Brief History of Spitting: An Indian Account

On March 8, 2020 by admin



Arijeet Mandal

            The first reaction after receiving a small cut or bruise in humans is to put it inside the mouth. If the bruise is in some other part of the body that we cannot readily lick; we often apply spit. Children do it too, often learning from other children or from the oral fixation triggered after the hurt. This is a trait we share with almost all the other mammals that we share our Earth with at the present moment. This is not mere mimicking of other mammals (though predators often mimic the calls or behaviours of their prey). The spit is, as if, an inherent biological trait. Children and adults alike do it almost automatically, as if with a gene-deep certainty. We apply spit to what was hurt, or in other words, what hurts us.

At first it appears to us that the answer to the question “What is spit?” is easy. Spit is saliva thrown (spat) out of the mouth. Saliva itself is a reflex function that comes from salivary glands upon expectations of external factors like tasting or eating. Saliva contains around 99% of water, along with several other inorganic and organic compounds which help in several processes of the mouth and digestion. Not only it helps in fighting tooth decay, pose as a bulwark against harmful bacteria but also produces mucin, which in turn “acts as a lubricant during mastication, swallowing and speech”[i].In other words, not only does saliva help in tasting, chewing and digesting, but also effectively is a catalyst in one of the fundamental aspects of human nature—speech. During old age, one of the problems in speech and overall oral health is caused by the erratic nature of salivary glands (ibid.).

Saliva itself has been used differently throughout history, perhaps requiring separate book on it, if not volumes on the subject. We know for sure that the salivation of certain birds in the form of their nests are consumed as human food. The industry that runs on the (wrongly named) Indian Swiftlets’ bird’s nest has gained such popularity that it has been named “caviar of the east”[ii]. We know of ceremonial uses of spitting across cultures, or the fact that there were cultures of ceremonial spitting[iii]. The spit was also believed to be a good fermenting agent and was used to ferment different elements like the ceremonial Japanese sake and various other edibles throughout history (ibid.). We also know of other medicinal uses of saliva, and the medicinal concern of the same. For the longest time people held the belief that spit after fasting has healing properties. Jesus used the ‘spittle cure’ by smearing saliva thrice in The Bible, in the passages of Mark 8:22-26, Mark 7:31-37 and John 9:6. Jesus, in The Bible at least, had healed two blind men, and one “deaf and dumb” person using his spit[iv]. Theology aside, a rational look then would suggest a major cultural belief of the healing properties of spit, especially by Monarchs and healers.


Spitting, however, also had another concern for the medical world. The British Medical Journal made a report as far back as in 1900 about the ‘spitting nuisance’ that has been causing the rampant spread of tuberculosis in the urban areas[v].The Americans too were not falling short on taking measures against spitting in public spaces. Once again, this was due to the rising crisis of the spread of tuberculosis. Just on the basis of its economic loss, America had lost almost $33,000,000 by the 1900s to tuberculosis, or as it was known, the “White Plague”[vi]. While the ground problems of rapid industrialization and lack of healthcare was the primary problem, unfortunately, it was not the primary concern for the growing bourgeoisie owners. ‘Not spitting’ was supposed to be one of the primary targets in spreading public health awareness. However, as the author puts it,

“The rise of anti-spitting legislation was on one level a practical response to a legitimate medical concern, but it frequently over lapped with wider issues concerning the consolidation of the middle class and the social control of the working classes (ibid.)”

Just as the author notes, the class question about certain diseases and their spreading has seldom been studied. Historically, we can see that diseases and their class relations have often been ignored. However, spitting takes a special position in a class based society. Since the early times of Western society (except for Pliny’s account on spittle cures) spitting has been in general associated with rudeness, uncivil behaviour or an act of humiliation. In India too, at least in Natyashastra, the act was related to similar feelings, so much so that even aesthetically ‘vamati’ or ‘sthiv’ are under the Bibhatsya (odious) Rasã, and are not to be associated with the ‘high-borns’ or upper-castes. In essence, it appears that the ruling classes had generally posited spitting against civil behaviour, a savage instinctual nature versus culture. It is as if the good classes of history do not spit, unless met by lack of order.

Spitting, or expectoration, for most of history has been an act of ridicule and humiliation. In all of recorded human history, we find but a few dots to map out some divine or superstitious reverence for spitting. For the most part, we have hated spitting, and we had spit on those we hated or held in contempt; whether they were powerful individual or empires, powerless peasants or rude rebels, or perhaps some image of God itself—some human at some point had spit on them.

The real question not asked is this: What does spitting really mean?

The Ontic Problem

Up until now, whatever was discussed was either a scientific or a historical fact. Therefore, it is ontic in nature. By ontic, I mean a fact or information which proves to be a useful tool in unravelling an idea, but lacks the quality to clarify what it really means. An example would be this: we know for a fact that we have but met radio or telescopic silence throughout space; that there is no one making sound but us. This is information, a necessary and vital tool, but an incomplete one. What it really means is that we are surrounded by deep and dark silence, and the staggering loneliness and brittleness of life has to be understood and appreciated separately through time, albeit drawn from the very same discoveries mentioned above.

The properties of saliva, the concentration of enzymes, mucin, electrolytes or even the trace DNA signature does not tell us about spitting much. It may tell us of our evolutionary history, and microbiological history of the oral space; and yet it does not explain what spitting means. The standard documented history, whether it is from Pliny’s account of medicinal use of saliva, or a long history of rulers and ruled spitting at each other does not reveal anything much. Even cultural history of spitting towards someone making a journey (Greek), or spitting on the chest in fright (Bengal), or ceremonial spitting in so many cultures do not necessarily prove anything. If at all it proves something, then it is the fact that spitting is a deliberate act of humans, quite contrary to retching or gag reflexes made upon meeting a thing of disgust[vii]. It may even tell us of our presence and/or involvement at crime scenes, and to a large extent may work as a component for modern state’s vigilance, and yet it does not tell us why we are so readily subject to it. As in, why we spit at all.

The question ‘why’ do we spit is again an ontic question. We spit because something elicits disgust or repulsion in us, or even contempt, but we do not need to. We spit, simply put, because we can. The reason why we spit at something is a vacuous question, just as the question ‘what’ we spit is. It might tell us, through a grand study, of the categories of emotions under whose spell we end up spitting. But it does not tell us what it means. The real question that should evoke our philosophical or sociological enquiry is the whatness of the act. In essence, what I am suggesting is to ask the question: what does spitting end up meaning in the larger coherent structures under which we study our being. By putting in the scientific enquiries and sociological findings, how can we understand what spitting means to us as an action, both that of an individual and as a species? In other words, what does spitting mean?

Firstly, multiple disciplines such as the neurological sciences, culinary artistry and studies of human sexuality have proven to us that saliva helps us in tasting. Anticipation, either of sex or of food, makes us salivate. Saliva helps in carrying the object in mouth to the taste-receptors. In turn, salivation is the sign of the expectation of something to be put in the mouth. Purely from a sensorial perspective, tasting and touching are our primary agents of contact with the world-around-us. It is the ‘gustus’ in disgust which is triggered when we don’t like the taste or smell of something. Smelling still has the advantage of distance, tasting does not. Smelling itself has an invasive property, we can’t help it, unless of course by a deliberate closing of the nasal orifice. Roughly, this means that a smell simulates our sense of taste. However, the ultimate act of tasting is the crisis moment upon which we deliver our reactions to something. In sex too, the mouth salivates at the expectation of a kiss or any other sexual act. Kissing is an anticipation of tasting the other, the drive to consume the object of desire. We salivate, just like other mammals, at the sight of good or delicious smelling food. The mouth runs dry in fear (death anxiety?) or in expectation of bad food. It is as if we prepare deeply to relish the taste of spit itself when tasting something. Perhaps, it is one of the reasons why good food and sex often elicits similar sense of pleasure. Thus, spitting out would be placed at the other end, albeit with several other complicated processes.


Secondly, the anatomical sciences have also proved how crucial it is to salivate in order to digest something. But what happens when we cannot ‘digest’ something (physiologically or psychologically)? We throw it out; we spit it out, or in worst case—vomit. Darwin had put disgust as an evolutionary residue among humans (ibid.) However, other theorists like Aurel Kolnai, William Miller, Andras Angyal and several others have proven that disgust in fact is subject to various other reasons, notably related to existence itself. The spit helps in digestion or comes out as part of the excretory process. For the sake of delimitation I would like to skip the history of management of bodily waste as of now. Spit, as we can notice, is thrown out before things are consumed. Spit therefore is an essential category with which we shape the world around us. We both accept and reject food according to our tastes with the help of it. In a way, direct spitting may be called an action which we do in order to not consume something. Spit is an expression of pre-digestion, something we do not want to take in. In other words, we humans spit out things we do not want to grasp, govern, consume or accept. It is an act of rejection that is wet in texture.

Lastly, there again exist anatomical sciences as well as linguistics which give a special mention of the functions of saliva in the usage of speech. We have briefly discussed how several speech impairments and problems are caused by the deteriorations of salivary glands (Berkovitz, Holland et al, 260-261).  We are also aware how early linguistic study of a language starts with the differentiating of vowels and consonants on the positions of the tongue and the manner of the sound emitted from the mouth. Whether it be the guttural Austrio-Hungarian, the nasal French or the heavy labio-dental Arabic; we require the lubricating agent of saliva to make speech possible. There is a problem here, and it is an existentially challenging one. Language itself, as is known by linguists, lawyers and common people alike, is the curse and the boon of humanity. Saussure had much earlier put forward the idea how in language there are only differences sans positive signs. Derrida went ahead and brought in the concept of differance, all that exists of meaning are traces of some other negatives. Psychoanalysis too, treats language differently. A psychoanalyst, for professional reasons of course, rather takes fancy on the slips, silences, stutters, drooling, slurping, tongue clicking and other lapses of language when the client talks of his or her problems. In both linguistic and psychoanalytic disciplines language is considered as an incomplete tool, but a necessary tool nonetheless. But one does spit, while using speech, or when speech falters.


Spitting at someone or at something is midway between a lapse of language and a statement itself. This must be noted that we are not talking of habitual spitting in public spaces, which we shall discuss later. What I am raising here in question is the deliberate act of spitting at or against something, or someone symbolically of something bigger. There are times when emotional outbursts or flows seem unnatural, so unnatural and so overwhelming that language falls short. In these cases, spitting becomes a statement disguised as a lapse in language or of judgement itself. The emotion in question can be any of the myriads we feel every day, but to an overwhelming degree. It can be rage, sorrow, self-pity or more often than not, the hurting of the masculine power structure. It is generally noticed that women spit lesser than men in public spaces[viii], but it’s not about that. Power, in this late capitalist world is always yielded along with older structures that pre-existed cultural logic of capitalism. Hence power is exerted through feudal, racial, patriarchal and casteist methods. Simply put, the drive to humiliate through spitting in class-society can be done by any individual as a show of power (regardless of gender), but it is always historical and contextual in its articulation. The spitting worker on the officer’s table is not the same as the officer upon the visit of the factory floor, even though traces of the same power articulations are present in the former case. The absence of potent curse-words often makes people expectorate, that is (ex-) cast out directly from the (-pectus) chest, an angst truly from inside.


The Ontological Quotient 

The ontological problem in formation of a concept on spitting is challenging. By ontology of the concept of spitting, I do not mean having an ontology of its own. The ontological meaning is derived from the conscious being. Ergo the human. The basic ontological problem of any discipline are the ways in which they can solve their own basic crisis points. The problem of a study based purely on biological categories as anatomical factors that help in production of spit, or a microbiological history of components of saliva, or history of evolution itself will not solve in unravelling the meaning of spitting as we have it now. A history of aesthetics may reveal the politics of contradictions and the changing conventions of beauty and ugliness in art and society; but it does not reveal anything about why spitting is a mark of humiliation or a taboo. A close psychoanalytic study may reveal how or in what ways an individual’s habit of spitting is governed through his/her past psychological history. This may tend to point out to larger understanding of society. But is still incomplete.

Just as mentioned above, all the problems regarding tasting, digesting and speech are related both to the individual subject and the society around him/her. Let us take a few examples and examine conditions under which a person may feel compelled in spitting.

A strong pungent odour related to food often makes us have gag reflexes or bouts of spitting. However, it maybe so that, that specific food, has a cultural or ritualistic meaning for a person. Then it easily becomes a subject of cultural difference, a delicacy to one may easily be a thing of disgust for the other. The underlying reason for it can be multitudinous, the fact that smelly food is often associated with ‘filthiness’ of a community, that two cultures share a space who have (throughout history) developed different preservation techniques, or the fact that we are predisposed to spit at something we find disgusting. Cultures which have a history of thriving under fertile and bountiful land often can afford to waste parts of meats, vegetables or other edibles, while cultures with a history of living under arid and harsh conditions often tend to make use of everything available to them that seem remotely edible. The arid Mongolian rock-desert would not perhaps allow the inhabitants there to waste any product from the cattlestock. The offals, hide and bones would hold the same value as would the meat. In a bountiful land, it might not be so (or would very strictly be class related). However, it is safe to assume that both these cultures are susceptible to disgust, albeit of different kinds. The underlying principle of both tasting and digesting are thus governed largely by social conditioning, and also the individual’s reaction to a sense of corruption of the body.

The cultural relativity aside, individual human being may react to something and end up spitting, this spitting is also related to the world-around-us. We are constantly threatened by the composition of ‘nature’ and the helplessness, the brittleness of our own life. The true anxiety starts at the moment of realisation that death is inevitable. It is therefore, my proposition that one reason of spitting is that we largely are afraid of death. Then again what kind of death is the question, or at the least, what level of deadness?

Disgust has been equated with many characteristics. It often aligns itself greatly with the anxiety or fear of death. Death, in its many forms, does indeed provoke disgust. Nonetheless, death in-itself is not a matter of disgust, as much as it is a matter of dread. When faced with thoughts and contemplations of the inevitability of death in all living beings (self-included) there is very little one can do about it. In general, at the realization of the inevitability of the impending demise, one can either repress the Eros, or revel in the finiteness and gratuity of it. Death, as a phenomenon in-itself, elicits a terror, a dread, and a sense of awe against the causality of life itself. Death fascinates us, to the point where we attach a certain sense of divinity to it. The dead too, fascinates us, and we then bestow qualities to the dead. It is often observed that most cultures avoid direct confrontation with the subject of death, we “pass away”, “cross over to the other side”, “rest the body” etc; it was not until the industrial revolution and consequent commoditisation of medical culture that we simply turn up “dead on arrival” or “deceased”. In fact, both disease and death has become a thing of shame, an “offensively meaningless event” to the modern humans after the rise of industrial society[ix]. Death also has a negative erotic charge to it, it is a strange attractor that gives life its causality, its meaning, and transcends language long enough to become significantly mysterious. It is not unknown to cultures across the world to make mummies, embalm corpses, keep mementos, carry ashes around, and sometimes kiss the dead goodbye. Nonetheless, it is somewhat uncomfortable to imagine that the same range of emotions one feels towards a fresh corpse of a loved one or a cold frozen face of the departed, remains unflinchingly the same in the vision of a rotting, maggot ridden, bloated corpse. It is even rare for necrophiles to feel the same way about the rotting corpse, as if all the sexual fetishization and attraction fades away when the flesh rots away[x]. And yet, death itself is a cause of shame and found a bit disgusting. What would be the reason to find some deaths or states of ‘dead-ness’ normative, and some disgusting? And what would be the reason why we feel disgusted by death itself?


Susan Sontag wrote in “Illness as a Metaphor”, a seminal biography on her years battling tough diseases that-

“All this lying to and by cancer patients is a measure of how much harder it has become in advanced industrial societies to come to terms with death. As death is now an offensively meaningless event, so that disease widely considered as a synonym for death is experienced as something to hide.” (Sontag, 8)

While Sontag is right about the problems of health and disease under late capitalism, where healthy living is one of the greatest commoditised industries, it is still unlikely that this shame alone is related to disgust. Disgust in death comes from the corpse that has passed the threshold of a ‘fresh death’, and has moved into the realm of exposure to natural elements that starts changing its properties. Disgust hits us when the body starts changing its properties due to heat or rot, and emits foul odour. Disgust also takes hold when the skin, the repository of a lot of aesthetic and symbolic meaning of human interaction, starts to physically show decay. This stark contradictions between warm and cold, bloated and fresh, green versus skin shade, blistered versus smooth, are all reminiscent of  the contradictions between what or who we perceive as alive and what it has now become, or rather what the un-becoming has done to the body. Even in rare cases of putrefaction, we do not feel the same way we feel a corpse without any tending, and a body submerged under embalming fluid. The fact that life continues, and pretty aggressively at that is one of the things that disturbs us at the sight of a rotting corpse. What we are then disgusted by is not death in-itself, but the staggering excess of life following death. We spit when some-body has already passed the threshold of death and has started emitting sensory signifiers of brittleness of life of the self, and the vastness of excess of life ready to take over our brittle perception of the self.

Kolnai, as well as Miller puts the disgust of death not on Death itself, but on the crossroad of life and death, the aspect of life in death. Miller says—

“What disgusts, startlingly, is the capacity for life, and not just because life implies its correlative death and decay: for it is decay that seems to engender life. Images of decay imperceptibly slide into images of fertility and out again. Death thus horrifies and disgusts not just because it smells revoltingly bad, but because it is not an end to the process of living but part of a cycle of eternal recurrence. (Miller, 40)”

This is indeed a brilliant breakthrough by Miller and Kolnai, as we indeed are disgusted by something ‘life-like’ in the dead. Severed hands, a vampire corpse with red lips, Frankenstein’s monster, or a skeleton out of a haunted closet are all elements of horror throughout literature, however, they do not demand disgust as much as they do dread and fear. The fundamental aspect of disgust, therefore, is the possibility of life within death. It is the sense of dread and loathing one would feel at the indifference of nature or cosmos against the conscious self-aware ‘self’.

We, therefore, spit, when we encounter a world-without-us, and our short span in world-around-us. However, these are the inhibitions and conditions regarding the individual. Spitting takes place and meaning is conferred upon it via a network of social, political and economic relations. To posit spitting just as a product of existential crisis or through a phenomenological reading is at best a stupidity, at worst an apology for not bringing in the politics of a society.



Spitting in the Indian Context

It can be observed repeatedly that there exists a strong social, political and economic force entwined with the conceptions leading to spitting. The three preconditions to being a social force are as follows: first, the object at which spit is directed to have to have a historical nature to it, that is, it must have a history of being disgusting. An object does not become a thing of disgust overnight; there were specific causes for it to have become an object of disgust. Even if it does become an object of disgust or contempt overnight, or in a matter of moments, the history of those moments are inescapably entwined with the nature of the object.  Secondly, the materialist reason for the reaction against that object (and not others like it) must exist. By the term materialist, I do not exclude the realm of thoughts and ideas, they are in fact the very product of materialist history (as has been observed in psychoanalytical schools). Consciousness in both the schools of Marxism and psychoanalysis develops through interaction with materialist conditions. Lastly, if spitting as an act exists, then there must be reasons for it to have existed throughout time, that is, for the conditions of the act of spitting on this particular ‘thing’ to have recycled it. The point we must remember, however, is that spitting is always social in nature. Whether it comes from evolutionary traits, existential angst, display of power, contempt or deeply embedded trauma, spitting, is a deliberate act and does not take birth in vacuum. Spitting with ‘intent’ is strictly a human phenomenon, it is neither a defence mechanism of like that of the Fulmar bird nor the mechanism of Octopus, it is with intent that we spit. Therefore, spitting is social in its formation. It is easily observable how we find that objects as dirt, dust, sewage, waste (domestic or industrial), smoke, soot and several other objects are treated with disgust, and in some cases with horror. It can also be observed that even living conditions of a certain kind can evoke the urge to spit, if we consider the disgust of the colonizer with the shabby ‘native’ houses, or the middle and upper class grimace at the sight of slums and shanties, it becomes clear that architecture of a certain kind, or decor and utilities used by others from certain social classes can also be associated with the emotion of disgust, hence evoke an urge to spit. Therefore, it appears that a mere study or speculation on the basis of individual reaction is not enough. On the contrary, without a broader and historical study of the political-economy of spitting at ‘things’, it would end up being a study of reactions and causations separately.


The Class-Caste Condition

             Marx first posited the idea of a materialist conception of history in 1845, specifically in the works Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology. It is not a surprise that it was barely two years after his book Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) that he finally sets in motion one of the most progressive ideas in history.  In the Theses on Feuerbach (1888) Marx argues that

[Theses 8]… All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice[xi].

Marx here makes a breakthrough from hitherto dominating ideas regarding consciousness, thinking and human’s role in society itself.  He shows how Feuerbach (and those before him) had made an error when they argued consciousness among humans to be an abstract idea, and an essence in-itself that came from some source outside of objective history of human practice. Thus society, according to Feuerbach, developed with the help and manifestation of the said human consciousness making society but a reflection of the divinity of consciousness itself (as much of a Christian retelling of Plato’s concept of ideal). Marx breaks away this notion and argues that humans have evolved along with society, and that consciousness has also been evolving with the society, making it practical in nature.

Today, we can see how consciousness itself and the nature of society around us have undergone changes, whether or not from a strictly Marxist point of view. However, these changes are not arbitrary in nature. The past ethical, moral or any other societal frameworks were dialectically related to its economic relations, and so is the present related to our present economic relations. These conditions altogether form the social and political conditions which we react in. The argument is not that class relations shape history of emotions, but that class history is inescapably (and dialectically) related to how we ‘feel’ or react to things. To build from this above theoretical premise, we need to understand that although emotions are subjective in nature, the very aspect of human subjectivity however is a malleable thing, and it has changed historically through ages. And emotions, because of its abstract nature, have no historical archive. And yet, we are bound by historical forces when we ‘feel’ something, when we encounter emotions within ourselves. We are subject to emotions as much as emotions are subjects to changes of time. The problem is that to study anything historically we must eventually look for an archive, whether physical books, ethnographic studies or inferences through literature— history demands an archive. The emotions triggering us to spit at or on something is therefore a historical process that is still undergoing change, and archives of this history is based on the class-caste contradictions of the subcontinent.

The India we know today has undergone a series of changes over time. To an extent, the very creation of modern Indian borders is a product of partition in 1947, and the horrors of it are still felt by the second or third generation of refugees in the country. Indians had undergone what can be called a broken or ‘mistaken modernity’ in this age of late capitalism. Modernity comes with commodification of all kinds, starting from commodification of basic necessities of life, of labour and of human relationships itself. Commodification is one of the basic drives of the project of modernity. However, the commercialisation of resources, the alienation of the individual or the large scale deployment of industrial-capital and subsequent problems are all unique in case of India. India itself went through a series of economic and social changes during the colonial rule. Macaulay spoke of the creation of a class of people who would imitate the European man, and therefore would be “persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect[xii].” In other words, the colonizers wilfully created the class of gentoos, a derogatory term for colonized bilingual elites who would facilitate the will of the colonizer unto the rest of the population. This forced creation of a complacent petit-bourgeoisie did not wither away after the independence from the British. Majority of the ‘middle-class’ we have now is neither middle-class nor has the temperament of the western petit-bourgeoisie. What we have is a class that simply can afford a lifestyle, a consumer habit that is dependent on the vast number of cheap labour available in the market. Dipankar Gupta rightly notes in his book that the middle-classes are shallow, in the sense that just like the bourgeoisie of this country, they too would have both the agency of a modern citizen and yet keep the traditional positions of power (such as class and birth privileges) intact. Gupta argues that modernisation has forced a degree of rationalisation among the developing societies, but unfortunately for India, it has only whetted the appetite of the middle classes[xiii].

What remains therefore is the desire to consume like the Western middle-class and keep other progressive changes in the society pre-modern in nature, and this culture of consumption becomes the symbol of a glorified overall progress of society[xiv]. In essence, the Indian big bourgeoisie is comprised of a handful of upper-caste (a few Parsi) and birth-privileges entrenched families, and the middle-classes too comprises generally of the upper-castes. The political-economy thus is based on a very casteist system of functioning which produces its own unique classes in the society. Its not the ‘true bourgeoisie’ that exists in India, rather it is a nexus of upper-castes who have historically held on to power and capital in India, during and after independence from British colonialism.  Therefore it is no wonder that the public and private space question is a complex question that demands a theoretical premise that takes feudal, casteist, gendered and class as primary movers of the social relations. Thus, weirdly enough the vacuous middle-classes would much like an idea of a civilized public space, but would never actually forego the privileges that their own classes would require to.

I don’t intend to provide one simple all-encompassing idea to explain such a complex phenomenon. However, what I do intend to do is talk about a few problems which are related to this subject. Firstly, the reason why the outside is always considered and a truly other world is because the project of good citizenship was never taken seriously by those in power. While Dipankar Gupta mentions strongly about the Hindu household and how it is quintessentially related to the purity and impurity conceptions of the majority of Indian household. That is, how the inside of the houses, the kitchen, the bedroom, the makeshift temple-room inside all are part of the boundaries under which strict taboos and purity distinctions are enforced, the outdoors on the other hand is taken as the other world. An Other world, that which is truly outside of the structures of purity, a world that is in passing and a world where someone else picks up the waste. Secondly, apart from Gupta’s argument I would also like to add to the fact that it’s the impunity of throwing trash outside, spitting,  that makes people do so, and it comes in a class society, perhaps more in a caste society. When you understand somewhere deep within your psyche that the throwing of garbage will be ‘taken care of’ by someone else, it becomes a natural structure of the class-caste society.



Towards a Political Ontology

The problem of political theory is often that it undermines the ontological study completely, or just assumes that it is inherent in the formation of the political subject. The nascent understanding that the political subject offers an ontology in itself is an affliction that often is present in the so called right-wing conservatives as well as liberal political thought, and sometimes even the radical left suffers from it too. While the Feminist theory apparently seems most well equipped to deal with problems of the ontological nature of the political subject, yet there are various schisms which come forth as problems of intersectionalism, identity and so on. Of all these broad political spectrums, perhaps the radical Marxist notion is most well equipped to deal with the inner crisis of political ontology. It is not for some insightful nature of the origins of Leftist thought nor is it because of some misplaced assumption that whosoever calls herself ‘radical’ and ‘Marxist’ at the same time has a sharper theoretical premise to form a political ontology. Rather it is the way in which radical Left-wing theorists have the theoretical basis to be constantly aware of its existence as a contending ideology against a much stronger dominant ideological framework that exists with the coalition of the market and the State. Secondly, Marx himself (as well as Freud) takes much interest in not just the content of the final encounter of the commodity, or the human species-essence (Gattungwesen) for that matter, but also the way and the form in which it is thusly formed. The secret of commodity fetishism is not revealed in the mere exposition of the invisibilised labour behind it, but also the way this entire secrecy is formed and continued in our society. In a similar manner, human nature too, develops along with the conditions of existence. This applies not just to the fertility, abundance or appropriation of resources, but also through the ways in which class societies function. A society caught in the mire of feudalism or capitalism does not yet truly develop the necessary faculties to achieve harmony in society, which according to Marx, truly comes from the elimination of class conditions in a society. Thirdly, and most importantly, a truly ‘radical’ Left political theory is aware of its nature in terms of historical direction. Instead of shying away from the blame of teleological reading of history with the ultimate goal as communism, it must revel in it. As in, the fractional goal is to bend the people’s will towards more egalitarian society, albeit with violent show of power from the people’s end. In a way, the demand to violently overthrow autocratic or capitalist regimes and ruling classes is always pregnant with the concept that two classes cannot control the means of production together, hence the more historically endowed powerful class of the bourgeoisie (of whatever nature it is[xv]) must go.

The problem with spitting too is actually two-fold in nature. First it is the form in which it has taken and exists in society. Secondly, the fact that its illusory form hides a rather complex existential quotient situated within the human consciousness.

Spitting is an act that primarily surrounds around two different emotions among humans, anger and disgust. In both of these cases the order of things plays a crucial role in being the primary elicitors of disgust and anger. Anger comes when one feels wronged by the violation of an order, and disgust takes places when the order is violated to expose the brittleness of order itself. Anger is when someone wrongs us, especially when we think it is on ethical grounds, and overpowered by such emotions we resort to the language of spitting. Disgust is when we see the filth has already violated the zones of control, and has hence challenged the whole notion of order itself (ex: rotting body pulsing with maggots, moss and flies over food etc). None of these sense of violations of order takes birth in vacuum, it is very much part of the aesthetic, political and social conventions that we grow up in. Spitting therefore, as a form itself, takes place within the order of a network of socio-political bias. The casual act of hygiene becomes a political subject when it is considered on the basis of the society it exists in. Do we wash more when we touch Dalits? How about manual scavengers? Do Muslims provoke unspeakable anger that we negotiate with back home while performing acts of hygiene? Unless something is ingested, spitting does not help us in any way to sanitize ourselves. It is neither washing nor cleaning oneself but solely a reaction to appease a sense of corruption or violation. The form of the act of spitting is a political act that takes place within the formation of specific frameworks, albeit governed by class, caste and gendered biases. However, the important thing is also to note not just the form of the act of spitting, but also what it hides under it. Beyond the apparent realm of spitting in anger or disgust (or even hygiene) what the form effectively hides is the existential crisis of the individual. Beyond the thin veneer of civility, the political subject in India has never truly internalised the scientific and rationalist worldview. The spitting Indian does so in public and in private, at people they deem unfit for caste society, at communal minorities and at women. The existential crisis cannot be just brushed under the large carpet of problems of ‘being’ and its many mystifying artefacts, it must rather be seen as a political problem, more so as a political ontological problem. As such, it can be broadly theorized that beyond the act of spitting exists a powerful search and loss of meaning, a loss of meaning that modernity is unable to fulfil because of its own contradictions. In India, it is furthermore contradictory because the act of spitting at someone or even in public hides the inconsistencies of the Brahminical Hindu body, which has been incapable of withstanding the sudden changes in the norms of its patriarchal and casteist core. Suddenly hitherto subjects of casteist abuse, albeit abuse with impunity, has been asking for human rights, identity, history and acknowledgement of the horrors of history, the women too ask for the same, and mostly the massive stallion of aggressive capital seems to have opened a Pandora’s box where no one is born sacred anymore, and the birth-right has actually become not just politically incorrect and unwanted, but also unfashionable in the gaze of the West (or the World for that matter). Therefore Macbeth is plagued by visions of his demise, Hinduism is supposed to be under threat of being wiped away, therefore Macbeth must lose sleep and reason—and commit genocide too. The Brahminical inscribed in the body-politics of a Hinduised nation is constantly under threat, as it finds its older laws and customs, it’s archetypal modes of oppression has to be renegotiated in corporate offices, and all orifices through which corruption of the Brahminical body can enter has to be stuffed with show of power, the great stuffing of the orifices with holy manure and piss of the cow, which in turn runs towards the abjection of the self. Spitting in India is not just a casteist or communal slur, nor is it just uncivil behaviour of the infinite number of caste-class categories waiting on others to clean up after them, it is all that, true; but it is also a demarcation of the incapable Indian political subject when placed under stress of existential questions. What if the castes vanish? What if I have to clean my own excretion? Would that not end and crush my worldview? Will not then the century old Caesar die to save the republic? Who then wants such a casteless republic where no one is special and no one of nobility to rule? The stringent questions posited here are essentially a point towards the problem of the spitting Indian. He spits because he can do so with impunity in a caste-society, and he spits because fear grasps him, the fear of the unknown political horizon.

The reason why a radical Marxist approach is necessary to understand the act, in all its political and ontological framework is because of its links to material history, and also to change the future of this problem. Under no circumstance do I see a change in the politico-historical understanding of spitting and its ontological problems without engaging in the praxis of taking care of filth that such a caste-class, semi-colonial and capitalist society like India produces. Only when the taboos are broken and people are responsible to clean the very streets they walk, the very parks they litter, and the very rivers they pollute, only then will the collective conscience about act be addressed historically and politically. Thus the simple act of transition of property is not enough for societies as problematic as in India, one needs to not just revolutionize the mode of production, but also (as the radical Marxists and Maoists claim) revolutionize the culture as well.



In conclusion one might add that just realising the political and ontological aspects of spitting will not change the future of why and how people spit in reaction to something or someone. What it may achieve however is the way in which we think of something so commonplace, so un-archivable and as regular as spitting. The fact that it has its own anthropological, political and cultural history has to be contextualised with regards to a larger philosophical problem as well. This paper was an attempt to briefly discuss some of the key problems in the act of spitting. What it appears to be and what it really means are of course quite different in nature. What we can mainly focus on, is probably how we can situate it in our broader philosophical, linguistic and cultural concepts.


[i]Berkovitz, B. K. B., and B. J. Moxham. 1994. Oral anatomy, histology, and embryology. London: Mosby-Wolfe. Print. (pg: 260-261)


[ii]F. Marcone, Massimo. (2005). Characterization of the edible bird’s nest the “Caviar of the East”. Food Research International. 38. 1125-1134. 10.1016/j.foodres.2005.02.008.
[iii]Godbey, A. H. “Ceremonial Spitting.” The Monist 24, no. 1 (1914): 67-91. Last Access: 12/8/2019


[iv]Mark 7, The Bible, The New International  Version, ( Last Access: 21/8/2019


[v]“The Spitting Nuisance.” The British Medical Journal 1, no. 2110 (1901): 1428. Last Access: 23/8/19


[vi]Abrams, Jeanne E. “”Spitting Is Dangerous, Indecent, and against the Law!” Legislating Health Behavior during the American Tuberculosis Crusade.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 68, no. 3 (2013): 416-50.

[vii] Darwin, Charles. The Emotions and the Expressions of Man and Other Animals. 2nd ed. London: Cambridge U Press, 2009. (pg: 269-271)


[viii]Kumar, Krishna. “A Pedagogue’s Romance.” India International Centre Quarterly 28, no. 2 (2001): 41-46.

[ix]Sontag, Susan. 1991. Illness as metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (pg: 8)

[x]Aggrawal, Anil. 2011. Necrophilia: Forensic And Medico-Legal Aspects, New York: CRC Press. (pg: 41-93)


[xi] Marx. Karl. 1998. “Theses on Feuerbach”, The German Ideology. Amherst: Prometheus Books. (pg: 569-571)


[xii]Macaulay, T. B. 1965. “Minute by the Hon’ble T. B. Macaulay, dated the 2nd February 1835.”,Bureau of Education. Selections from Educational Records, Part I (1781-1839). Delhi: National Archives of India.
[xiii]Gupta, Dipankar. 2017. Mistaken modernity: India between worlds. New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers, India. (pg- 23)


[xiv]Ibid.  (pg- 26)

[xv] This is to ensure that not all bourgeoisie are the same. Different histories of capital has given rise to different political classes. And in most of the post-colonial countries we either have a comprador bourgeoisie or a semi-feudal bourgeoisie, and the proletariat too is divisible into several different categories. Notably Fanon and Negri’s work on the nature of working classes in postcolonial countries should share more light.

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