By Rebecca Marshall • MSc Medical Anthropology
This blog entry is a review of the UCL Medical Anthropology Evening Seminar entitled ‘Three Achievements of Excrement: Disgust, humour and emphasis’ given by Professor of Anthropology, Sjaak van der Geest (University of Amsterdam), Thursday 12th October 2017, Darryl Forde Seminar Room
If one were to argue that faeces (yes, that’s poo to you and me) is a powerful tool of disgust, humour and rhetoric – you’d be sure to reply that they were talking shit. Correct?
Yet during Professor Sjaak van der Geest’s engaging talk – ‘Three Achievements of excrement: disgust, humour and emphasis’ – he waded through an anthropological journey knee deep in dirt and shit, persuading his audience otherwise.
Starting with a colourful exploration of Mary Douglas’s concept of “matter out of place”, Van der Geest argued excrement has a cultural meaning. When thinking about what defines excrement, we need to view it in its social place, its context. He indulged us in a thought experiment. You and I are storing poo in our colon right now and we will flush it down a toilet later. Yet this doesn’t stop us living our day to day lives, we are not continually disgusted by this process or thought. It’s not “out of place”. But then put yourself in the shoes of a patient who has undergone a colostomy and has a stoma bag to contend with. Their internal becomes external. (During my Colorectal Surgical rotation as a medical student, I observed this scenario daily.) This was a patient’s own faeces transported “out of place” by a technical shift. Then consider the profound stigma associated with this change and the impact this has on a person’s relationship with their environment, their peers and their own identity. The anthropological conceptualisation of “faeces out of place” starts to take shape. The meaning of excrement becomes constructed by its place, where it is in time and space.
Yet this is not a one-way street. Whilst the meaning of excrement is formed by context, poo itself can be utilised as a reaction to socio-cultural and historical contexts. Its very stuff, its materiality and associated disgusting properties, can be transformed into a rhetorical device. It is no coincidence that the word “revolt” signifies both the act of protest and the feeling of being disgusted. Van der Geest recounted striking examples where poo, the unlikeliest of accomplices, has been transformed into a political weapon. Take the example of the 1980 “dirty protest” in Maze Prison, Northern Ireland, in which IRA prisoners smeared excrement over their cell walls. This foreshadowed the later (and infamous) 1981 hunger strike and the amplification of violent tensions in this region. More recently, the play on words “poopootov cocktail” in Caracas, Venezuela has been utilised as a protest against President Maduro’s government and a symbol of the struggle for democracy. As one protester exclaimed “they have tear gas, we have excrement.”
Tit (or more aptly shit) for tat.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, Van der Geest illustrated the comedic potential of poo. Drawing on the work of Douglas, whose essays on Humour describe joking as a “play upon form” and a kind of “ritual pollution”. Poo has the power to subvert and to highlight “alter-realities”. Reflected in works of Freudian thought, too, in the sense that jokes can bring together seemingly incongruous themes in order to highlight hidden patterns in society.
Sjaak recounted examples of proverbs and wit from around the globe. His vast research in Ghana sparked a fascination with faeces; encountering proverbs such as “efi aka no” (literally, “dirt has stuck to him”), which signifies someone who has committed a moral sin. In Malawi, the proverb “eating in the toilet” signifies a “greedy person” and the phrase “life is like a chicken coop ladder” is a popular (and admittedly amusing) allegory one can hear echoed around communities.
Douglas herself drew on Western anthropological studies of the Dogon tribe in Africa, to show how humour (like dirt) is culturally defined and context specific (cf. 1968). Ethnographers viewed the exchanges of the Dogon tribe describing them as “gross insults”, yet to the local discourse – this was merely a mechanism of joviality and wit.
So, just as poo can shock and disgust, “toilet humour” and rhetorical shit is also a means of playing with dirty and taboo subjects to provoke a response.
And the audience’s response to the entertaining seminar ‘Three Achievements of Excrement: Disgust, humour and emphasis’?
A definite hit.
Yet his fourth achievement – namely, putting us off our food just before dinner time – may not have gone down so well.
Van Der Geest, Sjaak (1998) Akan Shit: Getting rid of dirt in Ghana. Anthropology Today 14(3):8-12.
Douglas, Mary (1966) Purity and Danger. London: Routledge.
Douglas, Mary (1968) The Social Control of Cognition: Some factors in joke perception. Man (N.S.) 3(3):361-376.
The Guardian (2017) ‘They Have Gas; We Have Excrement’: Venezuela protests take a dirty turn. Wednesday, 10th May 2017. Accessed online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/09/venezuela-protest-poo-poo-tov-cocktail-nicolas-maduro