Critical perspectives on the politics of cosmetics

Back to the general themes of this festival, I am reminded of Fernanda D’Agostino’s claim that exploring science with art may uncover the unseen. I would add that the unseen can consist of many disparate things: from Butler’s revelation on its more personal and visceral senses, we quickly discover that the unseen can be also interpreted as that which lies beneath the appealing pseudo-scientific words used to advertise cosmetics: Verena Friedrich’s  research into the politics behind the decisions to name the active ingredients found on the packaging of cosmetics has led her to “Cellular Performance,” where human skin cells have been manipulated to form words. This process underlines  the tight connection existing between words and the perception that certain innocuous (or useless) products may generate.

In fact, “age reprotect”, “anti-age formula”, “refirming” etc.. are nothing but appealing names given to active ingredients of cosmetics that don’t really do anything to the skin, aside from producing some temporary relief or a fade impression of improvement. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, the definition of cosmetics is “intended to be applied to the body for cleansing, beautifying, improving attractiveness, or altering appearance without affecting the body’s structure or functions” as opposed to Pharmaceuticals and drugs that  “affect the structure and function of the human body.”  Thus, cosmetic products can’t be defined as drugs, and can’t provide any change of note to the body. While the ingredients listed on their  packaging don’t contradict these rules, they are very good at making individuals believe otherwise.

By manipulating cell lines to “say” things that really don’t change how these cells are structured, Friedrich’s work is pointing to the often dismissed link between language and body, property and ownership,  biological material and language.