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Lecture - Matter out of Place: Abhorrence of the Lost Limit in the Thinking of Mary Douglas and Julia Kristeva

  • ECTS credits0
  • Teaching semesterSpring
  • Course codeKMD-TEO-109
  • Number of semesters1
  • Resources

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Objectives and Content

If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old

definition of dirt as matter out of place.

Mary Douglas


A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death - a flat encephalograph, for instance - I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being

Julia Kristeva

How do we think and behave in the presence of the clean and the polluted, the sanitary and the contaminated, the pure and tainted. What sort of symbolic relation is held in the notion of adulterated vs. the unadulterated, the pure vs. the impure? And, most importantly, how does this discussion, and living with the notions of the sullied and the sanitary, manifest themselve in

individual desires and actions in the social realm?

For both Douglas, in her notion of material out of place, and Kristeva, with her concept of the abject, the concept of the filthy and the clean was the means a society used to stabilized itself and create individuals who reject the chaos of the unclear and questionable border. In the Cultures of the Clean, the open, dirty lines of the misplaced was always to be met by a horrific revulsion in the individual and a grand moral horror by the social. This fearful nausea and abhorrence to the defiled was the cultural mechanism and communal operation to the creation of solidified and static borders of all objects by which a society founded its being. Leakage was horror manifested.

"Matter out of place", for Douglas implied the existence of an strong social system while established organization and order while marking its contravention as material leakage of corruption of Order and Being. Dirt as both symbolic and the physical unclean in contradistinction to the organization of the world.

In a like mode Kristev's concept of the abject sees human repulsion as the reaction to endangered breakdowns in understanding instigated by the loss of the boundaries between subject-object, self-Other, object-object, self-self. The Abject is triggered in the lack of distinctions which cuts through the categories of subjectivities and the dissolutions of the world. The Abject erupts where the

border "is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses" . Horror and abhorrence is met at the fleeing from the Flows of the world.

This lecture will look at both Douglas's and Kristeva's ideas about the horrors of the broken boundary and follow line of argumentation, from the socio-anthropological fears of the animal to the egoindividual desires for a correct symbolic order.