Little Vast Rooms of Undoing: Exploring Identity and Embodiment through Public Toilet Spaces, by Dara Blumenthal

An examination of our bathroom habits is a little…constipated, finds Peter J. Smith

December 4, 2014

My nonagenarian mother and her sister, alarmed at the cost of the “superloo” in Leicester Square, decided to double up in order to share the spending of their penny. My auntie, business complete, exited and my mum slipped in before the door shut. As she tells it, “When the door opened, I just had to sit there and smile at the passers-by. I couldn’t move; I was mid-stream!”

And there was that time when, bladder painfully full, I descended the stairs of the Three Greyhounds on Greek Street, to a Gents the size of a large wardrobe, only to be greeted by a couple, he leaning, back against the wall, she, knickers down and skirt up, straddling him and wailing banshee-style. Me: “Oh, I am most frightfully sorry.” He, casually over her shoulder: “Dontcha worry mate, she don’t even know yer ’ere. You carry on.” Despite my sterling efforts, I couldn’t wee and zipped up in a mixture of agony and humiliation.

Or that other time when, replete with a chum’s home brew, I arrived, bowels gurgling, at work the following day, dashed down the length of the modern languages corridor (not on one’s own doorstep, you understand) and managed to take up the position before an Etna-like eruption. I sighed and murmured audibly, “Praise the Lord!”, whereupon I heard the plumber scuttling about on hands and knees in the next stall burst into uncontrollable laughter. Public lavs offer the best of times, the worst of times.

What a great topic for a book – sociological, anthropological, psychological, cultural, but also of necessity alert to the humour and the embarrassment of voiding in the company of strangers. Little Vast Rooms of Undoing (your guess is as good as mine) draws on all of the above but lacks the final crucial element. It is leaden, dour and stylistically perverse: “I put forth the entanglement of sex-gender-sexuality, to illustrate how onto-epistemology and material discourse operate experientially and theoretically, in the construction of body-identity experience” or “the use of an intra-active onto-epistemology enables a re-imagination of performativity through a posthumanist-materialist lens”. Never has a critical style been so…well…constipated.

Dara Blumenthal’s thesis is that the “Homo Clausus” is a toilet-trained body, “a closed monadic subject”, predicated on “FASE” – fear, anxiety, shame, embarrassment. “Homo Aperti” offers a less repressed version but operates within the same constraints of selfhood, manners, etiquette. Only “Corpus Infinitum” recognises “the active, open-ended, and on-going nature of material being and engagement”. Fair enough – you might call it a slightly reworked version of Mikhail Bakhtin’s classical v grotesque bodies (but without the incisive brilliance or political weight). Blumenthal rightly acknowledges the centrality of Norbert Elias’ pioneering work The Civilizing Process, although she seems to think that it was published in 2000. The wonder of The Civilizing Process is that it appeared in 1939.

This book’s inclusion of two poems by Peter Gizzi, quoted in full, seems daft: the rationale we are given is that “poetry is here to help spur becomings” and it “offers a threshold to those who resonate with it”. Blumenthal seems unaware that one of the poems is titled Tiny Blast, and when it does come, the humour is entirely fortuitous, accidental even: no less (apparently unintentionally) funny are her solemn observations about standing at the urinal addressing the “task in hand”, urination being an “irrational fluid process”, the way “other ‘dicks’ in the space become the proverbial elephant in the room” and when the process of defecation takes place “the pressure is immense”. The degree of miscalculation is best illustrated by a testimony from David, “a thirty-six-year-old gay man” who “wrote a poem…and read it through glory holes. There wasn’t much interest in what I was doing.” Hmmm…you don’t say!

Little Vast Rooms of Undoing: Exploring Identity and Embodiment through Public Toilet Spaces

By Dara Blumenthal
Rowman and Littlefield, 248pp, £75.00 and £24.95
ISBN 9781783480340 and 0357
Published 28 August 2014

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