Issue 13.3 - 14.1 | 2016 / Guest edited by Patrick Keilty and Leslie Regan Shade

Poop Worlds: Material Culture and Copropower (or, Toward a Shitty Turn)

There is something virtually every reader of this essay has done or will do today. Poop. Maybe on the run in a public stall or during a cherished break while reading or staring off. Most likely not into a diaper, but maybe you’ll clean one up. Poop unites us in a collective flow of fecund, pathogenic waste. Possessed of a vibrant materiality[1] that confuses the categories of life and death, it crisscrosses the intimacies of public and private, bodies institutional and fleshy, subterranean networks of sewers and everyday taboos. This project began as a series of scatological emails wondering about what a “shitty turn” in anthropology would look like. It has taken us more than four years to write this essay. The process was constipated, drafts moving sluggishly through different journals.[2] As we wrote, revised, and returned yet again to re-digest our ideas, poop seemed to appear everywhere. Popular and scientific publications discussed how much of our living bodies are made up of what we would normally think of as dead, such as the stuff in our guts, fecal microbiota transplants that help people get their gut bacteria back in shape,[3] and the increasingly recognized role gut bacteria play in mood.[4] We marveled at videos of Japanese school children wearing poop hats and playing in a gigantic gut microbiome, sliding down a toilet to see where feces go.[5]

Excremental acts open up “little worlds”[6] afloat on affective eddies of purity and pollution: potty training is an obvious example, but other worldings we discuss here include efforts to discipline the potential dirtiness of gay sex, the political and economic interests that seek to profit from shit management in carceral sites, and ecologically motivated efforts toward recouping the bacterial liveliness of human biosolids. Confronting human shit means grappling with its materiality: its production of disgust or childlike (or scientific) curiosity; its status as biopolitical object tied to public health; its teeming crossing of categories such as waste and surplus, disgust and desire, or death and life. Shit helps us to positively reorder the world, “making it conform to an idea.”[7]

This essay uses personal/political poop worlds—biological, queer, familial, political, juridical, ecological—as jumping-off points for thinking through how shit’s matterings might be made to matter to contemporary anthropology. In this effort, we move across several frames and scales while focusing on a few different event-scenes: transnational homophobias, domains of prisons and the global war on terror, and new urban ecologies that take a reparative approach to human waste. In what follows, we examine how human feces, in its confounding state of being neither alive nor dead but viscerally vital, energizes emerging fields of copropower—a particular biopolitical niche increasingly developed since industrialization.

Copropower refers to biopolitical governmentalities (making shit live and die, or not), affective responses and atmospheres (disgust, rituals of purity, and danger), and those leaky animate hierarchies[8] that shape whether shit is understood as useful or waste, dead or alive. Here we find Mel Chen’s formulation of “animacy” especially helpful: animacy “consider[s] how matter that is considered insensate, immobile, deathly, or otherwise ‘wrong’ animates cultural life in important ways.”[9] The concept draws attention to how hierarchies between different kinds of matter are produced through the comparisons made about their different kinds of liveness, or their ability to reproduce life. Shit is usually at the bottom of the animacy heap—totally dead waste—yet increasingly is understood as central to life itself. As we detail below, copropower is inherently leaky, making holes in our categories (life/death, public/private, the border between bodies, or the persistence of modern infrastructure). It buttresses social hierarchies and animates ecologies and economies, both of which must deal with shit to persist. Copropower surprises us and obliges us to think anew.

Our approach is “more-than-representational.”[10] That is, we do not focus on one object, affect, or representation, but assemblages of interdependent images, sensings, and forms of matter. As Jane Bennett parses Deleuze and Guattari’s “assemblage,” “[a]ssemblages are ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts. Assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within.”[11] This essay takes on different shit assemblages in an effort toward worlding poop, finding an adequate form for coming at its thingness, its significances. Worlding, according to Lauren Berlant,[12] is “a concept in process… a way of describing the activity of sensual world-making, of finding one’s sea legs in the middle of a situation and doing something to sustain it then, to make/find a rhythm of being there and moving too.” Such rhythm inevitably involves unworlding, “transition and the unsteadiness of things… something that becomes undone.”[13] Katie Stewart calls worlding “a refrain. A scoring over a world’s repetitions. A scratching on the surface of rhythms, sensory habits, gathering materialities, intervals, and durations. A gangly accrual of slow or sudden accretions. A rutting by scoring over.”[14] Worlding poop is an effort to make some of shit’s material-semiotic vibrancy—to borrow from Donna Haraway[15] and Bruno Latour[16] —evident not (or not only) as a flat historiography of poop or as an excavation of anthropology’s disciplining of scat into categories such as taboo, ritual, and so on, but through performing some of the ways poop is important to everyday experiences and disciplinings of embodiment and sociality, to our hierarchical relations with human and nonhuman others.

Strangely, while geographers have recently turned to excrement as an important research topic,[17] anthropologists have rarely addressed it directly as an object.[18] Hayder Al-Mohammad’s chilling essay on excrement in Basra, Iraq, and its use in torture underscores this point.[19] Al-Mohammad notes the brief appearance of excrement in work by Lévi-Strauss, Evans-Pritchard, and Malinowksi, among others,[20] but no book-length ethnographic treatment of excrement yet exists.[21] While poop does not figure prominently in Deborah Durham’s essay on disgust, she does note the ways that disgust is a form of intimacy with the abjection of Others, reminding us how intersubjectivity and negative affects can be instrumental in boundary formations.[22] Along these lines, Sarah Jewitt’s discussions of “geographies of shit” draws on the work of anthropologists to argue that attending to cultural attitudes toward excrement will result in better locally adapted sanitation strategies.[23] These are important interventions, but they are also rare exceptions. In the more than four-year history of writing this article (which included some quite snarky rejections—“Maybe this belongs in The Atlantic”), we have often wondered why anthropology seems so reluctant to talk about shit.

We are sensitive to how the material-discursive power of words can pollute and disgust readers or stimulate their curiosity and openness. Unlike the curse shit, the clinical terms excrement and feces, the frightening euphemism human waste, or the new ecofriendly green-washed commodity biosolids, the childhood word poop indexes parents’ and toddlers’ warm, fuzzy feelings for excrement, marking it as a legitimate and lively topic of discussion. In this spirit, “Poop Worlds” approaches human feces with a sort of tender love and a sense of wonder: just what’s in the diaper this time?

I. Shit Was Never Modern: Copropower Leaks

“Indoor plumbing” is a readymade rejoinder to those who ask about markers of civilization. The archetypal toilet—ceramic, white, flushable—stands as evidence of one of the singular achievements almost universally enjoyed in the late capitalist West, evidence of improved quality of life, of the smoothing over of class differences: each has their own throne at home. Jiggle the handle and malodor and disease disappear.

But this disappearing act, like other claims to civilizational achievement, is not all that it appears at first blush or stink. We haven’t really gotten rid of shit. Shit persists, mysterious abject matter, at once alive with bacteria and a body’s little death of cast-off cells and undigested food. Along with this binary-defying lifedeath, poop quintessentially embodies those “hybrid” objects that bewilder the divisions between natural and sociocultural, political realms that Bruno Latour characterizes as underpinning the modern.[24] To get out of the habit of thinking of people as non-animals separate from nature, Latour advocates thinking in terms of a single “collective” of human and nonhuman agents:

The word [collective] should remind us of sewage systems where networks of small, medium, and large “collectors” make it possible to evacuate waste water as well as to absorb the rain that falls on a large city. This metaphor of cloaca maxima suits our needs perfectly, along with all the paraphernalia of adduction, sizing, purifying stations, observation points, and manholes necessary to its upkeep.[25]

For our purposes, the shit systems of copropower are not at all metaphorical, nor merely instrumental infrastructure; these material-semiotic networks incorporate affective orientations toward feces and the biopolitics of accessing such sewage networks. Further, excreted matter, as Jane Bennett writes of food, is “itself an actant in an agentic assemblage that includes… my metabolism, cognition, and moral sensibility.”[26] Sewer assemblages are multispecies collectives, making human urban life possible through expert management of shit’s lifedeath. The story of “getting rid of shit” we tell below is one of biopolitical management aimed at protecting urban populations while polluting waterways, generating social hierarchies, and altering individuals’ relations with poop in the most intimate manner. Thus copropower, through disciplining dangerous microbiological collectives abjected from humans, helped make human life flourish at unprecedented urban scales.

Our collective shit has always been a huge pain in the ass for cities to manage. The governmentality of copropower leaked across European cities in the nineteenth century as sanitary technologies emerged alongside new scientific understandings of disease, public health, and control of the environment.[27] Originally reserved for the English upper class, household connections to the sewer system became compulsory by law in 1848,[28] opening up a new biopolitical field in the minute management of excrement on the scale of populations. Centralized water-supply systems responded to the demands of growing urban populations and the consequent increased output of wastewater; they were also responses to public health crises—cholera chief among them—that affected those populations, especially the poor. But these reasons are not sufficient to understand the shift to the “piped society” and the spread of copropower to control the inherently leaky worlds of poop. As Marisol Cortez and Maria Kaika show,[29] the use of centralized water and sewage systems “had to do not only with scientific paradigms for responding to public health crises, but with the changing organization and deployment of governmental power in the industrial cities of 19th century Europe.”[30] Gay Hawkins underscores this point, noting the ways human waste is transformed “[i]n the long journey to the ocean via underground sewers and treatment networks.”[31] Our waste is transmuted from a private matter into public problems: effecting the disappearance of shit and its transformation into effluent sublimates our own intensely implicated relationships with shit through forms of civility and abstract techniques of governmental management.[32]

As copropower began to distance some populations from their excrement, firming up social hierarchies along the way, poop’s leakiness tended to undermine any enduring control. While early water-based disposal technologies often improved the health of a community, they usually did so at the expense of communities downriver: in London wastewater was simply dumped into the Thames. Nearly every other major urban area did the same in its waterways. London’s “Great Stink” virtually debilitated the city in 1858 and led to the reform of some waste management practices and the construction of what became London’s sewage infrastructure.[33] Yet resolving the malodorous Great Stink did not resolve the problems of water-based sanitation strategies. Instead, “the progressive removal further afield of perceived hazards,” valuing breathable air and safer drinking water in London, resulted in the uneven distribution of environmental health hazards.[34]

Cortez understands these displacements of human waste and their environmental and social consequences as simultaneously material and ideological because they highlight the peculiar relationship capitalism has to shit. As she puts it: “[T]he possibility of accumulation and resultant notions of profit and value are only possible through a disavowal or discounting of byproducts, consequences, and costs” grasped by classical and neoliberal economists as “externalities.”[35] In a sense, human shit is the precise opposite of consumption. At the same time (as we will see throughout this essay), managing shit generates value through commodities ranging from specialized prison toilets, anal sex self-help books, and landscaping dirt made from processed municipal sewage.

Even as capitalists increasingly leverage copropower, poop’s pathogenic leakiness generates its own problematic worlds. The widespread pollution of waterways remains universally salient. In the US, the Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, has positively benefited most waterways and reduced contaminants released into watersheds, yet pollutants still find their way into American water supplies. Some forms of pollution from farms and industrial contaminants appear to be on the rise, but recent court cases have left ambiguous which bodies of water are subject to the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory efforts.[36] Many aspects of water delivery and sewage treatment systems are highly controversial, as is the very notion of safety. Agricultural and pharmaceutical byproducts, fluoride, and chlorine produce fierce debates; lay and expert communities battle over knowledge claims while local and national politicians collude, contest, and otherwise manage the interests of corporations who variously want to manage these systems or sidestep regulatory efforts. For example, the sewage infrastructure in many urban areas is antiquated or heavily stressed; sewage overflow often spills into major waterways: the Thames, the Seine, and New York Harbor all continue to be flooded with sewage after natural or manmade disasters. A tip for your next trip to the beach: the water-quality testing that is typically undertaken to determine whether bodies of water are clean enough to swim in does not declare the absence of human fecal matter but the threshold at which this matter poses a significant hazard.

If waste management is an ongoing crisis in the industrialized world, things are a good deal worse in new urban centers and developing contexts. In many ways, social hierarchies can be identified by who has a toilet, who gets to shit and flush and who doesn’t. Some nations, including South Africa and India, gave up on trying to manage human waste or, rather, on providing for sanitary humanitarian or ecologically viable solutions for large numbers of their populations. In South Africa in the 1980s, for example, even as the apartheid state became more repressive, it set aside monies for so-called “site and service” schemes that sometimes allocated lots, water taps, latrines, and even flush toilets, but no homes, for the laborers who established informal settlements. Post-apartheid South Africa still grapples with this legacy; activists recently expressed anger over the construction of open-air toilets in a Free State township. Of course, open-air toilets might still count as a sign of progress insofar as they contribute to the lowering of the rate of households with no toilets or bucket toilets, from “12.6 percent in 2002 to 5.9 percent in 2010.”[37] Globally, neoliberal development policies have transformed the potential beneficiaries of state management of waste into potential consumers who are not incidentally those least likely to be able to afford such “luxuries” as the ability to shit and flush in private. The last century has seen an uneven shift from ecocidal waste disposal technologies, such as dumping untreated sewage into waterways, to regulatory technologies that treat wastewater before returning it to the landscape. Anthropologists are well poised to research both institutional and informal management solutions to sewage used by people in these megacities, and to pinpoint problems.

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  1. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: The Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010). [Return to text]
  2. We thank the anonymous readers from Ethnos and feedback from Cultural Anthropology. Although our essay did not appear in either journal, our thinking was improved by their critiques. We are also grateful for the insights from Patrick Keilty and an anonymous reviewer from The Scholar & Feminist Online. [Return to text]
  3. Tim Spector, “Why Poo Transplants are Nothing to Be Sniffed At,” The Conversation, October 20, 2015. [Return to text]
  4. Peter Andrey Smith, “Can the Bacteria in Your Gut Explain Your Mood?,” New York Times Magazine, June 23, 2015. [Return to text]
  5. [Return to text]
  6. Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). [Return to text]
  7. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Purity and Taboo (New York: Routledge, 1966), 3. [Return to text]
  8. Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 127, 129. [Return to text]
  9. Ibid., 2. [Return to text]
  10. Ben Anderson, and John Wylie, “On Geography and Materiality,” Environment and Planning A 41, no. 2 (2009): 318–345; Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect (New York: Routledge, 2008). [Return to text]
  11. Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 24. [Return to text]
  12. Lauren Berlant, “Unworlding,” Supervalent Thought blog, May 13, 2009. [Return to text]
  13. Ibid. [Return to text]
  14. Kathleen Stewart, “Afterword: Worlding Refrains,” in The Affect Theory Reader, ed. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 339. [Return to text]
  15. Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008). [Return to text]
  16. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993). [Return to text]
  17. Sarah Jewitt, “Geographies of Shit: Spatial and Temporal Variations in Attitudes Towards Human Waste,” Progress in Human Geography 35, no. 5 (2011): 608–626. [Return to text]
  18. For a recent exception, see Brenda Chalfin, “Public Things, Excremental Politics, and the Infrastructure of Bare Life in Ghana’s City of Tema,” American Ethnologist 41, no. 1 (2014): 92–109. For anthropological work on waste more broadly, see Catherine Alexander and Joshua Reno, eds., Economies of Recycling: The Global Transformation of Materials, Values, and Social Relations (New York: Zed Books, 2012). [Return to text]
  19. Hayder Al-Mohammad, “Ordure and Disorder: The Case of Basra and the Anthropology of Excrement,” Anthropology of the Middle East 2, no. 2 (2007): 1–23. [Return to text]
  20. Ibid., 2. [Return to text]
  21. But for a meta-treatment, see Dominique Laporte, History of Shit, trans. Nadia Benabid and Rodolphe el-Khoury (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000); and for a wide-ranging cultural history of disgust, see William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997). [Return to text]
  22. Deborah Durham, “Disgust and the Anthropological Imagination,” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 76, no. 2 (2011): 131–156, at 2. [Return to text]
  23. Jewitt, “Geographies of Shit.” [Return to text]
  24. Latour, Never Been Modern, 11–12. [Return to text]
  25. Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004), 59. [Return to text]
  26. Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 51. Bennett’s silence about excrement as the ultimate state of food is perhaps telling of a broader avoidance of poop talk in academic discourses. [Return to text]
  27. Marisol Cortez, “The Ecology of Scatology: Excretory Encounters in American Cultural Life” (Ph.D. dissertation, Cultural Studies, University of California Davis, 2009); Jonas Hallström, “Constructing a Pipe-bound City: A History of Water Supply, Sewerage, and Excreta Removal in Norrköping and Linköping, Sweden, 1860–1910” (PhD dissertation, Linköping University, Sweden, 2002). [Return to text]
  28. Cortez, “Ecology of Scatalogy,” 161. [Return to text]
  29. Cortez, “Ecology of Scatalogy”; Maria Kaika, “Interrogating the Geographies of the Familiar: Domesticating Nature and Constructing the Autonomy of the Modern Home,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 28, no. 2 (2004): 265–286. [Return to text]
  30. Cortez, “Ecology of Scatalogy,” 164. [Return to text]
  31. Gay Hawkins, “Shit in Public,” Australian Humanities Review 31–32 (2004). [Return to text]
  32. Ibid. [Return to text]
  33. Stephen Halliday, The Great Stink: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis (1999; Stroud: History Press, 2009). [Return to text]
  34. Cortez, “Ecology of Scatalogy,” 166. [Return to text]
  35. Ibid., 158. [Return to text]
  36. Charles Duhigg and Janet Roberts, “Rulings Restrict Clean Water Act, Foiling E.P.A,” The New York Times, February 28, 2010. [Return to text]
  37. South Africa: Julius Malema Anger Over Open-Air Toilets,” BBC News, May 11, 2011. [Return to text]