[urban interfaces] Blogs
The Sociotechnical Imaginary of the Human Soap
Written by Yotam Rozin
FROM PEOPLE, FOR PEOPLE, the slogan was slickly displayed in a bold geometric sans-serif font on the clean white walls of an exclusive new concept store SELF by Julian Hertzel, alongside large LED screens with high-end promotional videos for its products. The pop-up store, by one of Europe’s most celebrated performance artists, was inaugurated last June (2019) at the Prague’s Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space festival. The store (allegedly) popped-up in several other locations, including Burgpasse, Brunswik, Germany and Burgstraat, Gent in Belgium to offer a 20€ bar of soap upcycled from human fat that is sourced from liposuctions. For each bar of soap bought at SELF another bar was donated to Congolese charity organizations, together with the entire profit made from the purchase.
The triptych of promotional videos played in the shop liken the guilt of Western citizens and their accumulated fat. They mark the bodily fat and the plaguing of obesity in the West as the epitome and embodiment of Western guilt around appropriation, exploitation and over-consumption of the rest of the world’s resources and freedom. In a blatant marketing act, it thus promises the consumer of SELF’s human soap, to convert their guilt into ‘benevolent’ deeds by converting their fat into charity.
SELF is a followup on an earlier project by Hertzel named Schuldfabrik (2016), with one of the core themes of the piece hinted at in the very name of the piece. The German word Schuld, writes Hertzel, means “both guilt, as a moral duty and debt as an economical [sic] obligation.” However, Hertzel’s new iteration of the work, as the concept store SELF, does less to reveal its critical stance, and so leaves more space for guesswork around the artist’s consciousness of his complicity in the capitalization of guilt in contemporary global capitalism. By that, Hertzel creates the SELF shops as an arena for moral clashes between those who buy into the shop’s promise for the redemption of guilt through luxuriously green-washed consumerism and those who see the problematics of such mechanisms of modernity’s ‘organized irresponsibility,’ as qua Ulrich Beck. Since SELF really does operate – producing soap from human fat, marketing it, reinforcing guilt around fat bodies, selling it, and using its revenue as charity to the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo – the question of moral complicity and liability of the artist himself still holds sway.
One compelling aspect of Hertzel’s piece/shop is its performative act, and more specifically, its deployment of science and technology and their roles in society. Sheila Jasanoff, a leading scholar in Science, Technology, and Society studies (STS), examines what she calls Sociotechnical Imaginaries to pinpoint the topographies of power at play in the coproduction of both the social and the technoscientific. As an example, she mentions Donna Haraway’s examination of the African Hall of New York’s American Museum of Natural History. The once-naturalized site of scientific taxonomy is laid bare and found replete with ideology, both gendered and raced. Its curation is revealed “to give that era’s anxious white American males the illusion that nature is still there to be fought and conquered in trials of male vitality.” It is a “meaning machine,” says Jasanoff, and it is a machine that produces an imaginary of what society, science, and technology are, each coproducing the others. Sociotechnical Imaginaries are the imagined relations between the three, and the way they produce each other relationally, described through the ideological power topologies at play. “Our definition,” she writes,
pulls together the normativity of the imagination with the materiality of networks: sociotechnical imaginaries thus are ‘collectively held and performed visions of desirable futures’ (or of resistance against the undesirable), and they are also ‘animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology.’ 
To think of SELF’s sociotechnical imaginary, to think of the shop and its promotional material as sites of coproduction, the role of medical and ‘sustainable’ technology are both of the essences. SELF relies on liposuctions, a surgery technique invented to reduce bodily fat for aesthetic reasons. At its heart, liposuction is not medical, but cosmetic, and has a lot to do with the glorification of skinny bodies in 20th and 21st century Western culture. It offers a solution to those who feel shameful about their ‘undisciplined’ body while maintaining and reinforcing the ideated normative image. The imbuing of fat with guilt and shame obscures the shaming of different bodies as well as the relation between obesity and mental health. Similarly, the upcycling of human fat capitalizes on discourses of sustainability and care for the environment, while masking the very reasons for its illness – i.e. exploitation and mass consumption.
The sociotechnical imaginary of SELF is an unabashed, farce, version of the one offered by many corporate ventures in global capitalism. It is an imaginary in which technology continues to cover up for ‘organized irresponsibility,’ providing a remedy for the privatized guilt of the individual while obscuring collective atrocities. It establishes the subject as the moral agent with responsibility through technology – establishing what it seeks to remedy. It seems to me that Hertzel’s work sits at the cusp between complicity and criticism, bringing the sociotechnical imaginary to a state of farce in the hope to bring disillusion.
1. Hertzel, Julian, “Schuldfabrick,” artist Website, accessed February 17, 2020, http://julian-hetzel.com/projects/schuldfabrik/.
2. Jasanoff, Sheila, and Sang-Hyun Kim, eds., Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
3. Jasanoff, Dreamscapes of Modernity, 19.
4. Myers, A., and J. C. Rosen, “Obesity Stigmatization and Coping: Relation to Mental Health Symptoms, Body Image, and Self-Esteem,” International Journal of Obesity & Related Metabolic Disorders 23, no. 3 (March 1999): 221, doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0800765.
Hertzel, Julian. “Schuldfabrick.” Artist Website, accessed February 17, 2020. http://julian-hetzel.com/projects/schuldfabrik/.
Jasanoff, Sheila, and Sang-Hyun Kim, eds. Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power. University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Myers, A., and J. C. Rosen. “Obesity Stigmatization and Coping: Relation to Mental Health Symptoms, Body Image, and Self-Esteem.” International Journal of Obesity & Related Metabolic Disorders 23, no. 3 (March 1999): 221-30. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0800765.
This article is part of the graduate seminar series Urban Ecologies 2020.