Berlin journalist and author Florian Werner dedicated a whole book to the cultural history of faeces. We sat down to discuss his exploration of the “dark matter”, from Jesus’ healing nappies to the present-day poo-taboo, and how you can trace the entire genesis of the modern subject by looking at our relationship to shit.
Your “history of shit” (Dunkle Materie – Die Geschichte der Scheiße) came out in 2011. How does one end up writing a book about shit?
Well, it’s a topic that concerns everyone, and that’s the fascinating thing: no living creature with a metabolic system can escape ‘shitting’! Personally, the birth of my first child in 2008 gave me a fresh perspective on this substance that we all produce on a daily basis. Having to change nappies six or seven times a day, I realised how babies have a totally uninhibited relationship to their poo. They will grab their diaper and if you’re not careful smear it all over their face, without the slightest trace of disgust – this comes with ‘education’. It’s amazing to realise how such basic emotions are not innate but the result of a learning process. We teach our children to be disgusted by their poo!
That’s the phase when toddlers are toilet trained – i.e. are being taught how to control their bowels. It’s what Freud calls the anal phase, when they become fascinated with their anus, right?
Yes. You can observe how the child realises that adults have a different relationship to ‘caca’ and that it can be funny to make a mess with it; that you can provoke your parents with it, make them happy or unhappy by releasing stool. It’s a first experiment with power play. I realised that many things that characterise our culture, such as our understanding of power and humour, as well as cultural limits of what is permissible and what isn’t, can be understood by taking a closer look at shit.
Was poo always a taboo in Western culture?
The basic law of “don’t shit where you eat” is very, very old. It’s already in the Old Testament. The taboo of ingesting excrement can also be found in texts written thousands of years ago: having to eat one’s own shit was always a form of severe punishment. But the extreme disgust we have for it now is an invention of the modern age. In The Civilising Process (1939), Norbert Elias analysed how in Europe, between 1400 and 1800, social attitudes – including those regarding bodily functions – were transformed and how the threshold levels for feelings of shame and disgust were gradually lowered.
So would you say that our civilisation grew out of a slow process of distanciation from our faeces?
Yes, civilisation could almost be defined as an absence of excrement. Already in the Book of Deuteronomy, there are sanitary rules which include commandments on what to do to keep one’s camp clean: for taking a crap, one is to leave the site, take a shovel and dig a hole. This is what distinguishes humans from other animals. Of course, non-human animals might not shit in their own living space either, but they don’t know the feeling of disgust. Today, we still tend to assess the degree of civilisation of a given culture according to the way its people deal with their excrement. A country without a properly functioning sewage system is considered to be a backward place.
For Norbert Elias our “civilising process” came hand in hand with the development of sewage systems…
Yes, basically with urbanisation came the issue of trash collection and sewage: when you’re no longer in a village where one can take a dump behind the barn, but in a city where many people share limited space, faeces become problematic. I once calculated that a city like Berlin produces about 800 tons of shit per day – and besides the odd dog turd, you never see and hardly smell any of it. In terms of logistics, that’s impressive.
Do you also see a connection between the progressive internalisation of moral norms described by Elias – like disgust and even shame towards one’s own shit – and the development of Freud’s superego?
Certainly. One could even argue that the subterranean sewage systems of our metropoles are the architectural equivalent of what Freud calls the ‘id’: the unconscious of the city, as it were. In fact, you can trace the entire genesis of the modern subject by looking at shit. The human of the Middle Ages was considered a creature among many, with no clearly defined physical boundaries. Only in the modern era did individuals develop a strong sense of self consciousness; accordingly, the smell and excrement of others became disgusting. Cleanliness became both a necessity and a social marker.
But what about the simple issue of hygiene? Could it be that we took distance from our excrement because we noticed that it could carry disease?
Yes, that’s also true of course. In some countries it’s still a real problem. But the disgust and shame we have towards faeces surpasses the purely hygienic. The thought or sight of it, or even the mention of the word ‘shit’, is taboo. I believe there are socio-psychological motives for that. Roland Barthes remarked that the word ‘shit’ doesn’t stink [“Ecrite, la merde ne sent pas”]. Yet, it’s effectively prohibited in many social contexts – for example in schools or in professional situations.
Shit has become a swear word in many cultures. Can you trace the word’s etymological history – from substance to curse?
For the German Scheiße, the indogermanic root is “skei-d”, which, in middle German became “schīze”. You can find it in words like “schizophrenia”, or “schism” (division of the church), or “Scheidung” (divorce) – it just means “separate”: something gets separated from the body. Luther, who massively influenced and shaped modern German through his translation of the Bible, was among the first ones to use it as a curse, namely against the Catholics, both in political pamphlets and in his semiprivate Tischreden. For example, he once remarked that the devil had shat the pope on the city of Rome. So you can trace it back to the 15th century, and it’s interesting to note that a word can only become insulting once it addresses some sort of taboo. In the English language, especially in American English, people curse a lot more with genital and sexual words – most commonly “fuck”.
In many Arabic cultures, it’s typically the mother who gets insulted. So, every culture curses against its strongest taboos. Some even combine several cursing cultures, as in the colourful Spanish expression, “Me cago en la leche de tu puta madre” (“I shit in your whore mother’s milk”), where you have the Catholic insult of the mother, and the more protestant shit-curse rolled into one.
There are studies arguing that Germans don’t only like shit curses but they love scatological jokes – do Germans have an anal fixation?
There was a famous study in the 1970s by an American anthropologist, Alan Dundes, titled Life is like a Chicken Coop Ladder. It’s a play on the German joke that life is like a Hühnerleiter – short and full of crap. He pulled together a huge collection of jokes, sayings and curses in the German language and culture and arrived at the conclusion that Germans are anally fixated. But what made his book famous, was that he tried to deduce a national character and explain the Shoah as a result of it. He argued with great verve that Germans are obsessed with cleanliness and that’s why they joke about shit all the time and killed six million Jews and started World War II. And that’s nonsense, of course. So, I’d be careful with deriving a national stereotype from such a premise!
Slavoj Žižek claimed that toilets reveal national ideologies. What does the demise of the shelf toilet say about Germany?
Of course, Žižek being Žižek, his analysis is to be taken with a grain of salt. He claims that the French toilet is like a guillotine, where the shit falls into a hole and disappears immediately. In England it ‘liberally’ swims around in the so-called deep-flusher model, and the Germans shit onto a sort of idealistic plateau, so they can study their own excrement. Other than that, I think the world-wide proliferation of the deep flusher is part of a general Anglo-Americanisation of culture. A phenomenon of globalisation which hasn’t yet reached all parts of the globe.
It seemed to come as a surprise to many Germans when they fitted shelters with western toilets and realised that some refugees didn’t use them in the ‘correct’ way – hence the infamous stickers on toilet walls prescribing the ‘right’ etiquette…
Another example that shows how toilets – like all designed objects, by the way – are an expression of ideology. It is assumed people all sit in the same way when they defecate – but suddenly you realise that people from other parts of the world might do it differently. That can be quite healing, in the sense that you understand things don’t have to be the way they are, but are determined culturally. Ideology is always there in the background; sometimes it takes an activity as basic as shitting to reveal it.
Has toilet etiquette changed a lot over time?
In German we say “Klo”, which is derived from “Klosett”, which literally means “closed”, from the Latin “claudere”; this verb is also at the root of the word “cloister”. The idea that the toilet is a closed room only came about around 1900. It started with bourgeois apartments, which had the first toilets that could be locked from within. So this notion of privacy – that one doesn’t want to be bothered or interrupted by anyone and locks oneself in – is only 120-130 years old. In middle German the toilet was called a “spr.chh.s”, a “talking house”, indicating it was a communal space where one sat together and had conversations. Hard to imagine today. One exception being the military perhaps.
Would you say that the global success of a book like Darm mit Charme shows a trend towards more acceptance for shit in public discourse. Is it becoming less of a taboo?
Giulia Enders’ best seller Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ was of course a huge cultural phenomenon, which shows that there is a strong public interest. It works especially well, because Enders is a physician by training, and her medical background means she can write openly about things that would otherwise be deemed indecent. But I wouldn’t say that shit is becoming less taboo. Actually quite the opposite, as testified by the current trend to sanitise our toilet experience, reducing smell, sight and noise, with ever more elaborate devices. In Japan they have even upgraded the ‘courtesy flush’ with the “Otohime”, or “Sound Princess” device, a recorded flushing sound you can activate in order to mask the sound. And of course: the more we try to keep the sound, smell and sight of shit away from our lives, the greater the feeling of disgust when we do encounter it.
Let’s talk about the pleasure of shit and shitting. Psychoanalysis has something to say about this seemingly ambiguous relationship to poo.
Well, according to Freud, every notion of disgust is the sign of a repressed desire. So if someone says they are disgusted, a good Freudian would deduce that they’re actually really into it – but that their superego finds it so terrible that they have to repress it. In psychoanalytic theory, shitting is also a kind of autoerotic process. According to Freud, going to the loo is a type of anal penetration from within, which comes with great pleasure. But at some point, the child learns that it’s a dirty pleasure. So in Freudian terms, people who are into scat porn haven’t properly gone through the anal phase as children.
In your book you take a step aside from Freud, by exploring the reason why one’s own shit doesn’t smell as bad as the next person’s. You describe it as a narcissistic phenomenon…
Yes, part of the idea is that one’s own shit is part of one’s body which cannot smell bad, which is why people can sit on the throne for hours and read Kicker or Exberliner. But they wouldn’t do the same if someone else had just done their business there. When I became a father, I also realised that poopies coming from other babies’ nappies smelled a lot worse that those coming from your own child. Of course there is no rational reason for that, except that you identify with your own flesh and blood – and shit!
Why is shit so funny?
I would say that shit is the absurd substance par excellence: we spend time every day preparing food and making it as appealing and tasty as possible, then we have a short moment of enjoyment, knowing full well that a day later, it will all turn to shit. Which is, in a sense, the course of all organic life: we know that we ourselves will one day become ‘morass’, as Schiller writes in The Robbers. That’s a very sobering thought, and laughter is a way to face the absurd with dignity.
You also have a chapter titled “God is faeces”. Explain, please.
I was intrigued by the English curse “Holy shit!”, because it combines two cultural extremes: the absolute highest and the very lowest. It is this alliance which I try to explore in that chapter. The Sacred and The Shit are subject to very similar taboos. They are both untouchable and must not be named. They both inhabit a special realm beyond the everyday. Accordingly, the excrements of holy people are charged with special meaning. There is a myth according to which the Dalai Lama’s shit was traditionally collected, rolled into pills and passed around among his followers. And there are apocryphal gospels about how the infant Jesus’ diapers were hung to dry, and people who touched them were miraculously healed.
What do you make of Angela Merkel shocking the English-speaking world last December by publicly using the word “shitstorm”?
That was a cultural mishap. Understandably, people were surprised that the most powerful woman in the world would use a word like “shit” – but the English term is much less offensive when you say it in a German-speaking context. Plus there is a rhetorical tradition: former chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the nation’s favourite chain-smoker, used to say “Scheiße” all the time, typically in connection with WWII. So maybe it is a German thing. Donald Trump obviously says a whole bunch of shit too, but when it comes to swearing, he leans toward the genital side.