The Ever Given: matter out of place

Care and the forms of purity right here, right now

In company with my sangha, I’ve been working with Stephen Batchelor’s translations of verses from the Sutta Nipata of the Pali canon—most recently, these lines from the Suddhatthaka Sutta:

That a person be purified by visions,
their pain overcome by knowledge,
their attachments dispelled by others—
in stating these views, you betray an opinion.

Purity is nothing foreign,
says one not mired in views and words,
ideas and rules, good and evil.
They've discarded what they believed—and build nothing there.

I’m reading these lines as the morning breaks and light floods the room—light in the form of dust: starry points dazzling the computer screen; bright whorls of hair and crumbs standing out on the tabletop, some even casting their own shadows; fluorescent motes swirling and rising, riding currents of air. So much of what I know as the light this morning is enunciated by the dust.

I think of the anthropologist Mary Douglas’s famous formulation of dirt as “matter out of place.” The phrase has a trickling genealogy, traceable through William James’s comments on the sacred and the profane in The Varieties of Religious Experience; James evidently gleaned it from Lord Palmerston (1784–1865), a populist and serial government minister, whose “matter out of place” referred to Victorian urban blight. For Lord Palmerston, dirt was an index of people out of place—of populations alternately blown about and mired down by the dislocations of mid-nineteenth-century Britain.

Here, this morning, the matter out of place in my room seems much humbler and less consequential. And yet—of what is it comprised? Lost hair and shed skin, my own and that of my beloved companions, human and nonhuman; pollen, in search of new life, blown in on Spring winds; ground bits of our tools and materials, food and drink. When do coffee grounds become dirt? Somewhere along the way from cracking the lid of the jar to putting the sodden filter in the compost bin, grounds escape, go vagrant, scatter across the tile. I think of the care put into the coffee trees, the ferment of the beans, the long transit over oceans. Matter seems always out of place, and yet it’s also always just where it needs to be.

Out-of-place matter isn’t always minuscule. With what seems like the rest of the world, I’ve been tracking the agon of the Ever Given, a container ship like in size to the Empire State Building, run aground in a single-lane section of the Suez Canal. Does Douglas’s formula apply to the Ever Given, this vessel with a name so appropriate to the question of the dirty and the clean, the profane and the sacred? It’s certainly matter out of place—although I worry that giving it profane status risks sacralizing global commerce. Like dirt in our public and private spaces, the Ever Given is the focus of much maintenance and care. She makes her way through the shipping lanes not through any foreordained force of technology or genius of markets, but by the application of labor: the skill of its crew; the care of myriad workers in docks, harbors, shipyards, and canals; the constant traction of laws and regulations attending commerce and navigation on the high seas.

The beleaguered ship seems closer in status to the Homo Sacer of ancient Rome: the oathbreaker, the accursed, the cast out. With the ship now refloated, this status may soon transfer to humans who were on the vessel’s bridge at the time it ran aground—to members of the ship’s crew, and perhaps to the Suez pilot contracted by the canal authority to guide ships through the channels in orderly fashion. Through their proscription, the specter of labor can resume its invisibility, and the Ever Given restored to its place in the circulation of matter.

As we zoom out from the site of the stranding, however, to view the broken flow of traffic into and through the Suez Canal, all of the ships begin to look like motes of dust funneling through a crack in the wall. Of course, each dot on the map represents a transponder, tracking the position of the ship and its cargo in the flow of goods around the world. If everything has a transponder, can any matter be truly out of place?

Matter out of place; flows and forces; networks, maintenance and care—we deploy all kinds of formulae to name, to classify, to sanctify the impure. I sense that Mary Douglas is often read in this easy way: repeating matter out of place like a mantra, we seek to convince students (and ourselves) that dirt doesn’t exist as such—that it’s a mere construct. As if all matter isn’t always already out of place; as if vagrancy, arising and falling away, is not its only home. My thoughts turn to telling about how things / Change into other things, sings Ovid at the opening of his Metamorphoses, that great mythopoetic treatise on matter out of place. To say that matter is a construction is not to say that construction doesn’t matter.

The old sanctimony of dust to dust, which characterizes the Protestant point of view William James anatomizes, holds that corruption is the condition of the mundane world, that nothing is sacred but divinity itself. I want to riff on Gertrude Stein, and assert that dust is dust is dust—that purity, too, is right here, right now, immanent in the dazzle of the dust; that out-of-placeness is only its arising and falling away.