Beauty and the Beast

By Michael T. Taussig. 2012. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 9780226789859 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Lee Haring, Brooklyn College

[Review length: 890 words • Review posted on January 30, 2013]


The title of Michael Taussig’s adventuresome book points to a story widely believed to be a folktale and often treated in folklore studies. If Beauty and the Beast at first seem to be opposites, they yet evince a great affinity to each other. Jean Cocteau shows the affinity in his classic film of 1946, when the Beast is revealed to be the beautiful Jean Marais. The affinity is confirmed and documented by Michael Taussig, through anthropological fieldwork and wide observation. This latest of his increasingly audacious and passionate books illustrates that splendid capacity anthropology has—folklore studies have it too—of discovering the largest implications in the smallest, least prestigious data. From The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (1980) and Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man (1987) onward, Michael Taussig has used his deep knowledge of Colombia and his repeated visits there to develop the concept of a culture of terror, which for him saturates and dominates that country (and here, other countries as well). Reference points in the book are authors seldom mined by American folklorists, such as Charles Baudelaire (80, 84) and Georges Bataille (9). As always in his books, Michael Taussig keeps coming back to Walter Benjamin, whose work he knows well, as his central genius. He calls this latest book a history of beauty in a small Colombian town.

Its subject is cosmetic surgery, which the author immediately renames “cosmic” surgery to proclaim its worldwide significance. He positions Colombia as the world (46) and the spread of “cosmic surgery” there as a response to terror. There and everywhere, the human body becomes technologized (73), an industry (64), a kind of agribusiness (109). The book adds to the “stories of extremity and disaster” (77) he has narrated in previous books—extremity since, in the culture of terror and crime, some cosmic surgeries are motivated by the need for disguise. The fear is universally masked. Talking of liposuction and cosmic surgery, most of the people the author hears from are “unembarrassed and matter-of-fact” (49), yet very often, the incredibly expensive operations go wrong and a woman is permanently injured and disfigured (47-58). Perhaps the author’s medical training, which goes unmentioned here, shields him from the nausea he might feel at these despoliations (75), but in fact the whole book conveys shock and horror. Since bodily disfigurement, sold as beautification, aims at transforming a woman’s presentation of herself to the male-dominated world, at creating an image, Michael Taussig’s book is a distant descendant of Daniel Boorstin’s classic of America in the 1950s, The Image. Its real debt however is to a well-known line of Rilke’s, which the author leaves to the reader to recall: “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure” (Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the first Duino Elegy). Beyond enduring the terror, cosmic surgery is the most extravagant distraction.

Michael Taussig’s favorite way of assertion is interrogation. Some of his most convincing observations are couched as questions. One powerful series appears at the beginning of the book: “[H]ave we not . . . missed the larger and more important influence of beauty in shaping and energizing society and history, beauty not as form but as force? And likewise, have we not ignored not only the aesthetic shaping of everyday life but the aesthetic shaping of terror as well? Is not the synergism between beauty and what I will call the ‘negative sublime’ as much the motor of history as are the means of production of material life?” (3) The questions provoke a question in reply: who is we? Some answers are anthropologists, historians, and the intellectual world. For anthropologists, the answer to the author’s questions may well be the yes he implies. Folklorists might rebut that many American scholars, led by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Dell Hymes, have given careful attention to the aesthetic shaping of everyday life; that others, notably Elaine Lawless, have documented the aesthetic shaping of terror; and still others, notably Kimberly Lau, have looked hard at the relation between the American fascination with bodily fitness and women’s identity. When he asks, “just as there is an aesthetic to clothes and the human body . . . is there not also an aesthetic in the way land is worked?” (23), one could offer in reply the work of E. Estyn Evans and Henry Glassie. The closest American folklore study, though still distant from Michael Taussig’s concerns, is Katharine Young’s Bodylore of 1993. Yet the force of Taussig’s interrogative assertions and the impact of his shock and horror are not weakened but confirmed by relevant studies. It is always timely for folklore and anthropology to declare the broad implications of field studies others may think are microscopic. Michael Taussig’s book again marks him as the most innovative speaker of truth and stylist among anthropologists.

The number of typographical errors in this book should cause this distinguished university press to blush. I choose but one example: one of the author’s key terms is dépense, French for profitless expenditure, a concept related to but not the same as Veblen’s conspicuous consumption. Every time the author uses this word, so essential to his argument, the accent is omitted from the first e, as it would be in an e-mail message. Is this what we should expect for the next generation of scholarly publications?

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.