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Refuse to Relic: The Artifactualization of Waste

In the 2008 film Examined Life, a documentary featuring cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek, a segment on contemporary waste ecologies begins with a riverfront shot of a picturesque park. The camera meanders from a panorama of the riverbank into the canopy of serene forestial greenery overhead, the sun casting benevolent rays through verdant branches, birds twittering tranquil and aloof. Then: accompanied by the grating twang of an electronic synthesizer, the image abruptly shifts to a shot of a cold, metallic, sterile warehouse ceiling. The camera pans downward to reveal what the warehouse contains: heaps upon heaps of the colourful, gaudy, intermingled remnants the domestic slough of an age of disposability. As the camera roves meticulously over the prospect of trash bags bloated and bursting at the seams with plastic bottles, discarded clothing, and other household waste-objects, Žižek interjects with a voiceover commentary. “This is where we should start feeling at home,” he says.


Perhaps “start” is a little belated. The defining boundary between “home” and garbage began to blur well before 2008. The contrasting shots of a manicured park setting interrupted by the refuse of manufacturing culture imply that human beings ingest so-called “natural” environments with a slice of nostalgia—a facsimile of the garden state, the dream of a more authentic primal home ingrained as an archetype from bygone earthier dwelling. It is the debris of our hyper-commodified age, like the abrupt twang of an electronic synthesizer (or perhaps a train whistle in the woods), that becomes the raucous interlocutor intruding on that idyllic fantasy of an untouched natural setting. With the root of “commodity” connoting both “convenience” and a chamber pot (i.e., toilet; see OED), being at home with our commodes means learning to live with our excretions.

Atmospheric Water Colour 2.0 - Water Col

From a vantage point steeped in postmodern incredulities it is not difficult to make the case that we should reacquaint with the surpluses we try so ardently to conceal. As William Rathje and Cullen Murphy argue in Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage, “the examination of refuse is, of course, as old as the human species—just watch anyone who happens upon an old campsite, or a neighbor scavenging at a dump for spare parts or furniture” (14). There is something both archival and historiographical about scavenging a dump for spare parts, of sifting through the remnants of the past to find useful material for the present. The study of history itself is an act of sifting through the waste left in the wake of wars, migrations and general decay—at least according to scholars in the field of archaeology like Michael Shanks, David Platt, and Rathje. In their co-authored 2004 article “The Perfume of Garbage: Modernity and the Archaeological,” Shanks et al. offer a wry and divisive analogy between refuse and artifacts by using the debris of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks as an exemplar.


“There is something profoundly archaeological about the experience of 9/11 and its aftermath. Less than a month after the attack a meeting of representatives of thirty-three museums, headed by the Smithsonian and New York’s City Museum, considered how they might document the event, asking what things should be collected and preserved for display and for posterity. … A year later an exhibition opened at the Smithsonian. … ‘Bearing Witness to History’ displays artifacts and associated stories, photographs and documents from the events of 9/11: a battered wallet, a melted computer screen from the Pentagon, torn clothing, a structural joint from the World Trade Center, a window washer’s squeegee handle, a stair-well sign, as well as artifacts associated with the aftermath (commemorative coins, artwork, patriotic ribbons, rescue equipment).” (61)

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Image taken in Yellowknife c. 2005, NWT, by Scott McKay.

In our modern culture of “archive fever”—as Jacques Derrida characterizes the neurotic compulsion to curate the minutiae of the everyday in his theoretical work of the same name—preserving the leftovers of the most horrific civilian-targeted attack on domestic U.S. territory is an explicable reaction to a traumatic event that demands to be revisited as an act of remembrance. The idea that Shanks refers to newly created debris as “artifacts” is indicative of the pace with which modernity regards itself as historical. The elevation to “artifacts” of newly made rubble intermingled with quotidian objects might also reveal an inherent narcissism, or self-absorption, that modernity has with the present—i.e., with its own immediate image. As Shanks notes, the Smithsonian’s archiving project “was explicitly one of documenting history in the making… one that ties [each artifact] to an individual or event that bears significance and pathos” (61). This overtly self-conscious, self-reflexive archiving of history in progress is at once an act of witnessing while it is an act of creation. Sifting through the rubble, archivists must carefully construct a narrative that reflects a larger societal self-portrait. They must meticulously scrutinize their own cultural imago, choose their omissions, appendages and catalogues, and decide which limbs to re-attach to that narrative corpse and which to leave in the dust.

Next: Photos as Objects of Memory

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