Potty Training: Nonhuman Inspection in Public Washrooms

Potty Training: Nonhuman Inspection in Public Washrooms



Published as Chapter 4 in Toilet : Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, Harvey Molotch & Laura Noren, eds.

The intimacies, privacies, and taboos of the public washroom render it almost inaccessible for direct human inspection. Especially with the decline of attendants and thus loss of a human policeman, nonhuman fixtures are set in place to do the dirty work. Moreover, in the United States, or at least in Buffalo, New York, where I have done fieldwork (and which is typical of American cities in these respects), government officials make only rare appearances on the toilet scene. Consequently, washroom inspection mostly takes place through the design of automated fixtures. Instead of placing a human policeman to make sure that the user flushes after every use – which might constitute an illegal, immoral, and also economically impractical act in the context of the public washroom – a nonhuman thing performs the task. Automated flushing, rinsing, soaping, and drying devices – and recently also automated doors – are the authorities. This spatially mandated public hygiene constitutes morality in practice, one that doesn’t always resonate well with the public. Perhaps unsurprisingly, various forms of human resistance to these impositions have mushroomed here and there: acts of vandalism directed at automated fixtures, their routine avoidance, or strategies of finagling how they operate.

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New York University Press


New York



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Anthropology | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Sociology


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Potty Training: Nonhuman Inspection in Public Washrooms