Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Mary Douglas - Purity and Danger (1966)

At times I condemn the modern self-helpish propensity to locate the self as both the source of all problems and the source of their solution. There's a narcissism here which I find problematic, and a political propensity to elide the defining impact of external conditions (particularly those outside the immediate family). But at the same time, the issues that we face as individuals are very much issues that are created by the post/modern condition, with its focus on identity, information flows, internal an external surveillance, and distance technologies; and as such, they need to be dealt with at this level. Also, approaching issues either as external (change yourself) or external (change the situation) is not a zero sum equation - rather, what's needed is a recognition that, in order to implement positive change, both these strategies need to be adopted in permeable concert and applied where they're possible - that is, to think outside the defining binary structures of Western (and perhaps human) thought, to exist in the permeable, liminal zones in which one doesn't strive for control in terms of mastery and lack of necessary connection, in which security is maintained by adaptability, not by inflexibility, in which one doesn't fear the contamination of the internal by the external and vice versa - in which one welcomes, in fact, the mingling and dissolving of these binaries.

Mary Douglas, the social anthropologist, has just died at the age of 86. I would highly recommend her book Purity and Danger (1966) to anyone who wants to understand the way in which modern society constructs the boundaries and oppositions which I mention above, and which demonstrates the construction of the dangers of contamination and pollution which maintain them. The work, and Douglas herself, is most famous for her fascinating analysis of the meaning of the prohibitions of Leviticus (which she later rethought, concluding that God cares equally for those creatures which 'man' must abominate); but the work goes far beyond this to demonstrate the way in which 'dirt', and hence pollution, contamination, defilement, is not an objective fact but rather a manifestation of a system in which matter is out of place - and that the fear of contamination is a fear of lack of control, of the inevitable permeability of boundaried and binaried systems into the construction of which huge social and individual labour is put.

For me, it's been a foundational text, both in terms of my academic work, and in terms of my understanding of my own self and my relationship to others and to the social, my understanding of desire and fear (each in the broadest sense) as manifestations of my person/ality. And, as I do with foundational texts, I've returned to seeing how central these ideas are to an understanding of those on my own individual level. This kind of work on the self, particularly in tumultuous externally-imposed (or, it might be better to say, unchosen) circumstances, is difficult: it helps to be clearheaded, which, for me at least, has been a struggle in itself, but one in which I've made a lot of progress (having not touched any substance of possible abuse stronger than caffeine and cocoa for, oh, about three months now); it involves taking risks and the fear and psychic discomfort that that entails - but they pay off amply; and (incidentally, since we love binaries so much, why do only trinities feel complete?) it involves the willpower to make change, while at the same time giving up the fantasy of total control. Most of all, it helps to have a hand to hold on that journey (the presence of which inevitably alters and defines its course), a beckoning finger to show where you can choose to be led, a companion in both fear and joy, a safe place when the difficulties seem overwhelming... possibilities are the bastard children of circumstance, but it's what we choose to do with them that relates to and creates both who we are - and who we become.

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