Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

What is the "politics of shit"?

By Christopher Hyun

My search for the first Tweet on the "politics of shit" came up with this one :

The Tweet above from 2009 could have been written for America in 2017. In fact, Anderson Cooper just mentioned shit and politics last week on CNN as seen in this Tweet :

The first Tweet also sums up my work as a researcher -- in that I do wake up feeling a certain way about the politics of shit. I have to. It's my job.

I'm a PhD candidate interested in the "politics of shit." But, what is that exactly?

I first encountered this phrase reading a paper by UCLA professor of urban planning, Ananya Roy. She quotes anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, saying that when officials who make policy for public toilets have real dialogue with the defecators themselves, then "they become speaking subjects, they become political actors."

In the politics of shit, agendas for research, policy making, and planning are not only made for those who need a place to shit but made by the shitters themselves. According to Roy, the politics of shit highlights the fact that "provision and distribution of infrastructure is not a technical issue but rather a political process."

The politics of shit is not only about human excrement but about local participation and the politics behind what is often understood as apolitical, technical decision making. However at times, the politics of shit is literally about shit.

A Google Scholar search of "politics of shit" comes up with 117 publications, with the most popular ones by Appadurai (1143 citations), Roy (741 citations), and an amusing little book titled "History of Shit" by Dominique Laporte (232 citations). Laporte defines the politics of shit as the process by which human excrement is policed and has been made private, particularly how it has been pushed into closets and "privies."

This process of pushing private toilets onto populations has been accelerated in the past few years in India, where I do my research. While campaigning, the Prime Minister of India made toilets a priority, saying, "toilet first, temple later."

Though India has been building toilets, it hasn't been planning for treatment at the same rate. In a sense, it's been: toilet first, treatment later. According to a Government of India report in 2013, large cities in India have the capacity to treat less than a third of the sewage they generate, and smaller cities can't even treat a tenth of their sewage. As the director of the Centre for Science and Environment, Sunita Narain, says in Nature : "India is drowning in its own excreta. … as toilets get built, the challenge of managing excreta grows."

Last month, my colleagues and I coordinated the Bay Area WASH Symposium, gathering water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) scholars from UC Berkeley, Stanford, UC Davis, and UC San Francisco. To liven things up, we had asked the participants to write a haiku about their research. This was mine:

Shit flows through people

It flows through pipes, policies,

And presidents, too

For me, the politics of shit is fundamentally about revealing how the planning, installation, and maintenance of infrastructure can produce, reflect, and reinforce political power. Others have actually shown this quite well for various systems of infrastructure -- like Marvin and Graham. But I focus primarily on sanitation. As Laporte hints to when talking about shit, all of this is often shoved into closets, behind closed doors, in the ground, and in the bowels of cities and people.

The aim, then, is to uncover the politics of shit... of shit. And no matter which way you look at it, it's going to be messy.

[Featured image: flickr/Meena Kadri ]

Cross-post from christopherhyun.com