the conversation toilet

I’ve long been haunted by toilet scenes in two particular films — Coppola’s The Conversation and (less famously) Andrzej Zulawski‘s The Possessed. It was nice to discover, then, that artist Margaret Morgan has compiled some other cinematic toilet scenes in her video Toilet Training — which, she writes, ‘began as a response to my research on the importance of plumbing in a history of early twentieth century art — from Marcel Duchamp to Adolf Loos.’ Nicer still to find that Zizek has already summed up the matter:

[T]he domain to where excrement vanishes after we flush the toilet is effectively one of the metaphors of the horrifyingly sublime ‘beyond’ of the primordial, preontological chaos into which things disappear. […] Lacan was right in claiming that we pass from animals to humans the moment an animal has problems with what to do with its excrement, the moment that waste turns into an excess that annoys the animal. What is ‘Real’ in the scene from The Conversation is thus not primarily the horrifying and disgusting stuff reemerging from the toilet sink, but rather the toilet’s drain itself, the hold that serves as the passage to a different ontological order. The similarity between the empty toilet sink before the remainders of the murder reemerge from it and Kasimir Malevich’s The Black Square on the White Surface is significant here: does the look from above into the toilet sink not reproduce almost the same minimalist visual scheme, a black (or, at least, darker) square of water framed by the white surface of the sink itself? Again, we of course know that the excrement that disappears is somewhere in the sewage network; what is here ‘real’ is the topological hole or torsion that bends the space of our reality so that we perceive / imagine excrement as disappearing into an alternative dimension that is not part of our everyday reality. [from ‘Why Is Reality Always Multiple?’ in Enjoy Your Symptom!]

What Zizek’s characteristically sensible, savvy gloss doesn’t mention is another aspect of the horror: the visually conspicuous possibility that the ‘topological hole or torsion’ leads not to another dimension but back into the body. For what is the flush if not an image of one hole vacuuming up what another hole has just ejected? The horror is that the holes may be commutable, that there’s no relief, no ridding, to be had. The very contours of the toilet bowl, after all, seem oddly biomorphic (Duchamp’s urinal isn’t without its sculptural finesse) — like the negative space of some human organ.

The whirls and eddies in Hitchcock’s Psycho and Vertigo are of course cognate images, as Zizek goes on to address. The best part of his analysis, however, concerns labor:

While watching this scene [of Norman Bates’ cleaning the bathroom] recently, I caught myself nervously noticing that the bathroom was not properly cleaned — two small stains on the side of the bathtub remained! I almost wanted to shout, Hey, it’s not yet over, finish the job properly! Is it not that Psycho points here toward today’s ideological perception in which work itself (manual labor as opposed to ‘symbolic’ activity), and not sex, becomes the site of obscene indecency to be concealed from the public eye? The tradition, going back to Richard Wagner’s Rheingold and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, in which the working process takes place underground, in dark caves, today culminates in the millions of anonymous workers sweating in third world factories, from Chinese gulags to Indonesian or Brazilian assembly lines; in their invisibility, the West can itself afford to babble on about the ‘disappearing working class.’ yet what is crucial in this tradition is the equation of labor with crime, the idea that labor — hard work — is originally an indecent criminal activity to be hidden from the public eye. [ibid.]

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