Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”

E. E. Cummings, “i sing of Olaf glad and big”


To suggest that the idea of modernity has passed from theological discourse to secular practice is to ignore the various concatenations of control that occur in our discourses around shit. To characterize “modernity” as secular is similarly erroneous, as modernity is founded on imposed social control, which interlaces body and language. Those who control shit, control bodies; those who control bodies control languages. This idea moves from the underground to the artistic mainstream in the 20th century, from the pornography of Sade into the political and social mainstream.

The modernist instinct towards hygiene hides bodily taboos of shame, attached to a Christianity that worked from the body, from a Christianity that worked from the head.i The hiding of shit was analogous to the hiding of the body, a point that Barthes makes in his biography of Sade, Fourier, and Loyola.ii Therein, the scientific method of the early physicist Fourier, the methodical debauchery of the Marquis de Sade, and the logocentric patterning of foundational Jesuit Ignatius De Loyola, were all about controlling language in the same capacity as the King controlled bodies.

Like the French Revolution generally, the upending of morality and social control evidenced in Sade’s work did not seek complete upending of all statuses of behavior. Shit was still being controlled; it was extended past corporeal reality into linguistic abstraction, but the slop was nonetheless being carried out by night and pushed under the streets just as those streets were being ripped apart. Barthes argues that Sade’s revolutionary character and the construction of norms found in Loyola reflected a new understanding where the linguistic usurped the corporeal:

What are here being overturned are obliviously, in a very classical way, the social fetishes, kings, ministers, ecclesiastics, etc., but so too the language, the traditional classes of writing: criminal contamination touches every style of the discourse: narrative, lyrical, moral, maxim, mythological topos. We begin to recognize that the transgressions of language possess an offensive power at least as strong as that of moral transgressions, and that the poetry which is itself the language of the language of the transgressions of language…”iii

Sade’s problem is not a bodily one, but a linguistic one. He has the same desire to mold language for social power that Loyola innovated.

Speaking broadly, the problematic posed to reader relations by Sade’s writings is inherent not in its pornographic discussion per se, but is rather latent within the author’s internalization and execution of violence against the liturgical accretion of linguistic power.

Pornographic and liturgical spaces depend upon their messiness and its control, as well as the language emergent in meditations between the two. Sade, then, teaches his followers to control their tongue, to radically decentralize the control of anus—this power: the control of tongue, of anus, of body, of language, then becomes the end of the early modernist instinct of the king and initiates enlightenment era instincts surrounding, at the very least, some kind of rhetorical autonomy of person.

To put it another way, Sade returns the body back to the self, and problemitizes a certain duality in how we are spoken to, as the words that are chosen, their order, its construction, and the ontological underpinning of tradition allows others to create a self for us. One of the ways to solve that problem, to reuse the bondage straps of theological discourses, is to annotate controlled texts.iv This control (or lack of) bodily control was like a convent, where access is permitted to novitates, who know the rites. Sade was largely untranslated and undistributed until the 20th century, at least in popular editions, or in English. Ironically then, the people who were most likely to have read him in the original were those academics who were taught at least partially in the French system, a system whose pedagogical patterns were inherited from Loyola’s methods. Hence, the extreme pornographer and the extreme theologian shared the same psychic space.v

The translations of and scholarly work around these religious and linguistic practices were a twentieth century phenomenon, wherein Sade became not a debauched noble of the historical past but the originating philosopher for a new kind of libertinism. If shit was controlled up to the twentieth century, and was not part of the cultural context, it became a thematic constant and an important part of European thinking about the body, about God and about desire after the nineteenth.

The twentieth century thinker in France who made the tradition of controlling both bowels and texts most problematic was Georges Bataille, who could be considered the coda to Barthes eighteenth century trinity (Sade, Fourier, Loyola). As a seminary dropout who wrote about destruction of the eroticized body, using French that was classical in its rigor, Bataille could be considered a transitory or liminal figure between the religious desires of Loyola and the sexual instincts of Sade. That his work is often about the divinity of filth, with profound interactions between the sacred and the blasphemous, allows for slippages between the methods of control associated with Sade and Loyola. Sade’s systematics prevent the emergence of the liminal, and it shares an interiority with Loyola; Batialle’s writings are a reconstruction of Loyola and Sade’s language games. The liminal is born in the tension between language and the control of language. The language used to describe violence needs to be tied, to be controlled—it lacks the slippery incontinence of the body of Christ in the examples from the medieval. This slippage is described by the critic Leslie Anne Boldt Irons as being explicitly connected to the slippages between the body and the spirit:

However, the mutilation and sacrifice affected by Bataille’s imagery does not always operate between signs. It may also be directed from signifier to signified within the boundaries of a single sign. There it is a question of Bataille setting a destructive reverberation in motion, a slippage by which the normally static objects of signifier and signified are disturbed into a movement upsetting their discursive equilibrium. This is the case of the slipping word, whose capacity for self-destruction or auto-mutilation (sacrifice) had been silenced by the straightjacket of discourse. The slipping word, the sign in reverberation, becomes, therefore, the site of a mutual antagonism, an antagonism between signifier and signified, which discursive language had silenced for the purposes and profit of project, and which Bataille sets off in a gesture of poetic violence.vi

Unsettling of the previously hidden connections between that which is sacred and that which is bodily (at its most filthy) evinces a desire to make work about those slippages—especially work that could function simultaneously as acts of prophetic speech and religious provocation. This indicates the desire to make liturgical text and the body obey a single ascendant sign as collapsible, so collapsible that it becomes impossible to destabilize that which has been torn asunder. These slippages antagonistically function as canceling performances in the work of Sade and Loyola, and by extension Bataille (i.e. the linguistic control function that works as a unifying membrane in the work of Sade/Loyola is viewed as cancerous by Bataille, and is severed). For Bataille, one way to solve this scatological linguistic control problem is through acts of textual violence.

The sort of textual violence we’re considering here influences a variety of adaptive/allegorical work, which reinforces the political as opposed to the religious underpinnings of Sade’s project. The most obvious is Salò, the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1972 film-adaptation of 120 Days of Sodom, wherein twenty-four youths are held captive by four middle-aged men and forced to engage in highly ritualistic acts of sexualized humiliation. These elders are symbolic of the four elements of Italian power (the church, the government, the academy, and the aristocracy). The film has the same liturgical, calendar based, logocentric structure as Sade’s volume, but expands its regieme of sanctions by swapping logophilia for scopophilia, shattering even more taboos. The film lacks does not engage the same kind of pleasure principle that Sade does, instead depicting acts of sado-masochism, bondage, implied incest, blood play, and coprophagia literalize power and control, so as to obliterate the cryptic language games inherent within Ignatian tradition.

The most literal of these acts comes near the end of the film. Eventually, the four men make the twenty-four youths control all of their bowels, shitting in a central dish, so that the elite can eat it. During inspection one of the 24 is found not only to be shitting in the chamber pot, but to be cleaning himself. He is threatened with death because of his impudence. This seeking of personal autonomy against the agents of control leads to the eventual martyrdom of one of the youths, who discovers that other youths are having sex with each other without the permission of the four middle-aged men. Here the sexual power of the aristocracy is challenged by desire for autonomy. Pasolini in essence argues that the control obsessed over by Sade and Bataille breeds fascism.

Pasolini recognizes that the games that Sade and Loyola were playing were not games of sex and religion, but games of government and power. Sade leads his followers into fairly dark places—sometimes literally, as in the jails and asylums where he ended his life, but also sometimes symbolically, as in the last scenes of Salò, where torture and murder are the logical conclusions of those who are bored by their having every whim fulfilled. There is a hint of the anti-clerical here—just as the Passion of St Matthew argues against the language of the church in favor of an earthier Christ, Pasolini’s Salò argues that the intersection of the church and the state refuses liberation. Sade, as an aristocrat, reifes these processes. It pushes Barthes arguments from the local to the universal.

Seeing Salò or reading Sade while thinking about God and shit seems to be a provocation. But in many circumstances shit is a powerful political metaphor for linguistic refusal to understand where power comes and where it goes: to understand shit is to understand control. This decade has had world leaders who use the intersection of controlled bodies and language to justify torture. The leaked digital photos of shit besmeared prisoners in Abu Ghraib seem to be a real time example of the theoretical underpinnings discussed previously. Pasolini, Sade, Bataille, and Loyola seem now to be the worst kind of prophets. Their contexts have become our contexts.

It follows that there was renewed interest in Salò and 120 Days of Sodom during the second war in Iraq.vii Within recent bureaucratic discussions of torture’s definition, bodily horror is once again interlaced with the central questions of language. One of the more powerful responses, which recognizes this interlacing, was in an essay for the South Central Review, written by Eduardo Salibrato and entitled “Totalitarian Lust from Salò to Abu Ghraib:”

Torture is a microcosm. Hence, its considerable theological, philosophical, and political value. The physical and chemical techniques of destruction of the person—from the grappling irons and mutilations put into practice by the Holy Christian Brotherhood, to the electrical charges, drugs, violent contusions, prolonged asphyxia, aggressive sensorial stimulation, and sexual violation practiced in centers of military intelligence throughout the Cold War—in short, what we see before us today, is not, as the institutional watchdogs of human rights are inclined to proclaim, the vision of an inexpressible and incomprehensible horror. It is the exact opposite: the calculated expression, at once rational and necessary, that defines modernity, the global capitalist system, or Western civilization as such. This is the expression that reveals the profound logos of modernity. It is, to be precise, the same expression that once led the Marquis de Sade to explore, in his memories of imprisonment, the nexus between torture and civilizing rationality.

The desire to remain rational, to think that we are in control, or that control is a good thing, has been—from the beginning!—a project of the modernist self. Controlling shit, controlling the body, controlling language, and controlling God are all part of the same instinct. But there are warnings, sometimes cultural and sometimes political, to be suspicious of those who are controlling us, those who are controlling our bodies, and those who have theories and theses about the desire for exterior order.

To be cautious about these theories is to recognize the instability of Western civilization, and to recognize that much of what we attempt to control is outside of our purview. Those who control us wear garments of the government as often as they are in the garments of the church.


[i] This might be why the BDSM scenes of Fifty Shades of Grey seem so hygienic, because hygiene is a mark of the protestant triumph of capital.

[ii] Barthes, Roland. Sade, Fourier, Loyola. New York: Hill and Wang, 1976. Print.

[iii] Barthes, 34

[iv] Although Sade’s class and free capital make this upending of texts much easier.

[v] Though he did publish some work in his lifetime, often this work was not widely distributed, and often it was not published in his name. In addition, the more explicit responses to religion were not published until the 1920s, and a full biography did not occur until Lely’s in 1952. Cf. Hekma, Gert. “Review: Rewriting the History of Sade.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1.1 (1990): 131-36.

[vi] Boldt-Irons, Leslie Anne. “Sacrifice and Violence in Bataille’s Erotic Fiction: Reflections From/upon the Mise En Abîme.” Bataille: Writing the Sacred. By Carolyn Bailey Gill. London: Routledge, 1995. 97 Print.

[vii] See also essays “Salò Redux” by John Menick; “The Fearful Symmetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò” by Ben Simmington; “Pasolini, Salò and Abu Ghraib” by Martha Fischer, among others