The brown stuff

History of Shit

Dominique Laporte, translated by Nadia Benabid and Rodolphe el-Khoury <em>MIT Pres

What!? A history of shit? Can Dominique Laporte have been serious? This book was written in 1978, long before Alan Sokal gulled the editors of an American academic journal into publishing a piece of utter nonsense wrapped in all the finery of post- modernist discourse. That notorious hoax has made it hard to look on any such discourse without a lingering fear that the wool is being pulled over our eyes. Here, nevertheless, comes Laporte's book - in English for the first time, 16 years after its author's death at the age of 35 - in a rather natty, velvet-covered edition from a reputable American academic publisher. So it must be serious?

Well, yes and no. Because this is nothing less than an analysis of western civilisation in terms of its ever-increasing distaste for its most fundamental waste product. So far, so deconstructive. But, at the same time, it functions as a quietly subversive satire on the tangled conceptualisations and linguistic pretensions of much modern French academic work.

Laporte refuses to pursue a straightforward line of inquiry; rather, he progresses by means of reference and allusion to an extraordinarily broad sweep of sources from Pliny and Suetonius, through medieval edicts on public hygiene and language, to Swift, Goethe, Joyce and Lacan. The effect is mesmerising; it's as if Laporte has plunged his pitchfork into the Augean stables of western civilisation, and found there a rich intellectual compost to fertilise his thought.

The thrust of the book is against the humanist ideal of progress as a directed journey tending ever further from our animal origins. Laporte argues that "civilisation" is merely what we call the process of becoming ever more self-deluded about our own muck. Because shit, like the rich, is always with us, the ineluctable corollary of our drive towards Freud's three criteria of civilisation: cleanliness, order and beauty.

The Romans were rightly proud of their cloaca maxima, the "signifier of civilisation par excellence". Yet for civilisation, mere repression of the base - hiding it underground - is not enough; it must be sublimated. Stercoration, Laporte reminds us, was a common agricultural practice in Roman times (Prince Albert, by the way, was also an ardent advocate), human faeces being seen as second only to that of pigeons in the great hierarchy of turd for enriching the soil. Thus was the city fed and enriched by its own shit. Waste being purged and made odourless is "reinscribed in the cycle of production as gold".

But the march of progress is far from linear. For instance, it was common practice in the 15th century to use urine to clean clothes. In 1493, a posse of outraged haberdashers complained to the king that "bonnets and other effects cleansed by means of piss are neither proper nor appropriate nor healthful to place on one's head". Yet, 50 years later, the same method was back in fashion.

The symbolic equation of money and shit, the birth of the ideology that links property with propriety - nothing is beyond Laporte's purview. Not political theory ("an analysis of power should take seriously the splendour of the throne as a theatre of resplendent love that spatters its subjects as they bow and kneel in pursuit of a royal turd"); not imperialism (which is simply the attempt to bring civilisation to bear on the primitive anality of other cultures); not language itself. The book starts with a quotation from Paul Eluard: "Language speaks and asks: 'Why am I beautiful? Because my master bathes me.'" And because, writes Laporte, "without a master, one cannot be cleaned. Purification requires submission to the law." The cleansing of the city goes hand in hand with the refinement of an officially sanctioned public language which enshrines the laws of civilisation.

God knows what Alan Sokal would make of all this, but to me Laporte's inquiry is as rich, witty and exhilarating as it is intellectually adventurous. It is full of those qualities that we dull English, having no words for them, must borrow from the French: panache, eclat, elan. A small, brown, wrinkled gem of a book.

Adam Newey reviews regularly for the NS

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Miserable small-mindedness