For a couple of hundred years we have been telling ourselves that we can dig the midnight black remains of other life forms out of the bowels of the earth, burn them in massive quantities, and that the airborne particles and gases released into the atmosphere–because we can can’t see them–will have no effect whatsoever….
…At every state our actions are marked by a lack of respect for the powers we are unleashing–a certainty, or at least a hope, that the nature we have turned to garbage, and the people we have treated like garbage, will not come back to haunt us.
Is it any wonder that a society which denies the Dead is destroying the earth?
Excrement and Exclusion
In Lacanian psychoanalysis, there’s the concept of the Excremental Remainder — the thing which fails to fully integrate into the total. Yes, I’m gonna be talking about feces here, but bear with me a little.
When you eat something, your body digests what it can, and uses what has been broken down to build, repair, and otherwise ‘create’ itself. Those calories, nutrients, minerals, and all other ‘usable’ parts are taken into the totality of the body to become part of the body.
Something is always left, parts that cannot be used or transformed into the whole. I need not get into a description of what’s left over, as you’ve certainly seen it yourself. That left-over mass, that undigested remainder, is the necessary excrement of your survival, your existence.
The Excemental Remainder is sometimes also called “the bone,” after the dialectical philosophy of Hegel (‘”the spirit is a bone.”) That ‘bone’ is what is left over when all the consumable meat is stripped off. It is the thing left over, the excrement, and yet it is also the very thing which kept all the flesh there in the first place, the unusable but necessary structure or foundation. It is also the thing we exclude. We don’t eat the bone; we don’t digest the feces or re-consume it. It is both the thing that is left over and the thing we choose to rid ourselves of. And, in both cases, we do an interesting thing with it — we bury it.
We bury the bones of what we’ve eaten and we bury our feces; although the fate of both is obscured through modern waste management. We exclude both from our lives. The Excremental Remainder is the necessary and buried secret of human existence. There is unlikely any place in your home where you store or display corn husks, onion skins, turkey carcasses, the intact bones of your great-grandmother, or your poop; rather these go outside, away, either into a compost pile, a trash can, a cemetery or a sewer.
The Excremental Remainder is what we look away from, what we do not examine. It is not just physical waste. There are social, relational ‘shits’ as well — aspects upon which society is predicated on which we do not want to look. Likewise, we cannot ‘include’ these remainders in our conception of society without threatening the very foundations of our society.
What Capitalism Shits Out
Consider carbon pollution, the necessary by-product of our high-consumerist lifestyles. The phone or computer by which you are reading my words, and I am writing them; the servers which create the connections we call “the internet;” and the electricity which powers all of these connections dumps significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. To look directly at the excrement of our technology would ruin the ‘magic’ and might challenge our behavior, just as a clogged toilet or a waste-collection strike forces us to confront what’s left over from our activities.
There are other Excremental Remainders of society and of a Western Capitalist society in particular.The homeless are the excrement of an economy based upon private property. They are both created by and excluded from Capitalist exchange, left to ‘rot’ on the streets of cities as a necessary s&#ting-out of our consumption. They must be excluded if housing is not considered a universal right; they must be homeless if housing is something that can be bought and sold rather than just had.
In this way, a shelter counselor is akin to a waste-management worker or a mortician. A homeless shelter is like a landfill or a cemetery; except in one particular way: the ‘waste,’ which is managed, is still alive.The homeless person is the excess carbon in the atmosphere that doesn’t need to be there; the cardboard or plastic bottle buried in the landfill rather than recycled or re-used or, more importantly, something that didn’t need to be created in the first place.
The position of the homeless person, who is shunted to the outside of society, is illusory just as the magical disappearance of our excrement into a water-filled porcelain basin is chicanery. The feces goes somewhere; we just don’t see where. All the trash we produce, all the carbon we spew into the air, doesn’t go away. It goes back to the very foundation of our existence.
In other words, the excrement of our lives actually feeds back and becomes the center of our existence, the very foundation upon which we live. The homeless person lives at the very core of the city, invisible except to those of us who notice. Similarly, the CO2 of industrial production doesn’t disintegrate into the atmosphere, it becomes part of the atmosphere itself. The Excremental Remainder is actually the Excremental Center — the founding horror of our modern lifestyle.
Breathing is easiest when you don’t think about it. Feces is unnoticed once it’s flushed. Capitalist existence appears seamless and harmless until we are confronted with what we treat like s&#t. The riots and protests in Ferguson, for example, are just one of the many examples of what happens when people refuse to be flushed down the polite and pristine toilets of Capitalist exclusion. Likewise our warming planet, the dying species and the drowning cities are the build-up of the excrement we defecate by living modern and ‘free’ lifestyles.
There are ways we find to manage our excrement such as recourse to free-market platitudes and Calvinist ethics (“the homeless just haven’t earned a better life,” or “humans are greedy by nature”), delusional messianic hopes (“Capitalist technology can fix the problems that Capitalist technology caused,” or “It won’t happen here”), or the most popular solution of all — denial.
This last solution is the easiest precisely because it is a foundational aspect of Western Capitalism. Denial, distraction and oblivion are significant products of high Capitalist society, endlessly varied according to preference. There are thousands of video games, television channels and films, hundreds of sports competitions, an array of new products and vacation getaways, and the omnipresent availability of any sort of noise you’d like. Each distraction itself becomes a carrier for advertisements and injunctions towards engaging in the very behavior which creates the problem we hope to deny.