Scatology: An Etiology, A Primer (or, Is It A Coincidence That "Theses" Rhymes With "Feces"?)
I recently started graduate school, so the question that comes my way fairly frequently of late is: "So what do you plan on studying?"
Now, I've known for years the answer to this question. There's no indecision or uncertainty involved. And it's not that I'm ashamed of what I'm most interested in -- though I know that, to some, it must sound fairly strange. Nonetheless, I have to admit that in those few seconds before I answer the question I am somewhat anxious, and it's largely because I know that my answer -- "I'm interested in developing or furthering the field of Scatology" -- can only prompt the opening up of an immense and endless chasm of questioning (not to mention a series of progressively more disturbing facial expressions in response to my answers).
It would be so easy if I could just say "Victorian Literature" or "Social Work" or "Thermonuclear Physics" -- something tame and neutral and conversation dissuading, something invoking a gentle, "Well, that's nice." But alas, no. Instead, it's:
"Scatology? What's that?"
"Ah, well...you see. It's the...Scatology is -- well. The thing is... I'm interested in waste. Waste and disgust. I want to craft an entire theoretical system around waste and disgust."
You see how tactful I am. I could just come out and say that I'm interested in shit.
"Waste and disgust?"
"How do you mean?"
And this is where it becomes tricky for me. Because of the nature of my interests, I can't just say "Scatology" and be done with it. I continually have to explain and explicate in specific detail what my project entails -- and while on one hand this is great and I am blessed, on the other hand it is terrible and I am cursed, because nine times out of ten I draw blanks.
I think this is mostly because the subject of Civilization And The Shit It Produces (to appropriate/paraphrase the title of a similarly-themed theoretical work) is so large, and my thinking on it so heretofore piecemeal, that I don't know where to begin. I've written quite extensively about particular aspects of the relationship between waste and culture, but I have not as of yet had opportunity or occasion to present my ideas in any kind of organized, sequential, or comprehensive way to a general audience.
And it is thus, then, that when Dave invited me to submit an overview of my scatological thesis to PoopReport, I found myself filled with the same dual sense of excitement and trepidation that I experience when people ask me what I'm studying in grad school. Of course, I would expect much warmer responses from PoopReporters -- and this makes it easier -- but the prospect of presenting this thesis both comprehensively and comprehensibly (and not going on for pages and pages) is still somewhat daunting. No time like the present, though, eh?
Speaking broadly, then, Scatology is an approach to the study of culture that places waste at the forefront of theory -- much in the same way that Feminist theory privileges gender as a lens for the analysis and criticism of social inequality, or Marxism class. And, like these two theoretical enterprises, Scatology attempts to expose, examine, and change the social institutions and practices that contribute to dominance and exploitation in all its forms.
What distinguishes a theory of the scatological from other theoretical projects, however, is that it takes shit as its focus for interpreting and analyzing cultural production and practice. In terms of approach, then, it bears great similarity to other critical theories of identity (race, class, gender, nation, sexual orientation), but it diverges and is unique in terms of what it chooses for its interpretive lens. This is not to claim that the insights I have come to concerning the scatological are in any way original or groundbreaking -- I have encountered similar ideas across theoretical systems, disciplines, and media -- but I would argue that Scatology is, as far as I can tell, the first attempt to unify these shit-related insights beneath the rubric of a comprehensive theory of culture and cultural change.
Why, though, would we locate shit as the most important thing, the focus for an examination of social inequality and social change?
Speaking in the broadest and most general terms possible, my thinking is roughly this: from an ecological standpoint, human beings have reached a crisis point. Pollution, global warming, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, corporatization, and a growing gap between the powerful and the powerless have demonstrated that any economic system based on wanton consumption of resources for short-term gain -- and any political system that affords, on the basis of this overconsumption, comfort and stability for some at the violent expense of the majority -- is radically unsustainable and untenable.
It is, then, the central and tragic irony of Western civilization that "progress", every step ostensibly forward, has been purchased at cost: the incredible standard of living in Western countries has been obtained through colonial economic and political policy, and at the price of hunger and disease for millions of people worldwide. Economic development has oftentimes meant the razing of native habitat and the relocation or decimation of indigenous peoples. Technology, comfort, and convenience have been achieved in exchange for air pollution, alienation, heart disease, nuclear bombs, and garbage with a half-life of centuries: shit.
The flipside of progress is shit. The concept of shit, in fact, of something both disgusting and superfluous -- and disgusting precisely because superfluous -- is uniquely capitalist; is uniquely the product of a surplus-producing economy. Only within an economic system predicated upon not only the possibility but the exigency of excess, surplus, profit -- only within such an economic and cultural system can there be a concept of uselessness, discardability, flushability.
Where the laws of one's economy permit no surplus, one's attitude must correspondingly be one of frugality, prudence, and mindfulness, viewing everything as having value and use. Surplus allows us, however, not merely the luxury to throw away the things we don't need, but the luxury of assuming the (decidedly peculiar) attitude of disgust toward these discardables. Capital permits the privilege of shit.
In a world, then, where we must ship out our garbage by barge to be dumped into the ocean -- and still our landfills grow daily, seemingly without end -- it makes logical sense to begin to think of possible solutions to the problem of waste, to begin with waste. If shit is the hallmark of capitalism, its flipside or "underworld" (the title of a massively long Don DeLillo novel that PoopReporters might find of some interest), then shit seems to be the best focus for any theoretical framework that attempts to first explicate, and then transform, an exploitative economy and culture. When we look at culture through the lens of shit, we end up transvaluing shit. And when we transvalue shit, we transform a culture based on domination of others and exploitation of the natural world.
But what does it mean to "transvalue shit" and to "privilege waste as an interpretive focus"? (My own theory now Piled High and Deeper around me after typing all of this, I'm not sure I understand anymore!)
At this point, it might help to think of these ideas in more practical, literal terms. Imagine, for example, that the cadre of hired professionals who now collect our garbage went on permanent strike (as in the Simpsons episode from a few seasons back). Instead of tying up our garbage in airtight bags that we leave on the curbside for effortless whisking away, all of our waste products would now surround us, spilling out of our houses and into our front yards. It is, admittedly, a far-fetched scenario, but one that is useful in terms of understanding what it means to "put shit at the forefront of theory" and thus "transvalue it".
It's useful, as well, as a metaphor for the scatological project. Like permanently striking garbage collectors, we must voluntarily refuse to refuse our own refuse: refuse to flush our shit from public view. For if we turn our garbage out instead of throwing it away, we will be forced to look at and hold ourselves accountable for what we have produced.
Under these circumstances, our two options would be to produce less garbage or to use garbage to make something else (or both). And if our courageously abstemious state of affairs continued, it seems likely that we would cease to produce garbage -- in the sense that all the "garbage" we did produce would be turned into something we needed, something for which we had use. In this case, waste would not have gone away, but "waste" -- the idea of waste, the luxury and privilege of waste -- would have passed from our vocabulary, and hence from our conceptual schema. Having disappeared from material reality, there could be no conception of waste, as everything, by virtue of necessity, would be useful.
(Another way to think about this idea is to frame it in psychoanalytic terms. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud names Eros and Ananke (Love/Desire and Necessity) as "the parents of human civilization" (53), envisioning humans as fundamentally caught between their individual, animal desires and urges and a circumscribing social order (culture, language, law). According to this formulation, desire is always desire to transgress the restraints of civilization, to escape the societal limitations placed around instinctual behavior. Assuming for our purposes that Freud is accurate in his description of this antagonism between individual and society, we might say that, where the Western philosophical tradition has historically posited transcendence of the immanent as the ideal solution to the problem of confinement within society, Scatology diverges from this philosophical tradition by advocating, rather, an utter surrender to the limit: a swooning, a diving into, a rejection of rejection, a radical yes! The scatological project embraces necessity, viewing Love as love of the limit.)
By putting waste at the forefront of theory, then, by forcing us to look at what we now throw away -- for there is no away here; the system is closed, our notion of unlimited supply an illusion -- an examination of culture through the lens of the scatological effectively transfigures and transvalues our understanding of the scatological. When we are forced to view waste, we find that we are also forced to transform the cultural conditions that allow for waste and for the idea of "shit". And when the idea of "waste" is no longer conceptually operable, shit becomes, once more, something useful: something with which we fertilize fields, something that bridges rather than cleaves decay and growth, death and life.
And where there this economic and cultural transformation occurs, a personal transformation occurs as well. For when we return shit to public view we do more than restore a natural, sustainable form of human economic life: we also restore, at the most basic and fundamental level, a conception of agency we have lost to capital. Allowing us the luxury of flushing what we don't need, surplus effaces that vital link between our actions in the world and their consequences, between cause and effect, consumption and elimination -- but there is nothing that reinscribes this age-old link so quickly as a mindfulness of shit.
There is, after all, no eating without excreting: and no awareness of excretion without accompanying awareness that the self is a part, and must act the part.
-- by M. Cortez
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