Letting the toilets come clean

“The seriousness of the thinking man with an image of toilet in mind can eclipse whatever seriousness can be attributed to the instructions.” Image via Wikihow.

I was thinking of the appearances of the toilet bowl in Philippine art or literature and risked easy desperation in concluding that there was nothing much to think of. The closest I could think of involve soft-porn movies where it is the bathroom at large, not the toilet bowl, which figures prominently. Pandering to the voyeuristic and buoying the audience’s anticipation of the superficially naked, bathroom scenes usually feature the female feigning innocence — she is aware of the performance; she knows she is being watched — as she bares herself.

I am familiar with two more figurations of the toilet outside Philippine culture: (1) the illustrious Fountain, usually described as modern art’s trailblazer, known to be created by Marcel Duchamp but actually made by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and (2) Slavoj Zizek’s analogy between toilet practices among the French, Germans, and English and their respective social preoccupations and attitudes.[1] What these two instances teach can resonate differently in the review that follows.

It is from these defined contexts that I think of Pedantic Pedestrians’ Do You Not Think So Far Ahead. Curated by John Levi Masuli, the work consists of ten images of toilet bowls — some blurred, some filthy, some instructional, some clinical. Pedantic Pedestrians (a group to which I also belong) is preoccupied with formal experimentations in art and culture and how these can be tied to the ongoing work of social transformation. As the principal instigator of The Oncept Series, Masuli formulated the “Notes for the Oncept Series,” which is not only the latest but also for me one of the better iterations of Pedantic’s views on art and society. Especially important for me are Numbers 3 and 4 under “Notes,” as they underline the materiality of language and “all forms of literature,” and by extension, all forms of art and culture. The qualifying is as important as the underlining: being material, language, literature, and culture “are also inevitably implicated in the material processes of economics, politics, and other non-literary domains.”[2] With such qualification, Masuli reveals the affinities of the materialism which informs The Oncept Series: not materiality “as performativity,” banking on the idea of “matter as sign”[3] but historical materialism, betting on the validity of social modes and relations of production as key factors in analysis.   

Founded as a Baguio-based collective, Pedantic Pedestrians can be simultaneously considered marginal and emergent. Its geographical position in relation to the National Capital (Baguio is around 250 kilometers north of Manila) contributes to the group’s marginality. Yet it is also the group’s same location in Baguio and the city’s lively cultural scene which stokes Pedantic’s fire, always making it a potential contributor to the discourses and happenings in national arts. Another potential reason for Pedantic’s marginality is its ideological stance. Allied — if only in terms of ideology and not organization — with the National Democratic Left in the Philippines,[4] Pedantic Pedestrians proceeds in its cultural production with a critical spirit that currently does not enjoy a wide audience.[5]

It is even tenable that Pedantic is totally fine with this lack of popularity (it would be inaccurate and perverted to say that the group delights in this condition). The final sentence in Notes can be applied to all of Pedantic’s projects: “the Oncept Series is not made for popular consumption, but as a study for contemporary art practitioners and propagandists.” At the risk of not heeding the familiar Maoist call for popularization, Pedantic may be delaying the fulfillment of the task by ruminating on what it means and how it can be done.[6] I also choose to interpret the current drive away from popularization as a refusal to manically and thoughtlessly join in the liberal fray of anything-goes and free-for-all cultural creation. Finally, I choose to interpret this move as siding with transdisciplinarity over interdisciplinarity as Zavarzadeh and Morton distinguished: while the latter hails “pluralism and eclecticism,” the former is not about “peaceful, interactive coexistence […] but a transgressive […] redrawing of the map of learning […] that opens up new space for rising radical and revolutionary subjectivities.”[7] Put differently, transdisciplinarity favors “not conversation but critique.”[8] Maybe I can tweak that a bit and say not just conversation but also critique. Conversation is fine especially in the current liberal playground where the aura of freedom-for-all (voices, practices) is desperately projected. But discussions cannot be governed and capped just by the spirit of conversing; lines need to be drawn based on similarly contesting values — which thought is more ethical, more needed and useful in a given situation? What view is more egalitarian and humane, what view may sound rational but unwittingly justifies irrationalities and violence elsewhere?

It is in these elaborations that Do You Not Think So Far Ahead must be situated. The project both attempts to participate in ongoing conversations (or lack thereof) about cultural practice and to critique the presently dominant attitudes and practices in the cultural field. To attain both, the project logically relies on key intertextual references. These references have at least two functions: first, they pave the way for the conversation and critique to take place. Second, they signify the project’s commitment to position itself in the vast field of previous labors and discourse, and hence, not an innocent object in itself, not understandable on its own.

The reference to Freytag-Loringhoven’s urinal work erroneously attributed to Duchamp[9] cannot be purposeless. That well-known intervention via a urinal both reveals and exploits the force of institutional framings in designating what is art. Before describing “current poetry” as “the logical fulfillment of [Freytag-Loringhoven’s][10] decision to purchase a urinal from the JL Mott Plumbing fixture stores,” Perloff stated that “no work of art is ‘pure transcription.’”[11] All art, all transcriptions are embedded in and implicate previous transcriptions, the traditions and histories of art. This is inescapable, and cultural endeavors can only differ on the extent by which they recognize this embeddedness and how they position themselves in this history. The genius I deduce in Freytag-Loringhoven’s Fountain: if a museum is believed to house artworks, what would putting a urinal in this space amount to? The denial of “pure transcription” works alongside the recognition of the conditions of transcription — where does it take place, what makes it possible? Following these reflections, the final sentence in the prefatory note of Last Page of a Google Search — one project under The Oncept Series — resonates: “It is fortunate that Google is less pretentious in its curatory criteria that we can simply copy and paste the last pages into a reliable word processing program and call it art.” The gesture is both reflexive and critical; that is, it not only calls attention to the procedures of curating the project; it also comments on the tool and how we relate to it.

A closer inspection of Do You Not Think gives more specific ideas about the project’s concerns. Seven of the ten toilet bowls are captioned and then accompanied by short musings on the social practice of art. The first and the filthiest is captioned “on the autonomy of art,” followed by the blurred image of a cleaner bowl captioned “on art and market.” In between the two images is a page devoted to Benjamin’s familiar citing of a work of art’s “position” in the “relations of production of its time.” The first toilet image minutely approximates the extreme: the commendation of “autonomy” as the position from which resistance ideally emerge is shitted on, ridiculed. Autonomy is less a position from which to emerge than a position intended and constructed. To paraphrase how Masuli built on the Benjamin quotation: works shall embrace their “inner potential as a self-contained work” and their “sociality as a product of … historical conditions.”

Other ruminations linger on familiar contradictions: “carolers … tugging at each other, hesitant to sing their song” and “people exud[ing] confidence and the importance of their words”; “the overwhelming distance between communism and the disappointing inadequacy of even the most ecstatic forms of decadence we have today.” Placed after the pages containing the imposed grandeur of toilets, the textual ruminations can be read as simple annotations which can frame our understanding of the captioned toilets. Yet such framings extend the usual sense of the term. Articulating contradictions, the textual pages in themselves tend to unsettle even as they are supposed to stabilize in relation to the pages with toilets.

Giving in to the temptations of possible metaphors of shitting: (1) how Do You Not Think calls out these contradictions relieves the readers — similar but not limited to the way they are relieved by pooping  — interpassively voicing out and resolving these issues they perhaps unknowingly share; (2) constipated toilets, toilets of diarrhea, blockages in the diaphragm, epitomizing how these contradictions disturb the thought of going on as usual, as if everything is fine. And is the second metaphor not allied with the textual annotations in that the latter, as aforementioned, not only shed light but also speak of ironies?

The toilet bowls with captions do not so much jut out of as dominate the pages, the effect of which starkly contrasts with the instructional pages with toilet bowls. While the former can disconcert those who appetize for the trough, the god and the beautiful, the latter can intrigue the bored, flatten the serious. The page containing “How to Set Fire to Fire” slightly edifies even as it also strangely deifies. The seriousness of the thinking man with an image of toilet in mind can eclipse whatever seriousness can be attributed to the instructions. Alternatively, one can pay serious attention to the instructions and find hilarious the thinking man’s centrality. After all, the half part of the instructions is self-insistent: do it over again everyday even if it is “pointless” and “tell other people do the same.” The neatness of the presentation matches well with the flirtation with pointlessness, the open order to “burn this after reading,” even if what “this” is is unclear.

Image of person thinking about toilet with wikihow-style heading "How to Set Fire to Fire"

I do not want to read this as the rehashing of the now-familiar gambit to proclaim failure as precisely the point, pointlessness as the pinnacle of success. I suspect that this stance is an offspring of the twinned poststructural efforts to disavow not even “grand narratives” but just big statements and to uncritically celebrate the free and endless play of meanings. Convinced of the enormous failures of systematic processes like capitalism, religion, or socialism, individuals intended calculated failure in their undertakings. This failure, which they can own because it’s smaller and more intimate, became the source of the work’s meaning and purpose. I argue however that this is problematically steeped on the parochial binaries of interior-exterior, personal-political, intentionality-contingency. Favoring the first terms and shunning the risks in the second — the puzzling complexities of the exterior, the demands of politics and contingency — the failure-as-success stance forgets the crushing comforts of dialectics. It is comforting because it erases the need to decide in the face of an either-or situation. It is crushing in its own way because it underlines the plurality of situations and the complicated, multifaced forces and interests at play in each of them.

In Do You Not Think, the penultimate toilet is tempting in its finality, one that exhorts destructive pointlessness, or even pointless destruction. But the last toilet bowl — the most detailed, the most cold-blooded, the most scientific yet also the most artistic — disrupts this fall to pointlessness.

Several parts of a toilet bowl — presented with its intricate dimensions, the inside, the outside, the inlet, the lower part — are named. This marks the final toilet metaphor: after the prominently repulsive and the elaborately pointless, we have here simply the elaborate, surgical in its completeness, complete in its bareness. Shown in its multiple facets and parts, the toilet as central image here hinders any automatic ascriptions.

Labeled diagram of toilet parts

The toilets in Do You Not Think represent various things: not just literal filthiness nor just laughable instructions symptomatic of boredom; not just clinical whiteness nor just medical precision. The toilets are both metaphor and comic appurtenance, simultaneously shining forth in the work’s foreground while also serving as mere tools to articulate several points on art and cultural work. In the end, negative definitions are not just the point; the point is to seek overlaps and connections — material, conceptual, political ones — which in turn can lead to collaborations.[12] Again, these collaborations must be founded not just on the spirit of conversation but more vitally on the spirit of critique. This involves flushing out old digestions, being open to critique and being bold in critiquing others, calling their position or their opinion shit. We must do with this symbolic shit what we do to literal shit: discard them, flush them out and look down as all the dirt disappears from the toilet and never look away until the hole is breathing again. Investing in this act, one can just suddenly find a lost pen, a millimeter of gold, a folded bill — and then decide whether to put one’s hand down the toilet, salvaging what one deems as valuable.

1. Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 2008), 4. Concluding the analogy which he used to tackle ideology, Zizek wrote that “it is easy for an academic to claim at a round table that we live in a post-ideological universe — the moment he visits the restroom after the heated discussion, he is again knee-deep in ideology.” 

2. I want to name the everyday domain as a major part of the nonliterary. Several writers have variously expressed the significance of investigating the everyday. In Everyday Life in the Modern World, Henri Lefebvre refutes the typical charge that Marxism places economy in a determinist position before declaring that “everyday life [that] must be tackled by broadcasting our policy, that of a cultural revolution with economic and political implications” (second revised edition, trans. Sacha Rabinovitch [London: Continuum, 2002], 197). Towards the end of “‘Art Naif’ and the Admixture of Worlds,” Fredric Jameson stressed the need for a “cultural politics, a politics of daily life” (in Geopolitics of the Visible: Essays on Philippine Film Cultures, ed. Rolando B. Tolentino [Quezon City, PH: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2000], 263). Least directly but most beautifully, here is Raoul Vaneigem: “The surest chances of liberation lie in what is most familiar.” We can connect this to the previous footnote: in the same way that everything, including “abstract” thought, has a material aspect; everything, even routine activities such as peeing or having dinner, is ideological.

3. Teresa Ebert, The Task of Cultural Critique (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 25.

4. Primary agents behind one of the more systematic and stauncher criticisms leveled at the existing Duterte regime, an administration increasingly notorious for its fascist steps and neoliberal policies. In its two years, the regime openly invited foreign capital even at the expense of national and community interests, sanctioned the pro-elite tax package called TRAIN, did nothing to end labor contractualization and launched the murderous War on Drugs which to date has killed tens of thousands, mostly among the poor.

5. This can be rooted to several things, foremost of which is the arguable decline and/or marginalization of protest art and culture after the 1986 People Power’s illusive “restoration” of democracy. Even within the ongoing tradition of radical cultural practices, I think Pedantic Pedestrians’ valuation on the form makes it a candidate for marginalization.

6. Seemingly contradictory impulses must always be flagged, for they can house the promise of vital illuminations. Do You Not Think’s mode of distribution is a case in point. Freely accessible online, it goes against the intertwined logic of the market and cultural institutions’ dominion over production and distribution. Popularization may not be evinced in the work itself — its form or content — but it is tenably intended in the “nonliterary” matters of circulation and accessibility.

7. Mas’ud Zavarzadeh and Daniel Morton, Theory as Resistance: Politics and Culture after (Post)structuralism (New York: The Guilford Press, 1993), 19–20.

8. Zavarzadeh and Morton, 20.

9. The intention of the phrasing is not so much to shame Duchamp but to repeatedly emphasize the historical mistake. Aside from rectifying the mistake, the emphasis also seeks to return the favor of erasure. Only this time, this erasure is no secret: it was Freytag-Loringhoven, not Duchamp, who was behind the revolutionary Fountain.

10. Marjorie Perloff still makes the mistaken attribution to Duchamp.

11. Perfloff, Poetics in a New Key: Interviews and Essays, ed. David Jonathan Bayot (Manila, PH: DLSU Press, 2013), 158.

12. Compare the use of negative adverbs (not, nor) in the concluding paragraph’s first two sentences: (first) 5/29 words and (second) 0/30 words.