Wednesday, July 14, 2004

The perfect commodity, your own body

I was reading a book review about a few recent books on plastic surgery, which offered up the idea that it might be wise to consider plastic surgery not as a medical procedure but as a beauty product akin to lipstick or hair removal cream. What makes one want to resist that reclassifcation is in part the invasiveness of the surgery, the rejection of the sanctity of the body as some repository of ineffable selfhood. But that is what makes the surgery so attractive (as it makes tattoos and piercings so intriguing to people): it encroaches on a more permanent aspect of the self and seems a more significant and enduring alteration of identity, a more radical intervention on one's own selfhood then buying a car or a tennis racket. We already accept (unfortunately) that consumption rather than activity shapes our selfhood, and that the things we own make us. Plastic surgery is an attempt to take possession of ourselves, make our body our own -- this is how alienated we are by the consumption paradigm for self. Since we didn't buy or choose our body, we don't feel it really belongs to us, so we have to make efforts to buy it, to commodify it, through tattoos, nose jobs, and fat suctioning surgeries.
Commodification is not merely making natural resources into things that can be owned (reification, in Marxist jargon). It's enabling one to enjoy self-aggrandizing fantasy narratives that revolve around objects -- commodities allow you enjoy dreaming more than doing. Plastic surgery is a way to consume your own body as fantasy, to introduce it into that realm in which celebrities are consumed. It's a way to not see what is there and see more than is there simultaneously when you look in a mirror. You don't see what is there, because you have refashioned yourself for some larger purpose than standing in front of a mirror -- you are seeing the fantasy for which you have prepared yourself, you are still seeing, too, what still yet needs to be done, you have surgery to better see the gaps between you and your ever-evolving ideal. Surgery enables you to have desire for yourself, to see yourself as that ever-elusive object of desire rather than to accept yourself as a given, as an integrated part of the you which desires. Body modification refuses to let you desire with your body, it makes you desire for your own body, which is now apart from you, a thing you own, a garden you tend.
And of course plastic surgery is an attempt to look more like others. There's no value to a truly unique commodity in a system of emulative consumption. The things worth owning are the things your betters have: in this case, better breasts, better lips, better bone structure. The point is to look not like yourself, whatever that might have been, but to own the body and facial type invested with social value, that constitutes social capital -- never mind that that changes faster than you can possibly change yourself. The point is the pursuit, the always renewed purpose and the ever more articulated fantasies it permits.
So plastic surgery evinces the drive to conformity that is inherent in a consumer society -- not enough to have the same stuff, but now more and more mandatory to literally look exactly the same as every one else, too.

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