Shit rolls downhill — Işık Barış Fidaner


It is a Freudian commonplace that the anal drive is closely related to authority: A child first distinguishes order from chaos and learns what authority means in his/her potty training. Here’s a textbook description:

 [In potty training] adults impose restrictions on when and where the child can defecate.  The nature of this first conflict with authority can determine the child’s future relationship with all forms of authority. (“Freud’s 5 Stages of Psychosexual Development” by Saul McLeod; see also “Anal stage” on Wikipedia)

Freud also connected anal drive to (political) economy by establishing the equation: faeces = gift = money [1]. So it’s not a stretch to say that the anal drive is at the origin of any symbolic order [2]. This brings us another equation: signifier = shit, which recalls the memorable line from Lacan:

I give myself to you, the patient says again, but this of my person –as they say– Oh, mystery! is changed inexplicably into a gift of shit – a term that is also essential to our experience. (Seminar 11)

In theory, calling all signifiers “gifts of shit” may seem to reduce their value down to the same abject level, but this is certainly not the case in the way that signifiers practically function in the “real world”. What we call a symbolic order is established on the basis of an unequal hierarchy of the “gifts of shit” (signifiers).

In a famous old Turkish comedy movie, a grumpy landowner objects the notion of using the same toilet with his workers with a well-known line that has since become an ironic proverb in Turkey: “Can there be a shit above the master’s shit?” [3] The Lacanian implication of this is obvious: The master’s shit is the Master-Signifier S1 and the workers’ shit is the chain of signifiers (or knowledge) S2 that serves the Master-Signifier in Master’s discourse.

Now recall David Graeber’s distinction between “bullshit jobs” and “shit jobs”:

Bullshit jobs are jobs which even the person doing the job can’t really justify the existence of, but they have to pretend that there’s some reason for it to exist. That’s the bullshit element. A lot of people confuse bullshit jobs and shit jobs, but they’re not the same thing.

Bad jobs are bad because they’re hard or they have terrible conditions or the pay sucks, but often these jobs are very useful. In fact, in our society, often the more useful the work is, the less they pay you. Whereas bullshit jobs are often highly respected and pay well but are completely pointless, and the people doing them know this. (Vox interview with David Graeber)

So Graeber defines “bullshit job” as a job that must be useless because nobody can legitimately justify its existence by referring to the world outside of it. In contrast, “shit job” is shitty just because the worker is treated badly even though his/her work may be quite useful for the world.

In Lacanian terms, the Graeberian “bullshit” simply refers to the Master-Shit S1 that is justified merely by its own existence (“bullshit” is the shit of the Wall Street bull, if you will [4]), whereas “shit” refers to the chain of shit S2 that is obliged to serve the Master-Shit (it’s the ordinary shit of the “main street”).

The unequal relation between the Master-Shit and the chain of shit lets us re-interpret the common wisdom “Shit rolls downhill” in a Lacanian way: The shitty reality of the political economy originates from the propagation of bullshit via the symbolic order. This is the truth of the “trickle-down economics” [5].

Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD from Boğaziçi University, İstanbul. Admin of Yersiz Şeyler, Editor of Žižekian Analysis, Curator of Görce Writings. Twitter: @BarisFidaner


[1] See “On Transformations of Instinct as Exemplified in Anal Erotism” Sigmund Freud

[2] As I did here: “Bullshit jobs are structured like a language”

[3] “Ağa pokunun üstüne pok olur mu la?” from the movie Kibar Feyzo (1978) in which Şener Şen plays the landowner (seen on the image) and Kemal Sunal plays the worker.

[4] “Comedian seeks permit for smiling poop sculpture in NYC” Josh Kosman

[5] Thanks to Arion Horn for drawing this connection.

Thanks to Mika Leinonen for suggesting that I write about this.

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