By A Team of Enraged Housewives


By a Team of Enraged Housewives.

Cleaning the Vacuum is the fruit of a research project on the uses and abuses of cleaning, cleansing, and the frivolous uselessness of household machinery. The title story relates the ordeal of a Dutch housewife in the Underworld. Like her fellow inmates Sisyphus and Tantalus, she has been punished by the gods for hubris and is condemned forever to wash a windowpane that becomes befouled again the minute she thinks it is clean. Her sin? To have challenged a superior wisdom: cleaning creates dirt. During its research the team encountered many unforeseen mysteries and found answers to questions never asked. The cleaning process caused problems great and small to cling to the proverbial mop. Why do we spend so much time and energy washing off natural and often harmless deposits? What cultural determinants encourage or discourage this propensity? Why do people insist on owning a dishwasher, a machine proven to be utterly useless, and a washing machine, when it is far more economical and timesaving to handle washing, drying and ironing centrally as in hotels and hospitals? And why are all household machines so miserably designed and manufactured? Shockingly, no serious criticism has ever been launched throughout their long service: some machines have persisted in their inadequacy for a hundred years! The dishwasher, for example, that caricature of inefficiency relying on just water-spraying and chemicals, has been passively condoned by most injudicious customers since its introduction almost a century ago.

People surround themselves with stuff they don’t need. Are they afraid of the vacuum? For many, a vacuum is a highly desirable state. Some spend fortunes on hotels where the rooms are spacious and devoid of whirring beeping and blinking gadgetry. Resorts where there is neither phone nor internet reception [German: Funkloch] are prized destinations: any kind of nothingness is heaven in a world so stuffed with junk.

That cleaning leads to destruction is a well-known and universally dreaded fact. More than once have picture restorers seen priceless masterpieces disappear under wads of turpentine-soaked cloth. Architectural fires, particularly those in monumental structures such as churches (Nôtre-Dame de Paris), castles (Windsor Castle), and theatres (La Fenice – a fitting name – in Venice, and the Liceu in Barcelona) are caused by cleaning and restoration work.

Cleaning is one thing; vacuuming is another. We empty our minds, so to speak, when we fulfill our household tasks. Encyclopaedias and dictionaries vie for comprehensiveness, but would it not be far more interesting to have encyclopaedias of things we lack, and dictionaries defining things for which we have no words? Our Team of Enraged Housewives is preparing a long-awaited Dictionary of Non-Existent Words.

Also, as far as hardware in concerned, ‘design’ is the nemesis. Design and ergonomics are opposed as vanity and labour. If the vacuum cleaner epitomizes faddism, the designer vacuum cleaner is the ultimate fatuity. Logically, therefore, [what do you mean here? “Inevitably”?] it has served as a model for artists, writers, philosophers, and composers: nothing seems more inspiring than the comico-aspiring qualities of the ‘aspirateur’. Composers in particular love its emblematic silliness. It inspired Gerald Hoffnung, and even the respected Malcolm Arnold scored a huge success in 1956 with his Concerto for Three Vacuum Cleaners and One Floor Polisher (plus Four Rifles to cap the whole thing).

On the other hand, the attraction of Vacuum has seduced artists to represent silence and nothingness. John Cage achieved eternal fame through his Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds, a composition that instructs its performers to refrain from making any sound at all for four-and-a-half minutes.

All this – and much more (and less) – can be found in this necessarily modest yet lavishly illustrated volume.

To be published in 2023.

(Photo by Wendela Hubrecht)