Owning Shit: Body, Garbage, and Commodification

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The status of body wastes as commodities is an uncertain and puzzling terrain, and I contend that the discourse of "human dignity" is not the best way to analyze the traffic in body parts and bodily waste.

Robert Mitchell

Issue #55, May 2001

One of the more striking images in the recent film Fight Club (1999) was that of the narrator and his double stealing plastic bags of discarded human body wastes from a dumpster behind a liposuction clinic. The two then converted the fats from this waste into a commodity, soap, that they sold to fashion boutiques for $20 a bar. The narrator casts this commodification of body waste as subversive, claiming that "[i]t was beautiful. We were selling rich women their own fat acids [or "asses"; the pun is deliberate] back to them." The viewer is no doubt supposed to find this scenario hyperbolic, the satire of the scene depending on the notion that we have not yet gone so far that people would pay good money to buy back their own bodily waste after it had been processed through the infrastructure of capitalism and commodity culture.

Yet this process is no wild imagining of the Hollywood entertainment industry, for the commodification of body wastes is big business. From the sale by hospitals of infant foreskins (used to manufacture artificial skin) and aborted embryo gonads (a source of stem cells), to the patenting of infected cell lines as research materials, to the sale of celebrity DNA-rich saliva, body wastes are fully integrated into the structures of late capitalism, and many of us "buy back" these wastes in the form of placenta-enhanced shampoos and drugs developed from patented cell lines. We might be inclined to bemoan this, and see the quip of Fight Club's narrator as a joke on all of us who live in an era in which the human body is decomposed within the field of capital, only to be reconstituted, and sold, under the aegis of money. From this point of view, the integrity of the human body is under attack, and the commodification of body wastes is the first sign of the complete erasure of dignity itself. Dignity demands that we stand distant from both economic value and our own shit.

Yet the status of body wastes as commodities is an uncertain and puzzling terrain, and I contend that the discourse of "human dignity" is not the best way to analyze the traffic in body parts and bodily waste. The discourses of dignity and garbage, operating in tandem, often have been applied as a wedge to divide individuals from the gains of commerce. For example, the California judicial system has employed this dual discourse of dignity and garbage to deny individuals property rights to their own bodily garbage such as infected cells, while at the same time allowing corporate entities to reap enormous profits from the cultivation of this corporeal waste. This suggests that we need to reexamine our critique of commodification, and especially the commodification of body wastes, for the attempt to argue against this process can be as problematic as the argument for it. The real question is not whether someone should be able to own his own shit. Rather, it is a question of who owns it, and for what purposes.

Discourses of Dignity, Sacrality, and Profanity

The twentieth century has witnessed massive transformations in how we deal with individual bodies. Physicians, hospitals, and corporate entities have enabled practices such as tissue banking (blood, eyes, etc.) and organ transplantation, and attending these processes has been a constant concern about the emergence of "markets" for these body parts. Most objections to body part commodification have been cast within a discourse of "dignity." Within this discourse, the human body and human life are represented as possessing an innate dignity that is threatened as soon as a part of the body can be assigned an economic value. Ownership threatens to bring dignity, which is absolute, into the realm of "values" that can be exchanged for one another. Thus, argue the authors of Sciences of Life: Ethics and Law (a 1998 report to the French government), "[h]uman dignity forbids that man be given a right to own his own body." (cited in Paul Rabinow, French DNA: Trouble in Purgatory, 98)

This distinction between dignity and value is of course simply a modern variant of the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. This is quite clear in the language of the California Supreme Court decision of John Moore v. The Regents of the University of California (1990). In that case, the UC Regents were allowed to maintain exclusive patent rights to a cell line generated from infected hairy-cell leukemia tissue taken from UCLA patient John Moore. Moore's doctors had not informed him that they were performing extra tests in order to develop, and patent, this cell line, but the court nevertheless denied Moore any proprietary rights in his diseased cells, the patent on his cell line, or its proceeds ($6 billion, according to Moore's lawyers).

peace fetus In its ruling, the court positioned itself as a concerned parent, hygienically safeguarding Moore (and all of us) from two types of unholy messiness: on the one hand, the assault on dignity that occurs when we try to value any body part; on the other, the assault on dignity that occurs when we try to hold and possess our own wastes. Moore was not entitled to compensation, argued one judge, in part because he had threatened to mingle two spheres that must be kept separate: the corporeal and the commercial. Moore, wrote the justice, "has asked us to recognize and enforce a right to sell one's own body tissue for profit. He entreats us to regard the human vessel — the single most venerated and protected subject in any civilized society — as equal to the basest commercial commodity. He urges us to commingle the sacred with the profane." To sell a part of oneself would be to initiate a process of contagious mingling that would threaten the integrity of the sacred human vessel.

The court was no doubt aware that it was a bit peculiar to base their decision on the sacred nature of the human body, since what was at issue was the status of diseased tissue that had to be removed if Moore wished to remain an integral human vessel. In the court's reasoning, Moore was forbidden from receiving money from his body parts not just because they were sacred, but also because they were profane. The court argued that Moore had effectively "abandoned" his diseased cells when he consented to their removal, and thus agreed to their disposal in the biological garbage system of the UCLA hospital facility. This garbage system is regulated by federal and local codes designed to safeguard public health. Luckily for the UC regents — and, the court argued, the collective good — one step in this disposal system allows for scientific "research" and, if warranted, patenting of material derived from this garbage. Moore, the court reasoned, simply dumped his wastes into this sewage system, and any proceeds from his leavings rightly accrued to those who took on the unpleasant and difficult task of locating and extracting nuggets of gold in the streams of waste. (It is this same logic of waste that grants hospitals the right to profit from the sale of umbilical cords and infant foreskins.)

There is no doubt some element of hypocrisy in the court's decision, but much more importantly, this case illustrates that the discourse of dignity is probably not capable of serving as a useful strategy in our contemporary situation. The discourse of dignity, I suggest, always has had to ignore the very complicated economic relationships that have enabled blood, egg, and semen banking, as well as organ donation, but recent changes in the legal status of body parts have outstripped this discourse entirely. The U.S. Supreme Court made clear in Diamond v. Chakrabaty (1980) that individuals and corporations may patent genetically engineered organisms, and recent decisions have supported the rights of individuals to patent even "naturally occurring" sequences of DNA. We may want to oppose elements of this process, but, as the Moore case highlights, "dignity" is probably not viable ground from which to mount this resistance. The discourse of dignity simply obscures the fact that at stake is not the question of body part ownership per se so much as the question of who shall own these parts, and — even more importantly — the question of what "ownership" and "commodification" might mean.

Converting Waste into Value: The Magic of Commodities

Rather than using cases such as Moore's as an opportunity to retreat even deeper into this hygienic logic of dignity, we ought instead to understand it as an opportunity to rethink the processes and meanings of commodification itself. As Paul Rabinow has noted in a discussion of blood and organ transfers, the prevailing belief that body parts should be "donated" (rather than sold) is not in fact a way of protecting these transfers from the realm of commerce; rather, it is simply one strategy for structuring "how body materials, social solidarity, public health, and money should function together." (71) The organ donation system does not prevent organs from entering the realm of value; it simply dictates a specific form of entry and emergence. The hospital waste system, through which Moore's cells traveled, organizes the intersection of money and body parts in another manner.

The recent emergence of commodity and consumption theory offers a means for reformulating these connections between body materials, social solidarity, public health, and money. For instance, in The World of Goods: Towards and Anthropology of Consumption, Douglas and Isherwood suggest that we understood consumerism as a sort of information system, in which goods are used as ways to include and exclude people from certain sorts of social participation and solidarity. Rather than naively opposing the integration of body parts and wastes into systems of value, we ought instead to investigate how the logic of value can be used to encompass a greater number of people in the goods that arise from body wastes. While this will certainly have implications for the movement of all body parts (up to and including organ donation), body wastes offer a far more effective field within which to think out these processes, simply because they already seem so distant from the field of "dignity."

One can detect hints of such a rethinking in recent discussions of body part commodification. In Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society, James Boyle has advanced the notion of an "information commons," to which individuals would contribute as research subjects and from which they would receive back relatively cheap drugs and therapies. In this vision, the process of commodity exchange is still present, but money and body parts circulate differently than at present. Other approaches favor individual ownership of body parts. A Maryland court, for example, concluded that we do have a primary property right in our own body wastes, including unpleasant substances such as feces. The court reasoned that just as people often assert "ownership, dominion, or control" over body parts such as "hair, fingernails, toenails, blood and organs" so too ought one be able to exert these powers over "excrement, fluid waste, [and] secretions." (Venner v. State, 354 A.2d 483, 498 (Md. App. 1976) But commodification is not a simple solution. Lori Andrews and Dororthy Nelkin note in their recent text Body Bazaar: The Market for Human Tissue in the Biotechnology Age that if "donors" are transformed into "sellers," they might be subjected to prosecution under liability laws. Yet to categorize something as "property" does not therefore mean that "anything goes." As Boyle points out, "almost every kind of property is regulated" (23), and it is up to us create a more equitable field of bodies, wastes, and value, by collectively acting to determine laws that will, in Andrews and Nelkin's words, "restrict who can hold a kind of property, what actions are required or forbidden, and what kind of transfers are permitted." (166)

Robert Mitchell is concluding his doctorate in Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. His dissertation focuses on Romantic-era theories of emotional communication. He is also interested in more modern — and technologically mediated — communication forms.

Copyright © 2001 by Robert Mitchell. All rights reserved.

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