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discarded objects: objectification of trash: a look at the transcendence of objecthood and thingness

sekai maswoswe

For the purposes of this ethnography, trash will be considered a single unit of analysis. Some definitions of trash follow include “an unwanted and discarded substance or material; refuse or rubbish.” Waste is unwanted or undesired material left over after the completion of a process. Waste is a social phenomenon because in natural nonsocial processes there is no such thing as waste, only inert end products. Waste is also “material considered worthless, not necessary or offensive, that is usually thrown away. Trash is generally defined as dry material and excludes food waste (garbage) and ashes.”

In a strict sense, an object is something material that can be perceived by the senses. It is a tangible and visible entity that can cast a shadow. In the same strict sense, a thing is an entity, quality of an entity thought to have its own existence.

Objects and things are not considered the same. It is said that things are imbued with a presence, import and connectivity that exceeds their material existence. “You could imagine things... as what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their mere materialization as objects or their mere utilization as objects--their force as a sensuous presence or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, and totems.”

Trash highlights the transcendence of objecthood and thingness. Trash is comprised of objects that move linearly from object (raw form) to thing (functional form) to object (discarded form) and to thing (recycled or salvaged form).

Objects can often time function as extended social intuition. Objects serve as extended social intuition by conveying knowledge and information without the subject being able to clearly identify the source of that knowledge; it is yet another way of knowing. Specifically, trash tells us things about cultures and individuals with broad and specific information about how they live in this world.

Objects also function as personhood in the sense that you are what you discard. If objects are extensions of ourselves, then our discarded belongings, may also be extensions of our self. If people can walk into a room; a home and get a sense of the inhabitants then it must certainly be the case that their refuse can serve the same function as extended social intuition and personhood. In fact, this is the very idea that archaeologists rely upon in their work and analysis of their findings.

To demonstrate this idea cursorily, one could analyze the trash of a subject and see what reasonable conclusions could be made and compare such deductions with the corresponding reality.

For subject one, the contents of their trash included items like empty Coke/Pepsi cans, torn magazine pages, discarded GQ magazine, empty Cheetos bag, empty mail from Citibank, TSBC Account statement, Trojan/Magnum condom wrappers, rusted silver chain, one women’s earring (its mine), Armani/Marshalls shopping bag, used prepackaged napkins, cell phone earpiece, plastic grocery bags, cardboard container for new earpiece and a TOEFL workbook.

On the basis of the contents of the trash of subject one, there are some reasonable conclusions I could come to. By looking at his bank statement I can get a clear picture of financial stability slightly threatened by overspending on clothes at Macy’s and Armani Exchange. One could deduce that he is financially secure with a comfortable amount of expendable income by the substantial balance in his bank account. Because of the used condom wrappers, it would not be too far-fetched of an assertion to deduce the subject is sexually active. Because of the excessive amount of empty Coke cans, one could discern some degree of brand loyalty. And by the empty food containers one can get a vision of the subjects eating habits. These empty containers n addition to the empty Cheetos bags does not leave one with the sense that the subject is a health fanatic. By the TOEFL notebook, one can reasonably conclude that English is not the subject’s first language and because the exam is required for jobs and school admissions, one may determine that the subject is seeking some level of permanency.

The contents of subject two were sparse but included an empty Minute Maid carton, piece of uneaten sausage, a crumpled immigration application and several pieces of thread.

The reasonable conclusions that one can make in this circumstance are a lot less far reaching. The subject is a citizen of another nation also seeking permanence n the United States, is carnivorous, and arguably a food hoarder. Because of the dearth in quantity of trash for this subject there is a significantly less sense of personhood and intuition about this subject. This supports the potential of trash and supports the social functions trash possesses by what we are left not knowing in the absence of trash.

It is worth acknowledging that trash is a recent social invention. And the way we relate to trash as an object is both transhistorical and transcultural. Trash as objects arose concurrent with agricultural settlement as a function of sedentism. Undoubtedly, discarded products have existed throughout human history, but what is the conceptual difference between the manner we relate to trash now than in earlier mobile societies.

Trash is a social and cultural invention that speaks to the alienation and disposability of an increasingly materialistic society. The object designation of trash exposes changing attitudes towards consumption, waste, class, mobility, sustainability and industrialization. What prompts assigning value to an object and rescinding such an assignation? These are the questions that arise in considering the objecthood and thingness of trash.

The transhistorical and transcultural approach to trash is evident by the ever-changing ways in which individuals and societies conceptualize and deal with trash in a practical sense. While the 1800s saw a time when thousands of pigs were let loose to consume the garbage and pick through trash, today, there are door-to-door private trash pick-up companies. Such shifts in discarding objects speaks to the relationship trash has to the ways we live.

Here is a Snapshot of Tranhistorical Approaches to Trash

10000 BC Garbage becomes an issue as people first begin to establish permanent settlements

• 400 BC The first municipal dump is established in ancient Athens

• 200 AD The first sanitation force is created by the Romans. Teams of two men walk along the streets, pick up garbage and throw it in a wagon.

• 1388 The English Parliament bans dumping of waste in ditches and public waterways.

• 1657 New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) passes a law against casting waste in the streets.

• 1710 Colonists in Virginia commonly bury their trash.

1792 Ben Franklin uses slaves to carry Philadelphia's waste downstream.

• 1800 Pigs loose in city streets throughout the country eat garbage and leave their own wastes behind.

• 1810 The tin can is patented in London by Peter Durand.

• 1834 Charleston, West Virginia, enacts a law protecting vultures from hunters. The birds help eat the city's garbage.

• 1850 Junk dealers in Reno, Nevada scavenge personal belongings from the Oregon, Santa Fe and California trails. Pioneers abandoned the items on the long trek west.

• 1860 Residents of Washington, D.C. dump garbage and slop into alleys and streets, pigs roam freely, slaughterhouses spew nauseating fumes and rats and cockroaches infest most dwellings including the White House.

• 1866 New York City's Metropolitan Board of Health declares war on garbage, forbidding the "throwing of dead animals, garbage or ashes into the streets.

• 1885 The first garbage incinerator in the U.S. is built on Governors Island in New York Harbor.

• 1894 The citizens of Alexandria, Virginia are disgusted by the sight of barge loads of garbage floating down the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. They take to sinking the barges upriver from their community.

• 1897 The first recycling center is established in New York City.

• 1900 American cities begin to estimate and record collected wastes. According to one estimate, each American produces annually: 80 - 100 pounds of food waste; 50 - 100 pounds of rubbish; 300 - 1,200 pounds of wood or coal ash - up to 1,400 pounds per person.

• 1932 The development of compactor garbage trucks increases vehicle capacity.

• 1935 General Electric begins producing and marketing a garbage "Disposal.“

• 1947 "Our willingness to part with something before it is completely worn out is a phenomenon noticeable in no other society in history…It is soundly based on our economy of abundance. It must be further nurtured even through it runs contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity, the law of thrift." - J. Gordon Lippincott, industrial designer

• 1950 A second hydraulic system to eject garbage is added to garbage trucks.

• 1953 The American economy's "ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods." - Chairman of President Eisenhower's Council of Economic Advisors.

• 1965 The Federal Government realizes that garbage has become a major problem and enacts the Solid Waste Disposal Act. This calls for the nation to find better ways of dealing with trash.

• 1975 "That happiness is to be attained through limitless material acquisition is denied by every religion and philosophy known to humankind, but is preached incessantly by every American television set." - Robert Bellah, The Broken Covenant.

• 1991 "Our economy is such that we cannot 'afford' to take care of things: labor is expensive, time is expensive, money is expensive, but materials - - the stuff of creation - - are so cheap that we cannot afford to take care of them." - Wendell Berry

• 1993 "We're reminded a hundred times a day to buy things, but we're not reminded to take care of them, repair them, reuse them or give them away." - Michael Jacobson, Center for the Study of Commercialism

• 2000 Cities in California are required to recycle 50% of its waste.

There exists an interesting paradox built into our relationship with trash. While trash is easily the most loathsome object of material culture, the object of trash was at some point something we valued and used. How do we come to be so detached and disgusted by something so identifiably “ours”—that is, our personal discarded goods? Trash is something that we at some point had an investment in, and our relationship demonstrates the fleeting investments in objects in an age of abundance.

Trash serves more than just specific social functions, trash is also political. An individuals relationship with trash is imbued with energy of polemics. Discarding objects is such a political act in the sense that we are making bold statements that attest to our answer to the ultimate political question of how we are to live in this world.

Trash further retains the ability to be revolutionary. For instance, freegans are revolutionaries who use their relationship with trash as a demonstration of their relatively extreme perspectives. Freeganism is an anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist anarchist lifestyle philosophy that is centered upon the refusal to consume anything directly. Adherents to this lifestyle choice sustain themselves with the discarded goods of others. Hitchhiking, dumpster diving and freecycling are dominant methods of survival.

In addition to its basic social functions, trash is economy. Trash has become a significant economic base for survival. In Argentina, Ciruja’s are garbage scavengers who are formalizing their once informal enterprise as a legitimate industry. They collect garbage that they recycle or sell to other industries directly for a profit. In Buenos Aires, there are about 120,000 full-time garbage scavengers. There are parallels to Argentina’s ciruja’s throughout the world. In Egypt, the Zabbaleen use donkey-drawn carts. In the Philippines, the Boyte Diario collects trash from residents.

Trash functions as community in the sense that it is the central gathering and residential ground for thousands of economically depressed people throughout the world. In economically depressed regions of the world, adults and children alike live where they are secondary to the trash whose space they appropriate for themselves.

Trash further serves as art. Magazines, websites, museums and individual artists have used trash as the muse and practical base for their artistry. Entire objects have been constructed just from discarded goods.

Trash is no more than an object with dispossessed value. It can be said that by virtue of ones possession, the fact that an item becomes trash is essentially the dispossession or expulsion of its value. Why do we refuse to use items to the ultimate point of futility?

There is perhaps a spirit of trash. Many cultures infuse some component of animism in their religious or cultural thought. The idea that objects are not just physical but possess a spiritual component has been enduring. Due to dumpster divers, garbage scavengers, and recycling an object can be created, discarded and recreated for the same or an entirely different use and perhaps still be imbued with the same sort of spirit it possessed originally.

Are we becoming an overly disposable culture? Is trash the only thing that has become increasingly disposable or are other areas of our life affected?

Are we equally noncommittal with our relationships, careers and education? This idea of trash—the ability to discard and recreate and take advantage of alternatives is related to the creation of trash. We change majors, careers, appearances and recreate our personalities with ease. What else do we trash?
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