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Social Appearances: A Philosophy of Display and Prestige

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Philosophers have long distinguished between appearance and reality, and the opposition between a supposedly deceptive surface and a more profound truth is deeply rooted in Western culture. At a time of obsession with self-representation, when politics is enmeshed with spectacle and social and economic forces are intensely aestheticized, philosophy remains moored in traditional dichotomies: being versus appearing, interiority versus exteriority, authenticity versus alienation. Might there be more to appearance than meets the eye?

In this strikingly original book, Barbara Carnevali offers a philosophical examination of the roles that appearances play in social life. While Western metaphysics and morals have predominantly disdained appearances and expelled them from their domain, Carnevali invites us to look at society, ancient to contemporary, as an aesthetic phenomenon. The ways in which we appear in public and the impressions we make in terms of images, sounds, smells, and sensations are discerned by other people’s senses and assessed according to their taste; this helps shape our ways of being and the world around us. Carnevali shows that an understanding of appearances is necessary to grasp the dynamics of interaction, recognition, and power in which we live—and to avoid being dominated by them. Anchored in philosophy and traversing sociology, art history, literature, and popular culture, Social Appearances develops new theoretical and conceptual tools for today’s most urgent critical tasks.

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Carnevali Barbara
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Barbara Carnevali is associate professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, where she holds a chair in social aesthetics. Her books include Romantisme et reconnaissance. Figures de la conscience chez Rousseau (2012).



Part I. Appearing: On the Aesthetic Foundations of Social Life

1. Life as a Spectacle: Self-Display, Reflexivity, and Artifice

2. Masks and Clothes: Medial Surfaces and the Dialectic of Appearing

3. Aesthetic Mediation: A Theory of Representations

4. Figures: Social Images

5. Out of Control: The Alienated Image

Part II. Vanity and Lies: On the Hostility Toward Appearances

6. “Vanity Fair”: The Frivolity of Worldliness

7. Against the Mask: The Rise of Social Romanticism

8. Against the Spectacle: The Crusade of Romantic Anticapitalism

9. Against Aesthetic Values: Aestheticism, Aestheticization, and Staging

10. Two Baptisms and a Divorce: Homo Economicus Versus Homo Aestheticus

Part III. Toward a Social Aesthetics: On the Sensible Logic of Society

11. The Opening: Aesthetic Foundations of the Common World

12. Aisthesis: Senses and Social Sensibility

13. Social Taste and the Will to Please

14. Aesthetic Labor and Social Design: The Value of Appearances

15. Prestige and Other Magic Spells

Conclusion: Social Immaterialism or the Philosophy of Andy Warhol


Appendix: Illustrations Mentioned in the Text



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