Toward a Hygienic Poetics: Environment, Health, & Ethics

Posted by on Feb 21, 2018
Toward a Hygienic Poetics: Environment, Health, & Ethics

The following is an excerpt from a work in progress, which attempts to think through how one might conjugate questions of environment alongside literary representations of health and hygiene—a “hygienic poetics,” if you will. Following recent work by Peter Sloterdijk and Alexis Shotwell, this project seeks to pull apart and examine the logics that influence our conceptions of categories like “purity” and “toxicity,” “health” and “sickness.”


This post is all backwards, or rather, sideways. It makes false starts and strains, perhaps against its author’s intention, toward a philosophical conversation that only partially serves the purposes of the poem at hand. But in some strange way, this is part of my point. Its causality should be in question, the purity of its discussion should be marred. This post may even seek to expose, to make sick, its audience—the same way Margaret Walker’s poetry does. Walker was a member of the Chicago Black Renaissance, an interlocutor of Richard Wright, and one of the most overlooked poets of our time. Her poems’ attention to disease and contamination, to systematic injustice and structural racism, so clearly reveals how there is no outright immunity. Instead, there are only the strains of influenza that pull together textual histories and ideas. To be open to new ideas is to be open to illness, and perhaps that’s more than just a metaphor.

More to the point, I want to call on what German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls an “ethics of situations,” a term he cannot help but continue rebranding, infecting, tainting. In the very next moment, he proposes,

… atmosphere ethics. It formulates the good as the breathable; it could also be called soap bubble ethics. Its hallmark is that it describes the most fragile as the starting point of responsibility. It credits the persons and cultures with the atmospheric effects of their actions; it emphasizes climate production as a core civilization process.[i]

For Sloterdijk, hygiene is a concept that emerges from a strictly modern sense of self and society, a process of mass cultural formation that converts “modern populations into hygiene societies,” the latter of which are constituted by a singular awareness that “viruses, bacteria and other small life forms were literally ‘among us.’”[ii] The translation of scientific knowledge into social systems of classification is by no means a twentieth-century development, as the history of spurious disciplines like phrenology make all too evident. And yet, modernity—or at least those years following the pioneering work of Louis Pasteur—offered the technological apparatuses needed to both diagnose the optimal definition of health, or purity, and then to put into motion a mass media campaign concerning health and claims of biological impurity in racialized others.

“Hygiene,” therefore, deserves to be thought of as a metaphysical term, not merely a biological or political one. “Hygiene” is a term that encodes danger, risk, exposure. This is neither Sloterdijk’s nor my discovery, and in fact a long history already exists of sociologists, anthropologists, and the occasional literary critic commenting on how discourses of health have impacted representations of minority populations. Most recently, Alexis Shotwell’s After Purity (2016) argues that “[t]he 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.”[iii] So the metric of cleanliness as inoculation—theoretical at times, literal at others. To engage in a “soap bubble ethics” is to engage in a reading praxis that acknowledges the “autoimmunitary” logics of literature itself. In a world defined by linear histories, causal frameworks, and an “anxiety of influence,” I think it’s time to echo Marjorie Garber, who rejects Harold Bloom’s model of influence in favor of its etymological root: “In these days of mash-ups, avatars, transformers, and surgical makeovers, influence is often a part of the artwork itself … To revise, swerve, and tweak this essential function, we could rename it: how about the flu? Or, to adapt the familiar format for updating and critique, the New Flu?”[iv]

I will tentatively accept Garber’s challenge, framing Walker’s 1941 poem, “Today,” as an instance of “soap bubble ethics,” a poem about the hygienic myths of purity supporting the literary and societal conditions from which it emerges.

In “Today,” Walker summons and subverts the formula for epic invocation, writing, “I sing of slum scabs on city / faces, scrawny children scarred by bombs and dying of / hunger … those dying of pellagra and silicosis, rotten / houses falling on slowly decaying humanity” (24). Borrowing Virgilian syntax but exchanging its familiar emphasis on national triumph with images of degradation and toxicity, Walker demonstrates her sensitivity to the conditions arising from environmental racism, moving deftly from political crisis to localized pollution and finally to housing conditions—whose decline notably mirrors their bodily inhabitants. In its juxtaposition of disease and decay, Walker’s poem reveals the complexity of social, economic, and ecological factors that create communities subjected to toxicity. According to Nancy Berke and others, “Today” addresses another writer of American myth, Walt Whitman, whose sense of American abundance is contested through the use of images that “represent[] American lack,” as well as “decay, overwork, and exhaustion.”[v] Berke is by no means the first scholar to note Walker’s mythic overtones. In her seminal essay, “Fields Watered with Blood,” Eugenia Collier turns to the poems from For My People to explore Walker’s use of black myth and ritual that grew specifically out “of the Chicago years in the 1930s when the young poet found her voice.”[vi] Despite the established tradition of reading Margaret Walker’s poetry through the lens of myth and ritual, few have yet grappled with the power of the poet’s toxic imaginary, which casts the purity of American literary canon—for whom Whitman stands tall—as a point of contrast.

Of course, in some ways, we must talk about biopolitics. Or must we? Insofar as Michel Foucault understands the state to be the force behind the operative definition of toxicity as well as its tacit converse, purity, we should, but briefly. Foucault points out “a racism that society will direct against itself, against its own elements and its own products … the internal racism of permanent purification.”[vii] Another word for insight is autoimmunity; society attacks itself in an effort to purify itself. What Walker’s poem accomplishes, however, is exploding the monolithic concept of “state” set forth by Foucault. This may appear like a minor critique, but that the icon of neoliberal critique should fail to comment on how the rhetorics of purity are in fact inter-state should not be lost on us. “Today,” instead, writes beyond its borders, coding environmental risk and toxicity as a global problem. The opening lines form a censure of unsympathetic Anglo attitudes regarding domestic victims in both the European theatre of World War II and the United States in the era of Jim Crow America. Here is the full opening stanza from “Today”:

I sing of slum scabs on city
faces, scrawny children scarred by bombs and dying of
hunger, wretched human scarecrows strung against
lynching stakes, those dying of pellagra and silicosis, rotten
houses falling on slowly decaying humanity. (24)

“[C]hildren scarred by bombs” from war-torn Europe are lyrically bound to “human scarecrows strung against / lynching stakes,” creating an international network of hazard (24). But beyond this, the ambiguity is profound. Whose homes are falling in on them? Whose bodies are plagued by “pellagra and silicosis?” Whose hygiene is at stake? Walker’s vision of borderless exposure, of sickness as a unifying thematic of human suffering, answers the call of Stacy Alaimo’s Exposed (2016) by “imagin[ing] the domestic as linked to toxic networks” elsewhere, thus “trac[ing] the invisible, interactive material agencies that cross through bodies and places.”[viii] The conflation of Europe and the U.S. mounts a wider analysis in recognizing how health is not a localized, concept but rather, part of a toxic network of “scabs,” “hunger,” and “rotten houses.”

“Today,” in spite of its perversely non-sequitur title, speaks past its present space or moment, “sing[ing]” of the systemic connectivity between two different worlds with their own logics of risk and health. In the second stanza, the poem proclaims:

I sing of Man’s struggle to be
clean, to be useful, to be free; of need arising from our lives,
of bitter living flowing in our laughter, of cankerous mutiny
eating through the nipples of our breasts (24).

The visceral line break between “be” and “clean” powerfully underscores the very real link between living conditions and survival. These lines suggests that the poem sings both of “Man’s struggle to be” and “Man’s struggle to be / clean, to be useful, to be free.” The lines suggest, in other words, that the poem is about both the struggle to be pure and the struggle to simply, existentially “be.” As these subjects fail to meet the standard of purity, they enter into a vicious feedback loop, wherein economic and infrastructural disadvantages ensure their inability to move beyond such conditions. The resulting “cankerous mutiny” does not grow in their breast, as the more familiar aphorism goes, but actually “eat[s] through the nipples of [their] breasts.” The growth refuses to be held within. Its carcinogenic presence reveals itself, marks the bodies of the poor and the sick. From “pellagra and silicosis” to sores and “canker[s],” the poem unremittingly announces the hygienic outcomes of toxic exposure. A decidedly different kind of epic, a decidedly different “struggle” than what one might expect from the high-sounding Virgilian grammars she deploys.

“Today” therefore takes on the traditions that compose literary and cultural modernity in 1940’s America: the legacies of Western civilization embodied by Virgil, the confidence in American abundance found in Whitman, and in the last stanza, even a Christian faith that would absolve its believers from guilt or responsibility. Showing uncharacteristically hostility toward religion, Walker writes, “Pray the Men of Mars to / descend upon you. Pray Jehovah to send his prophets before / the avenging fire” (25). The poem is replete with myths: myths of the church and the nation, of the mundane and the epic, uncovering impurities in each of them. In “Today,” Walker self-consciously sets forth an impure, a contaminated tradition all her own. Let us call it a “hygienic poetics.”

Margaret Walker’s “hygienic poetics” does not simply evoke hygiene, or challenge hygiene. A hygienic poetics is about being healthy, not about avoiding sickness, and not treating the two as synonymous. It is actually unhygienic, unimmunized—to a degree. “Today” aggressively exposes readers to “slum-scabs” and “cankers,” to “pellagra and silicosis,” to the sheer impossibility of purity as it is understood categorically and historically. A hygienic poetics opens one up to the other, to the future,. It is “after purity,” after influence, and perhaps even on the cusp of what Marjorie Garber calls the “New Flu.” In the end, that is why “Today” must end with these words: “Pray / for the bulwark against poaching patterns of dislocated days; / pray for buttressing iron against insidious termite and beetle / and locust and flies and lice and moth and rust and mold” (25). With incessant waves of polysyndetonic prose, the poem lists natural and nonhuman forces alike that will invariably erode our social and ideological architectures. A “buttressing iron” that can withstand such forces is as unlikely a “bulwark” against time itself: against that enticingly alliterative “poaching patterns of dislocated days.” When parasites converge in that final line—locusts, lice, and rust—they do so to remind both those that “struggle to be / clean” and those with “henna / rinse and dental cream” that no structure can be altogether immunized. And maybe even to remind us that reading is a risk: an opening of the self to the infection of ideas.


[i]. Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres: Volume III: Foams (Cambridge, MA: Semiotext(e), 2016), pp. 241–2.

[ii]. Ibid., p. 195.

[iii]. Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), p. 4.

[iv]. Marjorie Garber, “Over the Influence,” Critical Inquiry 42 (Summer 2016): 731–59, 759.

[v]. Nancy Berke, Women Poets on the Left: Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, Margaret Walker (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001), p. 135. Berke goes so far as to say that “‘Today’ is a also a radical rewriting of Walt Whitman’s ‘I Hear America Singing and ‘I Sing the Body Electric’” (134).

[vi]. Eugenia Collier, “Fields Watered with Blood: Myth and Ritual in the Poetry of Margaret Walker,” in Fields Watered With Blood: Critical Essays on Margaret Walker, ed. Maryemma Graham (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001), pp. 98–109, 99 and 100. Also see R. Baxter Miller’s discussion of Walker’s poem “Joel,” which he compares to “Virgil’s Aeneid, Shelley’s ‘The Witch of Atlas,’ and Danner’s short lyric, ‘The Slave and the Iron Lace’” (“The ‘Etched Flame’ of Margaret Walker: Literary and Biblical Re-Creation in Southern History,” in Fields Watered With Blood: Critical Essays on Margaret Walker, ed. Maryemma Graham [Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001], pp. 81–97, 95).

[vii]. Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, trans. David Macey, ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana (New York: Picador, 1997), p. 62.

[viii]. Stacy Alaimo, Exposed: Environmental Politics & Pleasures in Posthuman Times (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), p. 159.


Clint Wilson III is a CENHS predoctoral fellow, a Diana Hobby editorial fellow for Studies in English Literature: 1500–1900, and a PhD student in the English department at Rice University. His research explores the intersections of race, politics, and toxicity in the modernist imaginary, as well as the larger study of contamination in the environmental humanities.