Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Danger of Purity

Mary Douglas, or rather Dame Mary Douglas (also Dr. Mary Douglas) the renown British cultural anthropologist, died today. Her most famous work, Purity and Danger (1966) examined the taboos surrounding the body in various cultures, particularly what we label as taboo in terms of consumption. Her work helped shape the ideas that were formative for my dissertation, and I'm sure she was influential to countless other academics, and really, just anyone interested in culture and the body.

Her work in Purity and Danger, and other essays throughout her career, charts the boundaries of the body--of what we ingest what we can incorporate as part of our body--the food we take in becomes us; therefore, we only eat that which is pure. Anything that we deem impure, offal, domesticated animals, insects (and I'm thinking specifically of American society), we do not eat.

Extrapolating beyond consumption and the body to the body politic, I think that there is a danger to purity. The social symbolism speaks for itself. Thinking of America as only a country of "pure" people has been troubling and problematic throughout its history. Thinking about policing our borders from the scourage of immigrants--legal, extralegal, illegal--seems akin to thinking about what foods are deemed taboo and thus inedible.

I wonder how we could learn from Mary Douglas's conception of purity and danger through a larger conception of what we will allow to cross the borders of our body--that being more flexible in the conception of what becomes us may just be a healthier thing in the long run. And in terms of the body politic, readjusting who we conceive of as part of the body politic of the United States seems like a necessity for us to survive as a nation and as part of the larger world we live in.

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