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History of Shit

by Dominique Laporte, (MIT Press, 160 pp., $20)

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Of all of the various histories of excrement available for summer reading, History of Shit is perhaps the shortest and most enjoyable. The academic background of its author, Dominique Laporte (he has been compared to Foucault, Deleuze and Lyotard), also recommends this book to high-school history teachers, who should consider adding it to their advanced students' summer reading lists.

Originally published in 1978 and recently reprinted by MIT Press with a beautiful, black velvet-bound cover, History of Shit is representative of a '70s strain of experimental French writing that attempted to mesh theory, politics, sexuality and humor. Laporte begins with a strange confluence of events: The Ordinance of Villers-Cotterets, issued in August 1539, which mandated that, henceforth, all civil documents would be administered in "the maternal French," thus cleansing it of all foreign influence (like Latin phrases); and the Royal Edict in November of that same year, which decreed the private management of waste--"to each his own shit." The city of Paris, the edict declared, "is so filthy and glutted with mud, animal excrement, rubble and other offals that one and all have seen fit to leave heaped before their doors, against all reason as well as against the ordinances of our predecessors, that it provokes great horror and greater displeasure in all valiant persons of substance."

"According to Jacques Lacan, humans distinguish themselves from animals the moment shit becomes for them an embarrassing leftover, a source of shame, something to be secretly disposed of," says Slavoj Zizek in a review of the book. "As such, shit casts its shadow even at the most sublime moments of human experience." According to the book's translators, Laporte takes his cues from Lacan, and debunks "all humanist mythology about the grandeur of civilization," suggesting instead that "the management of human waste is crucial to our identities as modern individuals--including the organization of the the city, the rise of the nation-state, the development of capitalism," and, of course--returning to the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterts--"the mandate for clean and proper language."

The one caveat to this otherwise unqualified recommendation might be that this MIT edition is an English translation, and les histoires de merde, naturellement, should be read in their original French.

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