purity and danger

by ran

Douglas delves into the meaning of dirt in a cross-cultural approach.  Dirt, according to her, is not something hygienically polluted as people often assume.  Rather, it is a thing that conceptually constructed by symbolic system in the society in order to eliminate threats of social order.

“Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements.  This idea of dirt takes us straight into the field of symbolism and promises a link-up with more obviously symbolic systems of purity.” (Douglas, 35)

Certainly, words like dirt have been used as metaphors in various contexts, particularly when condemning things “inappropriate”.  I think of this metaphor when it comes to urban gentrification.  For example, Giuliani, the former major of NYC, often compared gentrification, in his word urban development, to a “cleaning” work.

(an interesting article that exactly shows how this rhetoric works http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2007/10/giuliani_trashtalks_the_city_h.html)

As well known, Giuliani ejected sex workers, squeegee men, street vendors, graffiti, boom-box radio, and etc. in New York City with his “quality of life campaign”.

What Douglas’ article most interests me is considering dirt, which could be understood as anomaly or ambiguity, as a means for examining social structure.  What is considered to be archived and what is considered to be discarded in the society?  Like Douglas, I am very much interested in creative possibilities embedded in waste as a boundary attacker, getting out of the “ready-made impressions” in the everyday life.

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1 Comment»

  jen rhee wrote @

Ran, I thought the Douglas text was fascinating too … it really changed the way I think about the qualities of defilement and cleanliness as cultural constructs.

You point to an example in which the rhetoric of hygiene is applied to the project of gentrification (aka urban “renewal”). I think this discourse reveals some interesting dynamics about how we negotiate the borders of our gender, race and sexuality, as well. Why are cultures around the world so threatened by the presence of unclassifiable, anomalous or ambiguious bodies “out of place” (Douglas 35)? Can we reveal or resist structures of sexism, racism, xenophobia, etc, by reframing them within the context of underlying fears of contagion and disorder?

The readings this week point to one possible approach — the act of “cleaning” or “maintenance” as an activity that is essentially positive, productive, and creative (vs. negative, reductive, rote). I’m still wrapping my head around them, but the concepts of performance and ritual here seem key.


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