Modern cosmetics tells us something about our culture’s desire to abort the unborn and euthanize the sick and elderly. In our desire to beautify the body, writes Zygmunt Baumann, “the appearance of the remedy as a rule preceded awareness of the deficiency that clamored to be remedied.”
The Polish sociologist-philosopher, who was expelled from his native communist Poland in 1968, wound up teaching in England and wrote an amazing number of books. Best known for his description of our age as one of “liquid modernity,” he died in early January, at the age of 91.
Baumann’s words on cosmetics come from one of his later books, Living on Borrowed Time. He continues:
First comes the good news: “It can be done.” Thereafter came a commandment: “You must do it!” And thereafter the threat of terrifying consequences for those who might choose to ignore the commandment.
You suddenly feel that the remedy will free you of “an abominable defect.” You might have suspected you had it, but now you know you do. If you don’t buy the remedy, you will expose “your unforgiveable incompetence, ineptitude, or sloth.”
Our Haunting Insecurities
You see this on display in your grocery store’s check-out lane. Men’s and women’s magazines try to make their readers feel anxious and inferior. That seems a weird way to get readers, but they play upon the average person’s haunting insecurity. Many of us fear that we don’t measure up, and the magazines tell us we don’t. They also promise the answer. Down on the conveyer belt goes Cosmopolitan or Men’s Health along with the milk and soap. It’s not so much an impulse as a panic purchase.
The magazines want their readers to feel the need for whatever their advertisers are selling. The advertisers want to sell things no one has sold before, or new versions of the things they have been selling, which have become harder and harder to sell in their old versions. They have the remedies, their products. They only need to invent the deficiencies.
They do that very well. The once normal-sized woman is now fat. Her hair is too curly. Or too straight. She needs a better bra. Or new breasts. She finds she has a “personality type,” and it’s a problem.
The man who would have been thrilled to sleep with any woman now worries about his technique in case he ever gets the chance. He laments his lack of a six-pack, and a car that tells the world he’s a success. His grey hairs make him look old, or he’s not grey enough to look mature. He finds that he has only two of the ten things women want in a man, and he’s not sure he really has those. “The magazine says women like men with a sense of humor. At least I have that! Wait, am I really funny? The guys think so. But they’ll laugh at fart jokes. Hell, I’m not funny. I’ll never get a date.”
The Deeper Problem
That’s the way the consumer society works. It makes you want stuff, makes you think you need stuff, to fix yourself. But the deeper problem, as Bauman describes it, is worse. The remedy our technological development and our commercial enterprises have to offer is a radically new man. He points to the promises of genomics as one source of this desire.
If that’s the remedy, what is the deficiency that must be invented? The deficiency is us. The problem is man as he has been understood and celebrated, as “a person or personality whose proper, unique, and irreplaceable worth resides all in her or his singularity.” A creature with inviolable human dignity is another way of saying this.
Remaking man through genetic engineering is “the ultimate dream of homo consumens.” Soon, Baumann writes, “you will have to buy yourself the gene of your choice that will make you . . . enjoy the kind of happiness of your choice.”
Man himself becomes a “virgin land” for businesses to exploit. That virgin land looks “infinitely vast,” because there is no limit to what we can want. “There is no pre-determined level to which the dreams and desires of successive generations of humans cannot be lifted when it comes to tinkering with their own bodies and looks—and the borderline between the ‘healthy’ and the ‘pathological’ has already been all but washed away.”
The Unborn, the Sick, and the Elderly
What has this to do with the unborn, the sick, and the elderly? Those who want to recreate man and remake themselves will always try to remake the world. To do that, they will remake morality as they’ve remade themselves. Nothing binds them but their own vision of the perfect world.
The world must serve their search for perfection. It must be as perfect as they are. How easy it will be for this homo consumens to justify the removal of imperfections, like unwanted unborn babies, annoyingly sick people, and the elderly who’ve lived beyond their usefulness. Why have imperfect men and women in a world moving to perfection? Especially when you can tell yourself you’re doing them a favor?
Bauman describes this attitude as the “gardening stance.” The gardener pursues a vision of order and that vision requires uprooting and poisoning the weeds. “Treating humanity as a garden crying out for more beauty and harmony inevitably recasts some humans into weeds,” he writes. Especially when we see ourselves as flowers. Flowers who want to see only other flowers and feel the weeds will be better off uprooted.
The world already has experience of this. Bauman points to the mid-twentieth century. There we saw gardeners who “excelled in the extermination of human weeds.”