AAA 2013, Volunteered Session Proposal
Title: Beyond purity and pollution? Hygiene, cleanliness, and urban futures.
Organizers: Anna Boermel (King’s College London), Jamie Furniss (University of Edinburgh)

This panel asks what role notions of hygiene, cleanliness and order have today in figurations and representations of urban futures, and the real and painful struggles of cities and their residents. Its theoretical ambition is to contribute to developing new approaches for making sense of hygiene and cleaning practices that go beyond Douglas’s classic attempt at understanding ‘purity and pollution’ from a structural and symbolic standpoint. We seek propositions for contextual, circumscribed ethnographic investigations into practices for establishing cleanliness/hygiene, and their articulation with post-colonial, post-revolutionary, ‘developmental’ or biopolitical futures.

Hygiene and cleanliness are a heuristic through which scholars from a variety of disciplines engage big questions. Diachronic research has revealed many variations in human beings’ relations to their residues, excreta, and remains (Barles 2005; Strasser 2000; Zimring 2005). It has also contributed, particularly through post-colonial critiques, to relativizing notions of hygiene and the boundary between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ (Anderson 1995; Chakrabarty 2002; Kaviraj 1997; Oldenburg 1984; Prashad 2001; Vigarello 1985). Much of this work has emphasized the way in which hygiene bears the cultural imprint of its producers and is an important “dispositif” for the application of power. It has made clear the important role hygiene has played in struggles over the city and its meanings. ‘Purification impulses’ (Sennett 1970) are an important key to understanding enclosure and exclusion, rigorous maintenance of the division between inside and outside, obsession with impenetrable boundaries and separation, as well as corporeal individuation and integrity. These themes have been central to certain conceptualizations of Western ‘modernity’ (e.g. Bauman 2000). They are said to be the basis of the material culture of containment that embodies Western concepts of health, morality, and property (Warnier 2006: 188). They underlie the pervasive socio-spatial mechanisms for immobilizing humans in camps, behind security walls, or in ‘gated’ urban structures, all of which idealize the sterile as an image of order and enact the politics of difference and separateness that define contemporary Europe’s relationship to the ‘other’ (e.g. Diken 2004). On the level of personal identity, the principles of bodily individuation, integrity, closure and distanciation are central to the shaping of a ‘modern’ individual subjectivity (Ferguson 2000). They are the theoretical underpinnings of the emergent sub-discipline of ‘border studies’ (e.g. Wastl-Walter 2011).

Despite some more recent work by anthropologists (Jeanjean 2006, 2009) that has attempted—by examining material objects, practices, and change—to go beyond structural and symbolic approaches to cleanliness and hygiene, there is arguably a failure, at least in Anglo-American anthropology, to move beyond Mary Douglas’s classic approach to this topic. This panel’s theoretical ambition is to contribute to developing new approaches for making sense of hygiene and cleaning practices. In particular, it poses the question of cleanliness and hygiene in the construction of emerging futures. We seek examples of figurations and representations of emerging futures, and in particular their articulation with images of or practices for establishing cleanliness/hygiene. These futures might be post-colonial, post-revolutionary (Winegar 2011), developmental (Beall 2006), biopolitical (Collier & Lakoff 2008; Lakoff 2008; Rabinow & Rose 2007), etc.

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Zimring, C. (2005). Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America. London, Rutgers University Press.