This article is part of the following series: Dispatches from the pandemic
The video shows two women coming to blows over a packet of loo rolls; the manager intervenes, trying to calm them down. One of the women has a supermarket trolley full of toilet paper. The other yells in despair: “I only want one, just give me one!”, and the reply comes back, in the same tone: “no, not even one, they’re all mine!”
We’re living through a global crisis of uncertainty and of fear of mortality. To know ourselves to be mortal is to embrace or to confront our own animality, our own finitude. And there are few things that remind us so vividly of our animal nature than our bodily fluids.
The only bodily fluid that we don’t share with animals are tears, and we are rarely repulsed by other people’s tears. We are far more likely to be disgusted by saliva, sweat, or excrement. Our repugnance for these fluids has been explained from two standpoints. The first is evolutionary: we feel aversion towards anything that might make us ill. Secondly, seen from the humanities and social sciences, disgust is not understood as a survival instinct, but as a social practice that is deeply linked to a sense of immortality.
Hygiene makes us human, it separates us from our animal nature, it distinguishes us. To feel repugnance is to feel human, and thus to nurture a fantasy of immortality that is unique to humanity. This is why historically, those responsible for cleaning others’ dirt – such as slaves, or today, domestic workers (most of them women) – have generally been marked as not entirely human. Dirt, imagined or imposed, dehumanises: this is why preventing prisoners from washing is a so often torture device. As Nussbaum (2009) explains, we have always needed groups of human beings to define as Others, as those who render visible the line that separates the human from the animal. Racism feeds off this idea as does sexism. Traditional Western philosophy defines woman as “almost human” (Antony, 1997), this is perhaps why women have been considered a classical subject of repulsion for centuries. Childbirth embodies our animal nature, and thus our bodies’ mortality. The growing number of (invasive and risky) Caesarean births in the world is one more example of our attempts to render childbirth hygienic, to make it less animal.
People buy toilet paper because they are afraid of their animality: that is, the knowledge that we will ultimately die. In the midst of a pandemic such as this, to feel our own animality, and therefore our mortality, strikes us with fear. Mary Douglas (2003), in her book Purity and Danger, defines dirt as “matter out of place”, as something that challenges all our classifications, the order that we give to things and therefore the stability on which we so depend. What we are living through now is just that: an event in which everything seems out of place, and which feeds a social anxiety to classify, to order, to avoid dirt, “contagion”, and therefore uncertainty. We clean whatever is within our reach, whatever threatens to strip us of our humanity.
Disgust towards bodily fluids and fear of mortality vary across cultures and have changed throughout history. The histories of Europe and the Americas tell us that we used to live much closer to death and human waste; we didn’t hide away to defecate. But from the Renaissance onwards, our institutions developed a repugnance for what our bodies produced, and they came up with all manner of rituals, laws, and regulations, as well as a whole industry built around disposing of them decorously.
This history has been described as a “civilising process” that involved casting off public displays of violence and aggression, asking people to concealing themselves while urinating or defecating, creating decorated toilets, inventing an industry of personal hygiene, and placing attention on refined manners (Elias, 1994). The shock of two women fighting over toilet paper may be explained by the contradiction that they embody: they want the paper to maintain their civility, but in their panic they forget its forms and neglect the civic spirit.
As Laporte (2000) suggests in his book History of Shit, the decree that prohibited from defecating in public in 16th-century France was part of an individualising process that would ultimately transform notions of intimacy and strengthen the imaginary separation between the public and private spheres. Sayings such as “Don’t wash your dirty linen in public” show how the politics of waste stakes out boundaries: between home and state, between individual and communal life. The current crisis needs a form of collective, communal action – social distancing – that in turn depends on the intimacy represented by the home.
The contradictory separation between public and private life had never been as exposed as it is now; private life and action have always been public and vice versa. The state has always intervened into the domestic sphere in one way or another: this crisis is a perfect example. The desire to become civilised intensified during the 19th century with the discovery of microbes and that era’s concern for hygiene. New life was breathed into the old association of cleanliness with morality when hygiene acquired a scientific justification and the mission to help save lives. States, under the aegis of science, created health and hygiene policies, strengthening the links between cleanliness, civic spirit and morality. The current virus reestablishes this bond once more but additionally confronts us with unexpected deaths.
The fear of dirt and mortality revealed by the current urge to hoard toilet paper, as well as the fear of coronavirus itself, also has a class dimension. Pandemics reinforce hierarchies and there are certainly some that have been disproportionally affected. However, there is a sense of shared vulnerability from which lessons must be learned. Coronavirus reminds us that we all need each other; that maybe it was an act of collective suicide to believe, after Margaret Thatcher, that “there is no such thing as society”; and that strengthening public health is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
Douglas, M. (2003). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London and New York: Routledge.
Elias, N. (1994). The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners and State Formation and civilization. (Trans. E. Jephcott). Oxford: Blackwell.
Laporte, D. (2002). History of Shit. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.
Antony, L. M. (1997). “Human Nature” and Its Role in Feminist Theory in Kourany, J. A. (Ed.). Philosophy in a Feminist Voice: Critiques and Reconstructions. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Nussbaum, M. C. (2009). Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Translation by David M.J. Wood
Abril Saldaña-Tejeda is associate professor of sociology at the Department of Philosophy, Universidad de Guanajuato, Mexico. Her research focuses on the intersections of race, class and gender and has an especial interest on reproduction. Her later projects look into the social determinants of health, genomics and postgenomics. She is currently the principal investigator of a project titled Global divisions of health; bioethical principles, practices and regulations on human genome editing and stem cell research in Latin America financed by the Wellcome Trust.
Ariadna Acevedo-Rodrigo is associate professor of history at Cinvestav, Mexico City. She works on the history of education and science, particularly as it intersects with issues of race, ethnicity and alterity. She co-edited with Paula López Caballero, Beyond Alterity. Destabilizing the Indigenous Other in Mexico. University of Arizona Press. 2018.