The History of Shit

The new release from MIT Press delves into a subject that may spark an e-coli scare. Rubber gloves and a face mask are unnecessary but an interest in virtually unmentionable acts and socially uncomfortable ideas could be useful.

According to Dominique Laporte’s treatise the History of Shit one of the most significant results of human production is also its most base. Analyzing society and culture from the bottom up, no pun intended, Laporte historically documents the relationship human beings have had with their own feces and the resultant norms, laws, rituals, inventions and even architecture and landscape architecture. As the author states, “To touch, even lightly, on the relationship of a subject to his shit, is to modify not only the subject’s relationship to the totality of his body, but his very relationship to the world…and society.”

Originally published in 1978 during the post-student revolt days in France, this work is a part of a theoretical ideology that hoped to produce unique and innovative ways to scrutinize the world. Scatology, as a tool for cultural analysis, could easily be dismissed for its shock value or novelty. Though often comical and seemingly mocking of academic discourse, the History of Shit overcomes such a dismissal because of its thorough and compelling presentation of the topic.

Edicts demanding the removal of shit from language and from the city, cults worshipping shit, shit as skin toner, the social status of shit, the smell of shit, shit as detergent, shit ingested for longevity and, most important, shit as commodity or resource—just a few of the ideas that play a part in Laporte’s discussion of the constantly fluctuating involvement people have with excrement.

Throughout the book, “shit” is described not only as a literal meaning but also as a metaphor for the unwanted. In this way, shit is more of a concept regarding objects, ideas and practices that have been dubbed undesirable by a given society. This allows Laporte’s thesis to have wider reaching implications while providing interesting documentation of the ways shit has been managed and used, sometimes frighteningly, by various cultures.

In our age of recycling it is poignant that a treatise on waste and embodying a theme of, “one person’s shit is another person’s gold,” can be weighed for its significance. The History of Shit becomes a tome metering humankind’s lack of foresight and its ambivalence when is comes to waste. As Laporte points out, “that which occupies the site of disgust at one moment in history is not necessarily disgusting at the proceeding moment or the subsequent one.” Standing on the shoulders of the past, as we do through Laporte, the view of history’s shit piles remind us of a valuable lesson. That lesson is, and should be remembered as a fundamental tenant of environmental stewardship, that possibly within our own modern day crap or waste or by-product or filth is a resource yet overlooked.

Here we can make a leap from Laporte’s ideology to the practices of architecture, landscape architecture and urban design. Though such correlation is not often strongly made in the text, carry over of the idea is not difficult and lends itself to imaginative possibilities. As populations continue to boom, the idea of a wasted (shit) space becomes impossible and impractical. We must continue to consider that instead of eating up undisturbed areas we should pursue designs that reuse and reclaim places once discarded. Vacant lots, nuclear test sites, mines, decaying structures and abandoned amusement parks, to name a few, are rife with opportunity to become valuable again.

Further discussion and investigations into the unusual perspectives broached by the History of Shit will expand contemporary thinking and hopefully promote proactive uses of shit (the unwanted and the discarded) instead of repeating historical misfortunes.