by Gretchen E. Henderson. Reaktion Books, dist. by University of Chicago Press, December 2015. 224 p. ill. ISBN 9781780235240 (cl.), $25.00.
Reviewed March 2016
Amanda Woodward, User Engagement Librarian, Woodbury University, Amanda.Woodward@woodbury.edu
In this brief but expansive cultural history, Henderson removes ugliness from its binary relationship with beauty, probing how the term functions as a signifier of cultural boundaries and sites of transformation. Etymologically, "ugly" refers to something "to be feared and dreaded." Given this definition, a cultural history of the term could easily become a catalog of the grotesque. Instead, Henderson creates a capacious definition of ugliness, demonstrating how the term is constantly under revision as cultural fears and norms shift. Ugliness can be perceived as "matter out of place," a definition based in anthropological and architectural scholarship. Henderson uses a broad range of historical and cultural examples to illustrate how ugliness is a relational concept existing in the liminal space between cultural constructs of self and otherness.
Rather than organizing the text chronologically, the chapters are arranged around bodies, moving from ugly individuals to ugly groups to ugly senses. The first chapter explores individuals, focusing on literary and historical figures whose ugliness has transformed with time and new contexts. The second chapter discusses groups including those considered monsters, outcasts, primitives, and damaged. The third chapter investigates senses that define our visceral experiences of ugliness. This structure moves from distinct others to the corporeal experience within, asking the reader to consider how ugliness is a perspective more dependent on the observer than the observed.
Most impressively, the book ends by questioning its own ugliness with a discussion of what constitutes ugly writing. Henderson argues that scholarship itself can be perceived as an ugly endeavor of collecting fragments and combining them into a new form. The swift jumps in time and geography throughout the text emphasize this idea of scholarship. Unfinished writing can also be considered ugly. This text feels intentionally incomplete, yet satisfying because the questions raised leave space for the readers' thoughts and further exploration.
The book is well designed, with high-quality paper and numerous images. Though the illustrations are in grayscale, they color the text with a diverse array of visual examples. The book includes comprehensive references and a thorough index displaying its broad scope with terms ranging from Abu Ghraib to Aristotle to Aztecs, all within the first letter of the alphabet. Henderson's multidisciplinary approach to the topic makes the book a valuable resource for scholars throughout the arts and humanities. This would also be a useful text for freshman seminars because the writing style fosters discussion and critical thinking. Overall, the book is a highly recommended addition to academic and art libraries.