Thursday, June 26, 2008

Dirt: Matter Out of Place

Dirt, as defined by the anthropologist Mary Douglas, is “matter out of place.” Soil in the garden is "in place," but on the kitchen floor is "out of place," and therefore "dirty." I find this a fascinating topic. When we examine what it is that makes matter “out of place” in a particular culture, we learn more about that culture and its world view.

Take, for example, the clothes in this photo: two pair of pants lying on the sidewalk outside a drug store. There is no one nearby who might be their owner. The clothes are worn, so much so that some might call them rags. Others, however, might see these clothes as still quite wearable, despite the frayed edges and holes. In fact, in the context of a high-priced clothing store, the denim jeans might fetch an exorbitant price.

Here are two pairs of jeans, sold in stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Nieman Marcus. The well-worn pair sells for over $300 and the "lightly distressed" pair is $540. In the experience of West LA culture, women and men spend quite a bit of money for “artfully” worn-out jeans. In their perception, jeans  in this context are worth a great deal.

But not the jeans on the sidewalk. These, because they are abandoned on a curb and not hanging on a hangar in Bergdorf's, are most likely perceived as suspect, associated with societal outliers—the homeless who might have abandoned them there. They might belong to people that West LA culture defines as “out of place,” and so the clothes themselves are out of place. They are dirt. 

But wait—there's more!

Those expensive jeans are "distressed" in factories like this one in Tehuacán, Mexico, which artificially wear the fabric with sandpaper and other abrasives, and bleach them with potassium permanganate.

The untreated waste water is sent directly into an irrigation canal used by local farmers. 

"As well as being blue, it burns the seedlings and sterilises the earth," says one of the local farmers, interviewed by the Guardian's Jo Tuckman, in an article published in August, 2007.

Jeans on a sidewalk; jeans in a store. Jeans in a clandestine Mexican sweatshop; blue waste burning a farmer's field. Dirt: matter out of place. A window into our culture.

1 comment:

Linda Campbell Franklin said...

hi katherine...was trying to get the exact quote...dirt is matter out of place or dirt is only misplaced matter or dirt is only matter out of place. Still not sure. But found your excellent blog.
I wrote a book years ago: 300 Years of Housekeeping Collectibles, with 100s of items, and am about the messiest person alive, but oh well.
i look forward to reading more of your posts...the distressed jeans are very distressing.
Linda "Barkinglips" Franklin