This theme of the ugliness of beauty has been on my mind for decades.
In my present half-dotage I recently thought to myself, Where is it?,
Haven't I already written this down?, which seems sufficient cause to
write it down, now, finally, and share it with you. |
Perhaps the young may be more shocked than the old, perhaps people who have experienced tragedy and loss will be less shocked than those who naïvely affirm that some should be at the top of the world and probably that that should be them whether they have done anything to deserve it or not, or at least they have a chance and while they still do they are doing their best to believe in and support, which is part of climbing, their particular hierarchy. But here's what it looks like to someone who aggressively climbed all available dominance hierarchies, after plenty of success and getting really sick and tired of that game. Some will hate this perspective, and me for holding it, but that's fine by me. If it's just maturity, then they'll come around later.
BeautySo, What is beauty?
Beauty is the quality of an object that induces inner surrender in the perceiver.
For more on this theme, see http://tomveatch.com/innersurrender.php.
Nature, art, music is beautiful insofar as it brings inner peace to the perceiver: the non-operation of the inner judge. Ahhhh, one says, melting into the experience. The critical faculty of comparing and considering this aspect or that to be analyseably better or worse than another, the critical, separated, intellectualizing witness attitude, the emotionally judgemental person, perhaps by a checklist of measureable values or an intellectual sense that one sufficiently knows the observed, that the observed holds no surprises, these things when present induce emotional judgement, the sense that you know how to feel and so you feel appropriately, and they repel the experience of inner surrender which is constituted by the non-operation of the inner emotional judgement system. When that system stops operating, emotional down-regulation stops, flow starts, bliss and serenity are possible, the irrational emotions which are always present underlyingly but are, for most, crushed under the structure of self-belief and ego-attribution, emerge effortlessly as they are the default state of the emotional system, since it takes work to downregulate one's emotions, and that work is not done when the inner judgement system stops operating.
Similarly the beauty of another human being is that quality which makes you experience inner surrender. It is subjective, though people can be subjectively similar. It can lead to interpersonal submission, upgrade of the status of the other and downgrade of one's own status though neither necessarily or wisely.
Socialized Beauty PerceptionThe features of prestige and attractiveness are learned and socially acquired, develop historically and spread across social networks not unlike changing language features through contact between languages or spreading over geographical and social space with both age grading and real-time change in progress, as exemplified by some personal experiences here:
When I landed in New Delhi in 1985 the taxi from the airport went past a milk advertising sign, with a young woman displayed proudly, and with all my American fat prejudice my thought was, Ugh, look at those arms, those cheeks, that waist, she's a bit fat and not at all attractive, are their advertisers competent? Then after a year in school there, on the way back to the same airport in a different taxi we went by the same sign, and I thought, hey baby, look at that ad, she's HOT. Same ad, same arms, same cheeks, same waist, different experience of a year being socialized with a different crowd of people. It's socialization, analogous to dialects or languages in contact, and learning features of a different one from your first.
Did you experience on turning 50 years old as I did that my in-group had changed from being folks under 50 to certainly including folks over 50, and suddenly I noticed that there was this whole world of hot gray haired ladies all around, did you notice that? Revealing my own age prejudice fortunately to be changeable. It's not just socialization but a constructed affiliation with self, analogous to age graded language variation, which in the study of language change in progress is a head-fake: it doesn't show a change in the society, but only a change in the individuals as they grow through different ages in the same society.
Did you experience as I did that starting after Obama's election, African American women suddenly became hot? And Thank you Barack! Obviously it reveals my own racism, but also showing that attraction is not genetically determined entirely but influenceable, due to socialization, in this case analogous to real time change in progress as observed occasionally in the sociolinguistic surveys of language variation: some of it is actual change as the dialect or society itself changes as it progresses over history. There are three basic categories of language change studied in sociolinguistics: age-grading, real-time historical change in progress, and languages in contact. I offered some personal experiences, revealing my own prejudices, and examplifying each of those categories. It amounts to a suggestion, and encouragement to researchers that indeed, quantitative, replicable, validated, social-stratificational survey research may be able to prove what these examples suggest. Thus I encourage you, dear reader.
Birth or ChoiceThere's a controversy over sexual attraction, whether it is chosen or genetic. Born gay, is the claim, or on the opposite side, let's deprogram you out of your ungodly choice to be attracted to same-sex partners.
I say it is not chosen, since my attraction-o-meter is quite automatic and having done its work unconsciously presents to my conscious awareness its assertions that this one is attractive and that one is not. I can't decide to be attracted to someone, believe me I have tried. I have no sense of volitional control over it, rather it is a visceral perception.
But I also say it is not genetic either, since it can be learned, is socialized, and can change.
Affiliation with selfMale perception of beauty in females is so socialized, groups of perceivers learning in parallel, just as sharing laughter socializes people into shared morality when people share and watch each others' responses, that standards become limited and non-individualized, and the form that produces Beauty Perception ("BP") becomes somewhat standardized culturally. Through the slippery skill of self-conscious, emotional response downregulation, in which it seems anything representable cortically, that is, anything, can be retold or re-envisioned from its immediate and wholly impactful direct experience into the systematicity that one can impose on it, and thereby made to fit within one's story of a manageable, predictable, controllable world, that is, reconstituted in an emotionally regulated, and downregulated, vision.
It's not even beauty any more. The more you experience, the less impactful it is. The more you think about it, comparing it with others, the less your emotions are allowed to feel. Downregulation. The more it becomes a socialized experience where a group tells the same story, views it the same way, the more it becomes susceptible to formula, to repetition, to manufacture, to manipulation for other ends. Ugly ends.
Value and DominanceI wrote many pages about the concept of value itself, which is the basis of judgments of better and worse, making of comparisons, measurement of quality, and how that relates to the social structure of a dominance or admiration or valuation hierarchy. It relates to beauty but so remotely that I pulled it out and made a separate essay of it. Have a look here.
Dominance or valuation hierarchiesCan we get back to beauty and other dominance hierarchies? Is beauty a dominance hierarchy? (1) It seems NOT, since evaluating one's position in a dominance hierarchy, measured using the valuation metric of that hierarchy, is clearly a subjective moral judgement containing a self-attribution, which by Veatch's Razor removes one immediately from the possibility of transcendent emotion. (2) It seems SO, since beauty produces inner surrender in the perceiver, and inner surrender can be socially interpreted or manipulated into interpersonal surrender and interpersonal surrender can be interpreted as self-placement within a hierarchy. What's going on here with this, let's call it a, valuation hierarchy? XXX
They seem to be associated in a mobile society with geographical locations, with institutions. Stanford, Cambridge, Madison Avenue, Washington DC, Silicon Valley, all these have their own internal self-sucking-up hierarchy of how so-and-so did something so fabulous on our shared measure of value and aren't we therefore higher in the world being associated with that pinnacle of value, and most unforgiveably and yet somehow rationally unpreventably, how valueless and small all those many, many others are, who are lower on this branching and inclusive hierarchy, how indeed even geographical location, location on our almost perfectly spherical world where most fundamentally no place has any intrinsic value above any other, locations are divided into those places where goodness and desireability resides using our socialized metric of value and every valueless other place else. What a pathetic stupidity, how ugly such a view, how unpleasant to be around, how arrogant, how unattractive. This rational valuation trap is one of the ugliest things about humanity (though the Penis Theory competes in its ugliness).
Because the primary use across society of these valuation hierarchies is to devalue almost everybody.
Examples: I knew some folks from Cambridge University, who thought they were superior to others. Really, you think that's attractive? You think your supposed superiority in some narrow measure is worth something in the balance against your arrogance and ugly dismissal of all others? Go ahead be ugly but don't expect others to come after you. You can go be ugly alone.
Or... I spent many years in the Stanford University subculture. The dialog was always, well, I just can't tell you how often it was, about how so-and-so, associated with Stanford, had done some virtuous or brilliant or enviable thing, and by implication how we as members of the community therefore were associated with that shining light, how we bask in it by implication, by having been of the chosen few, however randomly, irrationally, racistly, or even manipulatedly by the well-funded enrichment recipients of feeder private schools. So Sandra Day O'Connor got appointed to the Supreme Court, do I share her achievement? Et cetera. There were indeed quite a few super smart folks one could learn something from and have a great conversation with, but there was also a general, wide, underlying culture that was frankly anti-intellectual, siloed to avoid interesting or challenging or technical conversations except within subspecialties, where all acted casual, said they were fine, appeared unruffled and had not much to say offering any challenge or real personal growth. The point of a Stanford is to produce a predictable crop of bureaucrat functionaries well socialized to their bureaucrat functionary roles of the future, not to cultivate genius or bring out the thinking that might significantly change the world. The latter might occur there but rather incidentally.
The result: people can't imagine moving to the hinterlands. (What a sneer implicit in that self-circumscription. What ugliness.)
It's like the prestige of academia, you can't imagine not giving everything to get a research faculty position at a prestigious university on the tenure track. Anything less is simply failure. Everyone who achieves less is simply not to be emulated, does not quite count in your world of values.
Similarly suppose you live in Manhattan instead of a subway ride away in Brooklyn, there is a world of difference in prestige. It's like a disgust reaction for a person well entrenched in their position in a hierarchy, to imagine themself descending so far to be out in those boonies. It's like a loss of identity.
But when you get to the peak of one of these hierarchies, the fact is that suddenly your universe has shrunk down to a tiny circle, the power zone of your valuation hierarchy, might be on one block on Wall Street, or one city in the Western Hemisphere, or in one office building. You trade your self-valuation on your dominance hierarchy for the world itself. Really, that's the goal?
Elon Musk dreams of Mars; escape there is his avowed motivation in life. But if you concentrate your target of value on so tiny and remote a target, you really have lost the world. You put all this engineering energy toward escape, toward an imagined dream, while the reality, the Earth itself, rots behind you? Worse yet, then you topple off your imaginary ladder to the sky back into the rot, to rot yourself. What if we did win Mars? With half the sunlight and 1% the atmosphere you'll have minimal argiculture, minimal life support. Life underground is the goal? You can have that here, troglodyte! For such a dream for 10 or 10,000 people, Earth itself may well take its eye off the ball of saving itself, of improving the actual world for billions. Oh but we don't care, we're going to Mars! You might well be disgusted with life, sure; I read a lot of science fiction to escape from my adolescent emotional hell too. But your disgust with this world we live in leads toward a disgusting result. Rot on rot, instead of cleanup and a realistic and inclusive happy future. The Earth itself, this unfiltered recycling aquarium we breathe in, is what we need to value: the whole Earth. Do what you want, but this is certainly a clear and definite example of a motivational hierarchy, when you devalue everything in the world to chase after your red dot in the sky.
Back to academia, where actually the winners lose. Who gets their tenure track job, who publishes enough not to perish, who finally gets their tenure, is such a workaholic killjoy without any human qualities including compassion for self or others, such a person has nothing enviable except the fancy name or title of their position. That's why people work the prestige angle so much, there is so much less else to celebrate. Everyone loses in the academic hierarchy, including the winners.
The same is true when your interest tends toward political power. You see your state capital as where it's at, and if your ambition is higher, simpler, even more naïve, in Washington DC. That's where you aim to go for an internship to learn the ways of power. That's the pinnacle, and those who don't orient towards it are just not part of your value hierarchy, who needs them, let's not even consider them, they are disregardable.
The same is true in any kind of cult. In Linguistics, it's Go to MIT to be at the feet of the master Chomsky. Thank God he has retired. Among the Hindus, it's Go sit at the feet of your Guru, every other place is a dry desert.
The emotions are strong, far deeper than superciliousness. I myself have experienced it as a palpable energy perception, coming in and out of the door of the ashram. I can't prevent myself from feeling the vibrations of peace and love on the inside, yet I do believe it is a terrible and unjust thing to experience the outer world as like a dry desert. Worse, because I grew up in, I love, actual dry desert and we all know that a saints find their goal in the desert. So I think I will only have achieved my own goal when I feel inside and outside are the same.Among the David Koreshes and Jonestown and Aum Shinrikyo and fundamentalist Christian and Muslim and Jewish and Hindu groups and every other religious cult, there is a strong, shared, cultivated, indeed enforced, uniform belief that being "in" is super important and that those who are not "in" are missing out on the essence at least and more often pawns of the devil. One must constantly demonstrate one's allegiance to the values of the cult, and one's value as a person is accepted as being measured by adherence to and closeness to the center of the cult.
The whole business is frankly ugly. It's the use of some arbitrary measure of value to distort the true value of the world, which is bliss and serenity, mirth and delight, every where and in every one. We get a glimpse of the emotional unregulated state of bliss when we climb to the top of our wall of value and peek over it into a place which is finally good enough and where the trade of counting and marking value finally is exchanged for a moment of lightness of being. But that perfection is everywhere, and it is our state of, how can I express it, of sin, perhaps, that we cover it with self-attributions, with moral judgements of self and others, that regulate our emotions, that box us into limited and inflexible emotional states whose only value may be some minimum bare level of tolerability.
Beauty as a dominance hierarchyBeauty perception is actually opposite to hierarchy. Hierarchy is measureable quality using a metric of value. The experience of beauty is the experience of the abandonment of measure. Consciousness related:
Instead, experience inner surrender at every excuse, or no excuse at all. You could say, stop devaluing everything because it isn't at your cruel and ugly pinnacle ideal. You could also say, Experience beauty in all things.
Footnote: Health educator Emily Nagoski discusses Kate Manne, Down Girl, The Logic of Misogyny, Human Giver Syndrome: pretty happy calm generous and attentive to the needs of others. Check it out.