While not usually an everyday topic amongst co-workers and friends, how we shit is an important, influential component of our well-being. (I have a 10-year-old son; we speak often of such things.) When all goes smoothly, it bodes well for the day. When things come out in a less than desirable way, or remain in limbo, life tends to be a little harder, a little more strenuous.
I am not the first to point out the role of defecation in our health. Often, we take it as a sign of something else — our diet, digestive tract, mental well-being, our overall physical health. But what’s interesting to me about poop, among other things, is that it is not just a signifier: it is a metonymy, continuous with the whole, a part of us. (Excuse the dorky rhetorical aside on tropes: synecdoche is part speaking for the whole, as when a teacher says, Let me see hands when she, in fact, means whole people. Metonymy is a continuous part that is not representative such as, say, a shitty shit which doesn’t mean I per se am shitty — just my shit is.)
This is to say, shit doesn’t signify as much as it happens. It is an event, not a code — even if it houses elusive meaning. We are little engines, systems of intake and output. If we are what we eat then surely we are what we shit, as well. Only we can’t be reduced to either our diet or our shit; they are components of us, essential but not necessarily representative. Sometimes, we poop poorly which is part of a healthy system eliminating disease, germs, mayhem. Other times, our poo moves smoothly along while our lives crumble around us. We are more than our poop.
And yet how and what we produce — consistency, frequency, odor — is a poignant inflection point within the system that is our being. As such, it is worth heeding — not as we would tea leaves but as we would, say, a relationship. There is no revelation; there is give and take. There is not something to read in our poop as much as there is something to do about our poop (there’s a joke there somewhere about doing our do).
Our issues with shit begin young as we are harangued into pooping properly — in the right place and time. As an oblivious, afraid parent, I never considered the potty training of my son as anything but necessary. I knew that I couldn’t send my beast to pre-school until he was trained to shit in a toilet, not in his pants. Such is the institutionalization of shit control. And so his mother and I bribed and punished and otherwise coerced him into no longer shitting freely into his diaper but into the toilet. And then, of course, to flush it all away.
There he is, perched precariously on the porcelain, his parents cheering him on with the promise of M&Ms and the threat of a scowl. What pressure! I remember when he was young and would unabashedly let loose in his diaper. Oh, how he savored the warm, wet embrace of his turds filling his pants! No more: now he was to shit at the right place and time, with permission, with adults waiting and looming and judging.
No wonder some kids don’t want to let go! They are what we call anal retentive, afraid to release control, afraid to let down their parents — and afraid of sending this thing that came from them into a watery abyss in a great, mechanical swirl. Yes, the toilet is scary in many ways.
Other kids don’t hold anything back. They want to please their parents. So they shit but they make a big mess of it: Here! Is this what you wanted so badly?!?
We assume shit to be a bad thing, something to be controlled and dismissed. And much of this is with good reason: playing with shit, living among shit, can make you very, very sick.
On the other hand, this makes us avoid shit — and, worse, shitting. We don’t talk about it; we have anxiety about it. There is an epidemic of irritable bowels, for god’s sake. It’s not a disease. It’s a syndrome! How awful is that?
In general, we use “shit” as a pejorative. This restaurant is shitty! My day was shit! Shit is bad. We shit on shit.
But there’s been a slow, steady rise of the power of shit. We say things like, Whoa, this is some good shit! And then there’s James Franco’s speech, as Alien, in Harmony Korine’s beautiful, brilliant love story, Spring Breakers. Look at my shit! This is his abundance, his brimming with life. Sure, it’s all material stuff but, in a way, that is what shit is: it is the radical materiality of our time on this planet. Parts of us are not physical. We are idea, sentiment, dreams, notions. But we are body — smelly, beautiful, often painful, also pleasurable body. We are shit, too. So why not make it good shit?
Like everything — kisses, puppies, worms, larvae, rainbows, death camps, Michael Bay, prayer, profanity, sixth grade — shit is part of life. It is necessary and as run through with the cosmic surge as everything and anything else. This doesn’t mean we have to eat it. That’s ridiculous. But it does suggest that we could have a different, warmer, less aggressive and dismissive relationship with it.