In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Julia Kristeva explains the concept of the abject as being primarily deemed with social taboos associating with the body, especially the materiality of the body. The horror arises out of the exposure to bodily excretions – blood, sweat, pus, and feces. “The abject refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other (Felluga 3),” Kristeva argues that being exposed to a corpse psychologically gives us a dilemma (7) – here is something that was alive but now is not, existing on the border of life and death. There is a breakdown in meaning as our minds are trying to understand the reality of this. Commonly, abject are concerned as impure and inappropriate for display and discuss publically. Thus, people ignore sanitation problems and disregard digestive diseases, desire the body to “seem as clean and non-excremental as possible. (Inglis and Singh 332)” However, human waste is always with us. Every society has to deal with it. Speaking the unspeakable helps us achieve better managing and regulation on excretions, as well as benefits those who are too embarrassed to produce, to talk about their excretions when it is necessary.
The woman with a British accent in a Tiffany-blue dress appears sitting on a toilet in various spaces: a party, an office, a cow field, and of course, her boyfriend’s place. “How do you make the world believe your poop does not stink or in fact that you never poop at all,” with she holds up a can of spray gracefully named Poo~Pourri, “proven to trap those embarrassing odours at the source, and save relationships.”
The company successfully sold over 4 million bottles of the product. Yes, poop stink. However, the commercial is primarily targeting women. This brings up the problem: women are expected to eliminate their biological reality that men are accepted to encompass. We need to “see” women pooping like the Bridesmaids shitting and vomiting in their pretty dresses. Pooping has no gender!
Along with my ongoing obsession with health and wellness, especially the condition of the digestive and excretory system, this advertisement draws my attention to our daily discourse (taboos) on talking about feces. It drives me to find out social taboos and people’s attitudes towards human wastes regarding the concept of abjection; it also encourages me to seek ways of de-stigmatizing poo. “Shit” is too dysphemistic; “feces” and “excrement” are too medical; “poo” is spoken with children. These highly socially specific terms still have not provided a comfortable environment for people to share their poo stories.
In Shit & Civilization, David Inglis pointed out, “The tendency is for satire and scatology to go together.” Shit-related metaphors have been considered as degrading terms since Ancient Greece (332). The tone of voice in my Poo Series can go either way – this manifesto-like text unfolds a serious discussion, whereas, the playful zine together with the overwhelming, somewhat funny editing of podcast hint at a sarcastic voice.
Considering the idea of abjection, a washroom space can be viewed as abject per se – it is both clean and not clean. Such space helps people eliminate their bodily wastes, wash their hands, and freshen up, but it is also often permeated with odour, devouring feces and urine.
Toronto-based artist and researcher JP King, whose works focus on “the death of everyday objects,” also inspired me to choose the bathroom as the space to install my video. King’s film Solid Waste (2015) documents the exotic world of management of the waste matter. The unseen rubbish landscape and the dark, mysterious sites of wastes make everyday artifacts appear utterly strange. Objects that used to be attached to different values randomly encounter one another in the melting pot of waste.
In The Moral Dimension of Japanese Aesthetics (2007), Yuriko Saito examines the profound Zen Buddhist influence of Japanese art. The admonishment of egocentric and anthropocentric viewpoints “evokes our ability to experience the thus-ness of the other directly (88).” Therefore, in this direction, our schemes of valuation and hierarchy disappear as the encounters of the raw reality of any object or phenomenon – “A horse’s mouth, a donkey’s jaw, the sound of breaking wind, and the smell of excrement” – are rendered equally expressive of their realities as other commonly considered more elegant objects and phenomena (Saito 88). In this way, everyday objects diminish their established hierarchy, being piled together. Same as food, regardless of what we have consumed, they eventually collectively come together in the same place, blended together in the form of waste.
Shit flows through our bodies; shit also flows through pipes. When we flush our feces down the drain, where does it go? This question also leads the way to the significance of civil engineering. Without wastewater treatment plants and other operations doing the dirty job around-the-clock, our sewerage will always stay sewerage, and sanitation in a modern city will be much worse.
We all know that everybody poops, but we do not like to admit it. There is a policy of fecal denial deeply embedded in our culture. We talk about sex; we talk about masturbation; we talk about STIs, but we do not talk about poop. Some people would rather buy over-the-counter laxatives than talk to a doctor. We embrace people with disabilities; we embrace different genders; we against discrimination on sexual minorities; but few of us truly understand people with bowel disorders; few of us know that waterborne illness caused by the lack of safe sanitation is still the biggest children death cause in the world. With a science-based appreciation of the aesthetics of human waste, if we inform ourselves of the very complex mechanism behind the digesting system and sewage system, it will enrich the seemingly repulsive surface and became very interesting.
If we cannot discuss a problem, we cannot fix it. I hope this will open up to discussions on my absurd malady.
Felluga, Dino Franco. Critical Theory: The Key Concepts. 2015.
Inglis, David, et al. "On The Subject of Scatology." Causeries, 2013, pp. 324-336.
Kristeva, Julia, and Leon S. Roudiez. "Approaching Abjection." Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia UP, 1982, pp. 1-31.
Saito, Yuriko. "The Moral Dimension of Japanese Aesthetics." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65, no. 1 (2007), 85-97.