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History of ShitReview - History of Shit
by Dominique Laporte
MIT Press, 2000
Review by Adrian Johnston, Ph.D.
Apr 6th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 14)

The thesis of Laporte's text is, in a certain sense, a logically consequent assertion arising from an appreciation of Marxist materialism in conjunction with Freudian psychoanalysis: Laporte maintains that the history of subjectivity is reflected within the history of civilization's techniques for dealing with excrement; in particular, the Western subject's historical development coincides with-perhaps, at the "basest" of levels, is even decisively influenced by-its relationship to its own waste. As a materialist, Laporte is committed to the notion that the human subject, rather than being a disembodied metaphysical/transcendental molder of the physical world, is the residual by-product of its concrete, material conditions. But, adding a twist derived from Freud's claim that civilization is defined by its obsession with "order, beauty, and cleanliness" (a claim made in Civilization and Its Discontents), Laporte goes much further than most Marxists, who tend to discuss "material conditions" solely as the conditions of economic production; Laporte, drawing additional influence from the psychoanalytic equation of money/gold with feces, boldly contends that the fundamental, underlying material condition that the socio-political infrastructure of civilization aims to domesticate is the human being's need to defecate. The History of Shit is, thus far, the sole representative of a very different brand of Freudo-Marxism from the standard version of this theoretical marriage made familiar by the Frankfurt School (however, one could cite Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death and Ernest Becker's Denial of Death as situated within a similar line of approach to that of Laporte, since both Brown and Becker see fit to discuss in relative detail the psychical/subjective significance of defecation).

Given the preceding description of the book's basic argument, one might be tempted to understand this as a variation on Julia Kristeva's concept of "abjection" (as outlined in her text Powers of Horror). However, Laporte's argument involves a precise inversion of Kristeva's position: whereas Kristeva claims that the "sujet propre" (the clean/proper subject) is sustained by the distance it maintains from such "foul," "disgusting," and "revolting" things as shit, piss, corpses, and so on (i.e., the subject, in Freudian parlance, rejects/disavows the unpleasantness of its body), Laporte insists that the various practices by which the subject explicitly engages with such things as its excremental functions are defining features of the very structure of subjectivity per se. Rather than rejecting/disavowing its shit outright, as would be maintained by Kristeva, the Laportean subject sublimates it, employing it as fertilizer, using it as a beauty product (Laporte mentions that, even up to the 18th century, some women rubbed feces on their faces to maintain a beautiful complexion), "alchemically transforming" it into gold (in the bourgeois "retention" of capital, for example), and so on. In short, civilization and its attendant forms of subjectivity wallow in filth.

In terms of the book's style, one would do best to imagine Foucault, Bataille, and Schreber teaming up to produce a genealogical study-this is what it would look like. In fact, Laporte's text is a highly unusual piece of theoretical writing in that, while reading it, one has a great degree of difficulty separating the humorous from the serious (or, as Laporte would put it in his scatological terms, the solid from the liquid). Does he really mean what he says? Is this simply a parody of the 1970s Parisian intellectual scene and the then-fashionable practice of writing theoretical histories? Or, is there an element of seriousness to the claims advanced here? Even if Laporte intends this as nothing more than an elaborate joke, The History of Shit contains-in psychoanalysis, all jokes convey, intricately encoded within themselves, a repressed kernel of unconscious truth-an unavoidable insight that must be grappled with by a whole range of contemporary theoretical positions. As Slavoj Zizek has aptly observed (in the preface to his 1999 book The Ticklish Subject), Western academia today is haunted by "the specter of the Cartesian subject": despite the various differences separating approaches ranging from feminism to cognitive science, nearly all contemporary humanistic paradigms are united in their denunciation of Descartes' (supposed) separation of mind from body. Marxists, Freudians, phenomenologists, and others all insist that the cognizing subject must be reintegrated with its corporeal condition. Embodiment theorists, for instance, never tire of stressing that the experiential self is harmoniously interwoven with the fabric of the "lived body."

However, Laporte implicitly challenges this piece of pervasive academic doxa in two ways. First, in accepting the anti-Cartesian thesis that the subject cannot be divorced from its body, Laporte extends this thesis "to the end": if one really wishes to discuss a fully embodied subject, then one eventually must confront the less-than-palatable vision of the human being as ultimately reducible to mouth and anus (as a mere "material circuit," a brute, vulgar input-output mechanism-something glimpsed in the work of Deleuze and Guattari). Second, this genealogy reveals a sort of repression operative at the heart of various forms of embodiment theory: despite all the noisy emphasis contemporary theorists place upon the body, one cannot help but notice that they remain silent when it comes to the daily ritual of squatting over the "porcelain throne," this most basic of physical requirements. A descriptive phenomenological study has yet to written regarding the act of defecation. Is this an innocent oversight on the part of the otherwise enthusiastic advocates of embodiment, or does it testify to a hidden hypocritical selectivity on their part? Is the subject only embodied when it comes to its more pleasant, titillating, and aesthetically agreeable physical functions (one cannot help but notice the plethora of studies concerning sexuality in comparison with the nearly total absence of analyses addressing defecation)? Laporte thus "ups the ante" for anyone jumping on the trendy bandwagon of Descartes bashing, forcing them, so to speak, to put their money where their rhetorical mouths are. Undoubtedly, The History of Shit makes for excellent toilet reading.

Adrian Johnston recently completed a Ph.D. in Philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook. His dissertation was Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive.


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