Beauty and the Beast

September 27, 2012

You read this book agog, as a Colombian "cosmic surgeon" - in Michael Taussig's words - presents breast implants for inspection: the 350cc Colombian megaboob weighs in alongside the 80cc Brazilian titch. Meanwhile, paramilitaries practise another school of surgery, wielding machetes and power saws for designer-branded murder and mutilation.

Taussig balances balletically above the salacious horror, his elegant commentary drawing on Baudelaire, Georges Bataille and Walter Benjamin. We can be sure that when Taussig is telling tales of the savage and exotic, he's talking about us, here, now, and what our crazy out-of-control economic system is doing to the rest of the world. There's no "rest of" any more. That's what anthropology is for: the art or science that shows fish the water. Taussig is renowned as one of its dizziest dialectical conjurors. Reflecting on Wall Street's recent lack of "libido" - he asks: "Are there still people who think that money and sex are not the same?" - he provides delicious throwaways that can satisfy Darwinians and Foucauldians alike.

A poetic array of anecdotes yet this book can claim a rigorous scientific basis: founding anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowksi and Marcel Mauss each showed that beauty entails magic and ritual, and these are indispensable to economy. Cosmetic procedures, their cultivation and display symbolise the organising principles of any culture. Hence "cosmic" surgery. Facelifts involve soul-lifts. Taussig invokes Bataille's idea of dépense - "toomuchness" - but it could as well be Amotz Zahavi's costly signal theory. To show your quality, you have to go right over the top. Rational utility explains next to nothing.

What is magical is transformation, skin-change, as we know from every fairy tale, whether it is from ugly to beautiful, old to young or the reverse. Cosmic surgery strives for the alchemy of turning decay into life renewed. So, Taussig records as he collects stories in salons, barbershops and bus stations, the mythology of cosmic surgery revels in dreadful death and disfigurement. Gorgeous women die, their breasts exploding mid-air over the Atlantic; narco-gangsters erase smiles, faces and fingertips in efforts to evade detection and increasingly reveal the monster within.

Cosmic surgery was "practised on the Colombian landscape long before it was carried out on the bodies of Colombian women", Taussig argues. Proposing a "history of beauty" in small-town Colombia, he shows that nowhere on the planet has endured more change, as he has witnessed over the course of 40 years of fieldwork. There have been catastrophic transformations of places and people, from the luscious jungle microcosms of traditional peasant farms into desolate agribusiness cane fields, workers driven like beasts, and lately this explosion of the Icarian flight and fall into narco-dollar driven whoredom. Mothers parade daughters for sexual selection by narcos and paras, who pack them off to be measured up for their sculpted superstimuli.

This is not some peculiar pathology of consumer capitalism but the nature of the beast, its pure logic. The mountain city of Pereira, once rich with hogs, textiles and coffee, becomes the capital of splendid prostitutes, living on the proceeds of cocaine, cosmic surgery and fashion. Paradigm of capitalism itself, here productivity is swept away for total consumer gratification, exuberant beautification and cosmic alteration.

In examining what really has changed in the roller-coaster switchback from production to consumption, Taussig fingers the youth, hanging out, indolent, no longer barefoot, sporting Nike trainers. They're either unemployed or seizing their opportunities, dicing with death in gangs with names like Los Sin Futuros, the "people who have no future".

Isn't that what the 2011 revolutions were fundamentally about? A world of youth without a future? Or could it be, as Taussig hints, that the future is female: "Che Guevara once prophesied a New Man. Well, here she is." That is a female throwing modesty to the wind - destape - "uncovered", a declamatory state of undress, as in "where are you going dressed like that?!"

"Beauty and the Beast go hand in hand," declares Taussig. "There is no other way." Intriguingly, although he doesn't mention it, these same gangsters' molls called a sex strike to demob their men in Pereira in 2006. So how about a combo of Pussy Riot and that goddess who is recreated every time one of these out-of-control girls gets her superstimulant hair extensions? Suppose all that force of female nudity topped herselves off with cheerily coloured balaclavas and did a high kick on the altars of the patriarchs. Could we not grasp the synthesis transcending thesis and antithesis of beauty and the gangsta beast?

Beauty and the Beast

By Michael Taussig

University of Chicago Press

192pp.£35.50 and £11.50

ISBN 9780226789859 and 9866

Published 20 August 2012

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