Dirty politics

blanket_no-wash_protests_maze (1).jpgWe are hard-wired to be disgusted by secretions, decay and disease. Although Britain is somewhat lax on the cleanliness ‘front’, it’s generally assumed now that scientific advances have shown us the importance of regular washing for our biological health.

But there is also a cultural element to an emphasis on hygiene – bathing was once seen as ‘degenerate’ and something ‘allowed germs to enter the skin’. It was only the glamourous images of Hollywood popularised bathing. And the stigma of being dirty is quickly applied metaphorically to undesirables in history – Jews, gay people, women, dalits, lower class people – and so hygiene quickly becomes a thing of social control to marginalise or attack cultural difference.

Jews being forced to scrub the pavements of Vienna, 1 March 1938. Source: Wellcome Collection

And capitalism helps by encouraging us to buy things that make us clean. In post-war France, increased consumption brought about an increased emphasis on soap and cleanliness – by cleaning the bodies of its citizens, the nation as a whole could both be decontaminated from the Nazi Occupation and distinguished from the un-modern, ‘dirty’ colonies. Similarly this advertisement for Pears soap from the 1890s is promoting cleanliness as a metaphor for imperialism ‘brightening the dark corners of the earth’.

And it turns out that those more sensitive to physical disgust are more likely to hold illiberal, right-wing views. Even the simple act of hand washing provokes moral conservatism in experiments.

This advertising card for Hudson’s Soap from the 1910s plays on the association between moral authority and cleanliness with aimed of policemen and slogans like “Arrest all Dirt”.

So might it then be that showering inadvertently incubates intolerance?

Conservatism argues for a narrower idea of the normal citizen and what if the body is just another site for that ‘policing’ – so one must have not only the right body mass index and the right clothes but also the right smell?

Is showering actually some form of disembodiment – an act of removing the unique or even the universal smells of our human bodies?

In Tehching Hsieh’s Outdoor Piece in which he spent a year outside – unquestionably moving away from the civilized cleanliness –  ‘His hovering and transivity ask us both to distinguish him from the human beings he lives in proximity with, and simultaneously to imagine their state as an elemental condition of our own lives’ (Heathfield, A. 2009. ‘Impress of Time’ in Heathfield, A. and Hsieh, T. 2009. Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh. London: MIT).

Photo of Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh

How dirty before dirt becomes an act of violence against – a rejection of – society’s norms or the state. What of the IRA dirty protests – debasing themselves rather than accept the greater insults of status from the UK government.

This text was originally published in Shower Practice, a dance practice as research project by Hamish MacPherson.

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