A fatberg

Above: The Whitechapel Fatberg, 2017. Credit: Thames Water.

Return of the Fatberg

The blocking of main sewers by fatbergs is a recent phenomenon in London. A fatberg is created by water-system users (business and home) misusing and abusing the waste system--such as by pouring liquid animal-fat and oil-from-cooking down their sinks and toilets, or flushing wet-wipes and baby-wipes. The material congeals in the sewer pipes and tends to slowly build up as a solid-set mass. Fatberg removal requires the use of industrial drilling equipment.

In 2013, in Kingston upon Thames, Thames Water maintenance workers removed fifteen tonnes of congealed fat from a sewer under London Road in the town-centre which extended through a two-hundred metre length of tunnel. In September 2017, a fatberg ten times more extensive (a hundred and forty tonnes, and the largest ever seen) was removed by workers from a sewer under the Whitechapel Road in East London. Head of Waste Networks, at Thames Water, Matt Rimmer said of the Whitechapel Fatberg, "this fatberg is up there with the biggest we've ever seen. It's a total monster and taking a lot of manpower and machinery to remove as it's set hard. It's basically like trying to break up concrete. It's frustrating as these situations are totally avoidable and caused by fat, oil and grease being washed down sinks and wipes flushed down the loo."

Recently a fragment (a large lump) of fatberg was put on display at the Museum of London (curator Vyki Sparkes) and has proved to be a big hit with visitors who are fascinated by it. As Mark Brown of The Guardian has described it, the piece on display in the Museum is a "slow sweating ... calcified mass of faeces, fats, oils, wet wipes and sanitary products." The object is alive, teeming with bacteria, fungus and so forth.

The fragment is a congealed lump that would also have been fascinating to Georges Bataille and Sigmund Freud in so far as it is a "sculptural object" comprising a combination of all those things that humans find disgusting and cannot ordinarily bear to tolerate, or look at, or even think about. It is, in other words, a pure physical embodiment of the Freudian "return of the repressed"--the nightmarish spectre of all that has been banished from civilized life.

As the Freudian dictionary of Laplanche and Pontalis states, on the topic of the Return of the Repressed: "Freud always insisted on the indestructibility of the contents of the unconscious. Repressed material not only escapes destruction, it also has a permanent tendency to re-emerge into consciousness. It does so by more or less devious routes."

(2 September 2018)