Barren rocks surround the dawning sun at 18,000 feet as school kids huddle around the standalone solar water heater in the freezing desert. Squatting with all of my senses heightened, I embrace my surroundings. The texture of the creaky wooden floor, a heap of mud with a shovel on my right, a stack of dissembled artwork-come-tissue paper on my left, a skylight like small window peeking into the azure sky and the stench of the mountain below me – a mountain of shit. 

 

The shit in the structure accumulates on one half of the dry toilet, an ingenious composting latrine emblematic of Ladakhi resourcefulness. The communal toilet is a two storied structure containing a top level with a hollowed out floor and a bottom level for waste to gather for compost. The region’s ecological climate reveals the toilet’s marvel – with only 4 days of rainfall and little vegetation throughout the year, the toilet’s frugal resource maintains its integrity. 

Greater than the mechanics, what stuck with me is the totality of the shitting experience juxtaposed to my London home. Here, the spectacularly clean toilet boasts of aromatic candles and room spray that engulf the air with scent of lavender and jasmine. I am transported to the spring gardens of Hampstead Heath. The warm rug under my feet is soft, as is the comfort of my bottoms on the western commode. Once the lid is down and flush is pulled, the stench is obliterated and along with it any unpleasant images. Out of sight, out of mind. 

 

But it is not so that London does not care about poop. Concerns of the eventual poop-making are hardly outside collective imaginations – gluten free diets, digestive biscuits and pills, antacids and eastern medicine fads are indicative of the poop obsession. Then where does wish to forget come forth? The porosity of the body only materialises towards the wish to forget in the act of excretion – the first and final separation between bodies and the ‘disgusting’ shit. We are always carrying our shit within our bodies, but the opening of boundaries marks a distinction – the “corporeal recoil” from the proximity of shit due to a “felt experience of nakedness or exposure to the skin surface” engenders the wish to forget. In the opening up of boundaries, shit blurs the divide between the body and the environment, and if the mind doesn’t forget, it risks embodying the shit, the ‘disgusting’ it itself. The mere act of flushing then becomes instrumental in the West’s wish and subsequent ability to forget. But why does it matter

 

Ted Steinberg urges us to consider “how the ecological consequences of eating and flushing become so invisible, so enmeshed in the wish to forget” that in our quotidian experience of pooping we rarely imagine its journey across spatial and temporal pathways. “The wish to forget that our bodily waste must go somewhere allows us to imagine ourselves as rarefied rational beings distinct from nature’s muck and muddle.” Flushing enables the West’s ability to forget by creating a divide between the bounded body and the other environment, a derivative of the Cartesian binary. 

 

The Cartesian superseding of culture over nature implies the unruly and er, dirty nature is separate from civilised culture. Shit, the ‘other’ of the body, or in Julia Kristeva’s telling, the ‘abject other’, is held at a distance through the wish and ability to forget. The violence of shit is manifested through the stickiness of disgust. In Sara Ahmed’s Cultural Politics of Emotions, Ahmed quotes Tomkins, “anything which has had contact with disgusting things itself becomes disgusting.” Those who do not maintain said distance with the disgusting object, faeces, in the same way as the Western subject are associated with the same recoil of disgust through recognition of likeness. An iteration of American Vietnam War veterans’ of the Vietnamese people is telling. “The people “live like pigs ‘,” It’s like they’re pigmies or Africans or something”, “They’re very ignorant. They shit and wipe their ass with their finger. They smell. The villages stink. Stink!” This stickiness of disgust, through shit or other forms of waste, performs and takes shape in Western policies and global politics. To keep ‘here’ clean, the Global North’s waste finds home in places and people that are preemptively deemed filthy, meanwhile countries like the UK and the US dump their plastic waste in the Global South and around the world. The Global South is not afforded with the same ability to forget. 

 

For many in the Global South, the shit sits in our backyards. Particularly focusing on India and Ladakh, a remote region inaccessible half a year due to -40 degree Celsius winter, waste stays with the people. In the 1000 years of history in the region with a majority indigenous Bon and Buddhist population, spiritual traditional practices and the interconnectedness of human and non-human natures are a substrata of cultural norms. This is reflected in their scatological practices, including the dry toilet. The sustainable structure enables the sensory, embodied and affective experience of shitting to be a consistent rejoinder of its materiality, its proximity to the body limits the wish or ability to forget. Shitting is as intimate as it is communal. That shit has to go somewhere is acknowledged in the quotidian experience. Faecal waste is the waste of the body, the opening up of boundaries a natural consequence of the intertwined life of the human and the non-human. Waste is not a problem to be avoided, but a natural consequence of what it means to be human, an individual and community responsibility. The practice of shitting further underpins that “the environment runs right through us in endless waves – water, air, microbes, food, toxins and our bodies as we shed, excrete and exhale our processed materials back out.” 

 

I am not romanticising the dry toilet, but emphasising that it is a direct consequence of the fact that the wish to forget was neither accessible nor a possibility in precolonial Ladakh and India. Although the increasing postcolonial development in these areas is quickly catching on to the West and its influx of western commode. 

 

In the faecal assemblage of colonisation, global politics, environmental crisis and sanitation practices, the materiality of shit defies common-sensical boundary making. Shit, like Anne Ling’s matsutake mushrooms, continues to thrive in the precarity of the world. Shit is both dead and alive, its materiality potent with transformation as it morphes with its environment as compost, muck or filth. In shit’s ability to transform, it emits its own material agency beyond the anthropocentric reduction of shit with disgust. 

 

Taking cue from Karen Barad’ material-discursive onto-epistemology, poop calls for its agential interconnectedness with human bodies, threatening proximity in a consistent fashion to reveal the myth of bodily integrity – for both human and national bodies. A metaphorical juxtaposition of the filth of shit within the “clean” environment can break the binary and reveal ways in which urban spaces can be reimagined for multispecies ecologies. To reimagine urban spaces, perhaps another Great Stink like in Victorian era London, can bring heaps of shit into the backyard and back in our collective everyday imagination. The “shitty turn” calls for acknowledging the shittiness of shit-making within and without bodies and its rightful place in discourse around the environmental precarity that plague our everyday lives. 

 

REFERENCES 

  1. Alaimo, S. (2010). Bodily natures : science, environment, and the material self. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  2. ‌Ahmed, S. (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
  3. Toner, S. (2019) “‘The Paradise of the Latrine’: American Toilet-Building and the Continuities of Colonial and Postcolonial Development,” Modern American History. Cambridge University Press, 2(3), pp. 299–320. doi: 10.1017/mah.2019.33.
  4. Barad, Karen (2007). Meeting the universe halfway : quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
  5. ‌Tyler, I. (2009). Against abjection. Feminist Theory, 10(1), pp.77–98. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700108100393.

‌Tyler, I. (2009). Against abjection. Feminist Theory, 10(1), pp.77–98. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700108100393.