Thesis ID: CBB295837344

Gut Feelings: Human Waste and Signs of Health in 20th- and 21st-century Literature (2019)


Sabo, Garth Jerome (Author)
Michaelsen, Scott (Advisor)
O'Donnell, Patrick (Advisor)

Michigan State University
Michaelsen, Scott
O'Donnell, Patrick
Publication date: 2019
Language: English

Publication Date: 2019
Physical Details: 226 pp.

Gut Feelings: Human Waste and Signs of Health in 20th- and 21st-Century Literature reads narrative and scientific descriptions of the human intestinal tract alongside contemporary ecological interest in interdependent and vulnerable ecosystems. Situated between the advent of germ theory coming out of the Pasteur Institute at the end of the 19th century and the rethinking of gut flora as a source of health rather than disease at the beginning of the 21 st, I argue for the gut’s increasing importance as a site of symbiotic community. By pairing literary representations of excrement with contemporary gastroenterological and microbiological knowledge of the human microbiome, I present a symbiotic scatology attentive to the vibrancy of human waste. Chapter 1 begins in 1908 with the publication of The Prolongation of Life: Optimistic Studies by Èlie Metchnikoff, an early microbiologist and sub-director of the Pasteur Institute. Metchnikoff presents his “just inference that the duration of life of mammals has been notably shortened as the result of chronic poisoning from an abundant intestinal flora” (72). I track how cultural narratives of human waste and the boundary-crossing promises of gut flora evolve out of and beyond this “just inference” over the course of the 20th century. I read Aldous Huxley’s 1939 novel After Many a Summer Dies the Swan against Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964) and Greg Egan’s Permutation City (1994) to show how Metchnikoff’s early theories of excrement as a source of bodily intimacy and infinity transform in cultural narratives of waste. My second chapter continues these fecal narratives to propose how the “fantastic voyage” genre of literature, particularly those that tout adventure on the alimentary canal, rewrite the human body as an ecosystem, a mode of embodiment that I dub the “fecological body.” The texts under consideration for this chapter—Mark Twain’s 3,000 Years Among the Microbes (1905), George Chappell’s Through the Alimentary Canal With Gun and Camera (1930), Nathanael West’s The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), and Joe Orton’s Head to Toe (1971)—use ecological terms and imagery to depict the body as a varied plane cohabited by human and non-human multitudes that are best revealed in waste. Chapter 3 considers how this excremental topology affects the way human bodies inhabit other spaces by joining the alimentary canal of individuals to the sewers of the body politic. I bridge eco- and anatomic materialism with public infrastructure analysis by close reading literary scenes where bodies escape through toilets. In particular, I read Slothrop’s exodus through the toilet to save his harmonica in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the dictator Sam flushing himself to elude the revolution against him in Ishmael Reed’s The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), and Andy Dufresne’s toilet-assisted escape from the titular prison in Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (1982). I historicize these texts within a brief window in which ecological protests rendered the technologies of waste management hyper-visible in order to parse the cultural importance of travels through excremental spaces. In my final chapter, I develop these communal materialities of waste into a model of excremental kinship. I situate contemporary family narratives from A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven (2012), Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love (1989) and Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature (1984) alongside new concepts of kinship and ecology emerging from the work of Donna Haraway, Eve Sedgwick, and Sarah Ensor. Focusing on the “common intestine” of Dunn’s conjoined twins Iphy and Elly Binewski, I present shit in this final chapter as a kinship object grounded in a form of mutual relation that resembles and resists genealogical heredity.

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Authors & Contributors
Benhidjeb, Tahar
Berressem, Hanjo
Clericuzio, Antonio
Gill, Josie
Guerrini, Anita
Honma, Eio
Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Bulletin of the History of Medicine
History of Psychiatry
Journal of the Turkish-German Gynecological Association
化学史研究 [Kagakushi kenkyū; Journal of the Japanese Society for the History of Chemistry]
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
Indiana University
The MIT Press
University of California, Davis
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Trent University (Canada)
Science and literature
Human physiology
Literary analysis
Food and foods
Descartes, René
Evelyn, John
King, William
Lister, Martin
Stephenson, Neal
Mahatma Gandhi
Time Periods
21st century
Early modern
17th century
19th century
20th century
20th century, early
Great Britain
United States

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