Review: Against Purity


Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times

Alexis Shotwell

Alexis Shotwell makes the case against purity in her book with the descriptive title "Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times". This isn't a book about trash - in her own words:

"To be against purity is, again, not to be for pollution, harm, sickness, or premature death. It is to be against the rhetorical or conceptual attempt to delineate and delimit the world into something separable, disentangled, and homogenous."

Her point is, that the borders we draw to guard ourselves of the impure don't uphold to reality - and that we're better equiped for these times, if we see ourselves as being part of the impure.

Against Purity is almost rythmically partitioned into Past, Present and Future. The timeframes are built upon each other and are themselves divided into two parts. The first on which she takes up one or two "problems" and the second, where she looks critically at projects that tackled those problems. Everything is held together nicely by explaining her train of thought and making the necessary links to other well established works. It makes up for a well written and accessible academic work.

The themes that are taken up throughout the book (and stuck with me) are:

  • How post-colonial structures influence categories within abuse reparations for the aboriginals of canada.
  • Memory practices in contemporary Canada around issues of postcoloniality and in the USA concerning the AIDS campaigns in the 1980s
  • Gender-swapping frogs and transphobia
  • Toxicity and the porousity of bodies
  • Eating ideologies and morality
  • Queer disability politics and gender issues

The range of dealt topics is quite huge. They mostly circle around the concept and materiality of bodies, be it gender, toxicity or gender - but also how bodies are rooted in landscapes, environments or histories.

There is a familiarity to "Staying with the Trouble" and "The Mushroom at the End of the World". What Haray speculates and Tsing observes, Shotwell elaborates in thought. Together they form a holy trinity of contempary thought and work on being human without being human.

I perceived Against Purity as most important input to turn a omni-present avoidism (moral and ethics based on what to avoid) into perceiveing "complexity and complicity as the constitutive situation of our lives"

"Speculative futures can prefigure a practice that welcomes the selves to come. This orientation toward futures to come is grounded in the experience of interdependence, politically organized around the idea of identifying into a world that we create starting from our speculation that it could be otherwise than it is. Shaping our identities out of our politics includes understanding the history that has shaped our field of possibility as a site for identification. The new world we carry in our hearts is always a world grounded in the actually existing present in all its impurity, responsible to the past in all its complexity. Just as we are differentially responsible to the past and present, we are differentially situated in relation to worlds we can identify into—power never disappears. Even so, we can follow Muñoz in reaching toward concrete possibilities—a warm horizon imbued with possibility—prefiguratively practicing open normativities that might produce practices of freedom we cannot predict."