Cultural Programming, Morality, and Aesthetics

Dr. Helen’s new post quotes an excerpt from a new book on weight reduction and exercise, whose authors claim:

The covers of Playboy, Playgirl, Vogue, and Cosmopolitan, she claims, set our standards for attractiveness, not the reverse. According to [Femnist/would-be Goracle advisor Naomi] Wolf and others of her opinion, there is no universal standard for human beauty. Were we not programmed by advertisers and the entertainment industry, we would find a fat man or woman just as attractive and desirable as a thin one.

We disagree.

Years of serious scientific study, across numerous disciplines, prove otherwise. Our attraction to a pretty face and a flat belly is in our genes and is an atavistic throwback to a time when such features represented health and the ability to reproduce—important requirements in the selection of a mate. As Harvard Professor Deirdre Barrett puts it, these deep-seated universal standards of beauty “reflect our evolutionary need to estimate the health of others from their physical characteristics.”


I think I disagree with their disagreement — if only because…isn’t everything aesthetics at this point? And for most people — certainly those on the left who’ve discarded traditional religion, aesthetics flow from the academy and pop culture. Speaking of the latter, in his book, Shows About Nothing, where Seinfeld meets Nietzsche (and you thought Jerry’s Superman statue was in his apartment because he was a DC, not Marvel guy), Thomas Hibbs, a professor of philosophy at Baylor University called it “the Pyrrhic victory of radical individualism:”

Instead of the nihilistic era eliminating rules, initiating a lapse into a kind of anarchy, there is a medley of rules with no clear relationship to one another. There is something capricious and comical in the continuing hold that rules have on us; they operate like taboos, making little or no sense but nonetheless exercising an irresistible psychological pressure. Seinfeld’s insight into the odd ways rules now function in our lives is a remarkable bit of comic genius. Nothing illus­trates better the Pyrrhic victory of radical individualism. We have successfully thrown off the encumbrances of authority and tradition only to find ourselves subject to new, more devious, and more intractable forms of tyranny. Classical liberalism thought that the most just form of government was one that recognized the natural and inalienable rights of human beings to self-determination. There was a kind of naïve faith in the ability of untutored individuals to choose for the best, to act on the basis of their long-term interests. The belief was that the only rules to emerge from such a system would be rules reasonably consented to by a reflective majority or by their duly elected representatives. But the advent of democratic nihilism renders dubious the assump­tion of a link between autonomous individual choice and reason, between the fleeting desires of the self and the self’s long-term interests.

* * * * *

Each character on Seinfeld has his or her individual lim­its, but these are not moral limits; they are more like the limits of one’s personality or lifestyle. This is most point­edly illustrated in the episode where Jerry and George are suspected of being gay. They spend the entire episode vo­ciferously denying the accusation and vigorously defending their heterosexuality. Yet after each denial, they feel com­pelled to add, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Like other conventions once thought to reflect a natural or­der, heterosexuality has become an inexplicable remnant from the past. Instead of the body as ensouled, as the locus for the reception and expression of meaning and intimacy, the body is now a neutral and mute collection of organs and parts. The parts can be manipulated to produce pleasure. In one episode, Elaine attributes her failure to persuade a homosexual to change “teams” to her limited access to the male “equipment.” When George’s mother surprises him and interrupts his self-stimulation, she objects to his treat­ing his body like an “amusement park.” The fixation on the body does not unveil any deeper significance; it blinds the characters to the complementarity of the sexes. Seinfeld mat­ter-of-factly confirms Renton’s revolutionary prophecy [in 1996’s Trainspotting] that we’re heterosexual by default, that in one thousand years there will be no men and no women: “It’s all about aesthetics and f—k all to do with morality.”


And 21st century morality really is all about aesthetics at this point, isn’t it?

Yes, I find myself for once agreeing with the earth-toned, less than buttondown mind of  Naomi Wolf. And I…am…ashamed.

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