Where is Hercules when you need him?

[Posted 12:07 PM by Roger Kimball]

Readers will recall that the Greek hero Hercules was required to perform a series of twelve labors, each seemingly impossible for a mortal. The fifth of these labors was to clean the Augean Stables in a single day--a task of ablution that can truly be described as Herculean since the huge stables were home to thousands of cattle. He managed to do it by diverting two rivers so that they rushed through the stables, flushing them of the accumulated ordure.

Clever chap, Hercules. And one, I have often thought, whose services would be of particular use to the contemporary university. Consider this newly posted "call for papers" from two professors, one at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the other at University College, London:

�Toilet Papers: The Gendered Construction of Public Toilets�
What could this possibly mean, you ask? Olga Gershenson (the U. Mass gal) and Barbara Penner (University College), the editors of this proposed contribution to the annals of scholarship, explain:
We invite contributions for the edited collection Toilet Papers: The Gendered Construction of Public Toilets.

Public toilets are amenities with a functional, even a civic, purpose. Yet they also act as the unconscious of public spaces. They can be a haven: a place to regain composure, to �check one�s face,� or to have a private chat. But they are also sexually-charged and transgressive spaces that shelter illicit sexual practices and act as a cultural repository for taboos and fantasies.

This collection will work from the premise that public toilets, far from being banal or simply functional, are highly charged spaces, shaped by notions of propriety, hygiene and the binary gender division. Indeed, public toilets are among the very few openly segregated spaces in contemporary Western culture, and the physical differences between �gentlemen� and �ladies� remains central to (and is further naturalized by) their design. As such, they provide a fertile ground for critical work interrogating how conventional assumptions about the body, sexuality, privacy, and technology can be formed in public space and inscribed through design.

Stop the presses! Public toilets are "shaped by notions of propriety, hygiene and the binary gender division." Have you ever heard of anything more startling? No wonder academics at the flagship campus of the University of Massachusetts and one of London’s most distinguished universities are excited. You see what new avenues of research our humanities departments are opening up!

What you really see, of course, is the pathetic intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the humanities. "Fertile ground," forsooth! It is certainly well-manured ground. "[I]nterrogating how conventional assumptions about the body, sexuality, privacy, and technology can be formed in public space and inscribed through design" -- what nonsense. And what clich�d nonsense to boot. Is there a computer program that inserts some form of the verb "interrogate" and "inscribe" every thirty words? Or are Ms. Gershenson and Ms. Penner so thoroughly indoctrinated in the rhetoric of lit-crit-speak that they naturally emit this sort of rubbish?

Notice of this "call for papers" was sent to me by a friend. In truth, I wondered whether it was some sort of hoax -- I mean, it sounded a lot like a panel discussion at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association. But really: a book about the ideology of public toilets? Has it come to that? The fact that the announcement was listed on a legitimate web site was no guarantee of authenticity. Probably any patient person could have arranged to have a spoof posted. Possibly Ms. Gershenson and Ms. Penner did not even exist? No such luck. Olga Gershenson really is an Assistant Professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and her "scholarship" includes such items as �Potty Politics on Campus: Debates over Unisex Bathrooms� (a paper presented at The 27th Annual Meeting of the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender) and �Public Bathrooms? The Rhetoric of Space, Gender, and Power� (a paper presented at the Cultural Studies Association Conference). What a meeting of, um, minds we have in Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner. For Ms. Penner is the author of a Master’s thesis on "The Ladies’ Room: A Social and Cultural Analysis of Women’s Public Lavatories," an opus that, her vita informs us, �received a Commendation and, in 1998, was turned into a BBC Radio 4 documentary.� Who would doubt it?

�Toilet Papers: The Gendered Construction of Public Toilets� is not the only sort of thing going on in humanities departments today. But it is a typical thing. That is the depressing reality. What to do? Hercules had the right idea: flush it out and start over.

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