Beauty as Immanence: Being and Becoming
The photographs depict beauty as a nonchalant, immanent presence of individualised, singular and entrepreneurial selves, thus mixing ‘being’ and ‘becoming’. This is manifest in the styling of the photos that denotes a nonchalant fashionability, and through their Instagram, ‘selfie’ and American Apparel’ aesthetic quality. While the images are not strictly pornographic, they are erotically suggestive and show skin and see- through clothing. The photographed women look almost like models yet in a rather natural way. Most of the photos are shot from a middle range angle, showing bodies and surroundings and not just faces. The camera lingers on the beauty of the young women, who are portrayed as doing almost nothing: just sitting, gazing or smoking. The more active girls would be reading a book or just standing in a tennis court or lying on a gymnasium floor. But it would be inaccurate to see these photos as representations of the everyday lives of girls. Not only are these girls not shown as working, at least not in the traditional sense of the word, they are also not shown as involved in any sports, leisure or consumption activities. The girls are not misplaced, yet they are also neither shown in their rooms (as many selfies are), nor communicating or socialising with friends. Unlike the well-known 1990s ‘JenniCam’, Hagai’s Israeli Girls do not form a ‘catalog of a young woman’s life’ (Banet-Weiser 2012, p. 51). Rather than doing, the girls, partly isolated from their social environments, are being photographed as present, as ‘themselves’. They just are, in a zone of being. Hagai’s photos thus treat beauty as a surface of immanent presence, and one that denotes nothing but the aura of a self- appreciating being. ‘She’ is deemed successful—self-assured, fashionably- dressed and good-looking—because she ‘is’.
In this regard, Belinda Smaill (2013) disagrees with feminist critiques of many ‘dreamy looking’ popular culture artefacts that link girls with disempowerment, ennui and isolation. Instead, she argues that Sofia Coppola’s women, a paradigmatic example for this kind of aesthetic, ‘offer an image that is both entrenched in and critiques the sensibility of post-feminism’, in being on the one hand purposeful and aspirational but at the same time inflicted with ‘moral and existential uncertainty that manifests as boredom’ (Smaill 2013, p. 158). While I agree that Hagai’s neoliberal girls are not exactly disempowered, I also do not subscribe to Smaill’s view that they are bored, or that their boredom is a critique of neoliberalism. If at all, such embodied gestures add a touch of singularity and personality, which, in the neoliberal condition, ultimately enhances one’s employability potential. In this respect, Hagai’s photos do not just show very young women as being themselves. They also present the ‘becoming’ capacity of these rather generic women, their talent for ‘accelerated reflexivity’ (Papacharissi et al. 2013). Hagai’s ‘female gaze’ places these twenty-something accidental models in ‘girl’ settings such as a schoolyard, after-school tennis class, swimming pool, playground or what looks like their parent’s villas. The photographed women thus re-enact in front of the camera their previous, albeit not-too-long-ago, girly selfhood. The photos thus simultaneously exhibit the strong being of young women through the actual grown up models and the undetermined becoming through locations and settings that cast the seen images as girls, still.
To be sure, neoliberal aesthetic labour is very much about presenting a coherent self-identity. The aesthetics of aspiration is thus grounded in presenting and in being in the present. I argue that the ‘being’ mode of Hagai’s works does render the girls agentic and self-assured in their individualised singularity. This is expressed in their slightly bored and effortless sexed-up looks. At the same time, however, the beauty of the girls also foregrounds becoming, a process, or continuous transformation. This is expressed in the arrangement of the photos as depicting girls’ bodies that are not-yet women. What we supposedly see (and feel— see Coleman 2011) is an unfinished body. At this point it should be noted that while the being/becoming terminology is much indebted to Deleuzian thought, I am less inclined to perceive ‘becoming’ in terms of ‘multiplicity and difference’ that are the outside of capitalism and unlike the fixedness of ‘being’ (Coleman 2011, p. 152). Rather, it is my contention that beauty and the gendered aesthetic labour around it do not either stabilise capitalism (being in the present) or subvert it (becoming for future unpredictability). Obviously, and as ample feminist theory has argued, the empowered, ambitious woman, endowed with high self-esteem, determination, strong sense of self and the body to show for it, does not disrupt capitalism. But modes of becoming—of fractured self-identities, of transformation under uncertain socio-economic con- ditions—are also productive to capitalism. The aesthetic labour of both being and becoming is productive because it signals subjects’ never-ending ability to produce an inner sense of singularity. This capacity to be always changing and becoming singular in new ways is, I would argue, the neoliberal labour power.