As I Started to Think about the concept of perfection and its relationship to the research questions that I am wrestling with these days—personal and cultural responses to climate crisis and resource depletion—I keep coming back to the idea that perfection is a problematic concept because of its place as something that exists only beyond the “real,” beyond human experience.
The roots of the concept of perfection in Western culture, apparently, go back first to its Greek definition as “completeness,” and then to its Latin entymology “to finish” or “to bring to an end.” At first, the juxtaposition of these two definitions seems to point in different directions: Aristotle considered something to be perfect if it could not be improved and had attained its full purpose; the later Romans seem to have believed that if a thing had reached this state of perfection, then by definition it had to be over, done.
Although for the Greeks and Romans, under these definitions, perfection might well be achieved in human life, in Christian tradition it becomes clear that only God can be perfect; only the Divine can ever be complete, whole, no longer be improved. If that is true, then by definition humanity can only ever strive toward the example of the divine but will [End Page 20] never attain it. Until, of course, we are “finished”; dead and reborn in the perfection of paradise.
During the secularization of the Enlightenment, Nature (with a capital N) took the place of God as the divine and as perfect. The goal became not to become like God but to live in complete harmony with Nature. Civilization became the new fall-from-grace, that sin that moved us out of our previously Edenic state of harmony with Nature and to which we can never fully return. Newly encountered indigenous, so-called primitive, peoples became the ideal for the ways in which they were perceived as living in perfect harmony with nature (a perception always already tinged with the tragedy of their inevitable decline and disappearance). So perfection remained unattainable in the modern world, located either deep in the ancient past or in the never-certain possibility of the future afterlife. Nature subbed in for God, but the place of perfection as something beyond the real remained.
In more modern times, of course, neither God nor Nature retains a position of authority, and, indeed, postmodernism would suggest that perfection as concept cannot exist, because any benchmark has to be set by some sort of authority, which we always already know is deeply limited. I would argue that corporations have stepped into the authoritative void that postmodernism emptied of God and Nature. In popular consciousness, what is deemed perfect today exists only through digital manipulation, what Alison Hearn has called “the corporate colonization of the ‘real’” (np). Perfection is now the ultimate simulacrum, where what is being reproduced or simulated never actually existed and is being defined, virtually, by corporations and digital image-makers. We know that advertisers often create the problem to which their product is the solution; in the broader sense, are they also creating the perfection that can only really exist outside the real, at the level of the image? If so, then, even today, perfection can only exist outside of human experience, beyond the real.
As I mentioned earlier, my concern these days is how we are responding to what is essentially the loss of our human habitat. Among the popular responses seems to be the persistent Enlightenment belief that Nature is still something other to us as humans. Nature retains its position as perfect—it is humans that are screwing it up. If we would just get out of the way, Nature could recover and would carry on just fine without us. But this point of view is still the same old colonial gaze that saw the New World as pure, empty (although threatening) wilderness with few people living in it; the landscape was untouched (not true, we know now), and therefore … perfect. [End Page 21]
The problem is that this way of thinking about perfection—as something beyond human experience...