Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 6, No. 12, December 2010
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor
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First Steps toward a Theory of Shit

Ina Praetorius
Kirchenrain 10, CH-9630 Wattwil, Switzerland

Paper originally published in
From Equality to Reconstructing the World
November 2010
Reprinted with Permission

Editor's Note

This is a sequel to The Economics of Natality: How to Act in the Household World by the same author.

When I get up in the morning the first thing I do is go to the toilet. It’s easy. The bathroom is heated and welcomes me with a pleasant smell, the flush is working, nobody will bother me as the door can be locked. Sometimes I take the newspaper with me, or a book. Then the acts of incorporating information and expressing the products of digestion meet in a friendly togetherness, as James Joyce described it, with relish, in the first part of his novel Ulysses. Do you know the famous episode?

There is, as far as we know, no single person in this world that does not have to pee and shit. Yet, the conditions of defecating vary greatly. In one of the rare texts dealing with these distinctions in a serious way I read this:

“For centuries, those living ‘the simple life’ took themselves off to a designated area away from their homes to do their business. The last thing they wanted was excreta in the house. Where settlement was sparse, this may well have been not only the most discreet but the best public health solution: the sun dried, the earth absorbed, the rain diluted. But today 1bn people live in crowded slums, and at least another 1bn in densely packed rural settlements. The countryside’s inbuilt washing-up mechanisms can no longer absorb the volumes of human detritus deposited on a day to day basis. ‘Open defecation’ must be abandoned…” (Maggie Black, An unmentionable global crisis, The Telegraph, 14 March 2008)

So, what do these people living in slums or packed rural settlements do when they “have to”? In another text by the same author I found the following description:

“If there are, as it is often the case in big cities, no toilets, … people have to use a bucket that will, under the veil of darkness, be tipped out into a drain or sewer tunnel. Or they have to squat down above a spread piece of paper or plastic bag that afterwards goes to the rubbish dump in which dogs or pigs are rummaging about. These packets of dirt are sometimes called “flying toilets”… Today millions of people catch all sorts of diseases through the contact with excrements that have been left on fields, paths, streets or on the banks of rivers or channels…” (Maggie Black, Solutions for the global waste problem, Le Monde Diplomatique, 12 February 2010, Translation I.P.)

Although it should be clear to everybody that humans need proper conditions to deposit their excretion, sanitation seems to be a taboo for many development experts. Till recently, according to Maggie Black, it has been almost totally ignored. Often the planners have simply “forgotten” that providing clean water is only half the battle as people need places to recycle what they have eaten and drunk, too. Indeed, we do not necessarily need the kind of comfortable warm lockable bathrooms that I use every day as if it were “normal” to have this kind of luxury (or a wasteful extravagance). There are other ways of sanitation that are much more environmentally compatible. Yet, to find out the appropriate technology for the future toilet we first have to remove the taboo from what I call the “shit area”.

To remove the taboo that not only prevents us to create proper toilets but many other necessary things, too, we need a theory of shit that deals openly with “the other side” of our human existence that “serious” thinkers have tended to forget, for centuries!

I think, therefore I am?

No, René Descartes was wrong. For thinking is possible for those only who have entered the world through the real living body of a fellow human being, for those who have, for several years of dependency, been brought up by people that have fed, washed, educated and protected them. As adults, too, we remain dependent on the matrix world (matrix=womb) and on fellow humans that work and care, produce what we need, remove our shit. The “independent” individual is a fiction as we all, as long as we live on earth, depend on water, air, food, love, language, tradition, toilets, morality and many other things.

Photo by Ina Praetorius, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2008

However, the “enlightened” Descartes, was not at all alone with his famous dictum. Rather he only created a new expression for a very old tradition that has shaped our Western mindset for a very long time and, as we have seen, is very effective to the present day. From Platon to Heidegger and beyond – yes, beyond Bataille and Derrida, too, Mr. Boelderl! - the admired thinkers of “our” intellectual history have designed the “true” man, as an “essentially” incorporeal being that, unfortunately, during his lifetime, is captured in the transitory, thus unessential prison of body and community. So, they suppressed a big deal of the human reality by – explicitly or, more and more, implicitly - considering it to be “low” and “ephemeral”, by excluding it from their “high” theory and delegating the actual work of fulfilling human needs to subordinates – women, slaves, strangers –, thus creating an area of invisible dependent work that set them free to maintain the illusion of their intellectual, economic, political, emotional independence. The embarrassment of the born, needy, defecating human body had been cleaned away, through thought.

The consequences of this split in our mindset are manifold. The widespread tendency to just forget sanitation in development programs is just one of them. The antique, still effective decision to conceive women as “blind matter” (matter/materia from greek/latin mater=mother) that is meant to create the “freedom” of their husbands is another. And could we use our natural environment as if it was our property if we really had understood that we are not masters, but part of nature (nature from lat. nasci=being born)?

I had a dream

In the night of 22 January 2010 I had a dream. During the entire day I had participated in one of these common academic conferences in which smart professors from all around the globe talk about their various elaborate subjects, this time about what they call “business ethics”. The big awestruck audience had learned a lot about money, market regulation, supply and demand, banks and their ambiguous behavior, but nothing about the real needs of babies, old people and other humans, about sanitation, food, briefly: about all the shit privileged people still leave to subordinates.

So, the night after I dreamt that I poured out a tub of shit in the middle of this nicely cleaned (by some poorly paid Turkish woman, I guess) room filled with distinguished academic staff. The next morning I pondered about the meaning of that dream. Well, for me, the meaning is quite simply what the dream says: We have to pour shit into the conference halls of this world in order to remind the thinkers and planners and celebrities of our days that humans don’t exist by pure thinking but are needy, born, dependent, shitting beings that, mind you, at the same time are free and able to shape the life conditions of six and a half billion humans in a dignified way, supporting carefully the sensitive circulation and balance of food, mind, spirit, body, water, shit, dung, birth, life, death, food, shit, dung, spirit, food... and so on…

Read this ... and this too...

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