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Critical Approaches to Cultural Recycling


Tina Kendall and Kristin Koster

Other Voices, 3.1 Recycling Culture
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[T]hinking again of the amnesia of which a culture is made: Can one say, figuratively, that a 'publication' is biodegradable and distinguish here the degrees of degradation, the rhythms, the laws, the aleatory factors, the detours and the disguises, the cycles of recycling? Can one transpose onto 'culture' the vocabulary of 'natural waste treatment'—recycling, ecosystems, and so on—along with the whole legislative apparatus that regulates the 'environment' in our societies?1
From the start, to keep this thought in view and to weigh its constructive value; the refuse- and decay-phenomena as precursors, in some degree mirages, of the great syntheses that follow. These worlds ‹?;› of static realities are to be looked for everywhere.2

Over the past few decades, Americans have become accustomed to the domestic discipline of recycling. Though the Depression and World Wars taught a generation of consumers to recycle household refuse out of necessity and material scarcity, the past two decades of abundance and over-consumption have re-narrated our domestic relationship to household waste and other forms of excess. We now accustom ourselves to the work of rinsing and sorting, of separating aluminum from plastic, and cardboard from newspaper, but with significantly different motivations. Many of us blindly perform these rituals so that our used and refused objects can be taken away from our homes, broken or melted down, reconstituted, and offered back into the same closed circuits of production, consumption, and waste that allow us to keep on consuming. Recycling, for many, has become something of a ritual sacrifice made to the gods of Capital. But much as we may find ourselves increasingly bound by the ritualistic aspect of recycling, it also neatly comprises a kind of moral payback system: not only can we go on enjoying our disposable goods, but by recycling, we also feel like 'ethical' subjects and 'good' global citizens. As Gay Hawkins has recently argued, recycling in this way has become a source of "ethical self-improvement." At a very basic affective level, Hawkins points out, "recycling can make you feel good" (Hawkins, 95). And so it is not just the bottles that are laundered when we recycle, but our collective consciousness too.

Indeed, there is something deeply reassuring about the appearance of repair and continuity that seems to be confirmed by recycling, and not simply in the ecological and economic terms elaborated above. Increasingly, the rhetoric of recycling spills over into other levels of social discourse, from the aesthetic and historical to the legal and technological. The more nuanced term "cultural recycling" appears to have become something of a switch-point in scholarly discourse, purporting to tell us something new about everything from postmodern pastiche culture and its either "terminal" (Jameson) or "redemptive" mode of nostalgia (Benjamin, Bloch), to debates about intellectual property, sound sampling as piracy, and digital download as theft—all of which highlight the struggle to differentiate between culture and capital as these ideas circulate with increased speed and ease in today's technocultural economy. It is precisely in light of the seemingly self-evident nature of recycling, and of its apparent inclusiveness, that we believe the concept needs to be examined in more critical detail. The aim of this special issue of Other Voices is to critically approach and evaluate the range of phenomena that might be labeled "cultural recycling." The question at the heart of our issue is whether the term cultural recycling does indeed name anything in particular, or whether, in seeming to be everything, cultural recycling has become nothing in particular.

When taken as a figure for the work of social and cultural re-production, recycling appears to reveal much about our culture's ideological investments in the conflicting values of continuity and change. Just as the capitalist imperative to 'Reduce, Re-use, Recycle' holds the potential to obscure the labor and material lost in the reconstitution of material goods, the discourse of recycling can promote a narrative of cultural production and progress that negates the idea of significant loss. As Walter Benjamin might have put it, this appearance of continuity in recycling, of a reassuringly "static" reality, is both the promise and the "mirage" of mass consumption, which recycles the "new" as the "always-the-same" (Buck-Morss, 56). By projecting such a reassuring image, the discourse of recycling masks the fragmentation and decay upon which these same images of production and progress are premised. The task for Benjamin, then, is to investigate the very principle of recycling, and to consider how ideas about the inherent 'recyclability' of material and conceptual forms might also serve to justify dominant hierarchies of knowledge and power. We take this critical task of investigating and demystifying the rhetoric of recycling to be at the heart of this special issue.

Yet Benjamin, as one of the most attentive readers of nineteenth-century cultural material, also invests recycling with crucial critical potential. For him, recycling can also be a potential critical method, a strategy that can be used to awaken us from the collective amnesia produced by the "dream-worlds" of consumer capitalism. In a positive sense, then, the understanding of recycling that emerges through Benjamin's Arcades Project is one that might be given an important critical mission. He says of his method in unearthing and assembling the materials for that work: "I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse—these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them" (Benjamin, cited in Cavell, 35). Here, the past as loss and degradation is not occluded by, but revealed through, the rag-picking work of cultural recycling. Similarly, Jacques Derrida has argued that a "deconstructive understanding of history" might be accomplished through the critic's work of returning to the repressed, rejected and expelled elements of historical memory and re-cycling these voices, genres, and histories. The task of the cultural critic consists for him in:

[T]ransforming things by exhibiting writings, genres, textual strata [. . .] that have been repulsed, repressed, devalorized, minoritized, delegitimated, occulted by hegemonic canons, in short, all that which certain forces have attempted to melt down into the anonymous mass of an unrecognizable culture, to '(bio)degrade' in the common compost of a memory said to be living and organic. From this point of view, deconstructive interpretation and writing would come along, without any soteriological mission, to 'save' in some sense, lost heritages (Derrida, 821).

Both Derrida and Benjamin posit recycling as an important critical concept which allows us to define the structure of a cultural memory in crisis, and which might provide us with a method for its re-organization and re-conceptualization. Here, the critical appeal of the figure of recycling seems to rest on its ability to bridge the material and the conceptual.

Each of these approaches to recycling reminds us of the fundamental link between a culture's material forms and practices, and its ways of thinking and feeling. We take these links between the material, the economic, the historical, the aesthetic, and the affective dimensions of recycling to be of paramount importance in a critical approach to the subject of cultural recycling today. In this special issue, we propose recycling, as a material and aesthetic practice and a conceptual trope, as a means of thinking through the changing materiality of our present culture of consumption. There is little question that the spread of digital information technologies—in particular those that allow us to store, access, and exchange information rapidly across multiple socio-cultural contexts—have revised notions of creativity, authorship, and ownership upon which our understandings of cultural production and consumption have been built. From this point of view, the principle of recycling seems to hold currency for scholars as a way of imagining the diverse and ambiguous ways in which cultural value, representations, memory and knowledge are re-constituted through the multiple streams and channels of cultural production and consumption today.

As we have tried to show through the range of critical responses to recycling registered above, the subject of recycling is a discursive site upon which diverse and often conflicting critical judgments are projected. This special issue engages with this multiplicity of approaches to open up a space for thinking about cultural recycling in broadly interdisciplinary terms. The essays, interviews, sounds and images collected here share a preoccupation with defining, questioning and exploring the critical potential and limitations of the legacies of cultural recycling. The contributors in this issue approach the subject of recycling from many different disciplines; some investigate the concept of cultural recycling directly, while others develop an argument more implicitly by addressing social and cultural practices which are often said to be governed by a relationship to recycling. Collectively, these responses to cultural recycling locate its critical import precisely in its ability to expose disagreements about clear and easy distinctions between re-using and refusing, between property and plunder, between memory and amnesia, and between the sphere of knowledge and a threshold beyond which knowledge lapses into an experience of bafflement, disgust, or wonder.

As we have mentioned at the outset of this issue, one of the ironies that seems to emerge for us in attempting to define the paradigm of cultural recycling is that the more the term seems to circulate across various registers and contexts, the less clear its definition seems to be. As is suggested by David Wilson in this issue, there may be something unsatisfying about the concept of recycling as a metaphor for the work of re-constitution and memorialization performed by a museum, despite the frequency with which the term is called upon to indicate those functions. In his conversation with Jeanne Scheper, Wilson admits: "I don't really know what this notion of recycling is: it could be like plastic bottles, right? But for me [the role of the displays at the Museum of Jurassic Technology] is more [devoted to] saving things—saving things that were in danger of being lost." Wilson implies that there is a fairly important distinction to be made between the notion of salvage implied by recycling and the process of salvation that takes place when such micro-histories are exhibited and preserved in a museum. He describes the Museum of Jurassic Technology's ethos as being "far more of an excavation, than it is [recycling]. Because recycling, to me, always implies things that have been thrown away." From Wilson's point of view, then, we may need to re-evaluate whether the messy and mundane material practice of recycling can accommodate notions of charity, generosity, and redemption that are important aspects of the curator's charge.

Marilyn Randall's essay, "Recycling Recycling, or Plus ça change. . ." addresses this ambiguity at the heart of the concept of recycling, by reading it as symptomatic of our present cultural context. Her piece historicizes the term recycling as it is used to describe cultural production, by viewing it as one term among many available to describe the practice of reusing cultural material. She investigates the term recycling in relation to terms such as "appropriation" "re-use" or "bricolage" to see how the term recycling both continues and modifies debates concerning cultural production. She contends that when it surfaces in critical discourse, the term recycling reveals less about the reuse of cultural products themselves (which Randall argues is a fundamental quality of all creative production) than it does about the ways in which cultural value is established during a given period. Randall argues that if there is indeed any specificity to recycling, it lies in the relative discursive ambiguity of the term. In this account, the term recycling points to a fundamental undecidability at the heart of cultural production over the question of value; it reveals more about current attitudes towards creativity in general than it does about a given cultural practice or product.

Walter Moser's essay, "Rubbish and Recycling: From Literary Theme to Mode of Production" departs from a similar disciplinary tradition, but focuses on the appearance of rubbish and other devalued materials in works of contemporary fiction. His piece sketches out an aesthetics of rubbish relying on recycling as a mode of aesthetic production, and reveals the extent to which material manifestations of waste in works of literature open up artistic production to the possibility that language, like refuse, is a resource to be exhausted and recycled. This analogy, Moser argues, is one that prompts us to think differently about concepts such as originality, genius, and authenticity that previously authorized aesthetic production. By helping us dislocate the trope of originality as the cultural value, a cultural theory of recycling now allows us to rethink our definitions of creativity.

Building from this discussion about the uneasy questions about authorship, ownership, and intellectual property that confront a theory of cultural recycling, Piratebureau's essay focuses on the continuum that takes us from notions of the permanent, tangible, and hence "real" of material culture, and into the slippery arena of the endlessly recyclable "supermovable" form of the digital commodity. Piratebureau notes that the legal clamor surrounding the downloading of commodities such as MP3 files is faced with a paradox: "If the commodity can't be said to be in a place at all . . . things get strange. The supermovable tends toward total derealization, and total placelessness. It is nothing, and must be everywhere—and this, for the moment at least, must be the subject of massive scrutiny and control." But as Piratebureau suggests, what gets occluded in the seemingly effortless activity of copying, transporting, and recycling culture is the history of utterly unrecyclable labor from which that culture arises. The essay thus raises a basic problematic of "recycling" in general: its metaphorical irreconcilability with the historical real of labor's endlessly hemorrhaging surplus value. From this point of view, the work of recycling culture, just like the work of rinsing, sorting, and recycling plastic bottles proposes a more free object-world in exchange for labor that can never do more than pretend to be "freely given."

In the conversation between painter Ron Janowich and sculptor Robin Hill, Hill discusses her own art practice as it reincorporates the detritus of the everyday world into labor-intensive, abstract compositions. The images of Hill's work—her Zen garden of orange peels, and mica-washer mandalas—suggest a compulsive, yet almost mystical meditation on resource, where she appears to challenge the categorical separation of material from natural decay. One of her most arresting pieces, a vibrant blue cyanotype of an airborne plastic bag on paper, provides occasion to reflect on Hill's signature ability to expose the process of "making" and "making visible." In a conscious exploration of the 19th century's obsession with the reproduction of images, her works capture the environment working on material, and expose the agent of change, or fermentation. Janowich remarks that one of Hill's drawings "depends on environmental lighting to sparkle it into existence. Everything has some kind of echo, and these echoes reverberate throughout the installation in the gallery . . . they are objects that take their meaning from their relation to the whole." The conversation between the two artists takes up recycling as it relates to transcendence and perception, and resonates with Hill's ideas about the economy of her creative process.

Daniel Lang's "'Give Us Dumpsters ľOr- Give Us Life': Res Derilictae and the Trash of Free Trade" focuses on recycling from a socio-economic point of view. Lang's piece looks to projects for social reform such as the Garbage Liberation Front and the Trash Worship circle, in order to examine the extent to which recycling serves both rhetorically and materially as a means of maintaining the status quo rather than functioning as the harbinger of social change that it is generally perceived to be. In his account, recycling acts something like a decoy, promising change and alleviating a collective bad conscience while endorsing continued overproduction and wasteful expenditure in consumer society. However, Lang takes a panoramic view of what it means to recycle, moving his discussion from the material practices of activist groups to the aesthetic work of filmmakers, sound artists, and writers as recyclers. Ultimately, his paper argues the need to normalize the reuse of materials rather than privileging an act of recycling which merely continues to exacerbate the problem.

David Scott Diffrient's essay, "The Stories that Objects Might Live to Tell: The 'Hand-Me-Down' Narrative, from Diamond Handcuffs to The Red Violin" examines what he calls the "hand-me-down" narrative—"a type of episodic film that charts the life of a material possession as it passes from one person to the next." Diffrient's paper analyses the different ways that the objects in these "hand-me-down" narratives are recycled internally. He looks at the ways in which this narrative recycling might be thought of as a "narrative trajectory linking disparate communities together." However, if the recycled narrative enables connections between groups, more often than not it does so in order to reveal internal distinctions. Indeed, Diffrient's paper goes on to look at how recycling occurs along a sliding socio-economic scale, carving out not-so-subtle delineations of class, race and gender. From this vantage point, recycling paradoxically becomes a means of continuing the effects of such distinctions through a process that seems to promise their erasure.

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1. Derrida, 813-814.

2. Benjamin, [Y1,4].

Works Cited:

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1999.

Cavell, Stanley. "Remains to be Seen: Stanley Cavell on The Arcades Project" Artforum (April 2000): 31-35.

Derrida, Jacques. "Biodegradables: Seven Diary Fragments." Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Critical Inquiry 15 (Summer 1989): 812-873.

Hawkins, Gay. The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish. Lanham: Rowman & Litttlefield, 2006.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.


About the Authors:

Tina Kendall is Lecturer in Communication and Film Studies at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK. Her Ph.D. research focused on representations and theories of waste and recycling in French literature and cinema. Her most recent project extends this conceptual focus on waste and cinema to questions of the materiality of cinema and the body of the film spectator. Her work has appeared in Trash (MIT Press, 2006).

Kristin Koster is a Ph.D. candidate in French literature at the University of California, Davis. She is a nineteenth-century scholar with research interests in French literature, art history and critical theory. Her dissertation analyzes the cultural shifts that prompt color to emerge as a representational strategy of modernity.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Kendall, Tina and Kristin Koster, "Critical Approaches to Cultural Recycling: Introduction." Other Voices 3.1 May 2007. June 18, 2024 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/guesteditors/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Tina Kendall and Kristin Koster, Critical Approaches to Cultural Recycling: Introduction. Other Voices 3, no. 1 (2007), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/guesteditors/index.php› (accessed June 18, 2024)

APA Style Citation:
Kendall, Tina and Kristin Koster, (2007, May). Critical Approaches to Cultural Recycling: Introduction. Other Voices, 3.1. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/wmoser/index.php


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