Beauty and the Beast

by Michael Taussig

Beauty and the Beast begins with the question: Is beauty destined to end in tragedy? Drawing on extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Michael Taussig scrutinizes the anxious, audacious, and sometimes destructive attempts people make to transform their bodies through cosmetic surgery and liposuction. He balances an examination of surgeries meant to enhance an individual’s beauty with an often overlooked counterpart, surgeries performed—often on high profile criminals—to disguise one’s identity. Situating this globally shared phenomenon within the economic, cultural, and political history of Colombia, Taussig links the country’s long civil war and its bodily mutilation and torture to the beauty industry at large, sketching Colombia as a country whose high aesthetic stakes make it a stage where some of the most important and problematic ideas about the body are played out.

Central to Taussig’s examination is George Bataille’s notion of depense, or “wasting.” While depense is often used as a critique, Taussig also looks at the exuberance such squandering creates and its position as a driving economic force. Depense, he argues, is precisely what these procedures are all about, and the beast on the other side of beauty should not be dismissed as simple recompense. At once theoretical and colloquial, public and intimate, Beauty and the Beast is a true-to-place ethnography—written in Taussig’s trademark voice—that tells a thickly layered but always accessible story about the lengths to which people will go to be physically remade.

  • University of Chicago Press; July 2012
  • ISBN: 9780226789880
  • Read online, or download in secure PDF format
  • Title: Beauty and the Beast
  • Author: Michael Taussig
  • Imprint: University of Chicago Press

In The Press

Beauty and the Beast is an original work, surprising not only in its thesis but in its tone, pacing, and voice. It presents its case slowly and through digressions and returns, performing a way of theorizing through writing, training the reader to follow what’s going on as an ethnographer does—how everything matters, how we should just see where it all goes, and how we shouldn’t overdo it. Gripping, moving, and brilliant, Beauty and the Beast is fun to read and to think with. It punctures an apparatus, producing a great sigh of relief. It is a gift.”--Katie Stewart, University of Texas at Austin 

— Katie Stewart

“Against the background of the enormous exploitation and torture of bodies in the course of the war, Michael Taussig, in Beauty and the Beast, seeks to unearth and understand the strange links between the practice of plastic surgery as the ultimate disguise of hunted men and the astonishingly widespread use of plastic surgery for beautification. But he pushes further than that, seeking new understanding of the extraordinary forms and importance of beauty in humans.”—Alphonso Lingis, Pennsylvania State University
— Alphonso Lingis, Pennsylvania State University

“Taussig balances balletically above the salacious horror, his elegant commentary drawing on Baudelaire, Georges Bataille and Walter Benjamin. We can be sure that when Taussig is telling tales of the savage and exotic, he’s talking about us, here, now, and what our crazy out-of-control economic system is doing to the rest of the world. There’s no ‘rest of’ any more. That’s what anthropology is for: the art or science that shows fish the water. Taussig is renowned as one of its dizziest dialectical conjurors. Reflecting on Wall Street’s recent lack of ‘libido’—he asks: ‘Are there still people who think that money and sex are not the same?’—he provides delicious throwaways that can satisfy Darwinians and Foucauldians alike.”
— Camilla Power, Times Higher Education

“In Michael Taussig’s latest work, Beauty and the Beast, he examines the plastic surgery culture of Colombia, where it is fueled by drug and war money. Fighters and kingpins get their faces redone to avoid arrest, and take their girlfriends to be reconfigured with silicone, lipo and a little chiseling. . . . Along the way, he writes about consumerism taking over culture, the flattening out of our ideas of what is beautiful, Marx and Engels, and the codpiece in police officers’ riot gear.”   
— Jessa Crispin, Kirkus Reviews

“It’s a kind of fairy-tale unreality, all horror and transformation.”  
— Elizabeth Bachner, Bookslut

“This is a highly readable text that in some instances seems itself to exemplify the principle of hybridity, combining a fair range of references to such writers as Benjamin, Lawrence, and Nietzsche, and to cultural movements, such as the baroque, with a studied casualness of tone and style: ‘You really pay your dues with la lipo.’ There is some inevitable repetition, as well as a hint of structural randomness—with comments on fashion, for example, flitting back and forth across the text but, in so doing, reflecting the point made about fashion’s ubiquity. It is certainly a text that mirrors the theatricality and evanescence of its subject. . . . Taussig’s style and tone may be ‘cool,’ but he communicates several sharp insights and startling connections, providing a perceptive and often original interpretation of the extraordinary pace of social change experienced in Colombia over the past 30 years.”
— Bulletin of Latin American Research

"Finally, anthropologist Michael Taussig offers a series of thought-provoking meditations on scenes from his fieldwork in Colombia. Theoretically and narratively beguiling—indeed, posed within the frame of the fairy tale—Taussig’s work urges us to consider how beauty is produced in tandem with the economic devastation, agricultural exploitation, and ravages of the nation’s long civil war."
— Latin American Research Review

About The Author

Michael Taussig is the Class of 1933 Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. He is the author of many books, includingI Swear I Saw This, Walter Benjamin’s Grave, and My Cocaine Museum, all published by the University of Chicago Press.