JDOT Really Talks Trash
Issue #55, May 2001
Trash doesn't often come up in conversation with friends. To see what might happen when it does, I sat down with my friend Seo-Young Chu, a.k.a. JDot, to talk about garbage. Seo-Young recently received her M.A. from Stanford and will soon be heading off to Harvard's Ph.D. program in English.
BS: Is the dialectic between consumption and garbage a more appropriate metaphor for understanding the construction of knowledge and self today?
JDOT: "More appropriate" than what exactly? — more appropriate than the dialectic between consumption and production? I'm not sure if "dialectic" (that is, binary opposition) is the right organizational framework in which to consider the term "garbage." I think that it is possible to imagine a "trialectic," so to speak, whereby the three categories of production, consumption, and garbage interact with one another in complex triple ways. Each term is relative to and made possible by both of the other terms; each could not exist without the other two. Such a trialectic would revolve around the irreducible fact that consumption produces garbage.
BS:What counts as garbage? Can garbage be recycled? How might these questions open up to larger questions of knowledge production/consumption and our sense of being in the world?
JDOT: There are many ways of getting at the question "what counts as garbage?" One way might be to ask: what is the opposite of garbage? The fact that there is no one answer to this question (the "opposite of garbage" could be anything ranging from purity to utility to civilization) suggests that the term "garbage" cannot be situated within dichotomies: GARBAGE IS NOT AN ANTONYM. The dictionary defines "garbage" as any matter that is no longer wanted or needed; anything that is contemptibly worthless, inferior, vile. In other words, garbage is defined by its lack of worth or value. But value is relative. Insofar as value is relative, garbage is relative; it is a function of human perception and response and desire. Different people throw different things away for different reasons. Garbage, then, is a question of individual choice. It is a decision that people make (whether consciously or not). I wonder how garbage produced by democracies might differ from garbage produced under other political systems. Does garbage thrive in countries where choice is free? Is it possible — is it meaningful — to think about garbage in terms of political rights? What does it mean to have the right to throw something away? What might it mean to be dispossessed of the right to throw something away? Is it possible to think about garbage in terms of censorship?
By the way, there's such a rich connection between garbage and art. Like beauty, garbage is in the eye of the beholder. I like thinking about garbage and art (by which I mean creative production) as metaphors for each other: both are ostensibly useless, both are exquisitely difficult to define, both can be read as cultural transcripts that embody the values of a civilization. In fact art is often mistaken for garbage and vice versa. (Think here for example of the artworks of Marcel Duchamp!) Where does one end and the other begin? Maybe art can be thought of as a SUBSET of garbage — a type of "worthless" matter that somehow transcends the need to be of direct use or worth or relevance.
Whatever garbage is, we need it in order to survive. We need to throw things away in order to identify what we wish to keep. We need to recognize that which is worthless in order to recognize that which we value and desire. Every week we take out the trash in order to maintain order and cleanliness in our homes; more figuratively, we discard cognitive and epistemological garbage all the time in order to preserve the integrity of those thoughts and memories which matter most to us. Inasmuch as garbage is a site of discrimination and exclusion, it is one of the limits at which civilization organizes itself — determines that which it is not.
BS: Is garbage dead? Perhaps this be a more fruitful position to take than that of the poststructuralists who wrote of the death of the author, the death of God, the death of the Self conceived as an absolute.
JDOT: If garbage is dead, then what was it like before it died? — But I get the point your question is trying to make: nothing starts out as garbage; nothing is born as garbage. Or rather: garbage is born dead; it does not live.
To call garbage "dead" is implicitly to liken garbage to an organism that used to be alive — or had the potential to be born alive as something else. The analogy is suggestive; it suggests specifically that dead organisms can themselves be likened to garbage.
Abortion and garbage have everything to do with each other. Aborted babies amount to human garbage. They are disposable humans. They are undesirable pieces of human matter. We do not value them, we do not care to behold them, we do not want them in our homes. Any discussion about abortion is inevitably a discussion about garbage.
BS: Interestingly, "garbage" has no verb in the English language. If we had a verb, there might be more of a sense of agency/responsibility for garbage: "I garbaged" does not exist; "to get rid of the garbage" does. You can't blame someone of garbage. Garbage is constructed as an autonomous entity detached from the willful self. Who consitutes that willful self and why the detachment? Perhaps language itself proves a tool for those in power to remain invisible as they exploit the worker whose labor both produces an object of consumption (valuable) and that deemed garbage (disposable)? Do you agree or disagree?
JDOT: I find it interesting that the English language separates the noun "garbage" from any one of the pronouns much the same way in which we tend to separate real-life garbage from our own selves. It's as if the grammatical pronouns don't want to touch the noun "garbage" — as if the English language systematically encodes our human fear of garbage and its ability to contaminate us. By isolating the noun "garbage," the English language protects the self; it makes it impossible for us as subjects to relate ourselves directly and actively to the category of garbage.
Interestingly, one of the synonyms for "garbage" — the word "refuse" — can serve both as a noun and as a verb. Its two meanings — each of which corresponds to a different part of speech — are etymologically related.
(verb) to decline to accept; to deny, to reject
(noun) garbage; that which has been rejected; that which is unacceptable
Frederick Aldama is a member of the Bad Subjects production team.