Filth, Incontinence and Border Protection

How to Cite

Tilbury, F. (2006). Filth, Incontinence and Border Protection. M/C Journal, 9(5).
Vol. 9 No. 5 (2006): 'filth'
Published 2006-11-01

This paper investigates linkages between two apparently disparate government initiatives. Together they function symbolically to maintain Australia’s moral order by excluding filth, keeping personal and national boundaries tight and borders secure.

The Commonwealth government recently set aside over five million dollars to improve continence in the Australian population (incontinence is the inability to control movements of the bowel or bladder, producing leakage of filth in the form of urine and faeces). The Strategy funded research into prevalence rates, treatment strategies, doctor education, a public toilet mapping exercise, and public awareness through a telephone helpline and patient information pamphlets. Almost simultaneously with the continence initiative, concerns over the influx of asylum seekers to Australia lead the federal government to focus more resources on strengthening Australia’s border protection. This paper explores the two phenomena of personal and national boundary maintenance as aspects of classification dilemmas based in conceptions of filth, pollution and cleaning rituals.

Continence and Boundary Maintenance

Elias has pointed out that the development of rules of decorum around bodily control was the very essence of ‘the civilizing process’ in Western cultures. Currently, we see bodily control as a prerequisite for becoming an adult, and the loss of control is a sign of a loss of responsible adulthood, a ‘spoiled identity’ (Goffman; Murcott; Hepworth). However, Foucault pointed out that the body, through the imposition of the State and the medical profession, has become a target for self-work, resulting not in self-empowerment but in subjection. Through the ‘new micro-physics of power’ (Foucault 139), the bladder and pelvic floor have become sites in need of control. Analysis of discourses around incontinence, both in the public and private spheres, indicate a concern with issues of control and agency, particularly the moral imperative to be in control of one’s body and the feelings of incompetence produced by the loss of control. Incompetence, self blame and guilt are evident in sufferers’ talk about their condition (Tilbury et al.; Murcott).

The negativity surrounding incontinence is connected with the construction of urine and faeces as filth – but is this construction of dirtiness ‘natural? Mary Douglas argued that cultural classification creates the order of social life and has an inherently moral dimension. A consequence is that things which cross categorical boundaries are impure and therefore dangerous, because they threaten the rules of classification. Douglas suggested that there is nothing inherent in ‘unclean’ things which make them dirty. Soil in the garden is ‘clean’ whereas on the carpet it is ‘dirty’, spaghetti on a plate is clean, but on your trousers it is dirty. Douglas concluded that dirtiness is not about the stuff itself, but about it being in the wrong location.

We are left with the very old definition of dirt as matter out of place. This is a very suggestive approach. It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. … Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements (Douglas 48).

Like the fear of deviance generally, fear of pollution by ‘dirty’ things is strongly emotive because of its threat to the larger moral order. In the same way that moral panics, scapegoating, and witch hunts occur where there is a threat to the collectivity’s boundaries, clean-ups are in order where there is a perceived social crisis which threatens social classification and order. They serve as purges, drawing attention to the violated moral order, and to the State’s ability to secure it. Cleaning rituals function symbolically to reaffirm the social order. Thus, an insistence on continence is symbolic of something deeper than a fear of infection from leaking urine and faeces.

Douglas suggests that issues of dirt and cleanliness in relation to the human body are actually about wider social concerns. The body is a tabula rasa on which the concerns of society are writ small. The biological body is a symbol of the social body. Elias argued bodily control and social control are linked – for example we are careful to control publicly bodily functions such as farting, belching and yawning. Now if bodies serve as symbols of society, then concern over group boundaries will be expressed symbolically as concerns over bodily boundaries. Bodily orifices, those entrances and exits which define the boundaries of the body most obviously, become sites of some significance, and those dirty things which traverse these openings/closings challenge and destabilize the system of categorization which society holds sacrosanct. But why, one might ask, the recent concern over bodily boundaries?

Continents and Border Protection

On the ABC’s 7.30 Report (20 June 2002) anchor Kerry O’Brien introduced a story about ‘the migrant problem’ in the Netherlands with a comment about the Dutch desire to control the ‘flooding’ in of refugees through their ‘weakening borders’ and noted the growing public concern to ‘seal their leaking border’. While such imagery obviously references the story of ‘the little Dutch boy and the dike’, it was directly relevant to Australian audiences because Australia was in the midst of its own ‘refugee crisis’ (see Saxton; Manne; Pickering; Gelber). The ‘Tampa crisis’, in September 2001, saw a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, rescue 433 asylum seekers from their sinking boat which was headed for Australia. Australia denied the Tampa permission to enter its waters and ports, so it was left out to sea for days, while the Australian government negotiated a face saving solution to the problem. This was the ‘Pacific solution’ – whereby asylum seekers are moved to nearby Pacific nations to be ‘processed’ off shore, in exchange for monetary incentive to these struggling economies. Asylum seekers were demonized by the press and by politicians for threatening to throw themselves and their children overboard. Prime Minister John Howard suggested some were likely to be terrorists, and the then Minister of Immigration Philip Ruddock asked the rhetorical question: ‘Are these the sort of people we want as Australians?’ Discursive analyses of media coverage (news reports, opinion columns and letters to the editor) of the arrival of asylum seekers indicate that they were represented as illegal, illegitimate and threatening (Saxton), and constructed as deviant in a variety of ways, including being diseased (Pickering). The language used to describe the ‘threat’ is revealing: terms such as ‘swamped’, ‘awash’, ‘latest waves’, ‘more waves’, ‘tides’, ‘floods’ and ‘migratory flood’ (Pickering 172). Most importantly, a ‘national rights’ discourse emerged, asserting Australia’s authority over its physical and cultural space, and its right to ‘protect its territory and character’ (Saxton 111) from potentially polluting pariahs, the excrement of other nations, refugees.

The net result of these activities was the putting in place of a series of emergency measures to ensure Australia’s borders were ‘protected’, including moving the legal definition of borders, rigorous enforcement of imprisonment in detention centres, providing a two thousand dollar incentive to return to their countries of origin, and increased sea and air surveillance. Recent moves by the government to make seeking asylum more difficult have continued this trend.

Continents and Continence

Now what do incontinence and the Tampa crisis have in common? Obviously both are attempts to contain filth, ensuring boundary maintenance of the individual and the national body. The desire of the Australian government to clarify Australia’s boundaries by reducing them to its mainland is indicative of a concern with keeping national boundaries precise and clear. The threat of breaches from outside spurs this attempt to ensure closure, but it is simultaneously evidence of the fear of violation. Australia’s attempts at boundary maintenance are forms of ‘pollution rituals’ designed to maintain the definition of Australia as the domain of white Anglo-Saxon Christians (Hage; Saxton; Pickering). Being racially, ethnically and religiously different, asylum seekers challenge cherished notions of what ‘we’ Australians are – they are matter-out-of-place, challenging the integrity of the nation. As Pickering notes: ‘Asylum seekers transgress many boundaries: physical, geographic, language, legal, national, social and political. In so doing they routinely disrupt established, although precarious, orders’ (Pickering 170). The ‘breach’ panic, and consequent attempts to fortify ‘fortress Australia’, function symbolically to reaffirm the social order and maintain the classification of in-group and out-group.


The parallels drawn between these two initiatives are not meant to assert a causal relationship, but rather a form of ‘elective affinity’ (Weber). Thus, my argument is rather more than a recognition of the ways in which body metaphors are used as ‘convenient way[s] for talking or thinking about the moral and political problems of society’ (Turner 1), but less than a suggestion that one is in a direct causal relationship to the other. If pollution behaviour is that which condemns objects or ideas which might confuse cherished classifications, then government attempts to keep national boundaries contained and bodies secure are both examples of pollution behaviours. The National Continence Management Strategy and the concerns about Australia’s border protection are both symbolic manifestations of the same concern over unsealed boundaries and boundary crossings. Both result from a barely contained hysteria manifest in a fear of things coming in, and things going out, and a frustrated recognition of the impossibility of keeping entries and exits secure. The National Continence Management strategy mirrors the macro concerns over boundary maintenance and security. The tightening up of movements of matter across bodies, and movements of people across nations, are signs of attempts to control identity.

But from whence has this concern arisen? One possibility is the general destabilising of national identities resulting from the broad postmodern recognition of hybridity and fluidity in the construction and maintenance of identity. A specific example of this is the fact that while Australia has long been proud of its identity as a white nation of the Antipodes, at the same time it is developing an identity as multicultural. The traditional values of white society are being challenged and the resulting destabilization is threatening (Hage; Ang; Phillips). Postmodern constructions of identity as contextual, fuzzy, and open ended, destabilize identity as singular and unproblematic. Hall and du Gay, Bhabha, and others have noted the discomfort attendant on a version of identity which is hybrid and liminal, which challenges the notion that categories are clear cut and people are either ‘in’ or ‘out’. This discomfort results in the need to shore up individual and national identities through efforts to define and maintain boundaries and to contain them – in essence to re-establish and defend ‘fortress Australia’ by containing matter in its proper place, and excluding filth.

Author Biography

Farida Tilbury