Cleaning rituals … in this economy?

The Moral Supremacy of Cleanliness. In this week’s ‘Brooding’ column, Kathryn Jezer-Morton reflects on our ideas about cleanliness — which, she writes, are stuck in the mid-20th century, when most women didn’t work outside the home. Today, women can afford to care less.”

“Who else gets to be messy? Anyone considered brilliant in their field. Hot 23-year-old white girls. (Mess permission is absolutely linked to race and class, and I don’t think hot people of color are granted the same mess pass as hot white people. Obviously, unbrilliant, unhot people of all races are shit out of luck with regards to mess, and poor people? Fetch your brooms.) Charming bachelors, newly divorced dads, yes. (Newly divorced moms? Not sure about them, but I’m leaning toward no.)

Everyone else is held morally accountable for their mess, to varying degrees, and this is out of step with the actual conditions of people’s daily lives. We need our ideas about cleanliness to catch up with reality, because they are stuck in the mid-20th century, when most women didn’t work outside the home.”

“Cleanliness has historically been about well-being, peace, and, to a lesser extent, health. But ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ are also categories dreamed up by social groups. Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, an essential 1966 text on cleanliness rituals and what they mean, is a wonderful guide to better understanding the way that cleaning has functioned as a ritual in different societies, rather than as a moral imperative.

Douglas’s research showed how cleaning rituals harmonized social relations — they made people feel good. Wiping down a countertop can be a form of praying; just ask a Zen monk. Cleaning in premodern societies was often about marking special moments and observing transitions from one state to another. We still do this when we take part in spring cleaning. But one of the many things that suck about living in a neoliberal social system is that these rituals are pressed into service as forms of self-improvement. Cleaning rituals have gone from private forms of ritual pleasure and devotion to performances of efficiency and competence loaded with moral significance. How boring!”

In part, about Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo [Amazon, Bookshop] by Mary Douglas.

Douglas Purity and Danger