The longer I look into historical and cultural writings on beards, the more I realize that theories abound on the subject. These theories are often contradictorily and often bold and far reaching. They touch on fashion, religion, gender, medicine, war and much more. It leaves me somewhat speechless and yet it encourages me to say whatever might pop into my mind about the current beard boom - what it means, what’s driving it, and how long it might last.
Why not? The meaning of the current beard boom is so shrouded in mystery that there is no real risk of looking ridiculous. On the contrary, given the current mood that surrounds the subject, it seems the more novel the idea the more points one might score as long as suggested in the prevailing playful mood.
But are beards really a playful subject? Maybe today, but not historically. In fact historically beards have been very serious business indeed.
So what about today’s playfulness with regard to the beard? My own theory about it (that just flashed through my mind) is that we are witnessing what I want to call the Postmodern Beard. Just to make sure that I am not stealing someone’s idea or phrase let me google it….
Not much there. Looks pretty safe… but hold on! I can’t believe this! The very author and book I am reading (I am currently on page 92) talks about the “postmodern bearded face” on page 195.
The author I am speaking of is Allan Peterkin, a Toronto-based psychiatrist and the book is One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair.
What in the world is going on? Serendipity on steroids? I promise you, it happened just that way. It’s as if I was transported 103 pages ahead in time and the idea was planted in my brain. While initially shocked, because Peterkin wrote his book in 2002, we have technically been living in a postmodern world since the middle of the 20th century. My thought may have flashed through my mind just now but the reference point predates Allan Peterkin’s book by many decades.
Before we look at what Peterkin says about the “postmodern bearded face” let’s just quickly review what postmodernism is - this from Wikipedia:
Postmodernism is a late-20th-century movement in the arts, architecture, and criticism that was a departure from modernism. Postmodernism articulates that the world is in a state of perpetual incompleteness and permanent unresolve. Postmodernism promotes the notion of pluralism; that there are many ways of knowing, and many truths to a fact. From a postmodern perspective knowledge is articulated from local perspectives, with all its uncertainties, complexity and paradox. Thus knowledge is relational and all realities are woven on local linguistic looms. Postmodernism includes skeptical interpretations of culture, literature, art, philosophy, history, economics, architecture, fiction, and literary criticism. It is often associated with deconstruction and post-structuralism because its usage as a term gained significant popularity at the same time as twentieth-century post-structural thought.
The term postmodernism has been applied to a host of movements, mainly in art, music, and literature, that reacted against tendencies in modernism, and are typically marked by revival of historical elements and techniques.
With that under our belts let’s take a look at what Peterkin says:
Once upon a time, we thought we know what a beard meant because kings, saints, and philosophers wore them, but now, in the new culture, any familiar symbol can be called into question. When you look at a postmodern bearded face, what you see is a series of projections travelling in both direction, based on age, culture, gender, knowledge of history, professional status, exposure to media icons, and resulting levels of beardophobia (or pogonophilia) . As we’ve seen, because of the beard’s rather convoluted history, notions of eros and thanatos, east and west, good and evil, youth and decrepitude, and masculinity and femininity are woven into each strand one’s furry face. In the new millennium, we’re destined to remain somewhat perplexed by the meanings of facial hair, and in my opinion this has allowed it to flourish in styles never seen before. For every man, its growth represents both an inevitability and a choice, an expression of permanence or an accompaniment through transition. Whatever tribe he belongs to, a man’s face is his canvas. As long as he has the testosterone coursing through his veins, he can choose to reinvent himself.
This is in a sense a summary of the book and a window into the beard movement of our day. While Peterkin does not coin the phrase “Postmodern Beard”, I think it may best describe the nature of the beard movement we are living through.
Which leaves me wondering, what’s next? The post-postmodernism or metamodernism beard? I’ll leave that for another day, but I will say that whatever that might be, the end of the Postmodern Beard might be a sign that postmodern era has ended and we have entered a new age. Beards have been just that important historically.
What to look for? Well, there have been bans on beards and taxes on beards as well the requisite beard and or moustache. You name it, we’ve seen across the span of history. What we haven’t seen is what we are seeing now, the deconstructed beard.
Just for kicks I googled Jacques Derrida to see if he ever had a beard. I couldn’t find any pictures of him with one, however his full head of hair might indicate that he would have grown quite a wild one had he lived a bit longer - not that he would have told us what it meant :)