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A Beauty Beyond Reason photo

A few months ago, I was having a conversation with a homie after viewing a student documentary (comprised of a set of interviews with two Black femmes, addressing appearance, intention, and their relationships with their bodies). After wandering through our shared takeaways and appreciations, we settled onto a conversation surrounding what ‘beauty’ is--more precisely, what ‘getting fly’ means to us. 

Borrowing from and expanding on an idea I first came into contact with via menswear writer @dieworkwear on Twitter (who himself borrows from Chomsky): I submitted that to me, beauty is a construction akin to language. It’s a coherence or sense-making exercise. It can (and often does) exist outside of countenance and clothing, and applies in my mind to all varieties of presentation. Augmentation, arrangements, verities, varial flips; if someone is putting together a sentence using the language of their medium and its references, then their work is, by virtue, potentially beautiful. This semiotic approach to aesthetics may even be hard or unpleasant to deal with, despite its coherence. But, if its expression is clear and its components are syntactically placed, a thing can be beautiful. I think this was an attempt to step outside of the ego in recognizing that beauty is not simply a question of personal taste but a channeling of past, spirit, and perception, into future; however, in making such a move I’ve made beauty dependent almost entirely on legibility. 

Something’s vulnerability or accession to being read is what we define as its legibility. Can we parse what we’re seeing? Beyond the words on the page, is it comprehensible? What is or isn’t is of course context-dependent, language-dependent, and reference-dependent; but interacting with a thing on its own terms feels as fair an assessment as possible. And besides, subjectivity is still relevant: what is readable, and moreover, enjoyable to read or what we take from what we read, is what distinguishes taste. 

There are some small problems with this formulation I’m working through… for instance: language shifts constantly and at varying rates in various geographies, so what is or is not a legitimate sentence changes frequently—how do we account for this re: legibility? A potential answer: perhaps ‘legible’ could share critical duties with ‘audible’? What we hear in spoken variants of languages encompasses a much more wide range of expression, verbiage, even slang, than what we see on the page, but what makes sense to our ears also shapes language in a more immediate way; so too can the vernaculars of our creative speech in familiar and unfamiliar forms alike. Fred Moten, famed Black theoretician and poet, offers that “[e]verything always needs new language. We constantly have to renew the language of any mode of inquiry”, and I’m inclined to agree. We can choose how lax we wish to treat the grammar of our amalgamated aesthetics; advancements in how we speak and write come from fucking language up, so how effectively we eff can become a metric for beauty as well.

I do have some unresolved questions that I’d like to leave for the reader as an exercise. The first: one of my favorite pastimes is discovering and examining graffiti, on walls, signposts, store windows. What I find beautiful about pieces and tags are their stylistic advances, their largesse, their placement—but the letters themselves are often barely decipherable. Is a wildstyle graffiti piece beautiful because its dimensionality and shape descend from a certain regional tradition, because its history and prevalence tell me something new about its writer—or is it ugly because I can’t tell what it’s strictly ‘saying’? (I’m inclined towards the former)

Further: I think where things get a bit trickier is in the thick of making something legible to begin with…it’s been argued that legibility is the foundation upon which modern statecraft is erected. Making populations into social security numbers, race categorizations, genders; making land into borders and parcels, conscripting groups of people into tax codes…all of these operations allow public and private entities to in turn operate on us as distinct objects belonging to and abiding by papers (legal, monetary, etc). How do we distinguish meaning-making from these sorts of bureaucratic bundlings, and avoid the attendant nonsense? (I fully don’t know)

Related aside: the work of Hank Willis Thomas, particularly “The Embrace” in Boston Common, raises many questions; with much uproar at the sculpture’s vagueness relative to its intended communication (a commemoration of the love held by Martin Luther King, Jr, and Coretta Scott King, abstracted by Thomas into a set of bronze arms hugging), I’m curious—do Black artists have an unfair burden placed on them to be literal? (I think our literalness, or “realness,” is where we stand apart as aestheticians--but Blackness is an exercise in quotidian surreality, too)

Along these same lines: there are artifacts of language that are specifically coded against being read by such governing factors, chief among them the numerological signs that compose 5%er religiosity; drug and ‘gang’ slang fit in this box too, as would any other communications from the margins that are intended only for an audience situated within the same context. Are such expressions only valuable/beautiful in their originating contexts? Henry Louis Gates, Jr, is working on producing an “Oxford Dictionary of African American English”; is this a work of criticism? Is it a worthwhile endeavor? Is there a beauty in illegibility, a sort of post-structuralist stance? Human beauty is exemplified in our frontal orifices; less obliquely (and less sexually), we carry our prettiness in our faces. Yet seduction often necessitates a sly ambiguity of intention and of communication, a play that resists clarity. (I’m embroiled in what could perhaps be the start of something, and fuck the beauty; the fun of it all lies in the slippage)

All of these questions bring me to maybe the most important one: Do I give a fuck about any of this in the day-to-day? My own personal taste is as incoherent and experience-based as anyone’s. I’m not even sure if I can tell you what my “type” is beyond seeing her walk by on the street, and what good is all of this sterile machination towards a philosophy of beauty anyway? Abstraction is only worthwhile to the extent that things can be made concreet again, and I feel like I’m talking to myself—so run up on me as I stroll Boston’s concrete and we’ll continue the conversation.