VICTORIAN DIRT

William Cohen, William Cohen
unpublished
Every idea about our Victorian forebears is in some sense an idea about ourselves. Knowledge of the past is inevitably refracted through the present. The phrase "Victorian dirt" invites consideration in part because it strikes us as an oxymoron: even with all we know about the range and variety of human experience in the nineteenth century, it is hard not to cling to the caricature of the Victorians as stuffy prudes who found the very idea of dirt alarming, not to say unthinkable. The phrase
more » ... mises disenchantment, titillation, and defamiliarisation. With the presumed superiority of our own acuity and worldliness, and the privileges of hindsight, we harbour the fantasy that we may know the Victorians better than they knew themselves. What we learn from such investigations, however, is just how attached we are to values of cleanliness and sanitation, which makes the discovery of nineteenth-century dirt a perpetual experience of joyful disgust and self-affirming discomfort. Even more, perhaps, we learn how attracted we are to the experience of revelation itself: the unveiling of the hidden, the secret, the unknown-even when the constituents of that knowledge can hardly continue to surprise us. So why, we might ask, are we so interested in Victorian dirt-what's in it for us? One answer has to do with what we might term the materiality of material or, in other words, the objects and processes it groups together and allows us to think about collectively and concretely. Victorian dirt encompasses facts and feelings about sanitation, disease, poverty, the physical environment (including air and water pollution), personal hygiene, sexuality, and pornography. These are topics of manifest concern as much to the twenty-first century as to the nineteenth, and they point to a second answer to the question of what's in it for us. This answer has to do with the ways of thinking that a focus on dirt enables: namely, by lending form to potentially abstract ideas, dirt yokes together all-too-tangible things and the most metaphorical and ethereal ones. This I might hazard to call the material of materiality. Reflections on dirt extend rapidly, for instance, to considerations of consumer capitalism, with its reliance on waste and replenishment; of distinctions among races, genders, classes, and nationalities, whereby different populations are marked as polluted; and of
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