Bathroom Thoughts with Julia Kristeva or, More Poop on San Francisco

In response to a commenter’s complaint that all his favorite bloggers were moving to audio and video formats, I decided to expand upon my earlier podcast in writing and see the ways in which the medium changes the message.  

5,000 years ago our ancestors on the Orkney Islands built toilets which drained waste away from their homes. When the ancient Israelites were wandering about the Sinai, their God commanded them in Deuteronomy 23:

12 Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself.

13 As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement.

14 For the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you. Your camp must be holy, so that he will not see among you anything indecent and turn away from you.

Our earliest introduction to society comes in toilet training. We are taught when and where to relieve ourselves. Instead of letting go when the mood strikes us, we make for an area in which our waste can be properly contained and disposed of.  This is a critical skill for living amongst each other in groups, and since we are pack primates that makes it a critical skill indeed.  We are hard-wired to conceal our droppings. When we are no longer capable of doing that it is a certain sign that something is very, very wrong.

Julia Kristeva Photo Sophie Zhang pour Flammarion
Dr. Julia Kristeva

Bulgarian philosopher Julia Kristeva has described the “Abject” as:

A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me.

In 2011 the San Francisco Department of Public Works logged just over 5,500 incidents of human feces found on San Francisco city streets.  By 2018 that number had risen to more than 28,000.  The home of “Flower Power” has become more famous for its manure and a city once praised for its architecture and climate is now America’s largest open-air latrine.

For Kristeva abjection lies at “the limit of primal repression.” It is rooted not within the unconscious but in our gut instincts of disgust and repugnance.  The contemporary Left (following the lead of Marxist-Freudians like Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich), generally sees repression as an unqualified evil.  And so, while San Francisco officials have met their fecal flood with “poop patrols” and mobile port-a-potties, they have done very little to address the cause of the issue — the people who are shitting in the streets.

In medieval Europe few were more abject than lepers.  And yet while they were subject to many taboos and restrictions, lepers also held a certain holy status.  If their leprosy was a punishment for sin, their suffering was a way to redemption.  As St. Gregory the Great put it:

What can be more abject in the flesh of man than the flesh of the leper, harrowed by swollen sores and suffused with nauseous exhalations? But see that He has appeared in the aspect of a leper; and He who is revered above all has not scorned to appear despised beneath all.

Through kindness and charity toward lepers, medieval Christian lords could atone for their sins. San Francisco’s new technofeudal aristocrats and courtiers earn their indulgences through speaking up for the downtrodden. They wag their fingers at San Francisco’s notoriously high housing prices and vaguely defined “structures of oppression” to absolve themselves of building these structures and inflating these prices.  Shit heaps and stray needles become objects of penance and signs of faith: despite all this San Francisco still loves and respects our homeless.

Unfortunately San Francisco’s homeless are more often treated as emblems than as people.  Poverty, addiction and illness confers upon them the redemptive blessing of oppression. In 2017 San Francisco spent over $305 million on homelessness services.  The city continues to build drop-in centers and needle exchange programs:  they work hard to help those wishing to address the problems which brought them to the streets.  But because San Francisco liberals cherish “freedom of choice” the way medieval Christians cherished “redemption of souls,” these programs have generally been voluntary.  And because Intersectionality holds that problematic in uno, problematic in omnibus there is a strong taboo against treating the homeless as anything other than innocent victims.

But voluntary treatment programs require clients who are capable of making informed decisions about their care.  And when you’re pinching a loaf on the sidewalk, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re no longer in a place where you can make those informed decisions. Their free choices in San Francisco and throughout California have led to outbreaks of diseases like typhus, shigella and hepatitis and the homeless crisis is fast becoming a public health crisis.

As I noted in a recent Pendulum article, the state mental hospitals of the mid-20th century were frequently grim places.  But for all their failings those hospitals provided food, clothing and shelter to the sick.  We freed them from locked wards and left them to sleep on steam grates. We shut down our mental hospitals and replaced them with an ever-growing prison/industrial complex.  Instead of patients to be healed, the homeless have become part of a great debasement ritual whereby wealthy San Franciscans atone for their sins by rubbing their noses in someone else’s shit.

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