Tuesday, 29 March 2011
Dirt and daily life
Reading about the new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, ‘Dirt : The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life’, has made me think a bit more about dirt. Some of the reviews have referred to the anthropologist Mary Douglas’s classic description of dirt as ‘matter out of place’. For Douglas, dirt is ‘the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter,’ in which all kinds of inappropriate material which fall outside the taxonomic systems of civilised society are lumped together as a homogeneous ‘other’. The sociologist Kevin Hetherington has suggested that Douglas’s definition of ‘dirt’ is inadequate to describe the complex process of consumption and disposal in capitalist societies, because it suggests simply ‘something that we have got rid of’. While Douglas’s work suggests that the boundaries between dirt and non-dirt are carefully policed, Hetherington argues that the former functions as an ‘absent presence’ in society, which is never permanently removed. He points out that it is not simply bins which are used for disposal, but attics, basements, garages, wardrobes and sheds, where objects can be placed and forgotten about, often for quite long periods. Disposal is not just about getting rid of unwanted material but about ‘how we manage absence – how we order it, where we place it, when we use it as a source of value’. In her book Dust, the historian Carolyn Steedman explains this in terms of the difference between dust and waste: while the latter suggests something that can be easily discarded, the former ‘is about circularity, the impossibility of things disappearing, or going away, or being gone’. Certainly, dust is one of the unnoticed constants of everyday life and perhaps the most visible expression of its temporality. The embarrassment of dust descends inevitably on the streamlined, laminate surfaces of modernity: the tiny particles of dead skin, lint, decayed wood and soot that settle on domestic surfaces or swirl around in shafts of light; the dirt that accumulates in the cracks and corners of neglected everyday objects; the gritty air of city streets and other public spaces. As Steedman points out, we can never remove dust completely, only disturb it until it is eventually deposited elsewhere. A good way of thinking about daily life, in fact, as something that remains, despite our attempts to overlook or discard it: the everyday, we might say, is where the dust settles.