Conference at the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC, Oct 14-16, 2010
Conveners: Hartmut Berghoff (GHI Washington) and Thomas Kühne (Clark University)
Beauty matters. That it matters more and more in modern societies can easily be measured in the amount of money people spend on cosmetic surgeries, on fashion, on cosmetics, on looking at beautiful stars, and, since the 1990s in particular, in the number of scholarly articles and books analyzing exactly this phenomenon. Challenging the myth of eternal, unchanging, and cross-cultural beauty ideals, this conference inquires into the rise of powerful and yet ambiguous discourses on and practices of body aesthetics in the 20th century; it explores the interaction of hegemonic and non-hegemonic discourses on body aesthetics; and it tracks the impact of globalization and commodification on the struggle for beauty.
What is considered beautiful depends on time and space, that is, on cultural and social settings. Beauty is linked to other categories of difference—the good, the strong, the wealthy, the healthy people. Beauty is highly gendered, closely affiliated with racial hierarchies, and has always been a tool of social distinction. Owning beauty and accessing beautiful things are privileges. As with consumerism in general, the acquisition of beauty relies on and reinforces preexisting social hierarchies. At the same time, the modern discourse on beauty is embedded in ideas—one may say, illusions—of social advancement. Beauty defines identity, and it causes controversy.
What is called beauty may refer to different ideologies and to different techniques of perceiving and defining ‘reality.’ As Toni Morrison says in The Bluest Eye, black girl Pecola, who wishes nothing more than to have blue eyes, “would never know her beauty. She would see only what there was to see: the eyes of other people.” Morrison calls the Western obsession with beauty—and she refers to a particular idea of beauty—one of “the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought.” The conference will shed light on how non-hegemonic groups responded to the rise of the dominant Western beauty ideal. In doing so, it will investigate the means, paths, and limits of the transnational exchange and export of cultural norms and practices.
This interdisciplinary conference will put 20th-century discourses on beauty and corresponding practices into the context of racial ideologies, national identities, commercial strategies, and the rising consumer society. It will trace the processes of homogenization and diversification in the perception of beauty as well as the way media and corporations dealt with them. It will focus on the interplay between corporate strategies and consumers’ preferences, between marketing and customers’ receptiveness or rejection, between economic imperatives and sociocultural norms, between ideological concepts and the whims of fashion in the course of the 20th century.
The conference agenda includes four sections:
1. EXPLAINING BEAUTY: Covering ethical, psychological, medical, sociological, economic, and political discourses, this section will discuss why and how beauty matters.
2. SELLING BEAUTY: This part will deal with producers and sellers of beauty products around the globe. How big was the market? Who dominated it? Which methods were applied to overcome diversity and to export products across national and cultural barriers?
3. CONSUMING BEAUTY: This section will explore the significance of beauty for advanced and developing consumer societies and analyzes practices of consumers, as well as their interaction with expert advice, role models, ads, media, etc.
4. CONTESTING BEAUTY: The focus of this part is social, cultural, and economic conflicts about beauty and their association with factors of race, ethnicity, religious orientation, gender, age, ideology.
The organizers invite proposals on all related aspects from both young and established scholars, from all disciplines in the humanities and the social and behavioral sciences, and from all countries around the world.
The costs of travel (economy airfare), accommodation, and meals will be covered for applicants whose papers are accepted.
Interested applicants should submit for consideration 1) name, address, email and telephone number; 2) the title and an abstract of the proposed paper (a maximum of 250 words in English); 3) a curriculum vitae.
The application deadline is March 15, 2010.
Please submit materials via email to both
- Hartmut Berghoff, Professor of Economic History, Director, German Historical Institute, Washington, DC, email: Ms. Baerbel Thomas (email@example.com)
- Thomas Kühne, Professor of History, Strassler Family Chair in the Study of Holocaust History, Clark University, Worcester, MA, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
German Historical Institute
1607 New Hampshire Ave, NW
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