An English garden is a wonderful thing. The flowers and shrubbery are laid out in neat, well-tended rows, attesting to the well-ordered English sensibility. But if you track any of the excellent soil into the house itself or—heaven forbid—the kitchen, then chaos is unleashed. The good soil has become dirt, and penance (and a bit of cleaning) must be performed. My own suburban lawn—which I’m told descends from the proper English garden—is less orderly and lush, but the danger of tracking in the soil still remains. Due to my wife’s encouragement, I have learned to honor the distinction between rich soil and wretched dirt.
The British anthropologist Mary Douglas—who recently died at the age of 86, a week after being knighted at Buckingham Palace—took this simple situation and built upon it a theory of human culture and an explanation of the Biblical food laws. She took the maxim of Lord Chesterfield that “dirt is matter out of place,” and unpacked its deeper implications. The presence of “dirt” displays the boundaries of our categories, including cultural, moral and religious categories. To put it another way, our prohibitions are the bright lines that trace the structure of the cosmos, that is, the experienced cosmos, the world that we subjectively live in. These prohibitions teach, justify and even create the ordered world that we inhabit. To investigate a culture’s system of dirt, therefore, is to explore the cosmos of that culture.