In Paul Valéry’s Eupalinos; or The Architect, Socrates is walking alone on the beach. He stumbles upon an obscure object, polished and white. He can’t figure out what it is or where it came from. As he later tells Phaedrus, the seashore is a special kind of wasteland, a place of derelict things, a gathering-zone for all the detritus of a great and eternal struggle:
“This frontier between Neptune and Earth, ever disputed by those rival divinities, is the scene of the most dismal and most incessant commerce. That which the sea rejects, that which the land cannot retain, the enigmatic bits of drift; the hideous limbs of dislocated ships, black as charcoal, and looking as though charred by the salt tempests from the transparent pasture-grounds of Proteus’ flocks; collapsed monsters, of cold deathly hues; all the things, in short, that fortune delivers over to the fury of the shore, and to the fruitless litigation between the wave and beach, are there carried to and fro; raised, lowered seized, lost, seized again according to the hour and the day; sad witnesses to the indifference of the fates, ignoble treasures, playthings of an interchange as perpetual as it is stationary…
The enigmatic object Socrates finds on the shore is inscrutable but—for that very reason—captivating; he can’t even be sure whether it is the product of nature or of human craft. Bewildered by its mysterious origins, status, and purpose, bested by it, he hurls the unknowable thing back into the sea.
Socrates’ problem is the problem of waste. The world around us is filled with charred remnants and scattered filth in too many forms; too diffuse, of every size and shape and smell, ugly and unwieldy, born of every age and temperament. It seeps into every crevice, floats down every grime-choked street, pools and piles and decays in every corner of every home city and patch of wilderness. And there is always so much more of it than we can ever hope to study. When entire shipping containers filled with Nikes spilled into the sea, a beachcomber of the 1990s might have stumbled upon a shore covered in these high-priced shoes. Recent climbers of Mount Everest find piles of earlier explorers’ accumulated trash that they are obligated to carry down with them upon their return, along with their own equipment and noble fatigue.
There is no human-made object so well travelled, so ambient, as waste. It stretches from the oceans to the highest peaks. It doesn’t matter how far we “throw it away,” our waste lays thick blankets of our chemical age across the entire planet. It’s in the air, in the water, in yard sales brimming with kitsch, in houses stuffed to the rafters with rubbish, in outer space, spreading out in invisible clouds of toxic chemicals and piling up in immense mountains of garbage stacked in trash-bricks below ground at Fresh Kills or Puente Hills or a thousand other dump sites. The soil itself is part of a new genealogy, as the beaches have been remade into pastiglomerate, their sands mingled with the pulverized microplastics of our petroleum age. Even much of lower Manhattan itself is built on top of sedimented waste. The genes of sea creatures that ingest incredibly small fragments of our trash are mutating.
With our waste we have reordered space and place, yet we tend not to feel this remade world most of the time. The air mostly seems breathable, trees are still vibrant and green, squirrels appear happy and filled with energy.
Even so, if one of humankind’s dreams has put its stamp on the world, waste is the most compelling and universal way in which it has accomplished its mission. Waste comprises the wordless history of all that humankind has done or made. For us, as surely as any expert archaeologist would admit, the detritus of a civilization constitutes its most permanent and revealing record. You are what you discard.
Marking the Unmarked
Last Fall, I had the privilege of teaching an undergraduate class on waste. If you wanted to consider an object more resistant to capture, you would be hard-pressed to find one. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise for a thing we do our best to be rid of—out of sight and out of mind, they say. In this way, waste challenges our ability to adjust our contemplation of it to the proper scale. Every thought about it seems either too big or too small. So the temptation is to encompass everything, which is precisely what the class did.
We let the term spread out and away from us like an oil slick to encompass the wastage of the entire planet, the extermination of entire cultures and peoples, the wastes that make and unmake empires; massive waste and miniscule, visible and invisible. We discovered that the experience an object’s value magically transmogrifies according to arbitrary cultural whims across time (think antiques). We learned that the mechanisms of disgust and structures of morality might be closely connected. We came to understand physical humor in terms of its “wasteful” bodily motions (this is why clowns are funny and baseball players are not), and athletes in terms of their precise and “waste-less” bodily motions (this is why baseball players can hit a fastball and clowns cannot). We encountered literatures of waste in Samuel Beckett, Shakespeare, and Beowulf; poetries of waste in Wallace Stevens, James Schuyler, and A. R. Ammons; philosophies of waste in Descartes, Kant, Locke, Heidegger, and Levinas; arts of waste in Francisco de Pajaro and Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Nothing was wasted on us.
But the most memorable part of the semester was our visit to the smallest museum in New York City, a 36-square-foot abandoned freight elevator shaft in the lower regions of Manhattan, affectionately known as Mmusuemm. Founded in 2012, this self-described “modern natural history museum” presents objects and designs that “explore themes of daily human existence, social issues, and current events.”
While Socrates was unable to deal with the uncanny thinghood of the object he discovered on the beach in Valéry’s story, Mmuseumm reacts to the same situation with surprise and wonder. It takes objects normally caught in the web of insignificant cultural everydayness, like a cornflake, elevates it to curatorial status, and asks questions: What, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its “status” and in the period and culture, and how are these possibilities realized? Where does the thing come from and who made it? What has been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such things? How does the thing’s use change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness?
What Mmuseumm is doing could be considered anti-archaeology, a reversal of the discipline of digging through old stuff considered to be valuable to old people. Instead, Mmuseumm digs through new stuff considered to be meaningless to existing populations. (By the way, we’re the first culture to be able to do this; the first feckless consumers to have an eternal standing reserve of junk piles from which to pluck an object for anti-archaeological scrutiny. Thanks, capitalism.) If Igor Kopytoff were still alive, he would surely be delighted to see his 1986 call for a “cultural biography of things” coming to life in the heart of a city too busy to give anything besides ambition a worry, never mind cornflakes.
Throughout the semester, the questions that caught our imagination were especially vivid at Mmuseumm. What we encountered there gave us new eyes. It gave us an analytically nomadic perspective that observes social phenomena from the vantage point of the stuff we take for granted. In this way, the two hours we spent in that 36 square feet ruminating over, for instance, the incommensurability of cornflake shapes, or, how discarding a piece of chewing gum relates to biological surveillance, etc., perfectly captured what I had intended for the class: to reverse conventional patterns of markedness to foreground what typically remains unnamed and implicit.
There’s a piece on display at the new Whitney Museum of American Art that expresses how unmarkedness extends not just to objects, but to people. In the words of the museum, Fred Wilson’s Guarded View
“aggressively confronts viewers with four black headless mannequins dressed as museum guards. Each figure wears a uniform, dating to the early 1990s, from one of four New York City cultural institutions: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Despite this specificity, the faceless mannequins underscore the anonymity expected of security personnel, who are tasked with protecting art and the public while remaining inconspicuous and out of view. Wilson himself worked as a museum guard in college, and explained: “[There’s] something funny about being a guard in a museum. You’re on display but you’re also invisible.” He challenges this dynamic by placing these ordinarily unnoticed figures at the center of our attention, pointing to the hidden power relations and social codes that structure our experience of museums.
Just as objects are given value, so are labors. And just as objects disappear into their everydayness, so do laborers. Whither the garbage man? Generally, we expect all of the individualized and uncollected waste to be mobile, wayward, like a tumbleweed or like the infamous plastic bag in American Beauty. At the same time, we hope or expect that our waste will be properly collected and housed, “secured,” as at Freshkills where everything should look green and tamped down for a good long while, or so we hope, all with nary a second thought about how this transition transpires. Or, more specifically, who is involved. What is the status of the sanitation worker? Who takes the job? What is the work like, on the street or in the dump?
In “La Poubelle Agréée,” a long essay about taking out the garbage, Italian journalist and essayist Italo Calvino describes the process of taking his trash. As his household garbage to is taken by garbage workers, this transforms his waste from the private to the public sphere. For Calvino, this is a kind of ritual gesture that reminds him of the importance of a social compact—what most of us call civilization. As Calvino tells us, he takes out his trash every day as a natural concern for hygiene, and so that on waking up the following morning, he may begin his day fresh and new. In the process, he valorizes the garbage man. Sanitation workers, he says, are “emissaries of the chthonic world, gravediggers of the inanimate…heralds of a possible salvation beyond the destruction inherent in all production and consumption, liberators from the weight of time’s detritus, ponderous dark angels of lightness and clarity.”
Anthropologist Robin Nagle takes up Calvino’s mantle in her 2013 book Picking Up: On The Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. Acting as the resident anthropologist for the New York Sanitation Department, Nagle chronicles the city’s relationship to garbage in meticulous detail. But the burden of Nagle’s book isn’t just to make us curious about garbage or lead us to ask in that hollow way, “Wow, where does it all go?” Nor does is it ever deliver itself over as a sort of subtle judgment on the fact that we do not, in fact, care about the answer. Rather, just as Mmuseumm elevates mundane objects with an almost sacred appeal, and as Calvino valorizes the sanitation worker, Nagle is also interested in marking the unmarked:
“This is a story that unfolds along the curbs, edges, and purposely forgotten quarters of a great metropolis. Some of the narrative is common to cities around the world, but this tale is particular to New York. It centers on the people who confront the problem that contemporary bureaucratic language calls municipal solid waste. It’s a story I’ve been discovering over the past several years, and from many perspectives.
Like any good anthropologist, Nagle takes “perspective” very seriously. So seriously that she takes it upon herself not just to study garbage collection, but to be a garbage collector. “The best way to learn about their work was to do it with them,” she says, “a notion that eventually inspired me to get hired as a san worker.” After a number of years trying to infiltrate the notoriously (and necessarily) opaque institution of the New York Sanitation Department, and after many more months of harsh and complicated testing and training, she was able to put on the uniform and hit the streets. Immediately, she noticed that san workers are merely obstacles to be skirted.
“When I worked parade cleanups in warm weather, I quickly learned that it was useless to ask bystanders who lingered against the barricades to move back just a little. The coarse bristles of my hand broom were going to scrape their sandaled feet, but even when I stood directly in front of them saying “Excuse me” over and over, they didn’t see or hear me. It’s not that they were ignoring me: I was never a part of their awareness in the first place.
Uniforms in general change the way any worker is perceived. The man or woman wearing a uniform becomes the Police Officer or the Firefighter, the Soldier, the Doctor, the Chef, or, as in the case of Fred Wilson, the Museum Guard. Individuality is subsumed by the role that the clothing implies. But the sanitation worker is more than just subsumed by a role. Because of the mundane, constant, and largely successful nature of the work, the uniform (the official color, according to Nagle, is spruce) acts as a cloaking device. It erases them. Says Nagle,
“He doesn’t carry guns or axes, no one begs for him in a 911 call, he is not expected to step into crisis, to soothe an emergency, to rescue innocents. Instead, his truck and his muscle punctuate the rhythms of a neighborhood at such regular intervals that he becomes a kind of informal timepiece.
Invisibility is a strange quality to possess for an occupation that is so important. Average New Yorkers probably know about the smell and the noise involved in the job, and maybe the maggots and the rats (there are plenty of both). They might even be able to guess at the scale of the task: fewer than 10,000 sanitation employees contending with 11,000 tons of household trash and 2,000 tons of recycling on average every day. But the true nature of the job, its danger and its importance, is less well known. If sanitation workers aren’t out there, the city
“becomes unlivable, fast. Before problems of rubbish and street cleaning were solved, much of New York was infamously filthy. Thousands upon thousands of people who had no choice but to endure streets shin-deep in all manner of debris, whose homes were airless rooms with lightless cellars, died in extravagant numbers of diseases that even back then were largely preventable.
Effective garbage collection and street cleaning are primary necessities if urban dwellers are to be safe from the pernicious effects of their own detritus. When garbage lingers too long on the streets, vermin thrive, disease spreads, and city life becomes dangerous in ways not common in the developed world for more than a century. It is thus an especially puzzling irony that the first line of defense in any city’s ability to ensure basic health and well-being of its citizenry is so persistently unseen. By extension, Nagle’s first-hand account on the matter is both illuminating and alarming. Do you know the garbage man?
The claim to the centrality of sanitation work extends beyond just public health. San workers are also, according to Nagle, key players in maintaining the most basic rhythms of capitalism. If consumed goods can’t be discarded, the space they occupy remains full, and new good can’t become part of the market or household. This may be a simplistic description of a dense and complex set of processes, but the fundamental reality is straightforward: used-up stuff must be thrown out for new stuff to have a place.
Contemporary habits of consumption and disposal represent a use of time that has no historical precedent. Nagle is careful to make the connection: “We depend on our ability to move fast, and so assume the briefest relationships with coffee cups, shopping bags, packaging of all kinds—encumbrances we must shed quickly so that we can maintain what I call our average necessary quotidian velocity.” By this logic, sanitation workers are absolutely central to our physical well-being as residents of a metropolis and to our sense of proper citizenship within a hyper-paced world, even while the work of sanitation remains bluntly unknown.
You and I take out the trash. Sanitation workers take care of what happens next, and that’s when the danger gets real. Nagle recounts how Michael Bloomberg, in discussing labor negotiations during his first mayoral campaign in 2001, suggested that “being a sanitation worker in this day and age is more dangerous than being a policeman or a fireman.” The comment was considered a gaffe, and the response was furious. But it turns out he was right.
“Collecting refuse has long been known to be dirty, strenuous work,” notes economist Dino Drudi in a study for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Less well known is that it is among the most deadly occupations.” He calculates that compared to all job categories measured, refuse work has “10 times the overall on-the-job fatality rate.” At this point, Nagle recounts several horrific collection-related stories. One involves a bowling ball. Another involves hydrofluoric acid. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say, there is no 21-gun salute for a san worker.
Not unlike the willingly ignorant modern lives we’re living outside the purview of the problem of waste, New Yorkers know none of this. We put our garbage out and think the Garbage Fairies make it all go away. Little do we know, the Garbage Fairies wear dark green uniforms, drive loud white trucks, and lift, in some districts, their share of twenty tons of trash every day; whose families must adjust to a schedule that allows two days off just once every two weeks; who, when they are junior hires, find out only at the end of one shift when and where their next shift starts, which can bounce them all over the clock and sometimes all over the city for weeks, months, even years; who, unlike Socrates, find something useful to do with the detritus that constantly “washes up”; who spend their working hours handling heavy machinery and stepping in and out of traffic; and who suffer an array of debilitating and sometimes deadly injuries. Regardless of their time on the job, the families who depend on them, the specific assignments they take, the physical pains they endure, or their crucial role in the city’s well-being, as soon as the Garbage Fairies put on that uniform, it’s as if they cease to exist.
This has bothered Nagle for a long time. Thanks to Picking Up, it has the chance to bother us too.