Editorial: Clean Unclean

Halonen, Pekka, Washing on the Ice, 1900

My side of the desk is scrupulously clean. The other half is a mess of dust and papers, temporarily abandoned books, a pair of tights, a lump of local granite. The line that separates the two is not as clear as I’d like. From the other side, my wife’s stately, slender Mac spaceship turns its brushed chrome rear towards me in disdain. My low dark Dell Dimension chunters and whirs. The keyboard clanks. The tower alone weighs nearly thirteen kilos.

Welcome to The Learned Pig’s first editorial season: “Clean Unclean”. It exists only here, online – the same (ah! but not quite) on my wife’s flat, wide Apple as on my NEC MultiSync LCD 2080Uxi. Over the next ten weeks, we’ll be publishing an array of poetry, prose, photography, essays, art, creative non-fiction, sound art and video all exploring the division between the clean and the unclean from a host of different perspectives.

The “Clean Unclean” open call was launched on this website in December 2014. It was mailed out, passed around and linked to from social media. Some even printed it out. An incredible array of submissions were emailed in – almost overwhelming in their quality, diversity and sheer quantity. I’m very grateful to contributing editors Camilla Nelson and Hestia Peppe for their help in fine-tuning and promoting the open call and to poetry editor Crystal Bennes for reading through and feeding back on the particularly large volume of poetry that was submitted. Comments, edits and suggestions went back and forth via track changes and Dropbox. Acceptance emails were sent out. So too were rejections.

Vast concrete hospitals, housing estates and university campuses: these were Modernism’s dying breaths.

“Cleanliness,” began the first sentence of the open call, “is close to godliness.” Does this catchy old proverb still hold true? Can the preference for the clean over the unclean be attributed to religion? Certainly there is a repetitive element to personal hygiene that has much in common with the rituals of devotion. Many religions are characterised by processes of purification, often involving water. In Japanese Buddhism, a basin called a tsukubai is provided at Buddhist temples for ablutions; in Islam, Wudu names the procedure for washing parts of the body in preparation for formal prayer; in Christianity, the Acts of the Apostles exhorts the reader to “arise, and be baptised, and wash away thy sins”. That sin and dirt may be washed off together suggests purification to be not simply a physical act, but a moral and psychological one too: mens sana in corpore sano.

With the rise of Modernism, Christianity’s foundational role in Western conceptions of cleanliness was replaced (at least in part) by a new religion: science. In the process, ideas of cleanliness came to be conceived differently and a new ideal of purity emerged – self-present, aesthetic, technological, racial. Clean country air was health resort panacea in Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel, The Magic Mountain. Meanwhile, the mistaken assumption of the whiteness of classical sculpture spawned the aesthetics of a generation. It was architecture which led the way, with its clean lines and pure white walls. In 1912, the German Hygiene Museum was founded by Karl August Lingner, a Dresden businessman and manufacturer of hygiene products. In the 1930s the museum was used to promote eugenics.

Deutsches Hygiene-Museum

Amid the bloodshed of World War II, the Beveridge Report was published in the UK. It was chaired by economist William Beveridge, and identified five “Giant Evils” in society – squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease – and proposed widespread reform to the system of social welfare. In 1948, three years after the end of the war, Clement Attlee’s Labour government founded the National Health Service. It is no coincidence that as the state expanded its control over health and education, Brutalism flourished. Vast concrete hospitals, housing estates and university campuses: these were Modernism’s dying breaths.

In 1973, at the height of this period, Ivan Illich published Tools for Conviviality. In it, he describes the way in which “hospital-born, formula-fed, antibiotic-stuffed children thus grew into adults who can breathe the air, eat the food, and survive the lifelessness of a modern city, who will breed and raise at almost any cost a generation even more dependent on medicine.” The welfare state may have turned us into marionettes, but neoliberalism today promises the freedom only of markets, not of people. As the NHS is opened up to the vagaries of market economics, our health is no longer governed by the nanny state, but the profit motive.

The welfare state may have turned us into marionettes, but neoliberalism promises the freedom only of markets.

It is these conception of cleanliness – exemplified by the museum and the hospital – that the majority of contributors to this “Clean Unclean” season are reacting against. Many reject what they see as the contemporary dominance of the clean in favour of a fascination with that which is deemed unclean: dust, disease, war, and waste. Mimei Thompson finds beauty in the trash; Rob St John leaves a tape loop in the Lea. Where cleanliness is explored directly, it is psychological, ritualistic, ironic, or subtly subverted. Emma Cousin injects life into latex gloves; Eleanor Davies revels in the chemical itch of the home hairdresser.

Other contributions consider the division between the clean and the unclean in relation to food, the home, or, of course, death. Ori Fienberg’s prose poems move from corporate agriculture to data mining to burial – people, animals, toxic waste. Amanda North writes of the death of a dove; David Atkinson the death of a stickleback. In North’s poem, the polluting corpse of the dove is removed from the clean water of the swimming pool. In Atkinson’s, by contrast, it’s the very cleanliness of the water that kills the fish.

Simon Ryder, Forgetful Worlds

Cleanliness, it seems, has come to be understood as an artificial construct – institutional, industrial, chemical, consumerist – that serves only to sever our connection with the environment. Nature, meanwhile, is seen to revel in an increasingly attractive form of disorder. In his posthumously published 2007 book, Wildwood, Roger Deakin criticises humanity’s attitude towards the environment as one of “too much management and not enough informed neglect”. Similarly, in 2013’s rewilding manifesto, Feral, George Monbiot states: “Boar are the untidiest animals to have lived in this country since the Iron Age. This should commend them to anyone with an interest in the natural world.”

What is untidy now is natural. And what is natural, we easily believe, is also right and true. But is it? This is the territory explored by Gary Budden whose essay here addresses Monbiot’s ideas head-on, as well as examining conceptions of purity in relation to right- and left-wing subcultures. The central question is the extent to which human metaphors of meaning can be transferred onto the natural world, and vice-versa. “We are part of the natural world,” he writes, “but we as a species are unique in that we have the ability to be aware of how we fit into things. We can intervene. That may be our blessing and our curse – to live with the duality that we are somehow both natural and unnatural.”

It is a mistake to assume that nature exists as a fixed state. Nature is not a nation.

But we should not forget that nature has its own concept of cleanliness, or a quasi-concept, or whatever word we wish to use to describe how animals engage with their worlds. Perhaps we should emphasise plurality here. Certain species of ants produce antibiotics from their metapleural glands in order to combat parasites; the blue cleaner wrasse sets up “cleaning stations” to remove parasites from larger fish; peregrines, JA Baker tells us, “rest in dead trees to dry their feathers, preen, and sleep”; blue tits bathe in suburban gardens.

Illich warns us of the mistake of devolving all authority to institutions (religion, science), of allowing them to dictate their self-regulated conceptions of hygiene and purity. But it is also a mistake to align nature too closely with the unclean, to assume that ‘the natural state’ is one of uncleanness and that to clean is somehow to besmirch the pure state of nature. Because it is also a mistake to assume that nature exists as a fixed state. Nature is not a nation. Hilary Hall takes the classic example of the peppered moth to demonstrate the ability of certain animals to respond to change. “Natural selection called, said we won.” Meanwhile, foxes are taking over our cities; so too peregrine falcons. A badger recently terrorised a hotel in Stockholm. I think I saw a sparrowhawk in Paris.

The boundaries are porous between the urban and the rural, the human and the non-human, the clean and the unclean. That is not to say there are no boundaries; rather, the lines are continuously being drawn and redrawn. I know where my side of the desk ends and my wife’s begins. A line of dust marks the boundary. Every day it blurs a little, and I must wipe it clean anew.

 
 

View everything published so far in our Clean Unclean season.

Image credits (from top):
Pekka Halonen, Washing on the Ice, 1900. Photographer: Finnish National Gallery / Jouko Könönen
Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, exterior view, 1930
Simon Ryder, still from Forgetful Worlds, 2014

 
 

The Learned Pig

Tom Jeffreys

Tom is a writer and curator, and editor of The Learned Pig. He writes primarily about contemporary art, and is particularly interested in work that crosses over into the sciences or explores our relationship with the environment. His writing has been published in, among others, Apollo, Frieze, Monocle, New Scientist, The Independent, and World of Interiors. His first book - Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot - was published by Influx Press in 2017.