On Giving a Shit: Excremental Values in the Human and Life Sciences

This paper was given at Aarhus University on 21st April 2017. I am grateful to Thomas Erslev and Casper Andersen for the opportunity to develop this work.

Shit. Feces, scat, droppings, crap, poo, turd, cloaca, cack, manure, soil and muck: human excrement has an odd relationship to language. Like other obscene things, what shit lacks in public acceptability it gains in linguistic variation, swagger and glee; enjoying a  kind of semantic disobedience reserved for things that are not permitted to simply remain. There’s a lot that could be said about the effluviant passages between shit, its languages and meanings, but the main thing I want to say is that the business of going about one’s business is not simply or exclusively linguistic. The slipperiness of shit as a concept has also solidified into a cache of scholarly dogmas about what human shit truly means. It might be better to say that scholarly dogma is not immune from the wider uses and non-uses of waste categories. And, like so much dogma, the dogma of human waste is riddled with contradiction.

When put among Northern European and North American theorists, historians, and philosophers, shit cannot be simply a negative substance, with a terminal or absolute value. It is hard to encounter a real piece of shit when wading through the minor canon of writings on human waste but, instead, the apparent lowliness of human waste is availed to different metaphors of matter and materialisation. Curiously metamorphic, human waste is frequently deployed as a sign, one that provides insight into the human condition. I want to give you just a few examples of this dynamic, hesitant between the negativity of human waste and its superabundant tellability, before exploring its histories and consequences.

The tendency to use excrement in order to affect acts of self-fashioning – defining the human condition, giving pause by which that condition is reconditioned – is to be found in work that spans the human and social sciences. It can also be found in works of literature, and I’ll begin there – with a brief passage from the American novelist Don DeLillo and an early novel of his called End Zone (1972):

a terminal act, nullity in the very word, shit, […] excrement, as of final matter voided, the chemical stink of self discontinued; offal, as of butchered animals’ intestines slick with shit and blood; shit everywhere, shit in life cycle, shit as earth as food as shit, wise men sitting impassively in shit, armies retreating in that stench, shit as history, holy men praying to shit, scientists tasting it, volumes to be compiled on color and texture and scent, shit’s infinite treachery, everywhere this whisper of inexistence.[1]

Base matter, characterised as terminal, null, final, void, brings this narrative into strange possibility. Shit’s low (if not minimal) powers of tellability permits DeLillo to detect the whisper of grand narratives that include geopolitical, historical, religious and scientific practices. Aside from what this suggests about DeLillo’s own sense of creative self worth, what interests me is how social scientists have also been keen to prey upon shit as the bit of nothing that can speak not just a truth, our truth, the rank negative that stands as testimony and witness to what ‘we’ truly are. One such terminal philosophy of being can be found in the writings of Julia Kristeva. For her, shit, like death itself, marks an existential border zone of being. Its indetermination forms a sense of oneself through another:

If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything.[2]

Human waste’s abjecting powers are subject forming. It has the capacity to induce disgust and horror, a power to disclose forms of subjective interiority and autonomy. Though human waste is often understood as matter of the most limited, limiting, and base kind – stinking, rotten, inchoate – it is a substance that threatens to slip through the lattice of signification into the dangerously undifferentiated condition of nonhuman superfluity. What is important to recognise is how this indeterminate conception of waste propels what Dominque Laporte and Giorgio Agamden have called, at different times, ‘militant anthropocentrism’ or the ‘anthropological machine.’[3] This is the referential manoeuvre by which matter, particularly matter deemed inanimate or nonhuman, scaffolds a reflexive regard for the sentience of humans and its exceptional agency. Shit, we might add, is an ideal object in this regard: the inaminacy of shit, viscerally produced,  is an emergent property of animacy that defines human self-knowledge.

With regard to what underpins structures of being and feeling such as these, I use Peter Sloterdijk’s term ‘anthropotechnics’ to describe that acrobatic regard for human shit; the upward effort towards human self-refinement, self-experimentation, and psycho-somatic augmentation that courses through waste matter.[4] Nowhere has this anthropotechnical practice sought greater ethnographic legitimacy than in Purity and Danger (1966) by Mary Douglas. This book is as close as we come to a canonical text in the field of waste studies and I suspect will be well known to most students and researchers of the social sciences. The central claim is that dirt is ‘matter out of place’ – a dirty object is an object caught in a system. The desire for order produces waste. ‘Dirt’, writes Douglas, ‘is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements’.[5] This intuition has led to a large body of work that has defined discarded things in similar terms – according to notions of disorder, abjection and disgust, according to common capacity to distribute things and their associated symbols in space. In such writings, metaphysics coincides with an ideal of spatial command, one that I’d like to argue both triggers and perpetuates the anthropological machinery I noted earlier. It is a definition of dirt that places cognitive integrity and agentive intention with those that discard. Flipped into the negative this becomes clearer. Douglas argues that those who either can’t or won’t make waste are people who lack a prior system of classification. Still further, Douglas’ theory of the dirty and clean emphasises the human body as a corporeal command centre or letting agent. So without the body, no classification; without classification, no waste.

DeLillo, Kristeva, and Douglas were writing in relatively affluent, socially divided cities of New York, Paris and London, where municipal waste still flows via core-to-periphery systems (though the peripheries are now more global in scale). Aside from these immediate contexts, where does the anthropotechnical tendency towards human excrement emerge? What makes the management of human waste an object by which to achieve a version of the human and, more importantly, what have been the long-term consequences of such a view? There is certainty a long and complex history to how shit has been valued across history and human activity – economy, taxation, agriculture, religion, and the senses and so on – a history that long precedes the urban sensibilities of 20th century academics and novelists, a history that precedes the temporal organisation of written history. But I want to suggest that the tendency to produce territory through waste, to know the shit-producing self that territorialises and individualises the body by virtue of its waste-making powers, this expresses a more recent marriage of biology, philosophy, and social theory. To each, excrement is a divided and divisive object, an object that passes the threshold of the human into the nonhuman, and each field regards and seeks to dispose of bodily wastes in ways that divide ‘me’ from the ‘it’, self and other, and whose measure of achievement is largely spatial. The following history of sanitation and biomedical research will be familiar to you. But a few key events need to be noted for sake of my all-too-brief cultural history of shit, which, though it also makes an outward journey towards the over-thereness of what we excrete, it compulsively returns to the me and mineness of the self. Recent findings in biomedicine should, I want to argue, force us to reconsider this compulsion.

Four devastating outbreaks of cholera in Europe and North American (1831-2, 1848-9, 1853-4, 1866-7) exposed the weakness of Victorian medicine and hastened the scientific refutation of miasmatic theories of disease transmission. Before the pathologisation of bacteria, it was common to believe that foul air transmitted pestilence. Prince Albert died from ‘bowel fever’ (typhoid) but this was thought connected to an updraft of vapours from the drains at Windsor Castle. The infamous ‘Great Stinks’ of London and Paris were thought dangerous, not because people were drinking water containing raw sewage, but because of the smell. This was how it was thought diseases like typhoid and cholera spread.

L0063431 Map showing deaths from Cholera in Broad Street...
John Snow’s map of Soho, from On the Mode of Communication of Cholera (London: John Churchill, 1855), plate op. p. 45. Image: Wellcome Library.

John Snow discovered that households in neighbouring streets were either surviving or falling victim to cholera because the sick were drinking contaminated water while survivors were not. Snow proved that cholera travelled through contaminated waterways (not, I should add, without resistance from those outraged at the idea that London was a city of shit drinkers). As Snow’s science gained traction, protecting communities from infection shifted away from using perfumes or creating huge municipal parks, and started to focus instead on biochemical content of sewage. These investigations led to what was then a minor science, medical bacteriology, which was initiated in 17th century and revived in and beyond the laboratories of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in the mid to late 19th century. Their investigations transformed how disease was thought to enter the body through the discovery of bacterial pathogens.

In the well-known narrative I am telling a subtext emerges that may be less well observed. Human waste undergoes a process of imaginative recalibration. No longer simply a foul smelling threat to Victorian sensibility, or the outward sign of poverty and moral decay (though it would continue to signify these, too), it also becomes a direct and existential danger. It is made contagious, a substance laden with pathogenic agents of death. Germ theories – the name given to idea that bacteria and viruses flourished within waste and contact with bacteria-laden wastes could expose the human body – drove a fear of filth, high anxiety about constipation, and established a causal linkage between pathogenic bacteria and disease. The new message was this: kill or eliminate bacteria; wash, bathe, clean your house and the objects within it, protect and make sanitary your utilities. Above all else, above all this: avoid shit. Its presence threatens the touch of death.

Wars on Microbes.jpeg

Pathogenic danger maintained an existential, epistemic, and numeric gap between the body-subject and its excremental antagonist: purity of one and the danger of many. Little wonder, then, that the language of early immunology, the science dedicated to understanding bacterial pathogens, adopted the language of the most popular political form of organisation: military colonialism (bodies repel invaders, major defences against subversive agents, or cells who simple remain on sentry duty).[6] We still imagine the body as a sovereign state in need of defence against alien intruders. Now clinicians and patients talk of immunological control and communication, recognition, tolerance, and surveillance – proof, were it needed, that the focus of laboratory science on security and securitisation continues to graft the territories of the nation state onto its citizen’s bodies. I have digressed a little from the subject of waste. Easily done. Dominique Laporte argues that the history of shit is nothing less than the history of subjectivity and subject formation:

To touch, even lightly, on the relationship of a subject to his shit, is to modify not only that subject’s relationship to the totality of his body, but his very relationship to the world and to those representations that he constructs of his situation in society.[7]

But proprietorial expressions of self that we can detect in 20th century theories of waste, including Laporte’s, align immunology and philosophy to a common problem whose solution is violent and exclusionary. The emergence of immunology as a science in relation to bacteria at the fin de siècle emboldened a search for ‘healthy’ national as well as racial identities; we cannot think of eugenics campaigns and racial hygiene outside of the colonial circumstances by which these immunological and intellectual dramas unfolded.

L0030380 Advert for Pears' Soap
An Advertisement for Pears’ Soap, c. 1880. Image: Wellcome Library.

Alfred I. Tauber goes so far as to argue that, ‘to define the self has become immunology’s primary mission, the ultimate puzzle for the science that is attempting to identify the organism.’[8] Which is fine but the self has, all too frequently, been defined according to its capacity to subjugate other selves or dispose them as inanimate. I would argue that the primary legacy of immunology is to extend the quest for biological selfhood into every facet of life, with lasting consequences for how we make temporary relations with things, how we view the fluids that our bodies emit as negative and dangerous wastes; the social sciences have, as we saw, played willing allies to this quest for discriminatory systems of self and other – being and matter, place or placelessness – and the grail quest for what separates the living and the dead. Human waste has served as oil in an anthropological machine; the ground for a broader project of hygienic self-elevation and anthropotechnic self-improvement.

The matter of life has been interrogated from many perspectives over recent decades, with biological matter – genomes, brains, diseases or viruses – revealed to be simultaneously and irremediably social. Meanwhile, the material content and form of sociality has always been enabled, mediated and modulated by somatic substrates, whether genetic or epigenetic, nutritional, metabolic, hormonal, behavioural, or toxicological. In the early twentieth-first century, biological and the social are in one another.[9] As a consequence, human waste is being looked at from a very different perspective. The stress is no longer on matter being out of place but the substances being biosemiotic, elements in processes of cross-species communication; a sign of life.[10] Rather than being a threat to public health, human excrement is under scrutiny on an industrial scales. It is a substance being remade with novel values. In brief, analysing human wastes can disclose the symbiotic assemblages of human and non-human life that entangle the biological within the cultural. Far from being the dirty or abject substance described by Douglas and Kristeva, human waste has an informational content, one that exceeds current scientific capacities to say what it is or what it contains.

It is at this point where my collaborative position with biomedical research should be made clear. I am a participant in a UK biobank called TwinsUK. This lab is dedicated to tracing the long-term effects of a very wide range of behaviours and experiences and how these interact with human genetics. After years focussing on health genomics, the laboratory has turned its attention to the microbiome; the collection of microorganisms that live within and upon the human body, and happen to be especially abundant in the human gut.


The laboratory made a special request: would I, they asked, send them my excrement for analysis? They even gave me a special kit. Just send your ‘fecal sample’ back, they said, wrapped in ice and by express delivery. Sending your shit in the post, to a biomedical laboratory, is not as easy as you might think, and it involves all sorts of specialist medical equipment. First, you have to unpack and understand the elaborate combination of plastic, paper, and rubber technologies. To divert my waste from its usual fate I had to deploy a kind of paper basket between the basin top and the water. When the time comes, one has to construct this paper pouch to catch the spoils. It’s much more pleasing than it sounds. Once you’ve hauled your catch, you need to use these small plastic vials to extract some samples, scooping up with a small spatula that is contained in your kit. Next, labeling; packing in dry ice; stuffing all this into a neatly designed and easily sealed biohazard container before the much more curious process of stepping outside and taking it to the Post Office. ‘Anything of value?’ asks the man at the counter. ‘Oh, not so much’, I say.

What else could I have told him? What value has my scat to promise to its recipients? What kind of change has it undergone now what it has entered the postal system, desired, handled with care, signed for by hospital orderly, and delivered up to the lab for sequencing? Tim Spector and colleagues at TwinsUK have collected thousands of stool samples from people like me, to develop a microbial research project called The Flora Study. The majority of bacteria alive in the human gut cannot be cultured in a lab; they have to be taken from samples like mine. Without trying to summarise 10-15 years of microbial research in the easy-to-digest narrative that belies its gaps and doubts, claims and counter claims, I simply want to highlight some of the important findings as they affect my interests, with the hope that I can reach some of the wider questions raised by microbial research. I have arranged these into five general areas of observation and discussion:

  1. Bacteria are alive, active, and constantly adapting. A huge number of microbiota alive in our gut and known through fecal analysis are integral to human development, health and happiness. We are prenatally sterile, yet the moment the amniotic sac is breached, bacteria move in. These bacteria are not necessarily ‘matter out of place’ – simply to be eliminated as an encroachment of living beings upon our own – but they exist as a consequence of millions of years of co-evolution. Their presence in and around our bodies suggests an example of evolutionary symbiosis and, for this reason, bacteria offer evidence of an oft-repeated mantra of late twentieth century philosophy that was suspicious of the history of humans – there exists no prior human nature upon which culture is writ, only a nature whose culture absorbs many different natures.[11]
  2. For centuries microbiologists have known that there are many, many bacteria in the human body. It is often said that the bacteria in our gut weigh up to 2 kg. But then, in the mid 1990s, it became possible sequence 16S rRNA molecules and researchers realised there are an incredible variety of different kinds of bacteria. The microbiome has a special, inflationary relationship to number. It is often said that humans have approximately 30 trillion human cells in their bodies and 39 trillion microbial cells, though this approximation has been challenged.[12] With the conclusion of the Human Genome Project, we know that there are approximately 20,000 known genes in the human genome. Secreted within the many kinds of single-cell microbiota are 2-20 million genes, so microbial researchers look to another series of calculations seek to emphasise the grand scale of the human microbiome: are 99% of the genes active in our bodies extrinsic to the human genome and largely unknown, yet to be fully understood?[13] We still do not know what many of these kinds are, what they do, or why they do what they do. The popular books available on the microbiome contain as much hypothesis as they do scientific evidence. We know that there is an extraordinary quantity and variety of life being supported by each of us, but we do not know what kind of life it is, or what kind of life we excrete.
  3. The established focus on pathogens – ‘bad’ bacteria, the scientific basis for developing both antibiotic drugs as well as the growth bacterial resistance to those drugs – has given way to a wonder-struck confusion about what the human is in an age of microbiomic analysis. Microbial communities are changed among those with obesity, asthma, colon cancer, diabetes, and autism – whether microbial change causes or is caused by these conditions is hotly contested.[14] It transpires that the interaction between microbes and immune cells is one constant cooperation rather than rejection – microbes fine-tune immune systems throughout the life course, which is why new bacteria resistant to antibiotics can be so catastrophic (immune systems depend on familiar bacteria).[15] The binary patterns of recognition, acceptance or rejection that underpin immunological distinctions of self/non-self, as well as derivative theories of waste that divide organic and nonorganic, placed and misplaced matter, must now contend with the central, developmental role played by nonhuman organisms in forming basic metabolic and immunological functions.
  4. All this encourages a quite different way of conceiving human-environment interactions, going beyond the immunological definition of the self against a multitude of nonhuman antagonists. ‘When we look at beetles and elephants, sea urchins and earthworms, parents and friends,’ argues science writer Ed Yong, ‘we see individuals, working their way through life as a bunch of cells in a single body, driven by a single brain, and operating with a single genome. This is a pleasant fiction.’[16] The individualist unit of anthropotechnical refinement – discrete selfhood – can be troubled without simply criticising its ethics or its environmental consequences (as agreeable as those critiques may be, they have little grounding in the biosocial matter imagined in bacterial life). Once we accept that powers to think, feel, choose, and shit depend upon teeming multitudes of bacterial bodies that surround, live within, and pass between human and nonhuman animals, organic and nonorganic, vegetable and mineral matter, a spanner can be cast into in the anthropological machinery with a little post-Kantian certainty. This would also make a welcome intervention in ‘animal studies’ and posthumanism, fields in the humanities and social sciences that have already embraced notions of sociality supported by distributed networks of human and nonhuman actors. Yet the problem with these writings is that they seem rather stuck with animal familiars – mice, pigeons, cats, dogs, and other small and medium-sized mammals. Since the focus on species and companions can neglect the molecular life that constantly and necessarily passes between all living beings.[17]

The ecological consequences of thinking about microbial ecologies is that evolutionary time converges more meaningfully with the temporal disruption wrought by habitat disturbance and destruction.[18] Though the world’s media has become effective in highlighting the visible damage done to the environment by human resource exploitation: changes in climate and sea levels, or species depletion and extinction are made explicit. But much less media attention is paid to the environmental quality and quantity of ubiquitous organisms. It deserves restating that the best information we have about what bacteria do to us is achieved through sequencing human wastes. But this extractive method, taking a once reviled substance and treating it as an information resource, encourages many to turn back to the human for answers, to enclose the world of bacteria into individualist pockets, despite the fact that ‘the human microbiome’ is a contradictory, rather meaningless idea. I am sorry to report that this is something that clever scientists, journalists, and corporations are exploiting. Giulia Ender’s popular book Gut claims that ‘each of us is an entire ecosystem […] our gut is their [the bacteria’s] world.’[19] Such ‘worlding’ of bacteria fails to tally with the ecological or planetary behaviour that is their world and ours. Even more damaging, in my view, is when Enders characterizes bacteria as colonizers and the body as one that is colonized. For Enders the first bacteria that enter us are ‘the founding fathers of our first microbial colonies.’[20] Such masculinized, imperial misrepresents the processes of symbiosis and the contingencies of mutualism, returns to territorialised self/non-self distinctions, and proposes a ‘virgin’ body that is prior to bacterial symbiont. Equally, when Tim Spector, now in possession of an exquisite example of my shit, thinks it is ‘useful to think of your microbial community as your own garden that you are responsible for,’[21] we return to the false and proprietorial idea of interior life versus exterior life. If my gut is a garden then it is public, never closed, its flora and fauna beyond any sensible census.

At this stage of my research, I sense that we urgently need a language, a fresh set of narrative forms, and renewed attempts to visualize the networks of ‘being–with’ and ‘evolved-thanks-to’ that can account for the spatial absorbency and temporal co-emergence that has cultivated human life as we know it, with the beings that bring us into being.


[1] Don DeLillo, End Zone (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1972), p. 88–89. For a discussion of this and other works by Don DeLillo in connection to waste, see Rachele Dini, Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction. Legacies of the Avant-Garde (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 154–175.

[2] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Colombia University Press, 1982), p. 2.

[3] Dominique Laporte, History of Shit, trans. Rodolphe el-Khoury and Nadia Benabid (1978; Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002), p. 34; Giorgio Agamben, The Open Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), p. 37.

[4] For a broader explanation of Sloterdijk’s thesis on human self-creation, see You Must Change Your Life (Cambridge: Polity, 2012).

[5] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966; Abingdon: Routledge, 2002), p. 44.

[6] I draw these insights and the effects on philosophy from Andrew Goffey, ‘Homo Immunologicus: On the Limits of Critique,’ BMJ: Medical Humaninties 41 (2015): 8–13.

[7] Laporte, History of Shit, p. 29

[8] Alfred I. Tauber, The Immune Self: Theory or Metaphor: A Philosophical Inquiry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 295.

[9] I paraphrase Maurizio Meloni, John Cromby, Des Fitzgerald, and Stephanie Lloyd, ‘Introduction,’ in Handbook of Biology and Society, ed., Maurizio Meloni, John Cromby, Des Fitzgerald, and Stephanie Lloyd (London: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2017).

[10] See Joshua Ozias Reno, ‘Toward a New Theory of Waste: From ‘Matter out of Place’ to Signs of Life,’ Theory Culture Society 31, 6 (2014): 6–27.

[11] See, among many others, Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.

[12] Ron Sender, Shai Fuchs, Ron Milo, ‘Revised Estimates for the Number of Human and Bacteria Cells in the Body,’ PLoS Biol 14, 8 (2016): e1002533. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1002533

[13] Rob Knight, ‘Breaking the Wall to Our Microbial Self’, at Falling Walls Conference, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-QaEnO1bcY Accessed 25 April 2017.

[14] The literature is too extensive and grows too rapidly to detail in full, take the following as indicative: Andrew B. Shreiner, John Y. Kao, and Vincent B. Young, ‘The Gut Microbiome in Health and in Disease,’ Current opinion in gastroenterology 31, 1 (2015): 69–75. PMC. Web. 25 Apr. 2017; K. Aagaard, J. Petrosino, W. Keitel, M. Watson, J. Katancik, and N. Garcia, ‘The Human Microbiome Project Strategy for Comprehensive Sampling of the Human Microbiome and Why It Matters,’ FASEB J 27 (2013): doi:10.1096/fj.12-220806; D. Huttenhower, D. Gevers, R. Knight, S. Abubucker, J. H. Badger, and A. T. Chinwalla, ‘Structure, Function and Diversity of the Healthy Human Microbiome,’ Nature 486 (2012): doi:10.1038/nature11234.

[15] The metaphor of tuning and ‘fine-tuning’ immunological response can be found in Giulia Enders, Gut: The Inside Stpry of Our Body’s Most Under-rated Organ, trans. David Shaw (2014; London: Scribe, 2016), p. 143.

[16] Ed Yong, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbobes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (London: Bodley Head, 2016), p. 5.

[17] For an example of this tendency towards handheld animal companions or ‘critters’, see Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), pp. 9–29; 104–116.

[18] Anna Tsing’s work is of such enormous value, for it imagines time and existence in capitalism’s ruins, see The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[19] Giulia Enders, Gut, p. 138, p. 140.

[20] Enders, Gut, p. 149.

[21] Tim Spector, The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What we Eat (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2015), p. 19.