Of Toilets and Taboos

In honour of World Toilet Day, which is today….
Barbara Penner, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL
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Recently, I was struck by the video, “The Bathroom Reinvented” on Dwell magazine’s website. It features London-based industrial designer, Virginia Gardiner, explaining her creation, GCH4, a waterless toilet molded out of horse dung and resin. While intrigued by Gardiner’s design itself, part of a proposed system for transforming human shit into biofuel, I was even more struck by the clever way she presented it. Take, for instance, the video’s opening scene [see still image] in which Gardiner makes straight for her toilet and lays her hands on it while informing viewers that it’s “made of poo.” With this simple act, she directly tackles the taboos that surround toilets in both popular and professional discourses. By touching and remarking on the toilet’s dark, organically textured surface (its “softness”), she reminds us of the material reality of our waste, usually rendered invisible by our ‘flush and forget’ waterborne sanitation systems. She also directly counters the design profession’s tendency to be “hands off” with toilets even as it treats smooth white bathroom fittings as icons of hygienic culture; rather, she signals her desire to dirty or perhaps soil design, literally and metaphorically, and, in so doing, restore a close, productive relationship between our bodies and the earth.
Gardiner’s video also resonates on another level. Its unapologetic and confident approach – not to mention the appreciative responses to it on the Dwell website – confirmed a sense I’ve had for some time: that toilets are at last becoming a (more) suitable and serious subject of architectural and academic interest. This comes as a relief. I have spent the last fifteen years researching public toilets in Western cities, writing on subjects ranging from late-nineteenth-century campaigns to provide women in London with public lavatories to recent designs for female urinals to social and professional resistance to alternate (i.e. dry) sanitation systems like Gardiner’s. I do study subjects other than toilets but this is the one that refuses to go away. The main reason that I continue to return to it is that I’ve found that toilets are a very powerful way of talking about how social categories like race, class, sex are inscribed in the built environment and about how architecture articulates and maintains social difference.
One curious side-effect of having stumbled into this topic, however, is that I repeatedly find myself talking about my choice of topic: or, more specifically, defending its legitimacy as a subject of academic inquiry. Although the majority of the objections to my topic are voiced politely (the arched eyebrow generally being the weapon of choice), they erupted to the surface in 2005 in a controversy around the Call for my co-edited book, Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender. In addition to articles in the mainstream media, my co-editor, Olga Gershenson, and I found ourselves the subjects of hundreds of bemused, sneering, and derogatory comments in conservative op-ed pages and blogs. These commentators saw our project as representative of the degradation of higher education and what they perceived as the contemporary academic obsession with the everyday, popular culture, and sub-cultural practices (denounced as “trivia”). In one typical comment, The New Criterion editor Roger Kimball, demanded: “But really: a book about the ideology of public toilets? Has it come to that?” More surprisingly, in the wake of the book’s publication in 2009 and in spite of generally supportive reviews, we were charged with trivializing academe again – this time by a reviewer in the Journal of Popular Culture who summarily dismissed the book’s entire premise. Despite acknowledging the value of individual essays, the reviewer declared, “I was still not convinced why public toilets need be the subject of any book,” and went on to compare the study of public toilets, negatively, to the study of “peanut butter cups.”


To be clear: we never embarked upon Ladies and Gents in a spirit of provocation, though there is a well established scholarly lineage from Jonathan Swift onwards of using toilets in this way. Rather, we were working from two basic observations. First, that when people argue over toilets what tends to really be at stake is the right of certain user groups to move through and occupy public space. And, second, that granting or denying a group access to something as basic as a toilet not only affects its members’ mobility in the city, but also tells them something about their status: provision becomes a powerful index of social belonging. For this reason, in our book, we spoke of toilets as spaces of control, of discipline in the sense that philosopher Michel Foucault used the term, as a tool for keeping (never wholly successfully) existing social categories in place. But the controversy surrounding our book appeared to expose the workings of “discipline” in a more strictly academic sense as well. By their very nature, toilets seem to test disciplinary boundaries like no other subject, threatening the purity of academic discourse by contaminating the divide between high and low, spirit and matter, upon which it still implicitly depends – at least in the minds of many of the project’s critics.
It is more difficult to explain why a popular culture scholar felt so strongly that the subject of toilets should be excluded from academe, especially given that disciplines like popular, material, and visual culture, with their interest in the everyday fabric of human social life, usually work against such limits. Ultimately, however, the attack was unexpected not only because it came from an unlikely source, but also because it felt retrograde and out-of-step with current social and environmental concerns. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what has shifted since 2005 to make toilets more widely accepted, a shift has undeniably occurred, as demonstrated by the sheer number of conferences, articles, books and architectural competitions that have recently appeared on the subject. Many of these work from the assumption that safe and clean toilets are vital to establishing healthy, equitable, and dignified communities across the developing and developed world, explicitly recognizing their particular impact on women and children and their importance to feminist inquiry.
There have been several factors at play in this change in status. The most obvious, of course, is the environmental crisis and the stress placed on the world’s water resources which have given the quest for adequate and alternate methods of sanitation a sense of urgency, and even a gravitas, that it has previously lacked. The subject of toilets, waste, and sanitation more broadly is now cited as a global priority by a growing number of institutions and is the raison d’être for effective international lobbying bodies like the World Toilet Organization and Sulabh International. The United Nations introduced the most influential sea change in thinking when it made the improvement of sanitation one of its Millenium Goals in 2000; significant funding has since flowed into sanitation research and projects from NGOs like Unicef and WaterAid, and private bodies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Within academe itself, the subject has gained from the general embrace of interdisciplinarity or, more accurately in this case, multidisciplinarity. Previously, studies of toilets and the related subjects of sanitation, sewage and waste, tended to be produced by individual scholars in a scattered range of disciplines: law, development studies, hydrogeology, engineering, epidemiology, public health, planning, environmental studies, political ecology, material culture, geography, history, art history, fine art, sociology, and anthropology. As a result of recent multidisciplinary conferences and edited books, however, there is the sense that these isolated efforts are coalescing into a larger field, one that transcends, without erasing, particular disciplinary allegiances. In fact, it does not seem too far-fetched to suggest that toilets, waste, and sanitation, may ultimately prove to be among the greatest beneficiaries of multidisciplinary approaches to research as they require – and are now attracting – a more joined-up holistic approach. At a recent event focused on urine diversion toilets in Durban, South Africa, for instance, I found myself rubbing elbows with engineers, scientists, civil society organizers, community scholars, and NGO workers, each of whom had their own perspective and approach. It is an exciting if challenging mix.
This seems to me to be the real opportunity of the emergence of “toilet studies”. Beyond securing its legitimacy as an academic subject, it has the potential to serve more generally as a model for multidisciplinary academic inquiries. It is still comparatively rare, for instance, to find a topic that brings the so-called “hard” academic subjects (science, engineering, and medicine) into dialogue with the “soft” (arts and humanities), not to mention with those in between – social sciences, architecture and industrial design. Toilet studies offers to do just that. The most desirable outcome of these dialogues is to bridge the disconnect that characterizes traditional approaches to water and sanitation: that is, the disconnect between production and consumption, big systems of infrastructure and the individual user. While this disconnect can be seen as the inevitable by-product of different disciplinary scales of engagement – macro versus micro – it also reflects different disciplinary methods and priorities, the preference for quantitative over qualitative data, for instance, or for technocratic top-down over participatory bottom-up over solutions. If the present generation of toilet studies has anything to teach, it is that neither approach alone will suffice for genuine change to occur. As Gardiner’s work subtly reminds us, in order to be viable, new or different technologies must also take on board questions of representation, reception, social mores and professional protocols: that her work manages to do so in such a sophisticated way is a happy portent for the new field.
Notes & References
1. www.dwell.com/videos/the-bathroom-reinvented-virginia-gardiner.html (accessed 25 August 2010).
2. Roger Kimball, “Where is Hercules when you need him?” (5/30/2005) www.newcriterion.com/posts.cfm/where-is-hercules-when-you-need-him-3949 (accessed 12 October 2007).
3. Rebecca Housel, Review of Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner (eds.), Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender (Temple UP, 2009), in The Journal of Popular Culture 43: 1, (2010): 206-7; or response will appear in a forthcoming issue of The Journal of Popular Culture.
4. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans.
A. Sheridan (London: Penguin Books, 1991).
5. See, for instance, Rose George, The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste (London: Portobello Books, 2008); and Maggie Black and Ben Fawcett, The Last Taboo: Opening the Door on the Global Sanitation Crisis (London: Earthscan, 2008). In terms of competitions, consider the Royal Institute of British Architects’ decision in 2009 to ask five British architectural practices to design a public convenience to celebrate its 175th anniversary which, even if the results were to my mind disappointing, was symbolically important.
6. See, for instance, “Flushing away unfairness: Hanging on too long for porcelain parity is more than a nuisance for women,” The Economist (08/07/2010) www.economist.com/node/16542591?story_id=16542591 (accessed 24 August, 2010).
7. In addition to our own book, Ladies and Gents, which brought together scholars from law, architecture, education, and religious studies (among many others), other notable initiatives include the conference “Outing the Water Closet: Sex, Gender, and the Public Toilet” organized by New York University and the Center for Architecture, 3 November, 2007, highlights of which are published in Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren (eds.) Toilet: The Public Restroom and the Politics of Sharing (forthcoming; NYU Press, 2010).

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