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No Pleasure without Pain

Part 2 Dissertation 2003
Harry Paticas
Architectural Association London UK
The present day proliferation of silicon technologies is creating a new virtual reality of human existence at the same time as fostering the false illusion that such ‘progress’ can release human beings from their animal origins. By engaging with the subject of human excreta practice, the basest of human activities, the thesis develops a critique of attitudes embodied in the infrastructures of civilisation’s excreta management. It is argued that the ultimate reminder of human animality is denied through the articulation of spatial relations and technologies operating at a range of scales, from that of the individual and the domestic flushing toilet, to the collective and the infrastructural organisation of the city. Coterminous with the tendency towards elimination and denial is the history of humanist fascination with human excreta: for the great Roman and Victorian sewers were seen as signifiers or embodiments civilisation itself. By drawing on the work of the philosopher John Gray and the scientist James Lovelock, the author of Gaia Theory, it is argued that attitudes of both denial and obsession towards human excreta are rooted in anthropocentric beliefs which ignore the fundamental realities of human existence. Thus the notion of a self-regulating planet where human beings are seen as randomly interacting species inherently similar and connected to bacteria and other animals is used as a theoretical position serving to reveal illusions of progress and freedom concerning human excreta practice. The enquiry eventually led the author to trace the vector of his own shit from the Architectural Association down into the London sewers. Wading through the one metre steady flow of Londoner’s collective waste, a curious aesthetic admixture of pleasure and pain, or fascination and disgust, was experienced. The thesis concludes by imagining a scenario of infrastructural collapse where the pain of realising both our illusions and dependency on the flushing toilet might be followed by the surprising pleasure of again becoming animal.
Harry Paticas


The subject of excrement (and its management) might well be the most extraordinary you could choose, since it defines what is excluded- the disgusting, the ugly, the denied, in human life. One definition of civilisation is its removal of excrement from where it is produced, thus the water closet is one of the defining technologies of modernity: and as is argued here, in Western civilisation, ‘the freedom or pleasure of relieving oneself is always tied to a set of corresponding restrictions’. Given the basic nature of the subject it is surprising that so little is written about it: only Laporte (2002) covers an area close to that chosen for the Thesis, but an amazing range of literature has been researched and well used here. Studies of Roman civilisation, Quechua Indians, literature by Joyce and Kundera, art practices of Delvoye and Manzoni, and philosophy (notably John Gray) and historiography are deftly used in what is fundamentally an ontological enquiry. The issues of (forbidden) pleasure and spatial organisation in this pan-historical and cultural enquiry address the question of what are the essential anthropological illusions concerning excreta practice of human animals. The conclusion serves to interrogate even supposedly enlightened responses to excreta practice.

The Thesis is particularly lucidly written and develops highly original insights on this subject which is radically important but generally ignored. Further, the absolutely immaculate and very well considered presentation considers the Thesis itself as an object, expressing a range of relationships to the theme of this outstanding piece of work.

2003
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