Bare Life: Restroom Anxiety and the Urge for Control
I think avoiding humiliation is the core of tragedy and comedy
and probably of our lives.
Public restrooms are a first lab for examining how troubled anxiety transmutes into collective loss.1
With their link to human elimination, whatever anxieties that come from concerns about public misbehavior more generally are greatly intensified in this particular public place. Restrooms are imagined as locations of filth, theft, and rape. The special problem, however, is that they are difficult, if not impossible, to monitor. Rather than face the risk of disapproved behavior going on or meeting it headway with deep surveillance—like cameras in the stalls—authorities just close restrooms down. Human needs go unmet. The choice is often made without much discussion or sometimes even public knowledge. In a similarly tacit conspiracy of silence, authorities do not build them in the first place where new urban development occurs. Through taboo— that is, the absence of discussion—more constructive possibilities cannot arise. Security does its trick.
I first became aware of toilets as an analytic problem when interviewing a British product designer whose practice included bathroom fixtures. He had nochoice but to examine toilets directly and figure out how they are used, how they function, and hence what could be done to make them better. He was frustrated by the fact that he was dealing with a “taboo product,” a feature which enormously constrained opportunities for substantive improvement. If a product cannot be talked about in terms of its function, advertised accordingly, or demonstrated at the retail site, it becomes locked into its existing form. Much the same is true of a configuration of such appliances in a restroom; it is