The Transvaluation of "Shit": a political issue


"When we look at culture through the lens of shit, we end up transvaluing shit. And when we transvalue shit, we transform a culture based on domination of others and exploitation of the natural world."

"The flipside of progress is shit. The concept of shit, in fact, of something both disgusting and superfluous -- and disgusting precisely because superfluous -- is uniquely capitalist; is uniquely the product of a surplus-producing economy. Only within an economic system predicated upon not only the possibility but the exigency of excess, surplus, profit -- only within such an economic and cultural system can there be a concept of uselessness, discardability, flushability."

-- M. Cortez, Scatologist

When Barbara Ehrenreich writes, "Almost everything we buy, after all, is the product of some other person's suffering and miserably underpaid labor," she not only establishes the political significance of underpaid labor - a point she makes throughout her essay - but also of individual, consumerist choices: choices seemingly inconsequential, because their consequences are made invisible (in order for some to freely reap the benefits). In the spirit of Cynthia Enloe, I pose the question: what does delimiting "the political" do? For "the political" just may be as infinite as the questions not asked -and, thus, unexplored: so, rather than speaking of the political importance of "shit" work, perhaps it would be more productive to consider the political consequences of devaluing such work as "shit" (shit work/work shat (?))- situating that which has been situated as worthless at the forefront of the discussion.

shit work.jpg familial capitalism.jpg

The intention of my curiosity on this issue stems from Ehrenreich's discussion at the conclusion of her essay, "Maid to Order," where she illuminates the "consequence-abolishing effect" of constantly being cleaned up after - of regarding oneself as free from recognizing the waste one produces; which does produce an effect (and an affect), that is not inconsequential (or invisible - not to those upon whom it weighs). Shit, of course, is, by definition, an adverse category - on the hierarchy of value, "shit" is by far the lowest variant - and, as Ehrenreich states, those whose livelihoods depend upon the waste of others are expelled from the vault of value: flushed away, as it were, out of sight - out of mind - out of political discourse. What Ehrenreich aims to propose at the close of her essay is a transvaluation of 'shit'; suggesting that Were 'shit' to be made visible, the consequences of individual waste would be made visible as well.


  1. First off, in conjunction with your 'consequences' link, anyone interested in learning more about "Garbage Island" might want to check out this video.

    Anyway, you pose the question, "rather than speaking of the political importance of 'shit' work, perhaps it would be more productive to consider the political consequences of devaluing such work as 'shit'?" I think that in the context of domestic labor this is a very valid argument. Domestic labor, after all, is, at least to an extent, a necessary labor--for sanitary purposes--be it performed by a woman, a man, or hired help. Thus, by devaluing domestic labor, one creates a discourse that inherently labels and degrades whoever performs the labor. Such a discourse is not conducive--and never will be--to any kind of equality between couples with regards to domestic labor or to any kind of respectable wage and working conditions for hired help. In order to change this, shit work must necessarily be transvalued, and, moreover, such a transvaluation is a legitimate possibility (at least in the United States).

    Yet insofar as Ehrenreich differentiates domestic labor from other 'shit work,' I think that she does the feminist movement a disservice. Immediately following the quote about all products being products of suffering, she draws two differences between 'sweatshop' labor--which is a feminist issue in and of itself--and domestic labor. The two differences that she claims are the "proximity [of domestic labor] to the activities that constitute 'private' life" and the fact that domestic labor also encompasses "the place where your children are raised." Such reasoning seems to preclude a possibility of effectively addressing the political importance of sweatshop labor, and, in this instance, I think that the political importance of the sweatshop labor is the more pressing issue with which to be engaged because such work cannot truly be (trans)valued until it achieves even the possibility of existing outside of necessarily devaluing conditions.

  2. I just realized that my link is not working. Try this one instead.

  3. I just realized that my link is not working. Try this one instead.

  4. Thanks, Adam, for (re)posting the link. It really helps to have that visual of what this conglomeration of consumerist waste actually looks like (and that it is, in fact, real)-- scathing.

    And: I agree with your criticism of Ehrenreich's failure to properly illuminate the political significance of sweatshop labor. I first read that part of her conclusion as somewhat apologist, actually, as she confesses her individual contribution to the exploitation of others she frames it (sweatshop labor) as somehow unavoidable. However, I would hesitate to prioritize these two categories of exploited work hierarchically (not to say that that's what you're doing at all -- nor do I think that is, necessarily, what Ehrenreich does). I think she intends to highlight the similarities between the exploitation of domestic workers and that of sweatshop workers in the global South -- because the latter may be kept at arms length by the so-called "average" American, while domestic labor actually takes place in the home, yet is exploited work all the same: "Someone who has no qualms about purchasing rugs woven by child-slaves in India, or coffee picked by ruined peasants in Guatemala, might still hesitate to tell dinner guests that, surprisingly enough, his or her lovely home doubles as a sweatshop during the day" (101). So, in the end, one can conclude that shit work is shit work, something that Others do -- and, like you stated, cannot begin to be valued until it ceases to be devalued. Which can only happen when the valued begin to see themselves in the devalued: recognition, and visibility. The question most central to the discussion is: whose lives constitutes as lives -- have value, are valued? and thus: What makes someone/thing valuable or expendable?
    This can also be connected back to the first question: what makes something a legitimate political issue?

  5. After rereading my previous post, I realized that my last paragraph was somewhat vague. When I said, “in this instance, I think that the political importance of the sweatshop labor is the more pressing issue with which to be engaged because such work cannot truly be (trans)valued until it achieves even the possibility of existing outside of necessarily devaluing conditions.” What I was implying was that in the context of sweatshop labor I think it is more important to consider the political importance rather than the consequences, whereas I agree that in the context of domestic work the consequences of its devaluation are a higher priority than the political importance.

    Let’s begin with sweatshop labor. In my previous comment, I asserted that sweatshop labor is necessarily a feminist issue as well. I make this claim because sweatshop labor generally involves the labor of both women and children. Its affects are far reaching, and it certainly affects the lives of the men in the area as well. Due to these reasons (and their implications) sweatshop labor is a feminist issue. Now, the reason that I claim the political importance is the more pressing issue is because of the greater socioeconomic and political pressures on such labor. Thus, while one whose life is valued being able to see him/herself in the devalued would certainly be a beginning—somewhere; I, nonetheless, think that addressing the political aspects of such an issue is more pressing than addressing the consequences of the mindset towards such an issue because even if middle class citizens of the ‘Western world’ begin to comprehend and appreciate the labor that goes into the cheap products they buy, nothing (or very little) is going to change. The pressures of capitalism, globalization, weak or corrupt governments, et cetera—these pressures are going to prevent even the mere possibility of improving working conditions or wages. Moreover, I think that these conditions, to some extent preclude a shift in valuation of such labor because it would be difficult to construe something as valuable when it necessarily exists in such ‘shitty’ conditions. Thus, in the instance of sweatshop labor, I think the political importance and implications are the necessary first step in order to be able to effectively address the consequences of certain valuations.

    Now, let’s move on to the domestic labor. In this instance, I completely agree with you. I think that addressing the consequences of devaluing such work is the more productive option for engagement. At least in the United States, the pay and conditions of domestic labor are largely up to the employer. (This is beginning to change slightly with the advent of domestic labor companies. I’ll address this shortly.) Thus, if one were to see such work as valuable, these conditions and wages would begin to see improvement. Through such a shift in mindset, employers would begin to appreciate and value their domestic laborers, and this would lead to an amelioration of the situation. This would also address the somewhat more fixed practices of cleaning companies because they would be forced to improve wages and conditions as well, lest they lose employees to direct employers. Moreover, in this instance, trying to address the consequences of devaluation seems to be the more practical option because, barring any sudden and strong organization of the domestic workers, (effective) legislation addressing the issues seems unlikely.

    Thus, I really wasn’t trying to prioritize these issues hierarchically. Not that you—like you said—were even accusing me of this, but I just wanted to make my statement clearer.

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This page contains a single entry by Mary published on February 27, 2010 9:33 PM.

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