Beautiful Soul Syndrome

Published on Saturday March 13th, 2010

Timothy Morton in Beautiful Soul Syndrome:

The attitude of the boycotter is that she or he has exited consumerism, but one could just as easily claim that this attitude is itself a form of consumerism, as I’ve just argued. It’s a performance of a certain style of aesthetic judgment. So thinking that you’ve exited consumerism might be the most quintessentially consumerist attitude of all. In large part this is because you see that the world of consumerism is an evil world. You, having exited this world, are good. Over there is the evil object, which you shun or seek to eliminate. Over here is the good subject, who feels good precisely insofar as she or he has separated from the evil world. I am now describing Hegel’s beautiful soul, who claims precisely to have exited the evil world.

The problem is that the gaze that constitutes the world as a thing “over there,” is evil as such. This is so brilliant that it’s worth repeating. Evil is not in the eye of the beholder. Evil is the eye of the beholder. Evil is the gaze that sees the world as an evil thing over yonder.

Unfortunately, the kind of environmental fundamentalist that sees the world as an essentialized living Earth that must be saved from evil, viral humans is the very type of the beautiful soul, whose gaze is evil as such. Ironically then, this kind of environmentalism is not spiritual, if by spiritual we mean that it transcends the material world, but is instead deeply committed to a materialistic view that sees evil as a concrete thing that must be eliminated. Now this kind of environmentalism is a form of anti-consumerism, which in my view puts it at the summit of consumerism, not beyond it, but at its very peak. It is indeed the most rarefied and pure form of consumerism on Earth at this time. And as such it is plagued by Beautiful Soul Syndrome, because it sees consumer objects, and consumerisms (all the various styles), as so many reified things over yonder, from which it distances itself with disdain. So how do we truly exit from the Beautiful Soul? By taking responsibility for our attitude, for our gaze.


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