Debates as to whether beauty is objective or subjective can be answered by C. D. Wright’s comment on the Heisenberg principle, “you change what you observe / EVERYTHING IS PERSONAL.”1 In Simone Weil’s definition—“The beautiful: that which we do not want to change”—beauty is attributed not to the beholding subject or object of contemplation, but to the relation between the two; beauty emerges in the first person plural constituted by it, around it, however small or tenuous. Such a we understands change is as inevitable as the desire to halt it.2 That aesthetics and politics are so often constituted as mutually exclusive, in binary opposition to one another, provides us with the further task of conceptualizing a beauty that avoids nostalgia and is both radical at its core and global in its scope. What might constitute a radical poetics (politics) of beauty?
Du Bois’s call for artists, specifically black artists, to “let this world be beautiful” is one place to start.3 So, too, is Claudia Rankine’s citation of James Baldwin at the end of her video-essay Situation 1: “This endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.”4 In the piece, which poet Christine Hume aptly describes as “polity constituting itself through exclusion and effacement,” Rankine uses Baldwin to frame Zidane’s infamous rebuttal at the 2006 World Cup as “something very beautiful”; his action “assumes an original form,” not as an object—in video form the incident can never be static—but as a civil gesture, a visceral response both personal and embedded in and indexing wider, global frameworks of colonialism and racism.5 In the moment itself, and Rankine’s aesthetic rendering, we are formed in Zidane’s violent, personal refusal of structural violence, itself an act of beauty; in observing it, we change it, are changed. Situation 1 is a call to locate the locus of personal desire in a global context: what do we not not want to change about what we see? That is to say: what, precisely, is beautiful? [End Page 385]
Alexander Nehamas writes, “What is involved is less a matter of understanding and more a matter of hope, of establishing a community that centers around [beauty]—a community, to be sure, whose boundaries are constantly shifting and whose edges are never stable.”6 Beauty not as pleasure, as ideal, as perfection or goodness, not as truth; beauty as juxtaposition, collision, a muddying of the waters, utopia, state of emergency, of emergence.
whitney devos is a PhD student in Literature, with a Creative/Critical concentration, at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her dissertation project, “From Logopoeia to (Un)documentary,” approaches documentary and investigative poetics as forms of experimental historiography. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Whiskey Island, Spork online, lo-ball magazine, Caketrain, The Destroyer, and elsewhere. Responding to Susan Sontag’s assertion that “the best theory of beauty is its history,” she is currently at work on a book-length creative project that seeks to historicize beauty and the beautiful through poetic form.
1. C. D. Wright, One Big Self: An Investigation (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2007), 32.
2. Qtd. in Peter Winch, Simone Weil: “The Just Balance” (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 190.
3. W. E. B. Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art,” The Crisis 32 (1926): 290–97.
4. See Claudia Rankine and John Lucas, Situation 1 (2010), https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/video-situation-one. See also the written script published in Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2014), 128.
5. See the Academy of American Poets introduction to Situation 1: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/video-situation-one.
6. Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 81.