Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Beliefs and knowledges – Toilet paper and pangolins: Magical thinking during the Covid-19 pandemics
David Redmalm, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, School of Health, Care and Social Welfare, Division of Sociology, Mälardalen University, Västerås, Sweden
During the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, post-industrial countries saw a sudden shortage of toilet paper. Most of the big media outlets published stories on the toilet paper shortage which also tried to explain the sudden surge in toilet paper purchases. Most of them agreed that hoarding paper rolls gives a sense of control in the midst of chaos. Because toilet paper corresponds to one of our basic needs – human life is a continuous cycle of ingestion, digestion, and defecation – tending to those needs helps us feel that we were doing something. There might also be a logistical factor involved: toilet paper stacks demand a lot of space, so supermarkets can only keep so many packages on the shelves at one given time. When the shelves run empty temporarily, it inspires other potential hoarders to act. As a consequence, Investorplace.com recommended its readers to invest in Kimberly-Clark stocks – a multinational manufacturer of sanitary paper products.
The story of our sanitary habits is often told in terms of a civilization process. In an essay on ancient toilet hygiene , the authors write about the great bathhouses built by Romans, where running water went into the facilities, water that could also be used to flush toilets clean. But at the same time, the Romans had no tradition of using toilet paper, and instead probably used moss or sponges, increasing the risk of intestinal pathogens to spread. The toilet paper roll: a wonder greater than the Roman aqueducts.
Artist Kristina Matousch plays with this idea of the toilet paper roll as a symbol for Western civilization in her work “Uranus.” It was inaugurated in 2013 in the Widerstöm building, a center for public health studies at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. The artwork consists of a wall of neatly stacked toilet paper rolls cast in concrete, placed behind glass. In a conversation the artist explains that the toilet paper wall can be seen as a remnant from our civilization found in the future – a reminder that humans were once a primitive species, and that we once upon a time considered it hygienic to wipe our asses with paper tissues. She adds that the imposing size of the work stands in contrast to the tactile and fragile paper structure preserved in the concrete surface, making the artwork at once grandiose and prosaic. During the current pandemic, the stacked rolls bring to mind a giant locker in the bathroom of a toilet paper hoarding prepper. Matousch’s work urges me to probe deeper into the reasons for our preoccupation with toilet paper.
Kate Murphy scrutinises not only the toilet paper frenzy during the crisis, but also our general use of sanitary paper in an essay in the New York Times. Here we learn that Seth Wheeler invented the toilet paper roll and patented it in 1891. During the succeeding decades, a widespread need for the product was created through aggressive marketing. Nevertheless, as Murphy points out, health experts agree that washing yourself is far more hygienic than using a piece of paper tissue. The idea that a stroke of a piece of cellulose-based material would make us magically purified is after all rather irrational. Murphy suggests that the widespread fixation with the product before as well as during the crisis may be explained with reference to Freud’s notion of the anal personality and its need for order, its tendency to collect things, and its aversion towards contamination. People are attracted to toilet paper because it represents cleanliness, and they hoard it because of unconscious conflicts related to the anal psychosexual developmental stage.
When I put my last apartment on the market, I was told by the real estate agency to stack a few rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom. It was pivotal that the rolls were unused, the glue seal still intact. This would give intending buyers a sense of a clean slate, a fresh start. But here it is crucial to point out that toilet paper does not directly imply purity. We would not replace paper napkins with a roll of sanitary paper on the table when having friends over for dinner. Not even most unscrupulous therapist would offer the crying client a toilet paper roll instead of a box of Kleenex tissues. We feel that sanitary paper can make us clean, but because of this, it is also associated with dirt. Olli Lagerspetz points out in his A Philosophy of Dirt  that a sense of dirtiness is often produced when the boundaries of bodies blur, for example when we find someone else’s nail clippings in our hotel room, or when we put on someone else’s unwashed clothes. A piece of toilet paper that we have just torn off from the roll with our own hands is clean, but a piece of toilet paper that we find on the floor of the public bathroom is dirty, even if it has clearly not been put to use
Mary Douglas famously defines dirt as “matter out of place” , a concept that can explain how a toilet paper roll can be perceived as dirty or clean depending on the context. However, the matter-out-of-place theory alone cannot explain our fascination with the product. Other kinds of matter-out-of-place, such as nail clippings and dirty clothes, have no special status – they are so to speak pure dirt. The toilet paper roll, in contrast, is associated with both absolute cleanliness and the dirtiest aspects of human nature. It is profoundly ambiguous.
In an editorial in Health, Risk and Society, Patrick Brown notes that events connected to the Covid-10 pandemic are riddled with anomalous “magical” objects . Things such as facemasks and toilet paper rolls are given a special emotional and cultural status, difficult to separate from their utilitarian use, when included in everyday rituals connected to different risk aversion strategies. Brown therefore suggests that Douglas’ work can help us to pay more attention to how ritualistic interaction and magical thinking shape our responses to the pandemic. And as he points out, Douglas’ writing on the anomalous is central to understanding how rituals and magic are used to maintain social order.
Douglas suggests that anomalous objects, things associated with the borderline between binary categorisations, are often considered to be imbued with magical power . One of her most famous examples of this kind of magical thinking is the pangolin, or the scaly anteater, and its status of totemic object in Lele society, which Douglas studied around 1950 in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The pangolin is scaly and has a fish-like tail, but nevertheless, it climbs trees. Because of its impenetrable scales, it has no natural predators and can carelessly cross the borders to a village. Although the pangolin defies categorisation, it is not considered to pose a threat against the Lele’s worldview. Instead, the Lele regard Pangolins as holy creatures, mediators between humans, animals, and spirits. Only a chosen few may eat pangolin meat, and only during certain rituals. Through engaging in pangolin rituals, the village is invested with “pangolin power”, which will, for example, bring luck in hunting .
Pangolins are boundary creatures; they exist on the boundary between human and animal, village and wilderness, the human world and the spirit world, and mundane life and ritual purity. It is because of their ambiguity that they have gained a special status in Lele society – and in other societies as well. Pangolins are hunted in several regions in Asia for their scales, sought after for their use in traditional medicine. The extensive exploitation of pangolins is believed to be a key to understanding the Covid-19 crisis, which Brown notes in his editorial. According to one theory, humans contracted the virus from pangolins, who were in turn infected by bats.Douglas underlines in a foreword to the 1975 edition of Implicit Meanings that ”it is an anachronism to believe that our world is more securely founded in knowledge than one that is driven by pangolin power” – “our world” meaning a globalised modern culture . In times of crisis, according to Douglas’ observations, the Lele would put their trust in the senior pangolin man of the village and in the Pangolin initiation and feast. Toilet paper, in contrast, is the pangolin of the moderns. The members of the modern global culture thus put their trust in advertised sanitary products and engage in ritual hoarding of toilet paper rolls, hoping that the paper rolls will magically purify the impure. Some feast on toilet paper pastries, filled with cream and covered in toilet paper patterned marzipan, which became popular in Sweden during the toilet paper shortage.
At the time of writing, in April of 2020, there are only a few national restrictions in Sweden where I live, and people can take a walk in the spring sun, take a bus ride, or have a coffee at the street corner café if they wish. However, the number of cases in my hometown Uppsala is quickly growing – according to the local newspaper, every third person tested for the virus carries it. Maybe this whole essay, this intellectual exercise around silly mundane details such as the sanitary paper deficit, is nothing but a feeble attempt to take control of a situation that no one quite knows how to handle. In this way, this essay works as a piece of sanitary tissue: a bunch of paper sheets I hope will magically separate order from chaos. I try to convince myself that my analysis is securely founded in knowledge and rational thought, rather than driven by pangolin power.
 Vuorinen, H. S., Juuti, P. S. & Katko, T. S. (2007) ‘History of water and health from ancient civilizations to modern times’. Water Science and Technology: Water Supply, 7(1):49-57.
 Lagerspetz, O. (2018) A philosophy of dirt. Reaktion Books.
 Douglas, M. (1984) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge, p. 36.
 Brown, P. (2020) ‘Studying COVID-19 in light of critical approaches to risk and uncertainty: research pathways, conceptual tools, and some magic from Mary Douglas’. Health, Risk & Society, 22(1):1-14.
 Douglas, M. (1984) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge, p. 170f.
 Douglas, M. (1999) Implicit Meanings: Selected Essays in Anthropology. Routledge, p. 58.
 Douglas, M. (1999) Implicit Meanings: Selected Essays in Anthropology. Routledge, p. xix.
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