Thursday, 5 April 2012

april 5, 2012

tonight, i read the preface to purity and danger by professor mary douglas. wow, is it ever dense - and packed with delicious ideas! i'm already loving it, even if it sometimes makes my brain hurt with the complexity of the arguments. (it's a good hurt, believe me! :P)

in particular, i was drawn in by the analysis of the collective complicity that creates taboo. (taboo being one of the main things that i'm interested in deconstructing for myself in reading this book - notions of moral contamination as well as physical/bodily/environmental contamination and how they relate to risk):

"taboos depend on a form of community-wide complicity. a community would not survive if its members were not committed to it; their concern shows in oblique warnings not to undermine its values.... the people can believe because they collectively want to believe. the extent to which mutually supportive collusion may be inherent in all belief is still open. the study of taboo impinges inevitability upon the philosophy of belief. the taboo-maintained rules will be as repressive as the leading members of society want them to be.... criticism will be suppressed, whole areas of life become unspeakable and, in consequence, unthinkable. but when the controllers of opinion want a different way of life, the taboos will lose credibility and their selected view of the universe will be revised. taboo is a spontaneous coding practice which sets up a vocabulary of spatial limits and physical and verbal signals to hedge around vulnerable relations."

tingles! this text was published in 1966, but it didn't sell many copies for the first decade. not until people started becoming disillusioned, en masse, with state-sponsored control, the impositions of religion and caste and race and class - and fascinated with the mechanisms of (a) how we learn to be pure and proper, and (b) how to unlearn. which is, i think, a kind of mending - kicking out the intruders and occupiers that squat in our minds and hearts and think of us as merely links in the chain of belief that support their hold on power: "don't bite the hand that feeds you (lies)."

if we're going to talk about germs and the dangers inherent in transmitting them, which is one of the things on my mind as i read this book, it occurs to me that a certain kind of clean body or clean mind or clean house means that you, theoretically, have access to acceptance of the power-holding few. the righteous! and, ostensibly, as a respectful adherent to the rules and taboos that are espoused by leading members of society, you might be so lucky as to gain access to the power that those leading members of society hold. behave, and you will be rewarded. at least, that's the implicit promise of belonging.

the tabooed fear of our wild, hairy, dirty, lusty bodies often keeps us from making our own unfettered choices about love, want, hygiene, fashion, gender and many other impulses and modes of self-presentation or conduct. the feeling of impending wrongdoing or dirtiness or shame hovers and is incredibly persuasive. after all, it's been around since we exited the womb. the intense danger of it all looks over your shoulder and thinks for you: "oh, i wouldn't do that if i were you. what would _____ say??" we all have someone or something that could fill in that blank, which is why the fear-mongering works. other people's values live in us as warnings.

it takes an incredibly tenacious mind and spirit to shut out the fear of consequence that rides in with freedom of action. aka: "...the dangers and joys of being out of place." (in the words of one reviewer of this book). the story goes that, in acting like you belong, you belong. and if you believe you belong - even if that reality doesn't extend beyond your own mind - you're far ahead of most people on this planet. the danger of being a shunned outsider is a powerful antidote to freedom, wouldn't you say?

so, how do we mend the borders around our individuality and access true freedom of choice, despite taboo? how do we turn around the fears of a free body, a free mind, a new truth or reality if we haven't lived that? and what of the taboos that have a place in our psyches as a way of preventing universally agreed-upon harms, like indiscriminate murder or children being abused? sometimes exposing the structures behind unwanted taboo is enough to break down the sphere of influence it holds in your universe. and then there's the dangerous and joyful process of stepping into the wide open world, finally free to act. still as a part of the social environment and a broader community, but freer. here's to that.


  1. Purity and Danger is a kick-ass book. It'll pull a whole bunch of social-assumptions into sharp, "that's why people do that!", relief.

    1. Amazing! I'm really looking forward to that! :)