Genealogies Of Garbage: Historical Meanings and Practices of Garbage and their Impacts on Trash Activism Today

Max Liboiron, PhD Candidate
Department of Media, Culture and Communication
New York University
We are facing a garbage crisis. From nuclear waste with a ten-thousand year half-life, to the persistent organic pollutants found in the breast milk of women living in the Arctic, to the billions upon billions of tiny plastic bits in the Pacific gyre, “garbage”—the unwanted detritus of industrial production and consumption— has taken on an unwieldy form.
Yet we have been here before. At least two other moments in the past two centuries in the United States have faced a similar “crisis of containment,” where garbage not
only seemed unimaginably foreign and dangerous to everyday sensibilities, but communicating these hazards and eliciting organized participation to prevent their spread also appeared impracticable. The first was in the late nineteenth century during the sanitation reform movement, and the other launched the popular environmental movement in the 1960s. In each case, the meanings and understandings (ontologies) of garbage were revolutionized, leading to practices and knowledge (epistemologies) unimaginable a decade earlier.
New York City street before and after George Waring, Commissioner for Street Cleaning (1895), revolutionized sanitation practices and accomplished what was thought to be an impossible task.
I argue that whatever instigates such transformations leaves its trace on subsequent reasoning concerning what “garbage” is, how it affects people and the environment, and what can and should be done about it. The historical meanings of “garbage” constrain, compel, and otherwise influence trash activism today. The first section of my dissertation will construct a Foucaultian “history of the present” to examine how a concrete object called “garbage” has congealed in particular ways at particular times. While some scholarship describes how certain objects have moved into or out of the category of trash, such as recyclables or antiques, and others have researched the municipal sanitation reform movement, I argue that the category of trash itself has not been stable or continuous over time, and that changes in the category of garbage result in profound changes in trash activism.
The first chapter of my dissertation looks at American eastern coastal cities between 1840 and 1880, from the publication of the first health survey in New York to the beginning of the sanitation reform movement. I hypothesize that the health surveys of the 1840s and 60s that located, mapped, and defined garbage and its effects, as well as other “accounting” measures developed in the period, allowed garbage to cohere into an entity that was functionally homogenous despite its acknowledged varied material make up. This allowed it to be identified and productively controlled–that is, contained— for the first time in history. While there were kitchen scraps and ashes, old shoes and horse manure littering the streets before this time, these objects all had different values, levels of “nuisance,” and destinations. I hypothesize that the health surveys and their classification methods organized the ontology of garbage into something that could be readily identified by the public, feared, and rhetorically evoked to rally public action, resulting in new epistemologies and regimes of management and control. In effect, I hypothesize that garbage as we know it today was “invented” in this period.
Title page for second sanitation/health survey of New York City, 1866.
My second chapter will investigate the “paradigm of pollution” that developed during the 1950s and 60s. In this case, a distrust of Big Industry and Big Science, the rhetoric of the Cold War, including nuclear weapon and waste protests, the publication of Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring, and a permanent, visible plethora of non-biodegradable “disposables” radically challenged what garbage was, how it polluted, and what could and ought to be done about it compared to how it was conceived of at the turn of the century. This was the second trash crisis of containment.
A crisis of containment is the result of garbage systematically exceeding, breaking down, or permeating not only material boundaries, but more importantly, social limits and control. The breech of social norms is what creates the impetus for change, even though the crisis focuses on material objects. In the nineteenth century, garbage newly signified both the threat of cholera and immigrant rebellion during a period of mass urbanization and immigration. In the 1950s and 60s, chemical modes of pollution and contamination were “discovered” as the globalization of industrial capitalism began to threaten ecosystems on unprecedented scales. Thus, by studying the time just before successful national trash activism, I am studying the conditions of possibility that allowed garbage to be diagnosed, located, categorized, and managed during previous crises of containment. My subject is the social stakes, communication strategies and cultural interpretations that launched these successful social movements.
Unquestionably, I am framing these garbage crises as social crises and not merely crises caused by an abundance of a certain type of material (garbage) and its attendant technical problems (how to get rid of it). During a crisis of containment, the management, dangers, and very character of everyday garbage are defamiliarized as threat, transformed into something new, and then naturalized as part of that crisis’ strategies and solution. I have chosen the sanitation reform movement and the birth of the popular environmental movement rather than, for example, the New York City garbage strike in 1917 or the national landfill crisis during the 1980s, because the latter were crises of accumulation and intensification; garbage itself was not ontologically or epistemologically challenged during these times, and as such were not crises of containment as I am using the term.
A crisis of containment is failing to take place today; the material transgressions of garbage are not matched by transgressions of social norms or limits. My dissertation is a historical genealogy that will investigate the conditions that redefined “garbage” during these two previous moments of revolutionary trash activism, and compare them to the problems faced and tactics used by trash activists in the twenty-first century.
What are the social, cultural, and material conditions that allow garbage to cohere into one type of object and threat during a particular moment in time? In other words, why are certain types of garbage and trash activism legible and possible at a given moment, and others not? Secondly, how does “the historical awareness of our present circumstance” affect what and how we know about garbage and how we deal with it today? How can we “update” ideas about garbage to create new forms and paradigms of trash activism?