Purity and Power: Literary Interventions in Logics of Hierarchy (Panel)


Cultural Studies and Media Studies / World Literatures (non-European Languages)

Katherine Preston (Brown University)

Goutam Piduri (Brown University)

What is the relationship between purity and power? The normative valuation of purity may be rooted in religion. In fact, purification rituals and instruction that link purity to transcendence come close to a universal feature of religiosity. Yet purity or “purism” is also thoroughly political, as Alexis Shotwell shows in her book Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. Shotwell’s analysis shows that purity legitimates the disavowal of complicity in ecological, colonial, and other systemic crimes. Purity attends conceptions of various identities, including caste, class, race, gender, and sexuality, inheres in constructions of deviant to moral behavior, and activates disgust as a politically mobilizing agent. Discourses of purity and power reappear in the corporate pollution that disproportionately affects already marginalized communities. How do logics of hierarchy based in purity mobilize discourses of relative hygiene and disgust, whether moral, physical, spiritual, environmental, or otherwise, in the service of power? How does literature articulate and contest the conceptualization of purity, perhaps in the representation of mixture or the exposition of the uncomfortable fact that, in Shotwell’s words, "everyone is implicated in situations we (at least in some way) repudiate"? How does purity relate to literary forms, and how might literature negotiate a critical valuation of “pure” form? Do experimental or “hybrid” forms help us recognize or reconceive hierarchies of power or valuation within literary studies itself? Papers may draw on affect theory, ethics, political theory, critical race theory, and Dalit studies.
What is the relationship between purity and power? Discourses of purity transverse religion and politics, identity and ecology. How does literature represent and respond to conceptions of purity that lead to violence? Papers may draw on affect theory, ethics, political theory, critical race theory, and Dalit studies.