Monday, 17 November 2014

An English toilet, a French toilet, and a German toilet walk into a bar…

In summer 2013, I noticed something weird about, Slavoj Zižek, David Foster Wallace, and toilets.  A series of coincidences in my life this week made me dig further…

The ideology of toilets

Slavoj Zižek has a skit that he occasionally performs in talks, about how different designs of toilet reflect the ideological character of their parent nation.  It’s quite funny – you can watch it here (from 1:02 to 3:45).  

The argument goes as follows:

German toilets are designed with the hole at the front, meaning that poo sits there for inspection before being flushed – which apparently is a manifestation of German philosophical reflection or conservatism.  French toilets have the hole at the back, so the poo vanishes immediately when flushed, representing French radicalism or rashness.  (Stay with me here.)  The Anglo Saxon approach (meaning England or the US, depending on the version he tells) involves the shit floating in water before being flushed – a kind of compromise, possibly expressing moderate rationality or economic liberalism. 

Got that?  Don’t worry.  Read on:

The Suffering Channel

David Foster Wallace’s short story The Suffering Channel follows a group of journalists from a New York magazine, who are writing a feature on an enigmatic rural ‘artist’ who makes sculptures out of his own turds.

Here’s an excerpt from a conversation between a group of magazine interns:

“She […] asked generally now whether anyone else who travelled abroad much had noticed that in German toilets the hole into which the poop is supposed to disappear when you flush is positioned way in front, so that the poop just sort of lies there in full view and there’s almost no way you can avoid looking at it when you get up and turn around to flush.  Which she observed was so almost stereotypically German, almost as if you were supposed to study and analyze your poop and make sure it passed muster before you flushed it down […]  whereas as in French toilets, though, the hole tended to be way in the back so that the poop vanished ASAP, meaning the whole thing was set up to be as elegant and tasteful as possible…  So then what about the US toilets here, with the hole in the middle and all this water so it all floats and goes around and around in a little dance before it goes down – what’s up with that?” 

Sound familiar?  Right.  So how did this come about? 

Beyond the u-bend:  the genealogy of the idea

Where does Zižek say his ideas come from?  In the video (2011), he claims he made the initial observation about the different designs of toilet himself, and as a result, sought the advice of architects and designers for the origins of this phenomenon.  When he didn’t receive a satisfactory answer, he bombastically exclaims, “A wild speculation came to my mind”, whereupon he arrives at his theory in a flash of inspiration. 

However, the earliest source I can find where Zižek expresses his toilet theory is in an article he wrote for the London Review of Books on 2nd September 2004.  (He may also have expressed it somewhere earlier that I’m not aware of – I simply don’t know.)  In the LRB, he rather more modestly presents a lineage of authors, including Hegel’s idea of there being three key European national ideals (German, French and English). 

He then mentions 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.’”  

So I went away and read Fear of Flying to see what Jong had in mind – and it turns out she’s actually much more specific, and goes much further than this flippant remark Zižek quotes about the Third Reich. 

After a whole paragraph on the German psychology of hygiene, Jong ponders “A classification of people on the basis of toilets.  ‘The History of the World Through Toilets’”, and describes in detail the national-psychology characteristics of each:
British:  “…the last refuge of colonialism.”
German:  “…enables you to have a long look, choose among political candidates, and think of things to tell your analyst.”
Italian:  “…the toilets run swift here and the shit disappears long before you can leap up and turn around to admire it.  Hence Italian art.”
French:  “I somehow cannot make sense of French philosophy & literature vis à vis the French approach to merde.”
Japanese:  “This has something to do with Zen.” 

Huh.  So it now seems clear that Erica Jong originated this theme…   


…But not in a straightforward way.  Because although there are similarities between all three works, they’re certainly not identical. 

The stereotype of Germans being analytical and philosophical is espoused by each of them.  But the French caricature in The Suffering Channel is of elegance, rather than Zižek’s one of political radicalism, whilst Jong’s is uncertain – though maybe her image of Italian artiness acts as a stand-in for Wallaces' and Zižek's French paradigm here.  The Anglo-Saxon part is the most confused of all.  Jong offers the British Empire and stiff upper lip, Zižek thinks it’s about British or American liberalism, but Wallace doesn’t really offer anything at all. 

In fact another feature which is common among Jong, Wallace and Zižek is that by the time they get to the last stereotype on their respective lists, they’ve run out of steam.  They tail off vaguely as if to say “Well… you get the picture – do I really need to finish this idea?”  Alternatively, perhaps it’s a deliberate critique of the absurdity of national collective identities, or even a self-mocking way of acknowledging that although they made a joke based on stereotypes, they don’t wholeheartedly  subscribe to them.  (Though this last suggestion seems unlikely in Jong, who demonstrates a strong antagonism towards both German and Middle-Eastern culture in Fear of Flying.)

It’s also notable that Italy, and especially Japan, are included in Jong’s list of nationalities, because when Zižek brings up the idea of the European ideological trinity in his talk, he decries it as racist – although it appears to be him who is excluding other cultures from his analysis.  (Notwithstanding that Jong’s summation of Japanese culture is, ahem, lacking in nuance to say the least.)

While Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying came out back in 1973, the timing of Wallace and Zižek’s work is curious:  Zižek’s LRB article appeared on 2nd September 2004 – just three months after the publication of Wallace’s Oblivion Stories anthology, on 4th June 2004. 

But it’s still difficult to suspect that Zižek’s idea was prompted Wallace.  Partly because he also cites Jong’s much earlier novel (albeit not the most relevant part of it).  But also because Zižek must have been aware that the Venn diagram of people who have read both Slavoj Zižek and David Foster Wallace must be a pretty cosy one.  (Though a quick web search only turns up one other blog post from 2011 making the same observation.)

And to what extent did Wallace borrow his idea from Jong?  

Above all, regardless of 'who started it' (the one who smelt it dealt it?), I do find it pleasing that a little idea about toilets from the '70s is still clinging on after all this time, being recapitulated in different forms - even surviving the gradual homogenisation of European WCs - and continues to amuse people with puerile minds like me.

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