# PHILOSOPHY /// Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas


Cover of the Routledge Edition of Purity and Danger

Following my last post in which I was referencing few items that are helping me to write an essay about the landscapes of insurgencies, here is another one coming from another field of exploration but much closer to the topic that one might think at first sight. Purity and Danger is a book written by British Anthropologist Mary Douglas in 1966. This work explores the notions of purity and uncleanness in various cultures and religions of the world. She explains that, beyond hygiene those notions are all relative and what is considered as banned in a religion can be sacred by another like in Antonin Artaud’s Heliogabalus (see previous essay).
But she mostly elaborate around those notions, a remarkable understanding of how societies use these considerations of dirt as a social mechanism of exclusion of their non-normalized elements. As she describes those mechanism of exclusion ion parallel of a culture’s mechanisms of purification, Mary Douglas describes pariah as formless in society just like the feared stickiness that blurs the limits between bodies. She therefore manages to establish a sort of materialist sociological reading of societies and thus participate to an elaborated critique of the latter. Here are few excerpts that touched me particularly:

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. This is a very suggestive approach . It implies two conditions: a set of of ordered relations and a contravention to that order. Dir then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the byproduct of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements. The idea of dirt takes us straight into the field of symbolism and promises a link-up with more obviously symbolic systems of purity.
Douglas Mary. Purity and Danger. New York: Routledge, 2009. P44

When something is firmly classed as anomalous, the outline of the set in which it is not a member is clarified. To illustrate this I quote from Sartre’s essay on stickiness. Viscosity, he says, repels in its own right, as a primary experience. An infant, plunging its hands into a jar of honey, is instantly involved in contemplating the formal properties of solids and liquids and the essential relation between the subjective experiencing self and the experienced world (1943, p. 696 seq.). The viscous is a state half-way between solid and liquid. It is like a cross-section in a process of change. It is unstable, but it does not flow. It is soft, yielding and compressible. There is no gliding on its surface. Its stickiness is a trap, it clings like a leech; it attacks the boundary between myself and it. Long columns falling off my fingers suggest my own substance flowing into the pool of stickiness.
Douglas Mary. Purity and Danger. New York: Routledge, 2009. P47

To conclude, if uncleanness is matter out of place, we must approach it through order. Uncleanness or dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained. To recognize this is the first step towards insight into pollution. It involves us in no clear-cut distinction between sacred and secular.
Douglas Mary. Purity and Danger. New York: Routledge, 2009. P50

In this final stage of total disintegration, dirt is utterly undifferentiated. Thus a cycle has been completed. Dirt was created by the differentiating activity of mind, it was a by-product of the creation of order. So it started from a state of non-differentiation; all through the process of differentiating its role was to threaten the distinctions made; finally it returns to its true indiscriminable character. Formlessness is therefore an apt symbol of beginning and of growth as it is of decay.
Douglas Mary. Purity and Danger. New York: Routledge, 2009. P198