S03 E03

Mike Dimpfl:
Post-Embarrassment

Neil talks about his childhood wish to stop the waves. DJ and academic Mike Dimpfl talks about his research on “toilet feelings.”

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Mike Dimpfl is a teacher, academic, costume builder, and DJ. His academic work explores the connection between hygiene, bureaucracy, and institutional racism, particularly in the southern US. Mike’s costumes often focus on the comic and confusing relationship human beings have to their garbage and to the possibility of the divine. When music is his focus, he is especially committed to reckless abandon on the dancefloor.

NEIL: Mike Dimpfl, welcome to SHE’S A TALKER

MIKE: I’m so delighted to be here.

NEIL: It’s impossible to imagine you’re as delighted as I am to have you here. Now, can I ask where this recording is finding you?

MIKE: Yeah, this recording is finding me, sitting at my dining room table in Durham, North Carolina. It’s a lovely gray, 64 degree day.

NEIL: Do you like a gray day?

MIKE: I do right now because I have a bit of sort of structural gardening work to complete. And when the summer comes here it becomes so insanely hot that it’s just completely impossible to be outside. We’ve had a really long, cool spring, so the bugs aren’t here yet.

NEIL: What is structural gardening work?

MIKE: It’s a critique of the, sort of political economy of earlier forms of gardening. We’re remaking our yard and we’ve been doing all of the actual construction work. So not planting plants, but building walls and building fences and moving dirt around and things that. So all the things that are sort of a pain in the ass and give my sort of inner type A control freak a lot of pleasure, but don’t actually produce anything you would say is recognizably a garden. It’s a lot of getting your hands cut by all of the pieces of broken glass that are in the soil around your house.

NEIL: Oh, how come there’s broken glass inside the soil around your house?

MIKE: It’s just an almost a hundred year old house, and I think that over time things break and people throw bottles into the former dump behind the former garage that’s no longer there, and you find them and I’ve probably taken out an entire garbage can, an actual garbage can of broken glass out of the yard.

NEIL: Wow, one shard at a time?

MIKE: One shard at a time, yes. I’m going to start an Etsy store with all of the other things I found, like yard cured fork and yard cured wrench, they have a nice patina.

NEIL: Oh, I bet, people would pay a pretty penny to give you their new wrench to make it look that.

MIKE: To bury, totally, totally.

NEIL: It’s like the kimchi of wrenches.

MIKE: Exactly, exactly.

NEIL: What drove you to leave New York?

MIKE: Oh God, I had a terrible day job, crushing, horribly boring development work that I was doing. And I don’t know if you knew, I’d had a bunch of surgeries on my ears. I had a genetic hearing loss condition and they actually messed it up in my right ear, so I’m super deaf in my right ear now. And it meant that I couldn’t DJ as much. And so I kind of lost the love of New York, and I was like, “Maybe I’ll go back to grad school.” And I did, and of course grad school is a little bit returning to the fourth grade playground. But you realize that your bully is secretly closeted and you’d just know that. And then I did my PhD down here at Chapel Hill and was lucky enough to get a job at Duke, and I teach in the writing program there. And I have been kind of unlearning grad school since then, but enjoying life.


NEIL: What is unlearning grad school consist of?

MIKE: I mean, I’d be curious about what your own experiences of this actually is because you teach in another kind of weird, precious environment. The performance of mastery, I think is one of the most insane and weird things that we encounter. There’s some tension between mastery and a willingness to just be open to what is, I feel they push each other away. And I feel like a willingness to be open to what is, requires a particular kind of thinking and willingness to take things apart in a careful way. Whereas the production of mastery is, do I know these terms? Can I Lord over this seminar space? Can I make some comment that seems complex? And there’s so much value placed on that style of interaction.

NEIL: That question of mastery makes for such a great segue to the first card, the connection between teaching art and 19th century medical practices. You tell someone like, “We will bleed you for 30 minutes and then you must go home and apply the poultice.”

MIKE: Yeah like, “Wait for the moon to wax, and put these three stones on your back steps.”

NEIL: Exactly, but instead it’s, watch this other artist read this text.

MIKE: Yeah, I feel like mastery and practice are at odds with each other.

NEIL: Yes, yeah.

MIKE: Practice is what I’m into, practice, just keep practicing, right? You just have to keep doing.

NEIL: Yes, yeah, and if you’re holding onto idea of mastery, you will make one piece of work, maybe. Because making art is about getting to the place of most resolved failure, where the failure becomes clear, and then that is what carries you over into the next piece. Also this idea of professional development, to use that term where, where so many students have the idea of, “Okay, well, if I do this, this, this, and this, I will have an art career versus if you do this, this and this, you will make art, I guess.”

MIKE: Well, I mean mastery, it relies on it in some ways, like the way that we’re so addicted to exceptionalism. It’s a weird narrative that despite the fact that all, effectively statistically, all artists are failed artists, right?

NEIL: Right, exactly. Exactly, exactly.

MIKE: They’re like, “No, it’s going to be me. I’m going to be the next Jeff Koons, but I hate Jeff Koons.” That whole…

NEIL: Totally, that is the Vegas thing that keeps graduate programs in business.

This card is writing midterm evaluations for art school is like doing a horoscope.

MIKE: Oh my God, I love that for a number of reasons, just because I imagined you doing it. Just sitting cross legged with your taro out and the incense going, just watching videos of student work on your phone or something. You’ve got a very rough hewn robe on, you’re like-

NEIL: You nailed it.

MIKE: … your wicker sandals, whatever it is that gets you in that sort of coastal medieval witchcraft mood. Yeah, it’s funny, as a grader, I tell my students that I’m a harsh critic, but an easy grader. We have to be able to look at our own work with critical kind of generosity and be willing to be wrong. But to be a generous writer is a whole thing that takes your whole life to do. It’s easy to be critical, right? It’s easy to be snarky and sarcastic or funny or quick, right? You can be creative and original, but also quick in a way that I feel is not always helpful, right? Being generous is about taking care, but also I was just thinking about it and if only we could be actually honest. If only you could just be super honest with your students about what they’re doing.

MIKE: I mean, would that change what you said to yours? Because I feel like I am honest to a certain extent, but I’m also not, and I don’t mean this in a mean way, but I just want to be like, “This is just a terrible waste of your time, this thing that you’ve written. The way that you’re going here, isn’t going to get anywhere that’s going to be fun for you, interesting for other people, allow you to do the work that you’re going to do.” And I never quite do that.

NEIL: That’s where the horoscope comes in though, about I’m honest but there’s always kind of a anomic, is that the word? You add this intentional ambiguity.

MIKE: It’s both honest and a little bit of a sidestep-

NEIL: Exactly, yeah, yeah.

MIKE: You’re like, “There’s something that’s not right here. It’s in this thematic zone of things that aren’t right, consider that zone for yourself.”

NEIL: You said something about mortality as it relates to grades and we’re all going to die.

MIKE: No, my thing was like… I think the thing that I always want and increasingly want, I always want students to think of themselves in their lives… Think of themselves as living their lives, not as having goals about what it should be. I was at Chapel Hill and now I’m at Duke, they’re both iterations of very fancy campusy bubble experiences. The way that we produce the isolation of education always struck me as a little bit problematic. I used to teach about labor at Duke and I’d be on the first day, my activity was like, “On one side of this card, tell me a job that you want based on your experience here. And then on the other side, tell me a job that you would love to have if money were no object or job security were no object?” And it’s like stockbroker, magician. The world of the jobs they want is the world we all want to live in. It’s like, runs a dog farm, is a chef, is a magician. And the really problematic ones are the ones that are stockbroker, stockbroker.

MIKE: I think in my most compassionate sense, I want to be like, for kids who are really freaking out, but really good students just be like, “This is great, it wasn’t awesome. There’s a lot more in the world that you should be thinking about besides this class. Go call your mom, go be with your family, go do something that’s about your life that’s worth living because you’re getting lost in the illusion of mastery.”

NEIL: Professor Dimpfl, what’s my grade?

MIKE: Yeah, literally at the end of all that, I’ll give them this whole… I will put on my NEIL: shaman cloak, I will go for a walk around Duke’s campus and I’m trying to share some… I’m always trying to get all my aphorisms in check and at the end they’re like, “But do I still have an A minus?”

NEIL: Okay, those people who you think are going to eventually feel embarrassed for themselves, but never do.

MIKE: I feel like they’re from a more perfected future. People who are never embarrassed, I feel like they just are doing it better, right? Their inability to feel shame is in some ways a rejection of our worst selves, right? Shame is a wasted emotion, it’s not even they’re proud, it’s post embarrassment. Not being able to feel embarrassment is not about not being ashamed, it’s just being beyond embarrassment. If we could only live in that world, think about how forgiving you would be about being wrong, if being embarrassed wasn’t a part of being wrong.

NEIL: So where does Donald Trump fit in that? Sorry to do that but…

MIKE: Donald Trump is from the post embarrassed future, at his best self. There’s some childhood version of Donald Trump that would be able to exist in the post embarrassed future. And in a tragic way, he was just corrupted in the most horrible way by his life and turned into this horrible… He is his own portrait of Dorian Gray, there was some switch that happened. He walked through the mirror, in the mansion early on and that was it. It’s actually Ronald Trump that we wanted to be living with and Donald was the one that we got. But the ethos there, I think isn’t wrong. The content is horrible and hideous, but the idea that you would live in a world where your mistakes, aren’t the thing that define you is a world beyond embarrassment.

NEIL: This episode is going to be called post embarrassment, I think.

MIKE: I hope for all of us it is, I want that… Because shame is such a heavy, historical emotion. I don’t know if you read, I always want to call it The Velvet Rope, but that’s the Janet Jackson album, The Velvet Rage.

NEIL: No, I never did.

MIKE: The Velvet Rage is some queen wrote a book about how, it’s problematic in a number of ways, but the overarching theme is that gaze of a certain era learn shame before they have a word for it. And it just festers inside of them and creates all this anger and frustration and all these problems later on in life, the closet and all that stuff. And I think just in general, we govern ourselves so much through shame. Instagram culture is shaming. Facebook culture is all about shame. Mastery is about shame. Our actual inability to deal with the future, and the inevitability of death is about being ashamed that we’re not going to be living a life that’s rich enough to justify our death. I think that there’s a lot tied up in that experience.

MIKE: And to be looking at someone who’s beyond embarrassment. I mean, I think about the people that I was like, “Gosh, I hope they feel embarrassed about that.” And now in retrospect, I just admire them all. I’m just like, “God, you just don’t care that everybody hates that joke. You just don’t care.” And your joie de vivre is unassailable and it’s a like a Teflon joie de vivre, what a joy.

NEIL: Okay, next card. When someone mentions shit while you’re eating.

MIKE: Oh my God… Okay, first of all, it just reads as when you mention shit, because I am this person. I still get toilet news from people that I’ve encountered across the globe, all the time.

NEIL: Could you share for the audience, your professional relationship to shit?

MIKE: My professional relationship to shit, I am not only a person who shits, like all of your audience, but I wrote a master’s thesis, I would like to say that it’s about toilet feelings. I interviewed a bunch of people who had been forced by the city of Syracuse to install composting toilets in their lake side cabins, as a means of protecting what was an unfiltered watershed. So they couldn’t install septic systems. They had this kind of high functioning, but archaic system where they all had outhouses, and instead of shitting just into a hole, they would shit into buckets. And then every week the city would come around on a shit boat and collect all of their buckets of shit and take them away from them.

Mike Dimpfl and Sharon Moran: Waste Matters: Compost, Domestic Practice, and the Transformation of Alternative Toilet Cultures around Skaneateles Lake, New York, Society and Space (2014)

MIKE: A job that I think about a lot, just when your job is to, in the hot summer sun, drive around on a beautiful, pristine lake with a boat full of buckets full of shit. That boat is post embarrassment, that boat is living a post embarrassment life. We have nothing on that boat.

MIKE: Anyway, so I wrote this master’s thesis and I interviewed all these households and it was a lot of older folks, people who have had these cabins for a long time and a lot of retired folks. And I’ll tell you what, if it’s summer and you’re going to visit an old retired couple and you actually want to talk to them about their shitting, they’re there for that. They are really there for that. In some ways, the knowledge of their own death to get back to it, the fact that they’re like, “It’s coming.” They’re like, “There’s no reason to hide.” They’re all trying to, for better or for worse, are trying to deal with these strange toilets that don’t flush and encountering them with their bodies that sometimes don’t work with them.

MIKE: So this one couple, the wife was always on antibiotics and you can’t use a composting toilet when you’re on antibiotics because it kills the bacteria in the shit that actually digests the toilet, so it just becomes a kind of cesspool, kind of anaerobic nonsense. And so they had two toilets, one, one of my favorite, the macerating toilet, which is a toilet that has a food processor on the back that you turn it on and it makes this kind of horrible grinding noise, and it turns your poop into kind of a poo shake. And the other was this incinerating toilet, and it has a little jet engine in it and you poop and then this jet engine thing turns on and just burns your shit to ash, it’s like an outer space thing. I mean, obviously I had to use all of them, so it’s this crazy noise of like, “…” It’s like being in an airplane.

MIKE: And so to be honest, I did it for two reasons. One was how we structure our relationship to the nature in our households is a real problem, right? We have a lot of weird ideas about what is inside and outside. I think that’s the kernel of truth behind it, if I were to be my post embarrassed self. But I think the other is that I just was so aware of the absurdity of grad school at a certain point that I was like, “I’m just going to write my stupid master’s thesis about people shitting.” So that I get to go to conferences and give presentations, which are like, “Here are things that people said about their own shit.” On panels of academics who were like, “What is the materiality of the biological other?”

MIKE: All this theory that actually not only makes no sense, but it’s profoundly unethical and has no politics. And is the bread and butter of graduate school theory. All of these things where they’re like, “What is the boundary of the human? And we cannot tell.” And what do you say? It makes no sense.

NEIL: I was just reading Jacques Derrida on the animal, he’s talking about the violence done on the animal. And someone asked him, “Are you a vegetarian?” And he was like, “I’m a vegetarian in my soul.” It’s like, “Fuck you.” I’m sure the suffering pig is so happy that you’re a vegetarian in your soul.

MIKE: So happy to hear that, like in a real zen like moment.

NEIL: Yeah.

MIKE: But the crazy thing about that shit thing is I was at dinner the other weekend with Jackson’s sister’s family and she’s a plastic surgeon. And I just thought about, I’m mentioning shit at the table and maybe people are uncomfortable with that or whatever. And she was like, “Yeah, this…” One of her former clients was run over by a backhoe or something. But she talked about reconstructing one of her breasts and then did this gesture of like, “And then you just kind of stitched up her chest.” And kind of did this putting out a vest of your chest skin kind of gesture. And I had a bite of food in my mouth and I was like… It turned to like ash.

MIKE: On the one hand, it was perhaps the appearance of mime at the dinner table that I was like, “Goddammit, mimes.” I wanted it to seal myself up in my own mime box to not have to hear it. But then I was sort of like, “Wow, props to mime, it’s a powerful medium. Actually, I get it now, you can fake make the wall all you want.”

MIKE: But when you hear someone mentioning shit, are you that person? Or are you someone-

NEIL: I’m not mentioning shit at the table, no.

MIKE: You’re not

NEIL: I think about it all the time, but I know I don’t talk about it at the table. And Jeff, for instance, my husband, Jeff will casually mentioned shit at the table and I’ve never told him in our 12 years of being together…

MIKE: Don’t do that.

NEIL: Yeah, because at that moment, something happens in my mouth. Yeah, where it’s just like, it’s wrong, but yeah.

MIKE: You got to be post embarrassed about it. You got to just be like, “Yep, I’m just chewing future shit right now.”

NEIL: Right, future shit, future shit. I love… Oh, God. Makers spaces and the fetishization of making.

MIKE: I don’t even know what’s that… I just want them to just be like, “Call it a real thing.” Where I understand what’s going on there. Makers spaces, it’s like we work. I find it to be such a twee like… The maker space is just Ren Fair trying to be normal. It’s like Ren Fair without the foam swords. I’m like, “What’s the point of going to Ren Fair if you can’t have a foam sword?” It’s like Ren Fair without the carbs, I guess is what I would say.

NEIL: I think it’s Ren Fair with 3D printers.

MIKE: It’s Ren Fair with 3D printers. Where is the raw craft in that? I feel like 3D printing is the cheating of making.

NEIL: But the flip side of it, first of all, this is going to come back to shit, I just realized. But the flip side of it is the fetishization of making. Why don’t you just make and not tell us about it?

MIKE: I think that there’s something there, the fetishization of making, because we live in embarrassed culture, so we know that we don’t make anything, right?

NEIL: Right.

MIKE: In the system we live in, we don’t make anything, right? You don’t make shit, you maybe make your lunch and that’s the end of it.

NEIL: You exactly make shit. That is what you make.

MIKE: You only make shit, and even that you’re like, “Let’s not talk about it.” The fetishization to me is just all back to the leg, what is missing? I mean, I’ll wear a cutoff overall that’s handmade, for sure. But I don’t need to post it on it in my Etsy account or the hand carved spoons, even though I really love the hand-carved spoons. It was a local spoon maker that I just found that’s in the triangle or whatever, and they make these gorgeous spoons and the fetishization of spoon making is that it’s very hard. People are like, “Oh, it’s a very…” I don’t know if you’ve heard that, but people are like, “If you carve wooden spoons…” It’s some achievement of woodwork to make a spoon. And I always think in my head, spoons have been around for a pretty long time, we’ve known how to scoop a thing for awhile.

NEIL: Well, just the idea that you fetishize it by virtue of its difficulty, that is a…

MIKE: Totally, totally. It’s like endurance performance art, right? Which I love, I’ll tell you this, I have been doing a performance art project with my friend Ginger for a couple of years now. It’s called, Leaving Impossible Things Unattended, it’s a waste project. And we work with plastic… We’ve made this half mile long braid of plastic bag that we roll in unroll in awkward ways. But we went to Miami to the art fair this year, and the piece that we did, it’s physically super, super hard. But watching people say stuff about it there, it’s like the fetishization of how painful it is, becomes the mark of its value.

Leaving Impossible Things Unattended

NEIL: Oh my God, yeah.

MIKE: What I want to be is like, “No, encounter your fetishization of that as the mark of the thing you’re supposed to be thinking about here.” Your fetishization of that is more important to me as a thing that you’re engaging with right now, then anything that we’re doing. What is it about you that you need to see someone bleeding from the cut glass that they’re crawling over to be like, “That’s real.”

NEIL: The thing I wanted to add, to just put a button on the whole question of maker spaces and what are we making, is when I was a kid, my parents would ask me, “Do you need to make?”

MIKE: Oh yeah… Yeah, totally, to take a shit.

NEIL: Right, do you need to make?

MIKE: Yeah, no, I feel like do you need to make is a North Eastern cultural description for taking a shit that is so like… I want to just know the colonial etymology of that, is it the puritanical thing or like… Also, I find, do you need to make to be similar to people who say that they make instead of take pictures, I make pictures, I make photos.

NEIL: Oh, that’s interesting.

MIKE: I’ve heard photographers say I make photos, instead of saying I take pictures.

NEIL: Oh, right, right, I take photos, yeah. I get that.


MIKE: …around shitting in the exact same… it’s like, do you need to make a shit or do you need to take a shit? I mean, why don’t we say, I need to leave a shit because that’s really what’s happening.

NEIL: Okay, let’s end with one last question, which is, what keeps you going?

MIKE: I think the thing that mostly keeps me going is a pretty secure notion that it’s not supposed to be bliss, it’s just supposed to be work. So if you’re ready to work in whatever way, then life is just going to keep unfolding for you moving forward, right? There is a future if you think that life is a struggle. Because that’s a beautiful thing, even though it’s incredibly difficult. And I think that, even though I have a deep, deep concern for the future and I certainly worry about it a great deal, I don’t feel hopeless. I don’t feel like a cynic or a nihilist I guess. I don’t have that energy in me whatsoever because it’s not supposed to be easy.

NEIL: Mike…

MIKE: Neil…

NEIL: This is amazing, thank you so much for being on She’s a Talker.

MIKE: And it’s my absolute pleasure.