When I was a boy, “dirty” was the epithet of choice for the hated other. It wasn’t enough to call someone any of the slurs for being Jewish or black or Latino. You had to put “dirty” before it.
The genealogy of the insult was firmly established in the history of the world. Your tribe-your “people”-guaranteed sameness of experience. You and they shared physical characteristics, language and idiom, customs and culture, geographical place, chains of friends and acquaintances. Purity of context meant consistency of experience. Homogeneity protected you against life’s terrible shocks and jolts. Dirt was “out there.” Your house rose from the dirt; if you fell behind in life’s race, you would fall in the dirt; you yourself came from the dirt and would be buried in it. The “other”-the inexplicable stranger, the blow from outside, the shock from nowhere-was, in his or her inimical alienness, essentially dirt.
Our great blessing is that this fearful mythologizing of the other that hangs around the world’s neck has mostly vanished in America. Tribal virulence is still a potent force in this country, but its anathemas are not as visceral. To call anyone “dirty” somehow feels self-conscious and outdated. Even bigots have to see the multicultural world in multicultural colors now, whether they like it or not. We are so beautifully saturated with otherness everywhere we look that dirt itself is unavailable to quavering psyches as a metaphor. In multicultural America, dirt is simply a literal, morally neutral fact.
Well, maybe not so morally neutral at that. Soil is the new dirt, and soil is good. (The old, bad dirt has become germs and bacteria-out of sight, out of mind, until the next scare of terrorism or disease.) The organic movement could well be the sign of a more cosmopolitan society. Rather than feeling surrounded by dirt against which we have to protect ourselves, more and more of us believe that our environment abounds in soil in which we can sow better futures. As we have grown to feel comfortable with all sorts of different-seeming people, we have learned that dirt is the unifying origin of life, not merely its reducing finale. As the “other” has become us, dirt has become soil.
The essential principle of pornography—watching as the pleasure principle—has become the normal crux of our days.
Even the identification of urban areas with dirt, and the suburbs or the country with cleanliness or at least less dirt, is now passé. New York as a “dirty” place is so ’70s-so, you know, Kojak. No doubt the city is in better hygienic shape than it was in that depressed, recessionary decade, but Gotham is still as grimy as any bustling capital of the world. Yet no one nowadays would think of applying “dirty” pejoratively to New York. The city is too expensive to live in, for one thing. But the variegated wholeness of the five boroughs has changed in other ways, too. Consider Kojak again. In the recent revival of that old TV series, the egregiously ethnic (read: tribal) Telly Savalas was replaced by the black, “differently” named Ving Rhames. American cities are less and less divided into tribal enclaves. As the idea of aliens inhabiting another neighborhood has dissipated, so has the conception of New York-and any great American city-as a dangerous, “dirty” place.
Of course, along with the negative meaning, the positive connotations of dirt have vanished, too. If the other was repulsively dirty, the other was also deliciously dirty. That’s because sex was once publicly held to be dirty, and so sex with the dirty other was exponentially more exciting and fulfilling. Now sex itself has famously lost its thrilling association with dirt. This is too bad because human beings need what the philosopher Jean Wahl once called “transcendence downward.” We need to be able to mock death by re-creating its deconstruction of our routine and material lives and then recovering our ordinariness once again. You get “down and dirty,” and then it’s a shower and clean clothes and back to work again on Monday.
Not anymore. As we’ve become a “society of the spectacle,” to borrow a phrase; as we’ve grown accustomed to spending most of our time watching our computer screens, and our iPad screens, and our iPhone screens, and our TV screens, and our movie screens, the essence of pornography-watching as the pleasure principle-has become the normal crux of our days. Sex was once the epitome of dirt because sex is the total merging of familiar experience with the alienness of the other. But now, with the routinization of pornography, sex has become the new purity-you spend the weekend with your iThings, and then it’s a shower and clean clothes and back to pornography on your computer at work on Monday. Pornography makes sex antiseptic and severs contact with the other. Solipsism is the new tribalism.
Follow the revolutions in the career of dirt and you encounter one “new” reality after another. Here’s the final one: Movie violence is the new movie sex. With the normalization of pornography’s isolated rituals of sex, sex no longer has a place in the context of story or character. The untitillating boredom of sex as part of a character’s life and a plot is certainly why violence has a wider appeal than sex to the teenagers who make up the global market for movies. Who wants to figure out the motivations driving Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct when you can just watch some blonde screwing some guy on one of a zillion Web sites? What used to be called “sex scenes” are being phased out of American movies, even as computer-generated images are making American violence as aesthetically refined as Japanese violence. Indeed, ever since John Malkovich put Clint Eastwood’s gun in his mouth in In the Line of Fire, movie violence has acquired the stylistics of movie sex.
But then, unlike sex, violence has never been considered dirty. Rather, violence has always been how you “clean” up the “dirt.” Dirty Harry was culturally immaculate, remember? Now he’s Pixelated Harry, and that violence in which he specialized has almost banned sex from film. Maybe we haven’t come so far after all.