"Between that disgust and this": trash talk at the Conference on Ecopoetics

by Angela Hume

Paul Klee, "Angelus Novus" (1920)
Paul Klee, "Angelus Novus" (1920)

Trash. Garbage. Junk. Waste. Refuse. Rubbish. Detritus. It was on everyone’s mind at the Conference on Ecopoetics. The dreaded contradiction: With a gathering of 250 of even the most environmentally minded poets, scholars, educators, and activists comes, by the end of a long weekend, a heap of trash — empty cartons and wine bottles; used paper cups, napkins, and towels; soggy tea bags and even some food waste (in the English lounge, we ended up with one to two large bags of trash by the end of each day, excluding recyclables). As we all know, it’s impossible to travel, convene, eat, and live in our society while not, at the same time, creating waste. And despite a 50-year-old modern environmental movement, today we send greater amounts of rubbish to landfills and incinerators than ever before.[1]

That said, Conference on Ecopoetics participants made an admirable effort to keep waste to a minimum. Almost everyone drank their water, coffee, and tea from reusable water bottles and travel mugs. If anything, trash was of foremost concern — and this fact was certainly reflected in panel, roundtable, and seminar presentations and discussions. As part of the panel “The Thingness of Things: Connecting with the Culture’s Material Trace,” Allison Cobb presented her “conference codex,” an array of discarded plastic items that she had collected from in and around Wheeler Hall — disposable silverware, food containers and lids, cigarette wrappers, a Starbucks cold-drink cup, a broken vinyl record — “the record of our presence here that will outlast us for the next several centuries and serve as our trace,” Cobb explained. Cobb related her surprise at how much plastic littered the halls and lawns of the UC Berkeley campus. But, she explained, “I realized soon after I got here that [Berkeley] is just like America.” (America, indeed — a country where more people recycle than vote, and yet, at the same time, 80 percent of consumer products are still used only once and then thrown away.[2]) According to Cobb, her trash-collecting exercise in Berkeley is part of a larger project, for which she has been systematically collecting discarded plastic items during her daily walks and cataloging them at her blog, and which will inform her new book, The Autobiography of Plastic. During her presentation, with her “codex” spread out in front of her, Cobb asserted, “There is no difference between this, and you. You are this. This is you. You are looking at your past, your present, your future.”

Kaia Sand also gestured toward the complex temporality of trash during her presentation on “The Thingness of Things” panel, reflecting on the way objects come and go quickly in our wired lives, so soon obsolete, yet continue to circulate, reverberate, and “add up” in and through commodity chains. During her performance of her poem "Tiny Arctic Ice," Sand read fragments written on a "logjam of e-waste" (to use her words) — obsolete cords and cables, cameras, and dongles. In this way, the performance presences that which we would prefer to write out of our narrative of technical innovation and “progress.” The poem, for Sand, is “ledger”: “This and this and this. Watching. Researching. Collecting.”

Walter Benjamin’s angel of history comes to mind, with that pile of debris heaped before him, growing skyward, amidst the storm that Benjamin names “progress.” To think these methods — these temporalities of trash — I would argue that what we need is perhaps not “object-oriented ontology” (a catchphrase of the weekend) but rather good old-fashioned historical materialism, which has long been one of our most authentic object-oriented philosophies. It is Benjamin who wrote in (and of) his own Arcades Project: “Method of this project: literary montage…the rags, the refuse — these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.”[3] (And it is Theodor Adorno who suggested similarly that it is theory and art’s task to “deal with [the] unassimilated material,” the “waste products” that fall by the wayside of the dialectic.[4]) In this way, for Benjamin, method (what we might also call creative practice, or poetics) — contrary to the interests and institutions that facilitate the casting off of “refuse” in the first place — "annihilates within itself the idea of progress."[5] And so, in Benjamin's terms, what Cobb and Sand offer us is perhaps more than anything a kind of "dialectics at a standstill": an image of the relation of the what-has-been to the now [6], a performance of the moment in which “alienated things” become legible as “genuinely historical.”[7] (As Wallace Stevens suggests: that “truth” which manifests “Between that disgust and this, between the things / That are on the dump.”[8])

(Re)making history out of “trash” — we saw a strong interest in it on the panel “The Ghost in the (Drum) Machine: Tracking Remix, Reuse, and Return in Contemporary Ecopoetics” as well. In their presentation “Radical (Re)assemblages,” Patrick Rosal and Ross Gay performed a piece in response to police violence against young men of color, a remix in which they layered recordings of bees over audio from police dispatch calls and interviews with citizens about murdered young men (e.g., question: “Who is Oscar Grant?”; answer: “I don’t know”). Remix, for Rosal and Gay, is “making music of detritus.” Moreover, they argued, it’s a practice that reconceptualizes time, collapsing time, evoking the imminence of our own disappearance — what they call our “ecological condition.”

Importantly, though, as Joshua Schuster pointed out in his paper “After Recycling: Environmental Conceptual Poetics” (on the panel “The Troping of Ecopoetic Form”), “recycling” in language and art can only tell us so much about the chemical process that is the recycling of actual matter; recycling in art is not the same as recycling in the real, material world. That said, Schuster argued, conceptual poetry’s immersion in “artificial environments” and “junk spaces” (citing, for example, both Christian Bök and Tan Lin) — coupled with the “ethical neutrality” of some of these practices, in contrast to the moralizing of some ecopoetry — is promising for any ecopoetics interested in getting away from the paradigm of “sustainability” and exploring the concept of ecology from other perspectives (and so, for Schuster: from “sustainable” poetry to the “purposeful purposeless” of conceptual poetry as a “blatant act of expenditure”).

Physical trash was not the only form of waste under consideration at the conference. Rob Halpern read from his recent book Music For Porn on Thursday night at a Bay Area Public School off-site event and also at the Friday conference evening reading. In his book, which reflects on the condition of the militarized body under the American biopolitical regime, Halpern repeatedly takes up the question of “waste”: "From somewhere deep, waste returns, my constant theme."[9] It is from this place and time, where and when bodies are increasingly devalued by capital, in which a surplus of life is thrown off by capital itself in its late stages[10], and in which life is more than ever before administered, policed, and mechanized by the state, that Halpern writes — “Having arrived at junk status myself, declassed by overproduction."[11] And in my own paper on “bodies at risk,” part of the panel “Emergency, Ethics, Ecopoetics,” I discussed the chronic wasting thematized by Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. On my reading, Rankine's book registers the abjection of the racialized subject under the biopolitical state, a state that, according to Rankine, is characterized by a proliferation of chronic disease, policing, and preventive warfare — what Rankine names the “wasting away” of life, and what Lauren Berlant aptly calls “slow death”: "the physical wearing out of a population," the structurally determined and administered "attrition of human life."[12]

Trash, remixing and recycling, waste and wasting — if you have been thinking about these concepts and phenomena in your own creative work, please contact Laura Mullen (lmullen@lsu.edu) and/or me (angelamariehume@gmail.com), as we are co-curating a special issue of The Volta on “trash" (forthcoming fall 2013). We would love to consider your work for possible inclusion in this issue.

[1] Heather Rogers, "Garbage Capitalism's Green Commerce," Coming to Terms with Nature, ed. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007), 238.

[2] Ibid., 231.

[3] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), 460, my emphasis.

[4] Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London and New York: Verso, 2005), 151.

[5] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 460.

[6] Ibid., 463.

[7] Ibid., 466.

[8] Wallace Stevens, "The Man on the Dump," The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Vintage Books, 1982).

[9] Rob Halpern, Music for Porn (Callicoon, New York: Nightboat Books, 2012), 7.

[10] For more on the phenomenon of surplus populations, see Aaron Benanav and Endnotes, "Misery and Debt: On the Logic and History of Surplus Populations and Surplus Capital," Endnotes 2 (April 2010).

[11] Halpern, Music for Porn, 25.

[12] Lauren Berlant, “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency),” Critical Inquiry 33 (Summer 2007): 754.