Dirt then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system.
—Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966)[i]
I. Playing Dirty
“Dirt”—like “pornography” (I would argue)—should always be placed in quotation marks, or, taking a cue from Derrida’s early writing practice, should always be placed “under erasure” (sous rature), crossed-out, graphically.[ii]
Which does not mean XXX. On the contrary—
this strange double-gesture—i.e., to use and not use, at the same time—is a bit like “cheating,” or “playing dirty”—a kind of “abuse.”
PLAY DIRTY vb. [1910s +] (org. US): to behave reprehensibly, to cheat.
—Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang
“Playing dirty,” here, will be a bit like playing fort/da between Dadaist graphic intervention and Heideggerian Da-sein.
Although Duchamp’s Dadaist gesture involved drawing a line through Art (capital A) in the form of a black moustache, we cannot, I think, simply repeat this gesture vis-à-vis “dirt” (or “pornography”), because, in a sense, the black line of Dadaist negativity (Art) “is” already a kind of “dirt” (or “pornography”) smeared across the face of Art, so that the attempt to draw a line through dirt (or pornography)—i.e., one that could leave a mark otherwise than moustache-on-moustache (and thus otherwise than the oppositional negation of the Dadaist “anti-”)—would entail risking what we might call a queer double-cross.
DOUBLE-CROSS vt. (1903): to cheat or deceive (someone) especially by doing something different from what you said you would do; to deceive by double-dealing: betray.
—Collins English Dictionary
The queer double-cross is always risky because one can imagine an army of hygienic book-burners, who would love nothing better than to rid the world of “dirt” (or “pornography”), scrawling X’s through these words. So, to place X’s through “dirt” (or “pornography”), one always risks being perceived as a queer double-crosser, playing into the hands of some right-wing conservative agenda.
On the other hand, one can just as easily imagine an army of left-wing liberals affirming the existence of “dirt” (or “pornography”) under the banner of XXX. Thus, both sides, I would say, are operating according to the same naive (empirical-realist) assumption: “I know it when I see the it.” Hence the necessity of the “queer double-cross.”
II. Being Double-Crossed
The human being alone exists. Rocks are, but they do not exist. Trees are, but they do not exist. Horses are, but they do not exist. Angels are, but they do not exist. God is, but he [sic] does not exist. The proposition “the human being alone exists” does not at all mean that the human being alone is a real being while all other beings are unreal and mere appearances or human representations. The proposition “the human being exists” means: the human being is that being whose Being is distinguished by an open standing that stands in the unconcealedness of Being, proceeding from Being, in Being.
—Martin Heidegger, “Introduction to ‘What Is Metaphysics’”[iii]
To place “dirt” (or “pornography”) under erasure—to claim, as I do, that they “do not exist”—is thus to also risk repeating the arrogant, anthropocentric humanism of Heidegger above (“Rocks are, but they do not exist,” etc.). While Heidegger himself will later graphically cross-out words like “Being” (Sein) and “Ground” (Grund), he never (as far as I can tell) crosses-out the word “human,” despite his “Letter on ‘Humanism’” (1946). Indeed, when Heidegger crosses-out “Being” (or “Ground”), it is to exalt “human being” (Da-sein) in its supposedly unique, abyssal groundlessness (ab-gründig). Thus, another name for “Being double-crossed” might be Heidegger’s humanism of ek-sistence.
With this precaution in mind, then, we can now turn to Heidegger’s “On the Question of Being” (1955), perhaps the most explicit statement of his graphic practice of “crossing out” (überqueren):
The crossing out of this word  initially has only a preventative role, namely, that of preventing the almost ineradicable habit of representing “Being” as something standing somewhere on its own that then on occasion first comes face-to-face with human beings. In accordance with this way of representing matters, it appears as though the human being is excepted from “Being.” However, he [sic] is not only not excepted, i.e. not only included in “Being,” but “Being,” in needing the human being, is obliged to relinquish this appearance of independence.[iv]
If “crossing out,” here, designates a kind of co-implication, or co-constitutive relationality, then it would seem that the Heideggerian double-cross is far from the black line of Dadaist negation and its purported annihilation (Art). Indeed, it should be noted, “On the Question of Being” was originally titled Über “Die Linie” and is, in fact, a reading of Ernst Jünger’s Across the Line (Über Die Linie), and the latter’s diagnosis of “nihilism.” So, the question of “the line”—of its “crossing,” and of its relation to a certain (an)nihil(ation)ism—is at the very heart of this text. Not surprisingly, Heidegger quickly seeks to distance his practice of “crossing out” from any simplistic gesture of (nihilistic) negation:
The sign of the crossing through [Durchkreuzung] cannot, however, be the merely negative sign of a crossing out [Durchstreichung]. It points, rather, toward the four regions of the fourfold and their being gathered in the locale of this crossing through. (QB 310-311)
Not “merely [a] negative sign of crossing out,” Heidegger’s X, instead, is meant to designate a kind of fourfold gathering, which, once again, ultimately exalts “human being” (Da-sein) as the (k)not where these lines cross (i.e., a schematic variation on his “the-human-being-is-the-shepherd-of-Being” motif).[v] But what, then, “gathers” in the (k)not of Heidegger’s überqueren ?
GRUND n. from an archaic verb meaning “to grind” and was originally “coarse sand, sandy soil, earth.” It has acquired a variety of senses, and corresponds closely, if not exactly, to “ground”; “soil, land; (building) plot [foundation]; field; bottom…”
—A Heidegger Dictionary[vi]
III. Double-Crossed Laces
The question of the underneath as ground, earth, then as sole, shoes, sock— stocking—foot, etc., cannot be foreign to the “great question” of the thing as hypokeimenon, then as subjectum.
—Jacques Derrida, “Restitutions” (1978)[vii]
From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil.
—Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935)[viii]
Shoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining-table.
—Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (36-37)
If the Heideggerian double-cross (X) thus involves a kind of interlacing (such that “‘Being,’ in needing the human being, is obliged to relinquish [its] appearance of independence”), then couldn’t we say something similar about Douglas’s (structuralist) notion of “dirt” (“where there is dirt there is system” ), and not only because Douglas’ main example of “dirt” (cited above) involves “shoes”? While perhaps not the “peasant shoes” (OA 32) invoked by Heidegger (and Derrida) above, Douglas’ “shoes” are nevertheless equally remarkable, I would say, in their (k)notty interlacing. And yet, in her consideration, “Dirt Fetish,” from her book Imperial Leather (1995), even Anne McClintock seems to unwittingly sweep these (k)notty “shoes” under the rug when summarizing Douglas’ argument:
A broom in a kitchen closet is not dirty, whereas lying on a bed it is. Sex with one’s spouse is not dirty, whereas conventionally the same act with a prostitute is.[ix]
But, as we’ve seen, Douglas’ main example of “dirt” isn’t a “broom”—it’s “shoes.” So, what gives?
If “shoes” figure crucially in both Douglas’ claims about “dirt” and Heidegger’s claims about “The Origin of the Work of Art,” then these (k)notty “shoes,” I would say, cannot be so easily swept under the rug. Indeed, their interlacing suggests that our quote from Heidegger’s “On the Question of Being” can be provocatively rewritten using “dirt” and “system” for “Being” and “human being:”
The crossing out of this word [dirt] initially has only a preventative role, namely, that of preventing the almost ineradicable habit of representing “dirt” as something standing somewhere on its own that then on occasion first comes face-to-face with a system. In accordance with this way of representing matters, it appears as though a system is excepted from “dirt.” However, it is not only not excepted, i.e., not only included in “dirt,” but “dirt,” in needing a system, is obliged to relinquish this appearance of independence.
Although Douglas herself never graphically crosses-out “dirt,” I think this Heideggerian rewriting (above) helps to underline a certain (k)notty interlacing of “dirt” and “system” (“dirt,” as Douglas says, “is never a unique, isolated event” ). But if Heidegger can thus be used (and abused) in this way to help us think about “dirt,” then, likewise, Douglas, I think, can be used (and abused) to help us think about “The Origin of the Work of Art.” There is a (k)notty interlacing, in other words, between “dirt” and “The Origin of the Work of Art.”
IV . Dirty Pictures
Could it be that, like a glove turned inside out, the shoe sometimes has the convex “form” of the foot (penis), and sometimes the concave form enveloping the foot (vagina)?
—Jacques Derrida, “Restitutions” (1978)[vii]
In his reading of Heidegger’s reading of Van Gogh’s “shoes” in “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Derrida zeroes in on, among many other things, the undone laces, which, in their promiscuous crisscrossing beyond the proper field of “the picture” seem to undo the parergon (framework) of “inside”/“outside” so crucial to the identity of “Art.” In fact, the punctured leather orifices of Van Gogh’s “shoes” become, for Derrida, like so many ambiguous erogenous zones of folded skin, or what we might call queer hymenal membranes. Thus, Derrida not only crisscrosses the (k)nottiness of Van Gogh’s “shoes” (“Art”) into a realm typically associated with “pornography” (“dirty pictures”) —i.e., a series of disseminating, copulating bodily organs—but he even reads Heidegger’s essay on “The Origin of the Work of Art” as if it was itself the “dirty thoughts of a dirty old man,” i.e., the masturbatory fantasy of a shoe-fetishist:
Did Heidegger need these shoes to be those of a peasant? And having crossed that line, did he need to see, from below, from the stocking, a peasant woman? A peasant woman standing up? (Derrida R, 358)
Alluding here to Freud’s essay on “Fetishism” (1920), Derrida projects Heidegger into the ambivalent (dis)position of the traumatized (male) child looking up under the dress (“from below,” at shoe level), at the hol(e)y (m)other. But if Heidegger thus fills up Van Gogh’s empty, knotty “shoes” (the inhuman prosthesis) with his own naughty fantasy of a (human) “peasant woman,” isn’t this precisely because “peasant shoes are closer to the earth,” as Derrida says (R 358), i.e., closer to “dirt”?
That would, indeed, seem to be the basic assumption of this (k)notty fantasy: “peasant shoes” = “dirty.” Heidegger even critiques Van Gogh’s “shoes” along these lines:
From Van Gogh’s painting we cannot even tell where these shoes stand. There is nothing surrounding this pair of peasant shoes in or to which they might belong—only an undefined space. There are not even clods of soil from the field or the field-path sticking to them, which would hint at their use. (Heidegger OA, 33).
Unlaced, useless, unemployed. As Heidegger says, “there are not even clods of soil from the field” stuck to the souls of Van Gogh’s “peasant shoes.” And yet—
And yet, “in the field”—i.e., actually laced-up and employed—these “peasant shoes” would disappear “in use.” In fact, it is the nature of mere “equipment” like “peasant shoes” (but unlike “Art,” apparently), to disappear in their reliable use. “In the field,” in other words, the “peasant woman,” (unlike the Heideggerian shoe-fetishist, apparently) simply wears her shoes without giving them a second thought:
The peasant woman, on the other hand, simply wears them…. The equipmental quality of the equipment consists indeed of its usefulness. But this usefulness itself rests in… reliability…. This equipmental quality of equipment was discovered… not by a description and explanation of a pair of shoes actually present; not by a report about the process of making shoes; and also not by the observation of the actual use of shoes occurring here and there [“in the field”]; but only by bringing ourselves before Van Gogh’s painting. (OA 34-35; emphasis added)
Note: “usefulness” is also that which apparently distinguishes “pornography” from “Art”—like shoes, “pornography” disappears “in use,” i.e., in arousing masturbation and provoking orgasm. “Pornography” is thus closer to mere “equipment” than “Art.” Of course, Derrida’s reading of Heidegger (as I’ve been insinuating here) demonstrates, among other things, how all these apparently clean-cut distinctions are inextricably tied in (k)nots.
The stone in the road is a thing, as is the clod in the field…. A man is not a thing.
—Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935)
I am nothing but dust and ashes…
Since “shoes,” for Heidegger, occupy an intermediary position (“equipment”) between “thing” and “Art”—i.e., the uncanny (dis)position of techne—the brilliance of Van Gogh’s painting (for Heidegger) is that it makes “equipment” show up “as such.” In the field, in use, “peasant shoes” disappear. It’s only as useless, unlaced, and unemployed (in Van Gogh’s “Art”) that “equipment” appears “as such.” Similarly, we might say, “dirt,” in the field, does not show up. There is nothing “dirty,” in other words, about “dirt” in a field, or in a garden. In fact, “dirt” doesn’t exist there. This seems to be Douglas’ Heideggerian point: “Dirt” can only appear when it is tracked into a bedroom, for example, or into a kitchen (“matter out of place”): “Shoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining-table” (Douglas 36-37).
Indeed, to the extent that “dirt” needs a “system,” as Douglas says, it’s unclear how far her (structuralist) argument actually departs from Heideggerian humanism, in which “Being” needs “human being” (Da-sein). “System” and “Da-sein,” in other words, fulfill the same (theological) desire for a center, or a place “to stand.”
SYSTEM n. 1610s, Latin systemat-, from Greek systema (“organized whole, a whole organized by parts”), from synistana = syn– (“together”) + histanai (“to stand”).
—Merriam-Webster English Dictionary
Not surprisingly, Derrida, whose essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966) appears the same year as Douglas’ Purity and Danger (1966), does not turn to “dirt,” but rather to a series of paradoxical figures, including “the remainder” (reste) and “the trace” (or arche-trace), in an attempt to dislocate the proper standing of this (theological) center. In fact, as Derrida notes, “The ‘theological’ is a determined moment in the total movement of the trace” (OG 47), rather than vice versa. Although too-easily compared to a “footprint,” the Derridian “trace” (“remainder”) would have to be a very uncanny “footprint” indeed, i.e., a “footprint” without any preceding presence, or any living (“human”) foot as its “author” (“center”), a “footprint,” then, without a “system” to stand on. A “footprint” without “dirt”?
It is rare for Derrida himself to associate “the trace” (“remainder”) with “excrement,” although he does, on at least one occasion, insinuate this “dirty” possibility. Like his many graphic interventions—whether writing “under erasure” (sous rature) or writing diffèrance with an “a”— Derrida suggests that “differential marks” relate “matter to writing, to the remainder, to death, to the phallus, to excrement, to the infant, to semen, etc., or at least to everything in this that is not subject to the [Christo-Hegelian] relève.“[x] And it is this graphic “trace” (“remainder”), of course, that one is tempted to call “dirt”—in some naive, substantializing move (“the temptation of Christ”?).
And yet, isn’t there something out-standing about Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet (cf. figure 6)? Shall we speak of the “Art” of (Christ’s) debasement (becoming-“dirt”; becoming-“man”)? Shall we speak of the “pornography” of (Christ’s) foot-fetishism (becoming-“aroused”)? To believe either option (“Art”/”pornography”), I think, would be to affirm a (Christo-Hegelian) theology of sublation/sublimation, in which even the X of Heidegger’s graphic practice of crossing-out (Überqueren) ends up becoming a living sign of some fourfold gathering, i.e., a sign of the cross.
So, what is “dirt”? “What is… ?” as Heidegger says, is “one of those questions that must stab itself in the heart” (QB 316). X marks the spot.
ashes to ashes, dust to dust
VI. Dirty Boots
[i] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo  (London: Routledge, 1988), 36. Hereafter cited in the text.
[ii] On Derrida’s practice of writing “sous rature” (and its Heideggerian links), see Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology , trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 44 & 60. Hereafter cited in the text as OG. See also Gayatri Spivak, “Translator’s Preface,” xiv-xvii.
[iii] Martin Heidegger, “Introduction to ‘What Is Metaphysics’” , trans. Walter Kaufmann, in Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), 284.
[iv] Martin Heidegger, “On the Question of Being” , trans. William McNeill, in Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), 310. Translation modified. Hereafter cited as QB.
[v] See Martin Heidegger, “Letter on ‘Humanism’” , trans. Frank A. Capuzzi, in Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), 252.
[vi] Michael Inwood, A Heidegger Dictionary (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 82.
[vii] Jacques Derrida, “Restitutions of the Truth in Pointing [Pointure],” in The Truth In Painting , trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987), 285. Hereafter cited as R.
[viii] Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” , in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), Cambridge UP, 1998), 252. Hereafter cited as OA.
[ix] Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995), 153.
[x] Jacques Derrida, Positions (1972), trans. Alan Bass (Chicage: U of Chicago Press, 1981), 106.