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On estrangement, toilets, and belonging.

Massimo Leone, Department of Philosophy, University of Torino

Abstract. Tourism industry is increasingly stripping traveling of one of its most fundamental anthropological and existential values: its being a laboratory in which travelers can temporarily experience the disruption of their regime of sedentary belonging, protected by a plan of return. According to this perspective, non-touristy traveling is one of the best ways to test the limits of ones tolerance to cultural diversity and acknowledge, as a consequence, the identity of ones cultural and existential home. Yet, modern and contemporary travelogues mostly extol the travelers heroic capacity to overcome the limits of tolerance. Claiming that such emphasis stems from the colonial desire to domesticate and assimilate the world and its diversity, the article proposes to subvert this logic and to replace panoramic travelogues, dominated by the will power of subjects, with prosopopoeic travelogues, that tell the stories of how the things of the world, relics of centuries of civilization, reject the traveler and her desire of domestication and conquest. As an example of this subversion, the article proposes a semiotic exploration of toilets, their variety, and their cultural resistance.

Key words. Travel, tourism, travel literature, cultural colonialism, toilets, semiotics

1. Summary. The present article claims that in most post-modern societies the experience of traveling is constructed in such a way as to prevent travelers from achieving the most important existential awareness traveling can offer: not the feeling of how beautiful traveling is a feeling that is unceasingly sold and bought in the contemporary market of tourism but the opposite feeling of how ugly traveling is. Indeed, as the present article seeks to make it clear, it is only by coming to

terms with the intensity of transition entailed by a journey that travelers understand the meaning of frontiers, of crossing them, of nostalgia for a lost regime of sedentary belonging (Leone Forthcoming), and of despair in the situation of those who, like migrants, travel without the certainty of return. On the contrary, the present-day tourist industry downplays the intensity of transition implied by traveling while exalting its extension of distance, with the consequence that flocks of tourists currently travel from the economically most advanced societies of the world to the least disenfranchised ones without ever losing, and therefore without ever understanding, the feeling of being at home. In order to re-appropriate the formative experience of traveling, which is essentially an experience of temporary alienation, travel discourse should switch from the triumphing tale of a domineering traveler relic and perhaps prosecution of the war imperialistic tale to the humbling tale of nostalgia. There is only one way to perform such switch: passing from a travelogue of acting protagonists to one of passive subjects, voicing the tale of how they are rejected by the things of an alien land. The article proposes both a case-study and a tale of this sort, exploring the ways in which a Western traveler can become aware of the rigid limits of her area of belonging by clashing against a very quotidian traveling experience: the intolerability of other cultures modalities of bodily waste disposal.1

2. On how discomforting traveling is. As it was announced in the summary, the present article is meant to be an inchoative reflection on the traveling body. Most narrative and academic literature on traveling has a predilection for the tale and/or the study of a more or less conscious traveling mind.2 When the travelers body enters

This article is part of an essay on the semiotics of belonging that the author will hopefully publish in 2013. The literary and academic bibliography on travel is immense, to the extent that it constitutes an autonomous branch both in literature (travel literature, also said odeporics) and in scholarship (travel studies); a useful, although somewhat dated, tool of navigation through bibliography on travel is Coz 1935-49; a more updated survey is Hulme and Youngs 2002 as well as Speake 2003; for a gender perspective, Netzley 2001; on odeporics, Monga 2003; an interesting journal on the subject is Studies in Travel Literature www.studiesintravelwriting.com; it gathers many of the research results of the Centre for Travel Writing Studies of the University of Nottingham (www.ntu.ac.uk/hum/centres/english/travel_writing.html); a reference in this field is also the series of symposia Borders and Crossings, which have been organized for more than a decade (the last one to date took place in Melbourne: www.languages.unimelb.edu.au/research/conferences/borders_crossings/index.html); the publications of the Hakluyt Society are also indispensable (www.hakluyt.com); for a cultural history of travel, Elsner and Rubis 1999;

the scene of writing, it remains behind the veil of the travelers mind. For instance, in The Road to Oxiana a sort of archetype of late modern travel literature Robert Byron describes his dysentery in epic terms, but offers an account of his bowels that is sifted, nonetheless, through the travelers desire: dysentery becomes a mere obstacle to the attainment of the destination, and not an extraordinary occasion to talk about what befalls the traveling body, independently from the more or less conscious mental agency of the traveler (Byron 1937).3 The Cartesian conception of travel professes that I am a more or less alert mind moving a more or less subjugated body. A eulogy of decision and planning stems from this conception: the day on which I decided to leave, the destination that I planned to reach, the path that I meant to take. Also the mystics of hazard so common in the contemporary imaginaire of travel that it has turned into the most trivial clich would be meaningless without its contrast with this logic of programming: I met the Imponderable only because chance, whatever it is, upset my traveling plans. To what extent this dialectics between planning and unforeseen events owes its characteristics to the culture of war, and in what measure modern travel looks like a small-scale military campaign, are issues that would deserve further reflection. The present section, however, is meant to take a different path (as it is evident, also the rhetoric of academic discourse does not escape the metaphors of military and travel planning). For each journey there is a secret story secret because rarely told. It is a story that remains hidden in the interstices of the official one. In the official story, the travelers mind receives through her senses the spectacle of a different world, which unfolds before her thanks to the endeavor of a journey. That is essentially a panoramic narrative: the narrative of a subjects mind that gathers in itself the impressions of traveling and re-elaborates them into a subjective tale. In a journeys secret story, instead, the protagonist is not a subjects mind that receives the diversity of an explored

for an interesting introduction to the semiotics of travel literature (focusing mainly on a Francophone corpus), Scott 2004; on the semiotics of tourism, Brucculeri 2009 and Giannitrapani 2010; the bibliography on imaginary traveling is even vaster than that on real traveling! 3 For an in-depth study of Byrons narrative style, Knox 2003.

world, but the worlds resistance to be received. It is essentially a prosopopoeic narrative: the tale of a traveling body knocking against a reality that rejects it. The reason for which this story has been rarely told should be already quite clear: whereas the panoramic narrative extols the triumph of a subjects mind that penetrates into an Otherness most travel literature consists in nothing but this encomium of penetration and adaptation , the secret story of a journey is essentially a depressive tale: despite all efforts, the Otherness of the world rejects the subjects body; if the body could autonomously express its own judgment, it would immediately declare that traveling is insane, and that there is no better decision than that of going back home. Hence, the story of the traveling body is a secret one, little told, because it is not the triumphing tale of a mind that imagines reality and acts upon it; it is, on the contrary, the nostalgic tale of a body that does not imagine reality but is, in a certain sense, imagined by it, a body that does not act upon reality but is acted upon by it. It is, to say it in the terms of generative semiotics, a tale of passion more than a tale of action. Hence, how is it possible to voice this secret story? And, above all, why is it necessary to voice it? Certainly, it is not a story that could be told through the genre of lamentation. For instance, Lvi-Strausss sores in Tristes tropiques are legendary insofar as they signal his bodys incapacity to adapt to pre-modern transportation means (Lvi-Strauss 1955). Yet, the description of these sores is nonetheless instrumental to the epic of the travelers mind: despite suffering, Lvi-Strauss stoically moves toward the Unknown. The story of the traveling body should focus, instead, not on the tale of the sores but on the alternative tale of the saddle that provokes them; it should express the hardness of the saddle, its pride, its impenetrability, and its hostility. The saddle should be represented as the anti-subject of Lvi-Strauss and his sores as the passion caused by this antisubjects action. The sores should turn into the expression of a pre-modernity that withstands being explored by a modern subject.

This is the point of view that should be adopted by a tale of the traveling body: not that of the travelers mind adapting to the Otherness of things, moved by the subjects unstoppable desire to conquer, but the point of view of things, of their refusing this adaptation, of their declaring the defeat of the traveler, or at least the inanity of her efforts. Sunt lacrimae rerum should be the motto of those who undertake narrating the tale of the traveling body. The general aim of such an inversion of perspective is evident. Most narrative and academic literature on traveling pursues, more or less consciously, the objective of domesticating the world. The traveler moves across space, comes across worlds that are very different from her own, strings her tale together around the surprise of this encounter, exalts the human diversity, but eventually unceasingly re-proposes a eulogy of adjustment: if one really wishes so, and if one has the intelligence to do it, one can turn the world into ones own home. The ultimate testimony to this domestication (in the etymological sense of the term) is writing: it is through writing that the traveler attests not only her survival to the world and its adversities but also her embracing them all in a single subjectivity. This version of the travelogue is fascinating and in line with the episteme of post-modernity the thriving of this genre of literature confirms it but also deeply hypocrite as well as guilty. The hypocrisy of travelogue consists in neglecting an essential element of every travelers experience: the idea that one travels in order to savor the taste of different cultures is a banality that even Lonely Planet marketing experts no longer promote. On the contrary, the Homeric conception of travel is anthropologically more meaningful and sincere: one travels in order to be nauseated by traveling, to accumulate nostalgia, and to confirm the conviction that the world is an alien land and that one cannot be at ease if not at home. One travels because it is only through traveling that one understands what this home is. Home is not the place from which one leaves, but that to which one returns. And what is, after all, this place to which one returns if not the mirror-like image of all that which in traveling has been a cause of suffering? Of that which in alien lands has rejected us and which, on the contrary, will welcome us home (or, at least, such is our illusion)?

The greatest existential contribution of traveling does not consist in the taste but in the distaste of Otherness. We travel in order to test the limits of our capacity of adaptation because it is exactly these limits that outline our home: I do not tolerate, therefore I am. And the measure of this intolerance, which we fundamentally are, manifests itself for those who are not blindfolded by the hypocritical commerce of travel precisely through the body. It is, indeed, in the traveling body and the reactions that the conscious mental agency of the traveler can control the least, that the limits of her capacity of adaptation are inscribed. Overcoming these limits is possible through an effort of will. We can bend our body to the needs of travel. In contemporary travel literature, there is no text that does not include the exaltation of this stoic and agonistic attitude. However, extolling such effort of adaptation, such tension toward stretching the limits of ones tolerance, without admitting the existence of these limits, would be not only hypocritical but also meaningless. Why, indeed, should I take pleasure a subtly masochistic pleasure, like that of fakirs from increasing my tolerance to distaste if not in order to exactly understand what I cannot tolerate and what, in other terms, the conditions are in which I could not live? I am what I do not tolerate because I am that to which I could not renounce. Traveling is, after all, nothing but an existential laboratory where to understand, protected by a plan of return, what is indispensable in my culture. The indispensable something, which we discover through the distaste of traveling, is our home. A politically correct conception of travel, which disregards its fundamental aspect of identity construction besides the very well known and commercially fruitful aspect of the exploration of Otherness , would be, as it was pointed out earlier, not only hypocritical but also guilty. The panoramic logic, indeed, according to which there are no limits to the traveling subjects capacity to absorb and distill the diversity of the world, is essentially a domineering logic, which, as it was pointed out earlier, is probably inextricable from that of the imperialistic war tale. Claiming ones infinite adaptability to Otherness an adaptability without distaste and more or less explicitly

considering it as an essential feature of the human anthropology could appear, at first glance, as standings of extraordinary ecumenism: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. But the other side of the coin is that if I am able to adapt to whatever Otherness, it is also because whatever Otherness, including mine, is adaptable; it can befit my existential and narrative project of travel. There is nothing incommensurable in the world, nothing deeply intolerable and distasteful; as it was said earlier, that could seem like an expression of extraordinary tolerance. However, denying the incommensurability of ones own identity, affirming ones own capacity of tolerating everything, implicitly also means denying the incommensurability of the others identity, and somehow obliging them to tolerate everything. When I say: you, Other whom I come across while traveling, are, after all, like me, I am implicitly expropriating the Other of her identity; I am domesticating her. On the contrary, if the traveler really considers that nothing in humanity is extraneous to her, she should include in this humanity also the attachment to ones form of life as well as the distaste for the Others forms of life and the consequent incapacity to adapt. The fairy-tale of the cosmopolitan traveler is guilty because it neglects an element that is essential for understanding contemporary societies and their movements of human beings: the masochistic pleasure that the traveler experiences in testing the limits of her intolerance becomes an unbearable torture when it is deprived of the protective net of its temporariness, which essentially is an expression of the travelers mental and subjective agency. I travel; I revel in my capacity of adaptation but while being well assured that if I wish so I could turn on my heel and go back home. Traveling should teach young people those who can afford it not how beautiful traveling is according to an ideology that is not only tautological but also fed by the logic of tourism marketing , but exactly the opposite: how ugly traveling is; how uncomfortable is; how unbearable. How much one is better at home. Or, better, how traveling would be unbearable had

one not the certainty of return. Tu proverai s come sa di sale / lo pane altrui, e come duro calle / lo scendere e l salir per laltrui scale,4 as Dante said. When in April 2010 a cloud of volcanic ashes prevented intercontinental travelers from landing in London, turning several airports of the planet into bivouacs, journalists reporting from these airports declared their common impression: it looks like a refugee camp. Indeed, if there is something traveling should teach is exactly that: the intolerability of the human condition of those who travel with the awareness that they will not be able to return, of those for whom adapting is not an option but an obligation, of those who discover, in an alien land, the exact boundaries of both their distaste for the Others and the Others distaste for them but cannot escape either. Traveling should have this purpose (and such was essentially the purpose of traveling in several ancient cultures before the rise of tourism, that is, a version of traveling where the dimension of cyclical routine and, therefore, the certainty of return are emphasized): learning the intolerability of uprooting and sharpening ones solidarity with those who suffer from it. A recent advertising campaign for a famous Italian cruise company showed a couple at home bursting into tears at the memory of a past vacation. In fact, exactly the opposite should occur: nostalgia should take over the traveler during the journeys most difficult moments, those in which the body says enough and longs for returning; it is at the thought of home that the traveler should burst into tears. This advertisement is nothing but a symptom of the way in which the industry of tourism has turned traveling into a stupefying substance through which the contemporary escapism is fed (Roche & Sie(n) 2010), into a vicious circle where traveling does not result in rediscovering ones home but in clouding the feeling of not having one. In order to recuperate the existential value of traveling, the contemporary imaginaire should be nourished with different narratives, which instead of featuring the domesticating subject of the imperialistic war travel or the domesticated subject of the consumeristic tourism travel, highlights the resistance of the world to the travelers body: the unavailability of things to become the

You shall learn how salty is the taste / of another mans bread and how hard is the way, / going down and then up another mans stairs. Engl. translation by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander (Princeton Dante project).

traveling subjects objects and their turning, instead, into an obstacle to her will of penetration, adaptation, and control. Things that make a journey intolerable: that should be the theme of a new travel literature. The panoramic narrative should be paralleled by a prosopopoeic narrative, where things become protagonists in their incommensurable Otherness. As it was said before, these narratives will have to be about the body, especially about its refusal to accomplish even the most essential biological functions in an alien land: When my body, although hungry, refused to eat or drink; when my body, although tired, refused to fall asleep; when my body started to suffer from vertigos; about unbearable cold and warmth; on being uncomfortable; on the disappearance of sexual drive; etc. These are indeed the occasions when the body is supposed to almost spontaneously act in the world but refuses to do so, or is jammed, or paralyzed by hesitation , that reveal the existential nature of travel, its capacity of making us discover how the shadow of our home conditions us in our apparently most elementary behaviors and perhaps especially in those. These new narratives must be about the body but not from the point of view of the body. Narratives from the point of view of the body inevitably adopt the perspective of a subject, and one would therefore go back to the epic of Robert Byrons dysentery. On the contrary, narratives about the traveling body should be from the point of view of things, of alien things that prevail over the body and refuse to be domesticated, absorbed, and controlled. These new narratives must be tales of disgusting food, uncomfortable couches, windows without curtains, cities without squares, apartments without heating, streets without sidewalks, alcoves without privacy, etc. They must be tales of absences, or else of fastidious presences, but they must be, nevertheless, prosopopoeias, narratives that reveal, through the denial of things, the failure of the travelers grappling with Otherness. At this stage, it may be even superfluous to underline that tales of this kind can be written only by a semiotician or by someone with a semiotic sensibility. Semiotics has developed an expertise for deciphering the discourse of objects, but this is not exactly the point. The

contribution of semiotics to a tale of the intolerability of traveling is not merely bibliographic. On the contrary, the story of the way in which the things of the world sometimes reject us, the more so the more we move away from our home, must be semiotic because otherwise it would be blind. What matters, indeed, is not the sad anecdote of food we cannot eat, of beds where we cannot sleep, of streets that give us vertigos, etc., but the way in which this food, these beds, and these streets are, in reality, signs of something much more general and abstract. In order for the failure of our body in its contact with an alien reality to be intelligible to us, it is necessary that we develop an interpretation of this reality, that we compare it with that of our home, that we single out, for instance, the fulcrum of the difference between our food and the food that disgusts us. This operation is indispensable not only for understanding the limits of our tolerance but also, according to the typical mirror-like logic of structuralism, for seizing the features of our identity. Other disciplines have done the same from different points of view: in the twentieth century, perhaps no branch of the interpretative disciplines more than psychoanalysis sought to establish the intelligibility of the bodys tastes and distastes. This is not the occasion to open a debate on the virtues and vices of the psychoanalytical perspective. Suffice it to underline that by anchoring its explanations to an essentially universalistic matrix, psychoanalysis as well as all interpretative tendencies with similar foundations may be inadequate to achieve that which semiotics programmatically pursues: the construction of a differential taxonomy in which a relation between subjects and things is not reduced to universal principles, but it is interpreted, instead, as a possibility within a matrix of patterns. So as to exemplify the theoretical contents expressed in the first part of this section, the second part will propose a travel prosopopoeia from a semiotic viewpoint: a tour of the world from toilet to toilet.5

3. The state of the art.


The term toilet will generically designate, unless specifically indicated, the place devoted to the elimination of corporal waste.


The semioticians reflection on the places and practices of travel scatology must not develop from scratch but must carve out a niche for itself with reference to the abundant literature on the topic. Historical studies on the subject are numerous, although not always of high academic standard.6 From the point of view described above, they are important mostly because they point out that the resistance things put up to the travelers body can be related to complex historical processes, which have shaped throughout centuries sometimes throughout millennia the ways in which a group of individuals handles the issue of corporal waste. This is true not only for excrementitious places and practices but for the experience of traveling in general: when an alien land repels the traveler with its disgusting food, uncomfortable couches, poisonous drugs, etc., in reality what repulses the traveler are not only these things as such but the centuries of cultural history that they embody: in the dimensions of a toilet, in the shape of a WC, in the disposition of water sources, etc. the traveler comes across the quintessential output of centuries of history. No discipline more than cultural anthropology has undertaken the task of understanding the variety of scatological cultures, although the studies devoted to the subject by this discipline are thus far relatively few considering the centrality it holds in the experience of every human being. Perhaps even for the most iconoclastic cultural anthropology, a taboo is in force that embarrasses the scholar, pushing her to deal with something else, and to save her attention for other corporal practices such as nutrition, sleep, sex, etc. Notwithstanding this not entirely innocent disregard, there is no lack of contributions by anthropologists who have sought to construct a discourse of intelligibility around the excrementious places and ways of the human species.7 The semiotician

One of the first attempts to write a history of toilets is Wright 1960; Dobell 1996, Horan 1996, and Monestier 1997 propose a social history of toilets, although with a narrative more than academic style; one of the best scientific works on the subject is Inglis 2001; for a cultural history of excrementitious places, Furrer 2004; for a scatological history from the Middle Ages until nowadays, Silguy 2009; on the Italian context, Cagliano 2002; an excellent archaeological and historical study of places for defecation in ancient Rome is Hobson 2009, which focuses mostly on Pompeii (where, as it is known, some specimens of Roman latrinae and foricae are still visible); on the Finnish contest, Juuti and Wallenius 2005; on Latin America, again with narrative more than academic style, Prignano 2007; for a history of the technology of toilets, Lehr, Keeley, and Lehr 2005, vol. 1, chap. 4: Waste Water Treatement. 7 At least in the twentieth century, one of the main steps toward the establishment of an anthropology of toilets is represented by the activity of Geoffrey Gorer, Ruth Benedict, John Embree, and other anthropologists in the Foreign Morale Analysis Division [FMAD], established during the Second World War as part of the United States Office of


must learn from these studies, compare them with her anecdotic experience of the world, and seek to increase their explanatory potential by inserting them in the theoretical, methodological, and analytical framework of the discipline of signs. Semiotics, indeed, has already produced several studies on the subject of toilets. The essay of Francesco Marsciani on the ethno-semiotics of public toilets is already a classic (2007),8 so are Kim Sung-dos analysis on toilet manuals in Korean Buddhism (2002) and Manar Hammads insights on the spatial path predisposed by the Japanese bath (2008, but centered mostly on the ritual bath and not on excrementitious practices). More or less semiotic observations on latrinalia, that is, what people write and draw in public toilets, are also numerous.9 There is no lack either of more specific essays, mostly confined in blogs or other extemporary publications with scarce academic tenor: on the semiotics of urination postures (Boles 2006),10 on that of the signs that indicate the gender of toilets (Sensemaya 2008), etc. However, the most famous attempt to elaborate a cultural semiotics of toilets is the one by the world-famous philosopher Slavoj iek (2004). In his review (for the London Review of Books) of a book by Timothy Garton Ash (Free World: Why a Crisis of the West Reveals the Opportunity of Our Time), iek recalls a famous sequence of Buuels movie The Phantom of Liberty (1974), a

War Information. In 1942, the British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer (1905-85) wrote for the FMAD an essay entitled Japanese Character Structure (1942), where he argued that the toilet training of Japanese children was determinant in shaping their adult character. This thesis, proposed by someone who had never visited Japan, was subsequently harshly criticized (for a survey, Janssens 1999) but was nevertheless instrumental in introducing the subject of toilets in the international anthropological debate. Even nowadays, Japan produces the highest number of academic essays on this topic, also in relation to a flourishing industry of sanitary fixtures (cfr the cultural activities sponsored by TOTO). For an anthropological exploration of the taboo of defecation, Sabbath and Hall 1977; for a comparative anthropology of toilet cultures, Cummings 2000; Weinberg and Williams (2005) frame the eliminative behaviors an expression used by much English literature on the subject in the anthropology of deviance; for a study of US faecal culture, Praeger 2007; on the issues related to the gender dimension of public toilets, especially as regards transgender users, Shannon 2004; the most recent study, and perhaps also the best one, on the gender of excrementitious places and practices is Gershenson and Pensen 2009; one of the most recent contributions on a general anthropology of public toilets is the excellent collective volume Molotch and Noren 2010. Several coffee-table books on the argument also exist, but have very little academic relevance. Some of them, though, offer a rich photographic documentation, like Lambton 1998 (which focuses mostly on the UK), Eveleigh 2002, and Gregory and James 2006 (with more an international viewpoint). 8 One of the first structural studies on the design of toilets is Kira 1966, still interesting. 9 Also the many anthropological studies on this theme often adopt a more or less explicitly semiotic perspective; cfr Butler 2006 for a study of the latrinalia of the University of Melbourne. For a less academic survey, Hands and Hands 1996. 10 To be compared with the cultural analysis of street urinating proposed by the fine Italian intellectual Claudio Magris (2008).


sequence in which alimentary and excrementitious practices are inverted:11 people defecate around a table, conversing amiably, whereas when they want to eat something they slip away into a private closet. Drawing inspiration from this sequence, iek elaborates a triangle of excrementitious cultures, a triangle that is meant to parallel and complement the one elaborated by Lvi-Strauss about food cultures (the cooked, the raw, and the rotten). This is the cultural taxonomy of toilets put forward by iek: in a traditional German WC, the hole in which excrements after flushing disappear is situated in the front, so that excrements do not fall in it immediately but lie first on the ceramic layer above, exposed to smelling, inspecting, and possible detecting of traces of any disease.12 In a traditional French WC, instead, the hole is situated in the back, where excrements are supposed to disappear as soon as possible. Finally, the US or Anglo WC looks like a synthesis of the first two, like a mediation between these two opposites: the toilet bowl is full of water, so that excrements float in it, visible but without being completely open to inspection. iek then quotes a famous passage of Erica Jongs book Fear of Flying (1973), a passage where the author declares that German toilets are the key to the horrors of the Third Reich, and that individuals able to build toilets like the German ones are capable of anything. ieks analysis concludes by an attempt to link the semiotics of WCs to that of cultures: starting from Hegel, the geographical triad Germany-France-England has been related to three different existential expressions: reflexive precision (Germany), revolutionary urgency (France), and utilitarian pragmatism (England). German conservatism, French revolutionary radicalism, and British liberalism represent the same triad at the level of political systems, whereas the prominence of metaphysics and poetry (Germany), politics (France), and economics (England) represent it at the level of the public sphere. The comparative analysis of toilets, according to iek, allows the scholar not only to observe the effects of this trichotomy in the intimate dimension, but also to identify its effects in the various

For an in-depth study of the many movies in which toilets, and especially public toilets, become a fundamental place of narration, cfr Tschirbs 2007. 12 Incidentally, the first cross-fertilization between semiotics and coprology probably took place in semeiotics, and in particular in the study of excrements as possible reservoir of diagnostic signs; Gaultier 1914 is one of the first systematic surveys of this branch of semeiotics; for a historical reconstruction, Lewin 1999.


attitudes that such trichotomy produces in relation to the idea of excrementitious excess: ambiguous contemplative fascination (Germany); desire to get rid of it as soon as possible (France); and pragmatic decision to treat it like an ordinary matter and to dispose of it in the most appropriate manner (UK). According to iek, an inspection of WCs would allow the scholar of contemporary cultures to understand that it is not true that we live in a post-ideological world. Obviously, ieks semiotic analysis is marred by thoughtless reference to its philosophicalpsychoanalytical background, conspicuous propensity for stereotypes, and a taste for boutades. However, if the analysis is rough, the idea underlying it is worthy of consideration: moreover, excrementitious places and practices are elements that a semiotics of culture can put into a series, analyze through the elaboration of a more or less articulated differential taxonomy, and most importantly, seek to couple with other taxonomies in the attempt to turn these humble places and scabrous practices into a key for the intelligibility of the world and its cultures.

4. Taxonomic attempts. Francesca Bray, emeritus Professor of the University of California at Santa Barbara and at the University of Edinburgh, has elaborated the most articulated taxonomy of eliminative places and practices to date, here visualized through a map of world toiletry patterns (fig. 1).

1: World toiletry patterns according to Francisca Bray


The taxonomy divides the excrementitious syntagm into three fundamental elements: style, which identifies the body positions at the moment of defecation; how to wipe, which indicates techniques for the subsequent cleaning of the body; and treatment of waste, which regards the processes of bodily wastes disposal. To each element of this syntagm corresponds, according to a logic that is quite close to that of structuralism, a paradigm. Hence, for instance, style includes two opposite possibilities: sitting down and squatting down; how to wipe includes five possibilities: paper, water, pebble, rope, leaf, and spraying; finally, treatment of waste includes six possibilities: bait of animals, bait of fish, burying, compost, sewerage, and exposure.13 It is immediately clear that these paradigmatic options are not structured in a perfectly exclusive matrix as they can co-occur in certain common excrementitious practices of the planet (in Italy, for instance, there is no clear opposition between paper and water as regards cleaning techniques, given the diffusion of one of the national jewels, the bidet). Francesca Brays map also visualizes the way in which various countries tend to construct their own excrementitious syntagms. In Turkey, for instance, the map shows a co-presence of sitting down and squatting down, combined with water and sewerage. The map signals also, through suitable graphic patterns, the religious demography of the planet, perhaps so as to suggest that there is a connection to be explored yet by anthropologists and other scholars between excrementitious syntagms and religious ideologies. From the point of view of semiotics, this taxonomy and the diagram that visualizes it are interesting but too simplistic. A much more articulated map is needed to fully understand the meaning of excrementitious places and practices and relate it to that of other dimensions characterizing the various cultures. One should start from the assumptions that, on the one hand, the human body cannot avoid producing waste which from a certain point of view is nothing but an expression of the biological entropy generated by life ; on the other hand, that this production is

Slapstick comedy often draws inspiration from a politically incorrect viewpoint on these differences; see, for instance, the adventures of Sasha Baron Cohens fictional character Borat Sagdiyev as he seeks to learn the US excrementitious syntagm.


never purely biological; or rather, that there is nothing in the biological mechanism of the human body that is not inextricably intertwined with its functioning as semiotic interface with the world, permanently immersed in a continuously changing web of meaning and textuality. Nothing in the alimentary-digestive process is perfectly natural, but many anthropologists, and perhaps also several semioticians, have often assumed that only those sections of such process directly exposed to the external reality (the preparation of food, its consumption, the elimination of bodily waste, etc.) are under the influence of cultures. However, the thresholds of the human body are porous, and its nature of semiotic interface with the world manifests itself also in its internal functioning, invisible to the observation of anthropologists and semioticians. Let us consider, for instance, to what extent the meaning we come across in the world thanks to our unceasing although often unconscious semiotic activity influences the speed with which we chew, the production of saliva, the ease with which we swallow, the production of gastric juice, the efficacy of digestive movements, etc. Let us consider also how semiotic the very beginning of the excrementitious syntagm is (if it can ever be isolated from the whole alimentary-digestive process), that is, the stimulus, the initial impulse. Let us consider to what extent the quotidian interpretation of our Umwelt, according to Von Uexklls acceptation of this term , can either accelerate or slow down the elimination of the waste we produce. For instance, when we are extremely afraid we empty our bowels immediately without even the possibility of a conscious control. One could argue: this is an instinctive and therefore very little semiotic mechanism, selected by the evolution of the species as an extreme mechanism of defense; if I can neither flee nor fight, at least I make myself extremely undesirable for my predator, covering myself with my own excrements.14 However, if this defense mechanism is highly instinctive and effective from the evolutionary point of view exactly insofar as it is instinctive, the elaboration of the meaning of fear is not instinctive at all. Again, it is through functioning as semiotic interfaces with the world, producing

However, this apparently instinctual mechanism too can turn into a cultural pattern, for instance, when human beings cover themselves with excrements or other nauseating substances in order to repel the enemy. See the incipit of Naipaul 1979 for a narrative evocation of this strategy.


the thread of meaning and the web of textuality, and using this web to link ourselves with our Umwelt that we can be afraid and therefore trigger the instinctive mechanisms of panic. Also in conditions of extreme danger, some people can block these mechanisms; in a certain sense, they can choose not be afraid or at least not to let fear handle their body as it pleases. At the opposite extreme, let us consider also what Freud wrote on the pre-genital pleasure of retaining ones own excrements not only for the nervous stimulation that it provokes but also for the unconscious sense of production and therefore fullness linked with this retention. What is natural in this sense of accumulation, possession, and retention? Semiotically speaking, nothing. What is mechanically biological in the behavior of those who cannot get rid of their bodily waste, even while suffering from it? Of course, a chemical compound can force the body to empty itself in a few minutes, but this chemical necessity proves exactly the non-chemical but semiotic nature of the human bodys functioning: I need a drug because the meaning that I produce through my interaction with the world has such a grip over my body that it even manages to block its apparently more mechanical functions. If the impact of meaning, and therefore, culture on my body, or rather, on the functioning of my body as the interface made meaningful by culture is evident even in the development of peristalsis, let us imagine what its influence can be on excrementitious places and practices: when and where I eliminate my bodily waste, in what conditions of solitude, in what spaces, in what places, at what times, with what movements of the body, according to what more or less gender logics, with what techniques of cleaning and disposal of waste, etc.. Each of the elements of this enlarged excrementitious syntagm implies a choice within a paradigm of possibilities, and therefore involves a dynamic that is similar to that of the construction of a text starting from the virtual possibilities of a language. Moreover, each of these linguistic choices is directly or indirectly shaped by a culture, according to dynamics that have analogous and homologous impact on other dimensions of life. It is in this sense that ieks (pre-)semiotic analysis must be


interpreted: who can deny that the same cultural mechanism simultaneously shapes the hermeneutic style of a culture and its relation with bodily waste? However, the excrementitious style to which, influenced by a certain culture, we adhere is mostly unintelligible to us. Since early childhood, we have absorbed its elements and we are not often even aware of the existence of alternatives. The obstinacy with which, often with no reflection whatsoever, we follow this routine day by day would deserve an in-depth analysis. In almost every society, only small children, fools, perverse people, or artists dare modify, sometimes in a radical way, the excrementitious style they have inherited from a family, a society, a culture, a historical poque. As if the management of bodily waste needed an iron cultural control with very little space for idiosyncrasies. Whereas cultures generally attribute a taste for variety, novelty, and individual creativity to the elaboration of food and to the modalities of its ingestion and increasingly so especially in late- or post-modern societies , at the other end of the digestive process, human beings adopt a rigidly codified habit, learned in early childhood and kept throughout life. Perhaps, reflection on the routines that preside over the elimination of bodily waste must involve a meditation on the ways in which this waste represents the most tangible and quotidian expression of the principle of death which we harbor in our bodies, of the principle that sooner or later will transform our entire body into waste. At the risk of perpetuating a clich, it is necessary to underline that it is only through contact with different cultures, and therefore in particular through traveling, that we become aware of the existence of these routines, that the excrementitious style to which we adhere is deeply different from those we come across in other societies. It is through traveling and here we return to the initial point of our reflection that we realize how a certain culture writes its laws even in the depths of our body, even in our apparently most private behaviors. It is through traveling that we become aware of the inalienability of our routines, of the identity limits with which a culture from the micro-culture of a family to the macro-culture of a whole society circumscribes our


tolerance, making all the other routines, and the cultures that have generated them, insufferable to us and our traveling bodies.

5. Notes on the traveling body. Stimulus. Whitsundays archipelago off the north-east coast of Australia, sailing. Soon well cross the coral reef and strong aft winds will assail us. Well sail in the open ocean, the hull completely inclined. For some hours, it will be impossible to go below. We shant be able to use the toilet. This note is about the certainty of the availability of a toilet; about the panic at the thought of not being able to access one even in case of extreme need; about the limits of my culture of sedentary being in relation to the flexibility of the body accustomed to navigation; about sailors who lean out of the hull and empty their bowels; about the excrementitious styles of nomadic people; about the limits of my sense of stimulus. Place. In a bus between Siam reap and Battambang, Cambodia. There is no toilet on board. We stop at a gas station. The only non-Cambodian traveler, I join the group of men who I believe are setting out for the toilet. Behind the station, there is a tiled wall under which a trickle of water runs lazily. Its the public convenience. I realize that Im the only one to face it. All the other men scatter around, emptying their bladder while looking at the countryside. Im the only one to look at a wall. This note is about the certainty of a place exclusively used as a toilet; about the difficulty to dispose of my body waste in a place that my culture has not designated for that purpose; about the sense of freedom I draw from observing these Cambodian men; about the sense of my stupidity; about the toilet as a place that expresses the regimentation of the modern body. Mental note: the paradox of peeing trees in Canadian camping grounds (fig. 2): such is the habit of circumscribing a place for the elimination of bodily waste that it is impossible to choose a tree at random; it is necessary to transform it into a toilet. It is not true that toilets are non-places. This note is about the limits of my sense of place.


2: Peeing tree in a Canadian camping ground

Solitude. Dn Laoghaire, Ireland, after various pints of Guinness; the public convenience is a place of socialization. Men talk, laugh, and slap each other while eliminating extra beer. Bodies squeeze up, touch, at times they seem to long for each other. Werent I drunk I could not even enter this place. Italian public conveniences are not like this. They are places of silence and solitude; almost penitential places. Every attempt at socialization would be frowned upon. This note is about the limits of my sense of solitude. Invisibility. International House, student residence, Berkeley, California. There are no private bathrooms. Public toilets are surrounded by walls that do not run from floor to ceiling, but only from ankles to neck. When sitting on a toilet bowl, your shoes and ankles are visible. When standing in front of it, if youre tall enough, your head is visible too. It bothers me not to be completely invisible. The thought that someone might recognize me from my shoes while I empty my bowels embarrasses me. Why, in such a rich country, full walls arent installed? Perhaps because the public toilets of this student residence embody a sense of community, of bodily


comradeship that is typical of the US society and that, perhaps, does not belong to me. Or maybe it is just to facilitate control from the outside. This note is about the limits of my sense of invisibility. Privacy. Beijing suburb, at dead of night; Im drunk and I cannot find my hotel. A sign points at a public toilet. I thread my way through a narrow street and enter the toilet. I cross the length of the room: to my right, the wall is divided into cubicles without doors. Inside, squatting men empty their bowels, their gaze fixed at the void. There is a free cubicle but despite being drunk and with my bowels about to explode, I do not even try to get in. This note is about the necessity of a door; about the absolute necessity of a door; it is about the limits of my sense of privacy. Posture. A university in Teheran; as it often befalls me before a conference, I feel the compelling need to release myself. There are only squat toilets. I cannot help feeling ridiculous, squatting dressed up in a dark suit. It is a micro-conflict of civilizations; my ankles are not used to the effort. Later, in some friends house, I come across another squat toilet. In a corner, however, I see a strange device I had never come across before. It is a movable toilet bowl; a sort of big baby walker, it is placed on top of the squatting toilet when someone wants to us it Western style; it is the solution to the micro-conflict of civilizations. But they tell me that it is used mostly for elderly or sick people. A feeling of disability invades me. This note is about the limits of my sense of posture. Posture, 2. Public toilet in the City Library of Melbourne; while sitting in my cubicle, I observe the following poster on the door (fig. 3):


3: Australian Government poster on use of male toilets, Australia.

It has been designed by the Government of the State of Victoria, Australia. It is meant to teach the correct use of male toilets through a graphic stylization similar to that of street signs. Under the title (Use of male toilets), two wrong modalities are represented. A street sign of prohibition is superimposed on both of them. A red cross besides them lays extra emphasis on the wrongness of these eliminative behaviors. This is how I interpret the graphs: one must not defecate squatting on top of the toilet bowl; one must not defecate squatting on the ground besides the toilet bowl. Instead, as the algorithm just below indicates, one must defecate sitting on the toilet bowl, then wipe with toilet paper, then throw the paper into the WC, then flush, and then finally wash hands. One must wash hands also after urinating. I exit the cubicle after following all the instructions, and come across another poster, also by the Government, that teaches me how to wash my hands (fig. 4):


4: Australian Government poster on hand washing

Influenced by Umberto Ecos theory of the ideal reader, I wonder who the ideal reader of these posters is. Certainly not me, or all those readers in the City Library of Melbourne for whom the routines described in the posters are almost natural since early childhood. On the contrary, the ideal reader of these posters is someone whose excrementitious style is culturally different; someone who squats on top of toilet bowls instead of sitting on them; perhaps the many Asian readers of the City Library? I cannot but interpret this poster as a symptom of failure of the Australian ideology of multiculturalism. Yes, all cultures are welcome in Melbourne, but in this City Library, you must defecate and urinate as you are told, according to the Anglo style. There is no cultural relativism in these posters. There is only one right way of using toilets and that way is the Western one; that is essentially the message. This note is about the limits of excrementitious multiculturalism. Posture, 3. In the International House of Berkeley, every year, at least half of the residents are from the East, the other half from the West. In order to avoid conflicts of civilization in the public toilets, at the beginning of the academic year, the director tells a story to all the residents: once, some Western students complained to him about having seen the footprints of Eastern students on the toilet seat and understood that they were emptying their bowels while squatting on top of the toilet bowl. How disgusting! the Western students said How can we sit where they


put their shoes? But then the Eastern students, questioned about this point, replied to the Director: How disgusting! How can they sit where we put our shoes? This note is about the limits of excrementitious multiculturalism. Senses. Nanjing, university residence: the almost offensive coarseness of the toilet paper; repelled by the stench in a public bathroom in an Italian train station; the horrible anti-drug blue neon lights in the toilets of some Italian discos (the container for used syringes in the Australian one is much better); music in Japanese toilets to replace the soundtrack of the body; taste, the forbidden sense of toilets. This note is about the limits of my sense of senses. Coproscopy. Germany, apartment in Kreuzberg, Berlin. iek is right. This note is about the limits of my sense of coproscopy. Cleaning. France, first journey abroad as a young teenager; the disconcerting surprise of the lack of bidets, and with such a French name! The useless search for an alternative (given the separation, typically French, between WCs and bathrooms); the silly sense of superiority of ones hygienic culture; birth of a stereotype; this note is about the limits of my sense of cleaning. Cleaning, 2. Kuala Lumpur, luxury hotel in the heart of the metropolis, Japanese management: next to the WC, a console controls the sprinkling of water inside the bowl; temperature, inclination, and pressure can be chosen as one pleases; new sensations. The silly sense of inferiority of ones hygienic culture: what would Japanese travelers think about the rudimentary character of the Italian bidet, of the indecent passage between the toilet bowl and that strange violin washer, as an Italian comedian once defined the bidet. This note is about the limits of my sense of cleaning. Cleaning, 3. Istanbul, cheap bed & breakfast in Sultanahmet area; the provision of toilet paper is very limited, however, besides the toilet bowl there is a little tube connected to a tap. It is so unthinkable that it could replace toilet paper that I think of it as an alternative to flushing. The cultural imperative of toilet paper; Kleenex as only possible alternative; toilet paper as the symbol of the West; this is a note on the limits of my sense of cleaning.


Disposing. Sihanoukville, cost of Cambodia. There is no sewage system. Pipes from houses, hotels, and restaurants dump everything directly into the sea, a few meters from the shores. Estuaries of slimy and greenish liquids take shape on the beach. The surrounding pinewood is strewn with dirty diapers, used tampons, and skeletons of toilet paper rolls. Either emptying my bowels in the sea while floating and gazing at the marvelous hills around, or looking for a toilet on the shore: it is the same; the brutality of this excrementitious style. From another point of view, the sincerity of this style: after slow food, slow shit. Excrements stay where they are produced not because Cambodians want it, but because only rich economies can afford indefinitely hiding their excrements, sending them elsewhere. The lack of a sewage system reveals what we essentially are: producers of excrements. More travelers, more excrements. This note is about the limits of my sense of disposal.

6. Waste and belonging. This article represents only an initial and quite subjective and impressionistic step toward the elaboration of a semiotics of excrementitious cultures. The next step, a huge step, must consist in linking this simple taxonomy of excrementitious syntagms and paradigms with a causal explanation: why does a traveler with my cultural identity finds it so unbearable to renounce his own sense of place, solitude, invisibility, privacy, posture, coproscopy, cleaning, and disposal? What cultural and historical forces are behind this intolerance of mine? What is, instead, behind the excrementitious costumes that I cannot accept? Some readers might have found the subject of this article slightly laughable the author himself, while writing and publishing it, was afraid to risk his academic reputation. However, in the next decades, it will be difficult to underestimate the relevance of the way in which cultures influence the management of bodily waste. The more and more frequent crises of advanced economies manifest themselves also as crises of the modalities with which the role of human beings as producers of waste is removed and ignored. The experience of traveling allows one to re-


appropriate a conception of waste as something that, despite the cosmetics of modern toilets, inexorably accompanies human existence. Furthermore, it allows one to understand that the economic disparities characterizing the planet express themselves also as disparities concerning the sense of waste: only the economically most advanced societies can afford the illusion of living in a world where the excrements that we produce while we live this little quotidian memento mori are immediately cast away from the senses in a mysterious elsewhere. The planets intensifying cultural globalization and demographic growth will push us to wonder how sustainable and, most importantly, how democratic our excrementitious styles are. How many can afford cultivating the aseptic sense of waste characterizing, in various ways, most advanced economies? Reflection on the ecological bettering of these excrementitious styles (from the double flushing system on) and to their potential expansion (see the initiatives of the World Toilet Organizations) is already current. Also semioticians, as social scientists, can and must give their contribution, helping us to understand the deep meaning of apparently meaningless everyday gestures, and replacing the traditional tales of triumphing travelers who dominate the world with new semiotically-oriented stories of nostalgic travelers that humble things, like foreign toilets, urge toward a humbler feeling of their humanity.

7. Theoretical conclusions. The everyday practice of getting rid of ones bodily waste is made apparently meaningless by the excrementitious routines that we learn and interiorize since early childhood and that make us forgetful about their cultural character. In reality, nothing is naturally spontaneous in the way in which we eliminate the waste we produce while living, although being oblivious to it can be a way to escape coming to terms with the troubling awareness of how our existence not only brings about waste but is also ultimately destined to turn into waste. Yet, there is a deep lesson about belonging to be learned from the cultural semiotics of bodily waste practices. On the one hand, a general lesson: the frontiers of our body are designed day after day also through the ways in which we expel


and reject everything we consider as waste. From this point of view, the positive profile of our identity is a mirror-like image of the negative waste that the construction of such identity brings about. Economically advanced societies have elaborated sophisticated methods to get rid not only of the presence but also of the very awareness of this negative production of death, which is inextricably related to the positive production of life. Elegant toilets and effective sewage systems cast faraway from our areas of belonging not only our bodily waste but also what it represents: the waste that we essentially are, once the sparkle of life has abandoned us. On the other hand, a specific lesson: it is only by re-interpreting traveling as an experience that tests the limits of our area of belonging, exposing us to the crossings of frontiers whose intensity is intolerable, that we can understand how our home is mostly made by the quotidian routines that shape our identity without us being aware of it. A non-touristy experience of travel, for instance, does not reproduce in an alien land our own excrementitious syntagms, but gives us the opportunity to realize that also in the apparently insignificant elimination of our bodily waste we are shaped by invisible routines, and that these routines outline our identity with a force whose intensity can be revealed also by the shock and the intolerability of traveling.

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