Criticism 44.4 (2002) 407-413
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History of Shit by Dominique Laporte. Trans. Nadia Benabid and Rodolphe el-Khoury. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000. Pp. 160. $20.00 cloth.
When "Super-Masochist" Bob Flanagan proclaims in his explanatory poem "Why?": "because I had to take my clothes off and lie inside this giant plastic bag so the doctors could collect my sweat" (in Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist, eds. Andrea Juno and V. Vale, People Series: Number 1 [San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, 1993]: 64-65, 65), we experience a moment of synchronicity with M. Geoffrey's eighteenth-century treatise on the uses of excrement, Suite de la Matière médicale. In that scatological document, which Dominique Laporte has recourse to in the newly translated History of Shit, we learn of the socially elevated French woman who relied on stercorary fluid to maintain the youthful lustre of her face. Her boy Friday's only duty would be to seal his fresh feces in a special basin to prevent evaporation, and after cooling, scrape the condensation that formed under the lid so that Madame might splash her precious pores with the age-defying liquid.
Laporte presumes that this servant's diet and physical condition must have received "special ministrations" (108), and while we cannot be certain if the perspiration of performance-artist Flanagan was collected, scraped, and applied in similar fashion, each of the two excretions draws a spectacular power from the potential use-value of bodily waste. Amid the history of such sublimated discharges, Laporte's History of Shit indulges an array of scatological impulses to demonstrate the ways in which the history of the "State," the history of modern subjectivity, and to a certain extent, the history of history, are entangled in wonderful and horrible ways with the history of the fundamental fundament, that basest of human products—shit.
Laporte's cultural ode to excrement, originally published as Histoire de la merde (Prologue) in 1978, requires a radical dissolution of what he sees as State-sponsored mechanisms controlling language and excrement, so that all excesses, linguistic and anal, gleam with the light of shit-transformed-into-gold. Nadia Benabid's and Rodolphe el-Khoury's engaging translation from the French preserves the excesses of Laporte's prose style as it attempts "to reverse the deodorization of language by means of a reeking syntax" (ix). Augmented by a gallery of fantastic images, History of Shit celebrates a "language as slut" paradigm that defies the virginal turn where a castrated "feminine" state of a neutered language works intently on maintaining production, so that the "profits of [language's] harvest must be indistinguishable from those elements by which it is sublimated and refined" (17). The sublimation of shit to any totalizing teleology cannot be dethroned through mere revelation or exposure of control elements, and the problems Laporte addresses in his six feculent chapters are not only those of political production and individual waste retention within a matrix of profit and loss. Instead, the crude alphabet of shit, [End Page 407] urine, bile, and its other hoary phonemes also challenges a complex social system that ultimately authorizes its own excesses through an invasive program of obsessive purification—separating the "extra matter" of waste from its counter-disciplinary stink. Freed from odor and turned to "gold" by the State, the treasure trove of rationalized language (and thus, excrement), "resembles the young girl who sells her body in exchange for the dowry that ensures her virginity on her wedding night" (18).
Laporte knows from Barthes that "when written, shit does not smell" (10), but also that the taint of base feces still remains even after the complete declination of the olfactory sense. History of Shit argues that all superfluous matter arising from the Freudian triad of cleanliness, order, and beauty, must conversely be "put to use; the gain-in-pleasure must be made to enrich civilization in a sublimated form" (14). Any escape from the prison house constructed from a social domination of "excess" shit-words depends upon a deployment of over-coded language and matter somehow capable of eluding the apparatuses of...