return to 2004
as a Property
published a book in 2001 with the alluring title Venus in
Exile. Its central thesis was that art would benefit from a
return to beauty, and even feminine beauty. To launch my column
this week I am going to make use of several quotes from it, as
well as quotes from a New York Times review of the book by
Paul Mattick. This will allow me enter a brief discussion of the
definition of beauty.
Ms. Steiner tells us that beauty "is
the name of a particular interaction between two beings."
Mattick counters that, "Beauty is neither a property nor a
mode of interaction; it is a classification, which, like all
classifications, implies a particular social relation between the
classifier and the classified. Modern artists' critique of
beauty, whatever the artist's own misogyny, must be given credit
for their early challenge to a structure of values and behavior
that has become increasingly hard to justify. Calling for a
return to old times without the inequality essential to them will
not put Humpty Dumpty together again."
concedes, "The problem is how to imagine female beauty, in
art or outside it, without invoking stories of dominance,
victimization and false consciousness."
agrees of course: "This is indeed a problem. But the bigger
problem is Steiner's failure to think through the historical
relation between beauty and femininity."
wants to appear to trump Steiner with a superior interpretation,
but all he does is restate her definition of beauty in more and
different words. Steiner does not say that beauty is a mode of
interaction, she says it is the name of an interaction—which
is the classification of an interaction. The name of a mode of
interaction is itself a classification. A name prepares a thing
for a slot. This naming and grouping is classification.
it is not Steiner who is guilty of "failure to think
through" the problem, in this instance, it is Mattick. He
has made the cardinal error in what is now called semiotics of
failing to differentiate between names and the things named. He
conflates the signifier and the signified. Only the word "beauty"
is a classification; but the question is what does that word
signify. He has entered the vicious circle of subjectivity, where
the word, which is an idea, signifies a classification, which is
also an idea, which classifies a social relation, which is also
an idea. In such a circle the word is never allowed to signify a
thing or characteristic of a thing, for it would then become the
signifier of a property. Steiner is caught in this trap, too, but
she only has her leg in, whereas it appears that Mattick is in by
the neck. For her, beauty is an idea. For Mattick, beauty is the
idea of an idea.
To avoid solipsism, an idea must refer to
something outside the mind. A word like beauty cannot signify
another word, it must signify an object or a fact. Consider a
somewhat simpler example. Consider the word "tree." As
a word, it classifies living things. But the question, "What
is a tree?" is not asking about the word "tree,"
it is asking about the object that the word signifies. A tree is
not a word or a classification. It is an object: a real object
with real properties.
Now, beauty is meant to be the same
sort of word. It was intended to refer to real things.
Historically it has always been a property. Furthermore, its very
use depends upon it being a property. It is always things that
are said to be (physically) beautiful. In this sense, beauty
either exists or it does not. Relocating it out of the object and
into the mind is pointless, since it is never used as a
classification of ideas. That is simply not what beauty means, in
most usage. Making beauty subjective is analogous to relocating
"treeness" into the mind: it not only disregards the
existence of trees, it disregards the entire history of naming
things and of creating definitions. The informational content of
words like "tree" and "beauty" concerns real
things and events. If there is no tree, then there is no reason
to name it or classify it.
In The Pathetic Fallacy,
John Ruskin went even further, stating that the new
misunderstandings regarding subjectivity were symptoms of
personal deficiency in the philosophers who proposed them:
you find that you cannot explode the gunpowder, you will not
declare that all gunpowder is subjective, and all explosion
imaginary, but you will simply suspect and declare yourself to be
an ill-made match.
This brings the psychology full
circle, you see. Ruskin's arguments in the 19th century should
have put an end to the whole pathetic business, but for reasons
not difficult to fathom illogic has continued to be a much better
seller than logic.
Many modern philosophers think there
is no way out of these semiotic circles, but in this case there
is a very clear way out: making the names of things refer to
actual things. Mattick may answer that this assumption is
unprovable, but treated as an axiom it does not need to be
proved. It is useful not because it provides certain knowledge
but because it sets up a sensible deductive process. It sets up a
definitional system that does not break down into a mess. But
assuming that a word signifies an idea does not allow one to
build a meaningful system of terminology. It quickly breaks down
into nonsense, tautologies or contradictions.
To state it
even more boldly, defining such words as the signifiers of things
is logical; defining them as signifiers of other words is not.
Assuming beauty is the property of a thing sets up a meaningful
system; assuming beauty is a word that signifies an idea does
An idea can change just by wishing it to. An object
cannot. You cannot make a tree short and red and tidy by fiat or
vote or wish. "Treeness" is not a cultural decision or
process or interaction or relationship. It is a definition. The
word “beauty” has historically been less precise than
the word tree, but it has always been meant to signify a physical
property: an objective, real, thing. In Steiner's words, it is an
attribute of "the other." Therefore it is absolutely
and definitionally linked to the existence of the other, and to
the existence of properties of the other. Physical beauty as a
subjective classification is a contradiction in terms.
of this is to say that subjects—that is, people—do
not divert and color facts. But it is to say that experience
presupposes something to experience. If objects did not have real
properties, we would have nothing to color or divert or
interpret. The reason that modern philosophers, critics and other
intellectuals prefer this sloppy sort of subjectivism is clear:
it allows them to dodge the real questions—such as "what
constitutes beauty as a property"—and to instead
wallow in the realm of ideas, where you can think whatever you
want. If words and ideas don't finally refer back to reality,
then absolutely anything can be said. This plays into the current
ideas of freedom, and so seems to be democratic. But in fact it
is the end of science and of all clear thinking. It leads to
writing like Mattick's, which, with a false rigor, relies heavily
on prestige and posturing, but ultimately says nothing.
on to Mattick's "structure of values and behavior that has
become increasingly hard to justify." He doesn't say exactly
why people finding each other beautiful is increasingly hard to
justify—all he needs to do is imply it and the modern
reader knows where to go. That is, it is presumed to link
directly to patriarchy, hierarchy, and all the shibboleths of
modernism and feminism. Unfortunately, the moderns have utterly
failed to provide the necessary link from "beauty as a
property" to "violence and false consciousness".
Women find men beautiful and men find men beautiful. How have
these categories failed to end in violence, according to the
social critics? The answer is that beauty as a definition has
nothing to do with cultural violence. Beauty does not imply a
particular social relation between the classifier and the
classified, beyond the relation of seer and seen. What social
relation does the classification "tree" imply? Or
"table" or "bottle"? A classification is
nothing more than a grouping; a definition nothing more than an
axiom. Both are an ordering of experience that may be very nearly
impersonal and objective. That some classifications and
definitions may later become polluted by politics and other
social and personal factors does not change the basic nature of
them as categories.
Mattick's conundrum, like many of the
philosophic conundrums of the past century, is a manufactured
one. The moderns have assumed that straightforward actions like
naming and defining and classifying are necessarily complicated
by social interactions, and they have assumed this for a
reason—out of the muddle a new politics could be fashioned,
a politics free of reason and logic and rigor. This is best shown
by Steiner's quote. "The problem is to imagine female
beauty... without invoking stories of violence...." But this
is not a problem at all. It is quite easy for anyone who wants to
to imagine female beauty without invoking stories of violence.
There is no necessary link, and implying that there is would have
once been seen as a huge implication, one that required some sort
of grand proof. Social criticism has never even thought it
worthwhile to begin such a proof. Their argument never gets past
the naïveté of this: because some bad men have used
beauty to oppress women, beauty is bad. The moderns give a few
examples of bad men and think their proof complete. As if the
existence of bad men is proof against the existence of good men.
As if improper use is proof of the impossibility of proper use.
As if the goodness or badness of individual people had anything
at all to do with the definition of a word.
beauty of a woman or man as an objective property has no
necessary social implications at all. It may lead to violence or
it may lead to great joy. Most often it leads to both. Physical
beauty as a general term is even less social: it is not a social
factor at all, since it was historically distilled from a broad
range of beauties—human, animal, natural, scientific,
linguistic—many of which are outside the purview of human
relationships. What oppressive politics do people mean to impose
on swans by calling them beautiful, or upon flowers or sunsets?
We certainly oppress nature, but beauty is a tonic to this
oppression, not the cause of it.
As for Mattick's belief
in the historical relationship between beauty and femininity, I
should think that if men had defined beauty mainly to suit their
own social agenda, then it would have no real connection to
femininity at all. As a construct of men, it would tell us about
them, not about women. But women also find themselves and each
other beautiful, and the historical relationship between women
and beauty is not nearly as sinister as Mattick implies. Both men
and women have used physical beauty as a tool for themselves from
the beginning, as one would expect. Women have not borrowed a
tool of men, both men and women have made proper and improper use
of nature. That is the rather simple truth of the matter.
can see that Mattick has not touched the central thesis of
Steiner's book. He has used her book as an opportunity to restate
the absurd politics of the intellectual status quo, in properly
oily terms. Steiner's thesis, that art and social criticism have
bottomed out, and that some of the babies lost in the bathwater
need to be resuscitated, is valid, courageously advanced, and
sometimes well-expressed. The only place she fails is in her
conclusion, where she attempts to provide current examples of the
correct road out of Bedlam. After spending entire chapters
asserting that we need a return to an art of "the other"
(meaning an art that is once again connected to, and about, the
outside world—and especially other people) she showcases
modern feminist artists who are painting themselves. They are not
interested in the other—that is, men. And Steiner does not
think to mention men who are painting the other—that is,
women. Dead male artists painting women are held up as a lost
paradise, but living men painting women are still seen as
politically regressive, no matter what the emotions involved
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