The Great Gross Out!

Today, I want to write about something rather disgusting: fecal matter. I choose “fecal matter” (rather than poop, or feces, or the more crass explicative shit) for the very reason that it draws attention to matter: to substance, to materiality.  The desire to comprehend the material transformations occurring within core of the body — the abdomen, and the digestive tract — was echoed in prominent 18th century philosophical discourse. David Hume in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding gestures towards a particular discomfort in the unknowability of the body’s transformative abilities. Meditating on the nourishing properties of bread, Hume establishes a foundation for his empirical rational based upon the consistent practice of eating and feeling full:

It must certainly be allowed, that nature has kept us at a great distance from all her secrets, and has afforded us only the knowledge of a few superficial qualities of objects; while she conceals from us those powers and principles on which the influence of those objects entirely depends. Our senses inform us of the colour, weight, and consistence of bread; but neither sense nor reason can ever inform us of those qualities which fit it for the nourishment and support of a human body. Sight or feeling conveys an idea of the actual motion of bodies; but as to that wonderful force or power… of this we cannot form the most distant conception. But notwithstanding this ignorance of natural powers and principles, we always presume, when we see like sensible qualities, that they have like secret powers, and expect that effects, similar to those which we have experienced, will follow from them… The bread, which I formerly eat, nourished me; that is, a body of such sensible qualities was, at that time, endued with such secret powers: but does it follow, that other bread must also nourish me at another time, and that like sensible qualities must always be attended with like secret powers?”[1]

Hume’s meditation that bread provides “a body of such sensible qualities” simultaneous to “such secret powers” underscores the mystery latent in the digestive process. Materials in the form of comestible goods enter the mouth, but what then? Wherein lies the point when substance become nutrient? Wherein does nutrient transform to excrement?

            I would like to posit that, prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832 which permitted medical access to cadavers and the development of scientific discourse in the 19th century surrounding the systems of the body, the mysterious function of eating left room for interpretive play.  The site of the stomach became a site of speculation – how, and why, did food become waste? If comestibles had the ability to nourish and become the foul product of decay what symbolic interpretations of consumption might be at work within this particular discourse of scatology?

“So” Swift writes in “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” “Things, which must not be exprest, When plumpt into the reeking Chest Send up an excremental Smell.”[2]  Yet, it seems that we see so many examples of these things scatological expressed so often in the era that I for one become suspicious of a peculiar 18th century fondness for the “excremental smell”. Tobias Smollet’s Humphry Clinker, one of the most commercially successful novels popular of the era, follows the movements of Matthew Bramble and his traveling companions around the mainland of England and Scotland.  Prone to hypochondriac tendencies, Bramble’s astute observations of the spaces and peoples he encounters are too numerous for this post. Yet, as Bramble wanders through London he looks on over the river Thames and reveals a vision of a British metropolis polluted by putrification:

   If I would drink water, I must quaff the maukish contents of an open aqueduct, exposed to all manner of defilement; or swallow that which comes from the river Thames, impregnated with all the filth of London and Westminster – Human excrement is the least offensive part of the concrete, which is composed of all the drugs, minerals, and poisons, used in mechanics and manufacture, enriched with the putrefying carcasses of beasts and men; and mixed with the scourings of all the wash-tubs, kennels, and common sewers, within the bills of mortality.

Here, much as Strephon’s musings reveal[3], the point at which the internal and the external converge. Quaffing water, a vital substance of life, becomes a dangerous activity. Impure, the water is an amalgam of filth, a concrete of excrement and decaying flesh.  As the process of evacuating waste from the body serves to topographically reconnect the interior body to the exterior world, Bramble’s near cannibalistic obsessions with imbibing foul water, serves the reverse function – to draw the exterior world into the self.

            Dominque LaPorte in The History of Shit writes: “The hygienist is a hero. He faces the foul unnameable and speaks of that thing of which no one else will speak. No one else dare name it for fear of soiling the image of his knowledge. He alone speaks of it; he alone makes it speak.”[4] Yet in a moment when digestion was little more than a magical operation of nature, how might LaPorte’s notions render the Swift and Smollet as hygenists in their own right? Exploring the implications of waste in representations of consumption lead me to the following questions that I will end with today in hopes of soliciting your conversation:

–          What is the connection between an emerging society of consumerism and material goods with the proliferation of the scatological vision in the 18th century?

–          How might discussions of excrement as edible object serve to illuminate considerations of the body as a productive, or conversely, a destructive force?

–          How might edible excrement create an alternative mode of considering the body as a commodity – one that removes it from previous discourses of body commodification such as gendered or racial modes?  It is after all, the great universalizing force: Everybody poops!


One thought on “The Great Gross Out!

  1. First excellent post about a rather difficult topic.
    In the novel I found it quite humorous/disgusting when Bramble goes on about 203-206 when he describes that at the same time every night everyone in town throws their chamber pots out the back window into an alley.
    I found it very funny that they scream out Gardy Loo which means watch out for the water, I dont think its the liquids that you would be worried about. Also though, are these streets cleaned ever? Are they swept by someone or something.
    Overall I find this so gross but I guess that the way of life back at the time.
    Its crazy though that in London the water is so questionable. It would be like going to NYC and thinking you have to boil you’re water to get the sewer/subway out of it. On a side note NYC has a huge aquaduct that comes from the north of the state and the water apparently is quite good.

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