Postmodern Poo: A Harvard course on scatalogical literature (“the canon is a chamber pot”)

January 19, 2018 • 11:00 am

An anonymous reader sent me this announcement for a course at Harvard, and at first I thought it was an enormous joke. Now I’ve learned it’s for real. For one thing, there is indeed a professor at Harvard called Annabel Kim: she’s an Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures. And her c.v., here, lists a related book in progress:

Unbecoming Language: Anti-Identitarian French Feminist Fictions (forthcoming from the Ohio State University Press)

Cacaphonies: Toward an Excremental Poetics (in progress)

But the ultimate proof is that Harvard lists the course in its catalogue, reproducing the text beneath the poster’s pile of friendly poo. The course description (the same as on the poster) is below, and I’ve bolded a few part. But hell—the whole thing should be bolded!

French literature, from the Middle Ages to today, has been consistently and remarkably scatological. Fecal matter is omnipresent in works and authors that we consider canonical (e.g. the fabliaux, Rabelais, de Sade, Beckett, Celine) and yet its presence has been remarkably submerged or passed over in readerly and critical reception of modern and contemporary French literature. This course proposes to take this fecal presence seriously and to attend to the things it has to tell us (hence the plurality of cacaphonies) by starting with the following premise: If literature is excrement, then the canon is a chamber pot. We will focus on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and read a diverse range of scatological texts in order to use the scatological as a means to: 1) Theorize an excremental poetics where excretion provides a model for the process of writing. The task of excretion, which translates into concrete form our experience of the world (we excrete what we take in, processing and giving it new form), is also the task of literature; 2) Allow for a new interrogation and critique of the canon and the ways in which it serves to conceal, contain, sanitize, and compel culture; 3) Provide another angle from which to approach the question of gender and writing, as gender organizes both literature (e.g. the paucity of canonical women writers) and defecation (e.g. the gendering of constipation as a feminine condition); 4) Offer an alternative theory of the significance of fecal matter to the dominant one provided by psychoanalysis (i.e. feces as gift, gold, a la Freud). The goal of the course is to begin to articulate and realize an original approach to literature that, rather than take feces as a site of disgust, takes it as a site of creation.

All I can say is this: the course is a damn travesty, larded with postmodernism. I pity the students who take it, and I pity the professor, who is not only going to have to deal with this for the rest of her professional life, but may be endangering her tenure. For surely even Harvard can’t think that this is worthy teaching or scholarship!

Now I’m not sure if Dr. Kim made this poster to advertise the course, or someone made it as a joke. But given that the whole course is an unwitting joke, it hardly matters.

91 thoughts on “Postmodern Poo: A Harvard course on scatalogical literature (“the canon is a chamber pot”)

    1. According to MP, the French “pissed in your general direction”. Can’t recall poo-flinging om the Holy Grail, though peasant extras were all well-besmirched.

        1. Correct, I just happened to watch it.

          It does have scatological references – (paraphrasing)
          “He’s the king”
          “How can you tell?”
          “He isn’t covered in shit”

          Though ‘shit’ there is a descriptor for generic dirt of all kinds


  1. I can just imagine the feces faces of the parents parents who find their kids are using their time at Harvard to study this shit. Excuse my language.

  2. I wouldn’t throw out the jobbie with the pot so to speak. Given the vast significance of excrements for existence and the many facets of feces in culture, this surely deserves closer inspection. Whether in that contorted way, is another question…

    1. They could achieve the same thing by having them read articles presented at the MLA or published in one of the many “studies” journals without referring to actual fecal material.

  3. Post-modernism: taking an interesting idea and seeing how you can gimmick it up to avoid doing real research on it.

    It would be cool to study why Middle Ages French writing is filled with scatological references. It would be cool to study how that sort of imagery and writing plays into the use of feelings of disgust as a proxy for immorality and evil, even today – because it does. But you don’t need to “Theorize an excremental poetics where excretion provides a model for the process of writing” to do that. You could just read stuff and talk about what the author meant, why such arguments are effective, and so on.

      1. O.M.G.

        People have actually studied this. In detail.

        Here is an actual quote from that…that….thing;

        “Dirt hence disorder hence danger become associated with the proletariat, the prover- bial ‘unwashed’ even unwiped masses, as distinct from the hygienically sound hence orderly hence safe bourgeoisie — that is, until the former, too, come to adopt Inglis’ ‘bourgeois’ now almost universal Western ‘fecal habitus,’ ultimately depriving dirt of its utility as a class distinction.”

        Good grief. According to the authors, this is an explanation for why scatology appears in middle ages literature because it to link

        “… the rise of an eventual ‘bourgeois habitus’ to self-conscious mod- ifications in the codes of social interaction, of which those applying to the most ‘unclean’ and hence ‘dangerous’ of them all, excretory practice, are the most prob- lematic and so subject to most rigorous control and even repression.”

        Arrrgh. I am DONE with PoMo for the day. I’ve got to go rinse my eyeballs in bleach.

    1. Mikhail Bakhtin wrote about scatological humour in Rabelais decades ago. He was huge when I was at university. No doubt his celebration of mongrel forms of literature would be out of favour among the cultural puritans that dominate the academy these days.

    2. Technically speaking, of the canonical examples given in the course catalogue description, only the fabliaux dates to the High Middle Ages. Rabelais was a Renaissance writer, de Sade from the late 18th-early 19th century, and Céline (a modernist) and Beckett (an absurdist) from the 20th.

    3. My guess is that all Mediaeval writing (not just French) was fairly scatological, because society then was a lot more ‘earthy’ and sex and natural functions were regarded as, well, natural and common knowledge – and also a source of humour.

      I suspect that only much later, when the role of dirt in spreading disease came to be recognised, and standards of living particularly for the upper classes made it possible to stay fairly clean, did ‘dirt’ (and ‘shit’ as its most extreme example) become an ‘unclean’ subject.

      (Do I get my Amateur Historian badge now?)


    1. Frederick Crews wrote a book called “Postmodern Pooh.” I’ve always thought that he was engaging in euphemistic scatological wordplay there.

      1. Not quite: it was “The Pooh Perplex”, and it comprised a whole set of hilarious parodies of (then) modish literary tropes, including pseudo-Freudian and pseudo-Leavisian nonsense. In fact I think it might have preceded post-modernism in all its pompous absurdity, although I’m sure Crews would be happy to include PoMo in any updated version.

        1. Argh! Just looked it up and it is indeed a different book! Many humble apologies, Jenny. I should learn to do some research before putting finger to keyboard.

          Still, his earlier book is still worth reading.

          1. Clearly Crews likes to do a lot of Pooh-Poohing. And I find that “poo” and “pooh” are probably related, and in Wikipedia that “pooh-pooh” (var. “poo-poo”) is not just an expression, but a kind of fallacy All this makes me wonder if in both these books Crews was punning on that fallacy as well as invoking Milne and the excremental “poo.” I’d bet on it, and if so, I think it deepens his use of the term exponentially. The Poo Perplex is on my list. Thanks for the tip.

  4. This beats the “Kayaking as Communications” class offered as a desperate bid to attract students to our program at the small, financially struggling university where I once taught.

    I can’t help but wonder if humanities scholars have exhausted every avenue of legitimate scholarship, if we’re so desperate to be innovative that we invent vacuous new areas of study, or if it’s an ugly amalgamation both of these trends.

    1. At least kayaking is a marketable skill? Or one that can be used for recreation the rest of your life. That said, do you recall how they were framing it as communications?

      1. The gist was that students would write about their experiences as they learned to kayak. In addition, they communicated directly with each other advance their skills.

        I left before the course ran; the literature professors in the department saw the class as a travesty, and I shared their opinion, but the administration loved it because my department head provided the kayaks, and it was cheaper than adding the printers or updating the software we so desperately needed for our technical classes.

        While it was a glorified physical education class that awarded academic credits, it was more defensible than Ms. Kim’s class.

    2. I should think that one could develop myriad sorts of classes about modern life. Politics of Twitter. Social networks in the age of Facebook. Love in Tinderverse. It goes on for a long time.

    3. I can’t help but wonder if humanities scholars have exhausted every avenue of legitimate scholarship …

      The novelist John Barth (who also held teaching positions at several universities) did write a famous postmodernist manifesto entitled “The Literature of Exhaustion.”

    1. Once it was just bowel cancer screening tests. Next step up (or down) colonic irrigation. Now with learned discourses about the existential poo of life and Harvard level fees.

  5. Yup, a travesty indeed, PCCE! What a waste of cognition! The postmodern provocateur prateth pure, piffling poppycock! Score one for Mr. Hankey, sadly.

    1. Mr Hanky, the POMO poo,
      He loves me, and I love you.
      Therefore vicariously, he loves you..
      Mr Hanky, the Pomo poo !!!

    1. My guess is that there is some book which does exactly that – attributes it only to women, etc. Might be worthy of investigation as to why, but a literature course veers into history of medicine at that point, and so: awooga!

    2. I first suspected that this referred to marketing constipation remedies to women more than men, at least as measured by how many commercials on broadcast TV for constipation remedies feature women.

        1. Right. It’s ludicrous but *of course she does*. It all flows from the underlying premise pomo/SJW: there is only one way to be culpable, which is the enforce and embody the heterosexual white cis male apparatus. That is to say “interscetionality”. Everything must be roped in to this. This includes constipation of course; it’s genedered feminine because then you can tie all your turd analysis to the hierarchy of oppression.

          How long before someone argues dysentery is just a social construct used to oppress (insert group here)?

  6. As always, Harvard leads the parade. I think we can look forward to new departments of Fecal Studies, dedicated to Critical Poo Theory, and of course new scholarly journals in this exciting area. Who says we need Monty Python?

  7. I think she made it. On purpose. Professors get to propose and develop courses of their choosing, and in some tracks this is part of their promotion and tenure requirement.
    What is also weird is that the process has to go through committees at both the departmental level and at the college level. So professors in history and economics would have reviewed it and signed off on it!
    Very strange.

  8. One cannot just simply make this shit up.

    Oh, wait…

    I used to have a dictionary of obscenities in several languages, written by a Russian woman. It may have been this one:

    IIRC, the Russians tended toward the anatomical, the Germans scatological, and in Spanish everything was about Jesus and Mary. I don’t recall about the French. Curious, as that was my second language (not counting Latin).

    1. In Arabic many obscenities are about homosexuals. One that took me a long time to get translates as; “you push dirt with your chest”. Didn’t seem obscene to me, but I was savvy enough to never use it.

    2. I have a book entitled ‘Your Mother’s Tongue: A Book Of European Invective’ which is pretty much what the title says.

      Haven’t read it for yonks but IIRC it was quite informative on the inventive insults that grace various languages.


    3. I always though in european french, since the revolution, bad language was secular – “merde” etc. In Quebec, due to separation culturally from France after the end of the seven years war, it remained mostly based on aspects of Catholicism – “tabernac, ciboire, calix” etc. though nowadays with borrowing from the larger culture “merde, Trou de cul, fut-toi” etc are common.

  9. Can a professors at Harvard or other universities teach anything on personal whim? If so, why isn’t there oversight? On the other hand, if a department chairperson or committee needs to approve a proposed course, what justification was there to approve this one?

    1. I just noticed Mark Sturtevant, #16, seems to have answered my questions. But, another question comes to mind: what kind of student would actually sign up for this kind of course?

      1. One still working on self-emancipation from the anal-retentive stage – which would be most of them these days.

  10. When I read the title of the course, I thought a five-year old Alan Sokal Jr was at it. “Cacophonies: Toward an Excremental Poetics” rings somewhat similar as “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” (Sokal’s famous spoof paper).

    As usual, the general idea is not bad per se to look closer at some aspect of culture, and be it mentions of excrement in classic literature. But of course, they instantly fly off the rail. But what can you expect from caco-phonies and their psycho-anality?

    Remarkable is how postmodernists seem genuinely incapable to read a thing from cognitive science, or linguistics, where they could learn about metaphors, and how they might relate to bodies (e.g. kinaesthetic image schemas, Lakoff & Johnson). That should be highest priority for people who are always concerned about language, “bodies” and metaphorical usage (also see instances where by way of metaphor some equations are sexed, male, “rape manuals” etc.) This research is still moving, but in principle, it exists since the 1980s.

    1. I once took a class where “rhetoric of science” was on topic. Some assigned readings made reference to Schrodinger’s _What is Life?_ and so I read the original and some thermodynamics texts from the period to see what, if anything, was said about the controversy over “Maxwell’s Demon” was at the time. Nothing prominent enough to make textbooks, as I suspected, but I wanted to be sure. So I offered to lend the thermo text to one of the students of the rhetoric of science (provided she returned it to the library for me when done). She refused to read it.

  11. “For surely even Harvard can’t think that this is worthy teaching or scholarship!”

    You’re more optimistic than I am.

  12. Several thoughts:

    1. In the late 1970s, I thought OSU and UofO in Oregon had veered too far off the path of relevant courses when OSU taught literature about sports, and UofO taught the lyrics of Bob Dylan. (However, the Nobel committee now acknowledges the poetic value of Dylan’s lyrics.)

    2. I suppose that if science can study coprolites and the fresher feces of different groups of people (to see what they eat and if they have worms), liberal arts can study the literary aspects of poo. But, I have difficulty in considering scatology in literature as “…an excremental poetics where excretion provides a model for the process of writing.” Manure.

    3. Next: Maybe Harvard should study the poetics of the dirty joke. (See G. Legman for a large book of dirty jokes.)

    4. If one is to study excrement, the study should include more than “Romance Languages and Literatures”. In The Silk Road: A New History of the World, Peter Frankopan remarks on a Muslim sent centuries ago to the Steppes to find out what people there were like. Among other faults, he found them unclean because they wiped with paper instead of using water. We should study the whole world.

    5. Maybe her class should also refer to taboos about which hand one must use to wipe or cleanse after defecation. And, maybe they could study toilets of the world.

    6. Another possibility: individuals or cultures that swear using scatology vs. those who only swear using religious oaths (or something other than scatology.)

    1. I for one have no problem about research and teaching about popular music, including Dylan, but it would have to be in a scholarly way. I don’t know anything about the standards in (say) musicology, but I have the feeling they too would have a pomo split, since they are effectively a humanities discipline with a strong connection to a fine art. (Just a prediction I would *love* to be wrong.)

  13. In days of old
    when knights were bold
    and toilets weren’t invented
    they would lay by the road
    and dump their load
    and walk on home contented

  14. I see the course is open to undergrads with permission of instructor. I guess their admission will stand on the results of a stool test.

  15. As a biologist do you not consider shitting to be an important physiological process? Would you refuse to study the evolution of the arsehole because you are too prudish?

    James Joyce famously described Leopold Bloom taking a crap. Should professional academics ignore this section from Ulysses for fear of losing their jobs?

    1. See above about the musicology comment. I have no problem with studying crap, or even studying its representations in literature and the other arts. I *do* have a problem with pomo bad history and the like.

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