Dirt and Pollution
In the process of research for my curatorial project, I found some interesting texts on the subject by Mary Douglas. Her book, “Purity and Danger,” has proved even more quotable than expected. At any rate, here’s an excerpt written up by London: Ark Paperbacks. The concept of the exhibition, DIRT, was open to many approaches.
The book “Purity and Danger” written by Mary Douglas was first published in 1966. Mary Douglas was a British anthropologist recognized for her studies on socialanthropology with focus on religion and symbolism. She developed fieldwork in a highly pollution-conscious culture of the Congo and started to look for a systemic approach. In Purity and Danger she analysed the ideas of pollution and taboo, considering different cultures from a structural point of view and with some influence from Gestalt psychology. Her purpose was to avoid a limited explanation, regarding the phenomena in relation to the whole social structure.
The argument is built up in ten chapters: Ritual Uncleanness, Secular Defilement, The Abominations of Leviticus, Magic and Miracle, Primitive Worlds, Powers and Dangers, External Boundaries, Internal Lines, The System at War With Itself, The System Shattered and Renewed. In general terms abominations, restriction and punishment represent the power of social boundaries; however dangerous things can have at the same time creative power. The discussion about the real differences between primitive and modern cultures as well as the wide presence of body symbolism improves the quality of the argument.
“Purity and Danger” presents a deep study of pollution concepts and a wide approach of how social rules are reinforced. In order to study pollution for instance it is necessary consider religion not only as a belief in spiritual beings but a complex system of values. In this case a systemic analysis disclose much more than a narrow view centered in differences between primitive and modern. This study also pays attention to methodological problems in anthropological research about primitive cultures. It is very difficult to access all the elements in different cultures therefore it is easy to adopt a biased posture. However, the author is very perspicacious in considers many possible traps about the use of some words and the danger in making fast conclusions.
Mary Douglas claims that the understanding of purity rules can open place to discuss profound themes and her book makes it possible. A pollution study touches question not only about primitive cultures but it reveals also mysteries that are present in all societies. The strong presence of symbols and rites in all the spheres of any culture and how they are elaborated discloses interesting questions about the expressive capacity of human being.