Culture  Too fresh, too clean

“Soap” explores our society’s fear of dirt

North Americans are obsessed with being clean in every way possible. We fear anything and everything from germs and dust, to weeds, sewage, and even snow. We (and I use this word loosely) use a cocktail of chemicals in our daily struggle against dirt. We clean, clean, clean, and not only do we maintain our own personal hygiene, we expect that the second we leave our home, the streets of Montreal will be clean as well.

This obsession with cleanliness is a topic brought forth by the presentation “Soap,” held in Montreal at the Canadian Centre for Architecture on Tuesday, February 16. Through a series of arrangements led in Pecha Kucha format, the presenters demonstrated the moral and social implications of what is means to be clean, if not too clean. What is clean? What are we losing by having an obsession with being clean? Is the very idea of being clean part of larger issues of a city’s morality and politics?
The desire for cleanliness has manifested itself in both personal and public hygiene to the point where it seems almost innate. Cleanliness habits have been deeply ingrained in the North American personality throughout generations, becoming a reflection of the growth of the urban modern city and the ideals brought forth with it. “Soap” investigated the history of cleanliness in Montreal, taking us on a journey through its most unusual places. Delving into the sewer systems and then back up to the peaks of the snow pile wastes, “Soap” expanded the topic of Montreal’s cleanliness in ways we would never expect, and showcased how a city’s standards of cleanliness can be linked to broader norms of modern society.

The abbreviated images and the diversity of presenters made this an event worth seeing. The evening consisted of six separate presentations in French and English, each speaker interpreting the theme of cleanliness in uniquely different ways. The presentations held my attention with their unusual topics ranging anywhere from the subsistence of animals in the city to the neurotic daily removal of snow.

In her segment Taking Baths In Public, Jennifer Blair draws a compelling argument about the link between the historical phenomenon of the public bathhouses – and how these illustrate the changing conceptions of cleanliness – and one’s social status and reputation. In the early 19th-century, cleanliness was not a norm, it was something that had to be earned. The idea of taking a bath was not necessarily linked to actual bodily cleanliness, but was a cultural custom linked to broader concerns such as social interaction and repressed sexuality.

In her vision of the bathhouse, Blair claimed that the very idea of getting clean stems from a fascination with getting dirty. The notion of the bathhouse expresses a paradox: processes of modernity have indeed produced an expectation of cleanliness, yet simultaneously, the more we desire to be clean the more we rely on processes of production and consumption that create more garbage. Today’s modern home is burdened with a profusion of cleaning products, designed to make our lives spotless. But the chemical industry on which we rely is one of the most toxic and polluting in modern manufacturing, and we inevitably produce more garbage and waste by preserving our effortless consumer lifestyle and obsessions with being clean.

In his series, Animals in the City, McGill’s Jason Prince explored new and unusual ways of cleaning the city. He proposed, for instance, the use of animals instead of machines to clean the streets. But what would you do if you walked outside onto the street and saw a team of goats munching in the gutters? In another presentation, Patrick Evans showed that today we see something even as minimal as snow as a pollution to be disposed of. Each season, $60 million is spent on snow removal, seven million cubic metres of snow piled away – the equivalent to a snowman bigger than the Eiffel Tower. When does it stop? 
Processes of modernization have produced an expectation of cleanliness in modern cities, which has become a reflection of city’s morality. “Soap” traced the attitudes of cleanliness through various facets, demonstrating the social implications of what it means to be clean, and explored – through varying conceptions of cleanliness – the socially constructed processes and techniques of actually “cleaning.” The presentations analyzed the connections between personal and public hygiene as linked to broader subjects, such as changing public expectations for appearance and precision over centuries. In light of the waste generated by the cleaning industry, one would hope that society will eventually calm down and accept that a bit of dirt never did any harm.