From Round to Square (and back)

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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (32)—Jerry's Haircut

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.

[a] Happy RF
Click below for all "Seinfeld Ethnography" posts: 
Marine Biologist         The Doorman          Opposite George   Newman's Mail   The Bootleg         Marriage
Just Dessert               Sleep Desk             Late Coffee            High Stakes        Motor Oil              Downtown 
Code Cracking           Nonfat Yogurt          Bad Boy                 It's Not You         I Can't Be...          Exploding Wallet
Elaine Flies Coach    The Close Talker     The Alliance           Broccoli               Coated Culture    Dinner Party
George's Friend        Jerry's Haircut          Face Paint             Mustachioed       Smoking              East River
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Looking Busy            George Tips             Kramer's Job          Empty Tank
Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
[b] Rooster Boy RF
From Samson and Delilah onward (and that is just in the Western tradition), hair has figured prominently in everything from the mechanics of power to the details of daily life. On levels weighty and profound, we have judicial wigs, "required" beards, and many other forms of coiffure that signaled the difference between power and irrelevance. Or protest. Richard Nixon's haircut wasn't the same as Abbie Hoffman's, and then we have power statements of a different sort—when hair, such as it is, gets in the way to the extent that you just shave it all off. Michael Jordan.

On the more mundane level we have things that still make a big difference in the quality of our own day-by-day existence. Ever had a "bad hair day?" Of course you have. What about a great hair day? Some of us have fewer of these than others.

Jerry, on the other hand, couldn't have it much worse in the haircut department. Take a look.
Why is hair funny? Why, and when, is it distinctly unfunny? I have been thinking about hair a great deal over the years and, no, not just in a nostalgic sense (let's just say that my high school graduation photo looks a little different from my graduate school photo). We've all experienced some version of Jerry's, Elaine's, and George's (and maybe even Kramer's) reactions to a bad haircut. "It'll grow back" is the upbeat thing to say, but usually we say it of we strain not to laugh. Have you ever gotten a bad haircut—as Jerry did—out of a sense of obligation or not wanting to hurt someone's feelings?
[c] Barb RF

And what is it about childhood and that first haircut that rivets parents, grandparents, and siblings? It is often worse than the first day of school for the lonely toddler sitting gamely in the cushioned chair. That it is a social occasion—a kind of kin-group gathering and gawking on the day of an initiatory ritual—makes it worse for the one to be clipped.

***  ***
This week's readings focus on hair and its cultural power. Anthropologists "get" hair, and write about it a great deal. Historians sometimes do so. It all goes way...way beyond "fashion," although that, too, is hardly irrelevant. The "problem" here is that there is so much good stuff—so many possible avenues for reflection—that "hair" could be its own topic on Round and Square. For now, though, we'll consider three different readings, each of which touches upon an aspect of The Praise of Follicle.

Our first reading deals with rituals of initiation. Arnold Van Gennep's early twentieth-century work has cast a long shadow over anthropological discussions of ritual. Philip Kuhn's story about the "soulstealing" incident of 1768 in southern China has everything to do hair. Finally, the anthropologist Raymond Firth leaves us with some hairy thoughts on mammalian culture.

Arnold Van Gennep
[d] Rites RF
Rites Involving Hair (1909)
It would be fitting at this point to examine each rite of passage and to demonstrate that it is really a rite of either separation, transition, or incorporation. But to do so would require several volumes, since almost any rite may be interpreted in several ways, depending on whether it occurs within a complete system or in isolation, whether it is performed at one occasion or another. I have therefore limited myself to an enumeration of rites for several of the categories discussed...

Rites involving hair have been the subject of [several works]. In reality, what is called "the sacrifice of the hair" includes two distinct operations: cutting the hair, and dedicating, consecrating, or sacrificing it. To cut the hair is to separate oneself from the previous world; to dedicate the hair is to bind oneself to the sacred world and more particularly to a deity or a spirit with whom kinship is in this way established. But such a dedication is only one of the ways of handling hair which has been cut off. In the shorn hair, as in the foreskin and in nail parings, there resides a portion of the personality, but very often such a concept is absent and nothing at all is done with these scraps. Where the concept is present, the hair may be buried, burned, saved in a sachet, or placed in a relative's keeping. The rite of cutting the hair or of a tonsure is also used in many different situations: a child's head is shaved to indicate that he is entering in to another stage, that of life; a girl's head is shaved at the moment of marriage to indicate a change from one age group to another; widows cut their hair to break the bond created by marriage, and the rite is reinforced by placing the hair on the tomb; sometimes the same purpose is achieved by cutting the hair of the deceased.[1]

[e] Steal RF
Philip Kuhn
Tales of the China Clipper (1990)
It was persistent rumors of "soulstealing" that had brought Cheng-i and Ch'ao-fan to grief. In surrounding counties, public fears were running high. In Hsiao-shan, Ts'ai Jui, a county constable (pu-i) had been instructed by his superiors to arrest "vagrant monks" from outside the county who might be responsible for "clipping queues." A sorcerer with the right "techniques" could say incantations over the hair clipped from the end of a man's queue and so extract the soul of its former wearer.

Lurking in the background, unmentioned by anyone connected with the monk's case, was the political meaning of hair: the queue, worn behind a shaved forehead, was the headdress of China's Manchu rulers. It was also universally prescribed, on pain of death, to be worn by Han Chinese males as a symbol of allegiance to the ruling dynasty.

Patrolling outside the city's west gate, constable Ts'ai heard street talk that two monks from "far away" with strange accents were lodging in the God-of-War Temple. As Ts'ai later reported to the magistrate, he then entered the temple and began to question Ch'ao-fan and Cheng-i. Getting no satisfaction, he began to search their baggage. From Ch'ao-fan's he pulled clothing, a bronze begging bowl, clerical robes, and two certificates of ordination. In Chü-ch'eng's, which he had to break open with a stone, he found three pairs of scissors, a pigskin rain-cape, an awl, and a cord for binding a queue.

An excited crowd gathered. "What's a monk doing with this kind of stuff?" These fellows must be up to no good. There were cries of "beat them up" and "burn them!" Constable Ts'ai, as he continued in his report, summoned his courage and told the mob to keep out of this...[They eventually were arrested and brought before the magistrate]. In the great hall, Chü-ch'eng and his companions, chained hand and foot before the country magistrate, who sat at his high desk flanked by his judicial secretaries." The questioning began: "How many queues have you clipped?"[2]

Raymond Firth
[f] Symbols RF
Hair as Private Asset and Public Symbol (1973)
A few years ago an anthropologist addressing a group of people on a social studies course confessed that before meeting them he nearly went and had his hair cut—that he did not was due to the length of the queue (line) at the barber's. He used this as an illustration of how bodily characters, such as length of hair, are used as symbols, create expectations about conduct and provoke social relations. Put this together with Hallpike's recent generalization (1969) that among men, wearing long hair is equivalent to being outside society while short hair is equivalent to social control—and that in an attenuated form the same principle can be extended to the hair of women. Add to it the Elizabethan John Heywood's proverb 'long hair, short wit', or the French 'longues cheveux, courte cervelle'. We can then ask what is there about hair, especially in its length, that makes it of such social, even symbolic interest?

A person's hair is a biological accessory, a very personal, private thing, growing and changing with his bodily condition, and capable of only very limited voluntary regulation by him. Hair is a horny product of the epithelial or skin tissue, and is a character peculiar to mammals. Man is remarkable for the general scantiness of his hair, except on the scalp, where though inferior in hairiness to gibbon and gorilla, he has bout twice as many hairs per sq. cm (312) as the orangutan and nearly three times as many as the chimpanzee. Among mammals man is unique not for his general lack of hair—whale, elephant and hippopotamus are more naked, area for area—but for his complete absence of tactile hairs, such as a cat's whiskers, which are organs of great delicacy...

It is striking to note how out of this sluggish, physiologically almost functionless appurtenance of his body, man has imaginatively created a feature of such socially differentiating and symbolic power. But in contrast to other bodily appurtenances hair has a number of qualities which recommend it as an instrument for social action. Though personal in origin, it is multiple, any single hair of a person tending to be like any other. It is detachable, renewable, manipulable in many contexts, so to some degree can be treated as an independent object. Yet there is some variation in texture and colour, so it offers scope for social differentiation. And it is associative, tending to call up important social ideas, especially concerning sex.

[1] Arnold Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage Translated by Monica B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 166-167.
[2] Philip Kuhn, Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 12-15.
[3] Raymond Firth, Symbols: Public and Private (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1973),262-263.

Firth, Raymond. Symbols: Public and Private. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1973.
Kuhn, Philip. Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage Translated by Monica B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

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