The philosophical implications of my beard (Or: The struggle against entropy)

Welcome to another dopey post by yours truly!

Sequoia Miller wandered on over to my last post and asked the typically penetrating question you’d expect of his brilliant mind: “What’s new?” All my blathering about change surely has to mean something. That is, something more than merely sitting on my duff and devouring the first two seasons of Justified while my muscles and brain atrophy.

And speaking of things occupying me as I watch my muscles wither, I thought of a new example for the Eddie Vedder quote Jared threw out in the comments to the last post: “I changed by not changing at all…” (See the previous post’s comments for further discussion). And its not that I just gave in to laziness (despite what seems evident), but for the first time ever I decided to let my facial hair grow unchecked. Maintaining the ‘Billy Goat’ beard I’ve had for 10, 12(?) years has been a work of control, purposely altering something in order to stay the same (The flip side of that quote). Now in the absence of that control, I am no longer actively pruning/changing my facial hair, but the net result IS change: I now have the beginnings of a full beard for the first time in my life. Three weeks worth, at least….

The point being that while active change takes effort change also can occur naturally. And the corollary is that while staying the same can seem natural it often also requires effort and an exertion of control. Consistency is maintained by dint, repetition by focus. It is not always simply inherent and artless, in other words. Quite often it takes significant work to resist change: Dyeing our hair as we grow old; Getting a face lift; Botox; Propping up our sagging flesh; Keeping a job; Maintaining friendships; Physical and mental exercise; Avoiding conflict; Confirming beliefs; Bolstering opinions; Defending prejudices…. Put another way, we engage in all sorts of efforts aimed at stemming the tides of entropy and difference (as Scott pointed out in the comments to the last post).

And this is the human contribution to the Universe. If we didn’t struggle to make this difference, to live as human beings, we would simply expire, decay, and dissolve back into the mud. And in the end all our best efforts aren’t enough to avoid our personal dissipation into chaos. But its the struggle that makes us human, that makes us who we are. This seems like a profound truth….

Many years back a friend and co-worker laid this bit of wisdom on me: “Sometimes you can become a stereotype of yourself”. That phrase has haunted me all these years, and maybe you can see why this issue seems to stick in my mind.

The fight against chaos throws up tiny islands for us to occupy, places where things are safer and more predictable. And like a manicured beard, a book club, a friendship, a steady job, a family, a longterm relationship, a belief system, a row of corn, a strip mall, or a city, all this negentropy (Scott’s word) is cultivated. It takes effort, tending, and maybe some planning. It is not a ‘natural’ occurrence, but a calculated human stand against chaos, an articulated response to something. (For a great article on why we tend to see pattern in the jumble of entropy check this out!)

We inherit from the culture and others around us, and this sense of definition is seductive. The deception is that we see these islands of stability as inevitable or necessary. As if we were already and for all time defined only by our current circumstances, caste, doom, karma, or fate. But in the modern world of multiculturalism, opportunity, and (occasional) tolerance we have more choices than our forebears. We are less ruled by stereotypes than at other times. Or maybe the stereotypes are just more open to negotiation. Whichever, our paths are not as rigidly laid out in front of us. Think of the difference that women’s suffrage has made, racial equality, and the civil rights movement. Its not perfect, but its a world no longer defined as strictly by constraints. Now more than ever folks have the ability to choose what they want to do with their lives, who they will become. Merit and personal desire are no longer the captives of tradition and the limitations of place, ethnicity, and gender. Real progress, for sure.

But I’m not here just to blather on about the philosophical implications of my beard (probably going to shave it back off, or go for an ‘Abe Lincoln’ sometime soon) and my flaccid muscles. I actually have been out in the studio, just not making things yet.

My project this past week, going into the next, has been reorganizing my space. I own a fabulous stand-up treadle wheel that I was allowed to purchase from the U when I left grad school. Its the one I had been using, and the offer was exteremly generous (Thank you Andy! Thank you Ted!). Somehow after a few years on my own I got sidetracked on a Brent electric and I never got back to using the treadle. So part of my motivation is to resuscitate the wheel, but I’m also reconfiguring things to give a new home to Ron Meyers’ old wood burning stove (Thanks Ron!). Its been hard to work in the cold weather with the poor heating options I’ve had….

But this basic house cleaning is not the change I was talking about in the last post. Consider it merely preparation. Once the studio is back up and running I will do some personal projects that are off the wheel, and then muck about with some functional ideas I’ve been considering. So, first things first. Sometimes you need to cleanse the palate before starting a new meal. You need to do some stretching before you run a race. You need to make sure the vehicle is in good working order before a big trip. Getting the studio prepped is me just lining up at the starting gate.

So that was only a half answer to Sequoia, I suppose. My next post should fill in some of the details.

Peace all!

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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7 Responses to The philosophical implications of my beard (Or: The struggle against entropy)

  1. Scott Cooper says:

    Sorry, protocol makes its demands; I obey.

    I like the implication that ceasing to prune your beard has an analogue in making pots. Not sure what that would be, but I like it.

    Also that you worked both ‘entropy’ and ‘negentropy’ into the same post. Google search gold!

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    Hmm.. on further thought, maybe the beard analogue would be giving up on some sort of maintenance/procedural task that is done primarily for cosmetic effect, but of debatable value. (No offense to your fine beard intended.)

    Worrying about slightly chunky walls near the base?
    Smoothing and resmoothing that last line of slip on the rim of a cup?
    Touching up finger marks in a glaze with a brush?

    And don’t say I’m the only potter obsessive/perfectionist enough to worry about these things in the first place! Surely there are others out there who like to keep it trim and fashionable. The pots, I mean.

    • My beard is not offended but would like to make a slightly different point.

      My beard tells me that value is always a construct and is negotiable or debatable depending on who you ask. The grand scheme of the Universe doesn’t seem quite so concerned with human tribulations when you get right down to it, so anything we ascribe value to must be imported and have some personal significance. All value is value for something or somebody, my beard tells me, and our impetuous and frail stand against the great cosmic entropy is only a whisper of order from one newly arrived short lived species in one small corner of the enormous expanse. Whatever counts counts for a subject or for a subject’s purpose.

      So my beard thinks the obsessiveness we exhibit is important, because we are trying to do certain things and we are right to want them done in certain ways. Its all very specific stuff, but that’s what being a human is all about, deciding what matters and sometimes agreeing with others. So it all comes down to what we are trying to accomplish. Do we want all our mountains to be levelled for coal mines, our trees cut down for agriculture, our historic homes bulldozed for parking lots, our fingermarks on pots removed? These are decisions, human decisions with human significance.

      Control of the wild things is simply part of our nature, and somehow it seems that we need to give special permission for the untamed parts of our world to remain. Seeking balance with the world is an attitude very different from our impulse to simply pave it over. Trying to accommodate and accept the flaws of nature, encourage and nurture them, is not always what we are trained to do. Rather than sitting quietly and seeing what the Universe has to offer us we get out our tools, our dams, our blasting devices, and go about remodelling it according to our tastes and human agendas. And the dangerous and undomesticated parts we banish, put in straight jackets, or eliminate.

      So my beard would like to suggest that everything we pave over may also come at a cost. That tiny wildflower, the burrow of the field mouse, the endangered shrub may not fit our schemes, but could they? Should they? So my beard thinks that learning to see value in the wildness, to accept the untrammelled, to learn from the accidents, the unplanned, to not simply put our special mark on any and everything, is a goal also worth cultivating. My beard is philosophical, you see.

      What does your beard think?

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    Methinks your beard ranks amongst the elite tradition of philosophick facial hair; fine in intent, curly in its intricate logic.

    My beard, on the other hand, is kind of pissed off because I went to the trouble of shaving it back down to nothing again yesterday. O, Why can’t I let Nature be?!

    Anyways, while I absolutely take your point about our species’ troublesome habit of bending nature to our will at most every opportunity — I’m currently trying to do nothing to prevent a few acres of tilled field behind our house revert to forest — my skeptical stubble desires to make the qualifying point that not all that nature .paving comes solely from a desire for mastery and increased comforts. As I’m sure you know, a lot of it, at least prior to industrialization, was also to minimize the brutal realities of life. I have to wonder if, once we had begun down the path of mastering fire and securing clean water, if ending up at nukes and leather couches and streaming Netflix wasn’t somehow a guaranteed byproduct?

    It seems that unless we’re all willing to revert to eating berries and living to 27, some beards will have to remain trimmed and some fingerprints erased. Maybe the question is how many and which ones?

    • Your skeptical stubble makes a good point!

      But isn’t it also interesting that the brutal realities we face on the planet these days usually have more to do with cultural issues, like war, who is holding the gun, the power, institutional poverty, repression, discrimination, etc. than a struggle with the environment? Very few of us in the post industrialised countries are thwarted by nature any more. If we can’t put food on the table its rarely because our battle with nature has defeated us. Instead of being at the mercy of nature we find ourselves subject to the inequities of culture. This seems important…..

      So ultimately its our choices of culture and the failure of our choices of culture that has put us in these positions. Its not just that we fail when we build our cities on the side of active volcanoes any more. We fail when we poison the streams, let the soil erode, and pollute the skies. We fail when we let greed and corruption rule us. We fail when we punish peoples just for being different, looking different, living somewhere different, and for not believing the same things we do.

      So in the end my beard would say that its not simply either/or, a choice of reverting to eating berries and living to 27 or having expansive culture. Mostly, if we have it we are stuck with big culture. We have lost the skills for anything else. But its also a question of choosing which parts of culture move us forward and which do not. And within those choices there will be more or less room for picking berries, for leaving finger marks, forest regrowth, and unwieldy beards. The door that lets us step out into the world still opens on bits of un or partially domesticated nature. We can make day trips, or go camping. We can let fields revert to trees. It doesn’t have to only mean choices that lead to living to 27.

      My beard suggests balance in our choices. As you say, “Maybe the question is how many and which ones”, knowing when to let untrammelled nature peek through and when to get out the buzz saws and other tools of domestication. And its also knowing when to take our old bridges, our stubborn or decaying structures, our impractical or undesirable decisions, our bad habits and addictions, and burn them down to build something new.

      My beard says it ain’t easy. Maybe it requires a bit of flexibility, and toggling back and forth. Its just like the courage to experiment in anything, to put our trust in something unknown. And its not simply all blind faith. We hedge these risks all the time. As artists we are intimately familiar with this. So maybe our specialisation has room for bits of intuition and indecision as well, for outcroppings of entropy. If we but learn how to nurture it. Baby steps are all we need, not a sudden precipitous dive off the cliffs of Acapulco. But maybe that too, at times….

      Geeze my beard talks a lot!

  4. Scott Cooper says:

    If I may momentarily skirt this weighty Dialogue for one of my typical, sophomoric asides, I’ll note that I love this whole, “my beard thinks…” conceit; one of your finest yet.

    And that, even better, it’s setting me up for an epic “I just do what Carter’s beard tells me to do” joke in the near future. Can’t wait.

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