I have been following the facial structure of a particular celebrity. There is no good reason for this—a series of unfortunate choices made on Google brought me to a forum where this celebrity’s extensive plastic surgery was being discussed. There were pictures, side by side comparisons, arguments over whether age or a knife had been the cause of particular changes. I was fascinated, and I was a little disgusted with myself that I was suddenly forming opinions and having feelings about what a famous woman decided to do with her face.
In Michael Taussig’s latest work, Beauty and the Beast, he examines the plastic surgery culture of Colombia, where it is fueled by drug and war money. Fighters and kingpins get their faces redone to avoid arrest, and take their girlfriends to be reconfigured with silicone, lipo and a little chiseling. He lingers a little over the surgeries gone wrong—the girl with the botched nose job who now “breathes like a cat,” the woman with the butt implants that are dripping down the backs of her thighs, the quite handsome fugitive who now looks like a baseball mitt with eyes after countless surgeries. “Why do we love these stories of disaster, stories that rear up to heaven only to crash down in a spasmodic twist of fate?” Taussig asks his reader.
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Along the way, he writes about consumerism taking over culture, the flattening out of our ideas of what is beautiful, Marx and Engels, and the codpiece in police officers’ riot gear. Taussig and I exchanged emails about this latest book, and the overlap between what he sees happening in Colombia and what is happening worldwide.
For me, the most affecting moment in your book was the seamstress who gave up the sewing machine because it's cheaper to buy clothes manufactured in Asian sweatshops than make your own. How has the sort of flattening of the global market affected what people in Colombia regard as beautiful?
Hard to say... It must mean an acceleration in variety and fashion—hence the idea of beauty— that the local seamstress would probably be hard put to compete with. Certainly there is a powerful convergence between China, the rocketing interest in fashion in Colombia and the demise in handcraft or the ability to make stuff yourself. This latter strikes me as especially poignant, the de-skilling of the world as regards hands-on creativity
There's something so unheimlich about a person who's had plastic surgery done; you can tell almost instantly. The most extreme example you use is Chupeta, who looks barely human at the end of his metamorphosis. But you say at one point that it should go further—if an accident in a surgery leaves a woman breathing like a cat, why not purposefully leave a man breathing fire like a dragon?
Here, I am playing around, teasing and ironic. I wanted to get off the high and mighty moral stance against cosmetic surgery that I hold, [as do] so many upright middle class people in the northeast of the US, England, Germany, etc. But not Latinas. And I was playing with science fiction (like the epigraph to the book from William Gibson: “The bartender’s smile widened. His ugliness was the stuff of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it.”). The notion that "deep down," we all have some fairytale-like wish to become Other, a variety of Others. Think of the "becoming animal" idea in Deleuze and Guattari, Walter Benjamin's essay on the mimetic faculty, and Caillois' essay on mimesis too.
In America, we pore over stories of plastic surgery gone wrong. There are websites devoted to revealing which celebrity had what done. When it goes wrong, particularly with a celebrity, many experience a bit of glee. Is that because we're relieved they didn't get away with it?
I didn’t know this about the U.S. Your question repeats or [gets] to the heart of my book: Why do we take this pleasure? I underline this in my Author's Note and the opening lines of my first chapter, wondering if beauty is likely to end in tragedy—a superstition, but powerful and widespread—and if [there is any] connection between beauty and violence. The book goes on in the first chapter to argue that aesthetics are crucial to social life and history, including technology and economics, even agribusiness.
You draw parallels between the violent mutilation of the enemy's body in Colombian fighting with the violent mutilation of a person's own body to achieve some sort of physical perfection, or as a disguise to save oneself from the enemy. Are the reasons for these mutilations linked, do you think?
That's what I am trying to say—although it is a stretch, I suppose. They overlap, at the least, and one can be seen as the flip side of the other.
This fits in with my concern with aesthetics and the sacred being involved in mutilation. Although one (plastic surgery) can be seen as beautification, and the other as uglification! But it’s the godlike shaping of bodies that they have in common.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.