I’ve finished my second read through History of Shit by the French psychoanalyst Dominque Laporte. Geoff put me onto this for our collaborative paper. It’s a blast, and although I don’t totally agree with it all – there are some important points from this bizarre piece of work.
Originally published in 1978, the book is a neat and quirky peruse through the history of how societies managed human waste, both in terms of faeces, urine, corpses and garbage. Written in the heyday of French poststructuralism, Laporte’s work seems to have been lost in the midst of theorists scrambling Marxist militancy and Lacanian psychoanalysis together within late 70’s French poststructralist theory.
Needless to say if you were to describe the overall argument of the book, it wouldn’t be far off from Althusser, Laclau, Balibar. e.g, what are the specific processes of subjectification that determine individuals in a society?
For Foucault, individuals are determined by discourse and power structures; for Lacan, individuals are determined by fantasy, extimacy and the three Orders; for Althusser, individuals are determined by Ideological State Apparatuses and the projection of freedom in practice.
Laporte’s intervention is…well… a bit more specific than that. Laporte argues that civilisation and hence, subjectification is wholly determined by the sublimated procedures of waste management.
“The place where one “does one’s business” is also the place where waste accumulates. The hallmark of this accumulation is the individuation of waste and its assignation to the subject—legal proprietor of the product of his dejections. To each his shit! proclaims a new ethic of the ego decreed by a State that entitles each subject to sit his ass on his own heap of gold.
Thus, as a “private” thing—each subject’s business, each pro- prietor’s responsibility—shit becomes a political object through its constitution as the dialectical other of the “public.” From the sixteenth century on, the State initiates a contradictory discourse on waste that is nonetheless consistent with its definition as a state of capitalism: a discourse that urges proprietors to become ever richer, while casting a withering eye on the foul odor of their accumulations.” (p.60: History of Shit)
Big claims indeed. But with Laporte’s prose and rhetoric being so undeniably readable and quirky, it’s easy to be persuaded by his historical examples at first. Laporte notes that Freud’s three requirements of civilisation; cleanliness, order and beauty, have nothing to say on the subject of use. Too often the unsayable sublimation of waste is a hallmark of how we go about our business.
“Perhaps it is not filth per se that troubles history’s gaze, but the compulsion toward cleanliness that can locate its pragmatic function only after the fact.” (p.25)
Laporte’s assertion is that historically speaking, there is no linear process between a primitive interest in excremental functions and the compulsive purification of human waste. For him, there is a stark correlation between the structures of property, both capital and domestic, and the differing levels of responsibility in managing waste. Where Laporte becomes convincing is refuting the discussion of actual waste, and instead focusing on the discourse surrounding the purification of waste by power structures. For Laporte, the very practices by which the subject has to account for its own waste (and subsequently remove it from sight and smell) are the sole criteron for subjectivity as such. Waste is unavoidable, and Laporte is fascinated in how society deals with it’s own waste, and passes on those operational procedures to subjects.
For example, Laporte’s focus on 16th Century French language, notes a forced purification (by the King’s counselor) of eliminating ‘stale scholasticist’ Latin from the native’s clean and beautiful language. For Laporte the same procedures are evident in the purging and expurgating of the streets from human waste. As you’d expect from a psychoanalyst, it is the Master who is able to confer order and beauty onto the complex issues of unwanted human output.
Its hard to know whether to take Laporte entirely seriously in some areas of the book. And thats a good thing in my opinion – it gives the work a faint twinge of entertaining ridiculousness you rarely find in academia. When Laporte starts talking about how, until the 18th Century, women continued to rub faeces into their faces for moisturising purposes, you start wondering how far this is actually going. But Laporte keeps going with it, and ups the vulgar ante with poetic mediations of how we enjoy our own waste the most when we turn it into gold. If Laporte had not tragically died at the age of 35, I think he would have made a significant dent onto the study of psychoanalysis and popular culture that Zizek has called his own. Heres a gem;
“All liquids, even thick ones, must be made to circulate. Herein lies the vain aspect of waste. But let us not, in our haste, overlook the fact that where waste’s vanity is concerned, the lot of urine is superior to that of stagnant waters.
The concept of matter does not delineate between solids and liquids; rather, it infiltrates liquid categories, claiming some varieties while rejecting others. If a tumbled pail of water could deliver us from waste, there would not be cause for such ado. But the situation is not so simple.” (p.41)
The crucial element here (and this is something Adrian Johnson picked up on) is that Laporte envisions the subject as nothing more than a self-replicating system that produces its own sublimated outputs. Johnson picks up on the expected details of materiality evident in the ‘mouth-to-anus’ machinery of human biology; humans are simple input output bodies of matter, obsessed with removing their own shit as quickly as possible.
But there’s more going on here. One point that Laporte drives home,is the focus on the operational part of the subject more than the waste itself. It assigns inputs, processes them and delivers unavoidable outputs. A mark of that very system is how it deals with its outputs, and how often the outputs come back to haunt the system itself, almost autopoiesis Luhmann- like.
Now heres the clincher – wait till you see how Geoff links this into digital platforms and proprietary applications. I’m not joking either.