I write about technology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek.


March 2, 2010

Beauty & Madness

This is, admittedly, a strange theory: that the psychological structure of beauty and mental illness are mirror images of each other. So how can this be true? I’ll go through the table above line-by-line.

The Fundamental Illusion

Obviously in reality, a supermodel is an ordinary person who happens to be uncommonly beautiful. She will eventually get wrinkles, get sick, her body will breakdown and her beauty will eventually be lost to age and death. But our everyday experience is quite different, we react to such a person as if this wasn’t true. Instead, we experience beauty in a kind of eternal, otherworldy way, as if the object of beauty stands outside of our world. The ancient Greek ideal of beauty runs along these lines, and we’re familiar with the fascination humans have for beauty, how eyes turn to look when a beautiful person enters a room, etc. We know they are a normal human being, but somehow we still fantasize that they are the perfect human.

We react to mental illness in basically the same way, but in the opposite, negative sense. If we’re honest, people often react with horror or disgust, even though we know it’s a medical problem, and maybe this is because we resist the idea that our very personality and subjectivity can be so strongly affected by the material world. Whatever the reason, mental illness sometimes appears an an intrusion from outside of our world, which is why premodern cultures often thought it was caused by demons or evil spirits and why we continue to stigmatize it in modern cultures today.

Beauty and mental illness are associated with perfection/imperfection and angel/demon.

In reality, the illusion is…

No human is perfect, and even those who are close don’t stay that way for very long. As mentioned above, wrinkles, sickness, time, etc. take their toll. So beauty is a false illusion, the eternal quality we experience is simply false, a deception.

Madness is the opposite, our reaction to it is a true illusion. Not in the sense that mentally ill people are truly demons, but that with mental illness, we come face to face with an abyss, a repressed, monstrous void that is constitutive of all human subjectivity (particularly our own subjectivity) that threatens us. To avoid confronting this, we react with horror and try to push it out of our universe.

In this sense, the experience is just a fantasy, mentally ill people are no different from you, but the illusion points out something true that has been repressed.

The subject believes the illusion is…

This is straightforward: the supermodel believes she is not really beautiful, she’s aware of all the activities necessary to keep up the appearance; the mentally-ill person believes they really are the monster, it takes effort to hide that, to maintain the illusion of being normal.

In reality, this belief is…

The illusion of beauty is false, and the supermodel believes it is false, so she has the correct understanding. What about the mentally-ill person? The illusion of mental illness is a true illusion, the mentally ill person believes it is true, but nonetheless, they are wrong. Paradoxically, the mentally-ill person mistakenly experiences the traumatic truth of human subjectivity (the madness at its core) as a feature that’s unique to them, that they attempt to overcome . The untreatable madness of human subjectivity is collapsed into the neurochemical problem and treated as the same thing, when actually there are two conditions that are comorbid with each other. The experience of mental illness triggers a secondary effect, the traumatic exposure of the Real of subjectivity that most people repress, but many people experience this secondary trauma with different triggers. The main difference between being mentally-ill and being “neurotypical” is that the mentally-ill person “knows” what’s wrong with them (although they are wrong), and the neurotypical person often doesn’t know–they can’t put their finger on it and try to seek it out.

Subject struggles to be…

Also straightforward: the supermodel works to keep up the appearance of being beautiful, while the mentally-ill person works to conceal their illness. Both fear the consequences of failure.


Related Posts

August 5, 2014

The Cult of Sharing

The sharing economy’s marquee startup Airbnb recently unveiled a new brand identity and positioning to help propel its international expansion. Airbnb’s new wordmark and logo nicknamed “the Bélo” is said to have been the culmination of a year-long process, including a cross-cultural analysis to ensure their identity would be understood around the world. Exhaustive branding efforts are unusual among pre-IPO Silicon Valley companies. For years they’ve leaned on primary colors, gradients and rounded fonts, default signifiers of fun and friendliness that negate the staid formality of the more conventionally-minded business world, attempting no greater meaning than “this is not your father’s

Read more →
January 6, 2014

The Agile Labor Union

In 2001, seventeen American, British and Canadian software engineers and IT managers met at a ski resort in Snowbird, Utah, to start a movement to remake the way software is built. Over the previous decade, the attendees had independently created similar processes for organizing and managing software engineering projects that broke with tradition and promised to make software development better, cheaper, and more innovative. Their methods were diverse and went by many brand names: Extreme Programming, Crystal Clear, Scrum, Adaptive Software Development, Test Driven Development, and many others. But they also shared many goals and ideals in common. The outcome of

Read more →
June 2, 2013

Racism, Stalinism & Politeness

Caution: 3,337 words ahead The premise of this post has some immediate, flagrant problems, so it would probably be better to just start off with that. Here’s the premise: anti-racism is becoming like Stalinism. The obvious (and wrong) interpretation would be that I’m saying that the efforts of anti-racist activists have become so oppressive to white people that we are in danger of being shipped to a Siberian gulag or murdered by jack-booted PC thugs1. This is not what I’m saying—hopefully that will become clear. For me in this post, the important connection to Stalinism is not that anti-racist struggle is

Read more →

Recent Popular Posts

February 13, 2014

Left Activism Goes Corporate: A Detour Through the Raw Food Underground

One of the most tedious features of the Silicon Valley Hype Machine is its endless repetition of progressive sounding marketing slogans about democracy and freedom, all while promoting a pro-business agenda. But it’s too easy to read this as a sinister corporate ploy to co-opt the language of activists and twisting

Read more →
December 20, 2013

Civility: A Distance That Brings Us Together

Just in time for the holidays, Apple’s marketing department released Misunderstood, an ad about a surly teenager absorbed in his iPhone in the midst of scenes of his family’s idyllic Christmas togetherness. But he surprises everyone when he reveals that the whole time he was making a touching video for everyone

Read more →
January 26, 2014

Ten Parenting Lessons I Learned from Franz Kafka

Here’s an adage which I think is true: every theory of parenting is implicitly a theory of society. It follows that even if you aren’t a parent now, nor ever intend to be one, if you’re interested in society and culture, you ought to be interested in the topic because the

Read more →