- Beauty and the Beast by Michael Taussig
aesthetics, cosmetic surgery, beauty, consumerism, violence, Colombia
Michael Taussig tells us that his book is inspired in part by the stories that surround talk of cosmetic surgery. Of the women, for instance, who can no longer close their eyes thanks to the work done on their faces; of the patient whose buttock implants turned septic; or of the enlarged breasts that supposedly explode when the cabin pressure changes on commercial airplanes. Regardless of whether they are true or false, these tales convey a "flash of recognition that beauty lives cheek by jowl with tragedy" (1). Cosmetic surgery promises transformation—of our very being, Taussig suggests, as well as of our "mere" appearance—but that promise can come to seem a curse, when the results are more apocalyptic than transcendent. Even when it "works," surgery can produce monsters: think of Michael Jackson, but also the case of "Chupeta," a "handsome young man" and major drug dealer whose face, over the course of a series of operations to disguise his identity, is shown metamorphosing into "a grotesque excuse for a face, a carnival mask of broad flat planes, eyes bulging scary white like golf balls, and a taut smile, more like a grimace of constant pain" (111, 113). Hence, because of the power invested in it, and the fatal ambivalence and [End Page 239] undecidability it incarnates, Taussig prefers to call it "cosmic surgery": "the latest expression of ancient magical practices based on mimesis and physiognomy, practices such as masking, face painting, and body painting, carried out so as to greet the gods or become one" (44). Liposuction, breast augmentation, facelifts and the like are anything but merely cosmetic, merely superficial. And so this book ricochets between the apparently sublime and the purportedly ridiculous, seeking out the nexus between beauty, terror, and magic in gossip and fashion, in tabloid newspapers and high theory, in canefields, beauty parlors, cemeteries, and hospitals, from rural Colombia to downtown New York.
As though all this were not enough, Taussig intertwines his tales of cosm(et)ic surgery with reflections on the relationship between fashion and history, the role and structure of the modern state, transitions in (or from) modes of production, and what one might call a general economy of excess. His claim is that beautification is not solely personal; it is also immediately social and political. For "the aesthetic of cosmic surgery is today infused with the current political setup, that extravaganza of false faces" (126) while the state, too, has its makeovers such that "it seems entirely warranted to see the largest body under the knife—the cosmic surgeon's knife—as the body of the nation-state itself " (46). And as consumption and consumerism, which revolve around "the revealed-and-concealed female body" (152), replace production and labor as the motor of capitalism, we are entering, Taussig tells us, a new world with "new desires, new fashions, and new ways of being human" (146).
Or not, as the case may be. For Taussig is unclear or unsure as to whether we are seeing a great transformation or the reversion to some kind of norm. At times it is as though he were describing an epochal change for which there is no turning back: the destruction of peasant farms and property rights; the rise of fashion and transgression, "the new god after the death of god" (137). But at other times, it is as though modernity, with its claims to rationality and the suppression of beauty in the name of productive utility, were merely an insignificant hiatus in the grand scheme of things: "a diversion, almost an accident" (33). So are we witnessing the birth of a "new way of being" (136)? Or rather are we now collectively "catapulted back into an ancient cosmic scheme" (138-39), confronted with motifs characteristic of medieval alchemy or some long-held collective unconscious? If anything, Latin America above all seems never to have dallied long with the false promises of modernity and development: cosmic surgery here is "but the latest...