Brown Meets Green: the Political Fecology of PoopReport.com
The practical motives and aims of this essay are fairly easy to explain: I wanted to write a paper analyzing PoopReport, and I wanted to do so within a framework that connected the study of scatological cultural texts to an environmentalist perspective (hence the title Brown Meets Green). The way I end up combining these aims is by advocating an ecological reading of PoopReport against what in the essay I call the "dominant framework for reading shit within cultural production". In other words, I argue against the ways in which cultural theorists have tended to interpret scatological literature, film, art, etc., and I use PoopReport as a test case for what I think is a better mode of brown cultural criticism: green-brown cultural criticism.
My specific beef with theories of shit that predominate in cultural and literary criticism is that for the most part, they categorically assume shit to be the negative of culture, a symbol of what we necessarily exclude or reject in order to constitute identity, order, the symbolic (language) or social structure. And to the extent that theorists have assumed this antagonistic relationship between shit and culture, they have also tended to interpret the presence of shit within culture as "ambivalent": as something that does not or cannot belong within the order of the cultural or the symbolic, as something that in fact threatens the order and stability of the symbolic.
The problem with seeing the relationship between shit and culture as necessarily antagonistic is that 1) you ignore the ways in which the opposition between shit/culture is socially constructed -- neither given for all time, natural, nor universal, but instead produced within a specific historical and economic context and subject to change; and 2) you ignore the ecological implications of thinking about human bodies and human culture as radically separate from and alien to one another. If we conceive of culture and language as always depending upon the rejection of bodily functioning, then we render invisible the historically contingent mechanisms by which we as 'cultural' beings come to think of ourselves as 'naturally' against bodies and 'naturally' dominant over 'nature'. But if we can see culture and language as historically constructed in opposition to the natural, and if we can see that the way we come to think about things like eating and shitting impacts the way we do things on a social and material level, then we can also see the importance of reconceptualizing our relationship to shit. In other words, the way we read cultural representations of shit is political: these representations reflect material relations of dominance and subordination, and our interpretation of them has a hand in either reproducing or transforming those relations.
To that end, one of the ways to go about transforming relations that lead to ecologically destructive practices is through an ecocritical approach to scatological cultural production: a political fecology. Here's where PoopReport comes in as a useful test case for this approach, because the concept of shamelessness central to the site breaks down the dichotomies of inside/outside, self/shit, and language/bodies upon which dominative relations to nature depend. Rather than writing shit as something separate from the self and which must be privatized or distanced, PoopReport instead emphasizes a radical consciousness of and relationship to shit. This alternate form of selfhood that arises from conversation with the body, I argue, ultimately provides a subjective starting point for resisting large-scale economic and historical forces that contribute to human alienation from and consequent destruction of non-human 'nature'.
-- M. Cortez
Brown Meets Green: the Political Fecology of PoopReport.com
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Though scholarly writing on the scatological seems perennially to provoke the sort of shock that attends the novel and scandalous, Western cultural theory since Freud's "Character and Anal Erotism" has in fact long engaged the relationship between shit and culture, the scatological and the symbolic. Included within this by-now venerable tradition of shit crit are Dominique Laporte's History of Shit, Alan Dundes's study of scatology in German folklore, Mikhail Bakhtin's discussion of Rabelais, and Julia Kristeva's concept of the abject -- to give just a few examples. Along with Freud, these latter two theorists in particular have come to define the terms of the prevailing framework for reading shit, although what makes them definitive -- namely, a reading of shit as deeply and uneasily ambivalent -- is also to some extent what characterizes as a whole the legacy of brown criticism post-Freud. According to this prevailing framework, the scatological as a textual presence is verboten but haunting, marginal but constitutive, horrific but subversive and liberatory. Contemporary cultural criticism has generally maintained this emphasis on shit's textual ambivalence, and has also noted the seeming proliferation of scatological texts in recent times. In 1994, for example, the literary journal Genre devoted an entire issue to "the culture of filth", in whose introductory essay Richard A. Barney would write that
At root the real question is how we understand the concepts of order, freedom, and chaos.
--Gary Snyder, in "Unnatural Writing"
[T]hese days filth comes at us from all sides: from pictures of the piles of bodies in Rwanda or Bosnia, from T. Coraghessan Boyle's exultingly messy novel The Road to Wellville, ... from Stimpy's cartoon love affair with his litter box, or from art films nominated for Academy Awards such as The Madness of King George. ... The current fascination with the abject has spread even to children's literature, as in the case of well-known books such as Taro Gomi's Everyone Poops and Shinta Cho's The Gas We Pass: the Story of Farts. (1994: 276)
Though scholarly writing on the scatological seems perennially to provoke the sort of shock that attends the novel and scandalous, Western cultural theory since Freud's "Character and Anal Erotism" has in fact long engaged the relationship between shit and culture, the scatological and the symbolic. Included within this by-now venerable tradition of shit crit are Dominique Laporte's History of Shit, Alan Dundes's study of scatology in German folklore, Mikhail Bakhtin's discussion of Rabelais, and Julia Kristeva's concept of the abject -- to give just a few examples. Along with Freud, these latter two theorists in particular have come to define the terms of the prevailing framework for reading shit, although what makes them definitive -- namely, a reading of shit as deeply and uneasily ambivalent -- is also to some extent what characterizes as a whole the legacy of brown criticism post-Freud. According to this prevailing framework, the scatological as a textual presence is verboten but haunting, marginal but constitutive, horrific but subversive and liberatory.
Contemporary cultural criticism has generally maintained this emphasis on shit's textual ambivalence, and has also noted the seeming proliferation of scatological texts in recent times. In 1994, for example, the literary journal Genre devoted an entire issue to "the culture of filth", in whose introductory essay Richard A. Barney would write that
There is much to validate in Barney's observations; to his list we can now add present-day items such as Jackass, Southpark, Wim Delvoye's Cloaca, Urinetown: the Musical, and -- as concerns the focus of this essay -- websites such as PoopReport.com. All of these cultural productions speak to the continued relevance of Barney's comments on the "culture of filth", written though they were nearly ten years ago.
However, I would contend that Barney's observations are as problematic as they are accurate, in no small part due to his casual use of the term "abject" to head the entire list of texts he names. For the same span of time that has witnessed the proliferation of filthy texts has also seen the emergence of a critical space for rethinking the very categories of "filth" and "waste" upon which Barney's analysis hinges. This development has taken place largely outside of literary criticism as narrowly conceived, arising instead at the confluence of ecology, cultural studies, and Marxist political economy, and whose synthesis has yielded the rise of such disciplinary hybrids as political ecology, green cultural studies, and ecocriticism (Hochman 1997: 81). One of the best examples of this new filth-consciousness is a recent volume of essays entitled Culture and Waste, which examines the ethical implications of a category that has primarily been conceptualized in structural terms, as the negative of both culture and value. In focusing on the "complex role [waste plays] in formations of value", then, editors Gay Hawkins and Stephen Muecke attempt to stress "not our difference from waste and our mastery of it, but our profound implications with it" (2003: xiv-xvi). This paves the way, they argue, for an "ethics of responsibility", an ethics that, in being "open to the various responses and affects waste can initiate" (xiv), can "make us think about what we are doing" (xvi) -- socially, economically, ecologically.
So although the present cultural moment may indeed be one in which we are increasingly bombarded with "filth", it is also one that has witnessed the ecological and cultural imperative to think differently about the categories that name what we desire to eliminate from consciousness. We cannot, then, as Barney does, so easily read the scatological content of recent texts within the prevailing framework of brown criticism -- the Kristevan abject, in this case, but no more satisfactorily by way of the Bakhtinian grotesque. For as I will point out in this essay, both of these hermeneutic frameworks lend themselves to a conception of self that -- returning for a moment to Hawkins and Muecke -- reads the excretory as something different, something to be mastered. As such, these readings ignore both the material basis and ecological consequences of constructing shit as separate from the self.
A different way of reading shit is thus necessary, one that escapes the binary between a liberatory grotesque and an apocalyptic abject, both of which ultimately reaffirm the boundaries of an impermeable subject for whom shit is the constitutive and disruptive outside, capable of signifying only the unknowable and unassimilable. As an alternative to this theoretical dualism, I propose an ecocritical reading of the scatological, one that begins with the presumption that language and nature are not mutually opposed, and hence which sees shit as a knowable part of symbolic systems. In particular, I will be drawing on Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder's reconceptualization of the relationship between body, narrative, and self to argue for a political fecology: a critical framework for reading shit that arises at the meeting point of brown and green, and which derives its hermeneutic power from proximity rather than distance.
To instantiate this reading, I can think of no better text to use than the aforementioned website and online community PoopReport.com. Declaring its status as "Your #1 Site for Your #2 Business" (www.poopreport.com), PoopReport is a website devoted to the "(relatively) intellectual appreciation of poop humor" (http://www. poopreport.com/Contests/Content/Celebrity/spokes_letter.html). A better and more thorough description can be found on PoopReport's Frequently Asked Question page; in the words of one of the site's many PoopReporters, or regular contributors,
PoopReport.com is a community with a unique agenda: we are an intellectual poop site. ... We explore, even meditate upon the human condition from the vantage point of pooping and poop. In [this] way, this is a site for philosophers, sociologists and amateur theologians. I mean this in all seriousness. Nothing's more democratic than pooping. It obliterates political affiliation, religious denomination (or lack thereof) and class distinctions. ... [Consequently,] [o]ur emotional tone is one of curiosity and mutual respect. This frees us up to venture into one of the culture's shame-indoctrination zones -- poop[.] ... We are not into thrill seeking or disgust for its own sake. We don't just talk about poop and pooping, we reflect on it. We engage the subject, own it and our participation in it. (www.poopreport.com/about.html)
The creation of a 26-year-old writer and programmer from Brooklyn, PoopReport began as a forum for the posting of humorous poop stories. In its nearly three years of online existence, the site has swelled to over 700 pages of stories, articles, discussion threads, and forums -- categorized into sections such as "Stories About Poop", "Intellectual Crap", and "Ask PoopReport" -- in which hundreds of site contributors ceaselessly ruminate on every conceivable aspect of human excretory experience. These features of PR, which together make up its "(relatively) intellectual appreciation of poop humor", would alone be grist for the mill of any cultural critic interested in tracing shifting representations of the scatological across time, geography, and media. What is of concern to the present essay, however, is the thread of nascent political self-consciousness that ties together these features and all of their voluminous content into a philosophical whole: the concept of Shamelessness, embodiment of which can be found in a document called the "Shameless Shitting Manifesto". Click on the link to the Manifesto -- an image of an anger-red, upraised fist with plunger in hand -- and the visitor encounters demands for a "fecal utopia" in which all people "have the right to enter a bathroom, drop a deuce, and leave -- without anyone caring, and without caring if anyone cares" (http://www.poopreport.com/Shameless/Content/Manifesto/manifesto.html). Bakhtinian though this may sound, I nonetheless want to make the argument that the notion of Shamelessness, particularly when made concrete and textual in the form of poop stories, can be better read within the bioregionalist framework mentioned above, in which shit neither constitutes nor transgresses the delimitations of systems but instead is essential to the self-regulatory functioning of systems.
I should make a brief caveat before proceeding. In limiting the scope of my examination to the textual and ecological aspects of PoopReport, I am necessarily and selectively ignoring an entire range of possible readings and frameworks for those readings: gendered, racial, sexual, historical, hypertextual, and ethnographic, just to name a few. This essay thus cannot stand as a definitive statement about the meaning of PoopReport, as the very fact that I am reading the site as text rather than community sentences my analysis from the start to a certain two-dimensionality. That being said, however, I see my primary goal in this essay as much more modest than the comprehensive meaning; rather than this, I'd like to use the site as an example of what a different way of reading and writing the scatological might look like. I cannot deny, however, that in the process of doing even this I am necessarily excluding other illustrative uses for the site's scatological content; to the degree that this is true, then, consider what follows a point of departure rather than a conclusion: the provisional jumping off point for a more thoroughgoing discussion of the scatological within cultural, literary, and environmental studies.
Before I get to PoopReport itself, it might be helpful to elaborate upon what I have referred to thus far as the prevailing theoretical framework for reading shit, as well as how contemporary scholars have utilized this framework. I begin with Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian critic whose germinal and much-cited Rabelais and His World (1965) re-examines the centrality of the filthy and profane within Francois Rabelais's 16th century comedy Gargantua and Pantagruel. Contrary to the allegorical spin previous critics had attributed to the novel's scatological content, Bakhtin reads Rabelais's championing of the "grotesque body" as a challenge to the feudal and ecclesiastical hierarchies of Renaissance France. Where Enlightenment thought pedestalized the "classical body" -- the private, individualized, hermetically-sealed body in which the upper regions of heart and head were key -- Bakhtin reads Rabelais as stressing those organs and parts associated with reproductive, digestive, and excretory functioning: what Bakhtin calls the "material bodily lower stratum" (Vice 1997: 157?).
According to Bakhtin, the power of the grotesque body lies within its ability to invert and thereby subvert hierarchical social relations. Within the ritual of carnival, the parody and ribaldry that constitute a celebration of the grotesque "degrade" what is normally "high", bringing it down to the level of body and earth and renewing it in the process. Bakhtin argues that although the ritual of carnival disappeared in Europe by the 16th century, the processes of degradation and renewal associated with its cyclical view of death and rebirth lived on in textual form. When it occurs in cultural and literary production, then, the grotesque evokes the unfinished nature of human existence and the relativity of social structures. And as a substance connected to the politics of the grotesque, shit occupies a subversive and liberatory role as "gay matter", "an effective weapon in the fight against the terrors of ... monologic authority" (Anspaugh 1994: 78); as such it is part of a "populist utopian vision of the world seen from below and a festive critique, through the inversion of hierarchy, of the 'high' culture" (Stallybrass and White 1986: 7).
For Kristeva, on the other hand, shit represents what she terms "the abject": that which individuals (and societies) must expel in order to constitute themselves as stable-bounded subjects. The excremental, then, is what the "I" is not; "[d]ung" she writes, "signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be" (3). When present within the symbolic realm of "language, law, and gender difference", shit thus reminds the subject of "a boundary its existence is premised upon forgetting", a boundary beyond which lies the realm of prohibition and "unmeaning" (Vice 1997: 163). It is this idea which leads to Kristeva's infamous pronouncement regardng the symbolic power of shit, invoked by many a subsequent reader of the scatological: "[i]t is ... not a lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules" (1982: 4).
The Kristevan perspective on the scatological as it operates within literature -- and indeed, Kristeva sees literature itself as the very symptom of abjection -- is often employed as a corrective to the uncritical idealism that Bakhtin's critics contend he advocates. Perhaps most frequently mentioned among these critiques is the argument that carnival historically embodied a form of ritualized contestation, sanctioned by the very official culture it symbolically opposed. Its subversive display thus acted as mere safety valve for the release of what would otherwise be a threatening excess of political discontent on the part of dominated classes, ultimately maintaining the hegemony of the circumscribing structure (Stallybrass and White 1986: 13). On the basis of this criticism, contemporary literary critics who draw upon Bakhtin for their reading of the scatological often come under fire by scholars who, responding to Bakhtin's limitations, proffer Kristeva as the better approach. But as demonstrated by a recent exchange between Kristevan and Bakhtinian scholars, this move can lead to a theoretical dead end.
Ashraf H.A. Rushdy's "A New Emetics of Interpretation: Swift, His Critics and the Alimentary Canal", for example, uses Bakhtin's notions of the indeterminate and unfinished grotesque body to argue for a different reading of Jonathan Swift's scatological poems, one that "uses as its model of the indeterminateness of interpretive practice the open-endedness of the alimentary canal" (1991: 4). Rushdy states that cultures which perceive the body's eliminatory processes as shameful "tend to deny or underplay the fluidity ... of the body's patterns of ingestion and excretion" (1991: 2), instead perceiving the system as a one-way and one-hole process. Critical approaches to Swift's scatological poems have been similarly unidirectional, Rushdy avers, either condemning or excusing Swift scatological poems while remaining unconscious to the very constructedness of both responses. In response, Rushdy posits a hermeneutic method that is "purgative" -- open -- "in that it allows one to examine not only what one's gut reaction is, but also what made one's gut reaction as it is" (8-9). Criticism, he states, must not simply reaffirm what we already value and disavow what we do not, but rather should examine the very social construction of value itself by which we critique cultural production. When we can do this, we move past a condemnatory or defensive response to Swift's scatology, and instead stand open to what a Bakhtinian excremental vision (which Rushdy sees Swift as proffering) can offer us: a vision of "the contingency of prohibition and the relativity of power" (14).
And while I believe that Rushdy's approach to reading shit is spot-on, I also think that his use of Bakhtin to effect this alternate reading is problematic, for the critiques of Bakhtin are numerous and well-founded. Kelly Anspaugh, for example, takes up some of these critiques in his response piece to Rushdy, arguing that Rushdy errs in reading the satirist Swift as a grotesque realist -- better suited to a "happy excremental philosophy" (1994: 78), states Anspaugh, would be confirmed coprophiliac James Joyce. But Anspaugh's larger point seems to be not merely that Rushdy misses the boat on Swift, but that a Bakhtinan reading of the scatological simply is not possible. For even someone as ostensibly shit-happy as Joyce, he says, "consistently ... underscores the dark side of excrementality" (83); thus Anspaugh turns to a Kristevan reading of shit to illustrate that for Joyce -- as for Kristeva -- "the grotesque body is no laughing matter" (84). For Anspaugh, Joyce's novelistic figuration of shit is always a fascination troubled by simultaneous horror, an alchemical process that through the redemptive power of art transforms shit into gold (1994: 95). Though Anspaugh concedes that there is a fair bit of Rabelais in Joyce, a Bakhtinian reading does not necessarily follow from this (1994: 96); furthermore, writes Anspaugh, "it is possible that Bakhtin may be misreading Rabelais, over-emphasizing the 'gay' aspect of that writer's ambiguous fecal matter" (1994: 97).
This is a fair enough criticism, and one that a number of critics have already made. Anspaugh, however, continues. Citing Peter Stallybrass and Allon White's observation that unless one qualifies Bakhtin's overenthusiastic idealism, the carnivalesque as political vision is "wishful and finally unusable as an analytical tool" (Stallybrass and White 1986: 10, cited in Anspaugh 1994: 97), Anspaugh comments that
What is true of Bakhtin's view of the grotesque body may also be true of his view of that body's products. As pleasant as it may be for some to think that excrement's present status as pollution is purely the result of cultural bias, one must stop and consider: what sense does it make to say that a young animal's reluctance to foul its own nest is the result of socialization? Is there not something inevitable -- dare I say 'natural' -- in such behavior? Could it be that excrement's status as 'ordure', that which evokes horror, is beyond the vicissitudes of history and culture? (1994: 97)
Anspaugh does not answer this question for us per se, but goes on to say that, despite all outward appearances to the contrary, Joyce is and remains a satirist -- a writer for whom shit figures metaphorically because of its power to disrupt the Kristevan trinity of "identity, system, order" (Kristeva 1982: 4). For, as Anspaugh concludes, "it is in the realm of satire that the turd has always thrived and, barring a transvaluation of all values (an unlikely development, I think), always will" (1994: 98).
But in his zeal to point out the limitations of a Bakhtinian reading of shit, and to use Kristeva as countermeasure, Anspaugh inverts the very critical error of which he accuses Rushdy (and, by extension, Bakhtin). If both of these scholars overlook the ambiguous nature of shit by overemphasizing its "gay aspect" (1994: 97), Anspaugh, in trying to compensate by way of Kristeva, overstresses the negativity of shit. In doing so he comes close to naturalizing Kristeva's description of the "necessity of exclusion in the creation of the symbolic" (Anspaugh 1994: 84, my emphasis), reading the concept of abjection as prescriptive rather than descriptive. In the process, he neglects not only the historically contingent nature of abjection, but the material and ecological consequences of those attitudes toward shit that a theory of abjection so powerfully explains.
As the exchange between Rushdy and Anspaugh suggests, the prevailing critical framework for reading shit leads to an unproductive theoretical bind. On the one hand, we have a reading of the grotesque which ignores shit's abject potential; on the other hand, we have an application of Kristeva that naturalizes abjection as the proper relationship between shit and the symbolic. Either way, the meanings ascribed to the scatological circulate in a moral rather than material economy; rather than linking representations of shit to historical and ecological causes and effects, shit instead is perpetually "ambivalent": apocalyptic or redemptive, horrific or liberatory, disturbing to the very foundations of subjectivity or suggestive of a transcendental cosmic unity. Whether good or bad, shit is never a part of the text -- or of material life: it must always be rationalized away, its presence given moral justification.
But as many green scholars and activists have pointed out, the particular conception of order that underlies a view of shit as separate from life is, in ecosystemic terms, a profoundly disordered one. This idea is captured nicely by a webpage that discusses permaculture, an "ecological design science" grounded in a study of "the many ways that parts of living systems interact or work together to generate harmony or dissonance":
Order is found in things working beneficially together. The fact that neatness, tidiness, and straightness require extensive investments of energy ... yet produce little yield, tells us that these illusory forms of order are, in fact, nature in wild disarray. True order often lies in apparent confusion, like a meadow, with its hundreds of hidden synergies. (http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-permaculture.html)
For shit to represent only ambivalence and disorder thus signals a condition in which the subject expends unhealthy amounts of psychic and social energy making epistemo-logically invisible what the body produces more or less unremarkably. Using the above quote as a springboard, I want to consider in the next section how an ecological framework, rooted in this alternate conception of order, more effectively realizes Rushdy's "emetics of interpretation" by avoiding the dualistic and moralistic horns of the Bakhtin-Kristeva dilemma. Using PoopReport as a test case, I will draw specifically on bioregionalist understandings of place and narrative to suggest a different reading of the scatological, one premised upon the assumption that there exist alternative ways to write the scatological, to narrate the relationship between shit and self.
In "The Pleasures of Eating", farmer, writer, and scholar Wendell Berry begins with a proposition: "eating", he writes, "is an agricultural act". By this he means that eating occurs as one node along an entire cyclical process that moves from "soil to seed to flower to fruit to food to offal to decay, and around again"; in eating, we subjectively locate ourselves within of these larger processes (1990: 150). But Berry points out that within societies in which industrialized food production predominates, we lose a sense of participation in these cycles; instead we identify primarily as consumers, for whom the freedom from cumbersome seasonal and geographical limits equates to convenience and better living (145). Thomas Princen refers to this phenomenon as "distancing", in which "the separation of production and consumption decisions" within a rapidly expanding global market "impede[s] ecological and social feedback" (2002: 104). Distancing breaks down the flow of information that would otherwise attune the user of a resource to the signals that indicate the availability and wellbeing of that resource, such that production and consumption decisions along the chain from extraction to final purchase are made in isolation from both the land and from one another. As this isolation increases and feedback decreases, it becomes increasingly difficult to assess the impact of single decision-points along the chain, ultimately leading to "uncounted costs and unaccountable actors" (103). And while this isolation may look like the freedom and convenience of consumer choice, Berry points out this freedom is illusory: it is "a kind of solitude", he writes, best symbolized by "a walled city surrounded by valves that let merchandise in but no consciousness out" (148-149).
When considered alongside the prevailing framework for reading the scatological, Berry's metaphor takes on particular significance, for it seems descriptive of both industrialized food production systems and the form of subjectivity that these systems engender. For the industrialized self, we might say, shit is distanced as the unassimilable element of text, self, and order, a "limit-category" (Moser 2002: 102) that marks the boundary between known and unknowable, but which never itself serves as object of knowledge. Michael Thompson summarizes this apparent paradox succinctly, though referring to rubbish rather than to shit:
If rubbish resides in the gap between any cognitive framework of the universe and the universe, how, since we must always operate within a cognitive framework, can we ever see it? Alternatively, if we can see it, it must be within our cognitive framework, in which case it cannot be outside it where it is supposed to be if it is rubbish (1977: 79, cited also in Moser 2002: 98).
Central to our inability to read shit, then, is a process that distances shit as the outside of cognition and consciousness.
Berry's metaphor thus becomes doubly interesting. In describing a system that "let[s] merchandise in but no consciousness out", he inverts the accustomed relationship between known and unknown, order and ordure. Instead of a cognitive system that results from the elimination of what can't be known, Berry describes a system defined by its failure to excrete -- and moreover, from a failure to excrete consciousness. He thus implicitly identifies shit with the knowledge of place we lose when we are physically and epistemologically distant from the circulation of matter and energy. To restore this consciousness, he claims, we must restore the sense that eating is agricultural, "reclaiming responsibility for [our] own part in the food economy" (149). To that end, he makes a number of practical recommendations, chief among which is learning the "origins" and "life histories" of the foods that one grows, buys, and eats (150). According to Berry, it is when we know the story of our food that we escape the epistemological trap that the walled city symbolizes, repairing the dynamic informational flow that links "eater and eaten" (148).
Berry's idea of knowing the story of one's food, I would argue, provides a useful framework for reading PoopReport.com, and in particular the poop stories that form such a central part of the site. For just as industrialized food production distances us from a knowledge of the origins and histories of what we ingest, so too does a centralized sewer system distance us from a knowledge of the destinations and consequences of what we excrete11. But if knowing the story of our food returns us to the agency lost via economic distancing, restoring consciousness of our implication as subjects in the production, preparation, and consumption of food, it follows that knowing the story of our shit might accomplish similar results. Thus we might see PoopReport's shameless narrative productions as a way of relating to and writing one's body that attends precisely to what the social and intellectual technologies of an industrialized sewer system most strenuously attempt to distance from human consciousness. Through the poop story, the textual and symbolic function less as the product or symptom of the excretory, instead expressing the very process itself of relating dynamically to shit, of being responsive to its ability to affect us.
If "Shamelessness" is the ideological centerpiece of PoopReport.com, the engine that drives this philosophical vision is the first person poop narrative. Nearly three years into its online existence, the site has collected nearly 250 of these incursions into the land of Too Much Information, ranging in style and length from the pithy and anecdotal to the lengthy and belletristic. Despite both variety and sheer numbers, it is nonetheless possible to discern two basic narrative features which together construct the "shameless subject". Through a thematic and formal attentiveness to the experience of pooping -- the "what" and "how" of PoopReporting -- we can see how site contributors produce an alternate manner of representing the scatological, and through it an alternate subjectivity.
I start with thematic attentiveness to pooping experience: what sorts of things do poopers report? The most consistent and recurrent theme in the PR canon by far -- to the point of its status as chestnut worthy of parody22 -- is what one PoopReporter describes as the "explosive diarrhea under compromising circumstances" variety: "[i]t's almost as if some folks take perverse pleasure in partaking in The Diet From Hell and then making sure they are also way the hell out of pocket when it comes time to pay the pooper...er, piper" (http://www.poopreport.com/Fun/Content/DIY/diy.html). Related in theme to this particular category of story is another frequently-submitted variety which details aspects of pooping experience that do not necessarily risk (or meet with) public humiliation, but which are no less uncomfortable and intense. "Constipation", for example, narrates the experiences of a pooper whose chronically slow-moving bowels produce "turds as hard as depleted uranium and with the diameter of a 4yr old child's arm" (http://www.poopreport.com/Stories/Content/constipation.html). Similarly, "Cricket, Curry, and Cramps" documents the moment of anal truth that occurs after a 3 a.m. beer-and-curry bender followed by an afternoon of wicketkeeping: "The sound was tremendous", notes the narrator. "I was thinking Niagara Falls, only more powerful. By this stage I had dexterously lifted my ass off the seat in order to avoid the possibility of back-splash. I felt what seemed like three to four litres of pure acidic bile spray out of my anus like a high-pressure hose" (http://www.poopreport.com/Stories/Content/curry.html). As a coda to these revelations, the narrator appends a brief word of thanks to the site's many readers, expressing gratitude for their knowledge regarding "a subject which is perhaps under-explored and certainly not publicly-aired enough".
As we can see in the case of stories that narrate both public humiliation and private discomfort, "shamelessness" is not necessarily what the PoopReporter experiences at the time of the events related by the story. Rather, shamelessness is a function of the narrative act itself, equivalent to the willingness to speak about what is "not publicly-aired enough". By vocalizing an otherwise harrowing bowel experience as a humorous item of interest to others, PoopReporters interrogate the social dicta that relegate their experiences to the realm of the private and "under-explored". Defending the rights of people to examine such subjects, one PoopReporter sums up the essence of this exploratory shamelessness in a comment to a critic of the site, stating that "[t]his [website] is where the proud stand up and report their poop. This is where we humans can take pride in our bodily functions and share it with the public. This is where we can take a moment of our personal lives, shape it into a humorous story so that others may look at it and laugh" (http://www.poopreport.com/Stories/Content/romeo.html).
We can definitely see an element of the Bakhtinian at play in this allusion to a bathroom humor that questions the distinctions between public and private, shit and speech. Equally present within many of these accounts is the "fascinated horror" characteristic of abjection. But the concept of shamelessness that inheres within poop reporting includes something that neither the Bakhtinian nor Kristevan understanding of shit encompasses: namely, an investigative, documentary, and journalistic approach that privileges description over evaluation -- and which allows PoopReporters to explore, in addition to the agonies and ecstasies of the excremental, the mundane, routine, and technical aspects of pooping practice.
The thematic attentiveness to the texture of both disastrous and routine fecal encounters finds a formal counterpart in the site's effusive word play. These linguistic techniques constitute the second aspect of the site's narrative shamelessness, giving voice to the normally invisible activities of daily life that define our relationship to the corporeal. Invented turns of phrase, for example, convey the particularities of bathroom habit: waiting until the last possible second before "backing up your ass to the toilet seat" so that "the shit comes out [your] ass the moment you hit the seat" is dubbed "The Move" (http://www.poopreport.com/Stories/Content/themove.html); while "courtesy flush" refers to a pre-wipe flush enacted to reduce the unseemly impact of either noise or smell during a public poop (http://www.poopreport.com/Techniques/index.html). In both of these examples, neologism codifies events and subjective registers that -- due to the habits attendant to ideologies of shame and privacy -- would escape not simply vocalization but cognition itself, the awareness of particular events and relations to self and body as events and relations.
Related to the coinage of new terms to document the ins and outs of defecation is the ever-expanding and wildly diverse list of verbiage PoopReporters draw upon to describe a limited number of bodily functions and parts. Asses therefore are "straining balloon knots" spraying "acidified rectum rocket-fuel" (http://www.poopreport.com/Stories/Content/splash.html); while farts are "broccoli and tuna steam sauna[s] beckoning at the backdoor" (http://www.poopreport.com/Stories/Content/wall.html). Equally effusive is the site's propensity for scatological punning, which christens a story about a gaseous trip to the adult video store "The Poophole vs. Larry Flynt"; and which leads one PoopReporter -- describing the house of shamelessness in which he grew up -- to jovially announce that "mansions these were not, but we made do" (http://www.poopreport.com/Techniques/Content/Family/family.html). If letting slip with a pun in conversation or writing is the linguistic equivalent of farting in public, PoopReport does not simply neglect to excuse itself -- it indulges intentionally and shamelessly, its insatiable pun-making machine indiscriminately riffing on Disney flicks and Eugene O'Neill plays alike.
Together, punning and neologism -- wordplay -- constitute a kind of symbolic surfeit that could be read as ambivalent. In placing all language, content and form, in service of the scatological, one could argue that poop stories satirize bodily excess to express anxieties particular to time and place -- there being, for example, numerous post-9/11 stories that play with metaphors of national security33. Just as easily and legitimately could one make the argument that PoopReport's wordplay functions as a populist uber-parody, bringing everything it touches to the level of shit. Another way to read this textual excess, however, is via the vision of language Gary Snyder proffers in "Language Goes Two Ways", an essay taken from A Place In Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (1995). In this essay, Snyder denies that language and nature are mutually exclusive, or that the task of language, as the supposed evidence of a uniquely human intelligence, is to "bring order to the 'chaos' of the world" (1995: 173). What such a view overlooks, Snyder asserts, is that while the world -- "nature" -- is certainly unpredictable, it nonetheless is "patterned according to its own devices" (1995: 174). What the West has therefore seen as "wildness" or "chaos" merely indicates the "self-organizing principle" by which systems tend toward a stabilizing complexity. Furthermore, the perspective which holds that the role of language is to order "nature" misses the fact that language itself, with its tangle of "patterns and syntaxes", is the product of self-organizing processes of philological evolution; language itself, says Snyder, is "wild". Snyder considers wordplay to be an expression of this wildness, referring to "natural language" as that which revels in its "self-generated grammars and vocabularies constructed through the confusion of social history", like "[c]hildren on the playground chant[ing] rhymes and ... fooling with language" (175). Within the traditionally Western view of language, that which fits into the category of the juvenile -- the punning and rhyming that recalls vestiges of oral traditions, scatological wordplay that evokes infantile turdplay -- threatens the realm of masterful writing. Snyder's concept of 'natural language', however, allows us to see the punning and neologism of PoopReport not simply as parodic or satirical, but also as the formal expression of an orientation to the body that is exploratory and responsive.
Ultimately, the thematic and formal shamelessness described above combine to produce the 'who' of the site, and the center of this analysis: the shameless subject. What delimits this subject, as I have suggested throughout, is not the hardline boundary that constitutes the self as privileged product of its externalities, but a porous and shifting line established through a narrative process that reports the comings and goings of the body. Essential to this narrative process is a type of "thick description" attuned to sensory detail, and in particular to the olfactory.
Since Freud's famous footnote in Civilization and Its Discontents, a long line of theorists have pointed to the devaluation of smell as one of the key developments in the creation of a civilization ashamed of its own animality. According to Freud, this devaluation took place as a result of a reorientation in human sexuality following the assumption of an upright position, which exposed previously concealed (female) genitals and consequently linked (male) sexual excitation to sight rather than to smell. As the story goes, shame and guilt emerged as responses to genital and anal odors as part of a "defense against a phase of development that has been surmounted" (Freud 1961: 51). And because ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, so too does the individual human subject sublimate his or her infantile toleration of feces along the path to genital sexuality, learning to perceive as shameful the odor of excreta. Critical to the formation of the subject, then, is the disconnection from and devaluation of particular sensory capacities and inputs.
Disregarding whatever universalizing tendencies exist in Freud's account, and acknowledging instead its ability to explain reigning attitudes toward shit in Western cultures, we might say that the PoopReport narrative produces an alternative subjectivity based precisely upon smell, that sensory faculty devalued by western socialization practices. Consider the following description, excerpted from a story entitled "Dinner Returns":
The dinner was great. One of the best I had ever eaten. We had Caesar salad, filet mignon, Shrimp Alexander, red potatoes with onion, asparagus and cheese cake. And, of course, beer. ... The next morning I was feeling pretty good, not too hung over. My stomach was growling and I was hungry. I went to the bathroom to take a shower. All of a sudden I let out a massive fart that smelled of filet mignon. It smelled wonderful, good enough to eat! Well, over the next several hours, I farted my ass off and then finished it off with a huge "expensive dinner" shit. I wonder, if I was rich and could eat high quality food all the time, would my shit not stink bad? (http://www.poopreport.com/Stories/Content/dinner.html)
What is noteworthy about this passage is not the "transvaluation of all values" that enables the narrator to reinterpret the noxious as savory. Rather, what stands out is the narrator's question, which indicates an openness to the body's ability to surprise -- and the recognition, in this openness, of the links between eating and excreting.
A story called "Looking After Others" opens with a similar question: "Have you ever wondered what would happen if you ate a big box of chocolate and a shit-load of peanuts, and drank twenty beers in one evening?" The story then proceeds to answer this question, describing in one passage the sensory results of a friend's drinking-and-chocolate binge the night prior:
He was in the bathroom for about 10 minutes. When he was finished, I walked into the can. The smell was thick and stuck in my nasal cavity. The shit molecules from the smell seemed to penetrate my snot. I could smell it for hours after the bathroom encounter. (http://www.poopreport.com/Stories/Content/looking.html)
In both of these passages, smell plays a central role in linking one orifice to the other. But rather than prompting immediate disgust, the smell of shit leads instead to the formulation of a question, the crafting of a narrative. In some instances shit may smell bad, in others it smells good; for the PoopReporter, however, what is important is to thickly describe the felt quality of smell, to narrate its affective properties. And in the process of this narration, a different sort of subjectivity emerges, one in line with Gary Snyder's notion of the bioregion as an alternative conceptualization of space, one delimited not by the fixed lines of state power, but instead by the "porous, permeable, [and] arguable" demarcations of "climates, plant communities, soil types, styles of life" (220). There are clearly parallels between the alternative vision of space and place that Snyder presents and the subjectivity produced through the narration of poop stories. The subject who, in reporting her or his poop, responds to and communicates with the body's self-regulatory processes is a subject whose boundaries are drawn through knowledge and respect, a subject mindful of the body's permeable interface with the world.
Snyder describes this sort of subjectivity more extensively in a passage from "The Porous World", in which he describes the experience of crawling on hands and knees, at times "belly-sliding", through the late December underbrush of the Sierra Nevada forests -- "not hiking or sauntering or strolling, but crawling", running into "webs of old limbs and twigs and the periodic prize of a bear scat":
So we have begun to overcome our hominid pride and learned to take pleasure in turning off the trail and going directly into the brush, to find the contours and creatures of the pathless part of the wood. Not really pathless, for there is the whole world of little animal trail that have their own logic. You go down, crawl swift along, spot an opening, stand and walk and few yards, and go down again. The trick is to have no attachment to standing; find your body at home on the ground, be a quadruped, or if necessary, a snake. ... The delicate aroma of leaf molds and mycelium rise from the tumbled humus under your hand, and a half buried young bolteus is disclosed. You can smell the fall mushrooms when crawling (1995: 193-194).
Humus, molds and scat: the saprophytes and detritus of the forest floor; that which we miss tactilely and olfactorily in standing upright, in seeing world and self as sharply delineated. But we should note that Snyder sees crawling as neither moral imperative nor the "natural" order of things. Rather, the trick is to have no attachment to standing, to be able to walk or crawl as the situation demands. The same might be said of the poop story. Reading PoopReport within a bioregionalist framework is not to invalidate other ways of writing, reading or relating to shit. It is only to suggest that these other ways are not the only ways, and that -- as Rushdy proposes -- our readings of and responses to the scatological must themselves be texts, objects of exploration. In this way, we move past a culturally determined response that automatically lumps the humor and politics of the poop story into received categories that contribute to the further discursive -- and hence material -- distancing of shit.
At the end of his discussion of the relationship between food, self, and narrative, Wendell Berry arrives at the detail that ultimately ties together these various elements: "I mentioned earlier the politics, esthetics, and ethics of food", he writes. "But to speak of the pleasure of eating is to go beyond those categories. Eating with the fullest pleasure -- pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance -- is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world" (152). I too want to end with this understanding of pleasure, for I feel that it ultimately best helps us to locate PoopReport within an ecological framework of distancing and re-placement, wildness and bioregion. For the laughter that the poop story invokes is not only the derisive laughter that accompanies abjection, nor only the festive laughter of the carnivalesque. Through its ceaseless documentation of habit, its attentiveness to sensory detail, and its use of "natural language", it is also the laughter of pleasure, a pleasure that radiates from deep within a "belly-crawling" knowledge of and conversation with the body's vicissitudes. If in advanced industrial societies eating and shitting are the twin loci of our subjective alienation from the circulation of matter and energy we commonly refer to as "nature", then PoopReporters -- as does Berry -- point the way to the "techniques of self" (Hawkins 2001: 13) by which we might articulate an ethics and economics of proximity.
This is not, of course, to suggest that such an ethics is the explicit agenda of PoopReport; even the politics of shamelessness it does espouse cannot be more than an individual, psychological, and textual response to a set of deeply systemic problems. But in its ability to create new forms of relationality to shit, shamelessness questions the cultural and institutional technologies that lead to a distancing of causes and effects -- and thus to a subject who must act in a social and ecological vacuum, isolated from a knowledge of her impact on the world. Though it cannot be called an act of conscious resistance, then, shamelessness nonetheless bespeaks a kind of unrequited political longing: for agency and proximity, for alternate ways of conceptualizing bodily and social economy. And if, I would argue, we know what to look for, we may find in this desire the seeds for future action.
-- M. Cortez
1. Often to the detriment of both humans and environment, as many scholars have pointed out. See Abby A. Rockerfeller's "Civilization and Sludge: Notes on the History of the Management of Human Excreta" (1998) and Sim Van der Ryn's The Toilet Papers (1974) for a discussion of how the cognitive distancing of shit in Western cultures is historically linked to the development of more and more advanced systems for dumping shit into planetary waterways -- a practice that unbalances both aquatic ecosystems and land-based nutrient cycles, and which leads to fecal-borne illness, the pollution of rivers and oceans, and a vast and costly system for separating "one part excreta" from "one hundred parts clean water" (Van der Ryn 11).
2. See, for example, the hilarious MadLibs-style "The-Do-It-Yourself Poop Story" (http://www.poopreport.com/Fun/Content/DIY.html).
3 See, for example, "Terror Alert: Code Brown" (http://www.poopreport.com/Stories/Content/brown.html)