Against purity!

I just submitted the final edits on the book I’ve been working on, Against Purity: Living in Compromised Times. The last parts of working on a piece of writing are always a bit of a let-down, consisting as they usually do of checking references and correcting typos, and the stage I’m at makes me nervous because from now on I can’t make any more content-level changes to the text. But I’ve been happy to periodically like my own book as I’ve been doing the quotidian typo-finding:

“The “moves” involved in the not-simple “purity made simple” facewash, in NIMBY politics, in avoiding BPA, in eating organic (or vegan or paleo or sugar-free), or in doing monthly detoxifying “cleanses” may seem very different than each other. And they may seem very different in turn than other practices I explore in this book — practices of forgetting in relation to our implication in colonialism or the history of disease designation, for example. There are obvious real differences involved, but they are threaded together. Let’s call the line that links them “purity politics,” or “purism.” What’s needed, instead of a pretense to purity that is impossible in the actually existing world, is something else. We need to shape better practices of responsibility and memory for our placement in relation to the past, our implication in the present, and our potential creation of different futures.

I should say — since I try not to use the unsupported yet urgent imperatives so prevalent on the left (“we need,” “we must”), instead shifting from categorical to hypothetical imperatives — if we want a world with less suffering and more flourishing, it would be useful to perceive complexity and complicity as the constitutive situation of our lives, rather than as things we should avoid. The actions that come out of the rather undefined idea of wanting a world with less suffering is, perhaps needless to say, a moving target, and one that raises more questions than it answers. Less suffering for whom? How is suffering measured? Who has the capacity to perceive entanglement, and who has capacity to respond? To say that we live in compromised times is to say that although most people aim to not cause suffering, destruction, and death, simply by living, buying things, throwing things away, we implicate ourselves in terrible effects on ecosystems and beings both near and far away from us. We are inescapably entwined and entangled with others, even when we cannot track or directly perceive this entanglement. It is hard for us to examine our connection with unbearable pasts with which we might reckon better, our implication in impossibly complex presents through which we might craft different modes of response, and our aspirations for different futures toward which we might shape different worlds-yet-to-come.

In this book, I argue against purism not because I want a devastated world, the Mordor of industrial capitalism emerging as from a closely aligned alternate universe through our floating islands of plastic gradually breaking down into microbeads consumed by the scant marine life left alive after generations of overfishing, bottom scraping, and coral reef-killing ocean acidification; our human-caused, place-devastating elevated sea levels; our earth-shaking, water poisoning fracking; our toxic lakes made of the externalities of rare-earth mineral production for so-called “advanced” electronics; our soul-and-life destroying prisons; our oil spills; our children playing with bits of dirty bombs; our white phosphorus; our generations of trauma held in the body; our cancers; and I could go on. I argue against purism because it is one bad but common approach to devastation in all its forms. It is a common approach for anyone who attempts to meet and control a complex situation that is fundamentally outside our control. It is a bad approach because it shuts down precisely the field of possibility that might allow us to take better collective action against the destruction of the world in all its strange, delightful, impure frolic. Purism is a de-collectivizing, de-mobilizing, paradoxical politics of despair. This world deserves better.”


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