Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On modern cleanliness

It is perhaps the greatest irony we live in today that we, who strive to keep ourselves clean in every act we perform, leave around us a mess that can be considered nothing if not unclean even in terms set by us. We have created such a divide between our body and our surroundings that we cannot see that what is dirty around us will get inside us forthwith. So immediately, we must see how ironic it is that we find such an evident thing ironic.

Firstly, most of us who consider ourselves the cleanest create the most of the unhygienic conditions we live in. Consider the most elementary measures of modern hygiene: hand sanitizers, soaps, brooms, electrical appliances. Are these not packaged in plastic? Does not the disposal of that plastic become a most serious problem for modern social cleanliness? But 'modern social cleanliness', insofar as it rests in our minds, believes in buying as much of these as it can, and 'disposing of' unnecessary plastic bottles and covers as soon as their purpose is met. As it rests in the lexicon of the state, the plastic ought to be taken to the dumpyard and let be. In the scheme of do-good voluntarists, the solution lies in reusing or recycling plastic. However, they are not willing to admit that 'modern' man would rather 'dispose it of', even after reuse, and that a lot more would be found 'disposed of', blocking drains and other sewer-outlets, than would be found being recycled. Nor would they challenge the blind use of plastic, lest the industry be enraged. Considering modern perspectives on orgainic waste is even more harrowing: the 'modern' individual can vomit anywhere in hordes after booze-parties, and forget about it as if disowning it. The 'modern' man does not seek to know what happens to his shit after he dispels it. Using soap water to clean himself, 'modern' man would then consider that soap water dirty, and what would have been used for other purposes simply as water, otherwise, is now let to flow away in the drains as carrying soap and 'bacteria'. All of the 'modern' elite class' conception of cleanliness consists of 'disposing of' something at a distance decided as agreeably far away. And when they must pass that dump of garbage, each would mutter, or whinny: "How dirty!".

But for every such 'modern' man, there must also be ‘a few good men’. For who picks up the garbage from the carts to the dump-yard? Who mops up our vomit when we have disowned it? Who but the rag-picker can realize the task the the do-gooder when he says, "Recycle, Reuse!"? The 'next-generation' conception of social cleanliness lies in throwing of all garbage at an agreeable distance, but for even this they need somebody to stay regularly with that garbage, to transport it, and hence their picture of man will always stay fragmented and dichotomized. One group of men, for them, are responsible for things which are more important than such petty tasks as pertaining to cleanliness, however important being clean "themselves" might be. Another class of men must take responsibility of throwing garbage at a distance; their justification is that he gets paid for it. Often, when pressed, they would tell you “to each according to his merit”. Because one has taken the pains to study, one deserves a “better” job, or a “job suited to his qualifications”. Because the other did not, he must maintain toilets for two-rupees-a-person. But we know only too well how our money economy facilitates the production of those without schooling, and also of those left with no other alternatives as work but the refuse of all: garbage disposal. Feudal arguments often enter here: "they have been traditionally doing it as their caste-profession, let them do it". Even when the burden of the entire society's cleanliness falls upon the other man, the 'modern' state seeks to extract as much labour from him for as little remuneration as possible. Whence arrives contractualization of social cleanliness workers, and with that "cutting-down" on their gloves, clothes, and other gear required to protect them from dangers and indignity. Modern social cleanliness believes in creating a class of men who will deal with filth at the least possible cost, and in having them banished from the midst of a society that it cleans.

These attitudes enshrined in modern-day social cleanliness resonate with two strongly held socio-psychological prejudices held by men of today. Firstly, that for some men, it is unhealthy to come into contact with dirty things due to low immunity, while some others have developed immunity because of their social class. Secondly, that for some men, their merit makes it below their dignity to touch such base things as organic waste, while others must pay for their laziness and/or ungifted nature by cleaning the mess others make. Concern for health and for dignity mix together and claim justification every time any of us 'modern' men refuse to touch the flush-knob, fearing it has been already touched by dirty hands; notice that our concern for physiological health also means that we distrust those of our own class (however, refusing to consider distrust ourselves even). But more importantly, this also explains how coolly we watch as others clean up after us. The truth is that those classes upon whom we thrust our filth are not blessed with any magical immunity as we like to believe; class-based studies of health indicators have established since long that those whom we abet towards garbage suffer from worse health conditions. Meanwhile, our cleanliness and our affluence brings its own afflictions, trumping any possibility of a one to one correspondence between cleanliness and good health. Secondly, there is no serious evidence to show that some men are innately more gifted or meritorious than others, and hence the only explanation of social inequalities are social mechanisms.

Modern hygiene has been stamped with the inequalities that are part of our political economy, for which function its own particular assumptions. By exposing their irrationality and inhumanity, we move towards challenging that very political economy. But most importantly, social cleanliness offers us a window-view of this political economy right from our homes, and at once we realize that we are part of something big.


  1. "Meanwhile, our cleanliness and our affluence brings its own afflictions, trumping any possibility of a one to one correspondence between cleanliness and good health."

    This is really well said. Nails it, even. But I have to say, I felt kind of queasy mid-way through this post.