Dirt – is it ‘matter out of place’?

Keep calm and pick up a broom

“The Wellcome exhibition starts with 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]

Admirers of the anthropologist Mary Douglas would have appreciated the exhibition on dirt, which took place in 2011 at London’s Wellcome Gallery.

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.

Individualism will see dirt as matter under-priced. Treasure from trash is a leading business model.

Fatalism will see dirt as inevitable – and take a quiet, stoic pride in it.

Egalitarianism will see some kinds of dirt as proof that ‘we’re all in this together’. But large scale trans-national dirt like radiation or carbon dioxide is seen as a threat against which we need to all pull together as one.

See also: The Toxicity Panic

Image credit: Brett Jordan/Flickr

What kind of duty is called for in Call of Duty?

Games have several important effects. One is that they train us to accept the premise of the game.

If I don’t accept that a knight moves two spaces forwards and one sideways, I simply can’t play chess. If I don’t accept that mass murder is necessary, I simply can’t play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Reflecting on this latter experience, one commentator wrote:

I thought, You don’t have to do this. You can stop. You can refuse. You can walk away. I didn’t.

Trying to avoid the endless killing doesn’t work, any more than changing the knight’s move would in chess. And mostly, we just go along with the premise imposed on us by the structure of the game. In games we learn very quickly which rules we shouldn’t bother challenging. In real life, we have far more freedom of action, but we rely on social constructions of the rules of life to tell us which obstacles we shouldn’t even bother trying to overcome. We are like cattle that never even touch the electric fence. Even as we proclaim our freedom, we corral ourselves.

It’s hard to break out of that paddock. But what we can’t yet achieve politically we can sometimes achieve artistically. As soon as I heard about the extraordinary sales figures of the latest Call of Duty game sequel, I thought this is a very suitable subject for artist/provocateur Joseph DeLappe (of ‘Dead in Iraq’, 2006 and the Second Life Salt Satyagraha, 2008). It turns out he’s already been there, with a machinima collaboration named 6 Days in Call of Duty 4, an ironic take on the ill-fated game Six Days in Fallujah. It seems what made Six Days in Fallujah unsellable was that it was regarded as too realistic.  DeLappe and his collaborator Joshua Diltz have taken this idea and used it to test the limits of what is possible in an ‘acceptable’ shoot-em-up game.

Here’s the download page.

6 Days

Update: The Onion has a satirical take on a ‘realistic’ wargame, Call of Duty 3, in which players can opt to complain about cell phone reception and  be redeployed to Germany to repair humvees for 10 hours a day.

Tilt shift: When what you see isn’t what you get

Doesn’t tilt shift photography (or the fake photoshop version) look good? Having seen some of these shots it’s hard not to look at the world in a slightly different way.

Reminds me of Patrick Heron’s claim that art doesn’t reflect what we see but rather dictates what we see. In the case of tilt shift, we thought model villages and railways looked that way because they were models and not the real thing. Tilt shift shows something different is happening: we can now make the real thing look just like a model if we wish.

“I have always claimed that painting’s prime function is to dictate what the world looks like … What we imagine to be the ‘objective’ look of everything and anything is largely a complex, a weave of textures, forms and colours which we have learned, more or less unconsciously, from painting, and have superimposed upon external reality. The actual ‘objective’ appearance of things (of anything and everything) is something that does not exist…”
Patrick Heron, 1996 “Solid Space in Cézanne”, Modern Painters Vol 9 (1).

There’s more at Smashing Magazine.

Beyond Enclaves in Palestine (Part 3)

What future can be planned for Palestine?

So far in this series we’ve looked at a nightmare sci-fi segregationalism generated merely from revealing the implications of the Oslo Accords as architectural impressions. We’ve also looked at a much more positive  spatial plan to develop a central north-south transit corridor, linking most of the main settlements and directing future urban growth without sprawl. The architectural student, the leading planner, what, thirdly,  would an artist have to offer in terms of a vision for Palestine? Continue reading Beyond Enclaves in Palestine (Part 3)

Slow Reading and the End of Print

It seems you can do all sorts of things slowly. Why weren’t we told?

Actually, Slow Reading by John Miedema is a thoughtful consideration of the enduring place of print in our culture. You’d be forgiven for assuming print was dying out under the pervasive i-influence of e-everything. Indeed, the author quotes Jeff Bezos of Amazon as saying the book is ‘the last bastion of analogue’.

Actually what I find interesting about the times we’re in is the arrival of radical new forms of physical textuality which call into question the simple story of the death of print. Two examples that keep catching my eye are the espresso book machine and the youtube graffiti wall.

The Espresso book machine is basically a photocopier that can spit out well made paperback books while you wait. This is a hi-tech mix of the digital (the back catalogue of every digitised book on the planet instantly available) and the traditionally physical (the physical paperback book to take away and enjoy). But it’s important to remember that paperbacks themselves are relatively new technology, having only achieved mass appeal in the 1930s (and the first paperback book shops were introduced to the US in the 1950s).

Where the publicity for the Espresso Book Machine goes wrong, I think, is that it tremendously underestimates the revolution that it heralds. Supposedly the new technology will make small independent book shops more competitive with the larger chains and the larger chains more competitive with supermarkets. This is exactly wrong. What it means is that notionally, every shop can and will become a book shop. And the cost of the technology is only going to come down. What will make the difference is not the ability to stock books, since there’s no more stock, nor the ability to discount them, since overheads are now minimal. The difference will be in the ability to promote them. The rise and rise of the expert bookseller has just begun.

The graffiti wall is a very weird phenomenon. This is the ability of internet video to bring to life monumental artwork inscribed on physical surfaces using stop motion filming techniques. This form of art has been feasible for a long time – since the invention of photography – but only now, with ubiquitous digitization, has it taken off. What’s interesting about this is the sense that the digital somehow requires the monumentally and immovably physical wall for its rhetorical effect as spectacle to work. It shows, I think, that the end-of-the-book anxiety is just a sub-set of a larger end-of-the-physical anxiety. It also shows that the physical doesn’t end, it just gets transformed. We are living in a time of digital-physical hybridization and we should probably get used to the feeling of not being able to get used to it.

Three questions about religious art for the Archbishop of Westminster


Should religious art be repatriated to churches and other places of worship?

According to Ruth Gledhill in the Times,

‘The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, says that The Baptism of Christ, painted in the 1450s by Piero della Francesca, should be displayed in a religious setting such as Westminster Cathedral. In a lecture as part of the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust’s Roots of Faith lecture series supported by Sky Arts, at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, the Cardinal said: “I would like to see this painting taken down from the walls of the National Gallery and placed in a Catholic church in London because it is a mistake to treat it as a work of art: it is a work of faith and piety, an expression of the Church’s life and a way into prayer.”’

This is an interesting idea, but the choice of this particular painting to focus on begs a number of questions… Continue reading Three questions about religious art for the Archbishop of Westminster