Interview with Lucy Pickering on Toilets and Embodied Material Culture

Photo: Lucy Pickering

In this interview with Simon Dawes, Lucy Pickering discusses her article ‘Toilets, Bodies, Selves: Enacting Composting as Counterculture in Hawai’i’ in the current issue of Body & Society (16.4).

She explains her interest in urination, defecation and toilets, the ideas of ‘embodied material culture’ and ‘matter (and relations) out of place’, and the possibility of a corporeal critique of the state.

Simon Dawes: What drew you to a study of urination, defecation and toilets? You note that these areas have been neglected as objects of study, but could you tell us about what work there is that exists in this area, and how this article fits in with your own wider research interests?
Lucy Pickering: My interest in urination, defecation and toilets came out of my doctoral fieldwork in a community of US ‘hippies’ and ‘drop outs’ in Hawai‘i. It was not something that I set out to look at, having gone out to do fieldwork with a set of questions about bodies, food and identity in mind. I had, and maintain, an interest in what Michael Dietler calls ‘embodied material culture’, the production of things for destruction within the body, which enabled me to combine my interests in food, recreational and medicinal drugs within a single conceptual frame. At the time, I assumed that meaning ended at the stomach. Yet when I asked questions about diet, participants would sometimes respond with questions like, ‘how do you feel after you poo?’. It became clear that while I was interested in what was going in, they were also interested in what was coming out. In order to make sense of conversations such as these, I needed to think of food not only as substance that humans cultivate, exchange, prepare and consume, but also something which they digest and excrete.
Upon investigating the place of excretion in the existing literature upon my return, it soon became clear that digestion and excretion are rarely at the forefront of much anthropological enquiry. This is not to say that no-one undertakes research on these subject areas. Toilets, defecation and urination are areas of diverse enquiry, from the use of public toilets as sexualised spaces to public health interventions to the history of plumbing. Analytical approaches to defecation are primarily medical in outlook, although there is a raft of work focused on children, examining more sociological aspects such as infant toilet training, childhood constipation as stubbornness, and the elderly, focusing on incontinence, with occasional sociological tracts on the meanings and experiences of defecation, such as in the work of Van Dongen, Inglis or Van Der Geest. There is a vitally important public health focus on digestive disease, which links individual experiences of defecation to sanitary and living conditions and thence to the state. One only has to think about research such as Nations and Monte’s work on cholera in Brazil to see how a focus on meaning can not only enrich our understand of how digestion, health and illness are experienced but vitally inform and contribute to the delivery of public health initiatives.
Urination is an area of surprisingly little research. Beyond studies of urinary incontinence, little attention has been paid to the practice. One key exception is Longhurst’s 2001 study on New Zealand males’ use of the bathroom. Her work points to the powerful symbolism that can be attached to ‘liquid flows’ and their impact on the experience of urination. By attending to the symbolism of these trangressive substances she shows that through them we can shed light on societies and selves.
In terms of toilets, we can see a wealth of research being undertaken by technologists on the materiality of toilets, waste water management and waste management in general. In particular, composting toilets hold promise for combining the goals of agricultural innovation, sustainable development and public health sanitary interventions in many parts of the world. Yet still inadequate use is made of approaches which examine the meaning of these technologies and how people in different parts of the world – and at different points in history – feel about their faeces. Such an approach could greatly enhance not only understandings of how people around the world engage with and make sense of themselves through toilets, but provide a solid footing for sustainable development interventions.
SD: The people you interview seem to use their composted faeces mainly for growing cannabis – why? And do you think that a comparative study of other users of compost toilets would demonstrate other uses, with what consequences for your interpretation of their relation to the state?
LP: In a region well-known for its high (albeit, in the face of increased surveillance by the state, diminishing) levels of cannabis cultivation, these composted faeces are used as an essential source of local, organic and highly personal compost. However, this area also houses a high concentration of food-based communes. They too make use of composted faeces as a source of local, organic and highly personal nutrients for their plants. The power of this use lies not so much in the specific plants for which it is employed as in these qualities of proximity, intimacy and locality. The domestic cultivation and highly localised exchange of both sets of substances – ‘food’ and ‘drugs’ – form a central component to a wider bodily-based critique of ‘mainstream’ American culture among this group. By opting into highly localised food and drug systems, they simultaneously opt out, at least partially, of the bodily and planetary pollution associated with highly processed consumables transported from afar.
This group use the rejection of flush toilets as part of a corporeal critique of the connection to the state embodied in sewers and clean water pipes leading into that most personal of spaces, the home. Some, although by no means all, also utilise the by-product of this rejection – composted faeces – to nurture the plants that they grow, which could be grown for either their nutritional or psychotropic properties. Through this we can then see a further linking into and expression of a widespread rejection of not only state intrusion into everyday life but also modern ‘foodways’: what was normal for most of the people with whom I worked was to grow up in urban centres, to purchase food, already scrubbed clean, selected for lack of blemishes, deblooded and packaged, from supermarkets and other stores. As radical libertarians, they would likely reject a Marxist interpretation, but such an approach might allow us to see alienation embodied in these commodities and from there a practice of replacing the alienation with intimacy through domestic cultivation and localised, cash-free exchange.
In another setting, one would not expect all these values to be bound up in the use of composting faeces. Comparative work on the use of composting toilets would likely highlight the importance of locating defecatory practice within the nexus of wider social values and practical amenities. Wider ideas about the clean and the dirty, pollution and the human body coupled with technology, modernity and the state will necessarily inform the reception, use and meaning imputed to composting toilets and appropriate uses of that compost. The use of composting toilets by this group in Hawai‘i is born both of a lack of access to sewage pipes and a choice to relocate somewhere without state-facilitated sewers. It can be read, as I have read it, as part of a critique of the intrusion of the state because I worked with a group of people who frequently expressed a rejection of the state through word and deed. Other settings would throw up other excretory practices, other values and other relations with the state. Other research would shed further light on how people make sense of and use composting toilets. Such work would hopefully challenge my state-focused analysis, and present new ways to think about bodies, communities, material resources and power.
SD: You draw on Douglas’s notion of dirt as ‘matter out of place’ and put forward the argument that dirt is ‘relations out of place’. Could you explain the difference between these two concepts?
LP: Mary Douglas is perhaps best known for a set of ideas about classification and how humans make sense of and deal with those things that fall between the cracks, so to speak, of their classificatory systems and this complex of ideas has been crystallised into the now well-known and oft cited phrase, ‘dirt is matter out of place’. In many ways, through repeated use, it has come to be increasingly uncoupled from her work on classification. There is perhaps some danger associated with this decoupling, yet perhaps it remains a source of the phrase’s enduring power.
In reformulating this phrase to focus on ‘relationships’ rather than ‘matter’ I seek in part to explore and perhaps play with the power of contextualising a classic idea in new ways. In my work on toilets, I think about ‘dirt as matter out of place’ in multiple ways: as that which is located outside of and potentially threatens categories but also the pathogen-ridden substance that Douglas wants us to put aside when reading her work on ‘dirt’. I am unsure, at least in the context of this material, that these two aspects can be fully divorced from one another.
Yet I was fascinated by what I saw as a parallel between a collective rejection of flush toilets and a collective rejection of state intrusion into everyday life. After all, the sewage pipes on which the individual domestic water closet depends connect us bodily to the state. Someone else transports, processes and – one hopes – renders somehow sanitary our excrement. This dirt, this ‘matter out of place’ is emblematic of a set of relations. It is dirt that connects the individual home to the state, which leaves the individual dependent on the state; it is dirt which is unproductive, unsanitary and must be processed (by distant others) to render safer yet still pollutes our (distant) oceans and shores. In the radical countercultural setting of ‘drop out’ community in Hawai‘i though it is ‘processed’ locally and organically; excrement is productive, and more than that a celebration of the connectedness and continuity between self and environment, functioning in symbiotic feedback between excretion production and ingestion. Bestowed with productive value it ceases to be ‘dirt’. In order to understand human exuvia as ‘dirt’, then, we have to pay attention not only to classification but also relationships. By focusing on relationships we can see ‘matter’ not only in the context of classification but probe its material dimensions to unpack these classifications a little more.
SD: By focusing on the use of flush and compost toilets, you’re analysing embodiment ‘at its basest level’, but how does this practice fit in with other (or less base) levels of embodiment? Are your claims about the difference between public and private selves, and the relation to the state, corroborated when the analysis shifts to other practices?
LP: As I mentioned in relation to using compost to grow both food and drugs, this compost is used not only to grow cannabis, but also other psychoactive and food plants. Nor, incidentally, is it the only source of compost: cut back foliage, food scraps and animal dropping are also composted. Composting contributes to the generation of food, medicine and recreational drug plants. These items allow people in the community to acquire some or even all of the ‘embodied material culture’ that they consume from an extremely localised area. This stands in opposition to mainstream US foodways. Not only excretory practices, but also dietary and medicinal practice, stand in (idealised) opposition to a perceived American norm. However, as with the smuggler who brought 1,000 LSD trips from California and sold them within 5 days, the late night clandestine trips to McDonald’s or Taco Bell and the discreet visits to the doctor for antibiotics when other alternatives appear to have failed, these ideals were not played out by all research participants all the time. Yet collectively they point towards a set of practices which valorise the local over the remote, the domestic over the commercial and the intimate over the alienated.
Going back to the compost, it is used within the context of labour-intensive organic farming, permaculture and other farming models which stand in opposition to the intensive monocropping models favoured by agribusiness. This opting for labour-intensive alternatives over mechanised convenience is similarly reflected in building: in the choice of a laboriously hand-cleared winding, bumpy driveway over the smooth results of a day’s bulldozer hire, or wonky, seemingly unco-ordinated hand designed and hand built shacks, often made in all or part from reclaimed, salvaged (and occasionally stolen) materials. Such house building required the help of friends and neighbours, labour given freely or in exchange for food, beer or cannabis, but rarely cash.
Co-operative house building, labour-intensive farming, the choice (at least in the first instance) of body work and local herbal remedies over biomedicine, the celebration of locally produced whole foods procured through informal networks of (cash-free) exchange, and the valorisation of cannabis over other forms of recreational mood-altering substances, including alcohol, all point to diverse ways in which these hippies and drop outs used their bodies to experience and express a countercultural identity. Composting toilets fit within this wider nexus of embodied practices.
When the analysis shifts to practices such as these, new concepts begin to emerge. The rejection of mainstream US foodways does not articulate a rejection of the state per se but it does speak of a critical engagement with the idea of what it means to be ‘American’. Recent developments in US politics highlight the tensions in this country over the role and scope of the state: to talk of ‘America’ right now entails an engagement with a debate over the role of the state. Health, of course, connects a set of embodied practices directly to the state, whether embracing Obama’s healthcare reforms, rejecting biomedicine or opposing state intrusion into private affairs. A view which takes in other dimensions of embodiment pushes the analysis beyond an abstracted notion of ‘the state’ to one which must critically account for the form of that sate, and which attends to national (and countercultural) identity. A shift to other practices in part corroborates my argument that composting acts as a form of critical rejection of state intrusion, but to a greater extent highlights the bounds of my approach and points the way to deeper analysis.
SD: Finally, how do you intend to follow this research up? What’s next on your agenda?
LP: The US healthcare reforms and the rise of the Tea Party movement within Republican politics point to a shifting landscape of American ‘culture’ to which this group are ‘counter’, and an unstable set of ideas about the ‘America’ from which this group have ‘dropped out’. Having located defecation in the context of ‘the state’, this analysis can be pushed further by conscious engagement with exactly which state one is referring to. Next up, I plan to write this up in a more expanded form in order to bring back in other aspects of ‘embodied material culture’ to continue to push these ideas further.

Lucy Pickering is a medical anthropology lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. Her current research focuses on embodiment and identity among hippies and ‘drop-outs’ in Hawai’i, and everyday drug use and recovery in Hawai’i and the UK. [email:]
Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society
To read Lucy Pickering’s article ‘Toilets, Bodies, Selves: Enacting Composting as Counterculture in Hawai’i’ in Body & Society 16.4 (Dec 2010), go here

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