FRONT PAGE / POSTS
by Louise Jolly| Brighton, UK
Wednesday, 17 August 2011
tags: clients & brands, consumer culture, emergence
Until recently, the beauty category has been all about dualist metaphysics – constantly reworking the Cartesian opposition between mind and matter, culture and nature.
One main strand – exemplified by ‘disciplinarian’ brands like L’Oréal or Pantene – gives us beauty as the conquest of nature. Here, the brand performs the role of aesthetic policeman, whipping into shape nature’s unruly materiality.
Then there are the opponents of this approach – the likes of Dove – who flip it on its head, calling for the liberation of natural imperfection from culture’s rigid standards.
On the surface, there are two radically different stances here: the one pro-culture, and the other pro-nature. But in fact, both perspectives operate within the same metaphysical arena. Neither challenges the view that nature is raw and imperfect, while culture has the monopoly on aesthetics and form.
Today, that’s changing. Many brands now talk about continuity between nature and culture, moving towards an idea of aesthetic form as inherent to biological process – not as the superimposition of an external template.
As an example, we could take the rise of intelligent or adaptive foundations, often described as drawing out skin’s immanent beauty, rather than masking nature with a cultural overlay. Here, nature doesn’t precede art: it’s already art – just needing a little activation or elucidation.
This development sees beauty break with Cartesian dualism to find a new philosophical source in Spinoza. For this 17th-century metaphysician, there’s no opposition between nature and culture, only a single Substance that expresses itself in different ways.
Spinozan Substance can become thought or physical process: it doesn’t matter, as both follow the same patterns and dynamics, playing out on the same plane. And every mode of the Substance, whether it’s an idea, a person or a ‘skin type’, never stops trying to be itself as fully as possible, rather than pursuing an external ideal.
This idea of fullness of expression, rather than perfectionist teleology, has also become key in beauty symbolism. Beauty language now talks more about ‘revealing’ than ‘improving’ – as in the Spinozan idea that every mode of the Substance strives solely for the full expression of itself, not for externally-driven transformation.
But while Spinoza does give us essentialist metaphysics, he certainly wouldn’t have gone for Dove-style essentialism, which involves a static, anti-aspirational idea of ‘real beauty’ (self-acceptance, flaws and all).
Instead, his is a dynamic essentialism, in which essence constantly strives and aspires, but only to become more and more fully itself.
© Louise Jolly 2011