Criticism / Mimi Thi Nguyen
:: The Right to Be Beautiful ::
According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Cambodia remains one of the states most affected by mines and explosive remnants of war. Many of the mines are still undetonated from the last century’s not-cold wars in Southeast Asia, in which the United States played a significant part in devastation and disablement throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. U.S. actions inside Cambodian borders began years before the secret carpet-bombing that accompanied President Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” of the war. The U.S. conducted secret programs with Special Forces personnel in Cambodia, whose primary activities (over nearly 2,000 missions) included laying “sanitized self-destruct antipersonnel” mines well beyond the Vietnamese border (Kiernan 18). During the Vietnamese occupation, which ousted the Khmer Rouge from the capital, a barrier minefield was laid along the entire length of the Cambodia-Thailand border where the Khmer Rouge had retreated to its rural strongholds. In the following decade, Khmer Rouge and Monarchist opposition forces used landmines to protect newly won ground or to contaminate the interior of abandoned Vietnamese defensive positions. By the time of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords ending the civil war, and the 1993 proclamation of the Cambodian constitution, a massive non-governmental infrastructure had been established, supported in large part by foreign aid. (Cambodia boasts the second highest number of NGOs per capita after Rwanda) (Domashneva). Yet the wars haunt the present, as the Cambodian Mine Action Centre estimates the number of unexploded landmines and other ordnance to be as high as 5 to 6 million. Despite defusing campaigns, these mines kill hundreds of Cambodians every year, and at least 40,000 Cambodians are amputees (Htun 172).
In 2009, Norwegian art provocateur and self-described “director, actor, artist” Morten Traavik, funded in part by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sought to hold a second Miss Landmine beauty pageant for women and girls who had lost limbs in landmine explosions, this time in Cambodia. (The first pageant was held in Angola in 2008.) [i] With the assistance of the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization (CDPO), twenty prospective participants were identified among those already taking part in rehabilitation programs. The Miss Landmine manifesto claimed to engender “female pride and empowerment” in pursuit of a politics of “becoming visible” (“Manifesto” 1), rendering cognizance of undetonated landmines through their violent inscription on amputees, and awarding a prize of a custom-fitted prosthetic limb as well as a sculpted golden leg. Contestants were selected from each of Cambodia’s provinces, made over in colorful, casual jersey dresses and makeup, and then photographed and filmed for a documentary. Miss Landmine also produced a pictorial magazine, featuring the twenty amputee contestants posing before tumbled temples and lush greenery; on beautiful beaches and sailboats; and inside modern luxury homes—by a tiled pool, atop a mahogany bar. Though the Cambodian government initially supported the pageant, government officials abruptly refused to allow the pageant to proceed, days before the actual contest was to unfold, citing concerns about exploitation. In lieu of a pageant, Miss Landmine allowed online voting, staging a finale-in-exile event in Norway where the local Cambodian community also voted on life-size versions of contestants’ photographs carried down a red carpet runway. In December 2010, Traavik traveled back to Cambodia in stealth—a trip also captured by a film crew—to fit pageant winner 19-year-old Dos Sopheap from Battambang Province with a prosthetic leg and award her $1,000 (USD) (Miss Landmine).
I am writing about the promise of beauty, ranging from beautiful objects, persons, or scenes, which might hold out to us real or ideal possibilities such as romantic love, spiritual transcendence, economic mobility, or political transformation. Mine is a minor historiography of a concept of beauty as an imperative discourse, one that determines what conditions are necessary to live, what forms of life are worth living, and what actions must follow to preserve, secure, or replicate such conditions and forms—and their consequences.
I am particularly interested in encounters in which deprivation and violence, crisis and vulnerability, might be laid bare where threats to (what we identify as) beautiful objects, persons, and even life-worlds are mobilized in our narrative or aesthetic constructions. But while a thing of beauty might describe the limits of a structure or practice, because such a structure or practice cannot sustain beauty, the promise of beauty can also recruit control or interference on beauty’s behalf. That is, the promise of beauty can engender a critique of social arrangements and political structures and also call for the reorganization of arrangements and structures in our promise to beauty and all it is made to stand for—such as freedom, truth, sovereignty, and life itself.
It is easy to be struck by the photographs of the Cambodian contestants, collected in the bilingual pictorial magazine published by Miss Landmine. Here the hallmarks of portraiture are used to both humanize and individualize, coupled with the theatricalized tableaux of fashion photography, encompassing both luxury and lushness (“Miss Landmine Magazine” 3–67). The contestants are clothed in American Apparel (a company as famous for their non-sweat labor as for their body policing and sexual harassment suits), and in these photographs the women expose bare arms, legs, and their absence, play with long loosened hair, and smile (if at times awkwardly) at the camera. One of these photographs features a beautiful young woman (the eventual pageant winner) holding a silver plastic ray gun above her shoulder (36). In others, contestants cradle a golden leg in their arms (3, 17), not quite an imitation or replication of the lost object but a totem of a promise for it.
The theatrical aspect of beauty suggests its fundamentally social character, its importance as a scene through which a person’s relations to history, the present, the future, and herself are performed. Beauty brings together seemingly incommensurate things, from implicit investments in economic or political forms to dreams inculcated in the aftermath of collective and personal devastation. There are a number of stories that unfold from these photographs, not least among them the familiar feminization of humanitarian aesthetics that foregrounds vulnerability, and a curative therapeutics (including the pragmatics of medicine and bioengineering) that aims to transform disability, concomitant with another story about lost beauty and its restoration. Here beauty comes into view as a conceptual wedge through which murderous structures of radical unmaking are superseded by an ideal concept of beauty as subjectivization, as the repair and revitalization of an interior life. Throughout the Miss Landmine documentary (dir. Stan Feingold, 2010), each contestant is narrated as enduring multiple forms of capture and alienation that impede her life chances, most obviously the bomb blast, after which each contestant’s body—boundaries, organs, limbs—is no longer her own. Furthermore, the same catastrophic event that desubjectifies also degenders. [ii] The landmine is the conspicuous culprit for their failed femininities, described as an overwhelming obstacle to romantic love and thus forward momentum. Its violence then is deeply corporeal, and also profoundly psychic; it seizes them in this narration in the moment of the blast.
So there is in these photographs the hope for repair that the prosthetic leg promises—replacing the lower limb (the limbs most often lost to mines) that is so crucial to locomotion, but also securing surplus value as aesthetic plentitude and social mobility: the pageant winner might now be more employable, for instance, or romantically desirable. But the category of the beautiful also comes (in this story) to counteract the deadening alienation the pageant contestant experiences due to the landmine and the conditions that exacerbate her loss. As Henry-Jacques Striker observes, war renders personhood violently partial in body and also mind: “The maimed person is someone missing something” (123). (We can of course argue about the valuation of absence here, but for now let us observe that violent disablement as a consequence of war is a radical alteration.) So it is that the promise of beauty presumably returns her to herself, rendering her damaged body through a therapeutic idiom of pleasure and presence, providing to the bombing victim a sensual, vital experience of the linkage between herself and the world. [iii]
In the materials generated by the pageant, each Miss Landmine contestant profile renders her suffering as singular while connecting her longing for beauty, sociality, and romantic love to a human universality. The project’s slogan promises, “Everyone has the right to be beautiful,” which right the pageant presumably restores to her. To demonstrate such longing, however, the amputee is obliged to display her disability, and her failed femininity, in order to lay claim to such interiority and then to the (promise of the) prosthetic device itself. (Because not all pain can be understood as a sign of the human, some trauma, some longing for something more than, must be present for pain to be understood as a possessive interiority.) This desire is actually pictured in those photographs that feature contestants cradling the golden leg that stands in for the also-visible lost limb—while the custom-fit prosthetic promises locomotion, even elegant perfection. The attachment to beauty becomes an attachment to so much more; or as Rachel Bloul argues, “[The Miss Landmine contestants] had the beauty of resilience, of courage and enough spirit to make the most of what they have been dealt with. How could one not perceive their individual heroism, reaching beyond pain and social rejection, and fighting to make themselves a life as women?” (15).
Notably, no one or no state in particular is implicated in the Miss Landmine pageant. [iv] The U.S. wars in Southeast Asia through which the gift of freedom unfolded, including the bombing campaigns in Cambodia, are absent from this scene. [v] Nonetheless, they resonate still, and not just as landmines—those campaigns now inform a Department of Justice white paper for the justification of targeted assassinations as “necessary and appropriate” force in areas outside of designated war zones. [vi]
But this is not to say that there is no continuity between liberal war and liberal peace. This scopic regime—what Rey Chow calls “the age of the world target”—names the knowledge structures that conceive the world simultaneously as an object of perfectible knowledge and a target for technologically innovative war. We know that war and vision, and violence and knowledge, share affinities, thus making it possible to bomb, to picture, and even to repair at once (Chow 36). (After the uses of antibiotics prevented many soldiers and civilians from dying of their wartime injuries, technological innovations in reparative surgeries, new materials science, and prosthetics engineering followed. ) Or as Caren Kaplan put it, about these divisions that structure perception and also precarity, “Legibility creates targets as well as safety zones” (Kaplan 69). These insights render explicit the binds between interceding subjects—militaries and humanitarians, for instance, which we know are close collaborators—and the objects they encounter in their simultaneous, converging fields of vision, dichotomized according to what Chow calls “the ‘eye’ and the ‘target’” (36). These photographs of bombed beauty contestants that envision wartime damage, and the technological innovations that repair such damage, are thus contiguous with regimes of reconnaissance, which laid those mines in the first instance, but are nowhere mentioned in the materials for the Miss Landmine pageant.
Looking at these photographs, some share with me a sense of vulnerability, found in the way a contestant might tenderly cradle the golden leg in her arms. This is the structure of what some others call beautiful suffering. [vii] But not all parties understood the pageant as the rescue of beauty, including the Cambodian government officials who worried about the possible exploitation of landmine survivors (though the nature of the accusation — because all the contestants are women, or disabled? because of the invocation of beauty, a trivial matter?–is unclear). These photographs are also indicted as the eroticization of pain and the eroticization of disability, especially its visible revelation, which itself has a long history. [viii] For still others, these photographs appear to fail to capture the depth or breadth of a human life, and it seems that if any decent pleasure is to be derived from viewing a beauty pageant photograph of a Cambodian landmine survivor in jersey dress and a tiara, it must be the frisson of discerning agency in the subject of the image—to perceive no agency there at all is to then participate in her exploitation, in the pornographic.
But the desire to see that the woman in the photograph is non-duped, that she poses with the silver plastic ray gun knowing full well the interpretative breadth of this theatrical tableaux, would mean that we too are non-duped by the otherwise opaque surface of the image—that we can see transparently past the surface of the photograph to its depth, that we can yet become lost in the eyes of a stranger without recapitulating a map of the world as target.
Miss Landmine (the documentary, the pageant, the program) ends with the virtuosity of the prosthetic device and the impact on the user, winner Sopheap, who testifies that her participation has won her friends, and happiness. Or as a National Geographic essay on Cambodia’s “healing fields” narrates this scene, “To the tearful clapping of her family, Sopheap is taking her new titanium prosthesis for a test run around their dirt front yard, scattering the ducks and chickens. As befits a beauty queen, she is wearing a flouncy, peach-colored dress lit up like a rose by the setting sun. Her twin sisters hang on to each arm as she walks stiffly in circles, and her mother weeps” (Jenkins par. 22).
Here, at the congruence of bomb and beauty, the technological perfection that liberal war demands (“smart” bombs) is coupled with the technological perfection that liberal peace promises. Both cut into a biological field, in the name of life itself. And, like the gift of freedom, this narration of medical and psychological normalization—and as well an education in beauty—is made possible through the arrival of technologies to Cambodia from the future that is the now of other places. Such faith in the prosthetic device establishes that visible labors—to render beautiful through rehabilitation and wholeness, to redesign the body as integral once again—will also repair an individual’s interior life, but that such labors are possible only through forms of interference that come from another. In this telling, the reparative properties of a pageant tiara and a titanium prosthetic limb are collocated with those structures that allow beauty to flourish, that guarantee plentitude through conviviality, to moderate the damage of her bombing. Her mother, National Geographic witnesses, is grateful that Sopheap now can wear jeans like the other girls (Jenkins par. 25). On this tender and troubling note, we find that beauty can implicate multiple realms of knowledge (scientific and moral, among others), as well as stirring emotions, trivial details, and “minor” events, bringing together grand gestures and everyday governance through its promise.
It is easy to say that beauty is merely symptomatic of some other thing, such as racisms and their forms of gender; that the presence or absence of beauty is a second-order observation that is a mere justification for other politics, whether conquest or coup. To consider beauty as trivial is to insist upon a return to a deeper condition beneath a numbing, noisy distraction that impedes our perception of the stability of the real. But much might be lost in dispensing with (what is dismissed as) mere ornament, or subtracting from the surface, because beauty might nonetheless capture time and movement, or the span and breadth of a life; might provide a structure of intelligibility or a historical sensorium to focus our attention upon those structures—dispossession, war, capital—that fold some beings into life and others into death. It is as such that a concept of beauty might sustain both a philosophical statement about an experience of the world, but also sets of social practices for the development of capacities, such as the education of desire, and structures of feeling, such as dignity or resilience, that nonetheless comprise a will to subjectivity by another’s power. If the capacity to perceive and also embody beauty are thus tied to ideas about ontology and epistemology, we can observe that encounters with beauty (its presence or absence) have force, shaping persons into subjects and creating the contours of what is intelligible, perceptible, and sensible about our worlds. We can consider beauty after Michel Foucault as “a question of techniques for maximizing life” (123), inasmuch as beauty might take the discerning forms of an imperative to live, and the capacities and practices to do so. What I am calling then the promise of beauty is about the conditions beauty requires to flourish, with and against the threat of its disappearance or destruction, and about the transformation of those conditions to sustain such life that the beautiful promises to us.
I’ve been lucky enough to engage audiences in generous and generative conversation with this work-in-progress at the University of Texas, Austin; the Canadian Association of Cultural Studies; the American Studies Association; Northwestern University; Lewis and Clark College; Vassar University; the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; the University of Arizona, Tuscon; and George Washington University. Thanks are also owed to Amanda Dykema for gentle nudges and superior editing, and to The Account for hosting me here.
[i] The humanitarian NGO Norwegian People’s Aid is a key player in demining campaigns around the world, including Cambodia.
[ii] See Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.”
[iii] In another example from recent wars, consider the chain of associations brought together after a reporter’s observation about depression and suicide, about disintegrating selfhood, under the Taliban before United States occupation: “Those [women who] survived relied on the only things they had left, their self-respect and their ability to maintain what dignity they could by making themselves beautiful” (Reed 469).
[iv] Morten Travvik comments on these photographs, “What do I see when I look at the pictures of Miss Landmine contestants? I see true beauty. I see beautiful women who are proud, dignified, and comfortable with who they are. And that strong, feel-good factor is all the while undermined by the tragic and quite horrible back-stories of mutilation and war that inevitably stays with a landmine survivor. It is a picture of ambiguity, but where the forces of life prevail” (quoted in Bloul 8).
[v] The gift of freedom is the frequent name for the both familiar and strange ways in which liberal empire marshals its powers for and against others and elsewheres. As I argue in The Gift of Freedom, an attachment to freedom is foundational to liberalism’s claim to a heightened attention to freedom’s presence or lapse, an attention that thereby continually commits free peoples to sustain or manufacture its presence—oftentimes, for an other who must be made to desire it. See Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom.
[vi] This is an excerpt from this recently released white paper: “The Department has not found any authority for the proposition that when one of the parties to an armed conflict plans and executes operations from a base in a new nation, an operation to engage the enemy in that location cannot be part of the original armed conflict, and thus subject to the laws of war governing that conflict, unless the hostilities become sufficiently intense and protracted in the new location. That does not appear to be the rule of the historical practice, for instance, even in a traditional international conflict. See John R. Stevenson, Legal Adviser, Department of State, United States Military Action in Cambodia: Questions of International Law, Address before the Hammarskjold Forum of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (May 28,1970)… (arguing that in an international armed conflict, if a neutral state has been unable for any reason to prevent violations of its neutrality by the troops of one belligerent using its territory as a base of operations, the other belligerent has historically been justified in attacking those enemy forces in that state)” (“020413 DOJ White Paper” I par. 5).
[vii] See Reinhardt et al., Beautiful Suffering.
[viii] See Smith, “The Vulnerable Articulate.”
“020413 DOJ White Paper.” Wikipedia. 2015. Web. 18 October 2015.
Bloul, Rachel. “Ain’t I a woman? Female landmine survivors’ beauty pageants and the ethics of staring.” Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation, and Culture 18.1 (2012): 3–18. Print.
Chow, Rey. The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. Print.
Domashneva, Helena. “NGOS in Cambodia: It’s Complicated.” The Diplomat. http://thediplomat.com/2013/12/ngos-in-cambodia-its-complicated/. 23 June 2015.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.
Htun, Nay. “Landmines Prolong Conflicts and Impede Socioeconomic Development.” In Landmines and Human Security: International Politics and War’s Hidden Legacy, eds. Richard A. Matthew, Bryan McDonald, and Kenneth R. Rutherford. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. 169–178.
Jenkins, Mark. “Cambodia’s Healing Fields.” National Geographic. January 2012. Web. 18 October 2015.
“Manifesto.” Miss Landmine Cambodia 2009. 2009. Web. 18 October 2015.
Miss Landmine. Dir. Stan J. Feingold. Cineflex Productions, 2010. DVD.
“Miss Landmine Magazine: Landmine Survivor’s Fashion — Cambodia 2009.” Miss Landmine Cambodia 2009. 2009. Web. 18 October 2015. http://miss-landmine.org/cambodia/tl_files/misslandmine/pdf/Miss_Landmine_Cambodia_lores.pdf
Nguyen, Mimi Thi. The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Refugee Passages. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. Print.
Kaplan, Caren. “Desert Wars: Virilio and the Limits of ‘Genuine Knowledge.’” Virilio and Visual Culture. Eds. John Armitage and Ryan Bishop. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013. 69–85. Print.
Kiernan, Ben. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–79 (Third Ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Reed, Julia. “Extreme Makeover.” Vogue (November 2003): 464–472. Print.
Reinhardt, Mark, Holly Edwards, and Erina Duganne, eds. Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.
Smith, Marquad. “The Vulnerable Articulate: James Gillingham, Aimee Mullins, and Matthew Barney.” The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future. Eds. Marquad Smith and Joanne Mora. Boston: MIT Press, 2007. 43–72. Print.
Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 65–81. Print.
Stiker, Henry-Jacques. A History of Disability. Trans. William Sayers. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Print.
Mimi Thi Nguyen is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her first book is The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Duke University Press, 2012). Her following project is called The Promise of Beauty. She has also published in Signs, Camera Obscura, Women & Performance, positions, and Radical History Review.
Guest Criticism Editor Amanda Dykema received her PhD in English from the University of Maryland and is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Rhodes College. Her book project, Inappropriate Literatures: The Cultural Politics of Racialized Propriety, argues that the disciplining of racialized subjects in an ostensibly postracial United States has been accomplished by pervasive discourses of appropriateness. She recently published “Embodied Knowledges: Synesthesia and the Archive in Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth” in MELUS.