Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction

Rachele Dini discusses how the work of J.G. Ballard, Don DeLillo, and Samuel Beckett engages with one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time
Rachele Dini, Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction (Palgrave, 2016)
Rachele Dini, Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction (Palgrave, 2016)

What motivated you to write Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction?

Well, I’ve been attracted to remnants of different kinds since I was very little, and was obsessed with cutting up magazines as a teenager—but intellectually, the turning point for me was during my MA at King’s College London. I noticed almost immediately that the texts on the modules I was taking were unusually concerned with fragments and fragmentation. Dickens, Zola, Eliot, Elizabeth Bowen, Fernando Pessoa, Virginia Woolf, Ballard, Calvino, and of course Walter Benjamin and Adorno: physical and metaphorical waste proliferates in all of these authors’ work. In hindsight, this was to be expected since the course focused on the seismic effects of capitalist modernity, and waste is certainly one of these. But that focus on residual matter reproaching you for throwing it away, or on things not working and stuff falling apart, especially compelled me at the time, since it was the opposite in every way from the focus of my day job in market research. Market research is an industry essentially devoted to promoting the very things that leftist theory denounces: its modus operandi is to find ways of selling more. So the first spark for the PhD project that ultimately turned into this book was the conflict between the rhetoric of ‘harder, better, faster, stronger’ (to quote Daft Punk) I was accustomed to in my working life, and all of the countercultural—or simply denunciatory—writing I discovered through my studies, which called that rhetoric into question.

On a more personal level—and this is where it gets a bit weird—the year I started my MA coincided with a kind of delayed period of mourning for my grandfather. His death hit me while I was in the midst of reading all of these bizarre Modernist novels, avant-garde manifestoes, Marxist critiques of consumerism, and different theories around collecting. When I stumbled upon André Breton’s ideas on the Surrealist found object—a piece of trash that the artist imbues with new meaning, therefore giving it a value apart from those imposed upon it by capitalism—I was convinced it was a sign. See, my granddad was a consummate collector of effluvia. He used to bring home all kinds of stuff from his afternoon walks—it drove my grandmother crazy, and she’d make me and my cousin and siblings get rid of them when he wasn’t looking—and he loved scatological humour. The year I started my MA, I started finding random things on the street that reminded me of him: a huge rose, a broken violin, a beautiful empty painting frame, a wooden desk… By the beginning of my PhD, it felt that through reading about material culture, finding weird things on the street, and reading novels rife with scatological jokes, I was also in some way recovering him. That idea pretty much stayed with me for most of my PhD, although obviously I didn’t tell my professors!

“See, my granddad was a consummate collector of effluvia. He used to bring home all kinds of stuff from his afternoon walks—it drove my grandmother crazy, and she’d make me and my cousin and siblings get rid of them when he wasn’t looking—and he loved scatological humour.”

In broader terms of course I am part of a whole generation to have benefitted from, and to have been shaped by, the so-called ‘thingly turn’ in literary studies: the influence of Bruno Latour, Bill Brown, and Steve Connor was palpable in the classes I took as an MA student, and it inevitably affected the course of my PhD studies. Likewise, it’s no coincidence that since I began my PhD in 2011, five or six monographs on waste or waste and literature have come out: the environmental humanities are arguably a product of the thingly turn as much as a response to the environmental crisis. But again, without the personal impetus—a sense that I was writing for someone I loved, who bizarrely embodied the Surrealist credo without even knowing what Surrealism was—I’m not sure I would have chosen this particular course.

How did you come to focus on avant-garde and experimental writing?

I find experimental writing inherently fascinating, and am particularly compelled by the ways in which the writing of the last century increasingly borrowed from visual experimental practices intent on challenging mainstream culture, and how, in turn, the advertising industry has co-opted these radical ideas to sell stuff. L’Oréal’s branding in the 1980s, which borrowed from Mondrian’s art is one example; the consummate use of collage and montage in advertising campaigns today is another.

But I chose this focus for practical reasons as well. You would be amazed at just how many descriptions of litter, wastebaskets, and rubbish skips appear in twentieth-century literature, and, as the twentieth century progresses, how many landfills, as well. Addressing all of these references, and their myriad narrative uses, would fill multiple volumes. For example, a book remains to be written about waste in, say, domestic fiction—the gendering of house cleaning; the equation of pristine spaces with godliness; or the frequency with which comedic plot twists involve valuable objects—mementoes, letters—ending up in the trash, and characters having to claw them back. There is equally much to be written about waste in science fiction, where its absence speaks of invincibility through extreme streamlined efficiency, while its presence is generally the first sign of imminent apocalypse.

So ultimately, to make the task manageable I narrowed my focus to experimental writing after Surrealism, which, I argue, largely involved re-evaluating or reclaiming what mainstream culture, or tradition, deems worthless. The Surrealists were intent upon disrupting all kinds of things: everyday life under capitalism, the encroachment of capitalist ideals on art and culture, and, of course, artistic and literary form, which they viewed as tools in their political quest. The novel form—and literary realism more broadly—was one such site of contestation. But my point is that Surrealism challenged realism not only through formal means (by doing away with plot, say, or through narrative digressions), but by focussing on worthless objects. In the novels I study, narrative digression goes hand in hand with a sustained attention to trash. This combination remains the pre-eminent means for ‘being radical’ in western literature in the decades to follow. More needs to be written on this subject—and I think that it will be, as waste itself becomes a more prominent concern across the environmental humanities, and as the centennial of key Surrealist milestones approaches. More, too, needs to be written about whether waste can in fact still be a tool for radical art or politics. As in: could this approach itself become aesthetically ‘obsolete’? How can experimental writing tackle less visible waste forms—pollution, for example—or waste effects such as climate change? I propose some ideas in my last chapter, but it’s really just a first step.

Could you say a little bit about how the specific authors you examine—André Breton, Giorgio de Chirico, Mina Loy, Samuel Beckett, Donald Barthelme, J.G. Ballard, William Gaddis, Don DeLillo—inform your study?

In the broadest sense, the writers in my study have the following things in common:

  1. They are to a greater or lesser extent horrified by capitalist ideology, and by specific aspects of capitalism, be these consumerism, Fordism, the military industrial complex, neoliberalism, or any combination of these.
  2. They express that horror using experimental means that challenge literary realism.
  3. They see waste objects as at once a distillation of all that is wrong with capitalism, and a powerful means of challenging it.
  4. Their attention to waste objects extends to human beings whom society deems worthless: the homeless, the unemployed, economic migrants, and refugees, or what Zygmunt Bauman terms the ‘human waste’ that are the inevitable by-product of capitalist modernity and neo-imperialism.

How these authors approach waste of course differs greatly, no less because the manifestations of capitalism to which they are responding, and the material remnants and supernumerary people to which they give rise, are very different. So in Loy, de Chirico and Breton’s discussions of waste there’s an obvious resistance to commodification, but no ecological impetus; in the Beckett texts I look at, the focus is on people deemed waste; in Ballard and Barthelme you start to have a sense of waste as an environmental problem—a material threat—as much as a sign of socio-economic ills. And so on. But the core concerns are remarkably similar, as is the authors’ understanding of waste as both a physical entity that produces effects (whether that’s a bad smell, proliferating bacteria, psychological unease, or pollution,), and as a metaphor for marginalisation or an economic system in disarray.

“When Underworld came out in 1997, Don DeLillo quipped that he had been ‘writing about garbage for 20 years’.”

Significantly, these aren’t just authors who wrote one novel about waste: they wrote many. When Underworld came out in 1997, Don DeLillo quipped that he had been ‘writing about garbage for 20 years’. Likewise, waste permeates Ballard’s entire oeuvre from the late 1950s to 2006, much of Beckett’s prose and dramatic works from Murphy (1938) to Breath (1969), and a plethora of Donald Barthelme’s short stories throughout the 1960s and 70s. The same holds true for Mina Loy, who first wrote poetry about the homeless, and then spent several years collecting rubbish from New York’s Bowery District and making junk assemblages featuring homeless personages.

So these avant-gardists and descendants of the avant-garde deploy waste in a sustained attack on consumerism, the stultifying nature of the nine-to-five day, social inequality, and ecological devastation. And this is important: that they should have devoted this much time to ‘thinking waste’ tells us something about the topic’s importance to the twentieth century in general, and to avant-gardism in particular.

Why do you think twentieth-century writers are so preoccupied with waste?

Well, the most straightforward answer is because there’s so much of it!  While waste as we know it—consumer effluvia, the by-products of manufacturing—only emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, the amount that we have produced since then is staggering. That proliferation is indicative of wider shifts. It’s only with the birth of mass production and consumption and the industrialisation of agriculture that the established culture of re-use gave way to a proto-throwaway culture, whereby households threw away old clothes and food scraps rather than selling them to a rag-picker or to farmers to feed their livestock. Throw-away culture as we know it began in the 1920s, with the emergence of theories around built-in obsolescence—Jennifer Seymour Whitaker’s Salvaging the Land of Plenty (1994), Susan Strasser’s Want Not (2000), and Giles Slade’s Made to Break (2006) provide very thorough accounts of these developments. At this point, advertisers realised that to convince people to buy the goods being produced en masse by the new factories, they would need to convince them their existing possessions were démodé and needed replacing. These ideas emerged shortly after Ford’s creation of the ‘five-dollar workday’, which was intended to create ‘worker-consumers’, as David Harvey puts it, who would spend their leisure time buying new things. Like Fordism, built-in obsolescence was part of a broader effort to indoctrinate citizens into participating in the culture of consumption and disposal. These ideas had repercussions we are still feeling today—and their physical manifestation began to manifest itself in mounting landfills, the first of which was built in 1937. Since literature registers change, it’s no surprise that these ideological and geophysical changes became subjects in their own right.

“Like Fordism, built-in obsolescence was part of a broader effort to indoctrinate citizens into participating in the culture of consumption and disposal. These ideas had repercussions we are still feeling today—and their physical manifestation began to manifest itself in mounting landfills, the first of which was built in 1937.”

But biological and manufactured waste forms are both bound up with all kinds of ideological and moral codes beyond the polito-economic ones I’ve just described. Some of these, such as the notion of waste as a carrier of disease, are quite recent; others, such as the idea that one should not throw one’s faeces, are far more long-standing! What I personally find interesting is how novelists over the last century seized upon the connections between the politico-economic dimensions of waste ((“Look at all this garbage we’re producing! What does it say about us? Where is it all going to go?”) and our longstanding horror towards bodily excretions (“yuck: poo!”). That’s where a lot of the humour in these texts comes from. Beckett, Gaddis, and Barthelme all love a good toilet joke—and generally the joke will involve equating capitalism with the human digestive system, and the circulation of goods with ingestion and excretion.

How can the concept of waste offer a new perspective on the world?

Waste is something we are socialised not to look at: we are taught from a very young age to excrete in private, or to put trash in the bin rather than on the ground. As we grow older, we are taught that new stuff is better than old. Our worth becomes increasingly defined by our capacity to purchase the latest toy, clothing item, gadget, etc. Waste as it is conceptualised by the writers and visual artists I study invites us to think in a different way. Often, it’s framed in a reproachful way, as exemplified by the famous scene in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1986), when Jack Gladney gazes upon a used tampon stuffed in a banana peel and asks: ‘[Is] this the dark underside of consumer consciousness?’ Waste makes us pause, and that’s important in a society that puts so much value on speed. The writers I study see a radical potential in that obstructive quality, opacity, near-illegibility, which challenges us to stop and think and reassess what we think we know. In that sense, waste can be seen as a crystallisation of what Walter Benjamin termed Jetztzeit, or ‘here and now time’: a moment that is pregnant with revolutionary potential in its interruption of homogeneous, mechanised, progress. For these writers, then, the very act of appropriating waste—that is, turning the remnants of capitalist production into a work of art or literature that critiques capitalist ideology—is revolutionary. So it’s not just waste that is radical, but its re-use: which could be anything from turning an old shoe into a sculpture to simply noticing the old shoe and recognising that it has properties beyond those imposed on it by the manufacturer.

“For these writers, then, the very act of appropriating waste—that is, turning the remnants of capitalist production into a work of art or literature that critiques capitalist ideology—is revolutionary.”

In what ways do you think notions of consumerism, waste, and re-use become more important as we move into the twenty-first century?

Where to begin! On the one hand, there’s certainly been a shift in how production and consumption are framed by corporations and advertisers. The notions of sustainability, corporate responsibility, ecological awareness, are all part of an effort to reconcile the needs of capitalism (growth), and the neoliberal paradigm in particular, with mounting evidence of its effects (climate change, depletion of resources, social inequality, not to mention the rise of right-wing populism, which evidence suggests is at least partly due to the uneven effects of neoliberalism on jobs, incomes, etc.). So there is some—however superficial, however limited—acknowledgement that consumerism needs to be re-conceptualised, whether that be through a shift towards renting goods rather than owning them, or reverting to a ‘mending not spending’ mentality—to play on the famous slogan in Brave New World. I believe France is—or has—proposed measures to outlaw certain forms of built-in obsolescence. IKEA recently announced plans to encourage customers to return old furniture or fix it rather simply throwing it out.

On the other hand… well, it’s not enough, is it? Nor is it terribly encouraging that the US has just elected a president who thinks climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese (!), and is intent upon shutting down the Environmental Protection Agency.

Or to find out that when you eat fish bought from the supermarket, you’re also ingesting plastic particles—the concentration of marine debris is that high. Or to hear that the Mayor of London’s proposed solution to the stratospheric levels of pollution in the city is that Londoners just stay indoors (and presumably boost the economy by shopping for goods online..!).

And that’s just in the West. I was startled to learn for example, during the course of my research, that populations of children in India live off the landfill scraps outside of Delhi. Or about the amount of non-biodegradable waste produced by China. Or about the extent of marine pollution in the Pacific Ocean, beyond  just the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“It’s rather amazing to me, for example, that J.G. Ballard wrote The Drought, in which plastic marine debris has stopped water evaporating from the ocean’s surface, resulting in a protracted drought, in 1964. 1964! That’s thirty years before the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was officially discovered, and before climate change was known in mainstream circles.”

So clearly a lot needs changing. Again, literature has an important part to play in highlighting these issues—as it has been doing all along, and certainly long before environmentalism became a household name. It’s rather amazing to me, for example, that J.G. Ballard wrote The Drought, in which plastic marine debris has stopped water evaporating from the ocean’s surface, resulting in a protracted drought, in 1964. 1964! That’s thirty years before the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was officially discovered, and before climate change was known in mainstream circles. I’m likewise heartened by postmillennial novels like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), Jonathan Miles’s Want Not (2013), Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (2014), and Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (2015), all of which grapple with both material waste and its after-effects—and, to my mind, demonstrate the novel form’s enduring ability to grapple with human crises, to put into words something that much of the world still has trouble grasping.

What critical thinkers have been most useful and relevant to the project?

There have been many! Obviously Freud, Marx, and André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, loom large given their obvious influence both on the specific writers I study, and on contemporary theory. Walter Benjamin’s writings on material remnants of nineteenth-century capitalism (which were influenced by Freud, Marx and Breton, among others) first piqued my interest in waste, and I inevitably return to his work when I’m stuck. The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s work on the social life of objects opened me up to a whole new way of thinking about waste’s fluidity. Any scholar of discard studies has to contend with Mary Douglas, who was among the first to articulate a theory around dirt. Zygmunt Bauman’s conceptualisation of ‘disposable’ humans was also very important. And then there are more recent figures such as those I mentioned above: Bill Brown, Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, all of whom contend that objects (including waste) should be seen not only as symbols or signs—i.e. in relation to humans—but also as entities with an agency of their own (the effects of carbon emissions on climate change is perhaps the most obvious of these). I also benefitted from previous work on waste in literature: Will Viney’s Waste: A Philosophy of Things came out in 2014, but prior to the book’s publication he kept a blog. I discovered the blog in the first term of my PhD and it was a watershed moment: that you could approach waste from so many angles was incredible to me. Likewise, Susan Signe Morrison’s The Literature of Waste: Material Poetics and Ethical Matter came out just as I was starting work on the manuscript, and helped me fill in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of waste prior to the nineteenth century. But the exhaustive list is far longer: ideas from art history, urban studies, consumer culture studies, and eco-criticism have all shaped the project.

What’s next for you?

I’m still working on waste! I drove my editors crazy during the proofs stage of the book, as I kept on finding more material and coming up with new ideas I wanted to incorporate, and eventually I had to reconcile myself to the fact that I would have to save them for future projects. I’ve just finished a couple articles—both on waste in Ballard novels I didn’t address in the book—that are coming out in late 2017 and 2018. I’m now in the initial stages of a new project, on time-saving household technology in fiction by women writers during the Cold War, which kind of builds on some of the work I did for this book. I’m really interested in cleanliness as a concept, and how it’s used ideologically to sustain particular ideologies or national/cultural myths.

I’m also reading a number of literary studies of waste that came out around the same time as mine, including David Alworth’s Site Reading (2016); Brian Thill’s Waste: An Object Lesson (2015); Sarah K. Harding’s Waste Matters: Urban Margins in Contemporary Literature (2017). I’m pretty excited, as there is so much on the subject I haven’t explored, and so much compelling scholarship coming out at the moment: Alice Twemlow has a book on waste in design coming out this spring, and Darmuid Hester is writing a book on trash in New York countercultural writing… I suppose that’s the silver lining: our planet may be going to shit and our economic system may be failing millions, but some really interesting (and intimidatingly clever!) people are writing about it, and offering intelligent and incisive insights. Who would have thought that it would take a crisis of this kind to demonstrate the humanities’ enduring relevance?

Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction: Legacies of the Avant-Garde is available from Palgrave.

About the Author

Rachele Dini teaches at the Foundation for International Education and in the English Department at University College London, UK. She has a BA Hons from Cambridge University, an MA from King’s College London, and a PhD from University College London, UK.


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