Could you be, the most beautiful girl in the world?

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When Prince dedicated a song to his soon-to-be wife in the mid 1990s, he chose to approach the topic of what he perceived to be her beauty, in the grandest terms possible. It was from this typically Prince-like impetus, that the song The most beautiful girl in the worldwas born.

In organising the recording of the video clip for the song, Prince advertised in multiple publications across Europe for a woman to play the role of the “beautiful girl.” The advertisement, calling for applications from anyone who considered themselves eligible to be called “the most beautiful girl in the world,” reportedly elicited over 50,000 submissions.

The title of the song is repeated, not entirely revolutionarily, as the central lyric of the chorus. In this lyric, Prince considers whether the girl to which he is directing his attention is more beautiful than any other girl in the world. This feature of the concept in question is, therefore, relatively comprehendible. Similarly straightforwardly, Prince takes this subject of inquiry to a religious context, implicating God in the intentional creation of this girl’s beauty:

Could you be, the most beautiful girl in the world? It’s plain to see, you’re the reason that God made a girl (Prince, 1994).

What is being quantified?

In reviewing these two sentences of the song’s lyrics, a discussion can firstly be opened regarding whether Prince is asking whether the girl is the most beautiful in the world, or whether he is declaring that the girl is the most beautiful. If the latter interpretation of a declaration is adopted, then the first sentence that is delivered in the form of question, would probably have to be seen to be rhetorical. Prince here would not be interpreted to be simply asking whether the girl is the most beautiful in the world. Instead, it would be said that he is exclaiming its facticity in wonder. The reading of the question as rhetorical could indeed be emphasised by an apparent belief, as it appears in the second sentence, that this girl evidences, rather than queries, God’s reasoning for creating any girl.

Conversely though, it might be interpreted that Prince is genuinely inquiring as to whether the girl is the most beautiful in the world. To whom, or to what, Prince is directing such an inquiry is not entirely clear. It could be that Prince is asking the girl, the universe, or even God. If this is the sense that one had of Prince’s intention, then the second sentence which portrays the girl as the exemplification of God’s will to make girls, would not necessarily be seen to affirm that this girl is the most beautiful of the world’s girls. The girl’s beauty, in such a reading, could simply be interpreted to evidence the reason that God makes girls, without absolutely meaning that she is the most beautiful of them.

Whether or not the lyric is interpreted to be asking whether, or declaring that, this girl is the most beautiful in the world, what is apparent is that Prince assumes relations of “more,” “less”, and indeed, “most,” beauty. According to the preceding debate, it is perhaps only likely that the girl in question is, for Prince, the girl in the world that has the most beauty. However, what seems to be certain, beyond notions of mere likelihood, is that for Prince, beauty is something of which a girl in the world could have the most.

What is being quantified by Prince, therefore, is beauty. Beauty is the parameter that is reported to be present in a girl according to a particular magnitude. Not only is quantifiable beauty apparent in a worldly sense, but for Prince it is also linked to a metaphysical, divine realm. We have reviewed this element of beauty’s manifestation in the second sentence of the above, lyric, in which Prince embeds quantifiable beauty within God’s creative act which makes girls.

Beauty is here defined by Prince as a, if not the, reason for God’s creation of girls. If it is possible that there can be a “most beautiful girl,” then God’s intention, according to Prince, is to invest certain girls with more, or less, beauty, when creating them. Furthermore, a girl with more beauty, indeed the most of this beauty, will in Prince’s estimation generally justify the whole endeavour of the creation of girls.

If we set aside any notions of misogyny with which a reader might be legitimately occupied regarding this “appreciation” of women, the concern regarding the above quantification is that Prince has not clarified how he is measuring the beauty that he attributes to the girl in the song. Moreover, what needs to be asked is how is Prince measuring the beauty of this girl in comparison to that of other girls, and quantifying beauty generally in order to be able to say that any particular girl has the most of it?

If beauty is quantifiable, there must be measurable units of beauty which comprise its quantification. These units, in being counted, aggregated, and compared, condition there being a quantity of the thing or the experience in question. Measurable units of quantified beauty are not, however, identified by Prince.

How, then, might we consider whether Prince could possibly identify measurable units of beauty?

Can beauty be quantified?

Henri Bergson posits that the tendency to quantify things or experiences derives from social influence. This is because such quantification occurs through the measures and representations that have been installed by the institutions, perspectives, and languages, of human, collective existence. The sciences, and the social sciences, exemplify this quantifying tendency, in symbolising the world via calculable, comparable data. The integration of the sciences and the social sciences could therefore be helpful in determinations of Prince‘s possible identification of measurable units of beauty.

What must also be taken into consideration, though, is Bergson’s complementary concern that from this tendency are said to emerge quantifiable constructions of features of the world and our experience of it that might not really be quantifiable. This speaks to the tension between (i) what is perceived to be the socially constructed quantification of a thing/experience, versus (ii) what is presumed to be the real-natural state of a thing/experience.

In terms of beauty, we can review four positions which operate from within this tension. This will allow us to appraise how Prince might identify the units which comprise a beauty that he assumes is quantifiable, and the responses that he would face. Click on each position below to expand/contract its supporting argument:

1. Extreme social constructionist. The social construction of beauty misrepresents what is real-natural about beauty.

i. Prince engages studies of beauty to evidence the measurable units of beauty.

ii. [Science study “y”] studies the physiological changes that are experienced when beauty is reported to be experienced…or…[Social science study “z”] studies the behaviours that a society has defined as indicating beauty.

iii. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of these physiological changes or behavioural patterns that comprise beauty?

If no…

iv. Prince does not identify measurable units of quantified beauty.

If yes…

v. Prince identifies measurable units of quantified beauty.

The extreme social constructionist responds…

vi. The sciences are socially constructed institutions/perspectives.

vii. Socially constructed perspectives misrepresent what is real-natural about the world.

viii. [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a socially constructed perspective of beauty.

ix. Even if measurable units of quantified beauty are posited by [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”], such units misrepresent what is real-natural about beauty.

x. The beauty that Prince quantifies misrepresents what is real-natural about beauty.

This position is that scientific experimentation, techniques, perspectives, and theories, could have been developed in myriad ways, depending on relevant social influences. Consequently, the resulting scientific results must be dependent upon how society has shaped them. This contingently social factor in the production of scientific truths is contrasted from what are posited to be the necessarily timeless truths or realities of the world. By looking at beauty through a contingently socially constructed lens (the sciences are interpreted to be such lenses), the extreme social constructionist’s position demands that the measurable units that might be posited scientifically regarding beauty, never represent beauty as it really, naturally is.

2. Exclusive social constructionist. The social construction of beauty is all that beauty ever is.

i. – vi. as per position 1.

The exclusive social constructionist responds…

vii. Beauty is also a social construction.

viii. If beauty is a social construction, and the sciences are social constructions, the scientific study of beauty measures the only reality of beauty.

ix. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of this beauty?

If no…

x. Prince does not identify measurable units of quantified beauty.

If yes…

xi. Prince identifies measurable units of quantified beauty.

This position is that beauty is a concept that societies have created. Societies define the criteria for what comprises beauty accordingly. These criteria, either physiological, behavioural, or both, are the signs of beauty. If a society conceives of beauty by such signs, and beauty is considered to be nothing but its social conceptualisation, then the measurement of these signs is duly interpreted to measure beauty’s reality.

This differs from the extreme social constructionist position that is presented above in one key regard; the exclusive social constructionist avoids the supposition of a separate natural reality of beauty that the social construction of it must explain, access, or discover. Rather, for the exclusive social constructionist, beauty is a concept that is believed to only ever have a social reality.

This latter point presents the greatest issue with this position. Will it be adequate for Prince (or indeed for anyone), to state that beauty is only a contingent, social construction, with no other reality? If Prince wishes to argue that beauty has a reality beyond how a society has come to conceive of it, he then needs to tackle the contestation in position 1 from the extreme social constructionist.

3. Real-natural social constructionist. The social construction of beauty is a part of what is real-natural about beauty.

i. – vi. as per position 1.

vii. What is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural.

viii. If what is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural, [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a part of what is real-natural.

ix. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of beauty.

If no…

x. Prince does not identify measurable units of quantified beauty.

If yes…

xi. Prince identifies measurable units of quantified beauty.

This position is that what is real-natural expresses itself in social ways. Society, which is a part of what is real-natural, declares through its languages and customs (including its scientific studies), that this feature (beauty) of what is real-natural is quantifiable. The social construction of beauty in quantifiable terms is a part of what is real-natural about beauty. This interpretation resolves the problem of a real-natural world that social perspectives only misrepresent, as found in the extreme social constructionist’s position.

If what is social is real-natural, and vice-versa, then not only is the social construction of beauty a part of what is real-natural, but also, what is real-natural about beauty is a social reality. If the real-natural, as society, is said to conceive of beauty quantifiably, and to identify beauty’s measurable units, then what is real-natural about beauty is that it is quantified via measurable units.

Not incidentally, this position intersects most coherently with what might be referred to as the “realist” position. The realist would posit that our scientific impressions of what is real-natural do accurately represent what is real-natural. This point must be qualified with the observation that the realist might baulk at the definition of scientific production merely as a contingent, socially constructed, institution. Given that Counting sheep is occupied with Bergsonian-inspired concerns regarding the tendency to socially (mis)construct all features of the world quantifiably, this realist position, in avoiding themes of social constructionism, is not included in these considerations.

4. Incorrect real-natural social constructionist. The social construction of beauty is a part of what is real-natural about beauty, but is incorrect about beauty.

i. – vi. as per position 1.

vii. What is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural.

viii. If what is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural, [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a part of what is real-natural.

ix. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of beauty.

If no…

x. Prince does not identify measurable units of quantified beauty.

If yes…

xi. Prince identifies measurable units of quantified beauty.

The incorrect real-natural social constructionist responds…

v. [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a part of what is real-natural and is incorrect that beauty is quantifiable.

vi. Prince does not identify measurable units of quantified beauty.

Alternatively, the interpretation might be that what is real-natural, socially posits that beauty is quantifiable when actually it is not. The curiosity in this position is that what is real-natural is presenting as a social form of the real-natural, which in perceiving a feature (beauty) of what is real-natural, is incorrect about that feature (beauty) of what is real-natural.

What is forwarded in this position is not that incorrect socially constructed quantifications of beauty represent a mutual exclusion between (i) the social, scientific, perspective/construction of beauty, and (ii) what is real-natural about beauty. Instead, as per position 3, both the social construction of beauty, and what is real-natural about beauty, are simultaneously social and real-natural. Whilst units of measurement do not exist for this feature (beauty) of what is real-natural, what is socially constructed is not said to be excluded from what is real-natural when conceiving of beauty incorrectly (quantifiably).

Rather, what is being forwarded in this position is that what is real-natural comprises all possible social perspectives/constructions of this feature (beauty) of what is real-natural. Every social perspective/construction, according to this position, comes from nowhere but from what is real-natural, after all. One of these perspectives/constructions is that which posits that beauty is quantifiable, even when there are actually no measurable units comprising such quantification, and therefore no quantification of beauty whatsoever.

A reason that such units of measurement do not exist, and that the quantification of beauty is incorrect, could relate to the way in which beauty manifests. Prince perceives a difference in the degree or size of the beauty that manifests. However, for this position it could be stated that beauty emerges environmentally, structurally, and circumstantially. With each set of different circumstances comes a different kind, rather than a different magnitude, of beauty.

If the kind of beauty that manifests is contingent upon the environment in which it manifests, there can be no standardised units across differently manifested beauties. This problematises the possible quantification of, and comparison between, an individual’s manifestations of beauty over time. Similarly it contests the possibility of comparing the beauty between different individuals. Each instantiation of beauty is instead qualitatively incomparable, if it is deemed to manifest circumstantially.

In this two sentence snapshot of Prince’s lyrics, he is seemingly committed to a definition in which beauty is differentiated only according to magnitude. This could be interpreted to be a curious way to celebrate beauty, if what it means is that beauty only has one form or version. Alternatively, if Prince was to be receptive to the immediately preceding impression of beauty’s myriad constitutions, the question of whether a girl could ever be said to be the most beautiful in the world, would need to be reconfigured. The reason for this, would be that no girl could ever be said to have the most beauty, given the incomparability of one beauty and another.



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