The Topic At Hand: Seconds

Factory Seconds: John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and the Female Body

“What are ‘factory seconds’ and ‘irregulars’? Factory seconds and irregulars are not necessarily faulty or even of lessened quality, but rather a piece of merchandise with a minor problem (typically cosmetic and easily reparable) that prevents it from passing the quality checks in the inspection process.”

–from essortment: 5 tips for factory outlet shopping.

I am 38 years old. Facebook knows this about me; so does Yahoo! The online game site I registered for so my nine-year-old son could use it—it cares about my age, too, as I learned when I noticed my son studying my face one day. “You know,” he said jokingly, “Dermitage could help with those wrinkles around your eyes.” He had apparently been seeing them, too, the ads showing the fast-forwarded aging of beautiful woman into scary crone, the ads crowing, “This woman is 50 years old! Learn the secret of her ageless beauty!”


John Ruskin

John Ruskin (1819–1900) should be the patron saint of the anti-globalization movement, but his ideas about the aesthetic and intellectual impoverishment brought about by industrialization and capitalism can also provide insights into what has happened to the female body under late capitalism. In The Stones of Venice (1851, 1853), Ruskin celebrates the rough, imperfect Gothic architecture of medieval Venice over the “accurate mouldings, and perfect polishings, and unerring adjustments of the seasoned wood and tempered steel” of the nineteenth-century English drawing room. He praises the beauty of old Venetian glass, designed and executed by a single man, over the modern English mass-produced glass, which is “exquisitely clear in its substance, true in its form, accurate in its cutting,” to argue for his dictum that one should “never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.” A century and a half later, the power of capitalism has made it possible to have a body as perfect as those clear, flawless wineglasses. To the extent that these new interventions into women’s bodies and faces become the standard for all women, to the extent that an “exact finish” becomes part of the expectation of female beauty at all ages, the rest of us will feel like Gothic gargoyles; like muddy, inaccurate pieces of Venetian glass; like “factory seconds.”


Before the days of industrialization, no one expected uniformity and sameness; each wineglass was different, and that was a fact, not a flaw. But when uniformity becomes possible, there is a tendency to make that uniformity an end of itself and to view it as having perfection to the extent that it conforms to the standard, even if the standard has no merit of its own (for example, a McDonald’s hamburger: uniform, predictable, perfect in its adherence to the standard of a McDonald’s hamburger, but perfect only in that regard). From consumer products such as wineglasses to the food we eat to our own bodies: the ideology of capitalism tends relentlessly toward uniformity. As fellow Revolving Floor contributor BTL writes on her blog about Jonathan Van Meter’s New York magazine article About-Face: “That’s one major scary thing about all this: all these women, who are supposed to look so much like the way they picture themselves looking at their best, now look alike. That’s how you can tell they all have the New New Face, they all look like they’re part of the Cabbage Patch Family. Same thing with Botox, everyone has the same, immobile, expressionless expression.”


Ideas of beauty are socially constructed and change over time—certainly John Ruskin, with his efforts to get his contemporaries to see the beauty in “the fantastic ignorance of the old sculptors” of Venice, would agree. But it’s hard for one individual to go against the tide of a shift in ideas of beauty. My first conscious recognition of the effects of Botox came from watching the “Parralox” episode of Absolutely Fabulous in 2001. I was stunned. “Oh my God!” I thought. “Patsy looks 20 years younger!” And that image of Joanna Lumley’s unlined, perfectly smooth face was what stuck with me for the past eight years: that was the dramatic thing, the thing I remembered. I forgot one small detail until I rewatched the episode this morning: the fictional Parralox causes even more pronounced facial paralysis than Botox does, so Lumley held her face rigid for the entire episode, mumbling like a ventriloquist through barely parted lips.

But these little details—expressionless faces, breasts that react differently to the laws of physics than unaugmented breasts do—are only unbeautiful when compared to a different, older standard of beauty. And these details are easy to forget when you have Joanna Lumley’s stunningly young-looking face to remember—even when Botox and its scary fictional counterpart are officially treated satirically in the episode (which was the first new episode to air in more than five years; presumably Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley felt the need to account narratively for the fact that Lumley looked younger than she had five years earlier). I get swept along by the wave of new ideas of beauty, new images of aging, and it makes me see things that would be just as easy not to see: how my lips are growing thinner, the web of tiny lines around my eyes.

Perfection is appealing, of course, and never more appealing than when it appears to be within reach. But Ruskin’s ideas about the moral costs of the smooth finish, the perfect exterior of stuff, of consumer products, are equally relevant to consideration of our bodies: “And therefore, while in all things that we see or do, we are to desire perfection, and strive for it, we are nevertheless not to set the meaner thing, in its narrow accomplishment, above the nobler thing, in its mighty progress; not to esteem smooth minuteness above shattered majesty.” I’m not quite ready to refer to my body with the words “shattered majesty,” but I could be persuaded to try to see myself in a contemplative gargoyle looking out over Paris, as I once did, from Notre Dame.



First gargoyle image from What About Clients?

Ruskin image from Famous Poets And Poems.

Second gargoyle image from Daily Venture.

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10 responses to “Factory Seconds”

  1. Liznwyrk says:

    Interesting essay. I like the connection between the industrialization of objects and humans (although I would argue that this standard of sameness and physical perfection has increasingly become an issue for men as well). Your premise reminded me of the Scott Westerfeld YA trilogy Uglies, Pretties, Specials (and then of course the aptly named fourth book in the “trilogy”, Extras).

  2. I once interviewed for a quality control job wherein I would be tasked with inspecting pieces of blown glass. The supervisor told me that:

    – I would have to reject at least a couple of pieces each day in order to justify my job.
    – The glass-blowers, who worked in the next room, took pride in their work, and were likely to ask me to justify my decisions.
    – So far, nobody who worked there had come up with a coherent standard for why anything should be rejected.

    And yet, there was clearly an idea floating around that, even though there wasn't a standard, there should be. So basically, I was being asked to formulate a theory of aesthetics, and then defend it daily. And that theory must apply to pieces of art that were, by definition, unique.

    I didn't get the job, and maybe that's just as well.

  3. Tara says:

    I feel like once upon a time, it wasn't everybody's job to be striving after physical perfection/beauty. It was enough for a couple of beautiful people to be the beautiful ones, and everyone else could just be good at whatever they're good at, kind of like rabbis being religious for the whole congregation, that eats bacon but wants their leader to keep kosher. The idea that beauty is everybody's project is almost populist, except for the bizarre thing that it's considered kind of gauche to openly pursue it. If you're dieting, you're supposed to say it's for your health and not your looks, you can get made fun of if you spend too much time or money on your hair/make up, etc, and there's not much respect for cosmetic surgery either. Maybe it's kind of like the old money/nouveau riche thing – everybody wants more money but it's vulgar to earn, you should just already have it.

  4. randallcohn says:

    What strikes me about the critique of standardization in this mode is the tendency, in one way or another, to take refuge in a romantic, utterly human premodern. Ruskin's fantasy of the (specifically religious) moral superiority of 12th century artisanal labor to the new forms of manufacturing in the 19th was an early and influential example of what is now a long tradition of goth romanticism. We have Ruskin to thank, in part, not only for constant epochal confusion among American tourists visiting ornate churches in European capitals, but for keeping black lipstick, fishnet stockings, and Nick Cave albums flying off the shelves. What is touching both about neo-gothic architecture and Goth in the more popular sense, I think, is their determination to do just what Rachel wants them to do — that is, to discover a tragic beauty in the irrational and imperfect, to allow beauty to be human again by — in an age of a utopian hyperrationalism — allowing death back in. I find the choice of the gargoyle as the redemptive symbol here (really good and subtle writing!) touching for the same reason.

    I also know, however, that Ruskin's vision of the Gothic age was, in fact, a fantasy. And that his attack on Godless functionalism and standardization was primarily backwards-looking, aimed at a neo-Classical tradition that was just as antagonistic to what would become the 'modern' as the neo-Gothic was (19th century pre-modernity was already about as post-modern as you can get). And, for that matter, it was firmly rooted in just the kind of protestant religious moralism that was becoming so popular at the time and which means little to me when I go looking for balm to anoint the wounds inflicted on me and my self-image by late industrial capitalism.

    That's why I tend to take my cues for 'shattered majesty' from the rather more modern figure of Walter Benjamin who, in turn, took his cues from John Ruskin's contemporary, Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire's insight about the emptiness of the coming industrial age was more sophisticated than Ruskin's, at least in so far as he did not allow himself to take refuge in a nostalgic for the less empty pre-modern . Rather, he saw the obvious false promises of modernism as an emperor's new clothes moment, as an opportunity to tear through the illusions of religious and political morality — that is, promises about the future writ large.

    For Baudelaire, of course, that meant a different kind of tragic romanticism — one that embraced the mortality of the flesh through ecstacic decadence of the sort that might seem like a drastic antidote to the kind of quiet alienation we might feel when we think about botox and Ab/Fab. I take Benjamin seriously, however, when he suggests that Baudelaire's celebration of the persistence of the flesh even through the promises of the machine age offers an important example just by showing us how to see and name those promises and their failure. That apparent contradiction, according to Benjamin's queer version of the historical dialectic, is the real gift of the modern age, and we risk missing its opportunity (whatever that might be if we respond to it by looking backwards to more cathartic lies that fail less spectacularly.

    helped pave the way not only for historically confused American tourists at of the 19th century helped pave the way for both many confused the industrializing crafts of the 19th centur which was threatening to simultaneously standardize the world of wrought-goods and offer ship did a great deal to

    I certainly agree with the author about the degradation of primarily female bodies when confronted with the specter of perfection-within-reach, and I'm touched by the choice to identify with the gargoyle as a redemptive symbol. That's some good and subtle writing. I can't help but, wonder, however, if it serves us to reimagine the religious paranoia

  5. rachelhile says:

    Thanks, all, for the interesting comments. Liznwyrk, yes, you're right of course about men being targeted regarding uniformity and perfection, though I think there's a little bit less devaluing of the aging male body than the female. For men, the emphasis is on looking fit more than on looking young (or so it appears to me, when we have 50-something actors playing against 20-something actresses as romantic partners).

    Randall, yes to your observation that Ruskin was living in a fantasy world (and he was a strange, strange man!). But I think that to engage with his ideas is not to devote oneself to “more cathartic lies that fail less spectacularly” or even to romanticize the past. Rather, I think it's important to look at contemporary situations using the concepts and ideas of earlier centuries as a method for becoming aware of the fantasy world that we live in now. It sounds as though you are romanticizing the modern age by saying that it shows us “how to see and name those promises and their failure.” People in all times and places have occasionally seen clearly the fantasies indulged by their own little corner of the world. But it's hard to recognize the ocean of fantasy that we swim in without the ability to contrast these almost-invisible fantasies to those more perceptible ones of other times and places. For the word “fantasy,” substitute the word “ideology,” and it works just as well.

    What Randall didn't point out, but what is implied by his argument, is the corollary truth that of course women's bodies were never in some natural state, neither in the Middle Ages, nor in Ruskin's nineteenth century. I don't have any interest in going back to the Renaissance and painting my face with white lead and plucking out my forehead hairs so that I would appear to have a high forehead. I don't think of myself as idealizing the past; rather, I'm plucking an idea out of the past to use as a lens to look at the present. Regarding Tara's comment, though, that there is a (possibly problematic) populism to the idea that everyone should pursue beauty: I think you're right, because the pursuit of beauty historically has only been possible for the wealthy—it's a luxury. So then we're back to late capitalism broadening (at least in rich countries like the United States) access to luxury goods.

  6. randallcohn says:

    Rachel: I certainly take the point that it is always valuable to study the ways in which people have, in many different circumstances, dealt with the problem of ideology. Reading back over my comment, I also see how it might seem that I am signing on to a modernist project that offers an actually unique opportunity for seeing through the mystification. I don't mean that at all (and I'm not sure that Benjamin really believed it). It's not that modernity offers the only, best chance — rather it's that modernity offers the only best chance for us Moderns.

    The redemption that you seem to find (or that I read, anyway) at the end of your essay doesn't really look back to the same place Ruskin is looking (to the 12th century), but it does seem to look back to, or at least echo, a particular kind of romanticism. Maybe it is a tragic longing — you are peering at the ruin of a statue that is looking at the ruin, longing to take it's place. That is, I think, a characterstically modern kind of shattered majesty.

  7. rachelhile says:

    Randall, thanks for clarifying your point that “modernity offers the only best chance for us Moderns.” I enjoyed your juxtaposition of “the Gothic” and today's Goths. I just read a book review of a book you would perhaps enjoy (or maybe you've already read it): Gothic and modernism: Essaying Dark Literary Modernity. Edited by John Paul Riquelme. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. viii + 236 pages.

  8. Becky Carleton says:

    Great, thought-provoking writing! I think it’s interesting that manufacturers of cosmetics, Botox, breast implants, teeth whiteners, hair dye, skinny jeans, etc. think we all want to look the same, and somehow convince some of us that uniformity is the ideal. But if we’re all attracted to sameness, why do spouses cheat on each other, and why is internet porn so popular? And when I think back on all the romantic partners I’ve had, none of them really look alike at all. I’m attracted to all kinds of people. But the reason I chose the one person I want to spend my life with, to be sexually monogamous with and to watch grow old, has much less to do with how he looks and much more to do with how I feel when I’m around him. He makes me feel comfortable and confident, whether I’m in my old lady nightie or a new dress that accentuates my rack. I think confidence is what makes a person attractive. My husband makes me feel more confident than any cosmetic, Botox injection, breast implant, teeth whitener, hair dye or skinny jean ever could. How does he do this? He listens to me. He laughs at my jokes. We discuss things. He loves me for my mind. His reward is my body.

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The Author

Rachel Hile

Rachel Hile lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she is assistant professor in the Department of English & Linguistics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. She has published articles on Renaissance English literature and has edited a collection of essays, Parenting and Professing: Balancing Family Work with an Academic Career. She lives with her two children. View all Revolving Floor contributions by Rachel Hile.

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