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.
Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (p.166)
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 ‘s*%ts’ 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 S*%ts 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.
Denial, Distraction and Violent Enjoyment
There’s also an inherent violence to this last option, what Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek point to as jouissance. Jouissance is supreme, excess enjoyment; enjoyment at the expense of all else; pleasure and joy that give no thought to anyone harmed in the process of amusement. Jouissance encompasses both the sadistic pleasure of the child who shoots small animals ‘for fun,’ and the sated and oblivious pleasure of a good meal at a restaurant cooked and served by underpaid and miserable workers. Jouissance is the very engine of denial, the machinery of Capitalist consumption.
That violent and oblivious enjoyment can be seen best in the wars that Western societies fight to secure their oil addictions. It should have been no surprise that a U.S. President would have chosen to hide the shipments of coffins containing dead soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade; nor should we really think it odd that so many deaths in the last few years have been through remote-controlled drones. As oil becomes more scarce, the inherent violence required to get more of it might be too unbearable, like the excess feces after eating an entire pizza or the creation of more homeless to make way for an Olympic Village or new stadiums.
That is, the consequences of our excess, the violent enjoyment, our jouissance, must be obscured and hidden in order for us to enjoy it. Images of mutilated children in Iraq, stories of the conditions of workers in iPhone factories, tales of flooding cities all ruin the enjoyment of our addictions and jolt us back to the very reality of the human activity behind the experience in the same way as a human hair found in a restaurant meal or a bone found in a chicken sandwich.
Homelessness is also a condition of violence, as is global warming, deforestation, pollution, and war. You cannot have private property without exclusion, any more than you can have industrialized production without global warming. And that ‘excess’ or that waste product is one of violence. Cutting down a forest to make room for a highway is a violent act. The ripping off of a mountaintop or the bombing a country to get at their resources is an assault. What is left behind, the ‘bone’ or ‘excrement,’ doesn’t go away anymore than the victim of a rape disappears after the act.
But like the silencing of a rape victim, the censoring of war images, or the flushing of a toilet, there are ways in which we specifically try to ignore the necessary consequences of our actions or the Excremental Remainder of human activity. Seeing the mounds of trash we create destroys the illusion of consumption-without-consequence. Seeing the victims of our wars weakens support for military expansion. Making a connection between global warming and the car we drive to work would force us to confront the very violence of an activity we consider foundational to a ‘good life.’
When we do acknowledge the violence, we create hierarchies to excuse some actions while vilifying others. We consider the razing of a forest for a highway or suburb less violent than the eco-activist who torches a bulldozer. Developers are awarded tax breaks and profit from their violence, while the ‘ecoterrorist’ goes to jail. The homeless squatter in a foreclosed house is beaten and jailed while the real estate agent is given a commission for selling that home. The plight of the victims of our daily violence are ignored when they try to speak of their villages flooded or their children bombed. At the same time, we throw parades for our military and line up for days to buy the next big i-thing.
We celebrate and reward the violence at the very foundation of our civilization and then dole out more violence in pursuit of maintaining our cherished, modern, ‘way of life.’ And to do this, we ignore the Dead.
Photo by Rich Simpson (http://strihc.wordpress.com/) Used by permission.
Paganism and the Return of The Dead
Consider how, after Hurricane Katrina, a common lament of the poorest New Orleans black communities was about the water-logged, bloated, decomposing corpses left unattended for weeks. No image made clearer to me the connection between Capitalist exclusion and ignoring the Dead. How much must we ignore the Dead in order to maintain our skewed and oppressive violent enjoyment of inequality?
Cut down a forest to build a shopping center and you do not just have an absence of forest, you also have a dead forest. Bomb a village in the Middle-East and you do not only have an absence of a village and its inhabitants; you also have a dead village and dead people. The mountain doesn’t go away when we strip it for coal, nor does the gasoline we combust to drive our vehicles.The bones of the raped mountain litter the earth, just as the carbon from our consumption litters the sky.
The Dead don’t go away. They are always with us, even when we refuse to notice.
When Capitalism sweeps through a formerly non-Capitalist people, one of the first things to get destroyed is the ancestral traditions and reverences of those people. Witch persecutions in Africa, Asia, and South America mirror the same persecutions in Europe that required us to divorce from an understanding that included the Dead in life-activities. It does so because Capitalism must sever people from a recognition of the Dead, must obscure and displace the excremental effects of its exploitation. For peoples who remember the destroyed forest, the wound of Capitalism is ever-present. Its ghost still haunting the place it once stood. The rape remains even though the rest of us have forgotten just as the dead child remains in the bombed village, out of sight but never fully flushed away.
Western, particularly American, Capitalism denies the Dead in order to erase our memories, and we play willingly along with this Forgetting — this exclusion.
But the Dead persist, no matter how hard we try to ignore them. Consider our fascination with ghost stories, or more precisely, the peculiar Anglo-American fascination with zombies. These are depictions of shambling men and women, shuffling through the streets in torn clothes, reeking of death, moaning incoherently without substance to feed upon the ‘living.’ Zombie films remarkably depict our fear of the “living dead,’ the homeless, the immigrant, the prisoner, the refugee — that is, the very people we exclude from our society in order to enjoy it, those who continue to live despite being ‘dead to us.’
Few people like to look at their own feces, or even talk about it. In fact, we consider it perverse to do so, just as we consider those who speak of the dead as ‘morbid.’ Similarly, any calls to change or abolish the Capitalist system, which is warming the planet and ruining lives, are considered ‘extremist.’ The few brave souls willing to actually do something about this matter are called ‘radicals’ or ‘terrorists.’
The return to a way of thinking which doesn’t ignore the Dead might be the only chance we have to build societies which create less excrement. The various Paganisms which acknowledge the dead can return to our denialist society precisely what it refuses to notice.
The destroyed forests remain as Dead forests, and we must insist they be remembered. Only by doing this may we learn not to destroy them.
The burned oil and coal are the compressed remains of our earliest ancestors, and we must acknowledge them as Presences melting our ice-caps and flooding our cities. Only in this way might we finally admit the consequences of our consumption.
The poor, the homeless, the downtrodden all live on as ‘walking dead,’ and we must again see them as the excluded foundation of our very societies. Until we do so, we will meet their rage and horror with malevolent, brutal fear.
And the Dead themselves, the gathered ancestors of all our peoples, stand before us, just on the edge of our sight. If we learn to acknowledge them, to see them, to accept what they have to teach and listen to what they have to say, we may finally learn what it is like to truly live.
[Thanks to Rich Simpson for use of his photography: (http://strihc.wordpress.com/)]