“Clean”

Semiotics
January 2019

Clean often denotes an absolute state of purity, that is, when one finally reaches the state of pure cleanliness, they have thus returned to their original state of existence. But, “clean” is often construed to take on multifarious forms, and thus, purity is a plurality.

There is the clean that refers to a return to nature, as if man in his original state was indistinguishable from nature, for man was once one with nature: nature was contained in man, and man was contained in nature. So, cleaning products reflect this mindset through speak of the naturally derived. And because this is so, it is supposedly good for you, dismissing any consideration of the naturalistic fallacy. There is the acid derived from the citrus fruit, the soothe-all from tea extracts, and the gentle angelic purity of chamomile. Even those that sound the most detached from nature: the antioxidant, the peptide, the retinoid, the salicylic acid, inter alia, are dampened in their severity through their derivation, and that is sufficient in the way it maintains its crucial position as a natural product. And that, of course, may very much be the case, for salicylic acid certainly derives from the bark of the witch hazel tree, and time defying (and ergo, nature defying) hair thickening may result from proteins derived from wheat – but the signification of its origin in fact signals the idea that man has not championed nature – rather, man is at once perplexed by the mysticism of all that is undisclosed, but in man’s attempted conquest, nature reveals properties akin to that of transmutation. Even the most hard acting of the naturals are supported via self-deployed justification: high powered serums, essences, and boosters are corroborated via speak of special ingredients. They are especially sourced, carefully created, and delicately refined. They emphasise the natural beauty of the earth, captured just for the user. For instance, somehow rosemary and sage leaf host the secrets of nature, and through the filters and processes of extraction, fermentation, modification, distillation, and refinement, the secret is uttered, the transformation yields a new entity entirely; it bears a power that paradoxically cannot be natural, for man has intervened, but from its natural derivation, and despite it lacking any sort of verification – meaning that one relies on the signifier alone – there is no proof of the signified – the signifier alone is enough for one to champion the belief that nature has been improved, without man ever seemingly doing anything, where that, when considered, is really rather perverse.

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And then there is the clinical dynamic, a high powered and accurate form of “clean” that comes from products adorned in doctor’s names, black and white packaging and labeling, and a uniquely sterile aesthetic that surrounds a matter of fact discourse. It is the direct why, what, and how approach, where causality is king. It has surgical, laser like precision. It was prescribed just for you, although you had the choice all along (perhaps the illusion). Its high powered aura guarantees efficacy, and if it lacks in its efficaciousness, then poor self-prescription is to blame: these products are transcendental in this way, but also, they are transcendental in their denial of nature. It signifies that what nature intended doesn’t have to necessarily be so, for nature’s plans can be defied. And by detaching themselves from nature (although that might imply at one stage indeed being connected to nature, this is often never signified, deliberately), man himself subscedes the natural universe, emphasising his anthropocentric status. Man conquers nature because he overtly defies it.

And within the realm of anti-age products, here we see a uniquely stylised sense of cleaning, where time itself is cleaned, for time is reflected on the skin, like a canvas for nature to print itself on. The irreversible is challenged, made somewhat reversible but never completely so, for it is the continual and unceasing project. There is the promise of prevention, which is an easier promise, for although time inches closer and closer, it has yet to arrive and has yet reflected this facticity onto the body. Prevention always slyly signifies an important element of nothing, for preventative tactics always refers to an active, key ingredient that discloses how with a promise that ultimately lacks an effect. Rather, prevention is actually the promise of delay, and not true prevention. Anti-age then cannot truly be called anti-age, rather, it is age-delay with a fallible slant. Here the former sense of clean arises: nature cannot be transcended, only distanced away from. The more extreme talk of treatment (as opposed to prevention) realises the latter sense of clean, with the extremes of science placing man at his most unnatural. ‘Naturally derived’ products dare speak of treatment but end up efficaciously short, drowning themselves in excessive mysticism by way of invoking that of miracles, only then to be supplemented by speak of the empirical and the wonder and awe of the haphazard logic of scientific discovery. That is, after painstaking research and coming up short, this wonder ingredient came about by miraculous chance – eureka! A lucky discovery. But of course, it was always so simple. It just needed a little bit of tsuji – a spark of brilliance from up high.. Hence, the banal transmutes into the rarified and the precious. In contrast, treatment is high power that nurtures the skin, yet tarnishes the soul via its evasiveness. It is the most advanced paradigm of dermatological science in obtainable, applicable form, and for all intents and purposes, it is equivalent to the revolution of the atomic bomb – nature is defied; it is destroyed in the process. Man has apparently won, his dominion over the living word is restated and reinforced.

Within these products, what is contained inside is the efficacious unknown, but by cause and effect it is understood. Both approaches towards cleanliness are emphatic towards transparency, for that is à la mode – but that is also the source of trouble. It is a problematic grand narrative. For if consumption is built on a sense of lack (says Baudrillard), and thus a yearning, then transparency denies the secret unknown, or in other, more apt words, the secret to efficacious success. This transparency for opacity (if you will) of ingredients and simply being frank about the human condition therefore disrupts the past order of things – dirt is no longer worthy of shame, nor is it profane, because matter is inevitably going to be out of place, and clean is now a matter of acceptance and understanding the limitations of cleanliness. And once acceptance is achieved, then the definition of clean invariably shifts in considerably more charitable, and far more broad terms. Clean now permits the occasional blemish on the chin or the graceful wisdom signified by a set of fine lines. But it is ultimately a matter of balance – it at once denies the artificiality of the absolute defiance of age, in the way that it exaggerates the unnatural and renders synthetic, denying the natural world, but it still appeals to the hedonism of good lookingness within moderation: for it emphatically thumps the manifesto that no one should be ashamed of the skin they are in, and by virtue of that, no one is denied the opportunity of re-creation through considered application (of their products). Therefore, transparency is the undeniable hybrid of the two approaches to clean, and this synthesis emphasises the paradox of gentle intervention, for no action of intervention can be gentle, for something is always altered, and hence, change itself is irrevocable. Because to clean the face and the body, as it is to clean a room, a car, or a whiteboard is to restart an entity’s metaphysical essence – and by ushering in the promise of change or the actual, physical benefit of change, one can start to live again, or perhaps have the chance to finally live a truer, cleaner life.

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