Dirt is Matter Out of Place

‘Dirt is matter out of place’ a quote from Mary Douglas, the great social anthropologist who wrote Purity and Danger. Dirt she defined as “matter out of place”. She remains a key thinker, prefiguring many of the bigger, better known French structuralists. In analysing taboos about the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane, Douglas makes us see that context is everything. Dirt, then, is in the “eye of the beholder”.” [The Guardian]

If dirt is a matter of cultural bias, the question of who cleans up becomes an important indication of social organisation.

Egalitarianism: Everyone cleans up; strong group motivation based on moral imperatives. Recent example: Egyptian revolution – the protesters cleaned up after themselves. Cleaning denotes status. Anyone seen to be not cleaning is morally inferior to the group.

Fatalism: No one cleans up. Why bother, it will just get messy again (and keeping it messy is an important, unstated method of social protest). ‘Mattter out of place’ isn’t ‘dirt’ – it’s a succinct description of the whole of life. Ability to cause dirt to someone else’s property denotes status. Example: graffiti.

Individualism: I’ll clean up! (There’s brass to be made from muck). Example: the entire recycling industry. The rag and bone man of my childhood.

Hierarchy: cleaning denotes status. The cleaners are socially lower than the cleaned. This is made to appear self-evident,obviously true, inevitable.

Mary Douglas saw dirt as ‘matter out of place’ not because dirt simply is matter out of place, in some essential or definitional sense, but because she tended to align herself with an Hierarchical view of the world. In hierarchical institutions ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’ is a key maxim. The parade ground, for instance, is proof that neatness, order and regimentation is everything. The strong assumption of the Hierarchy is that the army that walks together the most neatly is obviously the most intimidating and the most likely to win a battle. Extremely clean, neat, ironed and polished uniforms will definitely go a long way to providing certainty about a nation’s capacity to repel invaders.

Dirt – is it ‘matter out of place’?


Highlights from ‘Dirt’ include paintings by Pieter de Hooch, John Snow’s “ghost map” of cholera and Joseph Lister’s scientific paraphernalia. ‘Dirt’ also includes a wide range of contemporary art, from Igor Eskinja’s dust carpet, Susan Collis’s bejewelled broom and James Croak’s dirt window to video pieces by Bruce Nauman and Mierle Ukeles and a specially commissioned work by Serena Korda.



Ocean waste: The absurdity of matter out of place

“Absurdity” derives from the Latin absurdusm meaning “out of tune.” The absurd is irrational, without reason, and is often contrasted with seriousness. The Surfrider Foundation uses absurdity in all seriousness, however, to make a sophisticated point about the bad reasoning that goes into ocean wastes. This includes bad reasoning in infrastructure, as when sewage systems dump directly into waterways, bad reasoning by litterers, and bad reasoning by industry and designers when they make disposables out of a permanent substance like plastic. If dirt, as Mary Douglas insists, is about “harassing one another into good citizenship,” then the tactics employed by the Surfrider Foundation can be described as a moral absurdity, where they “show” that individual, cultural and industrial practices can lead to an violently incongruous order that knocks the ocean “out of tune.”

surfrider_beer_ring-1024x684 surfrider_foundation_fish surfrider_oilspill surfriderbillboard surfriderfoundationcleanup3-yr-france1

Ocean waste: The absurdity of matter out of place

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