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Mary Catherine Foltz, "The Excremental Ethics of Samuel R. Delany"

Mary Catherine Foltz, "The Excremental Ethics of Samuel R. Delany"

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The Excremental Ethics of Samuel R. Delany
The Excremental Ethics of Samuel R. Delany

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The Excremental Ethics of Samuel R. Delany
Mary Catherine Foltz
SubStance, Issue 116 (Volume 37, Number 2), 2008, pp. 41-55 (Article)
Published by University of Wisconsin Press
DOI: 10.1353/sub.0.0012 
For additional information about this article
Access provided by University of Sydney Library (24 Jun 2013 08:55 GMT)
SubStance #116, Vol. 37, no. 2, 2008
Excremental Ethics of Samuel R. Delany
The Excremental Ethicsof Samuel R. Delany
 Mary Catherine Foltz
Through me many long dumb voices . . .And of the rights of them the others are down upon,Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,For in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.Through me forbidden voices,Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d.I do not press my fingers across my mouth,I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart.— Walt Whitman,
Song of Myself 
I.Bathrooms speak to me now. This thrice daily flushing, this thricedaily forgetting, is a modern mantra. This song of stream, this drum ofdung, and then the whirlpool whip that marks the moment beforeevacuation from the (water) closet. It is here that we leave our proof ofdisintegration and return cleansed to labor, to the main rooms of thehome, or to the street. Underneath us, as we walk purely forth, ourexcrement travels, too. Through pipes, it becomes the rivers of anunderworld rushing to collection centers for treatment for its filth. Yet,this process fails; no matter how many chemicals we use to destroy thisstink from our bodies, something remains. It is not possible to ridourselves of our excess. As environmentalist and architect Sim Van derRyn writes,
Mix one part excreta with one hundred parts clean water. Send themixture through the pipes to a central station where billions are spentin futile attempts to separate the two. Then dump the effluent, nowpoisoned with chemicals but still rich in nutrients, into the nearestbody of water. The nutrients feed algae which soon use up all theoxygen in the water, eventually destroying all aquatic life that mayhave survived the chemical residues.Our excreta—not waste but misplaced resources—end updestroying food chains, food supply and water quality in rivers andoceans. (11-12)
But we won’t plumb, we won’t sink. We pay for this pleasurable fantasyof freedom from the waste of ourselves. The push of the handle makes
© Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin System, 2008
Mary Catherine Foltz
SubStance #116, Vol. 37, no. 2, 2008
the sound of metal on metal, coin in slot. We pay to be relieved of thisburden, these reminders of the porous flesh. We pay to forget and tobelieve in our wholeness, our cleanliness. We pay to avoid the mess. Yet,these capitalist crappers only provide a myth of burial; the
ofour bodies rushes away only to be returned to us through the riversfrom which we drink.Wendell Berry describes this process in the introduction to
The ToiletPapers
If I invented an expensive technology to put my urine and feces intomy drinking water, and then invented another expensive (andundependable) technology to make the same water fit to drink, Imight be thought even crazier . . . .The “sane” solution, very likely, would be to have me urinate anddefecate into a flush toilet, from which the waste would be carriedthrough an expensive sewerage works, which would supposedlytreat it and pour it into the river—from which the town downstreamwould pump it, further purify it, and use it for drinking water. Privatemadness, by the ratification of a lot of expense and engineering, thusbecomes public sanity. (1)
All of our technologies for the cleanliness of bathrooms such as paperseat covers, plastic seat covers that revolve with the wave of a hand (sopopular in airports), automatic flushing, and space-age self-showeringtoilets that flush themselves with water after the occupant has left thecubicle (popular in European tourist cities) deny the fact that most of ourdrinking water maintains remnants of the urine and feces that we dailyseek to avoid. These water sports are laughable; our disgust at the excessof our bodies and the excess of the bodies of others causes us to createspaces where contact is limited, and yet the excrement that we adamantlyflush returns to the rivers, complete with chemical alteration, and floatsinto our homes chlorinated and ready for ingestion.This might only be a comic, harmless cultural phenomenon to explore,but we have known for some time that this processing is ruining ourfreshwater systems and depleting the fertility of the earth.
Within the last several years, research and various surveys haveshown [. . .] that chlorine, the major disinfectant used in sewagetreatment, combines with other chemical compounds commonlyfound in wastewater to produce cancer causing agents and chloroformin drinking water; that chlorine in effluent dumped into the oceancombines with salts to form toxic acids; that the chloroform createdby chlorine is released into the atmosphere and is destroying theearth’s protective ozone layer; and that, currently, the discharge ofsecondarily treated sewage into fresh waters is estimated to use upall available oxygen in the water, turning the fresh water intoanaerobic sewers in spite of cosmetic “treatment.” (Van der Ryn,113-114)

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