The Myth of Universal Views

I think beauty is a devilishly difficult thing to attempt to define. Therefore, I was fascinated by the valiant attempt of Anne Frances Wysocki to characterize beauty in her article “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty.” Wysocki discusses many different theories, and a number of these ideas seemed to suggest that beauty can be universally defined. Kant seems to be seen as particularly influential in the defining of a universal concept of beauty. Wysocki says, “A judgment of beauty for Kant, then, is a disinterested and universal judgment that finds a universal form in the form of some particular object or person” (163). This concept of universal beauty is accompanied by discussion of how we are supposed to pull away from beauty to analyze it from and unattached and distant perspective (Wysocki 166). I must admit that I cannot agree with the idea of a universal concept of beauty or an unattached and distant perspective just as Wysocki seems unable to (171). My experience in sociology classes suggests that supposedly universal views are never truly universal and emotions and biases infringe on everything. As Wysocki suggests, “The web of social and cultural practices in which we move give us the words and concepts, as well as the tastes, for understanding what we sense” (171). The reality is that different circles exist in which to move, and perspectives are inevitably altered by these different surroundings. I think this concept warrants further investigation.

One way to analyze the differences in perspectives that cause us to view beauty in and out of texts differently is to take a closer look at two different types of beauty. The picture to the right is a commercialized image of what beauty is. The woman pictured is a supermodel paid for her work, and I would think Kant would consider her to be attractive according to universal judgment. Her proportions match those boasted about in popular culture magazines and there is a complete absence of tattoos or other more controversial modifications. The textual equivalent may be an academic text with a few graphics and standard paragraphs. It is exactly what we expect to see when we view an academic text just as the supermodel is what we expect to see in glamour magazines. However, it would be a mistake to think that we all view her in the same way. The most obvious difference in perspective is the different ways the woman would be viewed by heterosexual men in comparison to heterosexual women. Other traits ranging from her hair color to judgments about what her appearance may reveal about her character introduce a vast number of other variables that will inevitably be evaluated differently and not universally. A traditional academic text would be subject to the same differences in analysis. A college student who has read dozens of academic journal articles and an illiterate individual would view the article in drastically different ways. Every detail from font to punctuation would create unique responses based on reader experience.

The previous analysis sought to indicate that universal agreement on degrees of beauty seems virtually impossible to reach. The impossibility of universal standards of beauty become even more obvious after analyzing the picture to the right. Some may react with disgust or fear at the man’s appearance, but he would be likely to be viewed as attractive by fellow members of the gothic subculture. His look would indicate his devotement to the group and suggest that he is not a poser within their ranks. Universal standards are stymied by these different perspectives and cannot account for different social views. These social views are impossible to ignore; we cannot step back and coldly analyze the man’s appearance because our subconscious minds form opinions based on our cultural biases immediately and without conscious consent. Many other subcultures exist that would be likely to cause similar reactions. However, such drastic examples are not needed to illustrate my point. Every group of people has a stigma of some sort attached to them whether or not that stigma happens to be positive or negative. To relate this idea to text, think of radical websites like those that are tailored to certain audiences. These websites may appear beautiful to some and disturbing to others. Even mainstream websites are not judged universally; we all have our own opinions because of the biases which automatically spring from our social environments. This argument reduced to its simplest form explains why some people use Google while others use Bing.

The same elements of diversity I have applied to physical beauty can provide a unique lens to view the world. I do not deny that it is useful and often necessary to generalize and try to introduce uniformity, but large oversights are the constant companions of such macro conversations. The other texts our class read this week serve as examples of generalization and uniformity and how responsible academics acknowledge the limits of their work through qualifications. When discussing the perceived differences between “womanly speech” and “manly style,” Kathleen Jamieson uses words and groups of words such as “presumably” and “thought to be” to indicate that she is presenting generalizations which may not always be accurate (801). When speaking of his perception of a new visual world, Clive Thompson is more assertive. Nevertheless, he utilizes the introduction “I feel like” as a premise to his discussion of emergence of new writing and blogging CEOs. Such qualification are scattered throughout his writing. Cory Doctorow peppers his speech about copyright and intellectual property with assertions that, although his ideas are backed by statistics and sources, other people have different ideas about copyright and intellectual property laws. In short, all of our readings present perspectives on their given subjects. These perspectives are backed by evidence, but their presenters still recognize the necessity of asserting that the subjects they address are not viewed in one uniform way that cannot be questioned.

Sociology asserts that uniformity in culture is seemingly impossible due to our different social roots that shape thinking and biases, and I have sought to express how these different views loosen the social bonds of day-to-day life. This makes me wonder how sticky the embrace of beauty really is (Wysocki 173). Are we really as bound together as Wysocki and Kant seem to think? Wysocki does not seem to believe in a universal definition of beauty, but she still asserts that there are widespread principles to push against (173). In a world as diverse as ours, however, I wonder if we are always pushing against these principles due to our different methods of understanding. Do we rebel against the suggestion of uniformity without even attempting to do so?




One thought on “The Myth of Universal Views

  1. meghanoneal says:

    I am really glad that you brought up universal beauty. I would have to agree with you and Wysocki that there is no such thing as universal beauty. I know that, personally, I have found people to be attractive that others don’t give a second glance. It is the same way that some people like peanut butter, and others despise it. We are all different and there is no such thing as universality.

    I think that the big issue is the idea of universal beauty. Girls have the idea that if they don’t have the perfect body, perfect hair, perfect looks like those portrayed in the beauty ads, that they are not beautiful. It is easily forgotten that there is rarely a woman who actually looks like the models in the ads. They are “average” women who are altered digitally to look like the “ideal woman.” Universal beauty is forged. The idea we have of what is beautiful doesn’t even really exist. I think that in order to move beyond objectivity, we must first move beyond the concept of universal beauty and into the idea that we are all beautiful in our own unique way. As corny as that sounds. I think that we have mistaken sexual attraction for beauty and lost the idea of true beauty.

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