Like many young men these days, my dad taught me to shave with an electric razor. The lesson was rather short: “Press this button and swipe it over your face a few times.” I thought of the TV shows and movies with fathers teaching their children to shave, just as much a milestone as driving. My dad told me to replace the blades every six months and to clean it regularly. I hadn’t learned a new skill so much as I had picked up another obligation.
I remember wondering how the electric razor was dreamed up. The closest comparison I could make would be to call it the lawn mower of the face. The droning whir of the motor, garbling as it chews away stubble, is far from calming. Its whining crescendos as you move it higher up your cheek. You touch your face and sigh as you look at the clock and realize that no, the damn machine still hasn’t done its job, you’ll need another pass. Exasperated with it after so many years and curious whether the old ways might be better, I decided a few months ago to trade in my lawnmower for an old-fashioned scythe.
My friends all said the same thing: It’s dangerous, it’s a waste of time, it’s a lot more work, it’s so much easier to, etc. But what did I do with the extra time afforded by an electric razor? Saved from the annoyance of paying attention—just press the button and drag it up and down your face—I did about the most productive thing anyone does in their morning routine. I read my phone.
Check Google news.
Catch up on basketball scores.
Flag interesting book reviews to read later.
And if there’s time left over, check Google news again.
All the while, pivoting the phone around my face to retain visibility as I moved the humming razor, as though the two were connected on an axis.
What time was being given to me by this miracle device? I would recheck all those scores in detail on my computer in the office later, and then trawl the Safe For Work portion of the Internet searching for anything worth reading. I was wasting the time anyway, wasn’t I?
One thing long overdue to be said in any discussion of shaving is that we could all do with an end to the absurdity of our facial hair culture. I can’t be the only one tired of the blustery masculinity surrounding the cult of the beard—almost an extension of the most infantile elements of frat culture. If the 12 days of Christmas or the eight days of Hanukkah seem long enough, the various facial hair-themed months that all coincide in November are intolerable. Events like No Shave November and Movember are some of the more amusing developments in contemporary culture. “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over how awesome this looks,” I heard one November man in my office say when teased over his stubble. Sometimes irony takes you in a full 360 right back to being embarrassing. I prefer to stay clean shaven.
So I ordered a proper shaving set.
The standard straight razor consists of a handle and a blade attached by a pivot. The blade is about three inches long and ends an inch before the pivot to give you a place to grip (the “shank”). A 3-inch blade may not sound intimidating, but when you hold it up to your neck it starts to look a lot like a bowie knife. When I opened the package, I immediately pricked my thumb by unfolding the blade and testing its sharpness. I told myself I would be more careful with my face.
I decided to take my first shave at nighttime to avoid mishaps before work. Every set of wet shaving instructions will tell you the same thing—shave after a shower. It’s the easiest way to prep your face, to soften the bristles and loosen your skin.
After my shower I filled the bowl with hot water and soaked the brush while I stropped the blade. Stropping is a simple enough process—sort of like using a knife sharpener except it’s a strap of leather. After 30 or so passes, the blade is ready and you can empty the bowl and take a dab of shaving cream on the brush. Lathering the foam in the bowl as you inhale the steam from the hot water has something almost alchemical about it, like medieval chemistry with mortar and pestle. The delicate scent of the cream blooms out of the shaving bowl as you lap air into it to get a proper foam. It has nothing of the synthetic tang of the aerosolized foam spray can.
I started getting nervous by the time I had spread the foam across my face, massaging it in with the brush to procrastinate. Holding my razor in the proper 30 degree angle I carefully removed the foam from my face, enjoying the calm scratching sound, the tickle on the skin that’s just on the edge of hurting. It looked like only cream was connecting on the edge but when I scooped off a bit from the blade with my index finger I could see the stubble.
It wasn’t so hard, I realized, growing more confident and increasing my speed. The jawline presented some minor difficulties—how do you keep a 30 degree angle around a cusp, I wondered. Oh well, just scrape the foam off.
Washing off my face with hot water and toweling down, I was proud of my achievement. I leaned in to the mirror to see how smooth my skin was. But then I noticed a few islands of stubble across my face and neck. I realized I hadn’t done it perfectly. And then the lines started appearing. I leaned in closer. Thin lines pointing in all directions around my face, white at first, then pink, then thick red—and suddenly blood was dripping into the sink. I yelled a few obscenities.
The problem was, quite simply, that I had cut myself everywhere.
So the first time shaving didn’t go so well. Staring myself down in the mirror, face covered in blood and laughing at the folly of my near-triumph, I must have been a terrifying sight. But I stubbornly resolved to figure it out. I didn’t even mind turning in my sleep that night, feeling the tug of bandaids on my face and neck following me no matter how many times I spun around.
Eager to learn, I pulled up YouTube the next day. The instructional videos on YouTube all say the same thing: Know your face. A first pass at shaving should be with the grain at a constant 30 degree angle to the skin, but that angle changes with the contours of your face. A narrower angle won’t cut the stubble, and a wider one will cut your skin. (And 30 degrees is a lot steeper than it sounds—I had been closer to 50 degrees on my first shave, which is a decent angle for an incision.) Men rarely take the time to notice this, but your face is not close to being flat. It curves; it has hollow and puffy spots, peaks and valleys. And stubble doesn’t just grow straight down. It changes direction like a purling current.
Learning how to straight shave for the first time, I had the awkward recognition that after all these years, I still didn’t know my own face. I didn’t know about the hollow spots on either side of my chin (which I cut immediately the first time), or the sharper angle of my jaw, or the gentle slope below my cheekbones curving inward, or even how my stubble starts pointing away from my chin as it travels down my face. For the first time in my life, I was actually learning what I looked like.
Going from an electric to a straight razor is like the difference between snapping a selfie and hand-drawing a self-portrait. With a camera, it suffices to point in the general direction and press a button. If you sit down in front of a mirror to draw your face, however, you realize just how closely you have to look at yourself to see yourself.
Young women, too, learn their faces when they start to use makeup, but unfortunately they learn to see their faces for their flaws. But shaving is almost clinical. It’s about gradients and textures—materiality rather than image. As you gain weight, you may suck in your gut to tell yourself you still fit in the same pants, but if you don’t adjust the angle of the blade to account for the greater curve of your cheek, you’ll cut yourself. It’s not a metaphor to say that self-knowledge protects you.
The automated technologies, I realized, don’t just make it easier. They alienate you from your body. Safety and electric razors are already encoded with the knowledge of your face—they are designed to guide the blades along the skin at the proper angle—which spares you the need of ever learning it or knowing how it changes over time.
If art has entered a Post-Skill Movement, so has the rest of life. There was a time when we had a different relationship to our hands, when simple skills of coordination required serious investment, and education was focused on the physical process. Our technology literally takes these skills out of our hands. Who cares about penmanship anymore? Just learn to type. What we lose in this, however, is that specular relationship to our bodies, the direct encounter with the material world sans prosthesis.
By removing the question of skill, shaving with an automated razor becomes more about your relationship with the tool—and by extension with a socio-commercial structure—than with your body. All conveniences are designed to remove difficulty and to obviate the need of fresh discovery. Just as calculators can save us the need of knowing the arithmetic they reproduce. The philosopher Edmund Husserl said that the difference between a human and an adding machine is that the human understands the logic behind the math while the adding machine is only following its programming. He didn’t foresee a time when we would all forget our arithmetic.
James Joyce opened “Ulysses” with a scene in which a character treats his shaving routine as a Catholic Mass: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” The Mass is a joke and he spends the whole scene making fun of his roommate, but every time Buck Mulligan leans in for another pass of the blade he quiets down to shave “evenly and with care, in silence, seriously.” Joyce understood how these small acts of daily care could return us to our selves. You cannot lie to your face in the mirror as you scrape a blade across your skin.
We shouldn’t always avoid the objects that force us to slow down and pay attention. Like shaving with a straight razor, or, to offer another example, making coffee on the stovetop, where you have to stand by the pot and listen for the right sound to take it off the heat. It’s nice to take a pause from the increasing automation of our daily lives. We want to press a button every morning on a coffee pot, or better yet set a timer so we don’t have to press the button. We want the Golem to do the work for us. We seek opportunities to avoid attention and to multitask. And it makes sense in these busy times. But the small aspects of our routine that we try to wish away can offer something—that organic candor that Joyce saw—that is inaccessible throughout most of the day.
I still keep my electric razor for when I don’t have the time. But the straight shave has become a luxury I look forward to. After a few months, I still have the occasional nick (particularly on the neck and chin, and frankly, they’re more than occasional), but I’m almost grateful for them—for how they tell me to slow down and pay more attention.