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Garbage and Recycling: From Literary Theme to Mode of Production

Walter Moser

Other Voices, 3.1 Recycling Culture
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I. Reconceptualizing "Garbage"

Inasmuch as garbage is a function and reality of man-made systems, it has always been a cultural fact and is, since its very beginnings, part of cultural history. But each cultural system, or sub-system such as art, has to deal with the category and the reality of garbage within its own logic. Thus, for instance, an agricultural economy and society will deal with garbage—materially as well as symbolically—in a quite different way than an industrial economy and society. Garbage will be defined and identified in quite different ways by different systems. This means that anything can be considered, or become garbage under certain systemic conditions. In other words, the same object may be considered garbage in one system and a useful, functional cultural artifact in another. Yet both systems will have to decide where they draw the line between what falls out of order, what is considered impure, what has decayed from its "normal" functioning, what must be refused, rejected and evacuated, and what is part of the normal functioning of the system. It has to make decisions about inclusion and exclusion—and this, of course, on the basis of very complex systemic considerations and processes.

In two recent articles2 I have tried to update the conceptualization of the category "garbage" and to analyze what—expressed as an anthropological metaphor—I consider to be a process of "acculturation of garbage" in contemporary culture. We can indeed observe today that the category "garbage" is in the process of being reevaluated in relation to cultural production and more specifically to art production. To put it simply: garbage, long considered alien and impure, something to be excluded from cultural production, has in recent decades made a progressive entry into the systems of art and culture in many and diverse ways.

Let me try to summarize here the reconceptualization of the category of garbage I have just mentioned. As with many concepts, "garbage" functions at the crossroads of various discourses and therefore contains many semantic dimensions. Among its components we must distinguish at least the following: 1) garbage in terms of systemic inclusion and exclusion, that can be translated into the anthropological question of "purity and danger," 2) in relation to the subject, the psychoanalytical dimensions related to anality : expulsion and retention, cleanliness, 3) the material dimension, its phenomenological perception and recognition, 4) the value dimension that can in turn be decomposed into economical, affective and aesthetic values, 5) the temporal dimension, related to the questions of memory and archeological knowledge of the past.

1) It is Mary Douglas3 who has proposed an analytical look into how systems behave in relation to purity and danger. That is, how garbage as "dirt" or impurity is dealt with by anthropological systems. Starting out from purification rituals, she soon postulated a global, that is, a structural approach which would integrate various aspects of a system in order to understand how this system deals with the danger of the impure, how certain objects come to be considered impure and are therefore excluded, if not violently rejected, and how, on the other hand, garbage, rejected in a marginal limbo area, can still be considered a potential resource for the system.

2) The psychoanalytical approach considers garbage in relation to the psychic life of the (individual) human subject. More specifically, it can be related to the anal phase of sexual development and is then considered with respect to bodily functions, to the human body as system, "garbage" being equivalent to "excrement." Translated into psychoanalytical notions, our dealings with garbage become functions of expulsion and retention and can be related to pathologies such as the neurosis of cleanliness.

It is also possible to link this psychoanalytical dimension up with the religious dimension by which the rejected, the expelled becomes the sacer, the extreme impurity turns into absolute purity and sacredness.4

3) The material aspect of garbage and of its phenomenological perception and recognition is already marked in the variation of words that exist in one and the same language, but also between different languages. Most languages use plural nouns such as déchets, ordures, rifiuti, all designating garbage as a plurality of heterogeneous objects. Even more often they resort to collective singulars such as gadoue, basura, lixo, Müll, trash, garbage, litter, rubbish, designating, phenomenologically, a much more indistinguishable entity that might be materially composed of elements or parts no longer recognizable as such. Most of these words, by way of metaphorical transference, can also be applied to more symbolic (e.g. trash literature, white trash) or abstract objects (e.g. cultura lixo), often with moral as well as axiological connotations.

4) The axiological dimension is very important. Michael Thompson places it first in his conceptualisation of the category of rubbish, as the title of his book already announces: Rubbish Theory : The Creation and Destruction of Value.5 Thompson mainly considers the economic value of objects, when he distinguishes the three axiological phases they go through in their "biographies":6 transient, zero and permanent value. Yet in the zero value phase, the question of value might be transferred onto the realm of aesthetics. There is one more axiological dimension that might become very important although Thompson barely considers it: the affective value.

5) Finally, there is the important temporal dimension of garbage and of objects considered to be garbage. Declared garbage, dealt with as garbage, an object always represents the intrusion of the past of a system into its present. It reminds us of a past state of things, pleasantly or unpleasantly. The garbage object is always endowed with pastness and thus becomes a vehicle or a trace of the past. Garbage therefore often supports the dialectic and drama of remembering and forgetting. Although the specialists of archeological reconstructions of the past prefer to deal with well preserved and intact objects, most of the time they have to work with objects such as ruins, rubble and rubbish, that are on the way to the category of garbage. There are even archeologists of garbage, such as Rathje and Murphy.7

II. Garbage in Literature

Let us now narrow down the area of investigation and consider the connections between literature and the category of garbage. For a long time now, garbage has been thematically present in literary texts. We might go back to popular, farsical and satirical literatures of ancient times, where the category of garbage is often restricted to bodily rejections and its representation can be linked up with Bakhtin's category of the "carnivalesque." But let us rather consider the historical appearance of the garbage theme in relation with the emergence of the modern metropolis (from Sébastion Mercier on, in the 18th century) and of the industrialized society. The 19th Century produced quite an abundant literature with stories about garbage, about the integration of garbage into a secondary economical cycle, and about human subjects related to this thematic. Just to mention a few titles here: Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1865); Zola, Le Ventre de Paris and, in Baudelaire's 19th century Paris, the character of the ragpicker, that has become a figure not only with a great potential of meaning but also a figure that might emblematically synthesize the hermeneutic productivity of the literary theme in the 19th Century.

More recently, let us say since the second half of the 20th century, it is my impression that the theme has become more frequent and has gained in variety and intensity. To give an idea of the explosion of the thematic, with no pretension of being exhaustive, I shall briefly consider here a selection of literary texts that can represent different aspects of the more recent development of this literary theme: its international and comparative extension, the variety of its articulations and its evolution.

The texts run across national and continental borders. The selection I have made includes texts by American (Donald Barthelme, Snow White8, Paul Auster, The City of Glass9), Canadian (Margaret Laurence, The Diviners10, Margaret Atwood, "True Trash"11, Daniel Brodeur, L'Homo Detritus12), French (Michel Tournier, Les Météores13), Austrian (Christoph Ransmayr, Die letzte Welt14), Italian (Italo Calvino, "La poubelle agréÉe"15), Paolo Teobaldi, La discarica16), Czeck (Buhomil Hrabal, Une inquiétante solitude17, Ivan Klima, Amour et Ordures18), Chinese (A. Cheng, The Three Kings19), and Latin American (Fernando Contrera Castro, Única mirando al mar20) authors. The mere enumeration of authors and titles shows us that we have to deal here with an international phenomenon that might already be influenced by the process of cultural globalization. It could become the basis of a comparative analysis that I cannot carry out here for lack of space.

The ways garbage is thematically integrated into literary works are manifold: it might be through a character who works professionally with garbage, gathers it (Klima, Calvino) and recycles it in an artisanal (Cheng) or an industrial (Hrabal, Tournier) manner. Another group of characters, more socio-economically situated, live literally on and from garbage dumps (Brodeur), and, by a process of metonymical slipping of categories, become themselves literally human and social garbage (Contrera). Teobaldi engages in a ritual liquidation of a failed existence by cleaning up, room after room, and by throwing away, one by one, all the leftover objects that were associated with that existence. Through a fictionalizing of Ovid's exile into the Eastern margins of the Roman Empire, Ransmayr reconstructs a world that is, both geologically and culturally, in decay and turning into rubble and archeological remains. Still another approach is a more intellectual one: the author invents characters who, while processing garbage, reflect on our everyday dealings with garbage (Calvino), on the value and interest of it (Barthelme, Tournier). Auster's protagonist is fascinated by the city he perceives as a big garbage heap, made of junk objects and of humans who have made junk of themselves, and he invents a new language that would in a Cratylian way correspond to the fallen state of this urban garbage world. Atwood, projects the notion of trash onto literary objects themselves and invents a character who is a passionate reader of "trash literature." Finally, Brodeur somehow integrates all these facets into a character who works in a garbage dump, and is himself in the process of social and personal disintegration. With the help of another character who is a garbage archaeologist, this novel formulates a general anthropological thesis about the transformation of Homo Sapiens into Homo Detritus, a human and social refuse living in a world of refuse created by him.

I am now going to concentrate on cases in which the material support of texts is considered garbage and sought after as a recyclable material. This self-thematization of the media on which literature is based and therefore dependant will lead us to more general reflections on literature not only as it represents garbage thematically in social, economic and cultural terms, but also as it becomes subsumable itself under the category of garbage and trash, or at least as it implies processes that are or resemble processes of recycling remains and garbage.

The thematization of the material media quality of manuscripts, texts and books is not new in literature. We find this theme in E.T.A. Hoffmann's Kater Murr. Due to his poor condition, Kater Murr uses old sheets of paper (in German Makulatur) that already carry a text on one side, to write down his own story (Lebensgeschichte). The typographer, ignoring the garbage-quality of the older text, sets and prints the front and reverse sides as one continuous text. Hoffmann's resulting literary text is a discontinuous narration, extremely heterogeneous combining two different stories that, before their technical production, were never meant to go together. Thus the story about the reusage of an old and useless (i.e. garbage) manuscript makes us aware of the technical production of literary texts and more specifically of their dependence on material support.

The other example, also from the 19th century, is the episode of the book worms in Machado de Assis' Memórias póstumas de Bras Cubas. When the hero, trying to understand ancient texts, asks the worms living in those books whether they can help him to extract the meaning of those texts, they provide him a very disappointing answer: We just gnaw. We have not the slightest idea about meanings. Indeed they are only interested in the quality of the paper they are eating, that is, of the text's material support. But, while gnawing, they destroy the texts, turn the books into garbage. They make Hoffmann's "point" even more dramatically: first of all the text is not the book, but the text depends on the book as its material support and technical realization. The material alteration or even destruction of the book might also alter or destroy the text.

A. Cheng's story "The Chess King" offers a variation on this idea. The hero of the story gets to know an old man, also an excellent chess player, who lives from the paper he recuperates from the dazibao. He sells it for recycling. As a wall-newspaper, the dazibao is a written medium that differs both from the manuscript and from the printed book we have found thematized in Hoffmann's and de Assis' texts. Like the manuscript, it is a medium consisting of a handwriting on a paper support. But unlike most manuscripts, its use is limited to broadcasting news in the public sphere. The texts written on the dazibao, as this was the case during Mao's "great revolution," which is the historical background of the story, may have an important political content, yet with a very short life span. They are used for political infighting, therefore their relevance as texts is very short lived, since they are part of an ongoing struggle whose positionings might change from day to day. What Niklas Luhmann21 says in his book about the reality of mass media, despite his focus on Western media, applies perfectly to this Chinese medium: forgetting is an essential function of the reality of media.

Now, not being as experienced as the old man in the recuperation of paper from wall-papers, the Chess King makes a major mistake. One day he tears down from the wall a piece of dazibao containing a recent political declaration by one of the quarrelling factions. The text of this dazibao still has its political validity. This time, although he is only aiming at the material paper-value of the news-paper, his gesture is interpreted as taking a political stand and has an unpleasant consequence. He is held responsible for opposing the text-value of the wall-paper and punished for political ideas he could not care less about. This example, while illustrating the specificity of a Chinese medium, confirms what Hoffmann and de Assis have to tell us through their literary thematization of garbage and its recycling: the text as a semiotic object should not be confused with its material support although they are not easily separable. The destruction of the support may entail the destruction of the text, which has rather serious hermeneutic, artistic, narrative, or political consequences depending on the context.

We find one more literary story of a paper-recycler, that is a self-thematization of the written and printed media without which literature would not exist, in Bohumil Hrabal's novel Une trop bruyante solitude. Here again we confront the becoming-garbage of the printed artifact in the process of recuperating the raw material of its paper support. Here again this process presupposes the cancellation of the texts printed on that support, and it entails the destruction of the text-value of that object.

The socio-political and economical context is quite different though: we are in socialist Czechoslovakia. For two main reasons the government has decided to confiscate the private libraries, whose former owners were members of the ruling class in a system that is being eliminated: on the one hand, bourgeois culture must be destroyed; on the other hand, the socialist economy is in dire need of raw materials, and especially of paper in order to be able to produce and circulate the new political message. Thus, entire holdings of private libraries are handed over to the pounding press that recycles its raw material and produces tons of paper.

Again, the protagonist is an old man. His name is Hanta. He has seen governments come and go. For 35 years already he has dealt with the material side of books. In this story he is the operator of a hydraulic pounding press installed in a basement. He receives the books by truckloads and turns them into recycled paper. In this process, again, books as texts and cultural objects are destroyed. The semiotic object must be annihilated in order to recuperate the raw material of the support. His activity, thus, becomes a political allegory of the socialist project to erase and annihilate the aristocratic and the bourgeois past and to start a new era out of the recycled rubbles of the past.

Hrabal's novel insists very much on the technical side of Hanta's professional activity. The dirty and somewhat old fashioned pounding press is described in detail. Hanta becomes some kind of an organic appendix to the machine and lives in a symbiotic relation to the outdated mechanical monster that, day after day, swallows huge quantities of books to extract from them their raw material. Compared to A. Cheng's Chess King who participates in the recycling of paper on the level of an artisanal economy, Hanta represents the pre-industrial phase. He is like a handicraftsman working with the mechanical help of a technologically primitive but quite powerful machine. The output of this system is incomparably superior. But it still allows the operator to develop a very personal, physical and nearly emotional relationship to his work and to his work environment. Hanta has time to touch the books destined to be destroyed, to admire them as cultural objects. He has time, here and there, to select one, to open it and to get to know the text it contains. In an autodidactic way, he thus becomes an educated man and constitutes his own personal library of books he saves from the recycling process. Referring to these personal freedoms within the duties of his profession ("un vieux presseur comme moi," p. 88) he talks about his small joys ("menus joies," p. 88).

One day the opportunity is given to Hanta to visit a huge industrial paper processing complex. This installation has the same function as he and his press, but it represents a more advanced stage of industrial development. The technology is much more up to date, the capacity of the complex dwarfs the output of his press, and above all, for Hanta, the relationship of the worker to the machines and to the logic of the whole installation is an alienating one, because everything is now technologically mediated: there is no direct contact with the material object, everything is teleguided. A completely different manner of working ("une autre façon de travailler," 88)! No small joys any more! Hanta is horrified and immediately recognizes that this complex represents the industrial future and progress, and thus the end of his profession.

Moreover, even with this futuristic vision for Hanta, we remain within the logic of the material basis of the print media. Thus Hrabal, through this self-thematization of the book and of its social and material life, represents the medial condition of literature. At least within the Gutenberg Galaxy, which, since the publication of this novel, has already been, if not replaced, at least supplemented by new technologies based on electricity and electronics. In this context, the themes of garbage and recycling reveal themselves as efficient narrative strategies for representing the limits and constraints of this media-technological condition.

III. Recycling as a Mode of Cultural Production

Progressively, recycling has come to the fore, alongside the category and theme of garbage. But until now recycling was mainly seen as a mode of destruction, some kind of zero point in the material existence of objects, their reduction to a raw material out of which new objects can be produced. Let us now consider, again in fictional literary representations, and in reflections thereupon, recycling as a mode of production.

First of all let us, as we did it at the beginning with "garbage ," propose a rough charting of the notion and category of recycling. By differentiating neighboring concepts and terms, we can narrow down their area of validity and specify their lexematic coverage. Thus, to begin with, recycling has to be set apart from reutilization or reusage. Both terms contain, in the prefix re-, the dimension of repetition, of reaffirming through the practical gesture of taking up again. They also contain the idea of transference and transformation. In both cases, a material is taken up again through a process that includes the moments of selection, displacement and reinsertion. But the degree of transformation, the intensity of the processing the material undergoes, is different in both cases.

The reutilization of an object presupposes that the object by and large remains materially intact. The recognizably same object appears in a new place at a different moment and is put to a different use and function. Thus, empty Coca Cola bottles or artillery shells can be reused as vases for flowers; ancient slave rings as pieces of jewelry; the burnt-out body of a car as a housing shelter; a desecrated church as an arsenal. The transformations the reused object has undergone are minor so that the object may still be recognized, often in an act of cultural anagnorisis that resembles an Aha-Erlebnis, given evidently that we have a memory or knowledge of the identity of the object in its first use.

Recycling implies a much more intense and far-reaching process of transformation of the object or objects22 that are being recycled. Also the objective of the recycling process, at least in the technical and economic sphere, are quite different : we want to recuperate from an object the material it is made from in order to use this material in a new cycle of production. Recycling presupposes the erasure of the object-identity, if not the outright destruction of the object. If I want to recuperate the glass from Coca Cola bottles, the metal from the body of a car or the artillery shell, I first have to destroy bottle, car and shell. The same applies to the recuperation of the precious metal out of the slave ring, or to the textile fibers from old cloths. Secondly, I have to invent a procedure—be it artisanal, pre-industrial or industrial, chemical or mechanical, through fire or through pressure—to homogenize the recuperated material which then becomes the Sekundärrohstoff (literally: the secondary raw material) ready to enter a new cycle of production.

This first categorial differentiation can help us more precisely determine the concept of recycling. However, as with all conceptual distinctions, while they are useful analytical tools, they should not be mistaken for the phenomenal appearance of real objects. Objects never fit the purity or the ideal shape of a concept and occupy the intermediary area of all kinds of combinations. So, for instance the suitcase an artful African artisan puts together from odd pieces considered garbage in the "First World," such as soft drink cans, leather straps, etc is the result both of reutilization and recycling.

Additional precision regarding the historical and ideological connotations of the concept and term might be helpful to clarify its usage: while "recycling" contains the semantic component of repetition and suggests the idea of a "coming back to," its use does not oblige us to assume the tradition of a pre-modern discourse of cyclical order. We are free to do away with the ideological "voice"23 inherited from former uses, according to which the man-made world would be ruled by natural and astronomical cycles. Using the term recycling and reconceptualizing it does not oblige us to adopt the implications of the figure of eternal return, or of a theory conceptualizing history as a sequence of courses and recourses. (corsi e ricorsi). Quite the contrary "recycling" especially in the cultural sphere, always contains the idea of transformation and metamorphosis. It never brings a system, or a material, back to the same position, or to its former identity. In each process of cultural recycling there is a new production or new meaning to be registered. In this sense, it can be combined with a modern theory of history, or a theory of modern history, although it contradicts its ideological claim to a linear progression of the historical process.

It also contradicts another modern ideologeme: the claim of absolute, new beginnings. We find this claim in the figure of the tabula rasa that is an integral rhetorical part of many avant-garde manifestoes. We find it also in the figure of the "dustbin of history,"24 attributed to Trotzky; as all rhetorical devices and topoi, it probably has a longer and more anonymous life that started before the Russian political and historical thinker appropriated it. It finds its technical equivalent in the garbage incinerator that eliminates garbage through heat. As the idea that an historically residual element could be discarded for good and forever in the dustbin of history suggests, the use of the incinerator promises to do away with all remains and to create a situation of cleanliness that would represent a zero moment of garbage. Recycling, thus, neither confirms the promises and phantasms of the tabula rasa, nor the dustbin of history, nor the garbage incinerator.

The recycling approach to cultural production therefore has a critical relationship to certain ideological claims underlying the modern conceptualization of historical processes.

As for the internal components of the concept, its semantic structure, it is important to distinguish the two moments of recycling. Seen as a process, recycling indeed always has a negative and a positive moment.

We have already touched upon the negative side of the concept. It indeed contains the logical force of a negation that might translate into the material destruction of given objects and artifacts. It is in this very moment that the shapes, the configurations, the perceptive gestalt, all traits permitting identification of the objects, are erased. The object is no longer recognizable, at least not without an analytical, or even an archeological effort that might bring the memory of its former identity into life. Therefore, recycling, in its negative moment, is associated with forgetting. It tends to efface the memory trace inscribed in and on the objects. To take again the example of Coca Cola bottles, to recycle their glass content, we first have to eliminate the paper label with its inscriptions that identify the product, then we also have to erase the relief writing on the bottle itself either by crushing and pulverizing it or by heating it up. This homogenizing procedure indifferentiates the glass and makes it impossible to distinguish the secondary raw material coming from Coca Cola bottles from that coming from Pepsi bottles.

At this point we reach a bifurcation between on the one hand, material and technical recycling for economic reasons, and on the other, cultural recycling. In the first type, not only do we strive for the purity of the material to be reintroduced into production, but we also reach a zero point of the whole process, where the memory of the past, the belonging of the object to a given system, as well as its very pastness, disappear. This zero point is never reached in processes of cultural recycling where there always remains a memory trace inscribed into the material aspect of the recycled objects. This memory trace can be reactivated so that the historical nature of the process once again becomes apparent.

The positive side of the recycling process consists first of all in the affirmation of the "same" material, in the material persistence of something through time. Yet, it also consists in the emergence of something new through the process of transformation and metamorphosis. Something new, in terms of shape, configuration, meaning, etc. comes into being. The potential for such an emergence is a function of the intensity of the negative moment which makes the material free to be reinserted into a new process of production and thus to receive new forms and meanings. This relation between the negative and the positive moment of recycling obliges us, to a certain extent, to reconsider the negativity of forgetting which might then be seen as a necessary function of cultural processes.

One final remark on the use of the term and concept in the cultural sphere: while the semantic nucleus of the term, with its components of repetition, displacement and transformation, has its roots in the material world, it can and must also be applicable to non-material objects, such as figures, forms, structures, paradigms, and even ideas and concepts, provided that the analysis of any recycling process takes into consideration the indispensable material support as well as the technical apparatus that brings such items into historical existence.25 Their use, therefore, can be quite literal; this is the case, for instance, when a luthier, for instance, mixes into the varnish of a violin human blood to obtain a special coloring of the instrument.26 I would not exclude more metaphorical uses of the term, for instance when an artist takes up and transforms the work (idea, story, genre and materials, etc.) of another artist's work.27 With such an opening up of the concept's area of application, of course, "recycling" can provide us with a conceptual common denominator for more specific processes and procedures that already have their own historical and discursive existence, such as parody, pastiche, collage, montage, epigonism, re-writing, remaking, sampling, reconversion, mixing, etc. Such an integration of various and particular cases into a common conceptual framework can be an epistemological advantage for the analysis and interpretation of all those processes and procedures. Yet we have to be careful not to stretch the metaphorization of the concept too far—and even more importantly—in each case study we must justify and argue our use of the term and note any overlap with other concepts with the utmost precision.

IV. Three literary case studies

a) Italo Calvino: "La poubelle agréée"

Written between 1974 and 1976 in Paris, this is an unfinished text by Calvino, published posthumously in the collective volume La strada di San Giovanni.

The core narrative of this text is the everyday scene of a man carrying the kitchen garbage out to a large garbage can, a "poubelle agréée," that is, from the private garbage container into an official model accepted and "agreed upon" by the municipal services. The narrative is set in the first person. Since the content refers to the experiences and perceptions of Calvino himself, the text might be considered autobiographical without great risks of error.

This minimal narrative scene representing the trivial everyday ritual of eliminating the garbage28 in an orderly way is used by the narrator as a general connector for the rest of his story and reflections. This passage from the kitchen to the street, and in some cases to the courtyard, indeed, appears to be an innocuous gesture with great consequences. It connects the private space to the public space, the interior and the exterior. It inserts the individuum into the social nexus thus connecting the individual and the collective, personal freedom and institutional constraint.

With his typical fine irony, Calvino finds innumerable ways to relate the "impure" theme of garbage and the somewhat ridiculous scene29 of its disposal to the complete structure of social, political, economical, etc. functioning. He organizes his story in a way that seems to develop everything important out of garbage, as if garbage were at the center of society—the garbage ritual makes us discover the social contract, it reactivates law and order, it makes visible social structures and stratifications, it reveals the functioning of the economy. On the more symbolic and subjective side, it brings to the fore the phantasms that we associate with it or that our unconscious is led to produce under its intruding presence. Likewise, it opens up the dimension of mythical imagination, even religious belief, with its ambivalent connection of garbage to both death and regeneration. Finally becoming something akin to Étienne Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire's structural-transformationist approach to the animal kingdom, according to which is was possible to reconstruct the whole animal, its habitat, its behavior and its functioning out of the apparently insignificant fragment of a bone.

In all this, it is both suggested and stated explicitly, that garbage originates in the kitchen, and that in the first place it is a conglomerate of the remains of food production. Thus it reinserts whoever takes care of kitchen garbage into the nostalgically evoked primitive cycle of organic life and the system of an agricultural socio-economy:

Nel rito del buttar via vorremmo, io e lo spazzino, ritrovare la promessa del compimento del ciclo propria del processo agricolo, in cui – si racconta – nulla era perduto: ciò che era sepolto nella terra rinasceva (104)

In contrast to this idealized primitive economy based on recycling, leaving nothing outside, reintegrating totally what is "rejected" in the organic process of production and consumption, Calvino mentions the production of garbage and its reintegration into the cycles of a capitalist and industrial economy. Moreover, at the end of the story, he seems to discover a distinction that he says he should have introduced much earlier because it appears as decisive for his reflections:

Capisco ora che avrei dovuto cominciare il mio discorso distinguendo e comparando i due generi di spazzatura domestica, prodotti della cucina et della scrittura, il secchio di rifiuti e il cesto della carta straccia (114).

Here, Calvino links material-economical processes of refusal-and-recuperation with cultural recycling. By developing a complete social system around a scene of garbage disposal at the literal level, Calvino was preparing to project a similar logic onto the cultural system. "Cultural system" is meant here in a narrow sense, and, indeed, Calvino immediately exemplifies it with literature and, autobiographically, with his own activity as a writer. So we are back in the domain of literary self-thematization, including the thematization of the medial conditions of the literary life.

The text then states: there are two different types of "domestic garbage", one made of the "products of the kitchen" and the other one of the "products of writing." To the first one corresponds the "garbage can," to the second the "waste paper basket." And Calvino makes a short reflection that connects the two in a parallel development. Although they thus receive the status of two separate and independent systems with the same internal functioning, I propose to read the second as being developed in an analogical way out of the first one. The macrostructure of the narrative (in quantitative terms there are 15 pages exclusively on the first system, and only 2 pages reflecting on their parallelism) suggests such a reading.

As applied to the logic of garbage and recycling, the system of literary production and consumption is articulated as follows: not only are the rejected remains of the writing process seen as "garbage" ending up in the waste basket, but, at second glance, literary creation as a whole, once it is accomplished, is seen as something that falls away—thus taking up the etymology of the German as well as the French words for "garbage" (Abfall, déchets) from the creator. It is expelled by him and has, thereupon, a separate destiny as compared to his own. Interestingly, despite his long discussion of agricultural and industrial systems of production, consumption and recuperation-elimination of garbage, Calvino comes very close here to the conception of the literary art work by the German romantic author Novalis: while in gestation, the art work belongs to the artist, is a part of him or her; once it is accomplished it "falls of and away" from the creator and belongs to the public.

It is worthwile to quote the long passage in which he develops this logic:

E distinguere e comparare il diverso destino di ciò che cucina e scrittura non buttano via, l'opera, quella della cucina mangiata, assimilata alla nostra persona, quella della scrittura che una volta compiuta non fa piu parte di me e che ancora non si può sapere se diventera alimento d'una lettura altrui, d'un metabolismo mentale, quali trasformazioni subirà passando attraverso altri pensieri, quanta parte trasmetterà delle sue calorie, e se le rimetterà in circolo, e come. Scrivere è dispossessarsi non meno che il buttar via, è allontanare da me un mucchio di fogli appallottolati e una pila di fogli scritti fino in fondo, gli uni et gli altri non piu miei, deposti, espulsi. (115)

In a logical continuation of the analogy, the reception process of literature (reading/speaking) is seen as a recycling process. In this final analogy, Calvino sees the reception of cultural products, especially of literary texts, as an appropriation and integration into the mental metabolism of the reader. It therefore is more than purely passive reception, because the cultural product that is drifting away from its initial producer enters a secondary cycle of production, and so on. Calvino is sketching here a whole theory of cultural production and reception/consumption on the basis of an analogous model taken from material production of refuse and its recycling.

One final remark regarding this theory: interestingly, Calvino comes close to the metaphorical model of post-colonial cultural production the Brasilian modernists proposed approximately 70 years ago. They, and especially Oswald de Andrade in 1928 with his manifesto of the Revista antropofágica, proposed to metaphorically conceptualize cultural processes in a postcolonial country as acts of anthropophagy. Cultural life comes down to acts of corporeal appropriating, swallowing, incorporating and expulsing, exactly as the kitchen-model by Calvino strongly suggests in the quoted passage.

b) Donald Barthelme: "Snow White"

Like Calvino, Barthelme develops, within the literary text, a fictional reflection on the production of literature in terms of trash and recycling. Barthelme also uses this analogy to make manifest and cognitively grasp the material aspect of literature, or the specific way in which literature is related to the material world. Here, though, the parallelism ends, because Barthelme establishes the concrete basis for his analogy in a totally inorganic world, the world of industrial production and the concomitant technology of the combustion engine.

In Barthelme's story "Snow White", written around the same time as "La poubelle agréée," we find a more specific reflection on the material side of the medium of literature that is language. I would propose to see this reflection in the legacy of the Dadaists who violently decomposed cultural codes and made language "decay" (déchets!) into infra-semantic units. This fragmenting process ended up in minimal units falling beyond any cultural code, such as syllables, sounds, cries, and letters for the written form of language. It thus liberated language from the obligation of signifying, and in doing so it undermined/cut short our logocentric reflex in relation with language (aiming at the semantic content, seen as the valuable part, and getting rid of its material vehicle, seen as the rest to be discarded) and gave access to its materiality in a process of perception and cognition.30

Donald Barthelme's no less phantasmatic reflection on language takes up this idea experimentally bringing about a situation in which language would be amputated from its semantism. He puts this reflection into the mouth of one of his characters who is the director of a manufacturing plant that produces "plastic buffalo humps," artifacts earmarked from the outset as cultural trash. This fictional set-up obliges us to rethink the category of trash, not as something that represents the final stage of a long process of rejection, decay, expulsion, separation and also of "pulverizing, dissolving and rotting" as Mary Douglas (189) puts it, but itself as an industrial product.

Here is how the character who is in charge of such production establishes an analogical bridge to the category of language:

You know, Klipschorn was right I think when he spoke of the 'blanketing' of ordinary language, referring, as I recall, to the part that sort, you know, 'fills in' between the other parts. That part, the 'filling' you might say, of which the expression 'you might say' is a good example, is to me the most interesting part, and of course it might also be called the 'stuffing'. I suppose, and there is probably also, in addition, some other word that would do as well, to describe it, or maybe a number of them. But the quality this 'stuffing' has, that the other parts of verbality do not have, is two-parted, perhaps: (1) an 'endless' quality and (2) a 'sludge' quality.31

Evidently, this reflection is a provocation and takes up a great tradition of satirical works and attitudes. Still it contains extremely interesting aspects for our own reflection. It is marked by a fundamental ambivalence: first of all language is divided up into two components, those with semantic content and the rest: "the rest that fills in between the other." The semantic components, in this reflection, are left out, become "rifiuti" or remnants and refusals. The non-semantic components, those worn-out and filling-in elements, those which normally must fit the category of "trash," here become the more interesting, and even the more fundamental part of language. So, what usually is seen as the mere "stuffing" of language, the insignificant particles, and what can be related to the impurity of "sludge," what is just seen as bulky but empty language material, here comes into the foreground and undergoes a reevaluation. It indeed takes on value and becomes, as the text says later on, a "valuable."

Moreover, quite contrary to the Dadaists who obtained this showing of the a-semantic materiality of language through violent acts of fragmentation, Barthelme valorizes the fluidity of this empty and insignificant language material. He stresses its lubricating quality when he compares it to sticky motor oil: "similar to the heavier motor oils" (97).

And back to the literal meaning of trash: this reflection on the valuable trash quality of the non-semantic part of language is followed by a statistical exposé on the increase of per capita trash production in contemporary American society. In his final argument, the director of the manufacturing plant makes a caricatural extrapolation of statistical logic when he affirms that the trash component in the industrial output will soon reach 100%, concluding:

So that's why we're in humps, right now, more really from a philosophical point of view than because we find them a great moneymaker. They are 'trash', and what in fact could be more useless or trashlike? It's that we want to be on the leading edge of this trash phenomenon, the averted sphere of the future, and that's why we pay particular attention, too, to those aspects of language that may be seen as a model of the trash phenomenon. (97-98)

Certainly, there is a satirical irony in this statement. Nevertheless, it has the merit to establish an explicit connection between the production of trash in a consumer society and the trash quality of language itself. It reverses both the cognitive and the axiological process. On the one hand it becomes unclear how the analogical transfer that allows for a cognitive access from the known to the unknown runs: what is the model and what is the analogon? On the other hand, in a surprising axiological reversal, it proposes not to eliminate, but to appreciate trash like the new product and, eventually, the only material at hand. As Jonathan Culler put it in an essay published in 1988 "Trash has thus become an essential resource for modern art" (179) and "in a world of rubbish, art has learned to exploit rubbish" (181).32

c) Michel Tournier: Les Météores.

Michel Tournier's novel Les Météores was first published in 1975.33 It is the story of a gémelléité, that is of a twin protagonist who reunites in two different characters complementary characteristics and internal conflicts.34 We are focusing here on the character of their uncle, Alexander Surin "le roi des gadoues" (the king of garbage fills). He somehow repeats the axiological inversion—as well as the provocation that goes along with it—we have just observed in Donald Barthelme's story. He is professionally involved with garbage and therefore values garbage positively. Yet, we can also read this causality the other way around: since he has an unconsciously motivated taste for everything existing in the margins of society, among other things of rests, remains and trash, he became professionally involved with garbage. Thus, interested in what society rejects and expells into its margins, he has himself become a marginal figure who has established, in dealing with trash, quite a powerful empire that, more and more, takes on the function of an counter-power in relation to the socially established norms and values. His importance is based on a "monde à l'envers" opposed, item per item, to the world of bourgeois heterosexuals and "bien-pensants." His system of values represents a provocative reversal of dominant values: what everybody rejects and avoids, he cherishes and seeks.

As a matter of principle, Alexander Surin values trash and garbage. He is wonder-struck in front of every piece of garbage and admires the richness as well as the wisdom contained in any dumping ground (93). And he "rêve d'une déjection totale, universelle qui précipiterait toute une ville au rebut" (92). He dreams of such a total reversal between center and periphery, the system and its dejections, the primary and the secondary circle of production—as we have seen it in Barthelme's plastic buffalo hump production. He sees civilization, and the big city as the amalgam of civilization, through the looking glass of the trans it produces: "Ce qu'il y a d'admirable dans les gadoues, c'est cette promotion généralisée qui fait de chaque débris est l'emblème possible de la cité qui l'a enfanté" (93).

This positive vision of the world is opposed to a negative world, the world of the "petit-bourgeois wood-louses" who fear the impurity of garbage so much that they would prefer not to produce any:

Cloporte de petit-bourgeois! Toujours cette peur de jeter, ce regret avare en face du rebut. Une obsession, un idéal: une société qui ne rejetterait rien, dont les objets dureraient éternellement, et dont les deux grandes fonctions - production-consommation - s'accompliraient sans déchets"! C'est le rêve de la constipation urbaine intégrale. (92)

Here, we find again the infernal vision of a world without trash already articulated by Calvino albeit in the nightmarish vision of a totally closed-in world with no possibility to expell remains, a world that would suffocate in its own garbage, or perish in the horror of a total elimination of garbage through fire (103). In Tournier these negative visions are articulated in terms close to the theoretical world of both Freud and Bataille. Surin is pationately opposed to such a world without loss or waste (expense), a world that would sooner or later suffocate in its own constipation, or in the hygienic sterility of its own purity.

It is against the background of these negative visions and its ensuing reversals (center/periphery, purity/impurity, expenditure/hoarding, dejection/retention, value/counter-value) that Alexander Surin now develops his own aesthetics, "l'esthétique du roi des gadoues" (aesthetics of the king of dumping grounds) (101-103). This, again, is the precise moment of the text where the literary thematization of garbage, in a more or less analogical projection, gives way to a theory of cultural production out of garbage, that is, to a fictional theory of cultural recycling. In the logic of Tournier's text it is not surprising, therefore, that this aesthetics adopts the logical form of antithesis and reversal.

En fait de meubles et d'objets d'art, je préfère toujours les imitations aux originaux, l'imitation étant l'original cerné, possédé, intégré, éventuellement multiplié....
Mon intérieur parisien est entièrement du second degré. J'ai toujours rêvé de l'élever de là au troisième degré, mais s'il existe des exemples d'imitations d'imitation, la chose est si rare, elle est vouée par le mépris-au-carré de la foule stupide à une disparition si rapide que je ne pourrais en garnir entièrement ma demeure qu'au prix d'immenses efforts. (....)
Au demeurant, qu'est-ce que la gadoue, sinon le grand conservatoire des objets portés par la production de série à une puissance infinie? Le goût des collections d'objets originaux est absolument réactionnaire, intempestif. Il s'oppose au mouvement de production–consommation qui s'accélère de plus en plus dans nos sociétés – et qui débouche dans la gadoue. (....)
Ces éléments, il m'appartient par la méthode de la décharge contrôlée de leur assurer une conservation indéfinie dans un milieu sec et stérile. Non sans m'être exalté avant leur inhumation devant la puissance infinie de ces objets produits en masse – et donc copies de copies de copies de copies de copies de copies, etc.35

The aesthetic exposed in these terms directly adopts the reverse position of traditional aesthetic principles and values we have been living with for a long time: the ontological superiority of the original over the copy, the valorization of originality, unicity and authenticity of the art work, the durability of the art work, etc. The new aesthetic values and principles, as this was the case in Barthelme, are quite directly derived from the industrial mode of production: production in industrial quantities, on the technological basis of serial production and production of objects of little value.

Here are a few principles that can be extracted from this passage:

  • the imitation is preferable to the original
  • secondarity or second degree production is preferable to originality
  • seriality overrides unicity
  • quantity overrides quality
  • the object of little commercial value is aesthetically preferable
  • the inauthentic is a searched for aesthetic value
  • the ephemeral surpasses the durable

Taken together, these principles found an aesthetics of recycling on two different levels. First of all, in its discursive functioning, its affirmation produces an effect of déjà-vu because it works with well-known aesthetic propositional contents, except that it reverses them axiologically. In this sense, Alexander Surin's aesthetics recycles the aesthetic tradition while turning it on its head.

On another level, in its content, it proposes a positive introduction of the principle of recycling pre-existing cultural materials into the realm of artistic creation. This is achieved in different modes related to the dominant non-artistic production in contemporary society: seriality, repetition, copying, ephemerality and secondarity.

Certainly, Tournier's fictional proposition can be seen as a provocation and has much in common with the genre of parody. Yet, we should not simply see it as such and thereby diminish its value by discarding its reflective potential. Tournier's protagonist forces us to rethink artistic, and more generally, cultural, production in the context of an advanced industrial regime.36 However ridiculous or ironical his propositions, he obliges us to rethink the relationship between the aesthetic and artistic realm and the realm of industrial production and consumption.

In this sense, Tournier's reflection on aesthetics, put in the mouth of his dandy protagonist who is also a specialist of garbage dumps, have a reach beyond what Walter Benjamin elaborated in his essay on technical reproducibility. Furthermore, it also goes beyond Adorno's and Horkheimer's reflection upon and rejection of the cultural industry. In relation to these former two propositions about contemporary culture and art, Tournier, in his own way, has been able to erase any nostalgic trace provoked by the disappearance of a past aesthetic paradigm highlighted in Benjamin's "auratic" value of the work of art. At the same time, he stays away from proclaiming recycling art as a degradation of "high art" which, in turn, would receive the mandate to redeem this fallen art. In his own way, Tournier has been able to undo while re-using (déjouer en rejouant), the principles of an outdated aesthetics. In so doing, he has created the conditions for a serious interplay between industrial culture and cultural industry. This has allowed him to submit the contemporary conditions of artistic and cultural production to less biased scrutiny and reflection.

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1. I thank Ryan Fraser for his careful stylistic revision of this text.

2. "Esthétiques des déchets," in Johanne Villeneuve, Brian Neville and Claude Dionne (eds.), La Mémoire des déchets. Essais sur la culture et la valeur du passé, Québec: Éditions Nota Bene, 1999, 89-109; "The Acculturation of Waste," in Johanne Villeneuve, Brian Neville (eds.), Waste-Site Stories. The Recycling of Memory. Albany: The State University of New York Press, 2002, 85-105.

3. In Purity and Danger. An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo, London: Routledge, 2002 (©1966).

4. I have not directly dealt with this aspect yet. Authors like Giorgio Agamben (for instance in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1998) and Georges Bataille could lead the way into this conceptual component of garbage.

5. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

6. As for biographies of objects, see also Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things. Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

7. William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, Rubbish! The Archeology of Garbage. What Our Garbage Tells Us About Ourselves, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.

8. New York: Atheneum, 1972.

9. In The New York Trilogy, New York: Penguin Books, 1990, 1-158.

10. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988. I thank Ryan Fraser for bringing this text to my attention.

11. Toronto : McClelland-Bantam, 1991, 31-48.

12. Chicoutimi : Les Éditions JCL, 1997.

13. Paris: Gallimard, 1975.

14. Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1998.

15. In La Strada di San Giovanni, Milano : Mondadori, 1990, pp 89-116.

16. Rome: Edizioni e/o, 1998.

17. Paris : Éditions Laffont, 1983.

18. Paris: Seuil, 1992.

19. Aix-en-Provence: Éditions Alinéa, 1988.

20. San José (Puerto Rico): Ediciones Farben, 1994.

21. Die Realität der Massenmedien, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1996.

22. Most recycling processes, especially the industrialized ones that are guided by economical objectives, imply a plurality, often a huge quantity of objects.

23. In a Bakhtinian logic, by which each term or "word" contains and carries the conflictual plurality of discourse positions from which this word, in its own history, has already been enunciated. Consider also Walter Benjamin’s history and "recycling" of concepts, such as melancholy.

24. Cf. Greil Markus, The Dustbin of History, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

25. Accepting these unavoidable techno-material implications of "recycling" establishes epistemic common grounds with Michel Debray’s mediology with its anti-idealist approach to culture: "Aller résolument au "machinique," à la "rationalité technico-instrumentale" au "système technicien", et autres termes péjoratifs. Aller, donc en direction contraire d’Habermas, d’Adorno ou d’Ellul. Donner la préséance aux socles matériels des cultures". (Manifestes médiologiques, Paris: Gallimard, 1994, p. 70).

26. As it is the case in François Girard’s film Le violon rouge (Canada, 1998).

27. As the Mexican artist Eduardo Abaroa did in his Portable Broken Obelisk (for Outdoor Markets) with the famous modernist statue Broken Obelisk by the American artist Barnett Newman.

28. In Italian, the semantics of the text uses more concrete terms: "il buttar via" for throwing away, and "rifiuti," literally that which is refused, for garbage; this word has the same semantic structure as the English "refuse."

29. Traditionally, this theme had its literary place in the I, that is, in genres like the satire, the farce where the Bakhtinian carnivalesque reigns.

30. In his 1917 essay Die wechselseitige Erhellung der Künste, Oskar Walzel chose a completely different strategy to obtain an analogous result: how can we have a cognitive access to the material side of literary works of art? – By engaging in a comparative detour through other arts, especially those devoid of semantic content, such as music.

31. Donald Barthelme, Snow White, New York: Atheneum, 1972, p. 96.

32. In Framing the Sign. Criticism and its Institutions, Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988, pp. 179 and 181.

33. Michel Tournier, Les Météores, Paris : Gallimard, 1975.

34. This is a topological figure in art and folklore. In recent years it has undergone a wide public reactivation in works like Calvino’s Il visconte dimezzato, in the films Adaptation by Spike Jonze (USA, 2003) and The Far Side of the Moon by Robert Lepage (Canada, 2003).

35. Op. cit., pp 101-103.

36. And, to be precise, not yet in the context of post-industrial production, because Tournier wrote his text before the next technological "revolution"—the one we are witnessing today—that is before the dominance of electronics and before the concomitant emergence of digital technology.


About the Author:

Walter Moser is the Canada Research Chair on Literary and Cultural Transfers at the University of Ottawa. Professor Moser is a co-founder of the Université de Montréal Department of Comparative Literature and has been a visiting professor at a number of leading institutions in South America and Europe.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Moser, Walter. "Garbage and Recycling: From Literary Theme to Mode of Production." Other Voices 3.1 May 2007. June 18, 2024 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/wmoser/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Walter Moser, Garbage and Recycling: From Literary Theme to Mode of Production. Other Voices 3, no. 1 (2007), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/wmoser/index.php› (accessed June 18, 2024)

APA Style Citation:
Moser, Walter. (2007, FMay). Garbage and Recycling: From Literary Theme to Mode of Production. Other Voices, 3.1. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/wmoser/index.php


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