Thursday, June 18, 2009

Book Review: Dominique Laporte, History of Shit (1978)

It's a rare day that I pick up a book of French theory. However, deeply interested in issues of bodies and nature, Dominique Laporte's 1978 History of Shit seemed like a must read. And it's certainly damned interesting. For a piece of theory, it's well-written, breezy almost. It has pretty funny anecdotes from time and time and produces interesting ideas about how society (the French really--in the world of critical theory, does any other place exist? Though for those interested in spatial theory, Los Angeles plays that role) have thought about shit over time, how this mirrors ideas about language, and how the evolution of people's feelings about shit replicate themselves in urban planning, privacy, medicine, capitalism and other phenomena.

Of course, it is still French theory. Heavily influenced by Freud, Bataille, and Lacan, sometimes Laporte writes like it. It's a rambling book that's all over the place. Thus, it's best read both seriously and with a sense of humor. If you're looking for a consistent thesis or to follow every sentence, this isn't the book to pick up. But if you are looking for interesting insights into our relationship with feces and the human body, it's fairly enjoyable.

Rather than produce a point by point review, let me just discuss a couple of things I found particularly interesting Laporte talks about how shit turns into gold, especially under capitalism. This is both metaphor for production and capitalism, as well as the literal capitalizing upon shit. One way this happens is through medicine. Laporte provides fascinating examples of how people have used human waste in the past for medicinal purposes and beauty products. Nothing like a little urine rubbed on the skin to keep you looking young! While not going into any of this in much detail (it's a short book after all), he points out that St. Jerome stressed to Roman women to stop these practices, yet later the church would canonize a woman who punished herself by eating the shit of the people she doctored. In fact, religions throughout history have seen shit and urine as healthful things. But shit isn't just spiritual gold, it's financial gold as well. Today, we see this again. The fertilizer industry is an obvious example. But the use of urea in any number of products, including makeup and skin products is surprising. And there's the counterculture idea to drink your own urine. Frankly, this disgusts me, but it certainly fits into a long tradition in western culture.

And of course, there's the language. Laporte came out of the French radical movements of the 60s; he saw the false purification of the body as emblematic of the equally false purification of the French language. Thus the constant use of the word "shit." A psychoanalyst heavily influenced by Freud, Laporte tries to break down these barriers through his work. 25 years later, with a much more "profane" culture, if using descriptive words can in fact be profane, the book may not seem quite so shocking. After all, today, a book like this might well be used in the colleges without too much blowback. In this way, it's as much a primary source document for the development of obscenity and shock as it is a secondary source document about the history of shit.

As for actually using it in a class, I don't know. Like much theory, it would push undergraduates to their limits. I think they could handle it, but the question is how useful would they find it. They'd be titillated a bit by the subject matter and the title. But if I'm only going to assign one truly theoretical work (and I'm realistically only assigning one), would it work better than Foucault? Probably not, though it depends on the class of course.