Notes on Taussig’s Beauty and the Beast
Why using the fairytale? Taussig begins by acknowledging his unusual prose and justifies it by saying that he chose a fairytale style for “what is best to heighten reality?” What is a fairytale?
Well, the first definition we obtain from the web reads like this: “[a fairy tale] is a type of short story that typically features European folkloric fantasy characters, such as dwarves, elves, fairies, giants, gnomes, goblins, mermaids, trolls, or witches, and usually magic or enchantments.” But exploring Colombia’s or any Latin American country through the vary tale involves using the formal structure (or whatever other resources he wanted to) -but at the same- time going beyond it as a framework. Gnomes, goblins and trolls are not to be found in the region but we have our equivalents and our re-appropiations which have fascinated many writers and scholars alike. Taussig is not the first one to ditch a specific mode of narrating when trying to make sense of our incomprehensible societies. For one thing, it’s easy to recall Latin American fiction of the 20th Century and find parallels. Reading him -at times- it seems that he’s not too far for the Magical Realists that considered Latin America’s reality so different from the Old World’s that a new language and a new method had to be founded to attempt a description of the new lands. Nevertheless, these fairytales from the depths of South American narco culture do not finish as the classic «Contes des Fées» with happy endings. Rather, the terror and the beauty that intertwine his narration seem to be perfect candidates for the inevitable fall from grace into a perfect Faustian hell.
Changing gears now, when readings parts of the section “The Designer Body” one is tempted to ask: Is not the galore and despense the unproductive surplus of beauty as objectified on the body just an extreme of the same logic that operates in the world of fashion in the North? I ask myself then is this exaggeration on the body a more direct and honest extension of a way of thinking and living that materializes in the unproductive South, in places like Colombia but also Brazil, Argentina (where a curious correlation of highest cosmetic operations per capita and Lacanian psychoanalysts in the world exists), and some countries in Africa. The point is that -for me- the economy of despense reflects our distinct modes of production. Whereas the North tries to balance out production and consumption, work and pleasure (using the logics of the management of affects in periods of extreme consumption and indulgence like the weekend, the commercial excesses such as holidays and recesses like spring break and winter [read tropical vacations] breaks); in the South the resource extraction modes of production (or non-production) accompanied by the Catholic ethos of moderation and a lax work ethics (if any) become reflected in practices that make the north look like a fairytale or individual cases of goths and punks as childish silly boys just burning energy before switching to the career-oriented-mode, and the job-hunt middle class aspiring life.
In these southern hot-lands one is tempted to risk following McLuhan, the medium is the message. The body is the message itself, and the surplus of desire does not objectivise itself in expensive fabrics, high-couture or forbiddingly expensive design, but on the body itself, in tattoos, “cosmic surgery,” haircuts, as well as artisan-ship and craftsmanship in torture, body dismembering and mutilation practice by the complementary underworld that corresponds to the street beauty (and the inflated obsession and shamelessly display of the female body). A generation with no future after the global recession finds its future not in work and accumulation of capital but in cheap ways of beautification or better “pornotization” of the body and the mode-of-life.
In the “Birth of Biopolitics,” Foucault tries to compose a history of certain practices, political, social, economic, legal, by avoiding the universals such as “state, civil society,” etc… to explain the present as it is experienced in the middle of a neoliberal reordering.
But what is surprising is that he never mentions the term “Biopolitics” or when he does is very superficially used as if it was a way to label his project. He argues that his methodology is to start by saying -as he did while writing the history of maddens- “let’s say there is no madness and never has been and lets start from there.” p. 3 In writing this history he is recurring to his method of studying “practices” and “ways of doing things” to understand how the economic thinking that emerged from the 18th Century onwards has become intertwined with political economy, ideologies such as liberalism and the idea of the state whether in the French, German or English cases. p. 318 I studied the material overall but decided to focus on chapters 9 – 12 and summary. In these chapters, Foucault attempts to trace the emergence of what he calls “homo oeconomicous” as the predominant figure (as an individual) but more importantly as a way of thinking about society. He discusses in Chapter 9, the differences between the German economic politics of the postwar years and the American Neoliberalism that was taking off at the time of writing as it permeates all spheres of human existence: in the form of “human capital” he argues that genetics and calculation (as opposed to old paradigms like “moderation” or “wisdom”) had become a natural way of thinking in a society that organizes most -if not all- of its organizational practices and activities; this occurs right down to intimate and personal aspects such as finding a partner for reproduction, technique and rationality behind child bearing practices and similar experiences.
He is fond of using this paradigm (“human capital”) to explain several issues all the way from the marketization of affects, to the birth of offices and agencies in the North American case that operate in a semi punitive way vis-a-vis the state by encouraging it to govern less or to govern following policies that work and are specific to the realm of economics. In Chapter 10, he performs an analysis a la Hirschman where we studies -using economic theories- the failure of imposing market tools and assumptions in cases like drug control and other patterns of consumption (from “the family and birth rate to delinquency to penal policy” p. 323). And later in Chapter 11, he traces a long genealogy of “homo oeconomicous” in opposition to the figure of the “homo juridicus” as two operative agents whose interests and modus operandi differed considerably, mainly because the first was one that functioned under a logic with no need for a sovereign; whereas the second was conceived as a contractual man, one ruled by the word of the legal system and restricted in many ways. In a very clear passage, he argues contra the economization of life and government “One must govern with economists, one must govern align side with economists, one must govern by listening to economists, but economics must not be and there is non question that it can be the governmental rationality itself.” He goes on to describe in the following chapter, (chapter 12) how there are several rationalities of government. These historical readings are presented somehow uncritically, specifically where he discusses Smith’s analysis of the invisible hand as a summary rather than inquiring what does this mean for the present. Or perhaps the task of thinking about what these currents of thought and practices signify for the present are left out or explore somewhere else. What is a constant in his thought is to conceive of different rationalities of government and to study when and where these crystallized as political realities or entered into different relations with emerging or declining ones. Some of these rationalities are: “the rationality of the government, the rationality of the governed, the rationality of individual interests, the rationality of truth (History), this last one becoming a signifier for Marxism” 313. He argues -or rather than arguing- he restates Smith’s ideas (in order to advances his reading overall) about how private interests work in harmony towards a collective goal and how by pursuing one’s interests with full force the whole of the social body is improved.
In his summary, he rightly concludes that instead of talking about biopolitics he merely described the origins of a way of thinking -Liberalism- that is independent of the notions such as “La raison de Etat,” or civil society. He concludes by thinking about Liberalism as a way of doing things whose main goal is the “less governing,” the “governing less” and at times it (Liberalism) asks itself “why should one govern?” p. 319. And he seems to agree with the definition of Liberalism as “not so much a doctrine but a form of critical reflection or governmental practice.” 321. That allows him to locate several and very distinct -sometimes contradictory- rationalities of government that have taken place in history as in a way following basic Liberal lessons. Paradigms of political government as different as the German Market Social Economy and American Neoliberalism -very different in many regards- share basic liberal views and arouse from similar historical and economic contexts. He closes the summary by stating that next course will be dedicated to actual biopolitics!