Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Your Ideology Is In The Toilet

A Fistful Of Euros:

Now in Vienna they have figured out how to make toilets. There is a serioius pool of water down which the toilet is flushed then further back towards the wall a shelf which is very slightly concave so that one or two milimeters of water pool there after each flush. This is too little to splash but plenty to prevent sticking.

I haven’t seen such toilets anywhere else.

I think that squemishness about discussing this very practical issue is preventing the diffusion of this brilliant technology around Europe.

In fact, I would even be in favor of EU toilet standards if I weren’t sure that they would be dictated by larger countries with inferior plumbing.

Mmmhmm. And how did I know that the author was not ..well, full of shit, but also only touching the rim, as it were, of the issue? Because as soon as I saw this the other day, I remembered the hilarious metaphor of Slovenian genius Slavoj Zizek:

In a famous scene from Buñuel's Phantom of Liberty, the roles of eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at toilets around a table, chatting pleasantly, and when they want to eat, sneak away to a small room. So, as a supplement to Lévi-Strauss, one is tempted to propose that shit can also serve as a matière-à-penser: the three basic types of toilet form an excremental correlative-counterpoint to the Lévi-Straussian triangle of cooking (the raw, the cooked and the rotten). 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. No wonder that in the famous discussion of European toilets at the beginning of her half-forgotten Fear of Flying, Erica Jong mockingly claims that 'German toilets are really the key to the horrors of the Third Reich. People who can build toilets like this are capable of anything.' 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.

Hegel was among the first to see in the geographical triad of Germany, France and England an expression of three different existential attitudes: reflective thoroughness (German), revolutionary hastiness (French), utilitarian pragmatism (English). In political terms, this triad can be read as German conservatism, French revolutionary radicalism and English liberalism. In terms of the predominance of one sphere of social life, it is German metaphysics and poetry versus French politics and English economics. The point about toilets is that they enable us not only to discern this triad in the most intimate domain, but also to identify its underlying mechanism in the three different attitudes towards excremental excess: an ambiguous contemplative fascination; a wish to get rid of it as fast as possible; a pragmatic decision to treat it as ordinary and dispose of it in an appropriate way. It is easy for an academic at a round table to claim that we live in a post-ideological universe, but the moment he visits the lavatory after the heated discussion, he is again knee-deep in ideology.

The humble toilet as a "sign" of the dialectic's continued relevance.

Sure enough, in an effort to make me look unoriginal in my observations, a commenter at AFOE has since mentioned Zizek, and refers to a Slovenian blog that, in turn, refers to a video at East Art Map where Zizek expounds on the same "semiotic triangle".

I'm not exactly disappointed that Zizek is repeating himself nearly thirty years on, because the point is a good one. Even then, Recieved Opinion had it that soon the End of Ideology was near (would that it were so!); Zizek was right to say it wouldn't be as simple as all that. He mentions Lyotard; we could just as easily mention Daniel Bell or Francis Fukuyama. As always, Zizek's genius is to make these observations in an earthy or witty way that arrests the attention of readers whose eyes normally and not unreasonably glaze at encountering dialectical analysis. I admit that it is helpful he's not French or German, not because it would necessarily skew his analysis, but because it would render it less-entertaining to English readers. His style of earthly ebullience combined with a cheery willingness to use pop culture in his analyses makes him indispensible; a populariser who reminds me very much of Umberto Eco.

We live in a country where dialectical analysis should be a major industry. Yet when given the opportunity, our native pundits inevitably drop the ball, fumbling such easy opportunities as "red vs. blue" to triumphantly proclaim an observation of a synthesis, a "Purple Pose", that is as fatuous as it is facile.


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