Posted by: Dan | February 12, 2008

Performing Beauty: Embodiment in the Society of the Spectacle

I've been a little cautious about exploring the notion of beauty as a category within theology because, to be honest, I'm a little skeptical about it all (and I'm not at all well-read on the topic). Granted, there has been a long tradition of connecting the notion of beauty with theology and philosophy, and some exceptional contributions (like those of von Balthasar) but I can't help but wonder about why there has been such a contemporary resurgence on this topic, given that we live in an image-dominated society. It seems so… emergent (in the bad way). Regardless, I got thinking about the topic today and I wanted to write down my scattered thoughts before they drifted away.

(1) Guy Debord has aptly referred to our contemporary society as the Society of the Spectacle. By this he means that our society has become so image-based and image-obsessed that we have come to a place where social relations are mediated by image. Everything that had directly lived has now moved whole-heartedly into the realm of representation and relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people.

(2) Hence, we live in an imaginary society. It is imaginary because it is image-oriented, and it is imaginary because it moves us into the realm of virtuality and of representation, and away from the realm of the Real. An excellent example of this is a website like facebook, wherein people become virtual advertisements of themselves. (In this regard, I am reminded of a recent experience I had at work. A co-worker was telling me about a movie that he had seen and he described it in this way: “It was so facebook. You know, full of fictional characters that you end up falling in love with.”)

(3) The problem here is not that we are disciplined to be made into this or that image (although that is one of the symptoms of the problem). Rather, the problem is that our very identity is rooted in image.

(3) Consequently, it is within this context that Christians need to think about the notion of beauty.

(4) In particular, Christians need to think about beauty as an aspect of embodiment — embodiment divorced from the spectacle.

(5) So should we simply pursue a notion of embodiment that is imageless? I don't think so. We are, after all, told that we have been made in the image of God.

(6) Yet God, who has often been linked to the category of beauty, is unimage-able. God is said to be beautiful, and yet God cannot be seen.

(7) How is an unimage-able form of beauty embodied? How is it made known? Through action. This is how we have come to know God, and to know God as beautiful. We have not seen God but we have experienced God's actions, and we remember how God has acted in the past, and how God has promised to act in the future.

(8) Therefore, the embodiment of beauty that we seek, is one that is connected to action. In particular, it is the actions of the body of Christ — the Church — that reveal the beautiful.

(9) Thus, beauty falls under the category of doing, not seeing.

(10) In this way, the embodied performance of the beautiful becomes an alternative way of being-in-relation with one another, and counters the way of being (alone?) that is embodied within the Society of the Spectacle.

(11) Finally, this is also why I think that beauty does not exist as an indenpendent category but is a subcategory of love. Beauty is both that which we give to, and that which we discover within, the Beloved.

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