perceived has all the power. It is the beholder who is overpowered and unsettled by beauty, because Plato said so in Phaedrus. And if it was true in the time of Plato, why wouldn't it be true today? I'll let Scarry take this one, because I feel I cannot do justice to what's about to follow: 
[E]ither our responses to beauty endure unaltered over centuries, or our responses to beauty are alterable, culturally shaped. And if they are subject to our willful alteration, then we are at liberty to make of beauty what we wish. And surely what we should wish is a world where the vulnerability of a beholder is equal to or greater than the vulnerability of the person beheld, a world where the pleasure-filled tumult of staring is a prelude to acts that will add to the beauty already in the world—acts like making a poem, or a philosophic dialogue, or a divine comedy; or acts like repairing an injury or a social injustice.
Yes, indeed. If something is culturally determined, you can alter it to your heart's content. Hear this, dear readers? Let's go dismantle the patriarchy with the force of our wills. We'll be the few, the brave, the unspeakably naive.

There's more to unpack in that paragraph (like how there is no distinction drawn between our response to beauty and our theories about our response to beauty), but I won't bother with it. The lesson Scarry draws, without ever engaging with any serious scholarship on the matter, is that the beholder is just as affected or more affected than the person beheld, because sometimes people walk into lampposts or drop their packages when they see someone beautiful on the street. One can of course recognize here the Hanna-Barbera theory of human reactions, named after William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, two dedicated anthropologists of the twentieth century. 

Once we've waved away the arguments against beauty, we see how, far from hampering the fight against injustice, beauty turns out to be its trigger. First of all, we feel the need to protect and cherish beautiful things. Secondly, once we pay attention to beautiful things, we naturally extend our attention to all the other things. "It is as though," Scarry says, "beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level. Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care: if we do not search it out, it comes and finds us."

But the link between justice and beauty is even deeper; it goes through fairness - fairness "not just in the sense of loveliness of aspect but in the sense of 'a symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other.'" (And no such essay would be complete without an etymological argument. If only you knew what you discover when you start investigating the origins of the word "fair"!) Beauty has been long thought of as symmetry, equality, regularity. Justice means equality, distribution (at least if we follow Rawls). We can see the similarities without squinting. But what do these similarities tell us? When both beauty and justice (in the form of laws) are present in the world, they don't tell us much. They are just the elements of an analogy between these two notions. But when justice is absent from the world, beauty becomes a call for it: 
[R]emembering there was a time antecedent to the institution of these laws, and recognizing also that this community will be very lucky if, in its ongoing existence through future history, there never comes an era when its legal system for a brief period deteriorates, we can perceive that ongoing work is actively carried out by the continued existence of a locus of aspiration: the evening skies, the dawn chorus of roosters and mourning doves, the wild rose that, with the sweet pea, uses even prison walls to climb on. In the absence of its counterpart, one term of an analogy actively calls out for its missing fellow; it presses on us to bring its counterpart into existence, acts as a lever in the direction of justice.
It sounds nice, if only it had been argued for a little better. In any case, this is where I stopped my close reading, fifteen pages or so before the end. There is some interesting stuff left, namely the idea, taken from Murdoch and Weil, that beauty makes us less self-centered. But it was all drowned by:
  1. obnoxious name-dropping (did you know Scarry is good friends with Very Important People? Well, you do now. She even cleverly lists all of their accomplishments before giving their names, so that you realize the kind of person you're dealing with.)
  2. embarrassing lists of superficial similarities between justice and beauty, the kind that a high school student could have written (and gotten a B for). 
  3. pointless polls about beauty amongst Scarry's friends, extrapolated-but-not-quite with this amazingly clueless sentence: "My own sample is informal and small, but does it not seem likely that a larger group would answer in similar fashion?" Yay, scholarship!
I'm almost never disappointed that I read something. I'm one of those obnoxious people who find something good in any book - be it only an occasion for snark. And ultimately this essay is no exception: I don't regret having read it and, in fact, I'd recommend it to other people, too. Scarry does have a way with words (if not with arguments), and this essay's been quoted enough to make reading it a worthwhile "cultural investition."


  1. Every time I visit this blog I find a quote that totally nails what I think about the book you're reviewing and this time was not different:

    "Yes, indeed. If something is culturally determined, you can alter it to your heart's content. Hear this, dear readers? Let's go dismantle the patriarchy with the force of our wills. We'll be the few, the brave, the unspeakably naive."

    SO GOOD.

    1. So glad you enjoyed it :)

      (Also, HI, it's been a while!)