Thursday, August 20, 2009

The aesthetics of the economics of vanity

butt vanity photo borrowed

It is not as exclusive as many think it is. And I'm referring to what many assail as the vanity of tummy tucks, butt implants, liposuction, and what-not. For steep as the price of any of these operations may be, vanity is universal, and its many aesthetic variants would betray just as many pricing levels in the market. In fact, vanity is the market.
     I write this as my way of recording my recent debate with my neighbor's aunt at her diner in front of our barangay market when I went there this morning to buy a rare cup of barako coffee and enviable thick Visayan latik on suman for breakfast. My mother-in-law wakes up so early in the morning and I wake up so late and my wife leaves for the office for the usual rush hour along with the kids, so I'm left with the delightful experience of having special suman with latik syrup for breakfast. But this morning, a debate with my neighbor's aunt ensued when she started to scream all over the place over the issue of a lady on her TV screen, a lady who was saying Vicki Belo's clinic botched her buttock augmentation which endangered her life at a later stage when the silicone started to decay and harbor all sorts of microbial pirates inside her ass of a colony, or something to that effect. But, oh no, my neighbor's aunt was not concerned with the legalese favoring the butt-reshape customer and "victim," nor was she fuming at those who "do not follow the doctor's post-operation instructions," as some of my other neighbors in the diner cockily put it. My neighbor's aunt was merely feeling victorious, or---all right---simply glad, that an apostle of vanity had been punished by the anti-aesthetics god(s) of modesty that she says she devoutly worships.
     Reader, note that it is not my wont to argue with my neighbor's aunt, modest and behaved boy that I am. However, I have to confess I could not contain myself in my coffee cup meditation this morning and went outside my private circle in an outburst of fecund wordplay in defense of vanity itself. Not because I felt I was one of those whose vain pain she might later mock, I was still in my cheap flip-flops and am pretty past my high school days of wearing a look-at-me KISS-band makeup, but because I felt my economic philosophy was being trampled on, my belief and aesthetic religion insulted to the edge of the moon.
     How vanity is't in her, mesaid, when livest it yet in all---I said, in mock archaic English. "Ha? Ano yun?" she asked. "Unsa'y imong ingon, dodong? (What are you saying, kid?)" went she further, my neighbor's aunt from the modest island of Bohol.
     And, to my surprise, she listened. She listened, shocked perhaps that this good son-in-law of her neighbor mahjong mate who had up till now only listened and listened well to all her rantings against everything pro-labor, this boy who seemed to agree (if she only knew) with everything she said in defense of Gloria (Arroyo) not the U2 song, this son-in-law of her friend who would just say nothing but flash a series of smiles towards her articulateness, . . . shocking that he would now turn the tables and do the podium work in defense of his, his . . . "philosophy"---but she listened. "Philosophy gradweyt diay ka, dong? Unsa man, nganong wa kag mag-law? (You're a philosophy graduate, then, kid? Then why didn't you take up law?)"
     And though I forgot if I told her "no, I was never officially a philosophy student, I don't even finish the books I read," I remember that this was what I told her, to the amusement of my other neighbors in the diner (the butcher, the baker, and the candy stick vendor):

"'Nang (Mother)," I said, "all of us, all of us, without exception, plot our lives in the name of vanity. Perhaps not all in the nurture of their facial beauty, perhaps not all in the maintenance of youthful hubris, but all in the service of vanity, nonetheless.
     "You, for one," I said. "As much as I. We all, sinners that we all are as our parish pastor's wont to say, we all are children of vanity as we are of god [I believe she read god with a capital G]. Me, embarrassingly fortyish, I yet sport my long greying hair as if to spite the regal Romanness of Rome in favor of the long-haired Druids, old as I am who should be saluting the conventions of the short-haired and conventional now. And you, you in your modest 'duster' (sundress), you also take pride in such modesty and allow the arrogance of conventionality to dictate on those who sway from the barangay's ways, don't you, Aling Britney? And your name, your name itself is an identity which you subconsciously wear like a logo, don't you?"
     "Aba, aba, aba, ang galing mo palang magsalita a, dapat pala tumakbo ka sa susunod na barangay eleksyon, no. Sus, ninduta uy; hayaan mo, kakausapin ko si Kapitan, baka puwede kang . . ."
     I said I'd be back to my telework now, presently, and will just bring back her coffee mug later, and she said all right but I should consider really running for the barangay council.
     So, what was it I really wanted to say?---
     Well, I wanted to enumerate as many aesthetic variations of vanity. Sure, there are the usual vanities of art, of architecture, of cookery, of musical taste, of car and garage design, of lawns, of cycling jerseys, of religion, of politics, of engineering, of science, of a language and its poetry. . . . But there are also the more latent aesthetic vanities, aside from the vanity of modesty (simplicity's arrogant utopia against rococo tastes) and the vain righteousness of village mob wisdom. For one, there's the vanity of the view that our lives are what we make them. There's even the classic vanity of those who have long loved the status of wearing the stamp of poverty on their shoulders, with nary an absence of pride, wearing poverty like a unionist's tag on one's branded social-realist shirt. And being one of those who have concluded that, in this country, where there's smoke there's fire's one of the stupidest things you'd ever hear, I sat content with the Thoreau-bred thought that where there's a society there shall always be vanity.

And so, what now? How do we escape it, then? If we cannot escape it, must we then just embrace it, make a religion out of it, in Moses' absence?
     I thought about this question and, vainly, came up with this conclusion:
     Our problem with vanity now should not be so much with the difficulty (nay, the impossibility) of escaping it. Our problem with vanity has always been that we have constantly been told to escape it. The problem is we have been told it is bad to be vain. And yet those very same people who say so have the vanity to dictate on us what is vain and what is not. To get a liposuction is vain. But him getting a gas-guzzler of a gigantic truck for to pick his daughter from school is not, because anyway he just drives in his Jockey-branded undershirt.
     It's about time we chuck all this bullshit about what's vain and what's not. In the end, it all boils down to the same old Marxist issue of powers who label and non-powers who get labeled (and by powers I do not mean just the rich, for the stupid mob is just as much a force to reckon with as any landlord's army of goons). But lest I be mistaken again for a Communist (predisposed as everyone is in this country to do so) by my adherence to Marxist critical views, allow me once again the vanity of aggression in saying this: the examination of who said something and to whom it was said benefits not just a party, not any one party, including a Communist party, but an entire market of sellers and buyers!
     Telling our people that it is okay to be vain will do nothing less than get us moving forward. Telling our people that they should not apologize for their way of life will move nothing less than money that should be moved to stimulate an economy. It'll move our rotting butts off to the marketplace to make us buy lunch break lipo, a gourmet doughnut over a vainly simple glazed one, a sports car perhaps or a medium-sized Anton del Castillo more expensive than a Pajero, or a new fancy church in a new fancy spot. What is wrong with that, as long as it's your money? Here's my big what-is-wrong-with-that? If to do one of those is to do wrong, then everything in life is wrong. If doing one of those is bad, then everything in life is bad.
     (Sure, there's the argument that too much consumption is bad for the environment, but even that presupposes the vanity of humankind [anthropocentrism] thinking itself superior to dinosaurs and must therefore not go.)
     I finished my coffee. Having sat in front of my computer monitor for so long and said to myself all that I needed to say to deflate my chest, I vainly walked over to my neighbor's aunt and asked her, in quirky Cebuano, "Manang, you take pride in your coffee, right" She nodded, puzzled. I said, with syllabic emphases, "you're so vain kaayo, uy, but I'm so proud of you." I handed her the empty cup.

The marketplace in front of the diner went on its busy and merry way, exchanging money and judgments and all sorts of harassment in that mini-divine comedy of a day. But divine---however you put it---in celebration of selves' lives, all in the name of pure vanity.

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