Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bad idea starting the day with a razor pressed against the jugular

Wherein the only worse than shaving is not shaving

Just realized that Ann Althouse was discussing beards and the attitudes towards. Of course this reminded me of another brilliant passage from Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon:

Randy Waterhouse is in merely decent physical condition. His doctor ritualistically tells him that he could lose twenty pounds, but it’s not obvious where that twenty pounds would actually come from—he has no beer gut, no flagrant love handles. The offending pounds seem to be spread evenly over his keglike torso. Or so he tells himself every morning, standing in front of the billboard-sized mirror of his suite. Randy and Charlene’s house in California contains practically no mirrors and he had lost track of what he looks like. Now he sees that he has become atavistically hairy, and his beard glints, because it is shot through with grey hairs.

Every day, he dares himself to shave that beard off. In the tropics, you want to have as much skin as possible exposed to the air, with sweat sheeting down it.

One evening when Avi and his family had been over for dinner, Randy had said, "I’m the beard, Avi’s the suit," as a way of explaining their business relationship, and from that point Charlene had been off and running. Charlene has recently finished a scholarly article, deconstructing beards. In particular, she was aiming at beard culture in the Northern California high-tech community—Randy’s crowd. Her paper began by demolishing, somehow, the assumption that beards were more "natural" or easier to maintain than clean-shavenness—she actually published statistics from Gillette’s research department comparing the amount of time that bearded and beardless men spent in the bathroom each day, proving that the difference was not statistically significant. Randy had any number of objections to the way in which these statistics were gathered, but Charlene was having none of it. "It is counterintuitive," she said.

She was in a big hurry to move on to the meat of her argument. She went up to San Francisco and bought a few hundred dollars’ worth of pornography at a boîte that catered to shaving fetishists. For a couple of weeks, Randy couldn’t come home in the evening without finding Charlene sacked out in front of the TV with a bowl of popcorn and a Dictaphone, watching a video of a straight razor being drawn along wet, soapy flesh. She taped a few lengthy interviews with some actual shaving fetishists who described in great detail the feeling of nakedness and vulnerability shaving gave them, and how erotic that was, especially when freshly shaved areas were slapped or spanked. She worked up a detailed comparison of the iconography of shaving-fetishist porn and that of shaving-product commercials shown on national TV during football games, and proved that they were basically indistinguishable (you could actually buy videotapes of bootleg shaving-cream and razor ads in the same places that sold the out-and-out pornography).

She pulled down statistics on racial variation in beard growth. American Indians didn’t grow beards, Asians hardly did, Africans were a special case because daily shaving gave them a painful skin condition. "The ability to grow heavy, full beards as a matter of choice appears to be a privilege accorded by nature solely to white males," she wrote.

Alarm bells, red lights, and screaming klaxons went off in Randy’s mind when he happened across that phrase.

"But this assertion buys into a specious subsumption. ‘Nature’ is a socially constructed discourse, not an objective reality [many footnotes here]. That is doubly true in the case of the ‘nature’ that accords full beards to the specific minority population of northern European males. Homo sapiens evolved in climatic zones where facial hair was of little practical use. The development of an offshoot of the species characterized by densely bearded males is an adaptive response to cold climates. These climates did not ‘naturally’ invade the habitats of early humans—rather, the humans invaded geographical regions where such climates prevailed. This geographical transgression was strictly a sociocultural event and so all physical adaptations to it must be placed in the same category—including the development of dense facial hair."

Charlene published the results of a survey she had organized, in which a few hundred women were asked for their opinions. Essentially all of them said that they preferred clean-shaven men to those who were either stubbly or bearded. In short order, Charlene proved that having a beard was just one element of a syndrome strongly correlated to racist and sexist attitudes, and to the pattern of emotional unavailability so often bemoaned by the female partners of white males, especially ones who were technologically oriented.

"The boundary between Self and Environment is a social con[struct]. In Western cultures this boundary is supposed to be sharp and distinct. The beard is an outward symbol of that boundary, a distancing technique. To shave off the beard (or any body hair) is to symbolically annihilate the (essentially specious) boundary separating Self from Other . . ."

And so on. The paper was rapturously received by the peer reviewers and immediately accepted for publication in a major international journal. Charlene is presenting some related work at the War as Text conference:

"Unshavenness as Signifier in World War II Movies." On the strength of her beard work, three different Ivy League schools are fighting over who will get to hire her.

Randy does not want to move to the East Coast. Worse yet, he has a full beard, which makes him feel dreadfully incorrect whenever he ventures out with her. He proposed to Charlene that perhaps he should issue a press release stating that he shaves the rest of his body every day. She did not think it was very funny. He realized, when he was halfway over the Pacific Ocean, that all of her work was basically an elaborate prophecy of the doom of their relationship.

Now he is thinking of shaving his beard off. He might do his scalp and his upper body, while he’s at it.

Many chapters later, Randy and Charlene have parted ways and he is talking with potential future girlfriend, Amy:
"How about that thing that Charlene wrote about beards?" Amy asks.

"How did you know about that?"

"Looked it up on the Internet. Was that an example of how you guys worked out your problems? By publishing totally oblique academic papers blasting the other person?"


Blogger XWL said...

I found that thread within that book especially funny (as an ex liberal arts major who hung out with many fine arts type folks, I realized how unsatirical that whole plotline was).

Seems like if there is ever a Church of The Neal, you'll be one of the apostles.

(I'll just be an acolyte)

3/24/2006 02:42:00 AM  
Blogger bill said...

If someone would only give me a production studio, I'd turn Zodiac into a TV series. Sangamon Taylor is a great character. And the premise of a genius asshole huffing nitrous in the back of a van while busting toxic polluters AND making fun of granola eaters just writes itself.

3/24/2006 07:54:00 AM  
Blogger XWL said...

Funny, I was thinking that the Baroque Cycle would make a great animated (in semi-anime style, a la Boondocks) series for HBO to produce and air about 20-25 hour episodes (over a 2 or 3 year period).

With HBO it could be as graphic as needed, and with animation, the cost of recreating so many no longer existing corners of the world would be reduced.

Never happen in a million years, but it would still kick ass.

3/24/2006 07:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Body Shave said...

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5/27/2006 05:00:00 AM  

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