The Semiotics of Shit

From Slavoj Zizek's review of Timothy Garton Ash's Free World.

In a famous scene from Buñuel's Phantom of Liberty, the roles of eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at toilets around a table, chatting pleasantly, and when they want to eat, sneak away to a small room. So, as a supplement to Lévi-Strauss, one is tempted to propose that shit can also serve as a matière-à-penser: the three basic types of toilet form an excremental correlative-counterpoint to the Lévi-Straussian triangle of cooking (the raw, the cooked and the rotten). In a traditional German toilet, the hole into which shit disappears after we flush is right at the front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff and inspect for traces of illness. In the typical French toilet, on the contrary, the hole is at the back, i.e. shit is supposed to disappear as quickly as possible. Finally, the American (Anglo-Saxon) toilet presents a synthesis, a mediation between these opposites: the toilet basin is full of water, so that the shit floats in it, visible, but not to be inspected. No wonder that in the famous discussion of European toilets at the beginning of her half-forgotten Fear of Flying, Erica Jong mockingly claims that 'German toilets are really the key to the horrors of the Third Reich. People who can build toilets like this are capable of anything.' It is clear that none of these versions can be accounted for in purely utilitarian terms: each involves a certain ideological perception of how the subject should relate to excrement.

I have nothing to say.

  • Mudley

    I think the distinction is that, based on current law, the recipient has a legal right to the money (It is different with Medicaid, which is an entitlement to the state, not an individual one, but the principle is the same). For discretionary spending, appropriations committees can provide less or more funding than Congress originally had in mind when the program was established, but non-discretionary spending is governed by the controlling legislation and must be fully funded. Technically I guess you could say that Congress still has discretion, in that they could change the law, but it is the appropriations committees that do not.

    The border fence is a good example of discretionary spending. Congress can “build” one without ever actually appropriating any funds — funding can be doubled one year and zeroed out the next without any intervening legislation.

  • Fin Fang Foom

    Discretionary spending depends on the budget being passed every year. Non-discretionary spending will be funded out of payroll taxes unless the Congress changes the law. It is perhaps misnamed, even though in truth there won’t be any decrease in the non-discretionary spending unless the shit really hits the fan.

  • I have another question: Without being glib, tell me what is the difference between non-discretionary and discretionary defense spending?

  • Fin Fang Foom

    There is no such thing as non-discretionary defense spending.

    • Except that if you look at the chart, the red line is discretionary defense spending.

      • John Thacker

        Yes, but that doesn’t mean that there is any such thing as non-discretionary defense spending. The red line is discretionary defense spending, and it is a all defense spending. It is both, because discretionary defense spending is all there is. All defense spending depends on appropriations in each current bill; no law establishes mandatory defense spending that will be spent each year without a law changing it.

        Note that from one perspective, the distinction seems pointless. What’s the difference between “only spent if Congress includes it in the budget resolution” and “spent unless Congress changes it in a resolution?” It turns out, a lot, due to how congressional procedure and politics work.

        • I see what you are saying. I was thinking that the percentages were of federal spending not of GDP. But now that I see they are percentages of GDP, what you say makes perfect sense. Thanks!

  • RobB

    Mudley and Foom essentially got it.

    Discretionary spending is authorized by Congress in appropriations acts, which are typically passed annually. Though supplemental appropriations are pretty common.

    Non-discretionary spending doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with entitlements or pay roll taxes. Non-discretionary simply means that the enacting law for that program authorized spending without the need for annual appropriations. In other words, the spending keeps happening until the law gets changed.

    Discretionary and non-discretionary are just budget law jargon and shouldn’t be taken to imply anything about the permanence of any program, because as we know federal programs are damn near immortal.