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Dirt, waste and revulsion: How cultures cope with leftovers and mess

Updated Monday, 27th June 2011

In a roundtable discussion at The Wellcome Collection, the panel explore the difference between dirty and polluting, and why "not all poo is equal".

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Laurie Taylor:
Unless you're a late night comedian on Channel 5 it's not usual to get a chance to talk dirty in front of an audience but thanks to the exhibition currently being staged here at the Wellcome Collection I now have a licence to talk publicly not only about dirt but about excrement, rubbish, sewage and just plain good old fashioned muck, you know the stuff that's presently under your fingernails or on the soles of your shoes or perhaps on the back of the seats where you're actually sitting at this very moment.

The Wellcome building in Euston, London
The home of the Wellcome Collection in Euston, London

Now this isn't though just about compiling an inventory of different terms for dirt, it's about the universality of those terms, about the manner in which physical dirt can quickly take on all sorts of moral connotations. With me to discuss such matters I have historian Amanda Vickery, who's from Queen Mary, London University; anthropologist Adam Kuper from the London School of Economics and author and cartoonist from The Guardian, Martin Rowson.

Amanda, I don't know whether you noticed but when I just sort of mentioned that business about dirt under fingernails and particularly got the little tiny bit about the possibility of dirt being on these lovely clean looking seats in the Wellcome there was a little frisson ran around the audience, what is it about this instinctual aversion to dirt?

Amanda Vickery:
Well I think some of it is instinctual but I also think it's it's intertwined with culture. We're actually quite neutral about things like blood but once you say 'it's menstrual blood' then everybody would recoil I think in horror - but even that recoil I reckon would vary across cultures.

So I would say that every civilisation draws a line between the dirty and the clean, and the pure and the polluted, but where they draw that line, I think, varies across cultures and I would strongly argue that it varies across time as well.

Laurie Taylor:
Well, let's just talk about drawing that line, because when you come into this exhibition you immediately see - I mean almost emblazoned across the entrance to the exhibition is the announcement "Dirt is in the eye of the beholder", and it's a quotation from the anthropologist Mary Douglas.

Now Adam, you worked with Mary Douglas, what did she mean by this?

Adam Kuper:
Well, I think Mary Douglas would have made a strong distinction between the dirty and the unclean.

So the dirty is something physical and the unclean is not necessarily physical, it's not necessarily mud on your boots, it's polluting in some kind of sense, more a spiritual problem.

And for a number of human societies I think most of the time it is the idea that certain things are out of place are polluting, are dangerous, cause you trouble, they make you ill, may lower your status.

And what those things are can vary tremendously from one society to another but there is one constant in most human societies - we all have a lot of symbolic thought associated with the body and in most societies a lot is made out of the things that the body expels or that you put into the body. And these are the things that are often very, very strongly marked as unclean or polluting, dangerous.

Laurie Taylor:
You often say there are perhaps some rational reasons lying behind taboos - for example, we don't walk under ladders - there's a taboo about that - but I mean perhaps that might be because of all the incidents of things dropping on people's heads when they walk under ladders. But [Mary Douglas] wanted to say 'no, you can't provide a material explanation for these taboos at all'.

Adam Kuper:
Well her famous example was the Old Testament taboo on pork and she said 'well, modern Jews will often say "of course pigs are dirty, full of infections and so there's a good scientific reason for doing it"' but, of course, the Old Testament doesn't say that at all, the Old Testament says that certain foods are taboo because they don't fit the proper categories. So fish can be eaten so long as they have scales and if they don't have scales are they fish or aren't they fish - they don't quite fit into the category, then they're tabooed.

And pigs, it was some long story about chewing the cud but having cloven feet - what about an animal which had cloven feet, didn't chew the cud or chewed the cud and didn't have cloven feet, they were tabooed because they broke the boundary and anything that breaks the boundaries breaks one's sense of what is right and proper in the world, what fits.

Laurie Taylor:
It is out of place.

Adam Kuper:
It is out of place and therefore it's tabooed and dangerous.

Laurie Taylor:
Let me turn to you Martin, I hugely enjoyed your autobiography recently, which you called Stuff. What about the relationship between stuff and dirt?

Martin Rowson:
Well I mean there's stuff - the eponymous stuff was the stuff found in my late parents' house when we were clearing it out, two tonnes of which was deemed to be unwanted by anybody, anybody imaginable - no charity shop, no distant relative, or any of this - and it ended up as landfill, therefore was by definition dirt - I suppose because there was nothing else to do with it.

But it was a bit like in Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Where this society is slowly being inundated with what is called kippel, which is the thrown away, disposable, detritus of modern capitalist consumer life.

Laurie Taylor:
Amanda, [to] bring what Adam was saying to you, when you're talking about the cultural differences which might exist in what is regarded as polluting or not polluting or evading categories, isn't there really a universal abhorrence associated with sight, smell, in sounds associated with human excrement. I mean, this seems like a universal abhorrence?

Amanda Vickery:
Well, behavioural researchers seem to have said that there is a universal disgust response when you see faeces, but particularly when you smell it. But can you imagine having to do that research? That made me smile, the thought of how you carry out your research project?

But nevertheless, in the early modern past you had status the higher up the royal chain of command you were, and the closer you were to the body of the King or the Queen. So if you were the groom of the stole, which actually meant the groom of the stool, you were the person who carried the King's chamber pot. So to you the smell of his chamber pot was the sweet smell of success.

So it depends what significance you attach to that. So actually being close to what comes out of somebody's body can be a great sign of power. Not all poo is equal.

Adam Kuper:
And there must be many mothers, fathers and grandparents in the audience who don't feel any abhorrence to cleaning nappies, changing nappies, cleaning up and so on. [So] there you are - there's nothing universal.

Amanda Vickery:
Like [Proust] wouldn't it - it would be sniffing a nappy, it would bring back the infancy of your children. If you were so inclined.

Martin Rowson:
I'm just remindedit may apply to the monarch but it doesn't necessarily apply to your lover. There's a wonderful line from Swift, who's after all the poet of the scatological, talking to his lover "I think that I might lose my wit Celia, Celia, Celia, shits" - and so even at that moment it actually ceases to be an amorous product of the body, as some others may be. Well it depends how, what floats your boat really, doesn't it?

Laurie Taylor:
You encourage me immediately to ask you how as a cartoonist you make use of human excrement and everything associated with human excrement as a metaphor in your satirical drawings?

Martin Rowson:
Well I'm following in a 300 year long tradition in this country of having licensed drawings about poo, which is a wonderful tradition to inherit.

Sometimes editors balk slightly at it, just like people balk at the real thing. I remember during the Tories first encounter with sleaze (another kind of disgusting, dirty word), in the mid-'90s, I was working for Time Out and I'd done three cartoons of John Major getting deeper and deeper up shit creek, so it was just below his nose, and that sort of rather long drooping upper lip he had, the tide was going up, and the editor phoned me up and said: "Look, I'm seriously worried about your mental health you keep on doing all these pictures of shit."

But I said: "Well, if you can think of a better visual metaphor for this government please tell me what it is?" And it is a marvellous visual metaphor because it's abhorrent, there's a taboo against it but also it's part of the voodoo of visual satire.

There was a fantastic cartoon by Gillray, during the Napoleonic Wars, of George III shaped like the British Isles and out of the Solent he is evacuating his body over the French fleet and this was a moment of celebration, that the King was actually sort of discharging the body politic over the invaders.

Amanda Vickery:
Oh so it's heroic, that makes my point...

Martin Rowson:
It's heroic, yeah.

Amanda Vickery:
Not all poo is equal.

Martin Rowson:
As it is when our children produce a solid stool for the first time in the right place - that is heroic.

Amanda Vickery:
A round of applause.

Laurie Taylor:
We've reached this - we've reached a point where I want to see if there are any question that you'd like to address to any of the guests here, pick up on anything they've said or to ask anything.

Wendy Maples:
It's Wendy Maples and my question is really just about this notion of taboo. Thinking about all the television programmes that we have nowadays that investigate other people's detritus, I wonder to what extent is dirt still taboo?

Adam Kuper:
Well taboos change, certain taboos lessen, they decrease, they pass over, new taboos take their place.

Societies need taboos because part of the ways in which we think about the world is that we divide it up, we have more valued and less valued parts, and we police the boundaries in our thoughts and in the places that we create by setting up tabooed areas where you walk on the grass or can't walk on the grass or you can do certain actions here and you can't do certain actions here, you can undress here, you can't undress there.

Taboo is relative to particular spaces, places, times, people. So new taboos come, old ones fall away.

Amanda Vickery:
Although I think that this kind of preoccupation with what we produce and sort of examining it is actually quite early modern, it seems to me to return to an interesting kind of purging the body and I'm sure if early moderns had been offered the option of a colonic enema they'd have gone for it, they'd have thought great - evacuation.

Because in a system where you believe the body is about the humours in balance, it's all about what you excrete and purge through blood and through evacuation as part of maintaining health and matching yourself to the climate.

So in fact I personally don't think we're on the kind of onward march towards [a] taboo-free and hygienic world, I think we share an incredible amount with the early modern past. And also, I think in the past they had their own ideas of cleanliness as well, it's not that we're clean and they were dirty.

Martin Rowson:
I just wanted to make the point that the reason why you have TV programmes, like the one a couple of weeks ago about filthy cities, was because these are taboos and it's titillating - you're transgressing it, therefore it's fun.

Laurie Taylor:
Yes thank you. In the second row here.

Will O'Connor:
I am Will O'Connor from Gryon, Switzerland. There was a cartoon in Switzerland a while ago, a picture of a map of Switzerland and all the romantic countries, France and Italy, were dirty countries and Germany, Lichtenstein, Austria were less dirty countries and that's very strong in the Swiss psyche. I just wondered how do you think of filth and dirt used as a weapon internationally or nationally within a nation?

Amanda Vickery:
It's an 18th Century stereotype that the French might have all these beautiful things that we want but underneath it they're not very wholesome, so that you know we northern Protestants, we're clean and what they are - they just have this sort of surface glamour over grime and that it's all front.

And that's kind of much repeated and particularly something that women are often accused of and that they're sort of covering up their dirtiness with a bit of rouge, which is painted blushes because they've lost their modesty, they've no power to blush but they just paint it on.

So that idea of veneer is something you always accuse other cultures of or other social classes, it's a very useful device for disparaging the manners and material culture of your enemies.

Laurie Taylor:
In this exhibition, those of you who have been round it, will have seen 17th Century Delft tiles, the point being made by their presence here is the - that they were specifically developed to facilitate cleaning and if you look by those tiles as well there are paintings by Pieter de Hooch very clearly demonstrate a belief in cleanliness being next to godliness because you've seen there's a picture in one painting - a woman sweeping the floor while another's feeding the baby and the shadow of a cross is silhouetted on the wonderful clean floor. But tell me about this association which is going here between cleanliness and godliness.

Adam Kuper:
Well it's a very Calvinist idea. There's a lot of argument among Dutch historians about whether cleanliness came before Calvinism but, in any case, when they met [it] was a very, very romantic union because, so far as the Calvinists were concerned, cleanliness was about discipline and it was also a spiritual state.

So the Dutch painters who are painting the domestic scenes, often with women involved in cleaning or being cleaned around, they're representing people living well, living a good holy decent life.

Paintings like De Hooch's paintings are matched by the paintings of filthy pubs with whores and dogs running around the floor and people smoking and drinking, as you get in the paintings of Jan Steen at exactly the same period, and yet Jan Steen, of course, [is] Catholic [and] rather likes these pubs. So the pub - the filth of the pub, the immorality of the pub - is contrasted with the cleanliness and the morality of the home, which is also the Christian home.

Laurie Taylor:
Amanda, the association: health and cleanliness and godliness?

Amanda Vickery:
Well of course, John Wesley famously said cleanliness is next to godliness and he thought that you should reflect on your body your kind of inner spiritual worth, and that was reflected in your cleanliness and the sort of sobriety with your clothes.

So he was always praising his wife for her neatness and cleanliness, and he demanded that the Methodists not be at all slovenly in their dress.

But I think the important thing to remember about the 17th and 18th Centuries is that they're not talking about what we would think of as clean bodies, they imagine them to be clean but they're not submerging their bodies in water, really, until the rise of sea bathing and things because they think that water is positively bad for you because things could get in through the pores.

And so to keep the body in balance you need to scrap off the dirt and what does that is your linen and that sort of chaffs you. It's like a kind of exfoliation with your shirt and your shift. But then your clean linen that gets washed, so a sign of cleanliness is your sparkling white linen at your neck and at your sleeves.

And even the working poor expect to have one shirt on, and one shirt in the wash. So if you can't present yourself as clean then in the eyes of the world you're not respectable, you're not decent - but you're probably unhealthy as well.

Laurie Taylor:
We'll begin to shift now, because of course we're moving towards moments where ideas of cleanliness are [developing]. Medicine's beginning to advance and thus beginning to bring different notions to bear.

Martin, bringing you in here, I think your other fellow cartoonists - George Cruickshank, and William Heath both had a go at illustrating these so-called animal coli, the germs if you like, the first notion that there were living organisms which couldn't be seen by the human eye but which nevertheless attested to the condition of the body.

Martin Rowson:
This wonderful etching by William Heath which shows a Regency woman recoiling in horror and disgust as she's looking through a microscope and you have the large circle and it's called Monster Soup or Thames Water showing all these creatures, these Cyclopes and so on, writhing around in the Thames water.

A Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water - Coloured etching by William Heath, London, 1828

But really it's one of the functions of satire to expose what's underneath. We were talking a minute ago about the finery and showing how clean you are compared to your environment. There's a wonderful Hogarth print from 50 years prior to the William Heath of some French people coming out of a Catholic church in London and they're looking absolutely wonderful, their clothes are magnificent, but they're stepping over this open sewer with a squashed cat and all this sort of detritus around the place. And there Hogarth is actually exposing these people - you know if you tear off their finery they'll be stinking and sweating and pissing just like the rest of us.

And so what the Heath picture is doing is showing that things might appear to be clean and good on the outside but actually we've found this way, scientifically, to discover that it's actually a festering mess.

Laurie Taylor:
That means we're moving away from the idea [that] it is the smell which is somehow responsible for the contagion. Most striking, I suppose, evidence or indication of the advance of hygiene and the concern for hygiene that is illustrated here is the drawings, the pictures, the model of the International Exhibition of Hygiene which opened in Dresden in 1911, where five million people came to see that in the first year. It later went on to be the Museum of Hygiene. An extraordinary phenomenon this, Adam?

Adam Kuper:
Well yes and no. First of all there was a good commercial basis for it, and the man who set it up, I think his name was Lingner, was the manufacturer of a mouthwash called Odol, which was part of the salesmanship.

But this is the moment, the beginning of the 20th Century, late 19th Century, when popular opinion becomes seized of the germ theory of disease.

Once we have the germ theory of disease it's fascinating, it seems to answer a whole lot of questions, it's also a bit frightening. And so you have an exhibition which really says this is how you fight the war against this alien invader that you can't see, that's going to be all around you: germs.

So it was a terrific selling point. The modern idea is that things that are dangerous, dirty and so on, are infectious, they make you ill. Whereas, the traditional idea is that it's polluting, that at some other level it makes you unclean and therefore not able to function properly in society, not acceptable.

So the idea of infection in a way absorbs and renews and changes the old idea of pollution, the meaning of dirt was something that was spiritually bad, morally bad and it becomes something that is physically bad - bad for your health.

Laurie Taylor:
But the idea of the Museum of Hygiene is, if you like, appropriated by the Nazis as a way of describing the Jews - 'the Jews are the dirty ones, they are not hygienic'.

Adam Kuper:
Yes. Very, very commonly people make an analogy between the body and the society and if you start thinking in this way about the body, in terms of infection by these hidden agencies, and you think about society in the same way, what is going to infect society, what is going to cause these illnesses in society, it must be some agents out there that you can identify. So it provides a way of thinking about society.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay, another question.

Terry Plume:
Does the panel have any view regarding the possibility that we might actually be going to such extremes of cleanliness, you know 50 years ago there were soaps to clean, now it has to be antibacterial, so are we actually killing ourselves off with cleanliness?

Amanda Vickery:
Well you can hear me hacking away with my asthma, which is arguably a disease of modern life.

But I think that some things that have been forgotten are on their way back in, like you cut down the rate of infection by very, very basic, everyday things like washing your hands and it doesn't have to be with antibacterial soap.

And apparently women and older people are much better at cutting down the rate of infection by doing these very basic things. And in London at the moment there's a massive moth outbreak caused by central heating and the fact that we don't clean our clothes very often and don't sweep in the back of our cupboards.

Well those early modern housewives would be appalled to think that you didn't air out your cupboards and move - get circulation, put dirty clothes away. Horrors!

Martin Rowson:
My father, who's a virologist, always used to say that penicillin was one of the worst things that happened culturally - not medically but culturally - because it made everybody terribly complacent.

So when AIDS came along there was this terrible panic amongst the medical profession because they weren't used to dealing with infectious diseases and they didn't know what to do about them.

And all the isolation hospitals had [housing] estates built over them and things like this, which is why our hospitals are so deadly in their filthiness now, which is an economic consequence because we don't pay the cleaners enough to make them feel part of the process of keeping the place clean.

Laurie Taylor:
Another question.

John Clark:
My name's John Clark and I wanted to pick up the questions about aliens and alien invaders because one of the striking images in the cholera bit of the exhibition is John Bullprotecting the British against cholera, and cholera is pictured as an entirely oriental figure, complete with turban and loincloth and just that thing about dirt and the categorisation of people seems to me to be Victorian, colonial and perhaps continually present.

Amanda Vickery:
I don't think the idea that somehow these others invading is necessarily [racist]. It might be a racist idea but I don't think it's a kind of recent imperial idea at all because if you look in the medieval past there's lots of jobs that Jews weren't allowed to do, and so you know the kind of jobs that they were given were those which were low down the pecking order, which were not prescribed; [which] were things which were to do with scavenging and second hand clothes, sometimes with certain sorts of surgery.

So then those jobs themselves become seen as dirty and so there's a kind of fusion of the two - that's all that's left for you to do, and you are somehow besoiled by doing them.

But at the same time I think these great heaps of detritus that we produce they are both a sign of the march of civilisation that they're so immense, like the landfill site which is part of the exhibition, but on the other hand they're a kind of place of opportunity and I'm sure many readers will remember Our Mutual Friend and the money that was made from the scavenging on the dust heap.

Laurie Taylor:
There's one thing we haven't talked about at all - and perhaps we're all being a little bit serious about this because ,as we know from the work of people like Martin and we all know from constant jokes that we tell around the office and elsewhere, that there is something sort of very sort of funny about this area, it's a constant source of humour.

I mean toilet humour is a complete category isn't it and children growing up almost have to be weaned off toilet humour, as they have to be weaned off the bottle. It's just something they absolutely love.

Martin, I'm going to come back to you now because are we so judgemental that we somehow ostracise or ignore the obvious pleasure that children get from dirt and mud and excrement and talking about all of that?

Martin Rowson:
Well I mean I have long believed that there is a kind of basic human sense of humour which can be typified thus [raspberry blowing] which has made some some infantile people in this audience laugh.

But if you do that to any child under one anywhere they will laugh because it's the noise that the disgusting stuff that pours out of our bodies on a daily basis makes and it's funny, it is funny.

And I think toilet humour is one of the bedrocks not only of British humour but of humour everywhere because it is: it's funny because it's breaking a taboo, it's also funny because it sort of looks funny, it smells funny, it's talking about it in front of adults [and] makes them very cross and that's funny.

But there's also a pleasure in messiness and dirtiness, again referring back to my own profession, I always thought one of the greatest 20th Century British cartoonists was Ralph Steadman because he's so messy.

You get other cartoonists who do nice neat lines, Ralph just tears the page to pieces, blots all over the place and he's having fun, it's like a kid in a sandpit, just throwing things all over the place.

And of course there's also the other thing we've touched on but haven't gone very deeply into the filthiness of sex - the filthier the sex the better the sex. And I don't know whether it says something about sex or whether it says something about the French but there's that great line by Napoleon who sent a dispatch to Josephine saying: "Home tonight, don't wash."

Amanda Vickery:
Well actually it's a point that the book makes, this idea that perhaps we should celebrate dirt a bit more and I don't know who it is wrote the chapter in the book but here's for a bit of dirty sex. But it gives you - it conjures up this other image of what is clean sex, then. I suppose we imagine it's missionary with the lights out, nightie on.

Laurie Taylor:
It's what they do up mountains in Switzerland.

Amanda Vickery:
In lakes.

Laurie Taylor:

This is an adapted transcript of the Thinking Allowed special recorded at The Wellcome Collection and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on June 8th 2011.

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