The scene is domestic. One woman kneels beside a cauldron of boiling water, ready to scrub linen, while another towers over her, offering advice. Other references to housework include a shaken mat hanging on a wooden fence in the middleground, and the water faucet, bucket, and bristly broom occupying the right foreground. Only a few fragile shrubs have managed to survive within this managed urban space; paving stones line a courtyard which is delineated by brick walls and a latched wooden door, currently open to reveal a pristine sidewalk. The image is about enclosure, containment, containers. What the hell is FFG on about, you might be asking yourself. Is she watching an episode of Hoarders? Are the psychologist-maids forcing that crazy lady to wash the dead cats out from under her bed again? Or maybe FFG is referring to another punitive reality TV show, like How Clean is your House?, Clean Sweep, Clean House, or the more inventively titled Mission: Organization? Perhaps our favourite blogger, who has earlier confessed to obsessive tidiness, is reading the latest edition of Canada’s longstanding ‘feminist’ magazine, Chatelaine, its pink cover splashed with the words ‘Declutter!,’ or (god forbid) the March 2012 O Magazine, its pink headline ecstatically promising tips on how to ‘De-Clutter Your Life!’ Better yet, maybe FFG is describing the events that took place during last week’s ‘lady’s choice role playing date night.’ Oh no. Did her long-suffering partner really have to wear a dress and do chores outside?
Of course not, you adorable quiz masters. He usually scours the transvestite naughty mat inside the house, while I glower and take photos. [They are currently for sale: $10 each]. I am actually describing a work by the Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch, called
Woman and Maid in a Courtyard, from about 1670, on display in the National Gallery in London England. [Aside: I am headed to England next Friday and will be blogging from there, but likely not about rubber wear. Sorry to disappoint]. Such images of women doing laundry, polishing floors, and storing linen were incredibly popular during the seventeenth century in the Dutch Republic. According to historian Simon Schama, in his influential but much critiqued book, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (1987), the Dutch people dealt with the anxiety caused by the clash between their luxurious lifestyles—an average household owned nine original paintings—and austere Calvinist beliefs, by focusing on order. Cleanliness was godliness, and so they washed the streets by hand, while sweeping the pesky guilt feelings caused by gluttony and the lucrative nature of the slave trade under an expensive Turkish rug. After reading his study, I have a new appreciation for Old Dutch powder, and will use it to remove sin rings from my bathtub.
So what do you think of my contemplative rather than pissy mood this week? What’s that you say? ‘Thanks for the pompous art history lesson, jackass, but we are not laughing. Bring on the zombies and the cat poo?’ Yes, yes, all that is coming. But first, allow me to consider the nature of our contemporary hygiene frenzy. Everywhere I look I see storage boxes, file folders, California closets, and tips about how to organize one’s home, body, and mind. What is our major malfunction? Do we harbour Dutch-like remorse about our own excessive consumption? Our current concern with appropriate forms of consuming is to a degree religiously based—cleanliness is still linked with morality, and gluttony/obesity with carnality—but the stakes are a little different. Our anxieties revolve around the growing awareness that the western lifestyles that many (including me) enjoy, both exploit disadvantaged people and destroy natural resources. It is difficult to solve this problem without some major ideological shifts and sacrifices, so instead we are asked to consume better by rearranging our goods and sorting our garbage. We are advised to put our shit away where no one can see it, creating a huge market for storage bins and dresser drawers. Go Ikea!
This regulation of material items creates better ‘selves’ because identity is associated with interiority. The notion that we have hidden depths overflowing with wonderfulness, revealed only to the intimate few in our lives, dates from—you guessed it—the early modern period. At that time, domestic spaces were slowly recreated to feature rooms with specific functions (consider the exotic ‘bedroom’ reserved for sleeping and other physical indulgences), and stockpiled things formerly pinned to walls or hung from hooks were moved into closeable containers. In other words, private spaces, and thus the concept of privacy itself, were invented hand in hand with the creation of individual selves in need of cultivation and classification. That is why the chubby unkempt woman cried when forced to throw away fifty ratty blue sweaters, and neatly fold the remaining six. Why Jeri Jo stopped to check the bags being removed by the anti-hoarding team, ensuring they did not toss out her cat-poo infested doll collection. These people literally do not exist without the presence of such material goods. In that sense, they are simply good capitalists like the rest of us, but bad consumers. For our economic system relies on using shit up: ‘out with the old, in with the new.’ How else to keep the whole thing going? Contemporary western capitalism depends on continual expenditure, and maybe even on what Georges Bataille would call ‘glorious expenditure.’ He argues that waste is crucial to the economy, requiring periodically glorious or catastrophic expenditures of excess energy. Think World War Two. Or a weekend in Las Vegas.
I was not suprised, then, to find that the recent O Magazine—which I purchased shamefully at a local London Drugs, hiding it amongst a pile of 2-for-1 hair care products—featured wardrobe sorting tips alongside articles about how to consume more stuff, and Dr. Oz’s ‘Two Day Wonder Cleanse,’ designed to optimize your body’s natural detox system, helping it run better by ridding it of pollutants. Waste management is indeed our current bugbear, and signs of increasing anxieties about bingeing and purging are everywhere. Which brings me back to zombies. The Walking Dead is about a catastrophic purge in which accumulated garbage-flesh overwhelms civilization, and forces everyone to recycle. Our worst nightmare.