two words with excellent sonority.

Unnatural beauty, unnatural virtue

The natural beauty viral video is endemic in clickbait-susceptible feminist circles. Every so often, a novel strain — a beauty product ad, a music video — engenders a pandemic. The video is liked, shared, and re-shared. Facebook’s clever algorithms, having correctly classified me as a feminist, bring it before me for easy liking and sharing.

Or perhaps Facebook’s algorithms are cleverer than that. Perhaps they bring it before me not because I’ll approve but because I won’t. Because I’ll then spend another twenty (advertising-revenue-generative) minutes on Facebook composing — but ultimately declining to post — a comment about the insidious anti-feminism of natural beauty memes.

Because the videos are anti-feminist. Feminist bloggers have eloquently explained that letting “beautiful” serve as a synonym for “valuable” implicitly suggests that a woman’s only possible worth lies in her bone structure. Socialist critics have exposed the hook to which the clickbait is affixed: almost all these videos are attempts — from the ham-handed to the brilliant — to make a pretty penny off internet feminists’ displays of tribal allegiance.

There is at least one other problem with the videos. They attack a straw(wo)man: an airbrushed, wafer-thin, heavily made-up conceit of female attractiveness. They aim to replace this with a purportedly more inclusive though equally aestheticized ideal: “natural beauty”.

“You don’t have to try“, the rather pretty pop singer Colbie Caillat tells her listener as she and other attractive women strip off makeup and fake eyelashes.

It is a shame that men are taught to desire a specific female image. It is a scandal that women are taught to despair if they cannot form themselves into that image — by hook, by crook, or by cosmetic purchase.

But like many “natural” remedies, “natural” beauty is a purported cure whose medicinal qualities are at best untested.

The most common objection to celebrating “natural” beauty is that this favours those women whose genetic-environmental cocktail has led them to embody the very ideal that is meant to be challenged: conventional feminine beauty.

The problem runs deeper. “You don’t have to try“. The natural beautician rejects as superfluous, destructive, and unnatural any attempt to alter the (static, perfect, natural) body a woman has been given.

This is “just be yourself” pseudo-feminism. Women don’t need to change; they’re perfect the way they are.

Framing female value in terms of immutable and sufficient essences denies women a privilege that has long given strength and joy to men: the privilege to strive.

Nature is unspoiled. Nature is unsullied. You don’t have to try to change because all change from a natural state is degradation and decline.

Women have spent much of history denied the chance to change for the better.

When the word “virtue” was still commonly invoked as an ideal for men, it most often meant cultivated excellence: athletic, artistic, intellectual, moral. For many women, the most commonly-invoked meaning of “virtue” was a single, vital moral excellence: chastity. Male philosophers wrote long tracts to explain how chastity could qualify as a cultivated excellence. Yet for all their work, many spoke as though a woman’s (particular, essential) virtue could be “taken” against her will[1].

Feminists have long fought so that a woman may aspire to virtues that she slowly and painfully attains and not merely to an inborn “virtue” that she will be blamed for having “lost”.

None of this means that we can let up in the fight against those who convince women to loathe — and to destroy — their bodies. None of it means that physical beauty is an appropriate locus of aspiration for many or even any women.

To fetishise “natural beauty” is nonetheless to participate in two patriarchal lies: that a woman’s value is tied up in her appearance, and that she can only change what matters most about her for the worse. It dissuades women from striving to be individually excellent — or politically potent.

Please don’t just be yourself.

[1] Note that theologians asserted that an unwilling rape victim was innocent of sin. This does not mean that people more generally did not make strong judgments regarding a woman’s value based upon the state of her hymen.

The BNP – so bad they’re worse than the Americans!

Transatlantic grumpus is grumpy after reading this.

It saddens me that the most natural way it occurs to the writer to criticise the BNP amounts to “they’re worse than the Americans!”

But my more serious objection to the article is that I’d like to have seen the author achieve some critical distance on the feelings she reports in this paragraph:

But patriotism has a much darker and more unsettling side. I remember one summer afternoon, my six-year old cousin, from California, took it upon herself to recite to me the Pledge of Allegiance. Despite her adorable Dora the Explorer-esque accent, I was disturbed. It was like observing a member of a very cute, very pink cult. I am all for national pride, but this just felt wrong.

Has the author considered the possibility that one’s own national rituals feel comforting, moderate, and natural whilst others’ rituals, seen from the outside, appear frightening and cultish? In a more interesting version of this article, the author would have noticed her unease with American patriotic rituals and then applied it to call into question seemingly harmless British patriotism.

One shouldn’t need an analogy to post-9/11 anti-dissent sentiments to discredit the thinly-veiled white supremacist ethnic nationalism of the BNP – a far more pernicious, if also more marginal, set of political views.

The author seems to imply that a culture that teaches the Pledge of Allegiance may be crafting citizens who will send death threats to the Dixie Chicks. While I am unconvinced, that logic should have led her at least to ask whether seemingly harmless Queen and country patriotism[1] can likewise lay the groundwork for the radical nationalism of the BNP.

“Ah, but that was implied!”, I hear you cry. The author’s last two sentences undo any such potential justification:

Patriotism is not rooted in the past, but in the present; we should be proud of a country for what it is now. True patriotism means accepting the diversity and multiculturalism of the modern world: understanding that individuals build a country, not the other way around.

In other words, left-wing national storytelling yay; right-wing national storytelling boo!

I hate to break it to the author, but that exact discourse goes on in America. During the Bush years, a “dissent is patriotic!” bumper sticker found its way onto many, many East Coast lefty Volvos. My earnest left-liberal friends often expressed similar sentiments. The “militant” Pledge of Allegiance (which is devoid of any reference, bellicose or otherwise, to non-Americans) itself has often provided rhetorical ammunition for the left: “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”[2]. If that isn’t patriotism as celebration of individuality and diversity, I don’t know what is.

It’s not an interesting or useful point to say, “ah, but I want the good kind of patriotism” without any attempt to explain why some seemingly harmless rituals (the Pledge of Allegiance, apparently) are in fact the groundwork for Bad Things and why others can lead to Good Things like “celebration of individuality”.

For what it is worth, I see the death threats sent to the Dixie Chicks as a matter of political tribalism and human aggression, not of American patriotism. People on the American left send death threats to people who make right-wing public statements[3]. And people on the British left[4] and right[5] do the same to right- and left-wing public figures here.

And this brings us to the reason the article seems fundamentally naive in its ever-so-respectable free speech, individuality,and diversity-celebrating very-mildly-left-ish liberalism. It fails to ask critically to what extent forms of political expression such as patriotic ritual are ciphers for any potential political view, and to what extent they – either by their nature or simply in all plausible practice – presuppose or promote particular political conclusions.


[1] Such as, for instance, self-congratulatory British anti-Americanism…

[2] The “under God” bit was added well into the Pledge’s political life by anti-Communist civil religion advocates

[3] e.g. http://blogs.star-telegram.com/politex/2012/02/glenn-beck-speaks-of-multiple-threats-on-his-family-since-moving-to-texas.html

[4] e.g. http://www.derbyshiretimes.co.uk/news/crime/ukip-chief-receives-buxton-death-threats-1-6198382

[5] e.g. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/twitter/10218942/Twitter-trolls-mess-with-Mary-Beard-at-their-peril.html

A potential problem with the simulation argument

What is the evidence that running a deterministic program gives its contents more metaphysical reality than they had when the program was, say, written down, or indeed when it became mathematically valid[1]? Every state of the simulation is determined before the program is run. What is added (from the PoV of giving, say, conscious experience to “simulated conscious beings”) by “running” the simulation so that the simulating agent can look at the results?

[1] The answer to the question of “when” (if ever) it “became” valid depends on your philosophy of math.

British Irony, part 2

A certain kind of Brit harbors an uninterrogated, un-self-conscious nationalistic belief in his or her compatriots’ particularly self-critical and self-conscious approach to life.

Arts, Sports, and False Dichotomies

Critics sometimes falsely divide professional performing artists into two non-overlapping camps: those who are “technically proficient” and those who possess “artistry”. This mirrors sportswriters’ and fans’ falsely dichotomous division of professional athletes into those who are “talented” and “effortless” but “aloof” and those who are “scrappy” and “blue-collar” “lovers of the game”.

In both cases, racial or ethnic stereotypes often lurk just below the surface.

(If anyone is wondering, I was set off by this article, which isn’t actually an egregious example of the genre).

The difference between history of historical ideas and historiography

Historian of historical ideas: “People argued X. Later, they argued Z”

Historiographer: “Why?”


Today, Judith Butler mocked me in front of 600 intellectuals.

Butler delivered a talk to a packed West Road Concert Hall on the body, vulnerability, street politics, and performativity. In it, she told the story of a hotel employee who came to check her minibar and kept confusedly addressing her as “Sir…Madam…Sir…Madam.” Butler pointed out to him that her gender was probably not relevant to the checking of the minibar. Butler did not argue this explicitly, but the story also showed – I thought – how attached to gender binaries and categorization most people are.

Then there came a time for questions. Two members of the audience gave speeches that did not end with a question mark. Butler seemed nonplussed. A third asked a question. Butler answered. I raised my hand, and they called on me.

I noted that “in the performance we’ve just witnessed,” Butler had given agency and concreteness to abstractions such as “the body” and “vulnerability.” I asked whether she could comment upon this practice, and what it did for “your rhetoric.”

It had seemed to me that Butler was perhaps attempting to challenge the clean break between the abstract concept and the concrete instances thereof. Conceiving of a person’s “body” as “a body” changes how you relate to it. I wondered whether she had refused to use the term “individual” – preferring “body” – because she thought the very term lent legitimacy to a neoliberal political vision. I wanted to know whether Butler saw these things in the same way, but in the interest of not seeming pretentious or speechifying like the people who had preceded me, I left my question open-ended, without offering my theory.

“Would you like to check my minibar?” Butler asked me.

I should have known this would happen. I am an intellectual historian of the culture wars. How, with the culture wars only in the recent past, could an apparently white male Cambridge student asking an eminent female post-structuralist a question about “abstractions” in her “rhetoric” be perceived as anything but a Sokal/Searle-like attack?

That I didn’t realize that this was how it would be perceived is perhaps an indication of how, as a white male who writes intellectual history, I am typically safer from culture warring attacks – and typically less at risk of having my arguments attributed a political expression of my gender – than a female post-structuralist like Butler. No wonder I didn’t think that that was how she would hear my comment; I would never receive a comment with that aggressive intent, so I could not hear the potential aggression present in mine.

How Butler responded was illuminating. Her rejoinder, and the laughter that surrounded me, made me feel humiliated. Small. Vulnerable. Whether or not Butler meant to do it, she forced me to attempt to imagine what it might have felt like to weather culture wars attacks. I was in a space in which the markers of my privilege did not work quite as much to my advantage as they do most spaces in which I move. I wish to make clear my understanding that, even in the moment of being humiliated by Butler, I remained deeply privileged. But given where Butler and I found ourselves, she was able to make me feel vulnerable, just for an instant. And that was itself instructive.


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