Reconstruction 5.2 (Spring 2005)

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Brown Meets Green: The Political Fecology of / Marisol Cortez

Abstract: In engaging with the “culture of filth”, Marisol Cortez’s “Brown Meets Green: The Political Fecology of” questions contemporary cultural criticism’s emphasis on shit’s textual ambivalence. In order to avoid relapsing into either the Bakhtinian celebration of the grotesque or the too narrowly conceived Kristevan category of the abject, Cortez argues, and to find a way out of this theoretical dualism, one must rethink the very categories of “filth” and “waste” through an ecocritical reading of the scatological – the meeting of brown and green – performed at the confluence of ecology, cultural studies, and Marxist political economy. This perspective on shit as a familiar and knowable part of symbolic systems is instantiated by Cortez in her study of a website dedicated to the “(relatively) intellectual appreciation of poop humor”. As such, realizes a remarkable thread of nascent political self-consciousness which Cortez identifies, investigates, and develops further as the concept of “shamelessness”. It is in its relation to such open shameless as practiced on that the scatological, read from an ecocritical point of view, may open up alternate ways of conceptualizing bodily and social economy, for agency and connection to place.

<1> Though scholarly writing on the scatological seems perennially to provoke the sort of shock that attends the novel and scandalous, Western cultural theory since Freud’s “Character and Anal Erotism” has in fact long engaged the relationship between shit and culture, the scatological and the symbolic. Included within this by-now-venerable tradition of shit crit are Dominique Laporte’s History of Shit, Alan Dundes’s study of scatology in German folklore, Mikhail Bakhtin’s discussion of Rabelais, and Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject—to give just a few examples. Along with Freud, these latter two theorists in particular have come to define the terms of the prevailing framework for reading shit, although what makes them definitive—namely, a reading of shit as ambivalent—is also to some extent what characterizes as a whole the legacy of brown criticism post-Freud. According to this prevailing framework, the scatological as a textual presence is verboten but haunting, marginal but constitutive, horrific but subversive and liberatory.

<2> Contemporary cultural criticism has generally maintained this emphasis on shit’s textual ambivalence, and has also noted the seeming proliferation of scatological texts in recent times. In 1994, for example, the literary journal Genre devoted an entire issue to “the culture of filth”, in whose introductory essay Richard A. Barney writes that

these days filth comes at us from all sides: from pictures of the piles of bodies in Rwanda or Bosnia, from T. Coraghessan Boyle’s exultingly messy novel The Road to Wellville, … from Stimpy’s cartoon love affair with his litter box, or from art films nominated for Academy Awards such as The Madness of King George. … The current fascination with the abject has spread even to children’s literature, as in the case of well-known books such as Taro Gomi’s Everyone Poops and Shinta Cho’s The Gas We Pass: the Story of Farts. (276)

There is much we can affirm in Barney’s observations; to his list we can now add recent items of our own such as Jackass, Southpark, Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca, Urinetown: the Musical, and—as concerns the focus of this essay—websites such as All of these cultural productions speak to the continued relevance of Barney’s comments on the “culture of filth,” written though they were more than ten years ago.

<3> However, I would contend that Barney’s observations are as problematic as they are accurate, in no small part due to his casual use of the term “abject” to head the entire list of texts he names—“abject” referring here to Kristeva’s term for what we necessarily reject in the delimitation of self and society (Anspaugh 1994, 84). For this proliferation of supposedly filthy texts has occurred alongside the emergence of a critical space for rethinking the very categories of “filth” and “waste” upon which Barney’s analysis hinges.This development has taken place largely outside of literary criticism as narrowly conceived, arising instead at the confluence of ecology, cultural studies, and Marxist political economy—a synthesis that has yielded the rise of such disciplinary hybrids as political ecology, green cultural studies, and ecocriticism (Hochman 1997, 81). Perhaps best representative of this new filth-consciousness is a recent volume of essays entitled Culture and Waste (2003), which examines the ethical implications of a category that has primarily been conceptualized in structural terms, seen as the negative of both culture and value. In focusing not simply on the positive or negative value of waste, but instead on the “complex role [waste plays] in formations of value”, editors Gay Hawkins and Stephen Muecke stress “not our difference from waste and our mastery of it, but our profound implications with it” (x-xiv). This paves the way, they argue, for an “ethics of responsibility,” an ethics that, in being “open to the various responses and affects waste can initiate,” recognizes its ability to “make us think about what we are doing” (xvi).

<4> So although the present cultural moment may indeed be one in which we are increasingly bombarded with “filth,” it is also one that has witnessed the ecological and cultural imperative to think differently about the things whose displacement from consciousness shapes our material relationships to self, body, and others. We cannot, then, as Barney does, so easily read the scatological content of recent texts within the prevailing framework of brown criticism—via a theory of abjection, as in Barney’s case, but no more satisfactorily by way of the Bakhtinian grotesque, which celebrates the positivity of shit without confronting the structural or psychic mechanisms that occasion its prior negative status. As I will point out in this essay, these oversights have resulted in a brown hermeneutics that assumes a radical separation of shit and self—and which consequently overlooks not only the material reasons for such a separation, but its ecological consequences as well.

<5> An alternative method for reading shit is therefore necessary, one that escapes the binary between a liberatory grotesque and an apocalyptic abject, both of which ultimately depend upon impermeable bodily and social boundaries against which shit is the disruptive outside, capable of signifying within texts only the indeterminate, the excessive, and the unassimilable. As a way around (or through) this theoretical dualism, I propose an ecocritical reading of the scatological, one that does not assume an antagonism between order and ordure, and which hence sees shit as a familiar and knowable part of symbolic systems. In particular, I want to draw upon Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder’s bioregionalist understandings of place, subjectivity, and narrative to argue for a political fecology (Bell 1994, 65)[1]: a critical framework for reading shit that arises at the meeting point of brown and green, and which derives its interpretive power from proximity to rather than distance from shit.

<6> To instantiate this reading, I can think of no better text to use than the aforementioned website and online community Declaring its status as “Your #1 Site for Your #2 Business,” PoopReport is a website devoted to the “(relatively) intellectual appreciation of poop humor” (“Contest #8” 2002, par. 4) [2]. A better and more thorough description exists on PoopReport’s Frequently Asked Questions page, where according to one of the site’s many regular contributors, PoopReport

explore[s], even meditate[s] upon the human condition from the vantage point of pooping and poop. … [Thus] our emotional tone is one of curiosity and mutual respect. This frees us up to venture into one of the culture's shame-indoctrination zones – poop[.] … We are not into thrill seeking or disgust for its own sake. We don't just talk about poop and pooping, we reflect on it. We engage the subject, own it and our participation in it. (“PoopReport FAQ” 2003, par. 3-5)

The creation of a 27-year-old writer and programmer from Brooklyn, PoopReport began in late 2000 as a forum for the posting of humorous poop stories; as of March 2005 it has swelled to approximately 2400 pages of stories, articles, discussion threads, and forums, in which hundreds of site contributors ceaselessly ruminate on every conceivable aspect of human excretory experience (email to author, March 7, 2005). These features of PoopReport, which together make up its “(relatively) intellectual appreciation of poop humor,” would alone be grist for the mill of any cultural critic interested in tracing shifting representations of the scatological across time, geography, and media. What is of concern to the present essay, however, is the thread of nascent political self-consciousness that links together these features and all of their voluminous content: the concept of “shamelessness”, embodiment of which can be found in a document called the “Shameless Shitting Manifesto.” Click on the link from the homepage to the Manifesto—an image of an upraised, anger-red fist with plunger in hand—and the visitor encounters demands for a “fecal utopia” in which all people “have the right to enter a bathroom, drop a deuce, and leave—without anyone caring, and without caring if anyone cares” (“The Shameless Shitting Manifesto”, par. 3-7). Carnivalesque though this may sound, I nonetheless want to make the argument that the notion of Shamelessness, particularly when made concrete and textual in the form of poop stories, can be better read within the bioregionalist framework mentioned above, in which shit neither constitutes nor transgresses the delimitations of systems but instead is essential to their self-regulatory functioning.


<7> Before I get to an ecocritical reading of PoopReport, it would be helpful to show why such a reading is both necessary and useful. To that end, this section starts with a brief description of Bakhtin and Kristeva’s respective approaches to the scatological—the theoretical poles that constitute the prevailing framework for reading shit. I then take as a representative of this framework a recent exchange between Bakhtinian critic Ashraf H.A. Rushdy and his Kristevan counterpart Kelly Anspaugh. As will become clearer, the exchange between a Bakhtinian and Kristevan reading of the scatological runs into a theoretical dilemma that ultimately distances what both critics—and especially Rushdy—are trying to make epistemologically visible.

<8> I begin with Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian critic whose germinal and much-cited Rabelais and His World (1984 [1965]) re-examines the centrality of the filthy and profane within Francois Rabelais’s 16th century comedy Gargantua and Pantagruel. Contrary to previous readings of the novel as satirical—an interpretation that Bakhtin sees as tied to modern and largely negative attitudes toward the body—Bakhtin sees Rabelais's celebration of the "grotesque body" as rooted in the medieval forms of folk humor traditionally associated with the rituals of European carnival. According to Bakhtin, the parody, ribaldry, and comic spectacle inherent to carnival emphasized a "deeply positive" view of the body (19), in which the body’s numerous orifices, swellings, and secretions symbolized a principle of gleeful superabundance opposed to all that was official and hierarchical. For Bakhtin, this subversive power stems from the ability of the grotesque to bring what is “high” to the level of the earth and the "material lower bodily strata" of reproductive and excretory functioning (19-20). Yet this process of degradation does not destroy its object; rather, the degraded object finds renewal in the regenerative, positive aspect of the fecund and fecal body. As such, the grotesque body presents an image of life "in its two-fold contradictory process … of death and birth, growth and becoming" (24-26). Here the grotesque is ambivalent in its dual ability to “bury and revive” (12), but for Bakhtin it is always the upswing of degradation that defines the process: though shit is ambivalent, is it ultimately "gay matter" (223), a subversive substance that speaks to the relativity of official hierarchies in the face of an indestructible populist festivity.

<9> Sue Vice has pointed out that if Bakhtin tries to recuperate the positive element in those bodily phenomena we now consider negative, Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection attempts to explain why we might view these phenomena as negative in the first place (1997, 163). In Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection (1982 [1980]), Kristeva marries Lacanian psychoanalysis to the structural anthropology of Mary Douglas, whose famous argument that dirt is “matter out of place” first pointed out the stabilizing role that exclusion plays in the establishment of social order (Anspaugh 1994, 83-84). Likewise, Kristeva argues that shit is negative because it represents par excellence what the individual must reject in order to delimit the bounds of his or her subjectivity. The excremental, as Kristeva tells us, is what the “I” is not; “dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be” (1982, 3). It is this idea which leads to Kristeva’s infamous pronouncement regarding the symbolic power of shit, invoked by many a subsequent reader of the scatological: “it is … not a lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules” (4). When it appears in literary texts, then, shit functions as ambivalent because it symbolizes the return of the very thing that the symbolic must exclude in the process of self-definition. Kristeva’s understanding of the ambivalence of shit thus tends to emphasize the negative, threatening aspect of its double character—just as Bakhtin presents a similarly lopsided (if inverted) ambivalence, in which the upward movement of degradation takes precedence over the downward.

<10> The Kristevan perspective on the literary function of the scatological is often employed as a corrective to the uncritical idealism that Bakhtin’s critics contend he advocates. In The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986), Peter Stallybrass and Allon White list the numerous problems with carnival’s political vision, including its “nostalgia; its uncritical populism; … its failure to do away with the official dominant culture, [and] its licensed complicity” (19). This last point is perhaps most frequently cited among critics of Bakhtin, who argue that unless the celebratory populism of carnival is properly historicized, it can embody a form of ritualized contestation, a subversive display sanctioned by the very official culture it symbolically opposes. To a large degree, it is this criticism that those scholars who take a Bakhtinian approach to shit fail to account for, and hence this criticism that opens them up to an equally uncritical deployment of Kristeva’s theory of abjection—as we can see in the following exchange between literary critics Ashraf H.A. Rushdy and Kelly Anspaugh.

<11> In “A New Emetics of Interpretation: Swift, His Critics and the Alimentary Canal” (1991), Ashraf H.A. Rushdy uses Bakhtin’s notions of the indeterminate and unfinished grotesque body to argue for a reading of Jonathan Swift’s scatological poems that “uses as its model of the indeterminateness of interpretive practice the open-endedness of the alimentary canal” (4). Rushdy states that cultures which perceive the body’s excretory functions as shameful “tend to deny or underplay the fluidity … of the body’s patterns of ingestion and excretion,” instead viewing these patterns as one-way and one-hole processes (2). Critical approaches to Swift’s scatological poems have been similarly unidirectional, Rushdy avers, either condemning or excusing Swift while remaining unaware of the constructedness of both responses. Rushdy thus posits a hermeneutic method that is “purgative”—open—“in that it allows one to examine not only what one’s gut reaction is, but also what made one’s gut reaction as it is” (8-9). Criticism, he states, should not simply reaffirm what we already value and disavow what we do not, but rather should examine the very social construction of value by which we critique cultural production. To the extent that it does this, we stand open to what a Bakhtinian excremental vision (which Rushdy sees Swift as proffering) can offer us: an understanding of “the relativity of value systems” modeled after “the openendedness of the human body” (14).

<12> While I believe that Rushdy’s approach to reading shit is spot-on—very similar to what I want to propose in this essay—his use of Bakhtin to effect this reading is problematic. For in overlooking the critique of carnival as licensed subversion, Rushdy also overlooks the possibility that for Bakhtin, shit is positive precisely because of its prior separation from self and society. In overlooking this possibility, Rushdy thus opens himself up to critics who disregard the value his “emetics of interpretation” has in establishing a form of criticism aware of its own ideological underpinnings. Kelly Anspaugh, for instance, responds to Rushdy’s oversights in a piece entitled “Powers of Ordure: James Joyce and the Excremental Vision(s)” (1994), arguing that Rushdy not only misreads Swift as a grotesque realist, but that a Bakhtinian “happy excremental philosophy” itself is misguided (78). A better choice for such a philosophy, Anspaugh claims, would have been confirmed coprophile James Joyce (80); yet in Anspaugh’s view even Joyce “consistently … underscores the dark side of excrementality”, his novelistic fascination with shit always troubled by simultaneous horror that requires sublimation through artistic endeavor (88). Anspaugh thus turns to a Kristevan reading of shit to illustrate that for Joyce—as for Kristeva—“the grotesque body is no laughing matter” (84). Though Anspaugh concedes that there is a fair bit of Rabelais in Joyce, he asserts that a Bakhtinian reading does not necessarily follow from this; furthermore, he states, “it is possible that Bakhtin may be misreading Rabelais, over-emphasizing the ‘gay’ aspect of that writer’s ambiguous fecal matter” (96-97).

<13> This is a fair enough criticism, and one that a number of critics have already made. But Anspaugh does not stop there. Citing Peter Stallybrass and Allon White’s observation that unless qualified, the politics of carnival are “wishful and finally unusable as an analytical tool”(1986, 10; qtd. in Anspaugh 97), Anspaugh comments that

what is true of Bakhtin’s view of the grotesque body may also be true of his view of that body’s products. As pleasant as it may be for some to think that excrement’s present status as pollution is purely the result of cultural bias, one must stop and consider: what sense does it make to say that a young animal’s reluctance to foul its own nest is the result of socialization? Is there not something inevitable—dare I say ‘natural’—in such behavior? Could it be that excrement’s status as ‘ordure’, that which evokes horror, is beyond the vicissitudes of history and culture? (97)

Though Anspaugh does not answer these questions per se, the questions themselves reveal an interesting problematic—namely, that in his zeal to point out the limitations of a Bakhtinian reading of shit and to use Kristeva as countermeasure, Anspaugh inverts the very critical error of which he accuses Rushdy (and, by extension, Bakhtin). If, as Anspaugh claims, both of these scholars overlook the ambivalent nature of shit by overemphasizing its festive qualities, Anspaugh’s attempt to compensate by way of Kristeva overstresses the negativity of shit. In doing so he comes close to naturalizing Kristeva’s understanding of the “necessity of exclusion in the creation of the symbolic” (84), reading this necessity as moral prescription rather than as a description of cultural and psychic mechanisms. In the process, he neglects not only the historical contingency of abjection, but the material and ecological consequences of those attitudes toward shit that a theory of abjection so powerfully explains.

<14> As the exchange between Rushdy and Anspaugh suggests, the prevailing critical framework for reading shit leads to an unproductive theoretical bind. On the one hand, we have a reading of the grotesque that ignores the social reality of abjection; on the other hand, we have an application of Kristeva that naturalizes abjection as the proper relationship between shit and the symbolic. Either way—and despite Rushdy’s best efforts—interpretations of the scatological do not escape a moral economy of meaning. Rather than seeing shit as a construction of history that has particular material (and ecological) implications, these interpretations view shit instead as inherently “ambivalent”: positive or negative, transgressive or horrific, suggestive of a transcendental cosmic unity or disturbing to the very foundations of subjectivity. Within such a framework, shit can only be a part of the text if it is apart from self and society; when symbolically present, it must always be rationalized away by a hermeneutics of moral justification. In this way, contemporary cultural criticism distances shit as a cultural category, even as it attempts to make it epistemologically visible.

<15> But as many green scholars and activists have pointed out, the conception of order that underlies a view of shit as materially separate from life is in many ways often a sign of ecosystemic disorder. As stated nicely by a webpage on permaculture, an “ecological design science”, “order is found in things working beneficially together. The fact that neatness, tidiness, and straightness require extensive investments of energy … yet produce little yield tell us that these illusory forms of order are, in fact, nature in wild disarray. True order often lies in apparent confusion, like a meadow, with its hundreds of hidden synergies” (The Co-Intelligence Institute, par 6). Likewise, the cultural construction of shit as always only outside systematicity indicates a condition in which the subject expends unhealthy amounts of psychic and social energy making “strategically absent” (Hawkins 2003, 41) what bodies produce more or less unremarkably. In the next section, I therefore want to consider how an ecocritical framework, rooted in an alternate conception of order, more effectively realizes Rushdy’s “emetics of interpretation” by avoiding the dualistic and moralistic horns of the Bakhtin-Kristeva dilemma. Using PoopReport as a test case, I will draw specifically on bioregionalist understandings of place and narrative to suggest another way of reading the scatological, one premised upon the assumption that there can be other relations between order and ordure, and hence other ways to narrate the relationship between shit and the symbolic.


<16> In “The Pleasures of Eating” (1990), farmer, writer, and scholar Wendell Berry begins with a proposition: “eating,” he writes, “is an agricultural act” (145). By this he means that eating occurs as one node along an entire cyclical process that moves from “soil to seed to flower to fruit to food to offal to decay, and around again” (150); in eating, we subjectively locate ourselves within this larger sequence of events. But Berry points out that within societies in which industrialized food production predominates, we lose a sense of participation in these cycles; instead we identify primarily as consumers, for whom the freedom from cumbersome seasonal and geographical limits equates to convenience and better living (145).

<17> Ecological economist Thomas Princen refers to this phenomenon as “distancing,” in which “the separation of production and consumption decisions” within a rapidly expanding global market “impede[s] ecological and social feedback” (2002, 104). Distancing breaks down the flow of information that would otherwise attune the user of a resource to the signals that indicate the availability and wellbeing of that resource, so that agents along the chain from extraction to final purchase must make production and consumption decisions in isolation from both the land and one another. As this isolation increases and feedback decreases, it becomes increasingly difficult to assess the impact of single decision-points along the chain, ultimately leading, in Princen’s words, to “uncounted costs and unaccountable actors” (103). And while in the supermarket this isolation may look like the freedom and convenience of consumer choice, Berry points out that this freedom is in fact an illusory one: it is “a kind of solitude,” he writes, best symbolized by “a walled city surrounded by valves that let merchandise in but no consciousness out” (1990, 148-149).

<18> When considered alongside the prevailing framework for reading the scatological, Berry’s metaphor takes on particular significance, for it seems to describe not only industrialized food production systems but the constructions of order and subjectivity that underlie dominant readings of shit. Moreover, Berry critiques these constructions via this metaphor, for in depicting a system that “let[s] merchandise in but no consciousness out,” he inverts the accustomed relationship between known and unknown, order and ordure. Instead of a cognitive system constituted through the elimination of what can’t be known—the Cartesian cogito ergo sum whereby shit can only be the indeterminate outside—Berry describes a system defined not only by its failure to excrete, but by its failure to excrete consciousness. In this way, he implicitly identifies shit not with indeterminacy, but with knowledge—specifically, the knowledge of place we lose when we are geographically and culturally distant from agricultural cycles. To restore this place-consciousness, he claims, we must restore the sense that eating is agricultural, “reclaiming responsibility for [our] own part in the food economy” (149). To that end, he makes a number of practical recommendations, chief among which is learning the “origins” and “life histories” of the foods that one grows, buys, and eats (150). According to Berry, it is when we know the story of our food that we escape the epistemological trap that the walled city symbolizes, repairing the dynamic informational flow that links “eater and eaten” (148) and in the process cultivating a sense of agency and “responsibility” (Hawkins and Muecke 2003, xiv).

<19> Berry’s idea of knowing the story of one’s food is useful here as a framework for reading the poop stories that form such a central part of For just as an industrialized system of food production distances us from a knowledge of the origins and histories of what we ingest, so too do industrial technologies for the treatment of human “waste” make epistemologically invisible the destinations and consequences of what we excrete. As green architect Sim Van der Ryn has pointed out in The Toilet Papers: Recycling Waste and Conserving Water (1995), the large-scale water-based sewer systems used in the industrial West unbalance both the waterways that serve as repository for chemically-treated human wastes and the land-based nutrient cycles that would benefit from an application of “human manure” (11). The result, Van der Ryn says, is the destruction of soil health through the use of petroleum-based fertilizers; the eutrophication of rivers and lakes; the reliance on a costly and expensive system for the separation of “one part excreta” from “one hundred parts clean water”; and—as concerns us here—an attendant philosophy that views shit as radically separate from self and society, something to be mastered and eliminated through increasingly advanced systems of dumping shit into drinking water (11-12).

<20> But if knowing the story of our food can restore us to knowledge of our participation in the cycling of matter and energy, and to the adverse ecological consequences that can result when we are distant from these processes, it follows that knowing the story of our shit might accomplish complementary results. Thus we might see PoopReport’s narrative shamelessness as a manner of relating to and writing the body that attends precisely to what the social and intellectual technologies of an industrialized sewer system most strenuously attempt to distance from cognition and perception. Through the poop story, the textual does not function as the anxious symptom of the excretory so much as the process through which the subject relates dynamically and responsively to his or her own organicity.

<21> If “shamelessness” is the ideological centerpiece of, the engine that drives this philosophical vision is the first person poop narrative. Nearly five years into its online existence, the site has collected more than 400 of these incursions into the land of Too Much Information, ranging in style and length from the pithy and anecdotal to the lengthy and belletristic. Despite this variety and quantity, it is nonetheless possible to discern two basic narrative features that together construct the “shameless subject.” Through a thematic and formal attentiveness to the experience of pooping—the “what” and “how” of PoopReporting—site contributors produce a manner of representing the scatological that stresses its proximity to rather than distance from the self, and from which emerges an alternate subjectivity whose contours resemble the porous stability of what Gary Snyder has called the bioregion.

<22> I start with thematic attentiveness to pooping experience: what sorts of things do poopers report? By and large, the bulk of the PR canon consists of stories that relate the intensities of the body—to the extent that the theme of “explosive diarrhea under compromising circumstances” has become a chestnut worthy of parody. As one PoopReporter observes in a satirical submission entitled “The Do-It-Yourself Poop Story”, “it’s almost as if some folks take perverse pleasure in partaking in The Diet From Hell and then making sure they are also way the hell out of pocket when it comes time to pay the pooper…er, piper” (2003, par. 1). “Cricket, Curry, and Cramps,” for instance, documents the moment of anal truth that occurs after a 3 a.m. beer-and-curry bender followed by an afternoon of wicketkeeping. Having narrowly avoided a mid-game soiling, the narrator later recalls that “the sound was tremendous. I was thinking Niagara Falls, only more powerful. By this stage I had dexterously lifted my ass off the seat in order to avoid the possibility of back-splash. I felt what seemed like three to four litres of pure acidic bile spray out of my anus like a high-pressure hose” (2002, par. 12). Post scripted to these revelations is a brief note of thanks, in which the narrator expresses gratitude to the site’s many readers for their knowledge regarding “a subject which is perhaps under-explored and certainly not publicly-aired enough” (par. 18).

<23> Related in theme to tales of excretory near- and total misses, and just as frequently-submitted, are stories that narrate experiences whose intensity derives from physical or psychological distress rather than from the risk of public humiliation. “Constipation,” for instance, details the bowel movements of a pooper whose chronic lack of intestinal motility produces “turds as hard as depleted uranium and with the diameter of a 4yr old child's arm” (2001, par. 1). Similarly, “Shell Hell” describes the sphincter-shredding aftereffects of ingesting three bags of sunflower seeds with shells intact: “this was much more painful than normal shit,” the narrator notes. “It was cutting and slicing my asshole like a butcher infatuated with meat” (2002, par. 5). As we can see from just a few examples, the agonies and ecstasies of bowel activity are a major impetus for the reporting of one’s poop.

<24> Yet for the stories that narrate the body’s intensities, “shamelessness” is not necessarily what the PoopReporter experiences at the time of the recounted events. As the postscript to “Curry, Cricket, and Cramps” suggests, shamelessness is a function of the narrative act itself; it is the willingness to speak about what is “not publicly-aired enough.” By vocalizing both public humiliation and private discomfort as humorous items of interest to others, PoopReporters interrogate the social dicta that relegate subjective experience of intestinal functioning to the realm of the private and “under-explored.” Defending the rights of people to bear witness to their bowels, one PoopReporter sums up the essence of this exploratory shamelessness in a comment to a critic of the site, stating that “this [website] is where the proud stand up and report their poop. This is where we humans can take pride in our bodily functions and share it with the public. This is where we can take a moment of our personal lives, shape it into a humorous story so that others may look at it and laugh” (“Romeo and Toilet” 2002).

<25> We can definitely see an element of the Bakhtinian at play here, both in the celebration of shit, and in the allusion to a bathroom humor that confounds the distinctions between public and private. Equally present in PoopReporters’ insistence on textualizing what the symbolic excludes is the “fascinated horror” characteristic of abjection. But the concept of shamelessness that inheres within poop reporting includes something that neither the Bakhtinian nor Kristevan understanding of shit encompasses: namely, an observational and journalistic approach that privileges description over evaluation—and which ultimately allows PoopReporters to explore, in addition to the agonies and ecstasies of the excremental, those mundane, routine, and technical aspects of defecatory experience most effaced by the technologies of “industrial shitting.”

<26> This documentary function is largely carried out by a kind of formal shamelessness—a playful approach to language that names the routinized and hence epistemologically distant practices that nonetheless define our relationship to the corporeal. Invented turns of phrase, for example, convey the particularities of bathroom habit: waiting until the last possible second before “backing your ass to the toilet seat” so that “the shit comes out [your] ass the moment [you] hit the seat” is dubbed “The Move” (“The Move” 2002, par. 2-3); while the “courtesy flush” references a pre-wipe flush enacted to reduce the unseemly impact of either noise or smell during a public poop (“The Courtesy Flush” 2002). In both of these examples, a playful neologistic impulse codifies events and subjective registers that—due to the habits engendered by technologies of shame and privacy—would escape not simply vocalization but cognition itself: the awareness of particular relations to self, body, and others as distinct events to be thought and spoken.

<27> Similarly playful is the ever-expanding stock of colorful verbiage upon which PoopReporters draw to describe a limited number of functions and parts. A kind of literary prankishness infuses otherwise unmentionable—because unexceptional—events and objects, such that a sphincter becomes a “straining balloon knot” or a “brown eye”; a turd is a “muddy rooster tail” or a “Captain Darksnake”; and an impending fart is recast as a “broccoli and tuna steam sauna beckoning at the backdoor” (“Splash” 2002, par. 5-8; “The Rising Tide” 2003, par. 12; “Terror” 2003, par. 33; “Wall” 2003, par. 4). This playful process of naming and renaming reaches a peak of near-frenzy in the site’s propensity for scatological punning, which christens a story about a gaseous trip to the adult video store “The Poophole vs. Larry Flynt,” while “Long Day’s Journey into Shite” entitles the tale of an early morning highway dash for the nearest rest stop [3]. In the face of the PoopReport pun-making machine, neither Hollywood blockbuster nor high culture text escapes.

<28> Literary critics have traditionally seen this kind of wordplay as ambivalent, a symbolic surfeit that can be read as either abject or carnivalesque. In line with Richard A. Barney’s description of puns as “language’s trash makers” (Barney 1994, 280), a Kristevan critic might argue that in placing both content and form in service of the scatological, poop stories satirize cultural anxieties particular to time and place—there being, for instance, numerous post-9/11 stories that play with metaphors of national security (i.e. “Terror Alert: Code Brown”). A Bakhtinian critic might just as easily and legitimately make the argument that as befits the “exaggeration, hyperbolism [and] excessiveness” of the “grotesque style” (Bakhtin [1965] 1984, 303), PoopReport’s neologistic flair and enumeration of synonyms mixes word and turd in a carnivalesque degradation of the language of high culture.

<29> I would argue, however, that a better way to read the formal shamelessness of the poop story—one that resists a view of wordplay as unassimilable “excess”—is via the concept of language Gary Snyder proffers in “Language Goes Two Ways,” an essay from A Place In Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (1995). In this essay, Snyder denies that the task of language, as the supposed evidence of a uniquely human intelligence, is to “bring order to the ‘chaos’ of the world” (173). Rather, Snyder says, language is part of, rather than apart from, a world that is not chaotic so much as self-organizing; it is “wild” in the sense that, like “nature”, it is “patterned according to its own devices” as the product of processes of philological evolution. Snyder considers wordplay to be an expression of this linguistic wildness, describing as “natural language” the written discourse that revels in its “self-generated grammars and vocabularies” like “children on the playground chant[ing] rhymes and … fooling with language” (174-175). Viewed from a perspective that opposes language to a primordial “chaos”, the wordplay of PoopReport can only be symbolic excess, if not regressive: positive or negative by virtue of the superfluity that signals its distance from the text. Snyder’s understanding of “natural language,” however, enables us to see PoopReport’s wordplay as a formal expression of its critical orientation toward forms of subjectivity and social order in relation to which shit becomes excessive and inessential. Through the playful naming and renaming of things, the wordplay of the poop story discloses the habits and practices that industrial shitting closets from knowledge—but which nevertheless define our relationship to the multiform functions of the body’s self-regulation.

<30> Ultimately, the thematic and formal shamelessness described above combine to produce the ‘who’ of the site, and the center of this analysis: the shameless subject. What delimits this subject, as I have suggested throughout, is not the hardline boundary that constitutes the self as the product of abject or festive externalities, but a porous and shifting line established through a narrative process that reports rather than evaluates the comings and goings of the body. In this respect, the permeable contours of shameless subjectivity do not resemble the cosmic openendedness of the grotesque body so much as the specific and local bioregionalist topographies that Snyder argues for in A Place in Space. In “Coming into the Watershed,” Snyder describes the bioregion as a delimitation of space defined by the “porous, permeable, [and] arguable” lines of “climates, plant communities, soil types, types of life” rather than by the arbitrarily fixed crosshatchings of state power (1995, 220). As a conceptual schema that attempts to replace the abstract geographies of political conquest and capitalist ownership with a cartography mapped by a subjective relation to place, bioregionalism calls for people to become reinhabitory: to live in rather than merely on the land, and on that basis to cultivate a sense of belonging to and participation in one’s ecosystemic community. For as Snyder argues, there can be no responsibility for resource use that is not grounded first in a connection to specific locales. In this regard, the reinhabitory consciousness that delimits bioregionality shares considerable overlap with Berry’s argument that knowledge—of food, place, participation—is subjectively restorative, the necessary condition for ecological responsibility.

<31> There are clearly parallels between Snyder’s bioregionalist vision of space and place and the subjectivity produced through the narration of poop stories. The subject who reports her or his poop is a subject in communication with the self-regulatory processes of the body, a subject whose boundaries—like those of a watershed—are porous but stable, drawn through a documentary process that charts the self’s responses to the affective properties of shit. One of the primary ways PoopReporters narrate this reinhabitory subjectivity is through a mode of description attuned to the microevents of sensory perception, and in particular to that sensory faculty that a number of theorists since Freud have seen as the crux of the conflict between shit and the symbolic: the sense of smell. Consider, for example, the following description, excerpted from a story entitled “Dinner Returns”:

The dinner was great. One of the best I had ever eaten. We had Caesar salad, filet mignon, Shrimp Alexander, red potatoes with onion, asparagus and cheese cake. And, of course, beer. … The next morning I was feeling pretty good, not too hung over. My stomach was growling and I was hungry. I went to the bathroom to take a shower. All of a sudden I let out a massive fart that smelled of filet mignon. It smelled wonderful, good enough to eat! Well, over the next several hours, I farted my ass off and then finished it off with a huge "expensive dinner" shit. I wonder, if I was rich and could eat high quality food all the time, would my shit not stink bad? (2002, par. 3-6)

What seems particularly noteworthy about this passage is not the narrator’s transvaluation of the normally noxious as savory. Rather, what stands out is the narrator’s question—the result of an inhabitory attentiveness to the olfactory that links one end of the alimentary canal to the other, and in the process opens the narrator to the body’s ability to surprise. Yet rather than prompting either immediate disgust or immediate celebration, surprising bodily stimulus here leads instead to the formulation of a question and the crafting and sharing of narrative. In some instances farts may smell bad; in others they smell good—but for the PoopReporter such evaluations are less important than is the ability to thickly describe the felt quality of smell, to name its affective properties.

<32> This reinhabitation of the olfactory finds resonance in a passage from Snyder’s “The Porous World,” in which he describes the experience of crawling on hands and knees, at times “belly-sliding,” through the late December underbrush of the Sierra Nevada forests:

So we have begun to overcome our hominid pride and learned to take pleasure in turning off the trail and going directly into the brush[.] … You go down, crawl swift along, spot an opening, stand and walk and few yards, and go down again. The trick is to have no attachment to standing; find your body at home on the ground, be a quadruped, or if necessary, a snake. … The delicate aroma of leaf molds and mycelium rise from the tumbled humus under your hand, and a half-buried young bolteus is disclosed. You can smell the fall mushrooms when crawling. (1995, 193-194)

Humus, leaf molds, fall mushrooms: the saprophytes and detritus of the forest floor that we miss tactilely and olfactorily in standing upright, in seeing self and world as occupying different strata along a vertical axis of high and low. Snyder’s idea of crawling ultimately helps us to distinguish the porousness of the grotesque body from the porousness of the bioregion: where Bakhtin celebrates a reverse sublimation—a movement from up to down (and back again)—“up” ultimately remains paramount; the movement is always a vertical one. Snyder, on the other hand, suggests a critical reorientation to space that allows one to move horizontally as well as vertically, along an axis of proximity rather than value. But we should note that Snyder sees crawling as neither moral imperative nor the “natural” order of things. The trick, he says, is to have no attachment to standing, to be able to walk or crawl as the situation demands.

<33> We might say the same of the poop story. Reading PoopReport within a bioregionalist framework does not invalidate other ways of writing, reading or relating to shit, nor does it claim that shit is never abject or transgressive. What it does insist upon is that our relationship to shit be an open one, and that our criticism follow suit. In this way, a bioregionalist perspective arrives at Rushdy’s “emetics of interpretation”: a hermeneutics of shit whose constructs and frameworks are themselves texts, objects of exploration. Through a bioregionalist perspective, we thus move past a culturally determined response that automatically lumps the scatological into those received categories that contribute to the further discursive, and hence material, distancing of shit.

<34> For as Berry reminds us, “how we eat”—and by extension how we shit—“determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used” (1990, 149). If in advanced industrial societies eating and shitting are the twin loci of our subjective alienation from the circulation of matter and energy we commonly refer to as “nature,” then PoopReporters—as do Berry and Snyder—point the way to those “techniques of the self” (Hawkins 2001, 13) by which we might articulate an ethics and economics of proximity. This is not, of course, to suggest that such an ethics is the explicit agenda of PoopReport; even the politics of shamelessness it does espouse cannot be more than an individual, psychological, and textual response to a set of deeply systemic problems. But in its ability to create new forms of relationality to shit, shamelessness questions the cultural and institutional technologies that lead to a distancing of causes and effects—and thus to a subject who must act in a social and ecological vacuum, isolated from a knowledge of her or his impact on the world. Though it cannot be called an act of conscious resistance, then, PoopReport’s narrative shamelessness nonetheless bespeaks a kind of unrequited political longing: for alternate ways of conceptualizing bodily and social economy, for agency and connection to place. And if, I would argue, we know what to look for and how to look, we may discover in this desire the seeds for its actualization.


[1] Although it turned out that I didn’t directly use anything else from his article, the title of this essay is nonetheless entirely indebted to Bell’s delightful neologism. [^]

[2]Due to the fact that all PoopReporters identify themselves by handles rather than “real” names, and also to the fact that, for purposes of privacy, I have deliberately avoided giving mention even to these handles, all web material quoted here makes primary reference to article title rather than to author. [^]

[3]See <> and < /Stories/Content/journey.html>. [^]


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