Transvaluation of Values Watch
posted by Frank Pasquale
The Oxford Press series on the seven deadly sins was a notable sign of the intellectual times. Many of the books argued that the so-called sin was not really so bad after all. For example, far from the menacing images of Bosch and Cadmus, Francine Prose’s essay on gluttony offered “a feast of fine writing on the sweetest sin of all.”
The Situationist’s recent series on appearance competition/indulgence brought Prose’s point to mind. For example, in the post on “Spas and Girls,” they note:
Teens spend some $9.7 billion a year on beauty products, and cosmetic and beauty aids are among the most advertised in teen magazines. Vanderbilt[ researcher Patricia] Gesell is afraid that exposure to beauty treatments at too young an age pushes girls to be older before their time.
But parents appear eager for some time with the kids, whatever its form: “That bonding time that used to happen over dinner is now happening over manicures and pedicures.”
The piece made me wonder: Are we edging toward a “transvaluation of values,” elevating the types of traits that used to be considered character flaws into strengths? Does a site like Ugly Outfits NYC essentially declare the lack of vanity a shortcoming?
Admittedly, the cultural reaction against those who appear gluttonous is extremely strong, even in the face of increasing evidence that there’s little hope in dieting. Perhaps that’s because technology gives rise to what Nikolas Rose calls “responsibilization:”
[There is an] increasing emphasis on the responsibility of individuals to manage their own affairs, to secure their own security with a prudential eye on the future. Nowhere have these been more telling than in the field of health, where patients are increasingly urged to become active and responsible consumers of medical services and products ranging from pharmaceuticals to reproductive technologies and genetic tests. This complex of marketization, autonomization, and responsibilization gives a particular character to the contemporary politics of life in advanced liberal democracies.
It also helps shape our sense of a life well-lived. Whereas once the graspingly vain might be deemed ill-adapted to a fate they cannot control, they now are best-suited to taking advantage of the new technology.
Is there any way to fight this transvaluation of values? Given the cultural roots of the original proscriptions against vanity, it may be hard to do so in a secular age. But a post like Elizabeth Schiltz’s on “Special Olympics vs. Cosmetic Surgery” is a great start.
By the way, for excellent reflections on the politics of appearance, see this post by Paul Horwitz. My own sense is that a concern with the looks of candidates is a way for voters to “feel like they’re thinking“…but that’s another post.
Photo Credit: Bosch, Superbia, detail from The Seven Deadly Sins.