Spitting, Sneezing, Smearing

Marjorie Garber

  • Cooking with Mud: The Idea of Mess in 19th-Century Art and Fiction by David Trotter
    Oxford, 340 pp, £35.00, February 2000, ISBN 0 19 818503 0

Once, recycling was a way of life, conducted without civic ordinances, highway beautification statutes, adopt-a-motorway programmes or special bins for paper, glass and metal. Until the mid-19th century, rag-pickers plied their trade in European and American cities. Quilts were made from clothing scraps; rugs (now, like the quilts, collectors’ items) were made from rags; soap was made at home from wood ashes and grease, tallow candles from animal fat, buttons (as well as dice and dominoes) from bones. The 20th century’s disposable cups, plates and packaging, suggests Susan Strasser, in Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (1999), are signs of wealth and leisure, as well as of hygiene. Both cultural and institutional change played a part – the invention, for example, of the ‘waste trade’ and of city trash collection, replacing the free-ranging scavenger pigs in the streets. ‘Trash,’ Strasser writes, ‘is created by sorting.’ Inside or outside the house; keep it or toss it. Marginal items occupy a marginal category and get stored in marginal spaces, like attics, basements and sheds. ‘Dirt is matter out of place’ is the celebrated dictum of Mary Douglas. A teenager’s clothing scattered about the room; a pair of shoes on the dining-room table. And what we regard as dirt someone else may prize; dirt is not natural but cultural.

The move from the material to the metaphorical and cultural was often a short step; consider the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, from Emma Lazarus’s poem ‘The New Colossus’, where new immigrants from Europe and elsewhere are welcomed as ‘the wretched refuse of your teeming shore’. America at the turn of the century was in a sense a national salon des refusés, a place where the ‘refuse’ were not refused but taken in, reclassified and resorted as residents and citizens. And as with persons and objects, so with art. When Yeats wrote about poetry being made ‘in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’ he was invoking a cultural cliché of sorts: the rag-and-bone shop and the rag-and-bone picker were Victorian commonplaces. The earnest Henry Mayhew wrote that ‘the state of the shoes of the rag-and-bone picker is a very important matter to him’; Mrs Gaskell placed ‘rag-and-bone warehouses’ next to those other urban emporia of recycling, pawn-brokers’ shops; and almost sixty years before Yeats, James Russell Lowell had already seen that literature itself was the random stuff of visceral alchemy: ‘The somewhat greasy heap of the literary rag-and-bone picker is turned to gold by time.’

Much attention has been given to the 20th century’s predilection for making art out of trash, from the Surrealists to modern poetry (Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Man on the Dump’; T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, with its indicative title and its formalist assertion, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin’). Converted Post-Modern palaces of art, like the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (a former railway terminus), the Tate Modern (a former power station) and Mass MoCA in Western Massachusetts (a complex of former factory buildings in an old mill town) are triumphs of recycling and metamorphosis. Books on ‘found objects’ as interior decoration, and the proliferation of ‘salvage’ companies selling everything from old marble columns to barn-wood, make it clear that nostalgia is now big business as well as high – and low – art.

As we enter the Internet century, where the trash can is an icon for cyber-disposal while highly material questions of waste management, from oil spills to wandering garbage barges, fill the morning paper and the evening news, a number of scholarly books and essays have begun to cogitate about trash, waste, litter and mess. Some are written by cultural historians, like Strasser, and others by literary critics. In 1996, a graduate student conference held at Harvard bore the uncompromising and prescient title ‘Dirt’, a rubric that encompassed topics from waste management to immigration to pornography. A forthcoming essay collection edited by Ryan Johnson and William Cohen will be entitled Filth.

The interest in ‘waste-theory’ may be seen as a recyclable and non-biodegradable byproduct of a number of related tendencies in contemporary literary studies: 1) the borrowing of critical paradigms from science and social science (in previous years the uncertainty principle in physics, ‘the structure of scientific revolutions’ and ‘chaos theory,’ now ecology, cybernetics and environmental studies); 2) the rethinking of certain interpretative moves derived from deconstruction and psychoanalysis, like ‘the supplement’ and ‘the Real’, in the context of historical and material culture; 3) the renewed interest in what might be called the history and cultural life of objects; and 4) the current – and concurrent – attention to questions of human emotion, passion, disgust and other affective manifestations of the ‘interior’ self.

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