Semiotics of the Beard
Fifty years ago the beard was in the ascendant. I remember as a student everyone had one, plus long hair. I myself was virtually invisible beneath my hairiness—just eyes, nose, and a forehead. In those days a beard signified naturalness, independence, intellectual seriousness, higher aims, and lack of personal vanity. Then the beard gradually became extinct, along with bell-bottoms and long collars. Scalp hair got shorter; faces re-emerged. I was clean-shaven and shorthaired for two decades, signifying nothing. But in the early nineties George Michael grew carefully groomed stubble, giving him a pronounced dark jaw; he also wore an earring. He sang about having faith and wore a leather jacket. His beard signified something new—gay-inflected masculinity, as well as sheer style. I grew one too and called it a George Michael: it was not the norm in philosophical circles. To me it signified removal from academic style or non-style (I later bleached my hair blonde). I kept it for a couple of years and then reverted to the clean-shaven look.
Then the beard staged a general comeback, a renaissance: facial hair was everywhere, of varying length, variously groomed. I doggedly kept shaving, every day, every day. Meanwhile the beard was gaining ground; growing one could only seem like conformity. You stood out by not having one. Then a few weeks ago I happened to miss shaving a couple of days and enjoyed the freedom: it felt good to brush my teeth and jump into the shower with no tedious shaving interlude. I also wanted to see how white it would be if I let it grow. But its meaning eluded me: what was my beard saying? As it happens my beard grows high on the cheek and low on the neck, pretty wild. In my George Michael days I kept the cheeks and neck stubble-free; it was meticulously groomed. Now I just let it have its way, taking up as much facial space as it feels like. I kept my hair short, no longer than an inch. What was my face signifying? It had two parts: one civilized and manicured, the other wild and free. Gradually my beard revealed its true meaning: it has an undeniable duality, a semiotic binary divided thing going on. At last it became clear to me: the top half is civilized man, all forehead and eyes; the bottom half is the animal self with its ravenous mouth and furry-feathery covering. The lower half signifies my solidarity with our animal brethren; the upper half peeks warily out at civilized society. Being a proud member of the animal kingdom (or jungle) and co-habiting with a number of beasts (they do not spurn the epithet), I am happy to affirm my kinship with the scaled, furry, feathery, and slimy. My beard says: I am with you! I intend to leave my neck and cheeks to their natural condition. My beard has meaning.