Monday, April 2, 2012

Writing the Face

by guest Joel Gn

Song Hye-kyo for Vogue Korea

“For writing has no essence of value of its own, whether positive or negative. It plays within the simulacrum. It is in its type the mime of memory of knowledge, of truth etc.” (Derrida, Plato's Pharmacy, Dissemination, 105)

Cosmetic surgery is a medical procedure which gives one the opportunity to embody an idea of beauty through the permanent modification of one’s face. In South Korea, many young women check into aesthetic clinics, with hopes of securing a good job or simply becoming prettier and more desirable. The trend has become so prevalent that fashion models and celebrities with similar facial features are now a common sight in the country’s entertainment scene. On one hand, this implies a consensus towards a globalised ideal of beauty, with many South Korean women desiring a "Westernised look" or a romanticised East Asian appearance (Choe, In South Korea, Plastic Surgery Comes Out of the Closet, NY Times). But on the other hand, the tension between the natural and the artificial is exacerbated, as fans and the media actively speculate on the changes in an artiste’s face. To a significant extent, the notion of a person going under the knife is synonymous with a lack of natural beauty, even if she or he might have an improved physical appearance after the procedure.

But can beauty be natural to begin with? It seems, with rapid globalisation, that a particular ‘look’ in South Korea is here to stay, yet the prevalence of cosmetic surgery in the country seems to show that the people were not born or even endowed with such a face. Because it has to be marked on the physical body, a beautiful ‘look’ is not an inherent, objective and transcendental quality in a person, but it is, like all cultural products, a "system of meanings, such as a language or a code, tied to a social evaluation system" (Mears, Pricing beauty: The making of a fashion model, 5). Cosmetic surgery is also invasive, insofar as it subjects the material face to a technological apparatus that would modify it according to "ideological standards of physical appearance" (Balsamo, "Forms of technological embodiment: Reading the body in contemporary culture," Body and Society, 226). If beauty is nothing but a mutable, repeatable sign that is readily transformed into a cultural commodity, this would imply that an allusion to beauty is always predicated on its use and consumption as an object. In other words, an object of beauty has no identity or presence on its own, since it may only be desired, or made desirable in representation. Given this synthesis, it is not wrong to claim surgery also inscribes, or writes a mark on the face to produce beauty, but it is this same mark which is – despite an assiduous conformation to an ideal – often taken to be unnatural and false. The ‘skin-deep’ controversy with beauty is less about surgery as a science or a commodity, as it is the inscription of an ideal on the face.

Jacques Derrida’s essay, Plato’s Pharmacy, offers an allegory of how the writing of beauty (i.e cosmetic surgery) forces the synthesis of an ideal that presides over beauty and ugliness. The trial of writing in Plato’s Pharmacy begins with Thoth presenting King Thamus with a gift. Thoth claims his gift to the king is a remedy (pharmakon) for the problem of memory and instruction. With this introduction, the object is removed from its ambiguity to be translated and presented as a beneficial drug. This translation, Derrida notes, obscures understanding under the veil of Thoth’s stated intention. The pharmakon is cut off, or displaced from ambiguity into an opposition, between what it is, and what it is not. As a remedy, it is now the solution, a form of therapy to the temporality of memory. Yet, a similar displacement is observed when Plato conceives of writing as ‘an occult’, a deceptive tool associated with sorcerers and spell casters. Concerning these people, Plato expresses no sympathy, and insists they must be ‘cut off’ from society (97).

This polarised perspective inevitably situates writing within a binary opposition. The pharmakon (as signifier) translates, re-cites and makes legible both its status as a remedy and poison. Nonetheless, the relationship between the remedy and poison is falsely pre-figured by this distinction which claims to be an a priori entity, when it is in fact constituted and expressed by the very conditions it claims to determine. That is to say, the distinction (or in Plato’s sense, the presiding logic) is not external to the binary oppositions of the pharmakon, but is the pharmakon itself. For is not the signifier the element that is always ahead of this distinction? The ellipsis of this distinction, writes Derrida, is ‘as violent as it is impotent: it destroys the pharmakon, but at the same time forbids itself access to it, leaving it untouched in its reserve’ (99).

In this concurrent destruction and preservation of the pharmakon, Plato makes an attempt at comprehending and hence dominating it through opposition, by placing the pharmakon – or writing – against speech. If writing is a trace, then it is a trace departing from the presence intrinsic to speech, a subversive modification of the unity between signifier and signified. According to Plato, writing is not memory, but ‘memorials’, the straying of the signifier unto distortion of truth (Derrida 107)
Likewise, cosmetic surgery is not true natural beauty, but is regarded as its mimesis, a simulation endowed with the power to deceive and coax the gaze into assuming such a face as ‘beautiful’. People attribute a ‘plastic’ quality to a face that has undergone cosmetic surgery, because plastic is not discoverable within nature, but is always synthesized and made to assume the form of, or ‘look like’ anatural substance (e.g. metal, glass).

Arguably a writing of the face, cosmetic surgery can be read as the ambivalent
pharmakon, the movement that plays with the oppositions of beauty and ugliness; of the natural and artificial. Through the medium of surgery, it constantly simulates beauty via re-presentation. In other words, the prosthesis of surgery presents the desired ideal of beauty, by replicating a particular form on the face, making it possible for a surgically enhanced face to be considered ‘beautiful’ in spite of its artificiality. The replication of beauty renders the artificial face as an object different from its natural ideal, since true beauty is always deferred
by the written and repeatable sign of surgery. This ideal is neither external to the distinction between beauty and ugliness, nor does it determine its repetition. Rather, it is merely an allusion of facial signification, repeated and always absent in any face that captures the eye.

Photos Makeover Madness, Steven Meisel, Vogue Italia, 2005

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