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Greasy Dirty Mechanic Man Hands and Fingers

A fine mess

Essay | 18 minute read
Dirt is sometimes described as 'matter out of place'. But what of its more complicated psychological, cultural and moral connotations?

The Interclean Fair that took place over four gleaming, spotless days in Amsterdam in May 2018 was the cleaning industry’s equivalent of the Great Exhibition. Innovative technologies and cutting-edge products were showcased, and a grand jury handed out awards for ‘clever solutions that challenge the status quo’. One of 2016’s product winners, Quick and Easy, is a portable self-diluting dosing system that requires no specialist instruction, but foam-sprays any surface it is aimed at with indiscriminate efficiency. Robot cleaners glide autonomously over the floors of demo areas, scrubbing and vacuuming as they go, so you don’t have to. A machine called BRC 40/22 C ‘brings enjoyment back to cleaning carpets’, from which it had implicitly been cruelly severed, as it walks itself forward, its rotating brushes and vacuum head enabling a 30 per cent productivity gain on previous technologies.

Nothing focuses the mind on dirt like seeing it through somebody else’s eyes. Just as their dirt is more distressing to you than it is to them, so your own suddenly looks appalling in the last hour before the guests, who must settle themselves in the midst of it, arrive. The sound of the vacuum cleaner moaning in the apartment next door is a sure sign that my neighbour is expecting a visitor, and mine doubtless communicates as much to him. It isn’t that we don’t also vacuum at other times. I do at least, but not as thoroughly, or with as much relentless intent on results, as when the habitat needs to look presentable to someone invited into it.

There has been much talk of dirt in the philosophical and anthropological literature of the past half-century. It was inaugurated in 1966 by the publication of Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo by the British anthropologist Mary Douglas, a work still resorted to for its transcultural reach and its attempt to situate the concepts of defilement and cleanliness in the realms of social symbolism. Douglas herself was building on older social anthropology in the works of such luminaries as the German sociologist Norbert Elias, whose gargantuan two-volume study The Civilising Process was first published in 1939, just as Europe had set about throwing that very process into reverse thrust. What Douglas did, though, was to rewrite the terms. Instead of seeing civilisation as a linear advance towards self-discipline, she reframed its concerns in the relativist light of comparative social science, showing that all societies retain the notions of pollution and purity, even though the precise markers that define these distinct zones may change with historical development.

The phrase popularly associated with Douglas’s book is the characterisation of dirt as ‘matter out of place’, often, in a performative confusion, wrongly attributed to her, despite the fact that Douglas herself calls it an ‘old definition’. She recalls it being attributed to the eighteenth-century statesman Lord Chesterfield, or perhaps the Victorian prime minister Viscount Palmerston. It hardly matters. Either one of those worthies might simply have been recycling an old bit of country wisdom. What is perfectly benevolent in one context – manure that nourishes the growing crops – becomes dirt as soon as one traipses it into the back parlour on one’s bootsoles. In any case, having taken it up early in her own work as a useful resource, she is impelled at its first utterance to place an almightily hypothetical constraint on it: ‘If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place.’

A subtractive hypothesis, we might think, is barely a hypothesis at all. Divorced from considerations of bacterial infection and cleanliness, all dirt is equipped to conform to the Chesterfieldian, or is it Palmerstonian, elegance of a piece of folk irony raised to the level of a philosophical insight. Dirt isn’t necessarily dirty at all. It’s just in the wrong place. By the same token, if we can abstract the risk of lethal accidents and criminal culpability from it, we are left with the old definition of drunk driving as enormous fun.

Objections to the famous definition tend to take a syllogistic tone. ‘Matter out of place’ is your flatmate’s trainers left in the middle of the hallway for you to trip over, whether they are caked in festival mud or spotless as the day they came out of their box. With this in mind, Douglas’s biographer Richard Fardon noted that ‘the formulation is not reversible: all matter out of place is not dirt’. Douglas wasn’t saying that it was. What she wanted was to invest the occasions of uncleanness with the air of subjective perception. It is dirt because that is how we choose, or have been socialised, to see it. There is nothing objective about dirt. In the terms of Immanuel Kant’s pure reason, it is not a thing-in-itself, only a phenomenal appearance.

An entire current in modern thinking, however, takes aim at this weedy relativism. Rock musicians talk of wanting a dirty production sound. The recent gastronomic trend for consuming the fat-laden food that health officials have warned you off is known as dirty eating. Winemakers the world over have taken to producing dirty wine, which is neither treated with antioxidants nor has its fermentation deposits filtered out of it, all in the interests of preserving character. Nobody likes the thought of dirty hair, and yet an entire panoply of products – gel, wax, mud, paste and clay – are designed to make it look as though you haven’t washed your hair in a month. Dirty jokes still receive a ready audience, even when they are premised on neanderthal sexual attitudes. Talking dirty to each other is strongly counselled by advice columnists asked to help revivify flagging relationships. In Seattle street slang, to be unbelievably cool is to be ‘filthy’. And who hasn’t at some stage been adjured to get their hands dirty, as a token of conscientious involvement, instead of remaining fastidiously aloof?

On the other hand, you still don’t want them soiled with dirty money, which pollutes everybody through whose hands it has passed. Dirty work is the type that somebody, regrettably, unironically, has to do. Dirty words spoil the Agatha Christie adaptation, but may be necessary in real-life contexts for exposing the dirty truth. At the insalubrious end of dirt, it may be consciously assumed as a deliberate negative identity. ‘I’ve been dirt,’ wailed Iggy Pop on the Stooges’s 1970 album Fun House, ‘and I don’t care.’

In his recently published A Philosophy of Dirt (Reaktion Books), Olli Lagerspetz argues that the problem with Mary Douglas’s ‘matter out of place’ definition is that it conflates dirt with disorder, which is not inevitably the same thing at all. ‘To tidy up a room is not necessarily to clean it, and things can be cleaned without changing the way they are (dis-) ordered.’ In any case, dirt is not always misplaced. When it finds its way into the dustbin or ashtray or is wiped up with a J-cloth, it is indisputably in the right place. To say that dirt is misplaced matter does nothing, moreover, to explain why we think of dirt as dirty; it merely restates our rejection of it. Lagerspetz emphasises the temporality of dirtiness. It is situated at a point between the originally unblemished state of an object and its subsequent purification, which aims at a restorative function that also transforms its relation to the owner. ‘To be cleaned,’ he argues, ‘is for the object to return to something reminiscent of its original state, but now with the difference that the state is a result of human effort.’ A newly scoured cooker-top is an achievement, by which the individual’s best intentions are reflected back in gleaming three-dimensional form. Only when dirt has taken hold over a long period, to the extent that it looks all but impervious to the squeegee and the scouring-pad, does it begin to transcend its temporal character and return the object it sullies to something like a state of nature, a graphic delineation of how the whole world would look if we didn’t do anything to it.

Living in a dilapidated bedsit in Balham when I first moved to London in the 1980s, I underwent a sustained acquaintance with the organic procedures of grime. My own understanding of dirt’s temporality originated here. Dirt gathers and strengthens its forces, and knows a relentlessness beyond human agency. It begins with dust, and to dust it shall return. When one of my friends came over and, after a couple of drinks, was moved to make a passing comment on the state of the place, I was thrown back on the defensive. Since men don’t generally notice each other’s piggery, certainly not sufficiently to remark upon, it felt like a wake-up call, and I spent the next day dusting and scrubbing and polishing. There was a pile of magazines on the table, the top one was grey with dust. By the evening, there was a strange, but deeply cheering, new look to everything. If surfaces didn’t go so far as to shine, they certainly appeared refreshingly clean. The day after the clean-up operation, I was sitting at the table when a shaft of south London sunlight came through the one small window and fell upon the top magazine of the pile that was still sitting there. In its illumination, I could see the first fine speckling on it of the next accretion of dust, and a comfortless insight dawned on me. The truth about cleaning is that you can never win. Dirt happens faster than you can clean it up, unless you are prepared to be diurnally, obsessive-compulsively vigilant against it.

Notwithstanding the grim ineluctability of dirt, it remains the case that a failure at least to try to keep on top of it really does make you a bad person. In an effort to break this dingy compact between grunge and morality, Quentin Crisp once famously announced in ‘a message of hope to housewives everywhere’ that, after a certain point – he put it at four years – dirt doesn’t get any worse. ‘It’s just a question of keeping your nerve,’ he advised. I strongly suspect this isn’t true, but in any case, people will look askance at you if you don’t clean up, especially when you were expecting them. Lagerspetz traces the ideological links that have existed, at least since the Enlightenment, between cleanliness and self-discipline, and conversely between dirt and the surrender to animal instincts. Human beings may theoretically represent the highest stage of evolution, but if they don’t take care, they turn into beasts. Cleanliness is not just contiguous to godliness, but in some deep-rooted way constitutive of it. You cannot be pure in spirit if you live in a pigsty.

The troubling continuities between physical and spiritual defilement, as the currents of mainstream religion and moral stricture had it, meant that a disregard for material hygiene too often issued in sexual depravity. ‘Conversely,’ Lagerspetz writes, ‘physical health and cleanliness were the best protection against licentiousness.’ As a popular Finnish journal advised its young readers in 1908, ‘[d]aily external lustrations of the tender parts of the body are an excellent remedy against moral dissolution, but only the pure in heart will go fully secure.’ For this reason, representations of the bohemian lifestyle that began to penetrate the awareness of conventional society in the Jugendstil era of the 1890s frequently emphasised that sexual incontinence went hand-in-hand with a carefree attitude to housework. The moral liberties of free spirits were at striking odds with the material impoverishment in which they languished as a mark of abstention from the acquisitive bustle of Victorian capitalism. This was a trope that would endure through to the Beat generation and the hippie sixties.

Venturing into the house that her son Peter shares with her brother-in-law Tallis in A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), Iris Murdoch’s Hilda Foster encounters a Hesperus-wreck of stagnant squalor, ‘stained newspapers, jam-smeared plates, brown-rimmed tea cups and a milk bottle half full of solidified sour milk’:

“Hilda inspected the kitchen . . . The familiar group of empty beer bottles growing cobwebs. About twenty more unwashed milk bottles yellow with varying quantities of sour milk . . . The sink was piled with leaning towers of dirty dishes. The draining board was littered with empty tins and open pots of jam full of dead or dying wasps. A bin, crammed to overflowing, stood open to reveal a rotting coagulated mass of organic matter crawling with flies . . . The floor was not only filthy but greasy and sticky and made a sucking sound as Hilda lifted her feet. She resisted her usual impulse to start washing up straightaway.”

Peter is gradually falling in love with Morgan Browne, his aunt, while Morgan’s husband Tallis has become estranged from his wife as she embarks on a misconceived affair with her own brother-in-law Rupert, Peter’s father. The game of sexual musical chairs in which the characters are embroiled is reflected in the sordid state of Tallis and Peter’s home, a condition that its inhabitants have ceased noticing for themselves, but which is imbued between the lines of Murdoch’s narrative with its full moral valence. The filth is evidence not just of material neglect, but of a kind of ethical descent to the level of the dying wasps and crawling flies. And yet there is something profoundly funny in the description too, in its accumulation of ghastly detail. Other people’s habits, where they are not alienating in their otherness, are wryly comic.

The connections between dirt and moral laxity are twofold. On the one hand, it speaks of laziness and the dereliction of duty, of not being bothered to do what is required, and allowing oneself to repine into a state of nature. At the same time, though, it suggests that some other aspect of experience, something inevitably more gratifying, has distracted you to the degree of neglecting your own basic upkeep. Sexual desire, like drugs, fits this role to perfection. In the view of prescriptive moralism, a dishevelled home represents a surrender to pleasure, the mindlessness of self-indulgence, in which enjoyment is always bought at a terrible eventual cost, in one’s own failing health perhaps, or the descent into the primordial swamp into which Iris Murdoch’s characters have sunk.

ITV recently recommissioned its real-life documentary series Call the Cleaners, in which a team of experts, dressed in spotless whites, is invited into a succession of spectacularly dirty and disordered homes, some of them recently vacated, to make a start on the geological layers of sedimented filth. The show mobilises the inexhaustible prurience of TV audiences in contemplating the unenviable vileness of other people’s lives, as they watch hardened professionals encounter more atrocious squalor than they have ever seen in their careers. As with its many predecessors in television’s thriving ablution genre, though, it cannot resist the implicit note of chastisement. Indeed, there would arguably be much less point to cleaning shows if they failed to take this tone. Fat-shaming and IQ-shaming may be on their way to a place beyond the pale, but dirt-shaming is still fair game, despite the fact that many of the people who live, or have lived, in these disarrayed environments clearly have mental health issues. The whole dialectic was encapsulated in Channel 4’s Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, in which the homes of the slovenly were spruced up with faintly maniacal briskness by people defined as living with OCD. Much criticised by the likes of the OCD Action charity for its treatment of neurosis as entertainment, not to mention its implied caricature of obsessive-compulsives as all being possessed by the need to keep cleaning, which is very often the precise opposite of what living with OCD can result in, the programme nonetheless represented attitudes to cleanliness in starkly polarised form. The choice seemed to be that you either don’t care how much mess you live in, or you care about nothing else.

What is most shaming about dirt, however, is not its signification of moral sloppiness, but its inextricable association with poverty. It is possible to be staggeringly rich and live in squalor, to be sure, but absolute deprivation pollutes absolutely. To be poor in a world of plenty is to be consigned to the regions that never, or hardly ever, get cleaned up. John Steinbeck encounters primeval dirt among the squatter camps of California in 1936, ‘a litter of dirty rags and scrap iron, of houses built of weeds, of flattened cans or of paper’. ‘It is only on close approach that it can be seen that these are homes,’ he reports, noting the heartbreaking detail that, even in such privation, the impoverished families often did their best to keep the foulness at bay, soaking clothes in soapless water, sweeping the dirt floor. It’s a losing game:

‘The tent is full of flies clinging to the apple box that is the dinner table, buzzing about the foul clothes of the children, particularly the baby, who has not been bathed nor cleaned for several days . . . There is no toilet here, but there is a clump of willows nearby where human faeces lie exposed to the flies – the same flies that are in the tent.’

In the same year, George Orwell billeted himself on the Brooker family, who ran a lodging house and tripe shop in Wigan, and were by no means, even in this region at this most immiserated period of modern British history, the poorest of the poor. Notwithstanding that, the lineaments of disadvantage are readable in the details that Orwell cannot help enumerating – there is an unemptied chamber pot under the table at which the family eats its meagre breakfast – and yet they are very much refracted through the prism of his own middle-class upbringing. He finds the food the Brookers feed their lodgers ‘uniformly disgusting’, although the regular menus of bacon and eggs, tinned steak pudding and boiled potatoes, rice pudding, cheese and crackers, might well have been considerably cheerier than what the lower middle-class residents of Patrick Hamilton’s Rosamund guest-house in The Slaves of Solitude (1947) get during wartime rationing.

In the antiseptic and deodorised world of the present day, we have become simultaneously more and less sensitive to dirt. When everything is disinfected, purified and decontaminated, our bodies rebel at the slightest intrusion of micro-organisms, become disastrously susceptible to food- and water-borne bacteria, and ready to explode in hyperallergic turmoil at subtle changes in levels of atmospheric pollution. At the same time, the exorbitant wastefulness and incontinence of consumer society has resulted in city streets adrift with windblown litter and puddled with last night’s vomit, their air rancid with particulates and gases, as well as landfill sites groaning with discarded household refuse, the rotting food in it releasing waves of methane, mountain-ranges of defunct electrical goods and other garbage at the town dump, where pickers roam over the hills like Dickens’s one-legged indigent balladeer Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend (1865), combing through the colossal, privately owned trash-heap that has mysteriously made someone a heritable family fortune. These are the dirts we have learned to live with, the signs of a ceaselessly productive civilisation that has left ancient purification rituals and pollution taboos a long way behind on the distant horizon of antiquity.

As the makers of Call the Cleaners and its ilk are well aware, disgust is a powerful emotional response, and dirt is extremely efficient at provoking it. It originates through the fear of contamination, the idea that touching something foul will either infect the body, or make it somehow homogeneous with the disgusting object. It is often thought to be particularly roused through the senses of smell and taste – what is dis-gust etymologically after all but intense distaste, the sensation that results from putting something horrible in the mouth? – but its most powerful motivator is vision. As Lagerspetz points out, although we fear dirt and germs, we are often quite content to choose darkly coloured or heavily patterned home decorations, precisely because they don’t show up the dirt as mercilessly as white furnishings do. What the eye doesn’t see, the hygiene conscience doesn’t grieve over.

Dirt is the sworn enemy with which we have had to make our peace. It won’t go away, and the futile effort to make it vanish is portrayed by the TV cleaning shows as an ambiguous enterprise at best. To what intensities of self-delusion do you need to surrender to believe that the world can be ever be clean again, or clean for longer than half an hour before it starts dirtying up again? And yet placidly living with it, or expecting somebody else to deal with it, is a betrayal of our better natures. As certain as death and taxes, dirt will always be with us. But as with drink and debt, most of us have to decide how much of it we can cope with.

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