The French do it figuratively. During the recent general strikes against President Macron’s pensions policy, towns all over France were plastered with posters proclaiming “Nous Sommes dans la Merde” [We are in the shit]. The English do it literally. Underground stations in London are currently plastered with blue posters featuring a ghoulish looking turd (menacing with two eyes...) designed to foster shit-fear in the population. The menace is the “poonami”, and the posters advertise Pampers shit-proof nappies.
The last time shit consciousness was so much to the fore was under the Thatcher regime. The Left then was so thoroughly disempowered that the conversation at dinner tables turned insistently on the scandal of dog turds in the streets – the only thing, on our doorsteps, on which the Left could exercise power.
I must declare a personal interest in the matter. At Easter I picked up a dose of E-coli from eating raw oysters out of the River Teign in Devon. The body does a remarkable job of evacuating undesirable matter out of the back end. Three days that merited closer scientific, not to mention philosophical, study. However, the salient fact was that I had eaten stuff that had come out of somebody’s arsehole. As the former Oxbridge rower discovered as he was sculling around the upper reaches of that river, it’s easy enough to do; there were, he reported, human turds floating in the water. South West Water has a policy, during heavy rain, of dumping raw, untreated human sewage into the Teign.
As a result, the river’s shellfish beds have been declared (based on logged incidents) the most polluted shell fishery in the country, with South West Water named as the culprit. Ask Barry Sessions, the last remaining oysterman on the Teign, what he thinks of all this. The Environment Agency has just shut down his oyster farm (“winter precautionary measure”) and he is in danger of losing his livelihood. As he points out, the problem is not the oysters but the people who allow shit to be dumped in the river.
Shit is Useful
Karl Marx also had a view on such matters. “By means of an artificially hidden sewer system, all the lavatories of London spew their physical filth into the River Thames,” he wrote. Actually, he was attacking a certain right-wing newspaper that we all love to hate. He continued: “By means of the systematic pushing of goose quills, the world capital spews out all its social filth into the great papered central sewer called the Daily Telegraph.” Less metaphorically, in later life he was interested in what John Bellamy Foster calls the “metabolic rift” – the realisation that soil fertility is not a natural given, but is determined by over-exploitation, particularly under capitalism.
Exhausted soils need replenishing. Marx was interested in the writings of the chemist and agronomist Justus von Liebig (known as the “father of fertiliser”). Perhaps all the shit that was pumped into London’s rivers could have been better used as natural fertiliser for the land. As Liebig said: “If it were practicable to collect, with the least loss, all the solid and fluid excrements of the inhabitants of the town, and return to each farmer the portion arising from produce originally supplied by him to the town, the productiveness of the land might be maintained almost unimpaired for ages to come.” In other words, shit in a bucket and return it to the farmer to fertilise the land.
Is the idea so outrageous? As is very thoroughly attested, Chinese farmers have been doing this for millennia. And for a while, when London’s market gardeners turned to humanure to feed their vegetable plots in the seventeenth century, the city’s citizenry would address each other jocularly: “A turd in your teeth, sir!” In the US, one lucky researcher has managed to persuade his university authorities to turn over a patch of campus to be fertilised entirely by human shit – which of course can be collected from the students. Not as outlandish as you might think: in South Korea, Professor Cho Jae-weon developed a toilet that could turn shit into heating energy. At the Ulsan Institute, students who used the BeeVi toilet were paid for their efforts, in digital currency – Feces Standard Money (FSM).
And if that’s not enough, someone somewhere will be soon be mining your shit. Scientists in the USA have spent 8 years examining sewage sludge. They find that it contains significant amounts of precious metals (gold, silver, copper, vanadium). In Tokyo a sewage treatment facility has already started extracting gold from sewage sludge, and reports a yield rivalling those found in ore at some leading gold mines. If shit became valuable, as they say, then the poor would be born without arseholes. The times, it seems, are changing. Human shit is acquiring value.
But would you actually eat the stuff? Being naturally rebellious, at an early age I had already decided that Shakespeare was a lie because nobody in his plays ever went to the toilet. However, literature offers a few merdological pointers. My student years gave me the moment of enlightenment that was Swift’s “Celia shits!” And les français were, comme toujours, to the fore. Thus Alfred Jarry:
Père Ubu: Eh bien, capitaine, avez-vous bien dîné?
Capitaine Bordure: Fort bien, monsieur, sauf la merdre.
Père Ubu: Eh! la merdre n'était pas mauvaise.
Mère Ubu: Chacun son goût.
William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch gave us the simopaths, swinging from the chandeliers and shitting on the people. Likewise and ibidem: “A coprophage calls for a plate, shits on it and eats the shit, exclaiming: ‘Mmmm, that’s my rich substance.’” Again, not as outrageous as you may think: baby elephants lack the gut bacteria necessary for digesting food, so they start their lives eating the shit of their parents. As indeed do pandas, koalas and hippos, or so we are told.
And in a notable medical advance, in 2023 it was announced that “US regulators approve first human pill derived from faecal matter”. In short, medication was required to combat Clostridium difficile (C. diff), the drug-resistant superbug that kills up to 30,000 people annually in the USA. Shit pills make it possible to repopulate gut bacteria and build immunity – and are self-evidently preferable to the alternative, euphemistically called “stool implants”.
A Shit Inquiry
I confess to an abiding interest in shit. For years I have maintained a diary rubric entitled De stercore quaero. When I was a kid, my winter playground was the big mountain of horse shit that my father got from the local police stables to fertilise his garden in the spring. Latterly, my hospitalised brother said “I shat in my bed last night. On this ward we all do it.” Which gives an interesting perspective on our humanity. What is a human being, after all? A bag of skin and bones surrounding a concentration of shit that we all endeavour to process as best we can. Thus we are born, thus we live, and thus we die.
shit (v.) Old English scitan, from Proto-Germanic *skit- (source also of North Frisian skitj, Dutch schijten, German scheissen), from Proto-Indo-European root *skei "to cut, split". The notion is of "separation" from the body. But also that from which we separate ourselves. We live in a society today that is massively productive of shit, both literally and metaphorically, but which turns its back on the stuff. It’s time to bring shit back into the picture. Shitologists of the world unite!
Proverbial sayings galore, from all around the world: You think they smear the walls of Mecca with your shit? I’d rather kiss a jakes farmer after midnight. Take the lid off your cesspit and your clothes will stink for days. The chicken on the top perch shits on the chickens below. Everie mans turd smels well in’s own nose. In response to an inquiry colleagues from France and Germany sent me rich pickings from theIr respective countries, which I am archiving. If you are inclined to shit tourism, you will find a Poo Museum on the Isle of Wight, and another in South Korea, where you enter a bowel-maze at one end and eventually emerge at the other end, only to find that you’ve come out of the arsehole end of a dog. My personal favourite is the Lloyds Bank Turd, An excavated Viking coprolite of magnificent proportions, currently housed in the Jorvik Centre in York, where you will also find an animatronic Viking who grunts and farts as he sits straining his bowels.
So far so good with our shitological ramble.
Sanjeeta Pokharel, an Indian research biologist, spends her time collecting elephant shit. She is proud of her work. But she finds it hard to talk about at conferences. To such an extent that she wrote a poem:
I travel a whole day in the jungle,
In search of trunk-ed bull,
I observe and wait,
And the piles of warm dung to pull... […]
Yes, I work in the Jumbo's night-soils,
For, the hidden mystery lies in them,
About the incidents and fears, they have encountered,
And the diseases, that can't be claimed! […]
The crowd hushes now,
For, they must have understood a bit
For, I work for the elephants of India,
And I work on their shit! […]
In short, urbanisation in India has reduced elephant habitats. Marked territorial conflicts between human and animals. Elephants go on crop-raiding forays. They may get angry and kill people. It is crucial to understand the stress factors. Studying the DNA in faeces to understand who are the rogue elephants Males in musth? Females in heat? Habitual offenders? And how can this be managed.
An interesting ethical problem confronted a colleague doing similar work in Kerala. When the police arrive demanding to see your research records to enable them to identify elephants that have killed people. What do you say?
You might think that intense forensic examination of shit is not something that we do over here. You would be wrong. Mass testing during the Covid pandemic was expensive, and global lockdowns were a pain. But, testing sewage at local sewage farms made it possible to identify Covid hotspots and apply selective curfew lockdowns where necessary. In East London a presence of the polio virus was identified from sewage samples.
There are obvious civil liberties issues here. Logically the trail could be followed further up the sewer pipes. Identifying households of drug users perhaps. And indeed this faeces monitoring is now established practice in the campus toilets of the University of California-San Diego. The long arms of the state reaching up through your toilet bowl.
The Shit Pump
I’m an ethnomusicologist by trade, so inevitably I have been seeking out shit songs. Once again, the Brits and the French do it differently. From Devon we have the Yetties with their bucolic Muckspreader Song: “Fling it here… fling it there… if you’re standing by, then you’ll all get your share.” But over the Channel a colleague tells me that there is a more political ditty that you sing as you pump out your septic tank:
Pompons la merde,
et pompons la gaiment,
tous ceux qui nous emmerdent...
[Pump the shit, pump it merrily, it’s all a matter of messing up (shitting) those who mess with us.]
Upon closer examination it turns out that this is part of an extensive lyric which is rooted in proletarian pride and class irony:
Humble worker, your modest cookery
Makes you envy the rich man’s feast.
But console yourself, what comes out of his other end
Won't smell any better than yours.
You powerful ones of today, who block your nostrils,
When we pump the fruit of your excesses,
If we stop emptying your latrines,
What would your splendid palaces smell like?
It is “La pompe a merde”, and it is recorded complete with the sound of a clanking steam engine and gurgling shit, if you fancy singing along.
Lucky people, the French. They had steam-driven pumps to do this sort of thing. In India, the cleaning of septic tanks is a national scandal. The country’s caste system means that shit-clearing is reserved for Dalits, the outcasts – the “untouchables” – of Indian society. In 2019 it was estimated that between 40 and 60 percent of the six million Dalit households worked in “sanitation”. In India the term “manual scavengers” means those who remove shit out of toilet pits and sewers with their hands and hand tools. A filthy and life-destroying job.
This practice was banned by law in 1993. Then in 2013 the law was extended to include a ban on using human labour for direct cleaning of sewers, ditches, pits and septic tanks. The reality, however, is that the law is ignored. Witness the YouTube clips that show workers in cesspits submerged in shit up to their chests while they try to clear blockages. So this – and the caste system that underpins it – continues to be a major campaigning issue for seekers after social justice.
When you sit down and start to map shitphobia in our society, all kinds of stories begin to emerge. The colleague who will only shit in her own toilet, or in the toilet of a very close friend. The other, whose bottom has not touched a toilet seat for the past three years. And the friend from our revolutionary commune in the 1970s, who took her five-year-old for her first day at school. The child told the teacher she wanted to do a shit. The mother was called in after school and was told that this word was emphatically not to be used, and that the child had to say “poo” or “Number Two”
Once again in India, the lack of provision of public toilets means that the poor have to relieve themselves in the street. A recent spoof video shows a huge water tanker, with a mounted water cannon and masked operators, driving through the streets of the big city. As soon as they see someone pissing against a wall, they blast them with the cannon. The intention is humorous, but it poses a real question: if people piss in the streets, who is to blame, the poor, or the public authorities who make no provision?
In London we lament the passing of those temples of copper, brass and marble that were the city’s public conveniences. In Cambridge, home to the biggest and richest university in the world, if you want to piss and you are not one of the privileged college elite, you have to put up with a set of minimalist piss-holes at the local bus station, where the stink is so bad you need a gas mask. And in Finland, as our shitologist friend Justyna reports:
All public WC should be free!!! I noticed that dogs have more freedom! They can pee anywhere! But if I pee in the park I have to pay a fine! Where is the justice??? WC is now one pound sterling in some places! And in Finland you have to pay by credit card only! I had no credit card, only cash, so I had to sneak in when someone was leaving the WC!
It is not funny. It is a matter of serious social concern. The old, the poor and the homeless of our cities are driven into regimes of urine retention which is bad for the human body. And – as has been documented in Africa by UCL’s project OVERDUE: Tackling the sanitation taboo across urban Africa – sanitation and toilet taboos are deeply gendered. They affect women disproportionately to men. To take one tiny example: in 2020 at the Women’s Centre in the Dunkerque migrant “jungle” in Northern France, volunteers noticed that free disposable nappies were being requested even by women who did not have children. It turned out that they wanted the nappies for themselves to use, because they were too scared to go out to the toilet in the night for fear of attack or rape.
During 2022-23, the French and the British had a shit war-of-words about persistent sewage discharges into the English Channel. French shellfisheries were rightly concerned by the threat of disease. Now, it may surprise you to learn that the River Teign is owned by the “Duchy of Cornwall”, in other words by the present king of England (and also middle England’s favourite brand in Waitrose, with its self-proclaimed environmental concerns). As his nibs helicopters down the Teign to view his royal estates, he might like to ponder the words of that master of shitology and most prolific of scatologists, William Burroughs:
God save the Queen and a fascist regime ... a flabby toothless fascism, to be sure. The Queen stabilizes the whole sinking shithouse and keeps a small elite of wealth and privilege on top. The English have gone soft in the outhouse. England is like some stricken beast too stupid to know it is dead. Ingloriously foundering in its own waste products, the backlash and bad karma of empire.
And meanwhile we swim on among the floating turds…
On the weekend of 21-22 October, at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, London), I am organising the first ever international Shit Conference. Hosted by the Food Studies Centre, there will be 20 speakers coming from around the world, the intention is to set up an international network to discuss poop and pee in all their aspects. Tastefully titled “MERDE ALORS!”, our intentions are thoroughly interdisciplinary, and for those who are interested we shall eventually publish a Book of Proceedings. You are invited to join us.
The conference programme is here:
And you can join our discussion list here:
Further details: firstname.lastname@example.org