Irus Braverman

Toilet Project

Toilet sign, New York City. Photo by Irus Braverman Female and male signs. The best public toilets in New York City. Photo by Gregor Harvey Sanitary blow-driers, public toilet in New York City. Photo by Irus Braverman

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My fascination with interstitial legal geographies manifest in city trees has led me to the study of public washrooms and zoos. Behind the physical design of the latter two sites lie several common assumptions, most prominently the juxtapositions between public/private, natural/unnatural, human/beastly, clean/dirty, and legal/illegal.

My study of public toilets has emphasized the interrelations between human and nonhuman inspection, demonstrating how, through the design of automated fixtures, human agency is embodied into and at the same time replaced by nonhuman actancy. Rather than 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 this dirty task. Drawing on Mary Douglas, Henri Laporte, and Harvey Molotch, among others, my work demonstrates how this spatially mandated public hygiene constitutes a morality in practice. 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 for finagling their operations. In addition, the things themselves, however much obscured behind a set of technical standards and specifications, also regulate human consciousness and behavior, at times even "kicking back" at their human programmers. I explore these issues in two essays: "Governing with Clean Hands: Automated Public Toilets and Sanitary Surveillance" and "Potty Training: Nonhuman Inspection in the Public Washroom" (part of an edited collection selected as one of ten best books in urban planning, design and development published in 2010 by Planetizen).

Last in the series of toilet papers, my article Loo Law argues that as a result of the complex interrelations between law and spatiality, the American public washroom--and public washrooms worldwide--has become a uniform, cookie-cutter space that does not allow for much innovation, creativity, or even liberty on the part of its everyday users. First, the article provides a range of definitions of the public washroom and a brief account of its history. The article then proceeds to consider the regulation of public washrooms. On its face, this regulation could seem technical and valueless, but a further exploration reveals the moral values that such regulation assumes and promotes. In this respect, legal regulations reflect and reinforce society's most prominent ideology, while at the same time presenting this ideology as merely neutral or technical. Several specific discussions illustrate the extent of this ideological production.


(2010). Governing with Clean Hands: Automated Public Toilets and Sanitary Surveillance. Surveillance & Society 8(1): 1-27. [SSRN]

(2010). "Potty Training: Nonhuman Inspection in the Public Washroom," In Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren (eds.) (NYU Press).

(2009). Loo Law: The Public Washroom as a Hyper-Regulated Space. Hastings Women's Law Journal 20(1): 45-71. [SSRN]

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