Soap is a Type of Stone (2019)

The period in which hominids first took an element from their environment and turned it into an object posits the time of the original development of technological tools. This moment of applied appropriation of the environment can serve as an illustration of the distinction between ‘Human’ and ‘Nature’[1]. Nature, as idealized by classical thought, is the notion of a condensed passive mechanical backdrop and bearer of resources for the production of cultural objects. This great divide between the ‘natural’ and the ‘cultural,’ as the product of this reasoning settled by Western philosophy, has contributed to an all pervasive (and perverse) othering of nature.

When hominids first handled stones they were paving the way for this distinction. As instruments of cultural-anthropological studies, these objects have aided scientists in their mission to define clear epochs of human cultural production. The demarcation of these periods shows some tendency in presenting solitary or exclusionary sounding time-brackets that iterate humanity’s relation and use of nature; moments in history that become exponentially more advanced—Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and so on. A promising (however artificial) attempt to showcase humanity’s prosperous and linear technological advancement—the opera of the Western Man overcoming Nature.

Agriculture, not for anything, was invented during what anthropologists refer to as the ‘New Stone Age,’ and is defined by the domestication of animals and their consequent conversion into tools, in a grand project of development of techniques that efficiently and consistently harvest plant and animal products for consumption.

This new logistical relation of power over the environment, further contributed to the unjustified division between human and non-human, placing the former at the centre of philosophical thought while reducing the latter to a collection of archaic muted systems.

Timothy Morton introduces the idea of the Severing, a ‘traumatic fissure’ that is the direct experience of this provoked distinction between reality (human-world) and the real (the biosphere hosting the ecological ecosystem of human and non-human entities)[2]. Morton places in the Palaeolithic’s first formulation of cultural objects the foundation for this Severing of the human with its own non-human composition. This process has endured through the ages, resulting in a troubled hollowed out core: ‘Man.’

Vilém Flusser, in contribution to this landscape of humankind’s first understanding of its environment as a plane of opportunity, places in the Palaeolithic the founding grounds of reason. He proposes that holding up the stones, turned knives, was a reciprocal activity of reflection, “the process by which reason (nous) penetrates behind appearances (phainomena) in order to be able to think about them. Reflection is thus preliminary to thinking” [3]. He describes the process like so:

“We trace our fingers along the dissected rations of phenomena in order to comprehend and define their contours. With a theoretical gaze, we then disassociate these defined contours from the dissected phenomenon, at which point we are holding an empty husk. We call this empty husk a ‘concept,’ and we use it to collect other rations of phenomena that have not yet been fully defined.”

This tight grip of human reflection on the imposition of dishevelled connections between ‘dissected appearances’ (phenomena) and ‘empty concepts’(models), spawns the conflict of not being able to apprehend any phenomena without a pre-established model born out of ‘reason.’ It is here that I’d like to point to Francis Ponge and his work on the reasoning of mundane objects, that literary critic Robert W. Greene described as “seek[ing] a balance of equivalences, an equation between the order of things and the order of words”.[4]

In Le Parti Pris Des Choses (The Voice of Things), Ponge reveals a fascination with the pebble and its transcendent potential as a tool of reasoning. He starts by saying:

“If I now wish to examine a specific type of stone with greater attention, its perfection of form and the fact that I can hold it, roll it around in my hand, makes me choose the pebble. Furthermore, the pebble is stone at precisely that stage when it reaches the age of the person, the individual, in other words, the age of speech. The pebble is stone still wild or at least not domesticated.”

In his depiction, the pebble, “a figure from stone,” [5] allows itself to be affected by water, which in turn isdescribed as a “modification of the ground.” It is ready to “give up the ghost,” choosing to dissolve, slowly, as each layer gives in to erosion. Ponge’s deep and whimsical analysis of the pebble, to him “a form or state of stone between rock and gravel,” and its unpretentious relation with water, almost certainly inspired his later work on soap.

“Soap,” Ponge defends, “is a sort of stone, but not natural: sensitive, susceptible, complicated.”6 “Whereas the stone is more misanthropic: it seems to ignore man altogether—soap is made for man, and does not forget him; it in no way forgets its duty.” The cleaning duty of soap makes it a sociable object, concerned with the doings of man, and a bearer of an “adorable personality.” However, this sociability is concealed in its hardened form, which reveals an inner struggle.

On one hand, its duty is to be used by the hands; on the other hand, it needs to endure and conserve its form, holding itself in a state of self-discipline. When soap sits in the saucer, waiting to be picked up and allowed to perform its role, it resembles stone—solid and austere. Nonetheless, despite the temptation to remain perfectly preserved, its own composition points to a different purpose. At the core, soap is a combination of deductible material—oils, butters and scents—a perpetual reminder of its duty.

This composition pushes soap to its obligation but also to its vengeance. For, unlike stones, soap melts into water, reacting with it and making itself known and seen. The side effect of this process is, of course, foam, a whole phenomenon in itself. As a signifier of luxury, the foamy apparatus forms a quasi-spiritual exercise, “inasmuch as the spirit has the reputation of being able to make something out of nothing, a large surface of effects out of a small volume of causes" [7]. In this process, soap balances out the degradation it goes through by blending itself with the water, the perpetrator of its deterioration. Ponge writes:

“It is then, during an impressively staged ceremony, that its confusion with water takes place, and the disappearance of its form into memory. (At the same time, all memory of dirtiness dissolves.)”

By washing the hands, one realizes how soap can be tricky: in large amounts it can be very hard to get rid off. It leaves the water troubled, bubbles in the drain reminding of its offence. However, the skin is clean, even if a tad puffy.

Perhaps washing hands can trigger some reflections. For instance, on the fact that until the 1850’s doctors weren’t washing their hands before surgery. In its sociability, soap can be a great thinking tool, as well as a hygienic one. It can aid in internal affairs of the mind, even if handled by the hands—soap is an advocate of selfknowledge.

As an instrument for cleaning, it performs the same ideas of purification rituals, by negating a filthy, defiling element[8]. As Judith Butler puts it, in her analysis of Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger, “ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience” [9].

Soap instigates a sense of order by amplifying the limits of the body, ie. the skin, which is “systemically signified by taboos and anticipated transgressions; indeed, the boundaries of the body become, (…) the limits of the social per se.”

The demarcation of a boundary, as skin is to the body, has a structuralist determination of creating a subject by means of exclusion. What remains is a discrete yet powerful subject, the ‘abject,’ [10] designating that which has been expelled by the body, as impure, and re-rendered as an ‘other.’ A clean person is one that relates to this ‘other’ by means of rejection—eliminating the dirty element as an unlawful offender. In turn, this law becomes incorporated, and a signifier for wanting to organize and purify the environment at large. The polluting person is, by contrast, always in the wrong—they have crossed the line. However intentional or not the polluting act may be, the effect is the same.

The demarcation signified by the skin in relation to the body is an expression of the aforementioned Severing. It is a direct indication of the traumatic experience of this enforce amputation of human and non-human kind.

However, human existence includes non-human components and relations. ‘Man,’ as brought forward by the privileged thought of the Enlightenment scholars, is a severed entity that has been submitted to increasingly drastic dislocations from its (non)human qualities. In other words, ‘Man’ is just as much of a constructed concept as Nature is. One that aims to remove things such as kidney stones and soap bars from its psyche, in privilege of a purified, ‘good’ state.


Textual contribution developed from the original draft submitted to Octopus of Offshoots, the 2019 Werkplaats Typografie Reader.
Read at the book's launch event at Kunstverein in Amsterdam on May 31st of 2019.