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Our trashy lives and what we choose to make invisible

October 8th, 2010

Trash is an amazing thing.  I remember learning in my introductory archaeology class many moons ago about all the things you can learn about people from their trash.  Robin Nagle has taken that fascination to book level.  Here’s an excerpt from an interview at The Believer in which she’s anserwing a question about the cognitive problem of trash …

RN: Well, it’s cognitive in that exact way: that it is quite highly visible, and constant, and invisibilized. So from the perspective of an anthropologist, or a psychologist, or someone trying to understand humanness: What is that thing? What is that mental process where we invisibilize something that’s present all the time?

The other cognitive problem is: Why have we developed, or, rather, why have we found ourselves implicated in a system that not only generates so much trash, but relies upon the accelerating production of waste for its own perpetuation? Why is that OK?

And a third cognitive problem is: Every single thing you see is future trash. Everything. So we are surrounded by ephemera, but we can’t acknowledge that, because it’s kind of scary, because I think ultimately it points to our own temporariness, to thoughts that we’re all going to die.

BLVR: And the fear, the way you’ve described garbage as being scary, it’s an avoidance of addressing mortality and ephemerality and things like that?

RN: It’s an avoidance of addressing mortality, ephemerality, the deeper cost of the way we live. We generate as much trash as we do in part because we move at a speed that requires it. I don’t have time to take care of the stuff that surrounds me every day that is disposable, like coffee cups and diapers and tea bags and things that if I slowed down and paid attention to and shepherded, husbanded, nurtured, would last a lot longer. I wouldn’t have to replace them as often as I do. But who has time for that? We keep it cognitively and physically on the edges as much as we possibly can, and when we look at it head-on, it betrays the illusion that everything is clean and fine and humming along without any kind of hidden cost. And that’s just not true.

BLVR: You’ve written that a sanitation department that does its job well will make itself invisible, and, more generally but along the same lines, there is a sense in which garbage is the negation of culture. And William Rathje, whom you mentioned just before, has noted that humans are the only animal species not drawn in by garbage’s smells and colors. And yet, sanitation is such a gigantic component of city budgets and urban life, and, in New York at least, has created a landfill that can be seen from the earth’s orbit. That suggests that this blind spot is doing a lot of ideological work.

Animal death is the same way.  Not just death but the kind and amount of death that we cause is everywhere but yet “invisibilized.”  There too we “keep it cognitively and physically on the edges as much as we possibly can, and when we look at it head-on, it betrays the illusion that everything is clean and fine and humming along without any kind of hidden cost. And that’s just not true.”

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