The anthropology of garbage

September 9, 2010

The Believer has a great interview with New York University anthropologist Robin Nagle, who is also the official anthropologist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation. She has worked in the field, picking up trash on a route in the Bronx, as described in this Slate series.

Here are some choice bits from the interview:

THE BELIEVER: You’ve said that “garbage is very scary to us culturally, and it is also… one of the single most fascinating things you could ever study.” And, at least back when you started, garbage was a “cognitive problem” that you didn’t fully understand.

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[ROBIN NAGLE:] Every single thing you see is future trash. Everything. So we are surrounded by ephemera, but we can’t acknowledge that, because it’s kind of scary, because I think ultimately it points to our own temporariness, to thoughts that we’re all going to die.

BLVR: And the fear, the way you’ve described garbage as being scary, it’s an avoidance of addressing mortality and ephemerality and things like that?

RN: It’s an avoidance of addressing mortality, ephemerality, the deeper cost of the way we live. We generate as much trash as we do in part because we move at a speed that requires it. I don’t have time to take care of the stuff that surrounds me every day that is disposable, like coffee cups and diapers and tea bags and things that if I slowed down and paid attention to and shepherded, husbanded, nurtured, would last a lot longer. I wouldn’t have to replace them as often as I do. But who has time for that? We keep it cognitively and physically on the edges as much as we possibly can, and when we look at it head-on, it betrays the illusion that everything is clean and fine and humming along without any kind of hidden cost. And that’s just not true.

BLVR: You’ve written that a sanitation department that does its job well will make itself invisible, and, more generally but along the same lines, there is a sense in which garbage is the negation of culture. And William Rathje, whom you mentioned just before, has noted that humans are the only animal species not drawn in by garbage’s smells and colors. And yet, sanitation is such a gigantic component of city budgets and urban life, and, in New York at least, has created a landfill that can be seen from the earth’s orbit. That suggests that this blind spot is doing a lot of ideological work.

RN: Yes. There’s a Buddhist saying about housework, that it’s invisible labor because you see it only when it’s not done. That’s sanitation’s mission writ large, and in fact a hundred years ago it was understood to be municipal housekeeping.

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[RN:] One of the categories of garbage has its own word in New York City, but it’s a category found everywhere that there is trash. There are things people will put out for discard: they’re done with it, they don’t want to see it again. Somebody else looks at that same object and says, “Whoa, wait a minute. That’s pretty nice. I want to keep that.” Those two chairs you’re sitting in were on the curb to be thrown out. They’re pretty nice chairs. I’m happy to have them. In New York, that’s called mongo. It’s a noun and a verb: those are mongo. People who take things from the trash to keep are mongoing.

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[RN:] People assume [sanitation workers] have low IQs; people assume they’re fake mafiosi, wannabe gangsters; people assume they’re disrespectable. Unlike, say, a cop or a firefighter. And I do believe very strongly it’s the most important uniformed force on the street, because New York City couldn’t be what we are if sanitation wasn’t out there every day doing the job pretty well.

And the health problems that sanitation’s solved by being out there are very, very real, and we get to forget about them. We don’t live with dysentery and yellow fever and scarlet fever and smallpox and cholera, those horrific diseases that came through in waves. People were out of their minds with terror when these things came through. And one of the ways that the problem was solved—there were several—but one of the most important was to clean the streets. Instances of communicable and preventable diseases dropped precipitously once the streets were cleaned. Childhood diseases that didn’t need to kill children, but did. New York had the highest infant mortality rates in the world for a long time in the middle of the nineteenth century. Those rates dropped. Life expectancy rose. When we cleaned the streets! It seems so simple, but it was never well done until the 1890s, when there was this very dramatic transformation.

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