isop: shit! or, why i dread the bathroom

shit, or why i dread the bathroom

by suiyi tang

there is a joke which goes like this: once, there was a philosopher whose epiphanies occurred exclusively while he was on the toilet. the townspeople thought him a fool, but one day, to their collective surprise, he won a prestigious government-funded prize. out of curiosity, the townspeople ventured to the philosopher and asked him how he had won. he replied that the winning idea had come to him nowhere other than in the bathroom. when asked to summarize the idea, he pointed to the first passage of his book, and read:

In a traditional German toilet, the hole into which shit disappears after we flush is right at the front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff and inspect for traces of illness. In the typical French toilet, on the contrary, the hole is at the back, i.e. shit is supposed to disappear as quickly as possible. Finally, the American (Anglo-Saxon) toilet presents a synthesis, a mediation between these opposites: the toilet basin is full of water, so that the shit floats in it, visible, but not to be inspected. It is clear that none of these versions can be accounted for in purely utilitarian terms: each involves a certain ideological perception of how the subject should relate to excrement...reflective thoroughness (German), revolutionary hastiness (French), utilitarian pragmatism (English).

this joke is from the internet. the fool is none other than slavoj zizek, and i guess hegel is not the only person who knows shit. i wonder what the toilet-bound philosopher would say about makeshift latrines dug in the dirt, the variety which requires squatting and unceremonious burial. or would such a barbaric connection with the earth prove ultimately illegible? after all, what kind of existential philosophy explains the derivative practice of villagers who follow in the footsteps of german, french, and english progress?

in singapore, toilets alternate between the sit-down and squat varieties. perhaps this is representative of the dialogic relationship between colonized and colonizer, as floating shit is met with a revolutionary hastiness that failed to completely dispose of its traces. a postcolonial logic lingering on the verge of independence. i’m not sure—slavoj zizeck would probably have a better hegelian re-reading along the lines of rationality and progress. some have argued that toilets, too, can represent the meeting of east and west; and, in some cases, north and south.

i have always associated squat toilets with a kind of putrid relief. the humid memories of my childhood in southern china marked by the splash and sink of cold water on ceramic, that perfunctory sound of cleansing which rang before and after everything i did. in singapore, showers, sinks, and squat toilets reside in adjacency, crowded by ceramic tiles and the heads of hoses made available for the singular action of spraying all exposed surfaces. it is unclear who—or what—is being washed at any given moment. despite the grime, the efficient blast that glazes over the cracks allows an illusion of freshness before lingering as steam on the walls.

though singapore prides itself on the harmonious amalgamation of parts formerly unmet—malay, tamil, chinese; british colonizer, the colonized; ang moh, non-white foreigners, “natives”—it would be a lie to say that the singaporean toilets i have had the honor (and, more often than not, misfortune) of meeting have provided a comfort expected by any such felicitous synthesis. i have been told that the international image of singapore is that of a prosperous island stamped with the welcome sterility of progress. but i wonder if the intimacy with which filth and water co-mingle in the average singaporean bathroom reveals the less savory costs of such an image.

a tour of public and semi-public toilets would suggest an expected class difference.the wealthier the establishment, the healthier its ceramic innards. clean bathrooms are concentrated in downtown singapore, the “face” of the city; those of passable health, in public buildings and mid-tier malls; the poorest, in subway stations, streetside eateries, and other places most accessed by the masses. in my vain desire for a clean seat at the shit-stained proverbial table, i have become most adept at identifying the likely bathroom quality of any given establishment. the majority of singaporean bathrooms, as i have come to learn, are far from sterile—a striking incongruity with the visage of progress its gleaming buildings project.

every other day, a south asian cleaning lady comes to my boarding house to sweep the floors and give a washing to the two bathrooms which line the halls. i have never actually been privy to the washing, only half-hope, selfishly, that it occurs out of sight, and out of mind. but i suspect an inconsistency between refilled toilet paper rolls and still-dirty linoleum floors that suggests an unsavory mystery just beyond my reach. my hostess calls our cleaning lady her “helper,” but the reality is that “help” occurs in solitude, as none of us ever participate in the action. the sterile distance between helper and the helped is at odds with the microbial ecosystem along whom we exist intimately. that the “helper” holds no stake in the ends of her labor is a cruel truth which stops my longing for sterile toilets on the other side of paradise.

today, in singapore, as in japan, squat toilets are increasingly becoming replaced by sit-down toilets, known ubiquitously by their adjectival identification as “western.” toto, the now internationally renowned japanese toilet manufacturer, has popularized the built-in bidet, and other add-on features such as heated seats, adjustable flush, and music players—all of which define an indulgent, hyper-modern shitting experience previously unknown. gone are the nostalgic soundtracks of colonial poverty: sore thighs, overfilled basins, and the primitive plop of the squat toilet. the toto luxury toilet has not only welcomed a new existential philosophy, but accelerated the global north’s collective assimilation into an ahistorical modernity bereft of unsightly stains. where once the downcast eye of empire observed televised spectacles of rivers drowned in sewage and sun-browned children crouched in the muddy earth, today’s protected global citizens heed no call to such humbling witness. the transient filth of the bathroom, formerly a point of contact between the privileged social subject and its secreted abject, is now a gleaming delusion from which the the specters of death are determinedly scrubbed to preserve a bloodless vision of modernity. as fine dining veers toward such spectacles as $900 coffee and chicken wings drenched in fourteen karat gold, the white-washed site of the sit-down toilet has become further redefined from the inside and out.

at a cool average of $1,200, the upscale sit-down toilet with a built-in bidet is far from the norm in singapore. rather, the visage of progress is captured by an appeal to the west half-way between modern and clean. the presence of a western toilet is both statement of class and civility. likewise, its absence reeks of a not-quite-post-colonial present in which the dirty work of class inequality and social stratification are literalized in most intimate confines. ironically, by distancing the populous from its excess, the western toilet has created a new kind of sociality perched on the surface of its seat. even in the grimiest public restrooms, sit-down toilets line the majority of stalls. the intimacy offered by these toilets, redefined through invisible touches between its users, is coagulated with the microbial phenomenon of disease. in short, the reassuring comforts of modernity and health hazard—a seat at the shit-stained proverbial table, indeed.

it seems clear to me that the fool was only partially right. what is at stake in the subject’s relation to excrement is not solely a matter of existential philosophy, but an architectural practice that traces the very circuits of colonial modernity. the only thing left unstained may be the universalizing excess of shit itself. sterility and disease are but two sides of the same coin in that ill-fated gamble of progress.

suiyi tang