When I began my personal journey of unearthing the wonders of shit, the fact that we accept shit as disgusting preoccupied my mind. Even amongst my rather progressive circle of friends comfortable with discussing all sorts of taboo subjects, they find the extent to which I persistently introduce the topic of shit into our conversations absurd. “Why do you want to talk about shit all the time? It’s gross!” is their common response. What preoccupies me is not necessarily shit itself, but rather the affective reactions that shit elicits. Knowing something about the affective power of disgust, a feeling of aversion that powerfully repels and distances us from any disgusting matter, I find it fascinating that we are so disgusted by a matter that we produce ourselves. This post is based on findings of Dominique Laporte’s book History of Shit. As a philosopher and a linguist focusing on European history, his book argues that our evolving relationship with shit has caused our language to become “cleansed”. In this post, I emphasise parts of his argument on sewage systems and toilets that guide the rationale of urban planning.
The smell of shit has evoked a sense of disgust so powerful that humans have designed the perfect tool to dispose of them as immediately as possible: the flush toilet is a shrouded yet indispensable furniture of any existing space. Dominique Laporte, in his book History of Shit, pinpointed the origins of modern toilets to the waste management system introduced in France in the 16th century. In 1539, King Francois passed Decrees criminalising the disposal of waste in public spaces and requiring the existence of cesspools in indoor spaces, during a time where Paris was infamously known as the “city of shit”. The idea of the cesspool rests in the use of water to wash over waste to a predetermined route, leading to the sewage networks beneath the city. Refuses, offals, or putrefecations (either liquid or solid in nature), are to be disposed of within the confines of homes by being emptied into the cesspool that leads to a stream, “and give them chase with a bucketful of clean water to hasten their course”. [article 15, 1539 Decree by King Francois]
It is noteworthy that sewage systems are not a novel invention: the Romans’ infamous Cloaca Maxima, heralded by Laporte as a “signifier of civilisation par excellence”, was one of the earliest sewage systems in history, maintained by copious amounts of water supplied through its aqueducts. What is significant here is not the grandeur of the Cloaca Maxima itself, but that the idea of the sewer has experienced a revival. It was not only that cesspools were designated as a repository for waste, they required a water stream that could carry waste away from homes into a designated hidden space under the city. The responsibility over shit suddenly lies within the home: the criminalisation of disposing waste in the streets means that waste is to be kept in a designated space at home, and could only be taken outside at certain times of the day to be collected by garbage collectors. Laporte described this process as the “domestication” of waste, in which the disgusting is most appropriately to be dealt with within the home, the closest of social ties, marking the genesis of modern ideas of intimacy and individuality.
Shit does not only need to be removed from sight, it should also be transported somewhere else to shield home-dwellers from their stench. For Laporte, this marked a turning point in the history of senses - the primacy of the visible, guiding the rationale on order in the city, does not negate olfactory considerations: it is in this sense that smell muddles vision. It is not enough to hide waste from sight, the requirement of removing also its stench guides the logic of the sewers and its necessity. The olfactory sense has been redefined as a corollary to aesthetic considerations - the city is not only purified in sight, it is also purified in smell. What counts as a “beautiful smell” is the absence and elimination of odour, a result of our privatisation and individualisation of waste. In accordance with this logic, the Decrees of 1539 also included a ban on farming in the city: breeding and feeding of any non-domestic animals must be conducted outside the confines of the city, relegating the smell of manure to the countryside. The logic of odour elimination has inscribed itself in the political economy of the visible, which maintained itself to this day in the seeming divide between the industrial city and the pastoral countryside. It is claimed that this divide has gradually decreased as consistent urbanisation pushed cities to expand and “swallow” the countryside, yet the smell of manure and feces in the city nowadays is maskable by the constant redolent of pollution.
It is argued that cleanliness comes with a price, or more precisely, the right to be free of shit and its odour is not free. The system of waste management is held in place with a system of fees, fines, and a variety of taxes serving either as punishment or reward, creating a political economy for shit. The countryside being relegated as a place of shit is a necessary process in dictating the city as a place of commerce, or a site of gold and wealth accumulation. Such presentation of gold/shit as a dialectic sustains itself only until shit availed itself from the status of mere waste, prominently when it found a use in agriculture as fertilisers. Waste is now collected as compost, but the process of turning waste into fertilisers is a rigorously time-consuming process of purification and decomposition. In this morphing of shit into gold, Laporte observed civilisation’s ambivalence towards shit: there is a desire to wash the places where garbage collects, yet there exists a belief in the purifying value of waste. As Jacques Lacan has argued, “civilisation is the sewers” - [Lacan, J. (1971). Lituraterre. In J. W. Stone (Trans.), Litterature (Larousse) (p. 3). (Unofficial).]the feature distinguishing man from animals is that the disposal of shit poses itself to humans as a “problem” to be solved.
Civilisation’s attitude towards shit has undergone a rapid change in the sixteenth century. It is even more interesting to consider the history of European medicine, where at the time medical professionals were spiritual healers practicing humorist theories of Galen. The theory is based on the idea that ailments are a result of a fluctuation of the balance of four bodily fluids, which is associated with an “element” or inherent “quality”: blood as air, phlegm as water, yellow bile as fire, and black bile as earth. The focus on bodily excrements leads to an examination of bodily waste being a part of medicinal practice. This idea that what we excrete(out) indicates the state of our health and wellbeing(in) remains to this day, where medical professionals highlighted the importance of assessing the consistency of shit using tools like the Bristol Stool Scale. Yet as we have seen, the 16th century marked a turning point to our attitude towards shit: the criminalisation of foul aesthetics and odours has transported shit to the hidden parts of the city, eventually finding refuge outside city walls as the commercialisation of shit became possible.
It is perhaps most fitting to end this discussion with Slavoj Zizek’s inquiry on the hermeneutics of lavatories: focusing on Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, he observed that this triad of differential attitudes towards waste is represented in the lavatories of each nation. He argued that the placement of the hole within the toilet bowl represents the perception of shit, which is related to political ideologies. The Germans have a hole in the front side that allows shit to first sit on the back of the bowl, to be sniffed and inspected, before it is flushed. The French have a hole in the back side, so shit will fall into the water and disappear immediately from sight. The British have a hole in the middle with water covering the entire bowl, allowing shit to float on it before it is flushed. For Zizek, these represent the differential existential attitude each nation conveys: Germany’s reflective thoroughness grounded in conservatism, France’s revolutionary hastiness grounded in radicalism, and UK’s utilitarian pragmatism grounded in moderate liberalism. [Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies, 3-5] Above all these considerations, my research informs me that it is impossible to detach our perceptions towards shit from the perceptions to our own selves.