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Introduction: the dirt on dirt today.

Dirt is the literal ground without which there would be no terrestrial life, and which is always shifting and on the move. On the darker side, dirt and dust can be highly toxic or radioactive, and thus can impose a destructively agentic influence onto most of the living things they contact. Dirt theory must encompass the full range of life-sustaining and toxic agencies in the soil without flinching. Thinking dirt is therefore challenging.

Heather I. Sullivan

Well grubbed, old mole!

Karl Marx

In 2013, the rockefeller university (founded in 1901 by its industrialist namesake to foster cutting-edge biomedical research) launched drugsfromdirt.org, an online "citizen science project" that asks "What chemical language does your soil's microbiome speak?" The question guides a compound venture: to conduct an initial "profile" of dirt from all fifty U.S. states (the priority), as well as globally, and then to deepen the profile of dirt from especially "biodiverse regions"--a venture feasible only to the extent that citizen scientists buy in by harvesting soil samples and sending them to Rockefeller University. At stake in the project is an attempt to use the genetic matter from soils in the U.S. and worldwide to identify and produce new kinds of antibiotics, to harness dirt in the service of human health. Drugs From Dirt invites us--or at least prospective citizen scientists, a category that, in the website's nomenclature, includes school groups, naturalists, soil junkies, and awesome individuals--to reach down and grasp the microbial pharmacy beneath our feet: to assist in finding, in mere dirt, the great key to universal wellness. As with any pharmakon, what we might ordinarily take to be poison--grubby, scummy, defiling dirt--proves likewise capable of realizing its own cure. In counterpoint to the four-decades-long War on Drugs (in which the resonance between drugs and dirt remains altogether dire) these emergent dirty drugs hold alchemical promise: the alluring capacity to transubstantiate alluvial dross into pharmaceutical gold. Whether aspiring citizen scientists, the unpaid ras in the Drugs From Dirt online lab, will by labouring in the dirt actually manage to combat global illness or only line the pockets of the shareholders of Big Pharma is a topic on which drugsfromdirt.org proves unsurprisingly silent.

The biopolitical enterprise of the Drugs From Dirt project serves to underscore, among many aspects of contemporary global life, the profoundly ambivalent status--the promise and menace--of dirt in the world today. (1) For our relation at present to dirt and its digging is vexed, ambivalent, even paradoxical. We reach anxiously for the hand sanitizer after every foray into public even as we explore the immunological benefits of a paleo lifestyle. We contemplate questionable bits on the menu at the hip new locavore charcuterie spot, yet we still close our eyes and purchase the factory-farmed poultry bargains at the co-op megastore. We cannot say no to garbage bags infused with air freshener, just as we cannot say no to every sordid disclosure in Rob Ford's interminable descent. Drugs From Dirt trades on such ambivalence when it seeks to hail citizen scientists (at least in the global north) with its redemptive dirt narrative, to enlist them in the effort to use dirt to transcend itself toward some perpetual future of hygiene. In what ways and to what ends could such interpellation speak to the millions, cast off by the contemporary world, who dwell in dirt altogether differently: those who struggle to get by living on the streets of cities worldwide or those who populate, more precariously still, what Mike Davis calls the "planet of slums" scavenging a desperate subsistence, in shantytowns and landfills, on the refuse left by late capitalism?

If, as Cheryl Lousley observes so provocatively in her contribution to this forum, dirt is a social relation, then the connections it can forge, the lines of power it can draw, are nothing if not asymmetrical.

Such antinomies of dirt do confirm Heather Sullivan's point in the first epigraph above: thinking dirt is indeed challenging. The authors of the provocative thought-experiments that follow have all embraced this challenge. The forum to which they contribute had its first incarnation as an Esc roundtable, at accute 2014, on the topic and prospect of feeling dirty. For that event, Esc invited speakers to engage with dirt in literal or material as in symbolic or metaphysical registers and across various scenes and spaces of academic life today: its manifestations, histories, potentialities, legacies, politics, renditions, residues, and values. What, they were asked, might literary scholars and cultural critics make of dirt, and what might dirt make of us? The answers our contributors have ventured all offer provocative insight in an array of disciplinary idioms and from a range of critical perspectives, and all offer original and compelling critical methods borne in and from dirt: the dirtiness in archival excavation (Morra), dirty temporality as queer materiality (Ellis), detritus as ecological apprehension (Mason), residual humanism against technopolist hegemony (Fan), the forgotten promise of earthly pedagogy (Rahmani), the transgressive capacity of dirty mourning (Lousley), and the restive, resistant power of shit (Epp). Every contributor to this forum shares a sense of the value of messiness for the practice of engaged critique in (and beyond) the humanities today.

Commending the grubbing of the revolutionary old mole in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx tacitly promotes an art of dirt alongside a practice of the dig. To grub well involves both application and quality--a measure of method or style as much as perseverance. Such is one challenge of materialist commitment: a willingness to get dirty--to plumb the depths and reckon the underbelly--in pursuit of social change. The great appeal of this readers' forum, for me, is the ability of its contributors to trace some contours and reckon some possibilities of dirt as art and dig as practice. At a moment and in a cultural climate of state-sponsored amnesia through the closure of libraries and archives, of the proliferation of pipelines for the global traffic in dirty oil, of the toxic perpetuity of debt, of the "slow violence" of environmental pollution and ecological devastation (Nixon), of the unchecked social wasting of precarious and impoverished multitudes, we need such messy counter-modes for churning up dirt--for insisting, as imaginatively as unflinchingly, on the mess of the mess we find ourselves in--as urgently as ever before.

Works Cited

Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. London: Verso, 2006.

Drugs From Dirt. drugsfromdirt.org.

Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Publishers, 1963.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard up, 2011.

Sullivan, Heather I. "Dirt Theory and Material Ecocriticism" Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19.3 (Summer 2012): 515-31.

Mark Simpson is the Co-Editor of ESC: English Studies in Canada.

(1) At least linguistically, such ambivalence is new: for the history of the meaning of the word "dirt" to judge from the entries in the OED, is one of unremitting negativity and abjection--all menace, no promise.
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Author:Simpson, Mark
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2014
Words:1158
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