The paradox of waste: Rio de Janeiro’s Praça XV Flea Market
At the end of each day, very little rubbish remains on the streets of Rio de Janeiro’s affluent and middle-class suburbs. Through the night and early morning, phalanxes of sanitation workers and scavengers, working in both the informal and formal economies, sort and clean up much of it. Some of that rubbish is handpicked and reclassified as waste, and bound for secondary markets where it can be sold and bought anew (Coletto 2010). Informal and formal second-hand or ‘flea’ markets are a node within a globally ubiquitous network of secondary economies that generates valuable social, economic, and material infrastructure in cities (Evers and Seale 2014; UNHabitat 2010). From 1979 until the end of 2013, the Feira de Antiguidades da Praça XV set up every Saturday in Rio de Janeiro, in an otherwise unused channel of land hemmed in on both sides and from above by roadways. The flea market took its name from a nearby square, Praça XV de Novembro, that is both a national monument and a tourist destination. The square and the area occupied by its namesake market are both incorporated in Rio de Janeiro’s ‘Cultural Corridor’, a central urban precinct geographically demarcated because of its heritage and cultural attributes (del Rio and de Alcantara 2009). Following Mary Douglas’ (2002 ) influential formulation, the flea market is ‘matter-out-ofplace’ because it is at odds with the official place-image (Shields 1991: 61-2) of historic, touristic Praça XV, and of Rio de Janeiro itself as an egalitarian, modern metropolis (Seale 2014). The market’s conspicuous display of waste in the street resists hegemonic projections of what constitutes liveability in urban contexts (Coletto 2010: 59). This, combined with the visible congregation at the city’s political, financial, and cultural centre of the market’s community of ‘urban outcasts’ who are usually pushed to the social and spatial peripheries of the city (Wacquant 2008), is interpreted by some as a failure of urban governance (Hiebert et al. 2014). However, counter to the second-hand market’s discursive positioning within the representational and material orders of the city, Feira da Praça XV instigates order in an arena where many assume there is none to be found. The market as a space, a set of practices, and a community reinstitutes order amongst previously discarded objects through inventory, exhibition, and above all, commodification. The vendors at the market are entrepreneurial (Seale 2014), reincorporating
waste back into circuits of exchange in a process that provides employment and waste management for the city. We are socially and culturally predisposed to view waste pejoratively (Elias 1978; Laporte 2000). Some of our rationale for marginalizing it may have a sound physiological basis. Nevertheless, waste is an obligatory, insistent, and above all, valorized component of global, neo-liberal capitalism. Waste is neither abject, nor excessive; rather it sustains capitalism’s growth. We might even say, as David Trotter does, that in capitalism ‘the success of the enterprise can be measured by the waste-matter it produces, by the efficiency with which it separates out and excludes whatever it does not require for its own immediate purposes’ (2000: 22). As indications of the status quo, we can look to the existence of a globalized industry whose driver is the management and movement of the catastrophic amounts of material waste we produce, or to the deliberate configuration of products to deteriorate or to become technologically or stylistically obsolete. To be measured successful, such industries and innovations are dependent on generating increasing amounts of waste. The disconnect between waste’s symbolic role and waste’s actualized role in global capitalism is what I understand to be the paradox of waste. Through diagrammatic reference to Feira da Praça XV, I aim to construct a theory of waste that acknowledges this paradox.