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  • Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Timesby Alexis Shotwell
  • Alison Sperling
Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised TimesMinneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016, 236pp. ISBN: 978-0-8166-9864-6

I' ll be the first to admitthat I've been tempted by cleanse culture. From raw food to juice cleanses for the gut, charcoal facials that are said to lift impurities from your skin, detox hot-yoga practices to organic acai lunch bowls, consumer culture entices with promises of purifying the body and mind. There is currently a clear obsession with toxic accumulation in the body, though accompanied by little understanding of what a toxin actually is or where it comes from (Shotwell 6). What are perhaps even less visible are the politics behind these and other more complex notions of purification as they pervade our thinking about ethical relations with others, with the land we occupy and the food we eat, and especially with the ways in which we think about the past, and therefore, of the future. What guides the desires to feel pure, and how might we approach the question of purity with a more discerning attitude? What does it mean to reject individual purity in favor of a more messy and collective acceptance of the inevitable impurities that we face in our daily decisions, political alliances, the treatment of our bodies, and the ways in which we engage others, human and nonhuman, in the world?

Alexis Shotwell's Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Timeswastes no time in its declaration of what it's against. But Shotwell also quickly refuses the idea that being "against" positions her as unable to be an advocate [End Page 85] fora proliferation of other, better possibilities. Through an impressive and wide-ranging set of materials and discourses, the book takes as its starting point humans' unavoidable complicity in entangled, often harmful relations to others and to the world. What does it mean to reject purity and purification in an age when toxicity is something many aim to cleanse themselves of? Shotwell writes, "Being against purity means that there is no primordial state we might wish to get back to, no Eden we have desecrated, no pretoxic body we might uncover through enough chia seeds and kombucha" (4). Purity politics arise in our response to potential physical contamination but also in response to perceived political impurities. What Shotwell calls "compromised living" involves making important concessions: "Charting the space between complicity and pollution, between righteousness and compromise, is difficult" (7).

Bound up in Shotwell's rejection of purity is also a necessary dismantling (or expanding, depending on your view) of the subject, a project very much alive in contemporary feminist theory and philosophy. If we are to accept the (still somewhat radical, when taken seriously) idea that we are co-constituted and "continuous with everything here on earth" (Bliss 75, quoted in Shotwell), inhabiting what Nancy Tuana calls a "viscous porosity," we must call into question the kinds of attitudes that guide projects of individual purification. Tracing the history of purity as a racialized concept meant to oppress and delimit the conditions for counting as human (15), Shotwell calls on a different kind of relationality with the past. This involves identifying efforts of reclassification and remembering in more active and ethically accountable ways. The book is remarkable in scope, engaging a wide range of theoretical and philosophical concepts. Each chapter productively challenges us to rethink how we classify, group, and sort as both political and material practices with real world effects. It is a welcome addition indeed to a growing body of contemporary feminist and queer grapplings with toxic and disrupted bodies and landscapes in the Anthropocene, including, for example, the work of Stacy Alaimo, Mel Chen, Heather Davis, Donna Haraway, Heather Houser, and Anna Tsing.

Chapter 1, "Remembering the future" resituates the temporality of memory in the context of Canada's fraught history of the colonization of indigenous peoples and lands. The chapter argues for an understanding of the history of colonization not as an event with a past-ness or an end, but as an ongoing structure, a practice written...


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pp. 85-91
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