Waste not, want not: garbage and the philosopher of the dump (Waste Land and Estamira)
Garbage, ethics, and the commodity form In his analysis of the capitalist mode of production, Karl Marx gave pride of place to what he termed, with a little irony, the ‘metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ that abound in the commodity form (1976: 163). He endowed the commodity form, this bastard offspring of the coupling of dead capital and living labour, with a strangely animist half-life, for when a raw material such as wood, ‘an ordinary sensuous thing’, is transformed into a manufactured object such as a table,
it not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will
(Marx 1976: 163-4)
Once set loose in the marketplace, these promiscuous dancing commodities, ‘ready to exchange not only soul, but body, with each and every other commodity, be it more repulsive than Maritornes herself ’ (Marx 1976: 179), appear to take on a life of their own, independent of the human labour that originally animated them. For on the economic stage, Marx says, ‘persons exist for one another merely as representatives and hence owners, of commodities [. . .]; it is as the bearers [Träger] of these economic relations that they come into contact with each other’ (1976: 178-9). Social interaction is thus delegated to the relations between commodities, and the more lively becomes the movement of the commodities, the more human actions are reduced to those of automata, Golems mindlessly driven by commodity exchange, and the more we witness ‘the
conversion of things into persons and the conversion of persons into things [Personifizierung der Sachen und Versachlichung der Personen]’ (Marx 1976: 209). But what of the afterlife of these oddly animate craftings of sensuous matter? What happens when the commodities, as it were, stop dancing, and fall out of the spheres of both exchange value and use value? Of course, Marx’s dancing tables were already presages of such an afterlife, since the analogy referred to the ‘turning tables’ used in séances during the spiritualist craze that spread through German upper-class society in the 1850s (Brookhenkel 2009). And it was this line of thinking – the mystical and spiritual investment in commodity production and exchange at the heart of bourgeois society – that to some extent determined Marx’s application of the derogatory, primitivist vocabulary of ‘fetishism’ to the commodity form in Capital. Yet, other than the waste and devastation produced by capitalist crisis, Marx himself had little to say about the actual death (or spectral afterlife) of commodities, or about the places designated as their graveyards: the rubbish dumps or garbage heaps where commodities are sent once they are broken, or once their exchange value, even as raw material, falls below the perceived value of a new replacement. Other thinkers in the Marxian tradition have partially explored this theoretical gap, albeit mostly in allegorical terms. Famously, Walter Benjamin developed a materialist aesthetics of the ragpicker (chiffonnier) out of Baudelaire’s own fascination with the figure (Benjamin 2006: 52-4), recovering these members of the Lumpenproletariat from the historical dustbin to which Marx had confined them in the Eighteenth Brumaire, where they were lumped together with vagabonds, jailbirds, swindlers, lazzaroni, pickpockets, organ-grinders, tinkers, beggars, and other such reactionary layabouts (Marx 1975: 75). And just before his death, in 1940, Benjamin gives a Messianic force to ‘the pile of debris’ that the appalled Angel of History sees growing skyward as he rides the shockwave of that storm called capitalist ‘progress’ (1992: 249). The Angel would like to ‘stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed’, if it were not for the fact that his wings are hopelessly caught in the storm’s ferocious gale. All he can do is contemplate, with a melancholy gaze, the growing pile of ‘wreckage upon wreckage [hurled] in front of his feet’. Benjamin’s recuperation of refuse and of its collectors was also predicated on the surrealist penchant for cracking open the homogenous, empty time of the present with objects found in flea markets, ready-mades, or the exploration of the abandoned spaces of the city, and belongs to a tradition that assigns a subversive/redemptive quality to the bric-a-brac left behind by the crisis-ridden dreadnought of (urban) capitalist development and expansion. Of course, waste and garbage, or trash, are not quite the same thing: the affective and ethical attributes attached to these words are of different conceptual orders. Trash is what has been trashed, ruined, or refused and needs to be removed, rendered invisible, as quickly as possible. There is little of an ethical dimension to refuse; rather, the act of refusal is the ground zero of ethics, the black hole into which ethics is swallowed, and to which Marx himself seemed blind, as suggested above. The act of designating other people as trash (whether it be the
‘Lumpen’ or the ‘disposables’ of Latin America’s megacities) is better understood as pre-ethical, as something operating at the level of affect, or in an older vocabulary, libido, than at the level of an ethical regime. But waste is a whole different story. As the proverb in my title suggests, ‘waste not, want not’, the concept of waste, of a scarce resource that is irresponsibly deployed, is an ethical category par excellence, erecting the entire edifice of morality, from the virtues of thrift to religious injunction, passing through Marxist messianism, our Angel of the garbage tip, and ending perhaps in the threat of an ecological Apocalypse. In societies based on commodity exchange, garbage is intimately related to the commodity form, being both its inevitable corollary and its antithesis as a mystified and abstract condensation of social relationships. To use another Benjaminian metaphor, we might say that garbage is the commodity stripped of its ‘aura’. It is a thoroughly defetishized object that has fallen out of the realms of desire, exchange, and use, and has thus, in some sense, fallen outside of the realm of History, if we understand History as the product of a dialectic that has its origins in the division between intellectual and manual labour. For Marx, as is well known, the motor of history is class struggle, but the division of society into social classes is nothing other than the division between these different modes of labour – labour of the hand and labour of the head. Such a division is, however, only possible in a society where intellectual work can be exchanged for (the products of ) manual work, and hence the division presupposes, and in large measure can be said to arise out of, the abstractions produced in and through the exchange of commodities. (This is the central insight of Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s work, which will be discussed further below.) To say that garbage is a commodity that has fallen outside of the realm of History in the Marxist sense is not to deny the archaeological historicity of garbage, its role as a spectral record or remainder, nor the fact that renewed labour (such as that of the ragpickers) can reinsert garbage into the commodity cycle of exchange and use. But it is precisely as this spectral, indeterminate object lying at the ground zero of ethics, outside of the dialectic of history, that garbage can have a revelatory function, for Baudelaire, for Benjamin, for the Angel of History and, as we shall see, for the ragpickers themselves, even as the act of refusing refuse conforms to the logic of disavowal that supports the entire realm of commodity fetishism.