Thursday, September 23, 2010

On “Unity” (of the Scatological Sort)

Russian toilet used in Mir space station / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The State Historical Museum in Moscow has a curious exhibit running until October 3 called “Where the King Walked” (as opposed to where he “rode” or “was carried”). So where did the king walk? To the toilet, of course. That accounts for the exhibit’s subtitle: “Hygiene in Historical Context.” And the historical context that the curators have in mind runs from classical antiquity to the present day, with stops along the way at medieval Asian chamber pots, urine collection bags from the Mir space station, and brand new toilet bowls that can quickly analyze what you put into them and give you timely updates on your health. Russian readers can have a look at a full description of the exhibit here.

A writer for Novaya Gazeta who visited the exhibit, Evgeniya Pischikova, reminds us that that Russian word for “toilet bowl,” «унитаз» (unitáz), came into the language as a product name – like Kleenex in English, Pampers in Russian, or Xerox in both. (On a personal note, something about the word «памперс» [Pampers] irritates me; our daughter has always worn «подгузники» [diapers].) The English company that made those first “lavatory pans” for the Russian market called their product “Unitas,” which means “unity” in Latin. I’m sure I’ve heard someone else say this before, but perhaps the name stuck because Russians associated it in their minds with the word «таз» (“taz”), or “basin.” In any case, the Latin meaning of the word prompts Pischikova to muse on what it is that connects us:

After visiting [the exhibit] you really start to think about humanity’s development and the significance of sewage in a cultural context. And its role was enormous. Sewage is unity. Proof of that can be found in a famous interview that the French sociologist and theorist of culture Jacques Ellul gave regarding the Internet, which was just then emerging and gathering strength. “Isn’t it a miracle, monsieur,” the interviewer said rapturously, “that every person, every home, every solitary individual will be connected by a single, common network? Doesn’t it seem to you that this is something inconceivable?” “Pardon me, madam, but no, it doesn’t seem so to me,” the theorist drily answered. “We have long been connected by one common network – the network of sewers.”

[Translation mine]

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