Announcing the First Book of The Grand Narrative Book Club: “If I Had Your Face” by Frances Cha, Thursday 27 January 7:00pm

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes. Source (edited): Frances Cha.

If you wannabe my lover, you gotta get with my books.

Or, if you just want to be my friend (your loss!), I’ll settle for a shared love of books in general.

Just as in a romance though, a relationship on that basis can still entail a bittersweet mix of passion and frustrated longing. Specifically, as my own taste in books has rarely meshed with my friends’, I’ve found there’s only so much I can wax lyrical about my latest conquests when they’re so unlikely to ever read them themselves. And with 52 books read in 2021, plus a goal of 72 in 2022, that’s of lot of pent-up passion not to have an outlet for.

But you already know where it’s going to go now.

As I type this, I’m loving If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, “a fierce social commentary about gender roles, class divisions and, yes, plastic surgery in South Korea.” I’ve been especially struck by how realistically Cha depicts the daily lives and conversations of the four main young(ish) Korean female characters, much more so than in previous Korean or Korea-related fiction I’ve encountered. “Finally,” I said to myself, “I’ve found characters in a book talking just like my Korean friends and I talk!”

Yet we’re not in our 20s or early-30s either. Beyond the swearing and sex talk that I love so much, does Cha indeed portray their lives realistically? It’s been especially difficult for someone with my background to tell, slowing down my reading with so many nagging thoughts and questions.

Then something occurred to me in the shower. It’s a popular book, making Time’s list of 100 must-read books in 2020 for instance, meaning there’s many of you out there with your own opinions, insights, and maybe even your own nagging questions. So why not share them with each other on Zoom?

I’m envisaging something very intimate and informal, cameras on, with a maximum of 12 participants (but in practice probably much fewer than that). To ensure it’s as safe a space as possible, I’ll screen all attendees as much as I’m able, the Zoom link will be invite only, and once it’s started I’ll be very busy behind the scenes to ensure things run smoothly.

Just for that last reason alone, I want to be clear that this will be a discussion, and definitely not any kind of lecture, webinar, or even dominated by me. While in my duties as host I will have prepared many hopefully interesting questions and potential talking points to raise if necessary, I strongly encourage—nay, demand—everyone attending to come up with at least couple of their own (please!).

For those amongst you who are interested but haven’t read the book yet, I’m thinking that by Thursday, January 27 is plenty of time to order, read, and digest it, and that 7pm on that evening (Korean time) is both late enough to drink eat first, and early enough to get a discussion of a decent length in before people get tired. We could also decide the next month’s book then too.

If you’re interested in attending, please leave a comment below (your email address will only be visible to me) or contact me, and I’ll get in touch in a group email closer to the date. Any thoughts, suggestions, and advice for running a book club would also be very welcome.

See you on Zoom!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Why You’re NOT Living in a Feminist City: Two must-reads on living as a single woman in Korea and overseas

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Image (cropped) by Sara Aho on Unsplash.

Daily reports of stalking sharply increase after implementation of anti-stalking law“—The Korea Herald, 18/11/2021.

When I read that, I happened to be in a coffee shop next to Remark VILL, an expensive serviced apartment building in Busan. Last year, I highlighted the owner’s sexist, infantilizing advertising campaign, which featured then 32 year-old actor Im Se-mi enthusing about relying on maintenance staff to change her lightbulbs and unblock her toilet in place of her father, as well as about how eager she was to lose her virginity to the male guests she could now invite. (Yes, maybe there’s a good reason those commercials are no longer available.) But while I did have to acknowledge the attraction of and dire need for the security services Remark VILL’s buildings offered their female residents, I also pointed out they were also yet anotherpink tax” which most single women simply couldn’t afford. And I have to highlight them again today too, for the exquisite coincidence of what I then read in Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World by Leslie Kern (2020, pp. 164-165), which I’d gone to that coffee shop to finish:

“In my research on gender and condominium development in Toronto, I found that developers and real estate agents enthusiastically marketed condos to women with the idea that the 24-hour concierge and security staff, as well as technical features such as handprint locks, CCTV, and alarm systems, made condos the safest option for women living downtown. These features were highly touted when condos were arriving in ‘up and coming’ neighbourhoods that had previously been stigmatized or seen as abandoned, industrial areas. I argued then that by making condos ‘safe’ for women, developers were smoothing their path to expansion into neighbourhoods that might otherwise have been risky real estate investments. This expansion certainly wasn’t going to make life any safer for the women who would be displaced by this form of gentrification. Nor does it tackle domestic violence in any way. Furthermore, asking women to ‘buy’ their safety through condo ownership contributes to the trend of privatization, where people are held responsible for their own well-being, even their safety from crime. Making safety a private commodity in the city means that it becomes less and less available to those who lack the economic means to secure themselves. This is certainly a long way from an intersectional feminist vision of a safer city for women.”

“We may not know exactly what a safe city looks like, but we know that it won’t involve private safety measures. It won’t rely on the police to prevent or adequately investigate crimes. It won’t throw sex workers, people of colour, youth, or immigrants under the bus to create the appearance of safety. It won’t be centred on the needs and desires of privileged white women. And it won’t expect physical changes to undo patriarchal dominance.”

My apologies for the white lie of the post title: by no means is Kern only or even mainly concerned with single women in Feminist City, with Korea—as in Seoul—only getting five lines in it. Critics also tend to agree on two glaring flaws of the book: her focus on the Global North, and her lack of solutions to the many problems she outlines. Yet I also enjoyed that her book is so firmly rooted in her own experiences in Canada and the UK as, variously, a girl, university student, mother, divorcee, single-parent, and feminist geographer, for she brings a lot of wit, personal anecdotes, and insights to those experiences that you sense would be lacking about subjects less close to home. In addition, she is at great pains throughout to point out that her cishet, middle-class, and white privilege mean ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities can have very different experiences to her, as well as to expand upon those.

Even without the coincidence at the coffee shop that threw my own objectivity out the window, it’s an easy, eye-opening, and thoroughly enjoyable read overall, which would appeal to both newcomers to the F-word and diehard urban activists alike. It should also be required reading for the (overwhelmingly) male architects, urban planners, and city councilors who generally take their own urban lives as the default norm—and so have no idea how inconvenient, difficult, ill-suited, and even dangerous their policies can be for the very different lives of female residents of their towns and cities.

If you would like something more specifically about single Korean women though, then consider Living on Your Own: Single Women, Rental Housing, and Post-Revolutionary Affect in Contemporary South Korea by Jesook Song (2014), based on interviews of 35 single women in late-20s to late-30s.

Actually, this may be a tough sell once you realize those interviews were conducted in 2005-2007; since then, Korea’s single household rate has skyrocketed, a massive demographic shift that has potentially radically transformed many of the issues that Song describes. The book is also especially frustrating for being, well, just too damn short, with less than a hundred pages of actual chapters. In particular, it lacks one on navigating sex and relationships outside of marriage, which would have been invaluable in an era when, thanks to the stigma and fear of being caught engaging in either, other academic researchers had difficulty finding any interviewees at all. Another valid criticism is that her interviewees are unrepresentative, all of them being self-selecting, all remaining unmarried by choice rather than because they lacked the means, 90 percent of them being former activists, and with a significant minority identifying as lesbian. Hence, when compared to their contemporaries, the uncharacteristic strength of their shared wherewithal and inclination to brave living alone at a time when often led to being ostracized—which Song herself recognizes.

However, she does cover sex and relationships in passing. In addition, given how “stubbornly” unmarried 30-something women are generally considered “difficult” by their families, society, and policymakers alike, their wants and needs easy to ignore, that Song has provided material on a group so often rendered voiceless and marginalized is reason alone to order the book in my view. But its main strength is how, by (explicitly) providing such a rare examination of what a hitherto abstract concept like “developmental state” means for ordinary people on the ground, she demonstrates how the Korean state’s goals, filtered through the lenses of familial and societal patriarchy, resulted in pervasive financial discrimination against women. So convincing is she of its huge scale in fact, that actually I’m not at all convinced that aspect of single Korean women’s lives has “radically transformed” at all in the 15 years since Song’s interviewees told her about its impacts on them.

Let me finish with some examples from pages 43-44 of the second chapter, described by one recent reviewer as “discuss[ing] the economic structure that marginalizes single women in trying to finance the lump sum required to secure decent housing. Young single women were excluded not only from official financing measures, driven by neoliberal restructuring, but also conventional informal financing. She also illustrates how cultural gender norms are reflected in loan conditions that only cater for heterosexual married couples, making securing housing even harder for single women”:

Sorry (not sorry) for not having an e-book to copy and paste from, but those are available. Meanwhile, I bought my physical copy from Aladdin in Korea, for about the same price as from publisher Suny Press.

Related Posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

One Quick Thing You Absolutely Must Read to Understand Modern East Asia

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes. Original image source: The Chosun Ilbo, August 2015. For a discussion, see here.

It’s not often that one brief book chapter helps your whole degree make sense overnight. Even less often that someone will rescue a nearly 30 year-old, long since out of print tome from obscurity and offer that chapter as a free download.

Let me thank Shuyi Chua of the Education University of Hong Kong then, for providing a scan of Manuel Castells’ “Four Asian tigers With a Dragon Head: A comparative analysis of the state, economy, and society in the Asian Pacific Rim,” from R. Appelbaum & J. Henderson (eds.), States and development in the Asian Pacific Rim (1992). Not only did it give me one of my first genuine Eureka moments at university, but it’s still so relevant and helpful today that it took pride of place in my recent presentation above, and hence my finding Chua’s link.

(It’s probably still technically illegal to offer it publicly though, which is why I’ve never done so myself. So take advantage while you can!)

Let me also thank Professor Michael Free and his students at Kangwon National University, for the opportunity to wax lyrical about some of my favorite topics to them. If anyone reading would also like me to present to their students sometime in person or via Zoom, if for no other reason than to remind them that it’s not just you that gets excited about your subjects, please give me a buzz.

Finally, a big apology to everyone for not writing for so long. With so little physical social interaction over the summer, and with even what face-to-face contact I do get now almost entirely confined to my family and students, then frankly the weeks and months somewhat blurred into one another, making it difficult to pay much attention to the deadlines I set myself on the (always too many) posts I have in the pipeline. Inspired by my work on the presentation now though, I will try very hard to have one of my longer and more thought-provoking ones ready for you next week.

Until then!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Books I Read in 2021, Part 1: January to June

“Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled”—Mindy Kaling.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.

Language was invented, Robin Williams enlightens us in Dead Poets Society, to woo women. But the modern consensus is that it was developed by all sexes, to woo all sexes (PDF). I wonder then, would that have occurred to his progressive character in 1959? Would he have been equally candid teaching in a girls’ boarding school instead?

I like to think so.

Yet if words do indeed possess such power, that means I’m surely doing myself a grave disservice by not showing off how many of them I’ve read so far this year. And how better to do that, than by encouraging discussions about the books they were in?

If my brief seductions below work their magic then (or if you’d just like to show everyone how smart you are yourself!), please let your feelings known in the comments—or in my Zoom talk tomorrow, which is still open for registrations! :)

1. The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality (1992) by Lynda Nead, 2.5/5

Nead is insightful on pornography and feminist art here, but frustrates the reader with only 108 pages of text and images before the endnotes, wasting most of them on a somewhat incoherent philosophical argument.

2. Dalí (1996) by Gilles Néret, 2.5/5.

With barely any painting mentioned that isn’t also provided, this visual feast is a great book to inspire further interest in the artist, and would have been especially welcome in the pre-internet age it was published. Unfortunately however, that inspiration is about all it provides today, as Dalí’s other artworks in other media are almost completely ignored, and Néret’s fast-paced prose lacks even basic biographical information.

3. The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea: Education, Labor, and Health, 1910–1945 (2008) by Theodore Jun Yoo, 4/5.

An excellent source on the conditions for female factory workers in particular. Only 4/5 though, for ending so abruptly when it feels like you’re actually only halfway through, and which leaves flustered ebook readers worried that their file has been corrupted!

4. The Youth of Early Modern Women (2018), ed. by Elizabeth Storr Cohen and Margaret Reeves, 5/5.

A very eye-opening reveal of the methods, possibilities, and richness of this hitherto “hidden” history, with short, very readable chapter lengths and a wide variety of topics also being a bonus. Of much more relevance to studying women in later periods and/or non-European socities than its title would seem to seem to suggest, I’m very eager to apply its lessons to analyzing modern-day Korea!

5. Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin (2006) by Mel Gordon, 3.5/5.

A wild account of a wild time and place. Yet surprisingly short for all the research that clearly went into it, and very frustrating to read due its awkward two-column format and overabundance of images.

6. Intimate Japan: Ethnographies of Closeness and Conflict (2018) ed. by Allison Alexy and Emma E. Cook (2018), 4/5 (OPEN ACCESS).

Many frustratingly short and uneven chapters, but overall a must-read that exposed big gaps in my knowledge and challenged preconceptions I didn’t realize I had. Has many, many parallels to Korea too.

7. Erotic Ambiguities: The female nude in art (2000) by Helen McDonald, 3/5

McDonald is an excellent read when on the solid ground of describing feminist art, and the politics thereof. But her vague, wordy writing style is much less convincing when applied to more abstract topics in later chapters, which are also somewhat outdated.

8. The Politics of the Female Body: Postcolonial Women Writers of the Third World (2006) by Ketu Katrak, 1.5/5.

Many insights here, but unfortunately its theme-based approach covering women writers from former British colonies in, Africa, the Caribbean, and especially India will quickly overwhelm any reader not already intimately familiar with British colonial history, and often it can frankly be quite a challenge to determine which continent the author is actually discussing in any particular paragraph. This is a pity, because had Katrak confined her study to one region, and provided some historical context, this could have been a much more accessible and popular book.

9. Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object (2010) by Kathleen Rooney, 5/5.

A slim but surprisingly deep, erudite discussion on art, the history of nude modelling, and public perceptions of beauty, told through the author’s own experiences. Recommended!

10. Migrant Conversions: Transforming Connections between Peru and South Korea (2020) by Erica Vogel, 4.5/5 (OPEN ACCESS).

A fascinating look at a community that I frankly didn’t know existed, with much to teach about Korean immigration and religion in the process.

11. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials (2001) by Gillian Rose 4/5.

Reading this in 2021, naturally this first edition was a little outdated in its coverage. It was also surprisingly and ironically lacking in images in later chapters, and would have really benefited from including some practical case studies. But it remains a good introduction overall, and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the 4th edition (2016), which at twice the length probably addresses many of those shortcomings.

12. Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction (2008) by Veronique Mottier, 2/5.

With only 150 pages to devote to the subject, an impossible task for any author, but Mottier’s disjointed, WEIRD-focused attempt still disappointed nonetheless. Much better for the series would have been several regional or country introductions instead.

13. Waiting (1999) by Ha Jin, 2.5/5.

A universal, well-told story, but unfortunately the final Part 3 of the book feels very rushed, the main characters’ unexpected, Crime and Punishment-like transformations coming across as very sudden and inauthentic. A real missed opportunity.

14. Breasts and Eggs (2020) by Mieko Kawakami, 5/5.

A surprisingly universal story with only light touches of its Japanese setting, my only complaints are the frequent vivid dream/vision sequences, ironic for whom are otherwise such realistic characters. Still, totally worth the hype!

15. Sex in Advertising: Perspectives on the Erotic Appeal (2002) ed. by Tom Reichert & Jacqueline Lambiase, 3.5/5.

A very uneven volume, with chapters ranging from outstanding and insightful to vacuous and full of jargon. Generally though, it was very educational and relevant, even two decades later.

16. High-Rise: A Novel (1975) by J. G. Ballard, 2.5/5.
Growing up with many of Ballard’s novels in my father’s bookshelves, I’ve come to expect that I have to make many suspensions of disbelief to enjoy them. But this particular one started off much more grounded and realistic than most, so that it rapidly turned fantastical anyway came as a big disappointment, compounded by the lack of any real conclusion. Although the book is often hailed as a social commentary on class and apartment living then, in my opinion it’s anything but, Ballard squandering that opportunity by having all its protagonists quickly losing themselves into his typical dreamlike fugues.

17. Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature (1974) by Thor Heyerdahl, 3/5.
An extraordinary man tells about the first extraordinary location he visited—what’s not to like? Yet 25 years after my first reading, my eyes frequently glazed over at his overly histrionic writing style, his philosophical musings about humanity, nature, and civilization frankly not particularly insightful. Had he spent that time giving more voice to his wife accompanying him instead, on providing more practical details on how they accomplished their shared trip and survived on the island, and/or on what he saw there that compelled him to launch his Kon-Tiki expedition 10 years later, I could have seen myself rereading this at least a third time.

Based on my skim-reading however, Senor Kon-Tiki: Thor Heyerdahl (1967) by his friend Arnold Jacoby does appear to fill many of those gaps, so I’ll look forward to that.

18. Asian American Sexual Politics: The Construction of Race, Gender, and Sexuality (2015) by Rosalind S. Chou, 3/5.

An informative and pertinent work, marred by an unceasing victimhood narrative and a dogmatic insistence that nobody can overcome their socialization, prejudices, and racial stereotypes when choosing a romantic partner.

19. Dirt, Undress, and Difference: Critical Perspectives on the Body’s Surface (2005) by Adeline Masquelier (ed.), 4/5.

One of those books that takes a close look at things you took for granted, only to make you realize how culturally specific the meanings you attached to them were—and how profoundly gendered.

Also, very serendipitous to have read before Filthy Fictions: Asian American Literature by Women (2004) by Monica Chiu, which by coincidence I’m finishing as I type this.

20. Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America (1992) by Asunción Lavrin (ed.), 5/5.

One day in March 1997, I had to read a chapter in this for a Latin American history assignment. A woman sitting across from me in the university library was so intrigued by the title, she was easily persuaded to become my first girlfriend shortly thereafter.

Never underestimate the seductive power of a good book 🤓

(Which it is. Age having robbed me of my rose-tinted glasses, I expected to be thoroughly disappointed upon a rereading. But in fact, it’s even more informative and interesting than I remembered!)

21. Armies of the Caliphates 862-1098 (1998) by David Nicolle, 3.5/5.

Because sometimes you just have to linger over a brief, lavishly illustrated guide like this, and let your historical imagination go wild…

22. To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987) by Robert Heinlein, 3/5.

A favorite childhood author (which if you know him, explains a lot!), I enjoyed rereading these memoirs of the sassy AF Maureen Long. But the story becomes a mess when it starts focusing less on her than on her time-traveling relatives.

23. The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II (1997) by Iris Chang, 1.5/5.

Without disputing (most of) the harrowing facts presented about the massacre, nor Chang’s invaluable service in raising public awareness of it in the West, I simply can’t recommend this terribly written history.

24. The Woman in the Purple Skirt (2021) by Natsuko Imamura. 1.5/5.

Persuaded to buy this after watching @FestiveBuoy‘s (a.k.a. Books & Bao) video review, I was disappointed to find it only mildly amusing, much too short to find deeper meanings in, and to have a spectacularly underwhelming ending. Still, it’s always good to have one’s horizons expanded, and I have faith that I’ll enjoy the next book I discover through their excellent channel :)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Books I Read in 2020

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes. Photo by Nathan Bingle on Unsplash.

All the books I read in 2020, with my ratings.

Only the titles and links, alas, as my university’s jam-packed December had me receiving frantic phone calls from students as late as Christmas and Boxing Day. But now that I’m free, I’d love an excuse to talk about any of the books you’ve read or are interested in. Please do give me a buzz if so, either in the comments here or on Facebook or Twitter.

Also, I’m itching to atone for my many unfulfilled writing promises this year. To cut to the chase, by posting every Monday from now on, starting with this warm-up.

How? Why? What’s different?

The old me would be answering those questions now, instead of working on coming posts. Whereas the new me doesn’t have anyone’s time to waste, and has already deleted their social media apps on their phone to help them focus ;)

Until Monday then. And Happy New Year!

1. States and Social Revolutions (1979) by Theda Skocpol, 4.5/5

2. Medieval Technology and Social Change (1966) by Lynn White, 2.5/5

3. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (2016) by Mark Manson, 2/5

4. The Female Brain (2007) by Louann Brizendine, 2.5/5

5. The Scandal of Pleasure: Art in an Age of Fundamentalism (1997) by Wendy Steiner, 3/5

6. Beyond the Frame: Women of Color and Visual Representation (2005) ed. by N. Tadlar, 1.5/5

7. Dostoevsky: Reminiscences (1977) by Anna Dostoevsky, 3/5

8. We’re Going on a Bar Hunt: A Parody (2013) by Emlyn Rees, 3/5

9. Gender Voices (1991) by David Graddol, 5/5

10. She Found it at the Movies: Women on Sex, Desire, and Cinema (2020) ed. by Christina Newland, 3/5

11. Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction (2000) by Peter Just, 4/5

12. The Spheres of Heaven (2002) by Charles Sheffield, 3.5/5

13. Glory Season (1994) by David Brin, 4/5

14. Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics (1990) by Christine Battersby, 3/5

15. Media, Gender and Identity, An introduction (2nd ed., 2008) by David Gauntlett, 5/5

16. The Years of Rice and Salt: A Novel (2003) by Kim Stanley Robinson, 3.5/5

17. The Dark Knight System: A Repertoire With 1…Nc6 (2013) by James Schuyler, 5/5

18. Modern Romance (2016) by Aziz Ansari, 3/5

19. South East Asia in the World-Economy (1991) by Chris Dixon, 5/5

20. Colonial Modernity in Korea (2001) ed. by Daqing Yang, 4.5/5

21. The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan (2016) by Marcia Yonemoto, 5/5

22. Disco 2000 (1999) ed. by Sarah Champion, 0.5/5

23. Jiggle: (Re)Shaping American Women (2007) by Wendy Burns-Ardolino, 3.5/5

24. Everyday Sexism (2015) by Laura Bates, 4/5

25. Design as Art (1966) by Bruno Munari, 0.5/5

26. The Male Brain: A Breakthrough Understanding of How Men and Boys Think (2011) by Louann Brizendine, 1.5/5

27. The Complete Poems of Sappho (2009) by Willis Barnstone, 3.5/5

28. Secrets of Grandmaster Chess: An expanded edition of a modern classic (2014) by John Nunn, 5/5

And finally #29 and #30, plus—for the sake of maintaining the aesthetics—my next two weeks’ reading also.

29. Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory (2003) by David Howes, 3/5

30. The Erotic Margin: Sexuality and Spatiality in Alterist Discourse (1999) by Irvin C. Schick 3/5

Breasts and Eggs (2020) by Mieko Kawakami

The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea: Education, Labor, and Health, 1910-1945 (2008) by Theodore Jun Yoo

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Boobs, Butts, and Biceps are Beautiful. Don’t Let Knights Tell You Any Different!

Smiling faces, and the consent implied therein, are crucial for determining a person’s beauty. But that doesn’t mean body parts can’t still be beautiful in their absence.

Estimated reading time: 14 Minutes. Photo by PixaBay on Unsplash. NSFW art nudes following.

Can body parts, in isolation, be beautiful?

Feminist bugbear Camille Paglia would say so. In a speech at MIT in 1991, she rejected having to apologize for reveling in beauty, as well as the notion that ordinary-looking women only ever lamented their own appearance in reaction to attractive people. In her words, she wanted to bring back to feminism the right to say what they were really thinking: “What a beautiful person, what a beautiful man, what a beautiful woman, what beautiful hair, what beautiful boobs!”

My own answer too, is such an immediate, adamant yes, that it seems absurd to ask. Yet to openly revel in, say, beautiful boobs? Newly-woke male feminists quickly learn to restrain such temptations. Not only because it would simply be boring for most women, but also because it feels disingenuous considering women’s daily, pervasive objectification and body-shaming. Complicit even, when so many are suffering from Korea’s spycam epidemic, and when even male artists are abandoning female nudes in the wake of #MeToo.

Yet whatever our sex or sexuality, we’re all casting admiring glances on our commutes nonetheless—even asexuals. Complimenting their owners may always be a bit much, let alone leering and catcalls. But we don’t have to put up with being shamed for our internal monologues too.

So, when I was going through Sir Roger Scruton’s Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (2011), and read that body parts are “obscene” when they’re considered in isolation?

Recall the queasy feeling that ensues, when—for whatever reason—you suddenly see a body part where, until that moment, an embodied person had been standing. It is as though the body has, in that instant, become opaque. The free being has disappeared behind his own flesh, which is no longer the person himself but an object, an instrument. When this eclipse of the person by his body is deliberately produced, we talk of obscenity. The obscene gesture is one that puts the body on display as pure body, so destroying the experience of embodiment. We are disgusted by obscenity for the same reason that Plato was disgusted by physical lust: it involves, so to speak, the eclipse of the soul by the body. (pp. 40-41.)

I snapped. Already sick and tired of being belittled and patronized most times I read about my male gaze, Scruton seemed to go one further in implying my liking of boobs was immoral as well.

But outrage and exasperation do not an objective response make. Nor does quoting authors without sufficient context, when it’s not so much their arguments as the assumptions they’re based on that are unsound.

So first: note that only two of the book’s nine chapters are about human beauty. Really, it’s more of an introduction to aesthetics, with beauty only as a framing device, and reads like light philosophy. I’m ill-disposed towards and ill-equipped to deal with books like that, frankly, so that’s why I focus on only those two chapters here instead of giving a full review. Much more important than my unlearned personal tastes though, is that this philosophical approach grounds Scruton’s contrarian approach to beauty too. Because whereas in my experience, most commenters take the approach that beauty can be quantified and measured in terms of how closely one’s body parts, features, lengths, and ratios reach various ideals, Scruton believes such an approach is fundamentally flawed (p. 41):

Those [above] thoughts suggest something important about physical beauty. The distinctive beauty of the human body derives from its nature as an embodiment. Its beauty is not the beauty of a doll, and is something more than a matter of shape and proportion. When we find human beauty represented in a statue, such as the Apollo Belvedere or the Daphne of Bernini, what is represented is the beauty of a person—flesh animated by the individual soul, and expressing individuality in all its parts.

This has enormous significance, as I shall later show, in the discussion of erotic art [in the second chapter on human beauty, “Art and erōs”]. But it already points us towards an important observation. Whether it attracts contemplation or prompts desire, human beauty is seen in personal terms. It resides especially in those features—the face, the eyes, the lips, the hands—which attract our gaze in the course of personal relations, and through which we relate to each other I to I. Although there may be fashions in human beauty, and although different cultures may embellish the body in different ways, the eyes, mouth and hands have a universal appeal. For they are the features from which the soul of another shines on us, and makes itself known.

For all my (over)concern with what he says about people’s other bits in his book however, actually I heartily agree with the relative importance he attaches to faces here. The comparison he makes with his descriptions of the following paintings later, for instance, really brings to life the profundity of the differences the models’ gazes make between them—and the crucial distinction that consent makes.

First, of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (p. 125):

Source: Wikipedia.

“As pointed out, in [Kenneth Clark’s] celebrated study of the nude, the reclining Venus marks a break with antiquity, when the goddess was never shown in a horizontal position. The reclining nude shows the body not as a statue to be worshipped but as a woman to be loved. Even in the Venus of Urbino—the most provocative of Titian’s female nudes—the lady draws our eyes to her face, which tells us that this body is on offer only in the way that the woman herself is on offer, to the lover who can honestly meet her gaze. To all others the body is out of bounds, being the intimate property of the gaze that looks out from it. The face individualizes the body, possesses it in the name of freedom, and condemns all covetous glances as a violation. The Titian nude neither provokes nor excites, but retains a detached serenity—the serenity of a person, whose thoughts and desires are not ours but hers.”

Next, contrast the issues Scruton raises with the model in François Boucher’s The Blonde Odalisque, all of which ring true for anyone who’s ever been dissatisfied with most pornography (i.e., everyone) because of the unrealistic, wholly impractical, often painful-looking, yet somehow supposedly “sexy” positions women are usually presented in. Indeed, Marie-Louise O’Murphy seems so divorced from proceedings here, and so divorced from her own body, that she looks like she’s much more interested in watching Netflix than in whatever the viewer is about to do with her round the back. Or, rather, to her (pp. 134-135):

Does it make any difference that this painting was (possibly) intended only for Louis XV? Or that Marie-Louise, one of his “lesser mistresses,” was only 13 at the time? Source: Wikipedia.

“Turn now to Boucher’s Odalisque, and you will see how very different is the artistic intention. This woman has adopted a pose that she could never adopt when dressed. It is a pose which has little or no place in ordinary life outside the sexual act, and it draws attention to itself, since the woman is looking vacantly away and seems to have no other interest. But there is another way in which Boucher’s painting touches against the bounds of decency, and this is in the complete absence of any reason for the Odalisque’s pose within the picture. She is alone in the picture, looking at nothing in particular, engaged in no other act than the one we see. The place of the lover is absent and waiting to be filled: and you are invited to fill it.”

Yet for all their eloquence, he’s preaching to the converted with those particular passages. They may even buy the book on their basis alone, having secluded themselves in a quiet corner of the bookstore and skipped ahead to those pictures.

The problem is that well before a genuine reader gets to that stage of the book, Scruton’s mere say-so on numerous issues is less than persuasive. By the time you reach its end, you’re not so much unconvinced as infuriated that he wouldn’t make more effort with its readers.

Examples of his arrogant certainty abound. For starters, his opening descriptions of our supposed differences with animals, the science of human desire, and evolutionary-psychology, are trite and shaky at best, and often just plain wrong. There is absolutely no basis to his argument that “Perhaps no sexual experience differentiates human beings from animals more clearly than the experience of jealously,” for instance (p.44). Nor, to his assertion that “Human beings are alone among the animals in revealing their individuality in their faces” (p. 124), which is easily proven false with just 5 minutes of googling. While to his credit, that he discusses science at all is because he acknowledges “it is surely reasonable to believe that there is some connection between beauty and sex” (pp. 32-33), his blithe, continual assertions presented as facts here soon start collapsing under their own weight.

In particular, take his description of kissing (p. 40):

To kiss [the mouth of another person] is not to place one body part against another, but to touch the other person in his very self. Hence the kiss is compromising—it is a move from one self towards another, and a summoning of the other into the surface of his being.

Or, indeed, of sex itself (p. 38):

In the sexual act, there is no single goal that is being sought and achieved, and no satisfaction that completes the process: all goals are provisional, temporary, and leave things fundamentally unchanged. And lovers are always struck by the mismatch between the desire and its fulfilment, which is not a fulfilment at all, but a brief lull in an ever-renewable process.

Both of which, miffed at his disdain at my daily rejoicing at the existence of boobs, originally I looked forward to presenting as eye-rolling demonstrations of his academic, ivory tower absurdness. Which for sure, is a turn-off with Scruton. His overuse of “he” and “his” throughout too, isn’t merely an out of date convention either, but are characteristic of the chapters on “human” beauty that are so overwhelmingly—almost exclusively—focused on female beauty that they read like they’re exclusively, deliberately aimed at cishet men. (The Beautiful Boy this ain’t.)

On a sober second reading though, I had to concede that both passages are fully consistent in the context of the arguments that preceded it, and that they can sound almost sweet too. However reluctantly, I was loath to misrepresent him.

And yet, they bear sooo little resemblance to any of my own experiences, that the very first thing they reminded me of was of this virginal android’s idealized notion of sex (from 1:30):

Hey, I may be a parent in a small apartment who literally has to schedule these things, but it’s not that I can’t appreciate such sentiments, nor that I haven’t even felt them keenly myself on occasion. Scruton’s descriptions do not represent the totality of my kissing and sexual experiences however, nor—and I’d wager good money on this—would they represent Scruton’s either. For him to pretend otherwise is simply disingenuous, and can’t be explained away as a stylistic choice due to space restraints. Rather, he chose to do so because it is his firm belief that beauty is akin to a transcendental, Platonic ideal, and, that if beauty is related to sexual attraction as previously noted, then sex has to be elevated into some transcendental, Platonic ideal too. Hence the absurd descriptions of—lest we forget—fucking, and the setting himself up for the completely unconvincing distinctions between beauty and body parts that got me started on this rant.

Did I mention that he never actually defines “obscenity”?

It was a surprise to learn after finishing the book then, that Scruton’s earlier book on the philosophy of sex, Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (1986), is actually well-respected, and considered by many a classic in the field. Because in that too, I read, he maintains his duplicitous insistence on eloquent theory trumping sweaty, sticky, lustful practice. And, because in Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, it’s that wilful dogmatism that ineviably, inexorably leads him to shaming anyone associated with pornography and sex work.

Let me confine myself to just one final example, which follows directly on from the quote about Boucher’s Odalisque, and in my view utterly taints it (p. 135, emphasis mine):

Of course there are differences between the Odalisque and the tits and bums on page three of The Sun….The second difference is connected, namely, that we need know nothing of Boucher’s Odalisque in order to appreciate its intended effect, save what the picture tells us. There was a model who posed for this canvas; but we understand the canvas neither as a portrait of her nor as a painting about her. The bum on page three has a name and address. Very often the accompanying text tells you a lot about the girl herself, helps you forward with the fantasy of sexual contact. For many people, with reason I think, this makes a decisive moral difference between the page three image and a painting like Boucher’s. The woman on page three is being packaged in her sexual attributes, and placed in the fantasies of a thousand strangers. She may not mind this—presumably she doesn’t. But in not minding she shows how much she has already lost. No-one is degraded by Boucher’s painting, since no-one real occurs in it. This woman—even though the model who sat for her has a name and address (she was Louise O’Murphy, kept for the King’s pleasure at the Parc aux Cerfs)—is presented as a figment, in no sense identical with any real human being, despite being painted from life.

I wonder too, to close this post with the question that prompted it, what exactly Scruton thinks you have lost when you admire the body parts of other commuters. Whether your focus happens to rest on breasts, butts, biceps, legs, broad shoulders, luscious long hair, or whatever.

Indeed, if you’re on the same crowded subway line as I am, you know that sometimes they’re literally the only part of the owners you can see.

I refuse to believe that those body parts can’t be simply magnificent though, and that I’m immoral for thinking so, merely because their owners may get off my carriage and transfer to another line before I ever get to see their faces.

Nor does—heaven forbid—deliberately seeking out erotic art and pornography, rather than accidentally stumbling upon objects of your affection on your commute, somehow mean the same standards don’t apply to the people in those too. Because whether seen on a Busan subway, or in a video shot in a moodily-lit San Fernando studio? Somehow, inexplicably, I never seem to lose my respect for the owners of those simply magnificent body parts either, nor does admiring their objects mean I ever think or treat them as objects.

I don’t think it’s just me. In fact, I assume the same of everyone else until proven otherwise.

If you do think lesser of them though, and my assumption is proven naive, then please let let me know. Or, if you think many others negatively objectify people, despite you and I respecting them? Then pray, please tell who those “others” are exactly, and please give myself and other readers some actual evidence that they’re really so different. Especially that which comes from actually talking to them, instead of only from what other people with agendas, like Scruton, have written about that heinous group.

No, I didn’t say those others were most cishet men—you thought it! Something to think deeply about on tomorrow’s commute perhaps, if you don’t want to let your eyes wander? ;)

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