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‘Your Money or No Knife’: Cosmetic Surgery as Wonderland

Cosmetic surgery is commonly touted as the ultimate frippery, a costly indulgence for those who are as vain as they are well-to-do. It is denigrated as a quick-fit solution to age-old problems, but is in reality a failure foretold. For we will all decay. We will all die. There is no other exit.

For those who wish to remain true to themselves, going under the knife is the ultimate cheat: a superficial response by the shallow who think answers needn’t go beyond the epidermal. Worse, it panders to patriarchy, entrapping women ever deeper into holes whose dimensions are scored by the male gaze. In the process it promotes a rampant pornigraphication of society, which threatens to make sluts of us all: to quote the demand of one candid customer visiting an LA clinic, ‘Gimme an asshole like a porn star!’

Further, for its critics (and they are legion), cosmetic surgery is a corporeal capitalism run amok over our very selves. It is an octopus-like industry, driven by profit, whose tentacles slurp ever further, into the most intimate zones of our bodies. You want a white-ringed anus, banana-like labia? All is on offer, for the deep of pocket.

On top of that, like any capitalist enterprise, cosmetic surgery knows no continental bounds. A practice emanating from the West, it enacts a neo-colonialist exercise in Occidental aesthetics, imposing a single, global standard of beauty. OK, so not all women will ever look like Kim Kardashian or Sharon Stone. But that doesn’t mean many won’t yearn for it.

In all, it’s an ugly picture, of greed, gullibility, and operations gone wrong. Of course, as even a first-year student of our discipline would guess, this portrait is more than partial. It’s too black and white, in need of chiaroscuro. Anthropologists, legitimate stalkers of the cross-cultural, can help provide the shading. Hua and Taussig are both well up to the job, but in very, very different ways.

Hua’s fieldsite is the booming cosmetic surgery industry in China. With the largest population ever known on earth, and a rapidly expanding middle class within an ever more stratified society, its market potential is huge. Here, cosmetic surgery is no monetary marginalia but a rising component within the world’s second largest economy. So why do specifically Chinese women choose to pay for the knife? The reasons, as you’d expect, are not simple.

Urban immigrants, though short of cash, spend their hard-won yuan in order to escape jibes of ‘country bumpkin’, to gain the look of a natal townie. In an increasingly competitive employment market, where a woman’s looks are part of her capital, recent graduates opt for the op in a desperate bid to gain an edge, and so a job. Successful businesswomen are also customers, because concubinage, suppressed under Maoism, is back in fashion, and the middle-aged entrepreneurs judge a ‘rejuvenated’ face (if only!) will pull their spouses back from extra-marital excursions.

Hua shows cosmetic surgery is but the cutting-edge of a broader, thriving ‘beauty economy’, where women may spend a significant proportion of their monthly income on creams, toners, skin lighteners, etc. Clinics open in city after city, often sponsoring reality TV shows of surgical makeovers. A rising range of magazines inform readers about new products, techniques, and services. Hua argues that beauty, here grounded on an extreme idealization of the corporeally possible, has become a female imperative. Neglect of one’s body image is thus equated with a lack of self-discipline. In this now well-established consumer economy, women’s bodies have been turned into profitable commodities, and a new source of angst for the socially aspirant. Yuck!

What makes all this especially striking is that until recently China was one of the most thoroughly socialist countries on the planet. Make-up was tabu, breasts were strapped down, and clothing uniform. Faces were meant to be round, cheeks ruddy, and bodies muscular. The contemporary volte-face could not be greater. So, Hua asks, how does the Communist Party, still iron-gripping onto power, reconcile communist ideology and consumer economy?

The answer is soft power and social seduction. The Party, busy neo-liberalising the economy, wants the country to be seen as modern as the prosperous West. So it allows a beauty industry to flourish and, ever mindful of the bottom line, permits highly profitable beauty pageants. For the Beijing Olympics, only very good-looking young women were selected to act as ‘ceremony hostesses’. It is said a woman’s face is her passport; in this context it was State propaganda as well. At the same time, Hua argues, the beauty industry acts as a Party-approved ‘social palliative’, an apolitical distraction from the woes of the day.

Easy at this point to contend that the State, concerned about the economy, has sold out to Occidentalism, allowing its women-folk to ape Western aesthetics. Hua says this is outsiders flattering themselves: the reality is more subtle. She demonstrates Chinese women are not wholesale buyers of Western dreams, but pick-&-choose consumers of multiple traditions. They want the cosmetic perfection of the West, but in a Chinese style. Eye-widening, yes, but not too much. Western clients of clinics tend to focus on perfecting their body shape, Chinese on their face: and the preferred physiognomy is Chinese, not American. So they’ll crab compatriots with pneumatic chests as un-Chinese in their mammary pretensions.

But what of patriarchy? Here also Hua argues for a more nuanced position. True, Chinese women are attentive to male desire, but cosmetic surgery is much more than a modern version of footbinding. She terms Chinese modernity a ‘fluid, fragmentary, heterogeneous and even contradictory process’, creating spaces where women can exercise agency, albeit fettered. Some customers say their surgery was not to please others, but to satisfy themselves. The medical services and beauty products they consume serve to demonstrate their purchasing power, personal taste, and social status.

Hua’s analysis is methodical, crystal-clear, enlivened by field-quotes which ring true. Her prose is pellucid, not provocative. Buying beauty will make an excellent teaching text.

Hua has written a recognisable ethnography, which fits squarely within current debates. The ‘magic’ of cosmetic surgery is only mentioned in passing. In contrast Taussig puts magic at the very centre of his short book. On the first page he attempts to disarm critics of his trademark unorthodoxy, by underscoring that he chooses to write in ‘fairytale mode’. He wishes ‘to heighten, not diminish reality, as well as its aesthetic surge’. The result is an entertaining blend of verbal pyrotechnics and intellectual skipping. Its anthropological status is, of course, left unclear. What else would you expect from fairytale?

Taussig’s central thesis is there is no beauty without beastliness. Colombian women who choose the knife dream of beauty; those who don’t salivate over tales of surgery gone wrong, where it is not passion, but sepsis which inflames the breast. He dazzles by comparing the cosmetic surgery of aspirant beauties with that of bigtime drugdealers vainly avoiding the cops. Members of both groups hope against hope for the magic of transformation, to be remade anew, as a swan or Anon.

The parallels continue. Both surgeons and mobsters practise the art of the knife. Both are concerned about the artistry of their efforts. The lines cross when silicon-boosted beauties bag a narcotraficante beast: a meeting of minds, or layers of plastic?

For Taussig, all this is but part of a broader magical economy, where cosmetic surgery is best considered ‘cosmic surgery’. It’s a Latin American world, where global forces have uprooted people and upturned notions, where the knife, via dreams, cuts to the core of contemporary fantasies. Extremes meet and transform into each other, at a quotidian rate. Reality becomes hyperreality, and their admixture the new, hybrid reality. We shouldn’t be surprised. This is, after all, the country which gave us magical realism, decades ago.

There are, however, anthropological regularities to these constant transformations.  Consumerism might appear a new dominant mode but, Taussig argues, Bataille was already pinpointing its place in the very centre of human activity, in the late 1940s. A consumerist theoretician avant la lettre, he called it dépense, passionate, wasteful expenditure. In this vision, the underlying logic to society is the superficially illogical behaviour of excessive spending and giving. To squander, to splurge becomes the goal and the style of life. Exuberance and economics meld, into a single, driving, goading force.

Taussig practises what he preaches. For his argument can be as dépensée as his ethnographic data. Though he classes Colombia as a place where extremes ‘explode, dialectics spin, and like a bolt of lightning, Bataille’s dépense irradiates base matter’, he might just as well be classifying his own prose style, at its best. His sentences offer an excess of connections, meant to conjure up a crazed logic, while his paragraphs are replete with seeming paradoxes, bons mots, and aperçus, like the writings of the Continentals he repeatedly cites. And the publisher appears in on the game. University of Chicago Press is one of the most prestigious producers of academic anthropology in the world today: so the astonishing number of misprints throughout the text only adds to the sense of play. Was this intended?

Perhaps Taussig is less court jester, more street acrobat, cartwheeling arguments round, and round. Playing fast and loose with different modes, he is by teasing turns Frazerian, neo-Freudian, Nietzschean, or just plain nostalgic, as he compares multiple times the contortions of today’s Colombia with his childhood Australia. He prefers postwar Oz.

In 1998 Danny Milller critiqued Bataille’s foregrounding of violence in his theory of dépense. Above all, it didn’t square with the ethnographic record: people might flirt vicariously with extremes of freedom but only within the reassuring, mundane reality that law will, usually, prevail. Miller undercuts Bataille’s successors, especially René Girard, for exaggerating the role of violence within sacrifice, broadly understood.  He takes this as a sign of the desire ‘to find in violence some basic form of authenticity to humankind’.[1] Difficult not to suspect Taussig is playing either game, if not both.

I was surprised Taussig, given his aims, makes no reference to the origins of cosmetic surgery: the treatment of the battle-scarred and burnt in both world wars; reconstructive work on victims of car crashes. Also, isn’t making aesthetics the motor of society just a latter-day reminder of the importance of style? Primordial postmodernists had already banged that drum, to deafening effect, in the 1980s. Further, both Hua and Taussig focus on social attitudes and economy. Neither gives much space to the material culture of surgery: new knives enter the market, new techniques are developed. Both are similarly quiet about the surgeons themselves. In both, it is as though the technology and its technicians were of little relevance.

Graham Greene divided his writings into ‘novels’ (the serious stuff) and ‘entertainments’. Maybe we should follow. Hua gives us serious ethnography, Taussig takes a different route. I will disappoint both by not evaluating one over the other.

  1. [1]Miller, D. 1998 A theory of shopping. Oxford: Polity, p.89.

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