This is an expansion and revision of a talk, "Rot to Cash Crop: Waste, Thrift and Recuperation in Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture" that I presented at "The Green Nineteenth Century" in Milwaukee, WI (2009). Some of this material goes back to my dissertation (2001, NYU).
To him who has nothing it is forbidden not to relish filth.
Samuel Beckett, “Molloy” 1955
...one of the most radical of the moral distinctions between human beings and most of the lower animals; that of which the absence, more than of anything else, renders men bestial; [is] the quality of cleanliness. Can anything be more entirely artificial? Children, and the lower classes of most countries, seem to be actually fond of dirt: the vast majority of the human race are indifferent to it: whole nations of otherwise civilized and cultivated human beings tolerate it in some of its worst forms, and only a very small minority are consistently offended by it. Indeed the universal law of the subject appears to be, that uncleanliness offends only those to whom it is unfamiliar, so that those who have lived in so artificial a state as to be unused to it in any form, are the sole persons whom it disgusts in all forms. Of all virtues this is the most evidently not instinctive, but a triumph over instinct. Assuredly neither cleanliness nor the love of cleanliness is natural to man, but only the capacity of acquiring a love of cleanliness.
John Stuart Mill, On Nature 1874
Discussions of dirt, following the insights of Anthropologist Mary Douglas, position it as a relative value, a conceptual moving target. Yet dirt itself is the literal base of rural culture. Representations of dirtiness in 19th century visual culture, literature and criticism articulate relationships of class, place and value: relationships posited between the viewer and the rural worker; the bodies and living spaces of rural people and animals; the place of an image's exhibition and the place it depicts; the value of an image as object and the value (or lack thereof) of accumulated waste. But the visual ordering of base matter as waste, filth or dirt is not simple or absolute. This post positions images amid snippets of travel narratives and other texts to examine how all of these representations work in the ongoing processes of making and interpreting signs of place, class, sexuality and identity.
|Pioneer Woman with a wheelbarrow of Dried Buffalo Dung.|
|Pay to Pass: A woman pays a street sweeper to cross a gangplank over a dirty street (color litho)|
From a series of types on the streets of Paris, c. 1820s after Horace Vernet.
According to Julia Kristeva’s psychoanalytic study of abjection (1982), bodily waste and other forms of defilement are “what life withstands” … for “dung signifies the other side of the border—the place where I am not" (3). Within modern capitalist culture, ritual is no longer invoked to successfully resolve this problem of waste, for now contradictory notions of use value and exchange value are bound up in this system. Kristeva shows us that as we work to constitute ourselves as individuals, we try to extricate or distance ourselves from that which we term waste. Yet as literary critic Anne McClintock remarks, building upon Douglas and Kristeva, the abject inhabits “ the cusp of domesticity and market, industry and empire” and it “returns to haunt modernity as its constitutive, inner repudiation: the rejected from which one does not part”( Imperial Leather, 72).
Olivier Perrin, one of the first illustrators to represent rural Breton life, includes a pair of pigs feeding from a bucket that sits beside the cradle of a sleeping child. The shape of the bucket is echoed by the covered three-legged cooking pot that sits beside the wooden bench, that itself is before the open box bed (the pot placed there looks suspiciously like a chamber-pot). This one-room cottage is thus a very mixed space of work (the mother spins), sleep (for the child and father who dozes by the fire) cooking and the feeding of animals.
For many nineteenth travel writers, identifying their encounters with rural life as dirty or filthy was a way of both defining and imaginatively crossing culturally constructed boundaries of gender, class and location. Sociologist Alain Corbin notes that early travelers in the French countryside, ill-prepared by reading the idylls of pastoral poetry, were often shocked by the filthy life of the peasants they encountered. In many rural households, farm animals and people lived side by side in winter—the heat of the stable warming the domestic space: “the stench of dung coupled with the odors of laundry and washing-up, the exhalations of putrid and fermented scents from stable and dairy located too close by were the basic elements of the picture” (156). These typical elements of the Breton cottage interior (frequently re-presented today in many museums of rural life in Brittany) were repeated throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in prints, paintings and photographs.
|Olivier Perrin, The Cradle, illustration from Galerie Bretonne ou vie des Bretons de l’Armorique c. 1808.|
|Charles Géniaux, Common room of a peasant house in Morbihan, Brittany, open to the stable, early 20th century (MuCEM)|
|a typical Breton box-bed|
Between these pieces of carved, wooden, built-in furniture sits a boy in wooden clogs and work pants who turns away from the camera and toward the heads of three cows who are eating from the rough wooden trough before them. The animal space of the barn and the human spaces of the home are wed together, again, to suggest that the peasant family draws no boundaries between domestic space of eating and sleeping and animal dirt and odor.
|Giovanni Segantini, Two Mothers, 1889. |
Galleria d’Arte Moderna Milan.
|Gauguin, Woman in the Hay with Pigs: In the Full Heat of the Day, 1888.|
An overt erotic charge is often produced by the closeness of peasant women to farm animals. In a painting from his time in the South of France, Gauguin depicts a rural female worker, wearing her cap but nude to the waist. Beside her, kicked by her clog is the hind end of a pig, whose presence heightens the perception of her own animal sexuality (Silverman 230). In the foreground is another yellow/orange form: is this more hay or another animal rump? This thing, the pig, the clog are illogical fragments that just barely make sense. Her sunburnt, pink claw of a hand is outstretched—emphasizing the exposure of her skin to the sun—and now to the scratchy rawness of hay. Her bare breasts are pressed to the hay bale that is strangely blue (in the shade?) or is it a boulder or something else peeled back (like laundry), furled out or unfolded like the clothes at her waist? Images of noonday rest had often implied a sexual encounter, but this single, partially undressed woman seems to be having an imagined sensual experience with the materials of the landscape (and the pigs are only getting in the way).
Gauguin painted this in Arles, where all workers tried to escape the noonday sun of summer--but it could hardly have been from observation as this image imagines a quite uncomfortably tactile or haptic encounter with various and ambiguous sorts of materiality. As William Cohen, writes in FILTH, "by the time one has encountered and repudiated filth, it is too late—the subject is already besmirched by it. In this way, filth challenges the very dichotomy between subject and object. It does so according to a psychoanalytical logic, whereby repulsion and attraction unconsciously converge, and phenomenologically as well: the filth of the object defiles the subject who, identifying it as such, has had to rub up against it.” The longer I look at Gauguin's puzzling painting, the stranger I feel: sunburnt, itchy and irritated.
The peasant images of Symbolists Gauguin and Segantini built upon an earlier nineteenth century tradition of the peasant's relationship to dirt and farm animals in realist imagery. The "authentic" rustic reputations of painters John Constable and Jean Francois Millet depended upon their intimate and material knowledge of the rural landscape and its labors, including the digging and spreading of animal manure.
|A Muck Spreader, c. 1830. Popular British Print.|
Constable’s View of Dedham of 1814-5 (Boston), features a great dung-heap before an expansive view of the artist’s native Suffolk landscape. The remarkable anecdote that always accompanies this painting recounts its commission as a wedding gift to a young lady as a “symbol of good husbandry.” The image of the dung spreader was a common rustic type of laborer but Constable locates his workers on the other side of the pile from us—further back than in initial studies for this painting-- this filthy labor is thus naturalized as a seasonal task performed in the cyclical time of the rural landscape. Michael Rosenthal writes on the inclusion of manure as a marker of the work's modernity: “Constable’s iconography was resolutely contemporary, and the last thing you would associate with Claude would be a dunghill...manure [was] essential for heavier crops, indicated that these farmers knew their business.” (1983, 86). Rosenthal also notes that several English poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries wrote odes to muck heaps, and that the Georgic mode of praising the intelligent management of the land could accommodate this ‘low’ subject.
|Jean-François Millet, Peasant Spreading Manure, 1855. Raleigh, N.C.|
Some of Millet's supportive critics praised the poetic ability of his painting painting to transcend the filthy: one reviewer wryly comments that ever since the fables of la Fontaine “there had been none but Millet who could find pearls in manure.”(A. de Belloy Salon de 1868). Yet other critics complained that the widespread representation of rural life in Salon painting of the 1860s had brought on an invasion of village life that dragged in with it “its wooden clogs and manure.” (Alexis de Calonne, “Salon de 1861” La Revue Contemporaine).
The reception of Millet's realism, like that of Courbet, had been bound up in dirt. Nadar’s 1852 caricature of the painter at work resembles either a human profile or a very strange, hilly landscape. On further inspection, perhaps both: a portrait of animated land, quickened to human likeness in the tradition of popular 16th-century Netherlandish anthropomorphic landscapes-- but most likely a parody of the Sower of 1850, whose hatted figure, striding downhill under wheeling birds, has been radically simplified and combined such that the figure and land (indeed the figure and ground) are one.
|Millet, The Sower, 1850, Boston MFA.|
The caricatured image echoes both Théophile Gautier’s comment that The Sower seems to be ‘painted with the very earth he is sowing,’ and Michelet’s earlier description of the French peasant --as a "man of the earth"--who lives completely in it --who seems formed in its image. In Nadar’s version, The Sower is a remade by the caricatured Millet in a portrait that transcends likeness, preferring primordial matter. Because its painter uses earth-working tools rather than the usual implements of painting, the signifier and the signified are brought ever closer: binding up its dirty literalness in a tight semiotic bundle. The caricature neatly encapsulates the material confluence of paint, dirt, painter and peasant body in the mid-19th-century critical reception of Realism. It is important to clarify that, in this body of discourse, dirt is spoken of as soil or ‘la terre’ when it is the literal earth worked by the peasant; yet dirt is also ‘matter out of place,’ in the terms laid out by Douglas when the body of the peasant and its degree of dirtiness is at stake. Although a semantic disjunction between French (terre/sale) and English (dirt/dirty) would seem to complicate the equation, the terms ‘sale’ and ‘terreux’ frequently collide in 19th-century description of Realist paint surfaces, particularly those describing lower class bodies. Although dirt was the base and basis of rural reality, critics found painting that brought too much of it to the surface blurred the boundaries between medium and message.
|Man with a Wheelbarrow, also known as Peasant Returning from the Manure Heap 1848-52 (Indianapolis Museum of Art).|
Millet's many images of peasants moving muck from barn to heap to field, depict a network of human, animal and earth, all generally subsumed under the category of "nature."
Michael Thompson's Rubbish Theory of 1979 discusses economic systems under which waste objects come to be revalued. Whereas most commodities are conceived of as either transient or durable, many things can move between categories—thus waste may be recuperated as valuable matter. Yet Thompson argues that the very concept of value is predicated on – and needs-- the idea of rubbish. Extending this discussion, Cohen remarks that “anything designated filthy cannot be reused, at least until it is renamed or reconceived as waste or trash, which can be recycled. The potential for this reimagining means that the regenerative fantasy hovers at the edge of the filth that excludes it. In this way too, filth seems at once to occupy one side of the subject / object divide and to undo the opposition itself."
In Zola's Earth, recycling or compost mania grips Zola’s “modern farmer” Hourdequin, who, he tells us has experiment with the fertile potential of a vast array of filth: from “road-sweepings” “wool-waste” to “odd shovelfuls of muck, dead animals, decomposing dog-droppings or filth drained from ponds,” he has run the gamut of waste. Yet, at the end of this exhaustive inventory, he declares, “there’s nothing like good farm muck. The trouble is there’s never enough of it. And then again people spoil it, they don’t know either how to prepare it or use it.” (392) Thus waste itself may be wasted when the chance is not taken to reclaim it. Zola’s “realist” novels certainly expressed many a bestial fantasy about the lives and “natural” drives of the peasant, yet these descriptions of peasant manure hoarding ring true with many environmental histories of farming that recount the scarcity of manure in Europe (that drove the global trade in guano).
The nineteenth century peasant “manure economy” was summed up by one German pastor who remarked that “The peasant will do everything to get a lot of manure.” In his memoirs, Breton farmer Jean-Marie Deguinet (1834-1904), himself an expert in converting wasteland to fertile fields (and reusing even dishwater in animal feed) likewise mentions that the worth of a farmer could be measured by his manure pile.