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Beauty Dictated; Beauty Discovered

Picture of a wooden door and door knocker, painted bright blue

“Truth is beauty, beauty truth – that is all

There is to know on earth and all ye need to know”

— John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn

Arundhati Roy’s Ministry of Utmost Happiness opens with the birth of Aftab, a boy who is also a girl, a girl who is also a boy. A child that other children think is “a he-she, a she-he.” Aftab’s father, a believer in modern science’s capacity to rectify errors of nature (or perhaps in science’s capacity to produce Nature), takes Aftab to a medical specialist – a sexologist – on the pretext of finding a bride for a nephew. The sexologist tells him that the body can be fixed – the girl in Aftab can be removed and sown up, so that the boy in Aftab can outlive his internal other. But even after the surgery there will be “tendencies,” the doctor claims. Tendencies, the father decides, are no trouble. They can be disciplined. And thence begins what Roy describes as Aftab’s “cultural education”: the how-to-make-a-boy-out-of-a-boygirl phase of the child’s life. And yet, even as he is being made into a boy, Aftab sees beauty in contrarian things: salwars, heroines of legends not the heroes, and then in the “tall, slim-hipped woman…who wasn’t a woman.”

In this story where nature struggles against culture, sex against gender, Roy shows us how that whatever the doctor describes as ‘tendencies’ have an aesthetic quality to them. Something seems beautiful about certain clothes, certain characters we read about in fiction, certain people we meet, because in them we aspire to see ourselves; through them we desire to transform ourselves into that person who seems like our true self.

For a moment, if we were to become students of Judith Butler, and take away the nature-culture, sex-gender binary that Roy uses (I think) as a story-telling device, one can see that what Roy gives us through the soulful story of Aftab is simply this: what feels natural emerges from what feels like the truth about ourselves; not what is dictated to us as truth. Tied to this idea of an emergent truth is aesthetics – beauty.

Michel Foucault writes in the Hermeneutics of the Self that such truth needs to be discovered. In other words, this truth about ourselves isn’t a self-evident truth. It is not available in definitions of what’s natural and what’s not. These definitions can seem authoritative because they are determined through methods we rely on. Medicine always has a definition for what counts (and discounts) as male/masculine, female/feminine, intersex bodies, trans bodies. So do other discourses – law, tradition, religion. This is boyish, we are told; this is girlish. This is marriage; this is not. This is what normal bodies naturally desire; this is not. And so we become entangled within an instructional web that tries to dictate Nature to us, by appropriating scientific authority, legal authority and cultural authority, so that it feels consensual and democratic. This Nature is nature with a capital N; a Nature that’s formulated by excluding other possibilities and by labelling them unnatural. It’s given to us as Truth with a capital T; and so powerful is its capacity to move us to action that we shouldn’t be at all surprised that Aftab’s father took the child to New Delhi to be fixed with the tools of modernity. That’s progress to him: the capacity to fix errors of nature and make someone more Natural than nature itself could, using the tools of modern medicine.

Where does this sense of progress come from? In Hermeneutics of the Subject, Foucault concerns himself with the Cartesian moment. So monumental is the shift in our conception of knowledge after the writings of Rene Descartes became hegemonic that it is useful to regard the 18th century, when this turn took place, as a critical moment in all our histories. And why would it matter to us in the Global South? Because those shifts in European thought shaped the machinery of imperialism: it shaped lives in the colonies and it continues to shape our postcolonial lives.

So this Cartesian moment can be reduced to one quote that travels at the speed of the Internet: I think, and therefore I am. Who you are depends on conscious thought. That alone according to Descartes is reliable and beautiful; the aesthetics of feeling are declared unreliable and therefore, useless. Descartes in fact saw rationality as god’s reflection and feeling as god’s error. Since around the same time biology gave us the concept of one human species –Homo sapiens – it also became easy in the 19th century to imagine that there is one substrate for conscious thought in all our bodies – one brain that should ideally function in the exact same way in all bodies. Should we train it to think well, all these minds would see reason in similar things and they would come up with the same absolute reality – a universal Truth. That Truth would be a reflection of the Natural order for all humankind. That Truth alone would be beautiful.

This Natural order hinges on the idea of universal rationality by deliberately making itself blind to the fact that rationalities emerge with shifting politics – neither are they universal at any point in time nor are they unchanging over time. Each political order brings with it its sense of rational order – it’s Truth – and strives to establish that order in the world through its own pedagogy.

The trick here is in recognising and underlining the kind of pedagogy that the Cartesian moment gave rise to: we are told there is one Truth about us as a species and education is our means to access and realise this Natural Truth. Education is therefore a litany of dos and don’ts to reach that prescriptive, formulaic Truth. It is made available to us in class rooms, at homes, in places of worship, in clinics, in the court room, in the news, in movies, in books – almost anywhere except from experience. Experience – particularly the feelings attached to them – is ruled out as arbitrary and unreliable. Feelings are to be corrected and reformed through this pedagogy so that we see as beautiful and true what we are told is the absolute Natural Truth about ourselves. There are ‘n’ number of genders and ‘n’ types of sexuality these regimes preach – as if they know all bodies, as if they have counted the permissive permutations and combinations, as if they have the authority to close the door to further possibilities. The ‘n’ here is a variable. Depending on the texture of the political order it varies – sometimes it is 2 genders, 1 sexuality (man, woman, heterosexuality) only. Sometimes the regime likes to perform ‘tolerance’ and permits a much broader count: 3 genders, 7 sexualities of which 2 genders and 1 sexuality are always preferred. Anything else would make us marginal or even invisible – because the aesthetics of such a mode of being is either accounted for as unnatural/abnormal or isn’t accounted for at all within this regime of Truth.

This is also why the reaction of the right-wing and other conservative bodies to the recent reading down of Section 377 isn’t exactly surprising (though it is significant). In their rational order, there is one normal –  a gender binary and heteronormativity. That alone is Beauty and that alone is Truth because that alone is rational. It is twisted because they pose as anti-colonial factions that seek to oppose colonial regimes and yet appropriate nothing but colonial rationalities to speak their own Truths. So dependent are they on the notion of tradition that they forget that what is available to us as tradition is too often a colonial (as far as Hinduism goes, largely an orientalist) construction. Its aesthetics depend on the capacity for this tradition to speak to us as powerful Truth from the past – something that’s valuable because it has managed to survive the erosion of modernity (what people also like to call Westernisation).

The value that accrues around this tradition is what Walter Benjamin (a literary critic, a powerful political writer and a political exile during Nazi Germany) called cult value. Cult value calls for a cult to form around an object that seems to have survived the corrosive potential of time; the cult forms to defend the aesthetics of this object. Tradition is beautiful, we are told. It is our Truth. It comes to us from before a time when our sense of self was colonised, and so it is a Natural Truth. Anything that seems to produce desires outside of traditional norms is a threat to such beauty, such order, and must be nipped in the bud.

To simply juxtapose science against this and to say Nature is the domain of science not tradition is to call for a war between two forms of authoritarian rationalities – two regimes of Truth; two cults: one claims tradition as the path to progress; the other claims a break from tradition as its path. Neither will budge because they are formulated in opposition to each other; but both depend very much on the idea that there is one rational order that is both true and beautiful, and that one alone is the Natural order that must prevail.

But in Hermeneutics, Foucault juxtaposes this Cartesian moment against Socratarian, Platonic and Aristotelian methods: education is not a path to a prescribed outcome. Education – pedagogy –  is a path towards a more open-ended form of self-discovery. It is instruction that teaches us to open ourselves to what seems to us the truth about ourselves. Acknowledging one’s feelings, taking care of oneself, letting these feelings guide us are part of this pedagogy. Neither truth nor beauty is available to us already. We search for it with an instructor also of our choice –  this instruction tells us how to care for ourselves, how to listen to ourselves and how to follow that gossamer thread of beauty that shines to us in moments of quiet self-reflection through life. This tenuous sense of beauty which speaks to us when we touch certain objects, watch an earring shimmer in sunlight, feel drawn to the peculiar shape of our bodies, touch another body, is a guide into our soul. Somewhere hidden in moments of pleasure is our truth, what feels natural to us. This truth and this nature are humble. No capital Ts and no capital Ns. They are open-ended: they change as we go through life exploring the aesthetics of our pleasures, and realising ourselves through them. They are communal, in that the path has been collectively framed. But the outcome isn’t prescribed. That outcome can remain one truth among other truths opening our minds to the infinite capacity of our bodies, our modes of being.

Let me be clear about one thing: people sometimes read open-endedness as anything goes at any part of the process. But anything doesn’t go –  at any point in time, the path is collectively, democratically, consensually framed. For example, take the matter of consent. It is part of that path to sexual exploration. Consent, we agree, is essential. What consent is will always be arrived at through democratic debate. Just about anything won’t do. But consent is the path not the outcome. How consensual sexual exploration makes you feel, what desires it opens up for you, what it evokes and presses you to pursue in terms of your own gender identity and sexuality cannot be prescribed; only discovered. Such truth – such beauty –  emerges through our attention to our everyday life; our capacity for self care and the care of others. It’s immanent in what we do. It gives us a sense of self and a sense of how we relate to the world around us: sex, gender, sexuality emerge through this aesthetics of pleasure.

To recap: beauty can either be dictated or discovered. I think, that any regime that claims to know the one Truth and tries to dictate its beauty teeters on the edge of authoritarianism, even Fascism, be it a regime of science or a regime of globalism, a regime of fundamentalism. To submit to it is to submit to the will of others and to become through their pedagogy an instrument to them. The other path also demands submissions but to the pleasure of self-care, self-discovery, self-discipline, self-transformation such that we can follow what feels real to us. This path isn’t without pain or violence. In fact, it’s rife with pain and violence and yet it allows us to find beauty through attention to our feelings and our bodies.

A word on comprehensive sexuality education before I close – we had comprehensive sexuality education in school. Except, it was no good. It was a series of dos and don’ts based both on the idea that they were training us to be modern subjects but Indian citizens. So it drew liberally on ‘tradition’ and on ‘science’ to declare that you are either boy or girl, boys and girls grow up into men and women who together produce babies, babies and family should be what we derive pleasure from. Any other possibility in terms of gender, sexuality, sex and reproduction is either immoral, abnormal or unnatural. Many of us had not thought about morality, nature or normalcy until it was given to us as instruction towards one end: become good, educated wives capable of caring for the modern Indian family.

Much much later in life, after much pain, self-harm, anger, violence, I realised that another kind of CSE is possible –  one that asks you to reach for what feels beautiful, to listen to yourself, to care for yourself, to follow the path of pleasure and to find yourself even if that self isn’t exactly accounted for in statistical assessments or traditional accounts of sexuality. That kind of CSE teaches you that it’s okay if you cannot find a replica of who you are in history or tradition. It’s okay if you don’t know another person who feels like you. The very fact that such a CSE exists is a source of comfort, a site for community formation, a kind of home –  it’s evidence that people like you exist; all of them are striving towards that beauty in themselves. All of them, an Aftab learning to sing and hanging around the blue doors of the “tall, slim-hipped woman… who wasn’t a woman,” hoping that door to friendship, mentorship and community will open anytime now.

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