Project (2020-)

The Waste of the Body

It is not the couch, bed, or car seat, but rather the toilet on which our comfort and privacy are practiced and confirmed. Having a designated place to discard of our bodily waste is considered crucial for evaluating the right to be human. Indeed, one might say that the domestication of the toilet is the crux of modernity. Home- and particularly flush-toilets are not only symbols of modernity, but the starting (or end) points of complicated technological infrastructures, constructed on the basis of particular understanding of value, order, and disease. As historians of technology and public health demonstrate, the history of toilets is also intimately connected to that of power and imperialism.

Little is known, however, about how transformational the process of separating the waste from its human or animal body of origin has been. The Bodily Waste project is based on the assumption that throughout most of history, the substances that exited the body were far from what we consider to be waste materials. They were, instead, useful and important for many worlds of knowledge and practice. This history of use and value challenges our assumptions about trash and the limits of the body. It illustrates how the waste of the body, along with many other materials deemed futile, was invented in modernity. This invention had far-reaching cultural, technological, and environmental consequences: letting go of the value of bodily materials meant recruiting precious resources to separate, hide, and discard of them; losing their value, such materials became sensorial nuisance, exposing feelings of disgust and repulsion. By analyzing the myriad uses and meanings of bodily materials we now consider to be waste, participants in the project search for the meaning and consequences of this historical process, and ask whether we can come to terms with our disregarded and discarded stench.