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Nature matters, too

16 March, 2011

Alex Edmonds, our former colleague at Macquarie, my current colleague in Amsterdam and close friend, has published his book on beauty, race, and plastic surgery in Brazil. We have had many conversations about our differing styles of work: I tend to write quickly and move on, whereas he is painfully perfectionistic in his writing. I think the endless polishing was worthwhile, as the book — as I promised it would! — is making a splash both in and outside academia. Here is Alex talking about the book on BBC 4.

There are three things about Pretty Modern that I think are worth mentioning in a blog on culture in the public sphere. The first and most directly related is his chronicle of the emergence of “black” racial aesthetics in Brazil, a country whose national ideal of beauty has been that of “magnificent miscegenation,” as one of the chapter titles has it. The much-criticized (but nonetheless, as far as myths go, rather appealing) myth of hybridity, blamed by critics for blinding Brazil to racism, seems a long way from collapse, but some of its seams have come loose, and there is now a market for “black beauty,” linked both to the imported concept of ethnic marketing and a new agenda of U.S.-style black identity politics. Proponents of such politics argue that it is necessary to overcome internalized racism. Is the largest country in the world that has not yet adopted serialized ethnocultural categories to classify its population about to abandon its resistance?

The second issue is a partial rehabilitation of beauty as an independent social domain, not just a reflection of hierarchies amplified by the machinations of global capitalism. Alex treads carefully here, but this is a provocative critique of a now dominant social constructivism that limits itself to a dissection of discourses. In his ethnography, which covers glamorous socialites, aspiring models, and aging maids queuing up for free plastic surgery — in the name of mental health, the Brazilian public health system covers most interventions, if the patient waits long enough — beauty, or sexual attractiveness (though I actually wish the two weren’t collapsed into a single category) 

acts as an objective form of capital in modern social life. … On the face of it, we might think that beauty is another realm for encoding class domination, a function that so many aspects of the body perform.  But physical beauty often impetuously disregards social hierarchy.  It is quite obvious that the elite are not always good-looking, even when their privilege thoroughly pervades others aspects of their social person.  Beauty hierarchies thus do not simply mirror other hierarchies of wealth or status.  Rather it is precisely the gap between aesthetic and other scales of social position that make attractiveness such an essential form of value and all too often imaginary vehicle of assent for those blocked from more formal routes of social mobility.

The third issue is the style of the book. We talked many times about the unsatisfactory quality of a lot anthropological writing and agreed that, often, a novel can say more about society than an ethnography. There was a point when this book almost became an autobiographic account of fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro. This excursion into another genre I think invigorated the prose of what became in the end a highly readable ethnography, perhaps one of the very few that have the chance of making a crossover to a broader readership.

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