haircut degree zero


…It is a fine physiognomy, which clearly displays all the signs of apostleship: a benign expression, a Franciscan haircut, a missionary’s beard, a Buddhists shaved head. Thus are united the marks of legend and those of modernity.

The haircut, for example, either the half shorn Franciscan, or the Buddhists, devoid of affectation and above all of definite shape, is without doubt trying to achieve a style completely outside of the bounds of art and even of technique, a sort of zero degree of haircut. One has to have one’s hair cut, of course: but at least, let this necessary operation imply no particular mode of existence: let it exist, but let it not be anything in particular. The Franciscan haircut, obviously devised so as to reach a neutral equilibrium between short hair (an indispensable convention if one does not want to be noticed) and unkempt hair (a state suitable to express contempt for other conventions), or the Buddhists, obviously devised with the thought of non-attachment to appearance, thus becomes the archetype of sainthood.

But at this point things get more complicated-because     here as everywhere else, neutrality ends up by functioning as the sign of neutrality, and if you really wished to go unnoticed, you would be back where you started. The ‘zero’ haircut, then, is quite simply the label of Franciscanism: first conceived negatively so as not to contradict the appearance of sainthood, it quickly becomes a superlative mode of signification, it dresses up the subject. The beard goes through the same mythological routine. True, it can simply be the attribute of a free man, detached from the daily conventions of our world and who shrinks from wasting time in shaving: fascination with charity may well be expected to result in this type of contempt: but we are forced to notice that ecclesiastical beards also have a little mythology of their own. For among priests, it is not due to chance whether one is bearded or not: beards are chiefly the attribute of missionaries. They cannot but signify apostleship and poverty. They withdraw their bearers a little from the secular clergy. Shaven priests are supposed to be more temporal, bearded ones more evangelical:. . . Behind a beard, one  belongs a little less to one’s bishop, to the hierarchy, to the Church as a political force: one looks freer, a bit of an independent, more primitive in short, benefiting from the prestige of the first hermits, enjoying the blunt candour of the founders of monastic life, the depositories of the spirit against the letter: wearing a beard means exploring in the same spirit the slums. . .

Naturally, the problem is not to know how this forest of signs has been able to grow. . . and that, in short, apostleship should appear from the start ready-made and fully equipped for the big journey of reconstitutions and legends. I am only wondering about the enormous consumption of such signs by the public. I see it reassured by the spectacular identity of a characteristic and a vocation, in no doubt about the latter because it knows the former, no longer having access to the real experience of apostleship except through the bric-a-brac associated with it, and getting used to acquiring a clear conscience by merely looking at the shop-window of saintliness: and I get worried about a society which consumes with such avidity the display of charity that it forgets to ask itself questions about its consequences, its uses and its limits. And I then start to wonder whether the fine and touching iconography of these saints is not the alibi which a sizeable part of the nation uses in order, once more, to substitute with impunity the signs of charity for the reality of justice.

with apologies to Roland Barthes; The Iconography of the Abee’ Pierre. 1957

Comments are closed.