Purity and Danger

July 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

First of all, Mary Douglas is kind of a badass, and Purity and Danger is kind of a badass book. Well it was in 1966. Unfortunately it isn’t that century anymore, and you know how it sometimes goes with things from different centuries. Therefore I shall keep the snark to a minimum. After all, P&D (that’s what all the cool kids call it)¬†was written for a particular audience, in response to a particular set of assumptions about “primitive” cultures. So while there’s plenty to mock, it’s the sort of post-hoc mocking that doesn’t do much but rattle your kidneys. Because people were gross back then, what can you do. Douglas, to her credit, was somewhat less gross; she¬†argues that the “primitives” aren’t all that different from “us,” which, again, by today’s standards would be thirteen layers of facepalm but for the time was pretty progressive. Indeed most of the book is a sendup of –even for the time– offensive approaches to comparative religion, from James Frazer’s…well, everything…to William James’ take on medical materialism (the idea that “primitive” rituals actually accomplish some objective practical end, making them some backwards intermediary step to science).

But that, friends, is not why I’m here. I’m here because Douglas is interested in the concept of taboo, particularly what exactly counts as “dirt” and how a given society mitigates its (real or perceived, though I suppose the distinction is negligible) threat. Although she is mostly focused on the ways in which taboo(s) operate(s) in “primitive” cultures, she insists that how “they” do things isn’t all that different than how “we” do things — even if we are killing germs (as opposed to warding off spirits) “we” are just as reliant on purification rituals as “they” are. After all, what is dirt but “matter out of place” (44). And what is matter out of place without a coherent system in which to inhere. The concept of “dirty,” in other words, exists in relationship to concepts of cleanliness, making “our” expulsion of dirt –anomalies and ambiguity, in Douglas’ parlance– as ritualistic as anything “they” might do. Furthermore, there are but so many ways to expel that which is dirty; “we” approach dirt as would any “primitive” culture: by placing the anomaly in a different linguistic or ontological category, destroying/attempting to control or contain the anomaly, avoiding the anomaly, branding the anomaly as dangerous, casting the anomaly as symbolic, and if you’re feeling really ambitious, by creating an entirely new paradigm which accounts for the anomaly. But who would bother doing all that, condemnation is way more efficient LOL.

There is much more to say about Douglas’ argument — but again, I’m thinking about all this in terms of my exam. I suspect that the above schema might be useful in talking about how we (yeah yeah “we,” I don’t know what it means either, contemporary American culture I guess) deal with taboo language and behavior — trolling being the obvious example. Doesn’t have to be trolling, though, it could be anything that falls outside the norm. The basic idea is that taboo helps identify where the borders are. Of what the borders consist and exactly what they’re designed to keep out is the question, and is where things get interesting…

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