The University of Arizona

The muddy semiotics of mud

Luisa Cortesi


In North Bihar, mud ensures prosperity for farmers, but also materially signals the lower status from which their wives try to raise the family, even at the cost of risking their own and their children's lives. This article provides a semiotic analysis of mud, an ambiguous material in its physical combination of land and water, a substance with specific gendered and class dimensions, and a symbolic marker whose presence on bodies indexes their socio-political identity. The sensuous relationships that revolve around mud and the prejudices it indexes illuminate meanings of dirt within processes of environmental knowledge and risk. By attending to the semiotic processes through which we understand nature, this article suggests that mud naturalizes the discrimination at the origin of dirtiness.Historical and political circumstances, such as the progressive loosening of the links between caste and occupation, show that mud is not dirt, but it becomes dirt when other kinds of dirt lose their meaning. 

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