99 & 44/100% Pure
From the perspective of a specific range of relevant philosophers, considered in reverse chronological order (Fig 1), this short essay traces the historical course of the relation between the binary of the pure and its opposition (Fig 2). Ingrained into Western thought, purity is a positive term that defines something as being unmixed and thus uncontaminated. Meanwhile something that is impure contains foreign or unnecessary substances. Of course, lexicon is never definitive, but rather establishes communication conventions that reference certain concrete or abstract entities. For Kant, the concept of “pure” relates to an understanding that is not mixed or contaminated by empirical sensation. In this formula, change is impure because alteration has a cause that can only be derived from experience. Thus, intuitive qualities characterize intellectual purity when understanding is unmediated by the physical (impure) world. Given that movement in space and time constitutes the underlying essence of existence, it would then follow that all experience is impure. In the parlance of the "The Dude" Lebowski, this is a “bummer.” Julia Kristeva is a little more hopeful, thinking “in consequence of this placement of subjective space, judgment henceforth prevails over the preestablished dichotomy between pure and impure . . . a spiritualization of both the purity/impurity distinction and the inside/outside division of subjective space is thus effected” (119). Both reality and language are ambiguous, and by allowing the free play of divergence multiplicity, centralized hierarchies disintegrate.
Considering identification of the central and the marginal when observing the universe, I wonder exactly what components are foreign and unnecessary, if any. In this vein, I argue that experience indicates that all things are interrelated in a dynamic amalgamation, rendering the concept of purity as nothing but an abstract illusion. This is in concert with the Derridean notion that forming pairs of binary oppositions simultaneously privileges and marginalizes as it conceptually freezes the system’s “play.” In such analysis, the centrality of the binary is not as important as the relationship between the parts as a system. From this position, dualities can be considered as ambigrams, symbolic representations whose elements shift meaning when viewed or interpreted from different directions, perspectives, or orientations (Fig 2). Rather than a single central authoritarian message, words mean more than what they mean, as “deconstruction seems to offer a way out of the closure of knowledge” (Derrida lxxvii). All centers work to fix the inherently unstable. In this way, they function to both proscribe and exclude, with purity being a particularly insidious center. Decentering is the antidote to uncover the dominance centered on any center.
To advance the idea of purity, let us consider Ivory soap, with its latent advertising buried in the grimy corners of Western civilization. First sold in 1879, the clear marketing idea of purity here attempts to capitalize on the positive connotations of the word. Its alleged extreme desirability derives from its uncontaminated ivory whiteness, its uncanny ability to float on water, and most importantly its 99.44% purity (Fig 3). The ominous trouble is, there is no standard for purity in soap. For that matter, there is no standard for purity in anything. In fact, the Ivory soap bar is clearly a mixture, containing sodium tallowate, sodium cocoate, sodium palm kernelate, water, sodium chloride, sodium silicate, magnesium sulfate, and perfume. But it has just the right touch of technical authenticity to appeal to the great unwashed herd.
Stronger than dirt, the philosophy of purity includes two key components; a description of element singularity and a value judgment. Purity can first be defined as an untainted object or entity opposed to mixing. A mixture contains more than one substance mixed in any proportion. Using appropriate separation techniques, mixtures are divisible into pure substances. The second definition of purity identifies something in possession of benefit, goodness, and/or desirability. This places the contrasting impure mixed condition into a sordid abyss. Elaborating on feelings of universal cleanliness, binaries describe possible areas in which purity, and its dualistic impure opposites, might appear. Any specific thing can be described as pure/impure in physical, conceptual, or ethical domains. Purity as a natural state is inherently also part of the status confabulation. This is because mixing, manipulating, or corrupting are all actions which require external agency. If these outside proceedings cause impurity, then purity is the condition of the object/idea prior to extraneous tampering. Therefore, when something is unmixed it remains in its natural, singular, undisturbed condition. Concepts of nature furnish authority to the implied value structure, which identifies purity as superior and impurity as dreadful. In brittle opposition between purity (clean) and impurity (unclean), Julia Kristeva explores the theme of abjection as a model for discrimination and subjugation. Continuously variable and diverse for each person, the abject is a dynamic function through which identity forms by excluding individual or group boundary hazards. In this regard, the abject is a psychic region where humans encounter numerous binaries such as true/false, subject/object, reason/sensation, and self/other (Fig 2). When incorporated as part of a unified whole, the abject remains positive. On the other hand, when identified with a marginalized polar position, the abject is repugnant. Kristeva physically associates abjection with the human body, offering urine, dung, blood, semen, and even the corpse as examples. When these inhere within the live body they are fully integrated, contributing to the whole. When desperate, however, they become unclean, undesirable, and even obnoxious. Processing an unequivocal boundary determination, abjection is this act of separation.
The abject also operates less literally, because desires, concepts, and ideas can develop into abjection. This method of abjection then becomes one of expression by communicating that which is taboo. In this arena, the abject for Kristeva is closely associated to both spirit and art. These are two potential pathways of abject purification: “The various means of purifying the abject—the various catharses—make up the history of religions, and end up with that catharsis par excellence called art, both on the far and near side of religion” (Kristeva 17). We reject and avoid what is abject, even though recognizing that it is always already within us, defining our boundary. Therefore, Kristeva believes abjection is required to identify ourselves as completely formed individuals (4). In this way, abjection attempts to establish distance from that which we are and are not. Although we may call it a border, abjection is all about ambiguity and thus functions as a shifting ambigram (Fig 1). Flopping positive space with negative space, disconnection forces the abject to become impure. In reference to sociological influence, Ivory soap and clean water roguishly claims to remove the evidences of abjection quickly, easily, and without injury. Fresh air and sunshine will then complete the process of desirable purification.
As Derrida illuminates, looking for the essence, origin, or truth to facilitate an understanding of existence is a prevalent Western tradition. His point is that we are conditioned to habitually seek one essential common feature in defining a word or an idea. Nevertheless, because we are captives of our own perspective, we dance across the playground of knowledge, gliding between binary extremes such as purity and contamination. Furthermore, most Westerners avoid the uncertain void between polar dualities, being generally more comfortable perching on the privileged end of any spectrum. Once a common universal essence is found and defined, our tendency is to defend it from infection. Then we are positioned to use the “transcendental signified” as our foundation to build more structures and arguments (Derrida 20). But in actuality this foundation is faulty, nothing more than a symbolic ambigram (Fig 2). In fact, “one could call play the absence of the transcendental signified as limitlessness of play” (50). Meaning or signification cannot escape its context or contingency, rendering our expressions always already impure, as mixture is the necessary condition of existence. In this mode of thinking, Derrida further developed Heidegger’s Destruktion concept that he subsequently evolved into deconstruction (Heidegger 23).
Heidegger’s overall philosophical project was to challenge the tradition of ontology by uncovering its own internal structure and development. The task of tearing down old ontological concepts includes questioning ordinary everyday meanings of words like being, history, time, origin, mind, matter, truth, evil, essence, and any associated dualities. In this effort, the ontology of life occurs by way of a privative interpretation, because “tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial 'sources' from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn” (Heidegger 43). Here the word primordial seems to correlate to purity, as “Being is the transcendens pure and simple” (Heidegger 34). Furthermore, this task is “one in which by taking the question of Being as our clue we are to destroy the traditional content of ancient ontology until we arrive at those primordial [pure] experiences in which we achieved our first ways of determining the nature of Being—the ways which have guided us ever since” (Heidegger 44).
Nietzsche shares with Heidegger and Derrida skepticism regarding truth claims. Rather than accept established judgments of what determines good and evil, Nietzsche questions preceding assumptions grounding incontrovertible facts. Part of this recognized a “juxtaposition of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ as signs of different estates” (Nietzsche GM 15). Later the associated values of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ developed “in a direction which no longer refers to social standing. We should be wary of taking these terms ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ too seriously, because from the outset the ‘pure man’ was just a man who washed, avoided certain foods which cause skin complaints, did not sleep with the filthy women from the lower orders and had a horror of blood, – nothing more, not much more!” (Nietzsche GM 15).
Nietzsche believed that religion resented excellence and had a strong antagonism against greatness. He attributed this predisposition for mediocrity to the conviction of priests that leveling human desires and passions was the equivalent of holiness. The ‘priests’ operate as a faction of the ruling class of ‘masters’ who distinguish themselves from the other masters by an extreme concern for purity (Nietzsche GM 6–7). This developed by way of the weak resenting the powerful and subsequently interpreting meekness as a virtue to justify their lowly position rather than strive for greatness themselves. In other words, religion inverted traditional values of excellence and creativity since they could not achieve such ends themselves. In a sense, what Nietzsche’s “transvaluation” of morality does is to up-right what has previously been perniciously turned upside-down (GM 203).
Also in Nietzsche, we have the seeds of Kristeva’s notion of the abject as “what does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior” (Kristeva 4). The priests are masters and thus can afford to wash, wear clean clothes, avoid certain noxious or unhealthy foods, and avoid other contamination sources. Slaves have no such satisfaction. Priestly purity, however, has a precarious tendency to develop into more extreme maladies. Experts in asceticism think they are ordained to adjudicate all forms of abjection.
Schopenhauer further complicates Kant’s views of a purity held beyond the empirical and residing wholly independent of the material universe. This pure state transcends life as both “will and representation,” because “in pure natural science, that is to say, in what we know about the course of nature prior to all experience, the content of the science results from the pure understanding” (50). Everything that exists for knowledge, and hence the whole of this world, is only object in relation to the subject, and “as long as our attitude is one of pure perception, all is clear, firm, and certain” (Schopenhauer 35). From this it follows that “there is absolutely no other perfectly pure rational knowledge than the four principles of identity, of contradiction, of the excluded middle, and of sufficient reason of knowledge” (Schopenhauer 50).
In an aesthetic state of mind, two inseparable constituent parts coexist. First comes the “knowledge of the object not as an individual thing, but as a Platonic Idea” (Schopenhauer195). In this realm, the object is a persistent form of the whole species of things. Second is the self-consciousness of the knower, not as individual, but as a pure will-less subject of knowledge. Here “pure knowing, freed and delivered from all willing, is extremely gratifying, and, as such, has a large share in aesthetic enjoyment” (Schopenhauer 200). This aesthetic capacity is intensified in the genius, who is able to “remain in a state of pure perception, to lose oneself in perception, to remove from the service of the will the knowledge which originally existed only for this service” (Schopenhauer 186). The pure knowing subject can abandon interest, goals, willing, and consequently entirely discard the self “for a time, in order to remain, the clear eye of the world” (Schopenhauer 186). In this way, “the knowledge of the genius is the knowledge of the Idea” (Schopenhauer 188).
For Schiller purity is also something that is transcendental and closely affiliated with ideal beauty. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche reveals that Schiller considers the chorus “to be a living wall which tragedy draws about itself in order to shut itself off in purity from the real world and to preserve its ideal ground and its poetic freedom” (38). In the real world are eternal contradictory binaries like matter and form, passive and active, feeling and thought. Although there is no manifest medium residing between such dualities, Schiller believes beauty weds the two opposed conditions of feeling through experience and thinking through reason” (25). Beauty simultaneously leads the sensuous man to form and to thought, while leading the spiritual man to matter and to the sensible. Traversing the labyrinth of aesthetics, “we must start from this opposition; we must grasp and recognize them in their entire purity and strictness, so that both conditions are separated in the most definite matter; otherwise we mix, but we do not unite them” (Schiller 25). Aesthetics makes this connection perfect, with such purity that both conditions disappear entirely in a third one, and no trace of separation remains in the whole. In this way, “all the disputes that have ever prevailed and still prevail in the philosophical world respecting the conception of beauty have no other origin than their commencing without a sufficiently strict distinction, or that is not carried out fully to a pure union” (Schiller 26).
“It is possible for man, at one and the same time, to unite the highest and the lowest in his nature; and if his dignity depends on a strict separation of one from the other, his happiness depends on a skillful removal of this separation. The culture which is to bring his dignity into agreement with his happiness will therefore have to provide for the greatest purity of these two principles in their most intimate combination” (Schiller 34). For Burke beauty is not pure, but rather is the social result of mixed emotions. In some respects, this cycles back around to bodily manifestations elaborated on by Kristeva, as “the object therefore of this mixed passion, which we call love, is the beauty of the sex” (39). Purity, power, and beneficence are the sole providence of angels, because we are born only to be human. In this human condition, we are bound by the sensible. Because we are bound by the condition of our nature, to ascend to pure and intellectual ideas “through the medium of sensible images . . . it becomes extremely hard to disentangle our idea of the cause from the effect by which we are led to know it” (Burke 62). Thus, beauty is some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind, by the intervention of the senses (Burke 102). Winckelmann argues that pure beauty does not exist in nature. Rather the artist conjures perfect art by selecting diverse elements that contain beauty ingredients. Paradoxically by mixing these elements, an idealized image more beautiful than nature itself is produced. In this way, “all beauty is heightened by unity and simplicity, as is everything which we do and say; for whatever is great in itself is elevated, when executed and uttered with simplicity” (Winckelmann 118). As an aid to this synthesis of an idealized beauty, the artist should have studied the art of Greece and Rome, where perfect examples of this idealized beauty occurred (Winckelmann 32).
The word catharsis is derived etymologically from associated words that mean clean and pure. As used by Kristeva it denotes a purging of emotions. This directly references Aristotle, in that “catharsis is not the function of tragedy, but a beneficial effect experienced by the audience (xlii). An emotional catharsis that assists ethical excellence could then also help us strive toward purity of soul, to the extent of our ability. Thus, it is a reasonable inference that emotional catharsis, in Aristotle’s view, is a process that strives toward, but never fully attains, the purity of soul that is the fulfillment and perfection of our nature as rational beings. Tragedy through presenting pity and fear induces the purification of pity and fear (Aristotle 10). Because humans are hybrids of mind and body, we are condemned to an existence not fully belonging to either realm. By focusing on the ethical meaning of purity, Aristotle sees catharsis as a pathway to pure spirituality, effecting a rebalancing not only of an individual soul, but also of the community.
The classic example of purity as an ideal and a concept unencumbered by outside forces occurs in the Platonic dialogs. Plato’s realm of forms is an influential evocation of ideal purity. His Ideal Forms incorporate an unmixed, uncorrupted truth of existence, which is progressively mangled and rendered impure through any and all physical manifestation. Thus, the interpretation of purity into any sort of physical reality is inherently problematic. Art will inevitably defile the purity of the Ideas. Nonetheless, despite his strenuous artistic objections, Plato is an author and thus an artist. His very dismissal of art on theoretical grounds serves as reasonable proof of their importance, for he must use art to communicate his condescension. Purity is one of those words that seems straightforward, but upon close scrutiny expands into a rich, complex concept. All aspects of experience are contingent but subject to interpretation. Fleeting impressions form a selective imaginative memory used to inform future events. In succession, we “are hardly to be reduced to any fixed principles; because men . . . talk of beauty in a figurative manner, that is to say, in a manner extremely uncertain, and indeterminate” (Burke 83). Significance is an unfolding project never fully realized, even when the aesthetic attitude is one of pure perception.
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Malcolm Heath, London: Penguin, 1997.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Edited by Adam Phillips, Oxford World’s Classics, 2009.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri C. Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Heidegger, Martin, and Joan Stambaugh. Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2010
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man, In a Series of Letters. Translated by Reginald Snell. Dover, 2004.
Schopenhauer, Arthur, and E F. J. Payne. The World As Will and Representation. New York: Dover Publications, 1966. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson. On the Genealogy of Morality. Translated by Carol Diethe. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, edited by Raymond Geuss. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Translated by Ronald Speirs. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Plato. Republic. Translated with an Introduction by C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 2004.
Winckelmann, Johann Joachim, and David. G. Irwin. Writings on Art. Translated by David. G. Irwin. London: Phaidon, 1972.