Human waste takes center stage in Dominique Laporte’s unusual microhistory, a book as valuable for the anecdotes as for its argument.
A gorgeous little book for a filthy little topic, Laporte’s History of Shit almost defies analysis. A history of the psychoanalytic, social, cultural, and political appropriations of human waste, Laporte’s approach is almost as fluid as his subject-matter and the result is both fascinating and frustrating: full of whimsical insight, jumps of logic, free association and half-constructed arguments that are reiterated 50 pages later. It is also engagingly illustrated with contraptions for the control of four centuries of Western shit, and the cover design evokes an anus.
Although influenced by Freud (“whose three requirements of civilization are cleanliness, order and beauty which police both the city and speech” ) and Foucault, Laporte never really follows a theoretical program. He is as much poetic and playful as scholarly, and his book maintains the suggestion of a draft.
Laporte’s argument is consequently a rather elusive thing to pin down. Chiefly, he traces the development of ways to control and hide the production and disposal of human waste in Paris from the 16th Century. In particular, the “1539 decree to clean your stoop led to the domestication of waste, giving rise to notions of the family…. The privatization of waste changed a subject’s relation to his shit and indeed his relation to the world” (28-30). These developments are paralleled with the increasing power of the centralised state and the ‘pure’ rule of law, and the desire to ‘purify’ language of its scatological elements. In other words, the fate of shit is emblematic of the development of bourgeois France and the state becomes “at once private, because of the purity of its power, and public, because of the purifying powers of its power” (43).
Laporte’s ‘history’ thus contains many anecdotes and insights into the twists and turns of shit. From the King’s turds (page 12) to the use of urine to wash clothes (page 32), the book is as valuable for the anecdotes as for its argument.
Towards the end of the book, however, Laporte becomes repetitive. His suggestion that “black/white relations are revealed by shit/smell and that the races hate each other because they expose each other” (59) is rather obscure and while the whole work is playfully superficial, Laporte perhaps lacks circumspection in some of the areas he treats.
ebr is celebrating the occasion of the paperback edition of History of Shit by interviewing an internationally renowned connoisseur of the subject. Although we can’t reveal his name in this shitless digital environment, we are pleased to offer a glimpse of the rich and arcane world of coprophilia. (The opinions expressed below are not necessarily the opinions of the editors of ebr; sensitive souls should perhaps beware.)
ebr: You have traveled all over the world looking ideal places to shit. Where is your favourite toilet?
Mr X: In restaurants.
ebr: In restaurants?
Mr X: Yeah. On hotplates.
ebr: You mean in restaurant kitchens?
Mr X: Yes.
ebr: Right where the food is cooked?
Mr X: Shit is food.
ebr: Just a bit further down the alimentary canal?
Mr X: I’m part of the Brown movement. We believe in recycling and reusing shit.
ebr: I haven’t heard of the Browns before. Can you tell us more?
Mr X: Yes, Mike Brown is our founder.
ebr: So Mike Brown would like us to cook our shit on hotplates and consume it as food?
Mr X: Shit creates a lot of pollution. His philosophy is, “Why not eat it?”
ebr: But surely as you recycle your own shit by consuming it, the quantity of available shit decreases?
Mr X: That’s why you cook it in restaurants. You add a little bit more to it. More nutrients.
ebr: Why do you need to bring the shit to the restaurant? Why couldn’t you bring the restaurant to the sewer?
ebr: In the utopian Brown world there will be no sewer. Sewers are obsolete. You just shit in your own kitchen. Have you ever tried crumbed shit?
ebr: No, what is it like?
Mr X: Pretty crumby.
ebr: Does it taste like chicken?
Mr X: No, it tastes like shit. It has a scatological flavour. Hard to replicate.
ebr: Does it taste a bit like the word `shit’? Or like the word `fuck’?
Mr X: I don’t know. I don’t taste my words. They just come out. My focus is on other orifices.
ebr: According to Laporte, “If language is beautiful, it must be because a master bathes it - a master who cleans shit holes, sweeps offal, and expurgates city and speech to confer upon them order and beauty” (7).
Mr X: I have no master. I want to be filthy, on many levels, simultaneously. I want shit on my tongue.
ebr: What is your favourite shitting position?
Mr X: Left back.
ebr: What does that mean?
Mr X: You’ve never played shitball?
Mr X: A team of people kicks a lump of shit around. Well, quite a few lumps actually. When the shit falls to pieces someone does another shit somewhere in the field.
ebr: In shitball do you do that head thing, like with a soccer ball?
Mr X: Absolutely.
ebr: That must be quite unpleasant at times.
Mr X: Not if you like shit, it can be quite a joy. It doesn’t bounce that well though.
ebr: So what do you do to get around that?
Mr X: We keep doing shits. We have fairly big teams.
ebr: I guess you have to avoid going to the toilet before the game so you have a big supply ready.
Mr X: We also ensure the spectators are fed meat pies and french fries which is excellent shit producing food. Then they come onto the field and help us.
ebr: But doesn’t the body take 12 hours to create shit?
Mr X: Not if you eat meat pies, it’s fairly quick.
ebr: Do you lace the meat pies with some kind of laxative?
Mr X: No, it’s the nature of the meat pie that it goes through the system quickly. And they come out on the field and do a shit. It’s a public display of joy.
ebr: Is there a sense of bravado, do you have shitting contests?
Mr X: No, it’s a sense of honour. To be able to shit on demand. It creates unity and cohesion within the culture. Have you seen Fight Club? It’s like that. However we do give a Brownlow medal for the most behinds. The Brownlow medal is actually the highest honour in Australian Rules football. `Behind’ is the name for a point scored in Australian Rules football.
ebr: What part of the shitting process do you particularly enjoy?
Mr X: What do you mean, you’ve either shat or you haven’t.
ebr: Well there’s before you shit but you know you want to go. Then there’s during the shit, where you can decide how to do it - quickly or slowly, in little or big bits, runny or hard. Then there’s the moment of evacuation when it’s all over, the orgasm of shit, if you like. What’s your favorite moment?
Mr X: I’ve got this really weird thing in which I shit a bit out then I suck it back in.
ebr: It must have taken years to develop this technique.
Mr X: It’s just an anatomical feature of my body.
ebr: So it goes all the way back in to your bowel?
Mr X: No it hangs out like a little tongue. It’s like controlled breathing - breathe in and it goes in, breathe out and it goes out.
ebr: You must have very rubbery feces.
Mr X: I must admit diarrhea is a bit tricky. You’ve got to be very quick. I do it at work, for example, during meetings. I start going irrr-in and irrr-out.
ebr: You must have incredible sphincter muscles.
Mr X: Yes I do. Would you like to take a look?
Some time later:
ebr: Do you spend hours on the toilet doing this?
Mr X: I do it any time of the day. At work, on the bus. It’s wise to wear several pairs of knickers. And baggy pants.
ebr: Is it orgasmic?
Mr X: It’s like just playing with a yo-yo really. Just a way to pass the time.
ebr: Do you like anal sex as well? Is this shit thing part of an anal focus in your life?
Mr X: Do you mean when someone sticks his or her penis up your arse?
Mr X: Well it is a bit like that but you’ve got more control when it’s poo because you can release it when you want. But when people stick their penises up your arse you’ve got less control over it. Anal sex can be quite inconvenient.
ebr: Do you think sewerage systems would be improved if their contents were visible? For example, if sewerage flowed through clear perspex pipes some meters above the ground?
Mr X: I think you should have a hot water tap, a cold water tap, and a sewerage tap in your kitchen sink.
ebr: So you could fill your sink with sewerage?
Mr X: Yes, for sewerage soup. You can share the flavour of the neighbourhood.
ebr: Don’t you worry about germs?
Mr X: Is that a joke?
ebr: According to Laporte, in the 18th Century women used shit as a cosmetic (107). Apparently the shit of young men was the best quality. Have you ever done anything like that?
Mr X: I can imagine that brushing your teeth in shit would be good for plaque. Might clear a few stains and freshen the breath.
ebr: Do you like to fondle shit?
Mr X: Yes I do.
ebr: Is it velvety?
Mr X: Yes, I like to caress it, pat it and smooth it, and sometimes I sculpt it into the shapes of small animals.
ebr: Have you ever fired your shit sculptures in a kiln?
Mr X: No, the flavour isn’t intense if I bake it. I prefer to eat it fresh. Sometimes I bottle my shit, for presents.
ebr: Is there any other scatological comment you would like to make?
Mr X: Yes, I’ve gotta go, you’re giving me the shits.
ebr: I think you are disgusting.
Mr X: Thank you.