Monday, April 30, 2012

To laugh at the stench, and the reaper on the Thames

While working "diligently" on my paper on sanitation infrastructure in the 19th century, I have perused the cartoon archives of Punch.

As a quick background, for those of you who don't know (or can't guess), London in the 19th century was pretty nasty. Personal cesspools were pretty much the norm, until concerns about public health in the middle of the century caused people to decide that they should dump it into the Thames instead, which, subsequently, became a giant cesspool. This 1849 cartoon, "The Water John Drinks," depicts concerns about the quality of drinking water. Sad to say, this comic really didn't exaggerate anything. This delightfully morbid cartoon from 1858 shown above (use the link to see a far better quality version) refers to an event known as "The Great Stink," in which a hot, hot London summer turned the Thames"ripe." (The shit of thousands. Heat of summer...Try not to think too hard about it.) The odor was so horrific that cloths with soaked in chloride of lime were hung in the windows of the House of Parliament. Keep in mind, too, at this time and place, people believed that foul odors caused disease--so you can imagine the panic and disgust. Check out this cartoon, where London (depicted as a virtuous woman) recoils from the horrifying disease children borne by the Thames. This caused the MPs to act in a big hurry, passing the languishing and contentious legislation to address London's sanitation issues within two weeks. This was the spark that caused people to actually move--not the proof that cholera was waterborne (that John Snow brought to bear in 1855), not Edwin Chadwick's 1842 report on the poor sanitary conditions of the poor--in other words, not science or rational argument. It was a stench. A horrible, horrible stench.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Yuckiness of Reclaiming

Sorry for the long gap in posts, but it's crunch time of the semester. I'm currently working on two shitty papers--one on the evolution of fecalborne diseases and the other on the development of sanitation infrastructure in Delhi. Once those papers are in, I'll be posting bits and pieces from them, but for now, I'll be throwing up some microposts.

Just had a video from the Op-Doc section of the New York Times sent to me talking about the "yuck" factor of reclaimed water. Flushing the toilet is the greatest source of domestic water usage. Just think about it--we take one of the world's most precious resources, literally shit in it, then clean it up, and dump it into oceans, where we can't really use it anymore. (Desalinization technologies aren't quite efficient enough yet to make extracting and cleaning ocean water a very good option in most settings.) What if we could get over that factor? What if we could convince people to drink reclaimed water? Maybe just water our lawns with it? What if we use it just in our toilets? If we're going to stick with water-based waste management systems (which I don't think we should, but that's another story), I think the least we can do is re-use it. Rozin's comments in the video also strike me as valid, but I think if we're talking about reclaiming sewage water, I would need to see some work on whether pharmaceuticals are being removed from the water as well (which is a problem with wastewater already).

Here's an article about the trials and tribulations of re-using waste water in my hometown of San Diego.

My question is--if we have so much problems getting people to reclaim water in the US, what's going to happen if we suggest that we do it in fecalphobic cultures like India, whose very social hierarchy integrates that fecal phobia? (I'm referring to the job of the lowest in the caste hierarchy, the manual scavengers.) 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The toilet in the town square

(Image by Matthew Umstead, Chicago Tribune)

In the town of Martinsburg, West Virginia, on the morning of April 18th, artist David Heatwole placed a toilet on a pedestal in the middle of the town square as a "publicity stunt" to promote "more public art." As you might imagine, it turned the heads of quite a few motorists passing by before it was removed twenty minutes later.

The toilet is eye-catching. It suggests both the banality of art and satirizes the project even as it advocates for it. It also goes to my point earlier that toilets have a long, proud history of being in art. Here is a good example in which our simultaneous fascination with and disgust with a fecally-related object serves to transgress boundaries and challenge ideas of space (an object associated with privacy being put in an incredibly public space) and art (is it art or a "nuisance" or "junk" as the city claimed?).

Unfortunately, Heatwole now faces up to a $500 fine for the "littering and deposit of garbage, rubbish, junk, etc."  Sorry, is it really junk if it was deliberate? Many pieces of art would be indistinguisable from trash if they were any other context but a museum or some other art venue. This toilet is obviously placed in a prominent place (the pedestal was originally intended for a statue of the town's founder, but arguing and money stopped the project partway through), so it doesn't just look like he decided not to take it to the dump. If, for example, he put a beautiful stone statue up there, would he have gotten any flack? Nope. But toilets are private, and art is supposed to be public.

Well done, Mr. Heatwole. Well done.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Breaking boundaries: shit and witchcraft in Kenya

In the ethnography Bewitching Development: Witchcraft and theReinvention of Development in Neoliberal Kenya, James Howard Smith makes a powerful ethnography on witchcraft and development are, in fact, flip-sides of each other in the imagination of the Kenyan group he studies. Reading this for a class, I was not expecting to find a passage on shit, but lo and behold:

“[The] Waitata [the group Smith studied] made sense of the [ambivalence of power] in their jokes about substances that seemed to contain both witchcraft and development within them. Feces were a recurring example. When used as an instrumental tool, feces were always destructive: witches used shit to bewitch people, and their inability to contain their bodies was part and parcel of their occult power. They chewed with their mouths open, neglected to wash their hands, left their feces on the floor of the pit latrine, and sometimes wrote their names, in shit, on the walls” (2008: 97).

Amongst many groups and many different cultures, the body is simultaneously powerful and dangerous. “Sealing” the body helps to maintain clear boundaries between us and environment and to contain that power. This plays into how people are uncomfortable with reminders that our body, is not, in fact, sealed at all. This blends into our discomfort with women’s body hair, menstrual cycles (this desire for a “sealed” body differentially impacts women), sweat, spit, vomit, urine, semen, and, of course, feces. Breaking boundaries can be dangerous by threatening the boundaries with which we define every day society.

Witches, in this example, violate boundaries. They violate the boundaries between people (by acquiring other people’s shit), between body and waste (by coming into contact with the waste), and between proper space for shit and improper space (in the latrine vs. on the walls). Violating boundaries is a scary and powerful thing. Think in every day life or in history. Gandhi and the civil disobedience, for example, violates boundaries (the law), and subsequently creates power. The guy who starts shouting in a library violates boundaries and is simultaneously powerful and perceived as being dangerous. By demonstrating an ability to ignore boundaries, one demonstrates powers over them and thus brings power to one’s self. Looking at shit allows one to exam interesting boundaries and how they are treated.

            More anecdotally, fear of having one’s feces used by witches has been cited as a reason for reluctance on the part of some people of using a latrine. Ironically, then, by violating boundaries themselves (ie, not defecating in “proper” spaces), they are protecting themselves from those who would violate boundaries even further by acquiring their shit (the witches).

            So in working towards better sanitation and the creation of better sanitation facilities, it is important to exam the most important boundaries in the lives of those who are using the facility and examining whether the boundaries in a particular program are strong enough to satisfy. Pit latrines, for example, where one can see all of the shit, may not be enough of a boundary. (Particularly if there is a smell, as smell is somewhat notable for being able to transgress many boundaries by being a very ‘interior’ sense.) Having one’s own shit mix with others may not be enough of a boundary. It’s important, too, to realize that shit has many meanings for different people, and not just to assume that it’s a universal yucky.

But more on that later.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Welcome Dr. Kim!

Although not directly relevant to sanitation, this is such a big deal that I can’t help but talk a bit about it.

This week, the World Bank selected the American nominee for its next president, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the president of Dartmouth College. This is one of the first times around, though, that there was really a contest for the spot: in years past, the American nominee was a shoe-in. While I’m not really a fan of perpetuating American hegemony and domination in international discourses, I am excited about his appointment for a couple reasons.

The World Bank, historically, has done some pretty nasty things in the name of development. Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP) have thrown the economies of many a developing country into chaos in the name of poverty alleviation. However, these measures usually do very little to benefit the poor.

So what might Dr. Kim bring to the table?

He has worked for WHO and co-founded Partners in Health (one of my favorite medical NGOs); he was a professor of social medicine and medical anthropology for Harvard; and (my favorite), he has his PhD in anthropology. While former World Bank leaders have been more economic in background, Kim’s background in health and social justice may help steer the World Bank into making that its priority. His experience in anthropology and health care gives him a more holistic, long-term view of problems. His work shows a commitment to social justice and health, not the more profit-driven, economic, neoliberal agendas that have dominated World Bank projects.

As far as sanitation goes, I’d like to see more funding going towards the development of sanitation infrastructures in cities. Hopefully, Kim can steer the WB into building up health systems in order to improve economies. Sanitation is one of those areas. According to Rose George in The Big Necessity, for every dollar spent on sanitation an average of $7 is saved in health care costs and lost productivity. In India, the estimated cost of productivity lost per year due to fecal-borne diseases is approximately 600 million US dollars. The World Bank’s giant economic and infrastructure-funding machine seems the perfect means to help countries address the sanitation problems. Hopefully it pans out.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Adventures in sanitation art

Last week, my university opened up an art exhibit called, “constructive interference.” The reception featured bottles of wine on a long table with a blue table cloth and fresh strawberries and hors d’oeuvres. The attendees clustered together, sipping their wine and chatting in the bright light streaming through the large windows. One of the artists hovered protectively around his sculpture, explaining it with animated gestures to a couple who I could not tell were enraptured or simply captured. A video played in the background, but the volume was too low for anyone to hear. One of the people featured in it stood talking with her back turned to the monitor, her heavy earrings catching the light. Next to me, a young man—a student, probably—looking at one of the works on the wall dropped his strawberry in his wine; he looked anxiously around to see if anyone noticed, then hastily fished it out.

Perhaps this was, in some ways, a “typical” art opening. I haven’t really attended any to have a good comparison. But what was different about this art exhibit is that it opened up in what is basically the lunch room of Emory University’s Center for Global Safe Water and that its central theme was sanitation. As one of the innumerable e-mails with attached flier that I got said,

“The exhibition is an interdisciplinary exploration of the impact of safe sanitation on human health that brings together artists and Emory scientists. Through an agenda anchored equally in art and science, participants will gain a greater understanding of the role of visual communication in safe sanitation and health issues.”

The opening included the above-described reception followed by a panel discussion. Art exhibit on sanitation? I am totally there.

Art on sanitation—or, let’s face it—toilets, is not unprecedented. There’s art that features toilets that is exhibited in galleries—like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain or Claes Oldenburg’s Soft Toilet—and usable restrooms that feature or are art (like this one). I find a lot of these pieces often force us to look at our own concepts of privacy, gender roles, body, dirt, and art (but more on that to come in later posts), and so I got pretty excited.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

What was marketed as a interdisciplinary project of equality and teamwork between art and science, I found, instead, replicated the inequality of art vs. science that is so often seen in the real world. While art has the ability to capture the very human aspects of sanitation issues—the humiliation of being caught when going in a field, the agony and shame of the contraction of diarrheal diseases, the despair when one’s child literally shits themselves to death—scientific discourses, in many ways, does not really have the vocabulary to represent human experience in the way that art can. Which is fine—I’m not trying to insult science. Science is great. I will not go to my local artist for a vaccination or an update on how clean my water is today. But I feel that what was missed here was an opportunity for art to add to significantly add to the conversation.

At this exhibit, the art was focused on the waste and the hardware for the most part. I mean, it was very well done. Posters by the Cloacina Project, an Oregonian team of Molly Danielsson and Matthew Lippincott, portrayed decomposition, various bits of sanitation hardware, and wastewater treatment in watercolor and ink, which you can check out at their website. (They gave out free copies, and I have one on my wall right now.) Steve Jarvis and Susan Klause’s Humethan Digester System sculpture modeled a biogas digester system. (See above pic.) The video by Stan Woodard, Nat Slaughter, Danielle Roney, and Robby Kee [anybody have a website for him?] endeavored to bring in a human aspect by featuring clips of individuals telling about some of their harrowing experiences in dealing with toilets in other countries, but even that came secondary to a discussion of the disease burden inflicted by fecal-borne diseases. Probably my favorite part were the large decals on the windows featuring adorably anthropomorphized waterborne pathogens. (They were from the video, so I am unsure who to directly attribute the design to.)

Overall, while I enjoyed some of the specific works, I felt that the overall layout represented a missed opportunity for the artists to really contribute something that is absent in the scientific vocabulary or to challenge some of the boundaries, paradigms, and assumptions that are held, which is something that art is so adept at doing. Instead, the scientific focus on feces disposal was merely replicated in art form; in doing so, the conversations of art were subsumed in the discourses of science. It’s discouraging to see that, even in an art exhibit and an ostensibly interdisciplinary project, we see the replication of the hierarchy of disciplines that pervades academia as is.

On the plus side, I applaud the attempt to create such a project, and hope that it opens up a space in the future for more attempts to be made. Let’s talk about toilets more, please.