On. Off. There’s nothing simpler than a switch. Set in one position, it is used to connect and disconnect one circuit with another. Occasionally aspiring to a sophistication that ill suits their fundamental functionality, some of them are called “rheostats” and “dimmers,” and try to give their user the impression of mastery over the intensity of the passing electric current. But that little trick doesn’t change anything with respect to the principle, i.e., the switch is the control by which a choice is made, a choice that can only be formulated in a binary way. There is of course something frustrating in that constraint – as if the world, via the switch, were challenging us to invent a third way, a receding line, a tangent that would redistribute the terms of the problem it was aiming to solve. Yet the simplicity of the switch recalls that not only most of the choices we have to make are not determined by us, but also the most important of them can be stated in a pure and simple alternative, namely, either the light is on or it is off. This reminder of what the constraint of choosing always draws from the outside, and that that outside usually takes the form of a stubborn materiality, forces us to inscribe each of the choices we pose inside a vaster context – which is called a “circuit” in electricity. The switch is indeed what effects a break in the circuit when what as a rule permanently passes through there is no longer wanted, or simply no longer useful. Instead of making available the coordinates of a vertical decision, it means in reality that the decision has already been taken – and that the choice of overturning it forms but one possible reaction to what constitutes the adjusting of the circuit by default, i.e., its continuity. Such that, rather than a choice in the traditional sense, the decision we make to cut off the electricity (or water or gas, etc.) is literally a cutout or circuit-breaker decision – a decision of temporary removal from a flow which, otherwise, would go through us continuously. Electricity, water, and gas indeed are not goods that we are free to order up in packets, like articles of clothing at an online sales site; they define the movements, gestures, and folds of a milieu that takes shapes around them. From this point of view, a switch’s “off” position signifies the eventuality of an island on a sea of energy – but an island that depends, for its existence, on the ocean’s stretching out all around it. Cutting off the current doesn’t mean then tearing oneself from the flow of energy circulated by the world’s organization of logistics. Rather it is redirecting it, let’s say, towards other points we know nothing about. Because electricity is not behind the switch waiting at our pleasure, nor water in the tap; even if they are interrupted, their movement continues because it is the movement of the world itself. Just as the world turns, energy flows flow – in keeping with a physics of human ecology over which nobody can exert any control, except maybe to reduce one’s electric bill. Such that the switch, more than a simple control put at the disposal of a room’s occupants, is a kind of navigator, or rather interface. It is what operates the connection with the logic of the flows that support human lives – and probably the only contact that most of those lives will ever have with its own conditions. To put it another way, the switch is that which teaches those who use it what the conditions of its existence are by giving them the chance to suspend those conditions (and to experience the consequences of that suspension). The binarity then of the choice it proposes isn’t that of knowing whether the light has to be on or off, but rather in what way the fact of turning it on or off constitutes a necessity – that is, something without which something else would immediately be rendered impossible. As an interface, the switch clarifies the conditions of life in that these are deployed as a network that is tangled up with many consequences, in which there is no choice that does not immediately imply innumerable others, in a cascade that ends up looking like two drops of water in the flow they claim to master.
There is nothing more obvious than breathing. In a way, breathing constitutes the very operation linking all life forms on the planet to each other, plants to animals; the ground and minerals “breathe” as well. Breathing is the movement of life – an in-and-out motion involving a milieu that encompasses each living thing, entering it and being transformed there while transforming it as well. Breathing is thus an operation of conversion or mixing of the ecology of life as such – that is, a way of extracting from it what is necessary to then restore to it what is not necessary so that it is transformed in turn and becomes necessary once again. This ecology of life is the ecology of air, i.e., of all those molecules whose lightness makes movement possible without a vehicle being necessary – and whose size proves adequate, with the filters that living beings put in place to avoid having to harbor too many foreign bodies, especially harmful ones. Sometimes, however, the level of air filtering is increased. This is true with human beings especially, who try to mitigate two difficulties that can make their lives harder, one involving the fact that air can heat up and cool down; and the other, that air, despite existing filters, nevertheless transports unpleasant hosts – diseases, pollutions, allergens, etc. As legend has it, one day in 1902 Willis Haviland Carrier noticed mist enveloping the platforms of the train station in Pittsburgh and thought it ought to be possible to regulate the humidity of air by passing it through water, proposing a solution to both difficulties. Suddenly what came to be called “conditioned” air gave humans the ability to factor air – in other words, no longer see it as a simple given milieu, but as a material that can be manipulated. According to the kind of use involved in air conditioning systems, it became possible to employ it to cool a room that is overly hot and heat a room that is overly cold, but also to control its degree of humidity, and even combine it with different types of particle filters, etc. In any case, the thing that was achieved was the possibility that what had until then formed an essentially exterior milieu – both unstable and invisible, moreover – became a domestic space and hence one humans were now free to act on in an effective way. Air conditioning tamed the air by forming a technical border that was able to both verify its qualities and correct them in terms of the desired outcome if they did not meet the user’s requirements. Precisely at the point where the home defined a space of immunization vis-à-vis the onslaught of the most massive foreign bodies, air conditioning offered an opportunity to master the subtlest content as well – that is, add an ecological requirement to the immunization aspect. In other words, thanks to air conditioning home ecology was able to secede vis-à-vis the overall ecology – fragmenting it into a collection of cells the size of the oikos, and thus defining a veritable political economy of the air. The popular description of air conditioning that is often given, namely “canned air,” has proven quite correct. Air conditioning was indeed about offering a condition which was that of a conditioning in the logistical sense of the term. Even if putting air in a can, except in the case of an altogether hermetic conditioning like the one Marcel Duchamp did for his piece titled Air de Paris, is on the order of the impossible more or less, permanently transforming the air found in a given space constitutes a significant substitute. How ironic to realize, though, that the substitution in question springs from a technique that surely recalls that of transforming breath itself. With air conditioning, humans have decided in a way to proceed to delegate to others the act of breathing as such – for they know all too well that it is more effective to modify the ecology of life than life itself. That that breath, through an effect of disequilibrium typical of human decisions in terms of ecology, has rendered the world even more unbreathable was predictable.
Any and every flush announces an end. That end is the end of the presence of undesirable matter within the space of the house – waste coming from the human body whose odors and view are not to be tolerated. Flushing then is above all a device to evacuate what is produced by the body inasmuch as the body never produces only substances that have to be evacuated. Never does the body produce delight. If what goes in there involves in part some of the great marvels arising from human culture, what comes out, on the other hand, takes shape as threatening remains – which fittingly one ought to exclude from life. By having a vast flood of water come cascading down, flushing constitutes the vehicle that enables the body to remove the rather unpalatable results of the work of metamorphosis which the human body carries out with the foods it ingests. Even if one recognizes a few qualities in human excrement (for instance, as a fertilizer and even an acidifier), the principle indeed remains that, contrary to what alchemists claim to produce, the chemistry of the body results in a degradation, a failure. What was great before transiting there always comes out smaller, viler, more degraded. Flushing is that which serves as a witness to this process – a witness whose effectiveness has never stopped growing since the not-so-distant age of its invention. Attributed to the English poet John Harington, who apparently had the idea late in the 16th century, flushing enabled humanity to significantly improve the evacuation of waste, traces of which had always remained until then. Above all, flushing made it possible to connect the human cycle of digestion to the cosmic cycle of water and harness the latter for immunizing living spaces with respect to the dangers raised by excrement. Behind concerns about hygiene, however, there is truly an esthetic that is deployed. It is the esthetic denounced by Junichiro Tanizaki, who saw in this a remarkable hypocrisy of illuminating everything, bringing to light that which ought to remain in the shadows. Flushing indeed forms the essential (so to speak) accessory of the bathroom when modernity wanted it to take the form of an observatory of cleanliness, combining the virginal whiteness of the materials employed and the translucent purity of water. In truth these two aspects partake of the same logic. It is the logic that wants us to see that there is nothing to see – that the entirety of the reality of life, including its most intimate aspects, attests to the idea that nothing shameful is hiding where that might otherwise be the case. In other words, flushing is the guarantee of what is clean, proper, and appropriated, inasmuch as it is the result of the evacuation of the inappropriate, the unclean, what has not been appropriated by a body after it has fed itself. As a guarantee of the clean and the appropriate, it is also the guarantee that the space of this cleanliness and appropriateness, that is the space of propriety and property, is not soiled by the improprieties in question – so that the house itself can play its part as an immunizing structure of existence. Because it shows that there is nothing to see, flushing therefore originally embodies the heritage of European modernity, formed from the sharing that is perpetually redistributed as the visible and the invisible. Despite the claims it laid out for all to see, the Enlightenment went far in probing the world, even to where the deepest darkest shadows lay, aiming to invent a way of looking that would place blindness and estoppel as its principle. To shed light on all was to shed such a bright light that suddenly it was as if nothing more could be seen – just as looking at the bottom of the toilet bowl after flushing one sees nothing more (when the toilet is functioning well). But it isn’t because the waste that all attention was focused on has disappeared that everything has disappeared. On the contrary, there remains all that the whiteness of porcelain and the transparency of water disguise better than any mask, to wit, the reality of the person who flushes the toilet – about whom we are hard pressed not to think they are, first and foremost, a very powerful shit factory. This then is the act of flushing, a modern monument to the shitty character of humanity.
Laurent de Sutter (2020)
Invitation made on the occasion of the season Esthetics of Use, Uses of Esthetics, first movement, artifice