Mimi Thi Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American scholar, punk, and zine author. She has made zines since 1991, including Slander (formerly known by other titles), and was a Punk Planet columnist and Maximumrocknroll contributor. She is well known for her compilation zine Evolution of a Race Riot (1997 and 2002), in which she and contributors of color challenged racism in the punk scene. Nguyen earned tenure in 2012 at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. She received the Outstanding Book Award in Cultural Studies from the Association of Asian American Studies for her first monograph, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt and Other Refugee Passages (2012). Here, we talk at length about her next project, The Promise of Beauty. This interview was conducted in October–November 2020.
I was just rereading your excellent Fales Library Donation Statement with a class. For those who aren’t aware: With the help of Ariana Ruiz, you donated photocopies of your original copies of zines by women of color to the Fales Library Riot Grrrl Collection in 2012. Could you tell us more about collecting the zines over the years and what it was like to write that statement?
My first encounter with punk proper—not post-punk or new wave, with which I was familiar as an alternateen in the late ‘80s—was through zines, specifically, the longest-publishing punk magazine Maximumrocknroll. I made my first zine soon after I stumbled across Maximum, and the zine reviews in the back of the magazine (next to the classifieds), and I have been collecting zines since then. I have bins and bins of zines, mostly by women, queers, and people of color, in my closet; after I did the compilation zine Race Riot to address race and racism in punk and its adjacent scenes, I collected hundreds by people of color from the 1990s and early 2000s. I’ve been asked multiple times what I intend to do with this collection, and I honestly don’t know. I have a lot of feelings about being archived, and institutionalized.
In 2012, I donated some select materials to the Riot Grrrl Collection in the Fales Library at New York University in order to “diversify” their holdings, in hurried anticipation of the publication of selected documents from the collection. I believe Lisa Darms, then curator of the collection, tweeted out a concern or a call for donations in light of the dearth of materials from women of color. The institutional record at the moment (not just at Fales, but broadly speaking) perceived women of color as outsiders or latecomers to zines and to riot grrrl, and someone reached out to me to encourage me to “correct” it with this donation. I totally understand this impulse, even as I am wary of it. As I ask elsewhere, What does it mean to make radically minor objects archivable, accessible, or legible? To what labors is the radically minor object recruited beyond what the mere facts of documentation, preservation, and circulation claim to do? Which is to say, I was worried that something else might go missing in the act of “correcting” this archival absence, namely, the conditions for that absence and also its correction. That is, how are race and racism made visible in riot grrrl or any other feminist historiographies, first as absence and second as crisis? I donated despite these misgivings, obviously, in part to see how I would feel about it (I kept my originals and sent copies). All that said, I never identified as a riot grrrl. I was always very much a punk.
Even as things are saved in the archive, things are lost—this seems somehow inevitable to me. You ask in the essay if perhaps this donation/intervention, could become “the story to tell,” and not merely an addition or supplement. I’m wondering how that thought has sat with you since you first wrote the essay. Do you think it’s happened to some extent, or not really?
Honestly, I try not to read scholarship in what is punk studies broadly, and no work that mentions me. In part because I find scholarship about something I wrote for a specific audience (other punks) to be weird, and the incorporation of “difference” into this increasingly institutionalized archive to be discomforting. But I am deeply concerned with historiography, in my own work. So one concern I have is that something I call a “minor object” might serve a particular function as a course correction that allows for a return to a status quo. In this a familiar telling, a minor object is a necessary intervention in a time of crisis, but also as a temporary intervention that thereafter restores the integrity of a movement, or maybe an institution (like the state), and returns us to a continuous history. We can discern this structure operating in stories about punk, or riot grrrl, in which the “problem” of racism is contained as a chapter or episode in a longer story. So I worry about that still. But of course, I also do not read the work that might do otherwise because of the weirdness!
Speaking of historiography, have you been able to write or research during the pandemic? Curious what you’ve been working on lately, if it’s been possible.
I manage anxiety and inchoate rage with television binges and work, which is not necessarily healthy. This is to say that while I managed to draft two chapters of my manuscript called The Promise of Beauty in the last eight months (and I have been prepping for the courses I teach for the last five months). Of course, our historical moment has deeply informed the writing, which considers the promise of beauty under the strain of registering the future as one disaster after another. But I have been writing about this for years now! I encountered this conceptual pairing—beauty and crisis—throughout the course of writing about refugees and regime change, through to the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, over and over again. How might the promise of beauty engage crushing harms and exhausted signifiers, whether through an ordinary wearing down or the normalization of war and terror, slow violences or sharp terrors? In which our sense of time is disturbed, and there is no future on the horizon, how does the promise of beauty become a practical or philosophical concern?
So, I have been circling this question about what a commitment or attachment to the beautiful means for how we endure. In the face of crisis, or despair, I argue that beauty functions as a promise, a commitment to act, premised on the will or power to bring into being that which is missing, incomplete, or endangered in the present. Beauty is, of course, a capacious judgment and elastic property—sometimes a means (to achieve love, or democracy) or an end in itself, sometimes an obstacle or an opening to other forms or habits of being. And sometimes in narrative and aesthetic constructions of crisis, the nature of the danger is crystallized in the threat of disappearance and destruction to beautiful objects, persons, and even life-worlds. Such constructions evoke beauty to critique the limits of a structure or practice, such as authoritarianism, or man-made climate crisis; and when such a structure or practice cannot sustain beauty, these constructions can also recruit interference on beauty’s behalf. These forms could be familiar, or sometimes strange; there are roses, mountains, and lovers, but one mantra in particular strikes me in this moment—and it is from John Waters’s Female Trouble—“crime is beauty,” through which lawfulness under a dehumanizing regime is not an option.
This sounds like an incredible book. As primarily an art worker/writer, I’m curious if there are any particular artworks that you consider? And a second question I’ll include now: in what forms of protest, dissent, or crime do you find beauty?
The book is organized around specific crises for which beauty is imagined to promise a feeling of life being furthered (to borrow unfaithfully from Kant), so among the things I consider are Vietnamese refugee ao dai (the “traditional” dress) pin-up calendars, the brief life of the Beauty Without Borders NGO in post-invasion Kabul, and a pageant for landmine survivors, but also Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Leonard Koren’s Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers, Cauleen Smith‘s “BLK FMNNST Loaner Library, 1989-2019,” Chanel Miller’s Know My Name, and The Nap Ministry. A lot of genres of beauty appear throughout the book, including beauty as an emergent truth or as the purest possibility, as a false idol or as a fascist country. Some presumes the truth of beauty’s nature, the content of which might bind us to a situation of plentitude or profound scarcity; some accuse it of failure, circumscribing the grounds of a given universal like beauty to narrow understandings of the species category of “the human.”
What I want from beauty is the disturbance of what it means to be attached to forms of life produced by practices of death. That is, I want from beauty a political vocabulary that can capture what it is to want another life does not yet exist—while questioning whether under present conditions if this life is possible, and what conditions would make it so. In which we make the best of having to linger in this in-between, in which we tell each other that another world is possible, another end of the world is possible. The uprisings this summer, then, were beautiful to me. The actions shutting down eviction courts happening right now are beautiful to me. These are all beautiful to me because they disrupt that which we are told is necessary—the violence of law, the violence of private property—to say to us, “There are other ways we can live that don’t depend on death.”
So beauty for me is one name for how some are grasping at “what to do in crisis,” and how to imagine we live after it. It is one name for new ways to care about and redress that violence, both as something specific and personal and as something general and structural; one name given to living through this visceral moment of suffering and uncertainty, in which we are presented with multiple conflicting diagnoses about the present and competing prognostications about the future. Beauty is one name we give to what we imagine or hope sustains us beyond mere survival. Saidiya Hartman writes, lovingly, about the anarchy of colored girls in a riotous manner, “Esther Brown was wild and wayward. She longed for another way of living in the world. She was hungry for enough, for otherwise, for better. She was hungry for beauty….What was beauty if not ‘the intense sensation of being pulled toward the animating force of life?’”
I love that quote. It sounds like there’s an Arendtian form of natality involved with beauty—a sense of new beginnings that makes possibility…well, possible. Would you say that’s correct? I was also thinking about Arendt earlier when you mentioned a commitment to act.
Absolutely, though what this commitment to act looks like depends on a lot—which is the premise of the book! But yes, if beauty designates that which is required to live through a historical conjuncture, beauty also solicits a promise—a commitment to act. Or as Toni Morrison put so well, and I cite here with all necessary ambivalence, “Beauty was not simply something to behold, it was something one could do.” So rather than dispute the concept of beauty through contradiction or incommensurability, which would presume that beauty is something other than an instance or force, and that the ideal presence of beauty is calculable or predictable, beauty inhabits this book as an analytic for an historical investigation into the forms and events that constitute us as subjects of dreaming. Toward this end, I argue the significance of beauty as a politics of intervening in history (the conditions under which beauty endures) and life itself (what meaning beauty lends). This could absolutely be an Arendtian natality, but it could also be and has often been a “civilizing” social order (see beauty’s invocation in the U.S. invasion and ongoing operations in Afghanistan).
In the latter case, when it’s a “civilizing” social order, is beauty then instrumentalized or weaponized? If so, how can that be challenged or overcome?
I mean, this question gets at this line I am walking—I am not trying to say that beauty is one thing or another, as a horizon or a weapon. Instead, I want to say that beauty is the empty space into which we put those things that we conceive as necessary for a historical sense, a consciousness of life, and this is its crucial conceptual power—as a magnet, as a force, and an effect towards which others move, and are moved. Understood in these terms, rather than a predictable expression of social infrastructure or transcendental universal, the concept of beauty, even when it appears in its most banal and familiar forms (for instance, as “beauty standards”) could be described more expansively as an accessible concept to make claims about our ideal relations to objects or persons in the world.
And it’s hard, because I’m asked all the time, about this book, “What does this mean? What does beauty matter, against the material and solid foundation of life and death?” And I’m asked about all those moments in which beauty is a weapon, or its promise a failure. As we know, beauty is just as often an object of suspicion as it is anything else. And my response is, “How is it that beauty can be understood as inconsequential, trivial, or ornamental, but its absence or its other—ugliness—is described as devastating, dehumanizing, or violent?” So to answer your question, finally, is that the promise of beauty establishes a contingent politics for a feeling of life being furthered in an historical terrain, which can always be transformed or undone, by asking again and again—what conditions are necessary to live, what forms of life are worth living, and what actions must follow to preserve, secure, or replicate such conditions, forms, and actions to sustain such life that the beautiful promises to us? So if a law or a constitution is called beautiful (which happens, especially when and where beauty is understood as fairness or symmetry which are received as necessary qualities but are still evaluative frames), we can say, But what is the life that can be lived under the shadow of this law? Whose life is circumscribed as outside its promise of beauty?
I hope this makes sense, because if not, this book is fucked!
It does! You said earlier that you arrived at some of this thinking from writing about refugees and regime change, about crisis and real-world concerns where beauty may seem elusive. This interview has also brought to mind equally expansive political conceptions, namely of freedom—along the lines of Angela Davis’s thinking (freedom is a constant struggle). We need more formations beyond something like freedom, to show, as you said, there are other ways we can live that don’t depend on death. So, I’m curious to hear more about the trajectory of this book and how some of your previous essays, for example on the politics of the hijab, may have informed your thinking.
The seed of this book began with my participation in the massive antiwar protests in 2001 and 2003, and the Transnational Feminist Practices Against War authored by some of my then-mentors, in a clash with a liberal feminist agenda that gladly collaborated with imperialist powers to “free” brown women from brown men. I was in graduate school at Berkeley at the time, writing a dissertation about another war to grant to others the so-called gift of freedom, so I followed the justifications closely. First Lady Laura Bush, in a November 17, 2001, radio address to the nation, said “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” against the monsters that want to “pull out women’s fingernails for wearing nail polish” and “impose their world on the rest of us.” Here at the onset of the forever war, the burqa specifically, and hijab generally, stood for a constellation of deviant bodies, objects, and subjectivities found at the scene of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. We saw the burqa invoked by U.S. officials and liberal feminists as an analogy or a substitute to decry all that which was presumably missing—education, freedom, democracy, and beauty.
And then I began to hear about a campaign to open a nongovernmental trade school called the Beauty School of Kabul to teach Afghan women the “art and commerce of beauty,” which garnered widespread popular acclaim and industry support in its merging of feminism with empire and capital. And I was so baffled, and baffled by my own reactions, I wanted to understand what was happening. The essay I eventually wrote about this campaign was focused on how beauty become a “deliverable” object or social good for this NGO, but I also argued for taking seriously beauty as a force. In the course of learning about the school, writing and talking about it, I would often encounter one of two reactions—either a focus on the Afghan women’s resilience (in the face of fundamentalism or war), which was called beautiful, or a dismissal of the initiative for its promise of beauty, despite the thousands of other NGO or government-funded initiatives around the world that claim to bestow similarly elusive qualities such as dignity through social enterprise. So, the book started with wanting to understand the celebratory and the condemnatory responses at once—what is promised by beauty, what does it mean to fulfill or to fail it?
There was much fanfare about the Beauty School at the time (as well as scorn) but it’s all but disappeared from the archive—literally! My friend Thera Webb, who is an archivist and professional researcher, could not find any materials anywhere—not even at the institutions which developed the school’s curriculum. So, as I revisited this essay to consider how it might figure into the book, I had to ask another set of questions about the disappearance of the promise of beauty alongside the prospect of peace from our longest war in Afghanistan.
To hold those things together, I want to argue that beauty need not be conceived of as an ornament, a supplement, or a “mere” image which power fastens to other calculations. Beauty is instead a prime motor through which certain bodies, certain gestures, certain desires, come to identify and constitute rights-bearing individuals, or sociolegal nonpersons. I mean, as late as 2017, U.S. national security advisor H.R. McMaster used a black-and-white photograph of Afghan college women in miniskirts strolling through 1972 Kabul to convince Donald Trump that increased troop presence would encourage the return of lapsed “Western norms.”
This interview has me thinking about previous November interviewee Nell Painter, specifically her writing on how beauty was conceived in eighteenth and nineteenth century (in chapter five of The History of White People, “The White Beauty Ideal as Science”). She shows that the production of race as a category for oppression and violence had much to do with the fetishization of white skin—all that white marble in Ancient Greek statuary. She discusses how the so-called “father” of art history Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–68) was unaware that the original sculptures were often dark in color and typically painted. I’m curious what your thoughts are on how whiteness and beauty have been interlinked.
These two things—whiteness and beauty—have been interlinked historically, absolutely (but not inevitably). Beauty is foundational to theories of humanity and subjecthood as an effect of its presence, especially where the capacity to perceive and also embody beauty are tied to ideas about ontology and epistemology. Again, I propose beauty not as a description of a historical situation (“This person, or thing, is beautiful”), but as a distinction that produces and at times codifies knowledge about time, about history, about humanity; it is not an ontological truth, but claims status as such.
For myself, I am interested in those linkages between whiteness and beauty when and where they can be understood to measure humanity. Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Edmund Burke, and many others naturalized a civilizational, lawful order as scenes for aesthetic capacity. For them, human self-possession circumscribed as the consciousness to act, and to enter into covenant with others (to promise, in other words), is the property and precondition for the appreciation of beauty. The Arab, the African, and the “Oriental” are all deemed historically deficient in this aesthetic faculty; consider Kant’s atlas of Chinese grotesqueries and African foolishness (“still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality”) in his pre-Critique essay “On National Characteristics So Far as They Depend upon the Distinct Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime.”
This is significant because the capacity for political participation has long been derived from or corresponded with aesthetic faculty, through the production of identification with a liberal vision of humanity. Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments wrote that “a spirit of system” motivates the desire to perfect “a certain beautiful and orderly system,” while Friedrich Schiller proposed the aesthetic of beauty as a means of joining “free” individuals, through an appeal to the “common sense” of a social arrangement, under a moral-political law. A presumably fair system is thus sensually compelling because of its aesthetic correspondences. Elaine Scarry names the second line of the U.S. Declaration of Independence (admiring the cadence of its syllables, “We hold as self-evident…”), or the assembly hall (with its “bowl of space” reminiscent of the equidistant proportions of a sphere), as beautiful; she names the law, when “both written and applied with consistency across all persons,” as beautiful. We should want to preserve such forms, and replicate them, as a consequence, she argues, for the benefit of others to share in such beauty. And if the Declaration is beautiful, and therefore just, it follows that it is a model for others—in other words, being beautiful and therefore just qualifies it to solicit its replication from others. But this also is the historical promise-violence of colonial benevolence and tutelage, which presumes to teach the racial, colonial other how to copy their betters.
So that is what I am interested in—how beauty bears the weight of much ideological management and pedagogy in its associations with humanity and its others. Sylvia Wynter calls those distinct categories that emerge from this divide “genres” of the human, each featuring its own aspirations and ways of relating—which, taken together, make up what Wynter calls a culture’s “descriptive statement.” Wynter argues that the West, through imperial expansion and colonial violence, has imposed its genre-specific truths on the world; its descriptive statement is over-represented in the history of humanity. The promise of beauty has long shored up this over-represented statement—but I want to believe that the promise of another beauty can also be that which helps us to imagine otherwise.