Home Political science Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism
Beauty as Human Capital
This chapter sought to characterise the aesthetic labour in and around beauty as it transpires in popular culture. Ashley Mears delineates the contours of the sociological discussion on beauty ‘and its privileges: is beauty achieved or ascribed? Can beauty be earned meritocratically, or is it unequally available to persons with other forms of privilege, thus perpetuating durable inequalities...?’ (Mears 2014, p. 1331). Notably, at first sight beauty in Israeli Girls is presented as ascribed, a quality that is ‘there’ and needs neither cultivation nor realisation. By a closer look, choosing girls as its bearers gives this beauty a ‘becoming’ quality of future unpredictability. In both cases Israeli Girls does not show beauty as directly exploited by capital: the women are neither working nor consuming. Nevertheless, Hagai’s work can help us think of ascribed and achieved aesthetic qualities as human capital (Feher 2009). The human capital approach suggests that in neoliberalism the whole self, and not just her physical strength or intellectual skills becomes labour power. Neoliberalism redefines production and reproduction, and as Lazzarato (2004, p. 192) puts it, ‘invention, as the creation of the possible and its process of actualisation in the souls (of consumers as well as workers) is the real production, whilst what Marx and the economists call production is, in reality, reproduction (or a manufacture of a product or a management of a service...)’. Thus, the ideal aspirational, forward-thinking neoliberal subject constantly produces herself and works to enlarge her human capital (Dean 2008; Feher 2009; Hearn 2008).
For Dean neoliberal ideology foregrounds what she calls after Lacan ‘imaginary identities’. Not only are these identities not collective, but even as self-identities they are extremely vulnerable and unstable since ‘the frames of reference that give it meaning and value are forever shifting; the others who might challenge it. can appear at any moment. Their successes, their achievements, their capacities to enjoy can all too easily call mine into question (Dean 2008, p. 61). In this respect, neoliberalism
offers its subjects imaginary injunctions to develop our creative potential and cultivate our individuality, injunctions supported by capitalism’s provision of the ever new experiences and accessories we use to perform this self-fashioning—I must be fit; I must be stylish; I must realise my dreams.
I must because I can—everyone wins. If I don’t, not only am I a loser, but I am not a person at all’. (Dean 2008, pp. 61—62)
Entrepreneurial subjects must constantly turn future unpredictability into a more or less stable form of being, even if only momentarily. From this perspective, aesthetic labour emerges as the work we put, through everything that we do, not only in finding ‘who we really are’ (being) but in continuously updating our status (becoming).
As noted above, the girls are doing nothing but being themselves, at the same time that they become. White, blonde, sexy and perfect in a fairly generic kind of way, they are neither happy nor sad, not active but also not passive. They do not show strong emotions and are not too aesthetically made up. Thus, while the explicit theme of the photos is postfeminist entrepreneurial tenets—such as girl power, self-improvement, self-determination and empowered sexuality—implicitly they depict human capital as labour power. I would therefore propose that neoliberal aesthetic labour balances between being in the present and accelerated reflexivity. Arguably, it is this new structural ability to project both the being and becoming potentiality that recuperates the prospects of a precarious middle class. At least for now.
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