Olive-oil soap

by Rob Horning

9 August 2005


Because the neighborhood I live in is predominantly Greek, the local grocery stores typically carry some Hellenic specialty items: the deli case will be stocked with different feta cheeses, the olive-oil section takes up half an aisle, there’s a shelf of thyme honey from Crete and a shelf of paximadi and flat bread, and in the health and beauty products row, alongside the Dial and the Dove and the Ivory are a few different brands of olive-oil soap. I’m partial to Abea rather than Oliva, which bills itself as “aromatic” (which probably translates to “it’s chemical-smelling odor will eventually give you a headache”). In general, I like olive-oil soap because it’s hard (it won’t melt in a wet soap dish) and it’s mild (you can wash your hair with it everyday if you wanted) and because it’s deep, earthy green is one of my favorite colors.

But my real interest in it may be assimilation. My use of it deludes me into thinking I’ve shed some layer of ethnocentricity and American provinciality and embraced some larger transnational identity. I think I’m adopting some integral piece of Greekness, and thereby making my presence in a Greek neighborhood less anomalous and offensive. I semi-consciously believe I am at once transcending the ethnicity they cling to in one magnanimous gesture; they must inevitably remain Greek, while I can pick and choose like a cultural magpie, cobbling bits from different traditions to make something unique to me and altogether cosmopolitan. Of course, in believing that, I’m a fool. The only reason I think that is because as an American I basically have no traditional ways of my own, no ethnic identity that’s visible to me (no matter how blatant it must be to others). Is this because the bland denatured suburban upbringing I underwent seemed so generic and featureless? It may be the only American tradition is just this: buying products to attain an identity of some sort. Consumer goods lose what ethnic significance they have once detached from a deep-seated, lived tradition and become just another interchangeable sign, no different from the flood of other products saturating the American marketplace. In fact, when I use olive-oil soap, I am robbing it of whatever meaning it has for my neighbors, and acquire none of its Greek meaning for myself. And at the same time I contribute to the way America reduces ethnic groups to the products they can bring to market—the way a people become to other Americans, for all intents and purposes, their nation’s cuisine. Everything I know about Ethiopian culture, for instance, I have learned from the menu and place mats I’ve read in Ethiopian restaurants. If I really wanted to participate in Greek culture, I’d have to actually talk to my neighbors and hang out in the cafes with them, I’d have to risk a bit more than simply daring to use their soap in my shower. I’d have to offer more than my dollar in the supermarket.

An unrelated point: I used to make my own olive-oil soap from scratch, which was enormously satisfying but inefficient, akin to making one’s own bread. Soap is the perfect example of something that economies of scale makes perfect for industrial manufacture and insane for making at home. You pay much more for the ingredients to make soap then you ever would for soap itself, and the homemade soap will never really be as good as the mass-produced bars unless you dupe yourself with the ideology of artisanship. (If it has been made by an individual craftsman, a person who I could meet, the product is as unique and special as I am!) The joy of making soap has to come from the making of it, not in the using it or the thrift of it. In a way, it’s more fun to make it once you are aware of how impractical it is. It as though you are thumbing your nose even more at the technological rationality that rules society. (Adorno would be proud.) And not only is it irrational, but the lye involved makes it dangerous as well, so it has daredevil appeal. It’s Xtreme. Next, I might start trying to make my own Mountain Dew.


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