There’s a great scene in Luis Bunuel’s 1974 film The Phantom of Liberty in which a group of people assemble for an evening of conversation. Their hostess places them at table and each guest, in turn, at her invitation, prepares themselves and sits down on a toilet. The discussion immediately revolves around a recent, outstanding performance of Tristan and Isolde. There is a casual air of relaxed informality, during which people read magazines and enjoy the sociality of cigarette smoking (Gaulois, of course). This joie de vivre is interrupted as one gentleman, excusing himself, refers to the subject of food (the guest next to him recoils in disgust). After a sustained, excited discussion of the volume of human waste produced per annum, one guest, having unburdened himself of an uneasy load, flushes and asks the maid, in hushed tones, the way to the dining room. In the discreet, locked privacy of a gastronomic cubicle, he hunkers down to a meal of lamb chops (the entire event, of course, is disgusting, to say the least: vin rouge, petit pain… I can’t go on). This act, not to be spoken of in polite society, is interrupted only by the persistent knocking on the door of one of the other diners, also answering the call of nature. This is a wonderful, surrealistic parable of the ordinary, or rather, what is acceptable as ordinary. Bunuel’s brilliant satire plays mischievously with this blurring of the ordinary into morality. At the same time it foregrounds banality as the very fabric of the ordinary, the mindless, repetitive commonplaceness of things that we do all the time, like eating, talking, shitting; things that lack distinction because they are invisible, bland, part of the ambience of banality.
In a like-minded coprophagous spirit, Ian Haig is ingeniously using the toilet -not as a metaphor but as banal reality – to defamiliarise our use of media technologies. Since the late 1980s, computers have become a familiar part of everyday life. We use them every day for one thing or another, for work, pleasure or necessity. But what we forget is that they have become too familiar. Human-computer interaction has become another form of quotidian banality. As such we have also lost sight of how it has changed us in the process. We forget that computers have made us more sedentary than at any other time in human history. That can’t be good for the digestion. Haig’s Super Interactive Toilets can help us in this respect. Indeed, if he has not done so already, I urge him to register the following motto for his product with the AMA immediately: Better Living Through TechnologyTM.
Haig has given us with his Super Interactive Toilets the latest in new media. A toilet, as everyone already knows, is a medium, an extension of the body (in this case an extension of the bowel and digestive system). It is a residual, rather than emergent medium, as Raymond Williams once observed (this may be apocryphal, but it is said that like Marshall McLuhan, Williams did his best work while on the throne). Haig’s new medium, the interactive toilet -part media station, part home entertainment centre Ð is designed for the modified body, the hybrid body changing in response to the mutations of the human-computer interface (the body in transformation is a significant theme in Haig’s work; see “K-Rad Man: The ReAnimation of Ian Haig” (http://www.experimenta.org/mesh/mesh_2000/index.htm#ian).
Toilet technology is one of the great unsung watersheds in the history of the becoming cyborg. Toilets are without question technologies. Haig knows it, Heidegger knew it. In fact, the toilet is arguably the paradigm of Heidegger’s abstract sense of technology as that which enables, reveals, brings forth. Donna Haraway, the doyen of situated knowledge, seems to have missed this insight in her meditation on the technological reinvention of nature. Are we cyborgs when sitting on the can? You bet your sweet ass.