- Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times by Alexis Shotwell
Alexis Shotwell opens her rigorous new book, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, in a tiny airplane restroom, washing her hands. Flying return to Ottawa from San Francisco, Shotwell reflects on what it means for her to have used 5.8 tons of greenhouse gasses (and an airline-provided disposable plastic cup) to fly to a drought-stricken state to attend a conference on environmental issues. The scene no doubt resonates with readers concerned with climate change and environmental degradation, as such daily anxieties about our own complicity in ecological harm have become representative of what it means to live in the Anthropocene. Shotwell uses this moment, however, not to dwell on her own ecological sins, but in order to reflect on the soap she lathers between her hands, part of the "pure grace" line from the brand Philosophy. Detailing the soap's various carcinogenic ingredients and analyzing the company's preoccupation with purity and innocence, Shotwell expresses doubt as [End Page 243] to whether one can ever have clean hands (and not only because she is in an airplane bathroom). Shotwell uses this moment to expose, and subsequently challenge, ideologies of material and theoretical purity.
Against Purity shows the ubiquitous nature of what Shotwell calls "purity politics" (or "purism"), which affects a wide range of phenomena—from the search for ideological purity that drives (and often destroys) various social justice spaces, to the work we do to detoxify, cleanse, or otherwise purify our individual bodies, to the ways we actively forget our implications in colonialism and other structures of violence. Shotwell persuasively argues that a preoccupation with purity has closed off alternative ways of engaging ethically. She writes, "There is no food we can eat, clothing we can buy, or energy we can use without deepening our ties to complex webs of suffering. So, what happens if we start from there?" (5). Arguing that compromise and complicity must become our starting points for action, Shotwell presents us with the uncomfortable truth "that everyone is implicated in situations we (at least in some way) repudiate" (5). Compromise is where we are, and it is all we have from which to craft our futures.
Yet, as Shotwell makes clear, and as the book's title suggests, the book is first and foremost against purity, rather than a prediction of all the things there are to be for—a scream of "no!" that "opens the space for many yesses" (19). Shotwell's challenge to purity politics is based not simply on the fact that it is an unattainable place of departure—"one bad but common approach to devastation in all its forms" (8)—but because of the ways purism is entangled with the various systems of power that it is often thought to challenge. She writes, "The delineation of theoretical purity, purity of classification, is always imbricated with the forever failing attempt to delineate material purity—of race, ability, sexuality, or, increasingly, illness" (4). Purity practices, as Shotwell explains, always work to "delineate an inside and an outside; they are practices of defining a 'we'" (13). While it is well understood that discourses of purity have historically circulated within systems of racial classification and biopolitical practices attempting to eliminate disability, queerness, poverty, and so forth, Shotwell's intervention is to expose and thread together these histories with other seemingly disparate sites where purism reigns.
One way that Shotwell bridges these different "moves" of purism is by challenging narratives of bodily boundedness and possessive individualism—thus starting from a recognition that our selves are always already impure and polluted, that divisions between inside and outside are at best blurry, and that conceptions of "we," and even "I," are always unstable and complex. The image of the individual self as a fortress, fully bounded from others and solely owned by ourselves, is—as Shotwell reminds us—deeply racialized, a way of categorizing who can be owned, exploited, or killed by others. It is also wildly inaccurate, as we...