Interesting Times 1.4: In which we discuss the best figs, and further interrogate what’s in a turd.
Donald Trump doesn’t own a solid-gold toilet. I know. I was disappointed too. The image of Trump’s golden throne that circulated in 2016 actually came from the former bathroom in the former home of a Hong Kong billionaire named Lam Sai-Wing. The bathroom was gold from floor to toilet brush, and Lam had dreamt of it since his childhood in late-cultural-revolutionary China. Oddly, his dream wasn’t the result of illicit contact with capitalist propaganda. It came straight from Vladimir Lenin’s cloacal aspirations: his famous statement in a 1921 Pravda article that someday the triumph of global Communism would mean golden toilets for everybody. Public lavatories made of gold would symbolize the waste of wars for money under capitalism, particularly World War One, where “for the sake of gold, ten million men were killed and thirty million maimed in the ‘great war for freedom.'” Gold, shit, and freedom. Lenin’s palatial public toilets map perfectly onto Freud’s articulation of the anal retentive character who starts out hoarding shit as a child and grows up to hoard money and power. If the capitalist state is anal retentive, in this little slice of Pravda, at least, Lenin’s fantasy of global communist utopia is what Freud would call “anal expulsive”: shit and gold flowing freely for all.
Lenin imagined a utopian world where material wealth was so devalued, even toilets are made of gold. The more common fantasy in our culture, though, goes the other way around: remaking shit as value. In 1799, for example, Arthur Young, the foremost authority on agriculture in England, started pushing human shit as a fertilizer. “No manure is so fertile,” he crows in his Essay on Manures, “I have compared it with all other manures, and found that none of them I could procure equalled it by many degrees.” Over the course of the eighteenth-century, a prejudice against using human excrement as fertilizer had calcified in British farming advice, leading to a rumor that fields dunged with the stuff grew nasty-tasting crops. Our agriculturalist, Arthur Young, argued otherwise: “In the last century, the ordure of the galley-slaves at Marseilles was all saved, and sold for grapes, olives, and figs; the last of which, produced by it, were the best in the world.”
It’s a peculiar facet of human exceptionalism that we imagine even our own feces to be the best, the greatest, the winner among excrements. And it’s not just an eighteenth-century thing. Think back, oh NPR-listeners, to that one episode of Radiolab (you know the one, you recommended it to me on Facebook when I was writing my dissertation). It was called “Poop Train”:
If you haven’t heard “Poop Train,” it follows the true story of a waste manager in the nineties who wanted to unload millions of tons of New York City “biosolids” as fertilizer onto grain farms in the west. While other cities were already doing this, New York’s reputation as the urbanest of urban centers preceded it, and most rural communities were too grossed out to spread it on their fields. That is until Coloradans tried some, and discovered it was, in producer Pat Walters’ words, “kind of awesome.”
Turns out New York City shit increases yields by a third. It kills aphids, it dissuades prairie dogs. Our poop is magic. They literally say that it’s magical—in the sense that it both saws ladies in half and puts them back together, or rather, it makes bread out of wheat out of poop out of bread. The music playing behind this revelation is Johnny Cash singing “may the circle be unbroken.” Our poop is a spiritual. It’s the angels dancing in heaven to ineffable choreography. It connects us to the vast and beautiful organization of all things.
Shit isn’t just powerful in these accounts, it’s optimistic. In the episode of Radiolab, it might just solve the twin problems of urban population density and our disconnection from the land. To put it another, more Marxist way, the fecal circle helps alienated urban workers to imagine a future in which we’re reunited with the products of our labor, or as Walters puts it: “that’s a slice of bread that we helped make with the stuff that we, like, make.” In this moment of urban homesteading, where my bathroom is the ocean and my kitchen is a farm, what could be more perfect?
In both Young’s and Radiolab’s utopic agricultural visions, feces is the supermaterial that makes utopia possible. But maybe it should give us some pause that waste has the same function in a number of fictional dystopias, too. Take Bartertown, the central location in Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome, a post-apocalyptic city that’s rich because it produces methane from pigshit. As sources of energy and wealth, pigs are sacrosanct in this world. Killing them becomes a high offense and one of the movie’s heroes, “Pig Killer,” gets his shameful moniker for doing just that. World War Z is even more optimistic about shit. After the zombie wars are over, we meet the former Vice President of the United States scooping cow patties into a cart. The image is intended as punishment, the guy is a sort of artists’ rendering of Dick Cheney post-apocalypse, and it’s his administration’s fault that zombies took over America. So when we find him scooping “fuel” into a cart and griping about how liberals should grow up, it’s an image of order restored. After the zombies are vanquished, it seems, crooks aren’t waging irresponsible wars, they’re where they should be: shoveling shit.
The Matrix might be the most widely recognized example of an energy utopia of this kind. In the first film, we learn that after the humans made solar energy unavailable, the machines turned to human bodies themselves for a source of endlessly renewable energy. When he wakes up in his little pod, Neo’s body is recognized as waste and quite literally flushed into the fathomless sewer that is the real world. In the Wachowski sisters’ imagined universe, there’s no need for a magical unbroken circle of consumption, waste, fertilization and regrowth. If he’d taken the blue pill Neo would’ve just lived out his days in a womb that was also a battery: birth and rebirth all in one.
It may be that you are reading this description and thinking, “that doesn’t sound like magic,” or even “I don’t want to be a battery.” That’s fair. What’s interesting to me about all of these waste-recycling dystopias is that they’re all utopias, in their way, at least for someone. Even if Pigkiller, faux-Dick Cheney and Neo aren’t having the greatest of times, then the rulers of Barter Town, the zombie-apocalypse survivors, and the Machines are probably doing better. That’s a feature of fecal energy utopias both fictional and real, like the happy residents of Omelas in Urusula K. LeGuin’s famous short story, it’s possible to focus on the happiness that issues from a degraded source, wishing away the filthiness that still sticks to the material itself.
The extremes associated with either side of shit’s ambivalent symbolism are rooted in human psychology. Freud is our best source on this, too. In “Character and Anal Eroticism,” he identifies the shit-gold continuum as part of the undergirding of human character: “In reality, wherever archaic modes of thought have predominated or persist—in the ancient civilizations, in myths, fairy tales and superstitions, in unconscious thinking, in dreams, and in neuroses—money is brought into the most intimate relationship with dirt.” In his totally delightful, and refreshingly brief study, History of Shit, historian Dominique LaPorte extends Freud’s insight: shit and money are both figures for the way individuals build identity. Shit and gold are the hoard of the self, the person’s pile of inalienable possessions.
For LaPorte, that’s why the fantasy of shit-as-gold is so compelling a symbol of capitalist hope: “the incapacity of this system to manage its own filth is lucidly betrayed by its intrepid fantasy of an elimination so complete it leaves no trace of waste.” The fantasy of eliminating waste completely is a wish for consumption that can perpetuate itself indefinitely without depleting its source. If shit really can be energy, then the hoard transmutes to pure value: the unbroken circle is a perpetual motion machine. We can all make enough to live just by being who we are.
What’s so wrong with imagining a system where waste is perfectly recycled as energy, whether as food calories, gas, or electricity? What’s so wrong with the poop train? I guess what I’m getting at is not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with the train itself, but that I find myself always suspicious of the impulse to see it as a solution, as if progress will ever, simply by being progress, take us to a place where nothing and no one is coded as waste. Turning something devalued into value doesn’t actually fix the problem of how value works. When Young makes the shit of galley slaves into the best manure for the best figs, the slaves don’t suddenly get to buy their freedom with their poop. The fact that you helped make that slice of bread with what you make doesn’t mean you don’t still have to pay for the bread. Only now you pay with your money, with your taxes, and with your shit.
Ultimately, the problem with seeing the cycle of waste-to-value as magic is maybe most satisfyingly articulated by another obscure but important eighteenth-century magician: Francis Home, whose 1757 Principles of Agriculture was one of the first texts on Agricultural Chemistry in English. Rapturously describing the breakdown of cells into slime into dirt into food, Home waxes poetic:
“though highly disagreeable to the external senses, and often dangerous to health; yet is putrefaction of more use than any of the other…fermentations, as it provides for our future nourishment, and carries on that beautiful circle, which nature is commanded, by her author and constant supporter, to move in (67).”
For Home, as for so many of us who love to work in the dirt, the breakdown of living matter into the means of making more and wholly other living things feels like life’s most solid connection to the divine. But the beauty of Home’s beautiful circle hinges on a sleight of hand that turns “your health,” or “my health,” into health generally speaking—and no one’s health in particular. It’s a move that makes smooth circular sailing out of an unsanitary exception that might otherwise bring the whole carousel to a halt.
In this particular moment in history, I’m not sure we need a reminder of how hard it actually is to stop the torrential flow of shit or money. But if you do, just think back to Lam’s solid gold bathroom. He finished it in about 2001: hundreds of ounces of gold poured into the shapes of toilet, paper dispenser, towel rack and tile. People paid $138 bucks a pop to use it. Then the market crashed in 2008. You think I’m going to say Lam went bankrupt, but I’m not. You might remember that the price of gold quadrupled, then doubled again. Lam had his bathroom melted down and sold off piece by piece. The temptation to turn solid gold back into liquid value was just too strong, and the sign of his lifelong aspiration to stupendous wealth, his identity as a rich man, went trickling back into the river of value to circulate again even as former homeowners poured concrete down what used to be their drains, left the taps running, and stepped over the thresholds of foreclosed houses nationwide. Makes you wonder where they’re all shitting now.
*With thanks to Stéfan for this post’s featured image