I came across this clip of Slavoj Žižek discussing the different types of toilets that one finds across Europe the other day, and his riff immediately reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s novella The Suffering Channel (or “The Suffering Channel,” if you prefer to think of it as a long short story). Here’s a version of the riff in English, which seems to approach a stand-up comedy routine at times—
“You go to the toilet and you sit on ideology,” says Žižek, arguing that “Disgust . . . is not necessarily, immediately characterized by its object” — disgust is when you confront something from your inside on your outside (Žižek is likely working in part from Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject here). His inventory and analysis of the differences between French, English, and German toilets immediately recalled this passage from The Suffering Channel—
She had also at some point spent a trimester at Cambridge, and still spoke with a slight British accent, and asked generally now whether anyone else who traveled abroad much had noticed that in German toilets the hole into which the poop is supposed to disappear when you flush is positioned way in front, so that the poop just sort of lies there in full view and there’s almost no way you can avoid looking at it when you get up and turn around to flush. Which she observed was so almost stereotypically German, almost as if you were supposed to study and analyze your poop and make sure it passed muster before you flushed it down
Of course, pretty much every page of The Suffering Channel concerns the scatological: it is literally about a man who shits out art. Wallace seems to be exploring the ways in which we are unable to reconcile what is inside us — that is, what makes us us — with its final form. For Kristeva, the ultimate abject is the corpse. Žižek, less mordant perhaps, seems to be signalling (in the short clip anyway) the relatively straightforward idea that ideology is always operating, always a force conditioning our identity.
Near the end of the clip (around 5:25 or so), Žižek brings up the example of saliva, pointing out that we are constantly swallowing it, producing it and absorbing it back into ourselves, yet to fill a glass with it and then try to drink it would be revolting, horrific. Compare this with another passage from The Suffering Channel—
‘Your own saliva,’ said Laurel Manderley. ‘You’re swallowing it all the time. Is it disgusting to you? No. But now imagine gradually filling up a juice glass or something with your own saliva, and then drinking it all down.’
‘That really is disgusting,’ the editorial intern admitted.
‘But why? When it’s in your mouth it’s not gross, but the minute it’s outside of your mouth and you consider putting it back in, it becomes gross.’
‘Are you suggesting it’s somehow the same thing with poo?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think with poo, it’s more like as long as it’s inside us we don’t think about it. In a way, poo only becomes poo when it’s excreted. Until then, it’s more like a part of you, like your inner organs.’
‘It’s maybe the same way we don’t think about our organs, our livers and intestines. They’re inside all of us —‘
‘They are us. Who can live without intestines?’
‘But we still don’t want to see them. If we see them, they’re automatically disgusting.’
Wallce lards his novella with example after example of this kind, of the ways in which abject encounters with the borders of self — shit, saliva, menstrual blood, farts — confer identity through a kind of ritual shame. I doubt that Wallace is following, overtly anyway, any post-Lacanian figures in The Suffering Channel, and the concordance of examples used by Wallace and Žižek is probably ultimately not that remarkable. What I do find worth remarking upon, I suppose, are the ways in which Wallace and Žižek were/are so adept at discussing those areas of humanity we’re often happy to overlook.