STRAKA, A DIALOGUE
Toward a critique of hair
FORWORD: The dialogue is a philosophical technique with an ancient history. In its most authentic form, the dialogue is an interaction between friends, where “friendship” is defined by the principle of selfless exchange. It follows then, that the dialogue aims to be an ideal of human communication, where the speaker speaks not his own mind, but that of the listener, and the listener listens not to his own heart, but to that of the speaker. The result of a dialogue, then, cannot be the orator’s “victory” or even “progress” in any concrete sense; after all, the outcome of Socrates’ most dramatic dialogue was none other than his own death. Instead, the dialogue clears a space for friends to hold a mirror to each other, a mirror which reflects, not themselves as individuals, but the shared world from which their individuality springs. In what follows, two friends embrace the concept of hair. Applying methods of deconstruction, the pair reveals that our most common and everyday ways of coping with hair are embedded within a tragic tension that sustains our worldview. Their critique ultimately lies in revealing how indebted this worldview is to the colonial phenomenology which has nurtured the tyrannical subject-object dichotomy. – P.K. Cerda
Pilar: Hair is very close to us and it demands our constant attention, but we only focus on it for other ends. One gets one’s hair done when one has “somewhere to go.” Well, now we have nowhere to go—art has created for us a moment of respite. What could be the result of giving hair our undivided attention?
Straka: We should take this opportunity to explore a critique of hair.
Pilar: I can understand the task of criticizing styles of hair, but what do you mean by a critique of hair in general?
Straka: Like you said, hair is quite close to us, but what’s closest is often the most obscure. Before we begin, the field of criticism needs to be drawn out. We should first ask ourselves, “What is hair?”
Pilar: Well, can’t we say that hair is a protein filament which grows from the dermis of mammals?
Straka: We provide blunt questions with blunt answers, but, if “knowledge is for cutting,”1 we’ll need to sharpen our response.
Pilar: But how else could we reply to the question “What is hair?”
Straka: You could have said, “It is an American play which is also a film.”
Pilar: You wouldn’t have taken me seriously.
Straka: And why is that a problem? That is, after all, one answer to the question.
Pilar: Well, I guess, when one answers a question one’s integrity seems to be at stake.
Straka: Yes, and information is everywhere. One must always worry about being contradicted.
Pilar: I suppose I was reaching for my best defense.
Straka: Scientific determinateness is good as a defense, but does it bring us to the closest answer?
Pilar: “What is hair?” How do we even begin? Maybe there is something wrong with the question.
Straka: But we are often taught, “There is no such thing as a bad question.”
Pilar: We’ll we can ask a question of the wrong people and in the wrong situations, but of the question “What is hair?” we seem to be the right people of whom to ask, and what better situation could we have in which to ask?
Straka: Perhaps then we need to re-think the way we are asking the question. We say that the scientist, in her truth-seeking, engages in “a long-range prudence.”2
Pilar: So… from what distance should we seek the truth about hair?
Straka: We know hair is very close to us, but how close?
Pilar: We are making very little progress.
Straka: Not if we measure our progress by the number of mistakes we’ve avoided.
Pilar: But our generation is not one of avoiding mistakes. If anything, they say, “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful.”3
Straka: So what if we turn to our “generation” and interrogate it for some answers.
Pilar: I’m open to suggestions.
Straka: Let’s change the scene a little. It’s Paris in July and Hedi Slimane presents the 2006 Spring-Summer collection for Dior Homme with the Rakes’ “The World Was a Mess But His Hair Was Perfect” driving the models down the runway. 4 Now, if fashion is about clothes, why does a song about hair work as the guiding center, the Apollonian dialogue, of the show?
Pilar: The center, the dialogue, is meant to order chaos. It must be that Slimane thinks hair is even closer to us than clothes. It is more familiar and anchoring.
Straka: Absolutely. So hair is closer than science, closer than fashion; but in what way?
Pilar: Hair is closer because it is a part of us.
Straka: But we can shed our hair just as we shed our clothes.
Pilar: Well, we don’t need to put on hair as we do clothes.
Straka: Doesn’t one have just as many ways of wearing one’s hair as one does ways of wearing an outfit?
Pilar: But hair is natural. It can be “bushy,” “thick” like a forest, and even “flowing” like a river.
Straka: But unlike the vast indifference of the open sea, one’s hair is always firmly rooted.
Pilar: Yes, rooted in Nature like a great tree.
Straka: But is there anything “natural” to us about the infinitude of “Nature”?
Pilar: Where there are humans there needs to be a center.
Straka: And so hair is rooted in us.
Pilar: Are we the center? That’s seems conceited.
Straka: Well, we do say that one “tames” one’s hair.
Pilar: But it is “the hair which makes the man.”
Straka: So which comes first, the Pompadour or the pomp?
Pilar: There is no center then?
Straka: Indeed, we are co-determinate with hair. It seems we have established the proper distance from which to ask the question.
Pilar: So then, what is hair?
Straka: Let’s return to Slimane and the Rakes. What do we mean when we say that “the world is a mess” but “his hair is perfect?”
Pilar: The song is a ballad and the hero is trying his best “to stop the night from falling to pieces.”
Straka: How does the night fall?
Pilar: Something can fall either “from above” or “out from under.”
Straka: Tempted as we may be to associate night with the stars, it is not the sky which is falling, but the world. And how does our hero rescue the world?
Pilar: “Don’t touch my face or hair / that would ruin my night,” he says.
Straka: The world is a mess but it is pulled together by our hero’s hair, the tension of which supports the tightrope on which he precariously sustains himself.
Pilar: What is this tension that pulls together the world?
Straka: In Tom Ford’s A Single Man, our hero George, who suffers under the memories of his lost partner Jim, suppresses the world-destroying forces of melancholia by putting on a suit.5
Pilar: Yes, he attempts to “fix” himself in the mirror as one fixes one’s hair.
Straka: And as we see in both examples, in the Rakes and in George, the tension is a pulling together of broken pieces. What should we say about these broken pieces of the world?
Pilar: Broken pieces are pieces insofar as they, when together, compose a whole, but their brokenness lies in the very fact that they are no longer a whole.
Straka: I think it is a mistake to refer to their nature as fragmentary, as if the world was, in some long lost golden age, once whole and complete but is only now in shards. The world of broken pieces is one that has been inherited; it is our birthright.
Pilar: But “pieces” aren’t inherently broken. Couldn’t these pieces be bricks which have been left behind for us to build with?
Straka: Let’s examine the pieces and try to determine whether they are building blocks or broken in some concrete sense. Patrick Bateman of American Psycho follows George’s ritual of fixing himself in the mirror, but Bateman, in his excess, reveals the nature of the pieces of world more clearly for us.6 What is Bateman as an “American” psycho?
Pilar: He’s a consumer…of status, of life, of humanity.
Straka: The consumer, as subject, is a piece which relates to that which is consumed, a second piece: the object. The objectification of the object, the tearing away of its humanity, is at the same time the reification of the subject. The subject and object, in this moment of individualization, become broken.
Pilar: So the brokenness of the broken pieces lies in the fact that the pieces have come to exist independently of the whole?
Straka: The pieces are not building blocks but tiles without a puzzle.
Pilar: But the Kintsugi bowl comes to mind. The tension which brings these pieces back together… isn’t it capable of resolution and recreation?
Straka: The tension tries to pull these puzzle-less tiles back together and fails. It is a holding of the world and its pieces in indefinite suspension.
Pilar: I can’t understand what you mean by tension.
Straka: George and Bateman confront the mirror and face tragedy, George the loss of his partner, Bateman the illness which oppresses him.
Straka: Tragedy emerges at the point when the pieces of subject and object become broken and exists as the tension which sustains them. We see this play out in the myth of Oedipus when our hero, the consuming subject, murders his father, thereby reducing him to a consumable object. The tension of the tragedy lies in that our subject, Oedipus, has justification for his action: the tragic irony of not knowing the identity of his father; and yet, the father is nevertheless robbed of his humanity and deprived of justice. Justice doesn’t come until Oedipus is reduced to earth.
Pilar: “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
Straka: Indeed. And the same can be said for Bateman: his illness is a justification for his all consuming blood lust, yet there is never justice for his victims. And there is certainly justification for George, his love has been torn from him; yet there is no justice for his partner who becomes an idol, an object of worship.
Pilar: So then, hair is the suspension of our world of broken pieces, pieces which, in their brokenness, have become individualized from each other and which are pulled together by the tragic tension of justification without justice.
Straka: The field of criticism seems to have been drawn out.
Pilar: And what is left to critique? To what form of critique
could hair possibly be subject?
Straka: The criticism itself lies in revealing the overgrowth of the field. Despite where we began, hair, as the tragic tension between subject and object, consumer and consumed, has little to do with music, clothes, and movies when it is its closest to us.
Pilar: I have seen such a tragedy unfold recently. On October 11th, 2014, Jennifer Laude was allegedly murdered by Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton. We don’t know much about Laude. The media has identified her as a Filipino trans woman. We don’t know much about Pemberton either. We see him as a young, light-eyed heterosexual American male.
Straka: I am familiar with this news. We are not journalists and cannot do justice to these young people, but their story is mythic.
Pilar: Indeed. The subject consumes the humanity of the object; the object consummates the reification of the subject. It’s the quintessential colonial love story.
Straka: But hair is not just “out there” in “the media.” We participate.Pilar: Yes. There is something disturbing at the very core of what we call “amateur photography.” Let’s not forget Roland Barthes’ insight, “With the Photograph, we enter into flat Death.”7
Straka: But at least the camera democratizes the power to sunder subject from object.Pilar: If only by democracy we hold true the original Greek meaning of it: suffrage for all except for the Other… woman, slave, child, “savage.”
Straka: Democracy is indeed “war by other means.” Nevertheless, Barthes fails to adequately account for the redemptive power of photography. He never escaped traditional phenomenology which itself cannot fully relieve the tragic tension between subject and object.
Pilar: The amateur photographer is then, by necessity, a Cartesian.
Straka: That must be true for the “street” photographer. But, either way, photography is just an extension of what we familiarly do at the interface with the Other.
Pilar: What do you mean?
Straka: What characterizes your experience of Other?
Pilar: I would say just that. It is “an experience,” as in the expression, “It was a great experience.”
Straka: What does it mean for something to be “an experience”?
Pilar: Well, “an experience” is an adventure, something one has never done before. Something one feels accomplished having done.
Straka: Is “an experience,” as an adventure which accomplishes something, an exploration?
Pilar: Yes, contact with the Other, as “an experience,” entails exploring.
Straka: And is exploration a way of freeing knowledge or conquering it?
Pilar: The explorer is a conqueror.
Straka: And can you conquer something which is infinitely expanding, or does the concept of conquering inherently limit the thing conquered?
Pilar: One can only conquer something which is limited in itself.
Straka: And things which are limited can be itemized on a list?
Pilar: That is their nature.
Straka: Is “an experience,” as a definite item to be conquered in one’s exploration, not just then an item on a Bucket List?
Pilar: I think that is precisely the way “experiences” are characterized.
Straka: On a list, the item is object – it exists to be checked off. Itemization is just objectification – dehumanizing by placing on a list.
Pilar: I see. And justice is lost at this moment of itemization.
Straka: But one may argue that exploration introduces the Other to the democratic global community.
Pilar: If only by democracy we hold true the original American meaning of it: suffrage for all except for the Other…woman, slave, child, savage, the poor.
Straka: Indeed it was America that introduced British classicism to Greek democracy.
Pilar: So then in “an experience,” there is no justice in our exploration of the Other. But what justification could we possibly provide? Where is the tragic tension?
Straka: The justification lies within the concept of the Bucket List.
Pilar: Our defiance of death?
Straka: As consumers we refuse to be consumed, as subjects we refuse objectification.
Pilar: As you’ve said, we have inherited this world of broken pieces; it is, after all, our birthright. We’ve got to see it all, taste it all, try it all, listen to it all, drink it all and we only have a short time to do it.
Straka: Lest we forget the mantra which codifies our world pulled together by its hair: you only live once.
Pilar: And so are we to say that we as a society have a fixation with our hair? That we should neglect our hair and then the tragic tension will be relieved?
Straka: Our purpose here has not been to blame hair. Tragedy is not a result of hair, rather, if we recall, we are co-determinate with hair. Hair only makes sense in the context of our world; our world only makes sense with hair as l’idée fixe. It is from this co-determination that tragedy unfolds. Instead, in our project, we have grabbed hold of a loose strand of the world—any strand would have done—and pulled it in order to watch that world unravel. With all of the strands now lying before us, we can begin the task of tidying and trimming.
Pilar: Lather, rinse, and repeat.
1 Foucault, M. (1984). Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In P. Rainbow (Ed.), The Foucault Reader (pp. 76-100). New York: Pantheon
2 Nietszche, F. (2003). We Fearless Ones. In J. Nauckhoff (Trans.), The Gay Science (p. 200). Cambridge University Press.
3 Full quote: “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” Attributed to George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950).
4 The Rakes. (Performer). (2007). The World Was a Mess But His Hair Was Perfect. On Ten New Messages. London: J. Abbiss, & B. Lynch
5 Ford, T., Miano, A., Salerno, R., Weitz, C. (Producers), & Ford, T. (Director). (2009). A Single Man [Motion Picture]
6 Pressman, E., Hanley, C., Solomon, C. (Producers, & Harron, M. (Director). (2000). American Psycho [Motion Picture]
7 Barthes, R. (1995). Flat Death. In R. Howard (Trans.), Camera Lucida (p.92). New York: Hill and Wang.