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Soiled goods: human manure through history

New jersey sewer architectural review

Although generally thought of as waste, excrement has served many purposes throughout history, from fertiliser to substance of protest

That great scourge of Modernist housing, Alice Coleman, was obsessed with shit. She was a connoisseur of the scatological, a hunter of turds. Whenever she found one on an estate, she carefully pressed it between the pages of her books, presenting it to her readers as proof that modern architecture had failed. It is hard, however, to get to the bottom of whatever connection she divined – I use the word advisedly, she was also a graphology nut – between building and the bowels.

With more hope of a reasonable response, let us ask instead: why was the excremental summoned, at this crucial moment, to blot the escutcheon of Modernism? The answer lies in the myths modern architecture told about its birth from the dirt of the slum and the 19th-century city. Emerging from this morass like a gleaming Venus from waves of filth, the modern building was meant to be a hygienic refuge. When this crystalline ideal crashed into the reality of an enduringly shitty world that it had failed to change (and, really, how could it have managed this alone?), critics stooped to dirty protest.

Cycle of matters and energy architectural review

Cycle of matters and energy architectural review

The Cycle of Matter and Energy, 1926, by Friz Kahn shows how excrement (Kof) is an essential component of the energy life cycle 

The irony is that the 19th century actually possessed an architecture of shit and this had, contrary to the Modernist detractors of that era, done much to ameliorate the problems caused by urbanisation. It was also at times palatial. Bazalgette’s sewers and pumping stations were grandiose structures, with the Byzantine examples at Crossness and Abbey Mills often given the epithet ‘cathedrals of sewage’. These extracted the effluent that had hitherto poisoned metropolitan drinking water – and dumped it in the Thames. In Paris, meanwhile, Haussmann’s new sewers had become a tourist attraction through which the curious were piloted in gondolas. We are assured by olfactory testimonials that the experience was surprisingly – if not incredibly – odourless. These infrastructural panoramas have an antiquarian charm of the sort that Walter Benjamin found irresistible. And indeed, he thought the shots French photographer Nadar took in those gloomy caverns – commissioned by Haussmann as publicity, and some of the first made using electric light – demonstrated that ‘for the first time, the lens was deemed capable of making discoveries’. But the new sewers were not universally beloved. Their construction necessitated the demolition of swathes of proletarian housing.

Hugo, whose Les Misérables begins with a chapter set in the sewers, regretted the modernisation of Paris’s underworld for other reasons: ‘A sewer is a mistake’, he declared, a waste of precious resources that should be used as fertiliser. Marx was shortly to join Hugo: when our peasant ancestors were forced off common land by enclosure, he wrote, they ceased returning the nutrients they had absorbed from the earth back to their source. This dislocation led to soil depletion in the countryside and, at the same time, created a concomitant waste-disposal problem in the cities. There were global implications, too: the struggle for control of the guano used to replace these nutrients led to war, slavery and economic devastation in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. More recently, John Bellamy Foster has dubbed Marx’s embryonic theory of ecological crisis ‘metabolic rift’.

In early modern texts, such as the popular German story of Till Eulenspiegel, the world of the past can seem almost universally excremental. The chapter titles of the 1515 edition of Eulenspiegel’s adventures include such gems as ‘How Eulenspiegel shitted in the baths in Hanover, believing that the place was a House of Cleansing’,  ‘How Eulenspiegel, in Bremen, basted his roast from his behind, so nobody wanted to eat it’, ‘How Eulenspiegel shitted inside a house and blew the stink through a wall to a host who disliked him’, and ‘How Eulenspiegel prepared his legacy – in which the priest covered his hands in shit’. Already we can see how the lowly Eulenspiegel, a trickster, assails high figures of authority, priests and pompous burghers with excrement. And yet there is a sense that its presence is not so out of place anywhere; how could it be, in a time of chamber pots and nightsoil men? 

Till eulenspiegel architectural review

Till eulenspiegel architectural review

Source: The Trustees of the British Museum. All Rights Reserved

Excrement was a regular feature of the adventures of Till Eulenspiegel depicted in a series of coloured woodcut images from 1729 

Elsewhere the relation between class and abject matter has long been formalised, with spatial implications. According to the hierarchies of Indian caste, the Dalits – or ‘Untouchables’ – encompass the Valmikis, who empty toilets and clear sewers. (In 2018, the Guardian reported that over 300 Valmikis had died doing their hazardous work in the preceding year.) Likewise, as effluent was pumped out of Western conurbations, it was increasingly associated with the excluded parts of society, a process traced by Ben Campkin in his 2013 book Remaking London: Decline and Regeneration in Urban Culture. We can find the echoes of this thought in literature, too. The connection begins to make its presence felt in Hugo’s work, where the excluded and criminal take refuge in the sewers. It is still there in John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer of 1925: ‘Under all the nickelplated, goldplated streets enameled with May, uneasily she could feel the huddling smell, spreading in dark slow crouching masses like corruption oozing from broken sewers, like a mob’. 

‘Whether we intentionally dredge the dreck or not, the excremental is, in any case, always with us’

As the 19th century progressed, this great uprooting unleashed chthonic reverberations. For German thinkers such as Wilhelm Riehl, the separation of the Volk (people) from the land and their accumulation in cities had to be reversed. Writing in the 1920s, sociologist Karl Mannheim interpreted these strands of locative conservative thought as a reaction to liberalism recurrent since the 18th century. His important text on the subject was left unfinished, however. In 1933 he was himself, with steely irony, uprooted by the inheritors of this neo-feudalism, which had meanwhile coagulated into the fatal doctrine of Blut und Boden (blood and soil). Seen from an eco-Marxist perspective, these racist strands of thought can be understood as an idiotic and disastrous attempt to heal modernity’s metabolic rift, with an undercurrent of repressed excremental harmony streaking the idealised soil. Could, perhaps, these stains be exposed and excrement grasped as an antidote? 

The citizen richard hamilton architectural review

The citizen richard hamilton architectural review

Source: © R Hamilton. All rights reserved, DACS 2020. Photo © Tate

The Citizen by Richard Hamilton, 1981-83, shows Bobby Sands, an IRA inmate of Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison, as Jesus. Having been denied the right to be classified as political prisoners, these inmates protested by refusing to wear prison clothes – instead donning a simple blanket – and smearing excement on the walls of their cells

Such a return of the flushed was the movement of thought underlying many of Georges Bataille’s writings. Against the backdrop of rising fascism, the unorthodox surrealist tinkered with the idea of a ‘base materialism’, a focus on the excluded parts of society – ‘excrement, shameful parts, cadavers, etc’ – intended as an antidote to the economic rationalism of both capitalism and Stalinism, and the enduring idealism he detected in Marxist thought. In Benjamin Noys’ reading, Bataille intends the abject objects of his base materialism to be a destabilising ‘third term’, upsetting the dialectic by refusing ever to be resolved. Noys adds that, for Bataille, the excremental also has a political dimension. ‘Communist workers’, wrote Bataille, ‘appear to the bourgeois to be as ugly and dirty as hairy sexual organs, or lower parts; sooner or later there will be a scandalous eruption in the course of which the asexual noble heads of the bourgeois will be chopped off.’ This ‘irruption of excremental forces’ (which, to cite the title of another of his texts, was always ‘against architecture’, with all its authoritarian constraints), was not, however, amenable to canalisation. ‘Orgiastic participation’ veers left or right at will. Filth, once freed, cannot be forced down one particular sewer – and everybody gets dirty as a result.    

In light of this it is fortunate, perhaps, that there have not been many attempts at excremental protest. The faecal decoration of Republican cells in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison is one of the few historical realisations of the idea. The success of this tactic was dubious, but recent developments suggest the lavatorial may retain some potential as a site of resistance: in India, for example, despite Narendra Modi’s claims to have eradicated the practice of open defecation, toilet access continues to be unequal, potentially inspiring civil unrest. In the Western world, too, bathroom access is in decline: public lavatories are closed and employers crack down on toilet breaks. As a result, in 2016, Oxfam reported that workers in some American poultry factories have been forced to wear nappies. One can easily imagine an attention-grabbing form of direct action responding to this global problem, something like the defecator in Juan Goytisolo’s 1995 novel State of Siege: ‘Yes, I’m shitting! Take a good look at all this shit! It’s mine and nobody else’s! Nobody can keep me from shitting! It’s the one right I have left!’

Whether we intentionally dredge the dreck or not, the excremental is, in any case, always with us. Mike Davis concluded his book Planet of Slums with the harrowing thought that, ‘Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the 21st-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay’. Indeed, despite any feelings of Western superiority we may harbour on the subject, shit is omnipresent, even in those sites via which we seemingly move beyond the physical into the immaterial. A 2018 study found faecal bacteria on every touchscreen tested in branches of McDonald’s and, in 2011, excrement was found on one in six smartphones. Which means, dear reader, you may well be reading this article through a thin veil of shit.

Lead image: Interceptor sewers were constructed in New Jersey in the 1920s to carry effluent away from residents. Courtesy of State of New Jersey / Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, New Jersey 

This piece is featured in the AR February 2020 issue on Soil – click here to buy your copy today