Saturday, December 6, 2008

Potty talk

I swim most days. Because I drink lots of water before I swim I often have to pee when I get back to the locker room. And when I pee I use the urinal in that part of the locker room and then I go to the other part of the locker room to take my shower.

Excuse me for taking up a subject that probably ought to remain private, but this does lead to a more appropriate topic.

I found myself thinking after today’s swim, as I stood before the urinal, how it is that activities such as peeing and showering come to be so clearly separated. After all, I could just as easily pee in the drain trough of the shower. I’m usually alone. No one would notice. It would really raise no public health concern. Not really. It all goes to the same place. I wouldn’t pee on the floor where others would have to walk on it. So why do I go out of my way to pee in the urinal?

My first thought was that I have a cognitive “map” that separates clean from dirty, that I map “shower” as clean and “urinal” as dirty. I keep these tasks separate because I keep these places separate in my mind. This, or any number of variations on the theme, is a cultural models’ explanation. I have an idea, or set of ideas, to which I appeal when I make a decision or undertake a task.

But I’ve just been reading a piece on Wittgenstein, whom I studied years ago as an undergraduate, and this reminded me of another way to think about the problem. Wittgenstein would have talked about “forms of life,” or ordinary practices, that get layered into our bodies as we grow up. This is how he thought language worked. We say what we say and understand what we understand not because of certain thoughts but because of habits, practices, forms of life.

He would have challenged the idea that there was necessarily any idea at all behind the behavior (in contrast to what I’m doing now, which is thinking about it, which does involve ideas). In other words, according to Wittgenstein we follow rules not by appealing to some sort of cognitive model “in” our minds but rather by following a practice that our bodies know to do.

I remember, for instance, when I was four or five and my brother three and my sister about one. Mom put all three of us in the tub for our evening baths, and my sister, who was just then learning to stand, stood and pissed in the bath water, which I thought was pretty remarkable. And gross. Scot and I immediately got out of the tub. I don’t remember what Mom did, or even if she was there, though she probably was. But whatever she did she reaffirmed my sense that peeing in the tub wasn’t a good idea.

All of this suggests that I already had a sense that certain sets of practices should be kept separate, even those normally conducted in the same room. But I didn’t have to think that what my sister was doing was wrong (even if I also knew that at her age she could hardly be held responsible for the error), or at least babyish. It was certainly worth complaining to Mom about. I just reacted according to what were by that time instinctive dispositions.

The point I suppose is that anthropologists err when we attribute cultural behaviors to cultural models, cognitive maps, mental schemata – whatever you want to call them – in people’s heads. They are not necessarily so mental. They are in fact, or at least according to Wittgensteinian thinkers, embodied, organized practices that we obey not passively or idiotically but with the facility of habit and routine. It does not mean we are robots or automatons to suggest that we behave without thought (albeit with understanding). Rather, it is like the performance of an athlete, who swims the race without needing to think about how to dive, stroke, kick, turn, breathe, and finish, but does all this as if naturally, as a matter of course.

I suspect there are dozens of cases I might have used to illustrate the point. But this one clearly speaks to matters of place – for there are in my daily life places for some things and not for others, and these separations are kept largely out of my conscious mind. They are not subject to thinking. I just do them, or they do me, in the sense that I perform certain functions in certain places, and do so as much or more because of the place as my own volition.

As anthropologists think about the role of place in our lives we might consider not just about how we structure places but how places structure us.

The image above is a photograph of Marcel Duchamp's urinal, found at


Timothy said...

You don't pee in the shower at a public place because your Father told you not to by modeling at the Y when you were growing up. You don't stand up and pee on your siblings in the bath tub because your Mother told you it wasn't "nice".

And you pee in the lake for the same reason you don't pee in the shower. Because you are "free" to do so and it is as pleasurable as your sister peeing on you and your brother in the tub.

I thought you were going to have a David Sedaris moment in this story-- Sedaris is 50 something now like certain men I know and he is always rushing from one coffee stand to a urinal-- trying to avert wetting himself in public. This is a finely timed internal operation in most men going through midlife- similar in anxiety producing embarrassment to uncontrolled erections in elementary school class for me.

But Sedaris actually has a solution that Wettgenstein would enjoy. When he's done peeing in your Duchamps urinal (hoi!) he goes to the sink and sprinkles water all over the front of his pants.

Problem solved! ;)

It would be fun to see you write about threats and embarrassments with funny solutions for awkward situations in particular places like Sedaris has done.

Then you could live in Paris near David. Oui! Oui!


T Swimmy C

PS: Since the subject you're getting at is "place" doing us more than us thoughtfully decidng at every turn, I am curious if you've looked into how computers are changing our sense of place?

Computers are "doing us" more than we do them. As dramatic as not peeing in the right place? No. But far more insidious. They are changing how we see the world. And how we see our place in it.

Greg Hankins said...

Hey John!

The Wittgenstein discussion reminds me of William James, who someplace, maybe in his psychology, has a wonderfully concrete description of the way habits are like canyons in the mind, worn smooth and deeper by the passage of time and repetitive use.

Which is why my fingers always hurt; the pathways in my poor head having reinforced the tendency of my teeth to gnaw on them long ago.

On the other hand, it's also, I reckon, why I can play Whiskey for Breakfast on my harp while driving in to work.

I am happy to find these new posts on your blog. Though Marcy will kill me if she finds out, she being a very non-blog sort of person, I have been inspired by your experiment to start one of my own. It's at

I hope y'all have a very happy Christmas season.