Trash Talks: what our garbage reveals about ourselves

Philosopher Elizabeth V. Spelman on the surprising relation between us and the things we throw away.

There is a great deal of buzz about trash: books, conferences and online journals are awash in talk about it. The Discard Studies website, for example, provides a comprehensive and regularly updated list of sources.

One of the main reasons for such widespread attention is that human habits of trash-making around the world have come to pose enormous problems for human and non-human life and the health of the planet — though it would be disingenuous to suggest that such problems are new or that they are evenly distributed across neighborhoods, communities, nations: for example, the USA regularly dumps its electronic waste in countries such as China and Ghana, multiplying whatever ill effects are produced by those countries’ own waste-making. My aim here, however, is not to join the pressing and important conversations about the growing menace of trash. Rather, it is to bring attention to the many ways in which references to trash have played a crucial role in our attempts to make sense of our lives and to articulate relations among us. We may want trash to be out of our immediate sight and smell, but not very far out of mind. I develop these ideas in considerable detail in Trash Talks: Revelations in the Rubbish, and offer a taste of some of my reflections in what follows.

A synonym for useless

“Trash” is just one member of a family of terms we use to describe that which we have judged to be useless, never or no longer of value. We have ready at hand a trash lexicon to mark our disgust, disdain, or distance: “Those oranges belong in the garbage.” “This computer is a piece of junk.” “What a colossal waste of time.” Or the fierce battle cry of the warrior philosopher, “That argument is pure rubbish.”

But our invocations of trash, waste, garbage etc. go far beyond snarky judgments to the effect that something or someone is useless or contemptible. We appear to have found it quite useful to call upon the rich resources of the trash lexicon in our accounts of the kinds of beings we are and how we are positioned vis-à-vis one another. Many distinctions among us that we seem in no hurry to give up turn out to track differences in our connections to trash, waste, rubbish and their siblings. “Trash Talks” explores six such distinctions, identified as those between the (1) the Knower and the Known, (2) the Fat Cats and the Stragglers, (3) the Scathed and the Unscathed, (4) the Designed and the Disorderly, (5) the Enlightened and the Unenlightened, and (6) Reliable and Unreliable Judges. (Readers are welcome, indeed encouraged, to add to the list.)

  1. The Knower and the Known.
    Want to get the dirt on someone, to ferret out something about them they’d probably prefer not to be known? Celebrity watchers and narcotics agents know how to do it (often testing legal limits to such scrutiny): comb through their trash. That will put the scoundrels in their place!
  2. The Fat Cats and the Stragglers.
    Eager to create and maintain superior social status? Make it as obvious as you can to others that you can afford to be wasteful—to have much more than you need, by any reasonable standard, and to employ rafts of workers clearly engaged in taking care of your goods. That anyway was the recipe Thorstein Veblen, in his classic (though not uncontested) “The Theory of the Leisure Class”, saw put to use by members of the leisure class in late 19th and early 20th centuries, a recipe some current observers see in the building of what colloquially have come to be called McMansions (not to mention McTrumps). The point of such display is not, of course, to invite others actually go through your trash (see [i]) but to make sure they have no doubts about your enjoying an economic standing that allows you to be wasteful. This is not to say that all those having such standing engage in conspicuous consumption, only that such consumption often has been a handy way of establishing relative position.
  3. The Scathed and the Unscathed.
    Whether considered contaminated on account of the nature of their work, or assigned such work on account of the alleged impurity of their very being, sanitation workers around the world rarely are lauded as valuable members of their communities. Indeed they often are treated as disposable themselves, despite the indispensability of their labor to the health and general well being of those communities. Examples are hardly limited to the Dalit (formerly the “untouchables”) in India, as Robin Nagle recently has made clear in her “Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City”.
  4. The Designed and the Disorderly.
    Charles Darwin reluctantly but ineluctably came to believe that the wastefulness he observed in nature was at odds with the idea that this world is the work of an intelligent designer. The tension he experienced is alive in current debates between many evolutionary theorists and a hearty coterie of proponents of Intelligent Design. Part of what sometimes seems to be at stake is the kind of account we are to give of our species: are we the exquisite product of a fabulously intelligent designer, or just another event in nature’s aleatory, wantonly wasteful parade?
  5. The Enlightened and the Unenlightened.
    Plato and the Buddha warned humankind that dissatisfaction is a steady companion of desire. Though neither of them addressed worries about the trash likely to be created as a result of such dissatisfaction, they certainly wouldn’t be surprised by our prodigious production of refuse, and no doubt would be alarmed by the extent to which dissatisfaction’s star has risen: hyper-consumerist societies count on consumers’ eventually ceasing to be pleased with their purchases.
  6. Reliable and Unreliable judges.
    Some of us know waste when we see it, others of us don’t — or so it is alleged — and the stakes involved in establishing the category into which you fall can be very high. In John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (1674), at the root of Eve’s disobedient plucking of the forbidden fruit is her confident belief that she is a better judge than God of what constitutes waste: she’s no fool, she knows that surely the proper use of the fruit is for it to be eaten, for its potential not to be lost. God, the story goes, disagreed; bye-bye Eden. In John Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government” (1690), the implication is clear that settlers from afar are entitled to property rights over territory occupied by the “wretched inhabitants” of the Americas because the latter fail to see, Locke insisted, that land that is not cultivated is going to waste, its potential unrealized.
Trash disposal, in 1972. Not much has changed.

Trash disposal, in 1972. We still rely on trash as a reference to distinguish the superior and the inferior.

It is not surprising that terms used to denote the disvalued and decommissioned show up in efforts meant to establish that some people or things are superior to other people or things, whether that superiority be epistemic (in terms of knowledge or of judgment); social/economic; or metaphysical (in terms of the very nature of states of being). We may be insistent upon keeping trash and waste and their siblings as far away as possible (for example, on the shores of people we judge to be less worthy specimens of humanity than ourselves), but we maintain quite intimate connections with trash, waste and their relatives to the extent that we rely on reference to them to do the dirty work of trying to drive home invidious distinctions between the superior and inferior, the better and the worse, the worthy and the unworthy.

We don’t seem any more ready to give up those projects than we are to stop trashing our communities and our planet.

Filed under Trash
Elizabeth Spelman

A philosopher by profession, Elizabeth V. Spelman teaches at Smith College in the United States. She is the author of "Trash Talks" - a book about our natural tendency to produce waste. Photo by Lijun Yuan.