There are few things that mess with what Peter Berger called the nomos more than a garbage strike. If social order is indeed an ongoing matter of moment-by-moment construction, then the deliberate (and very political) act of leaving uncollected garbage on the streets is the ultimate form of shaking up modern man’s taken-for-granted notions of cleanliness and order. Without the daily, collaborative activity of a variety of municipal agencies and service providers, garbage piles up on the streets and in parks, in driveways and across public plazas. It becomes matter out of place, to use Mary Douglas’s phrase. One of the hallmarks of our age is the expectation that garbage is kept out of sight; we not only expect it, we demand it. As Sarah Moore argues, cleanliness and order are fundamental categories of the taken-for-granted:
“The more we try to draw borders between clean and dirty, order and chaos, the more opportunities are created for political acts that expose the unstable and fragile nature of the imposed categories of of modernity and the institutions responsible for upholding them” (The Excess of Modernity; Garbage Politics in Oaxaca, Mexico, 2009).
Garbage left on the streets worries us. Might it make us sick? Will it kick off environmental imbalances and catalyze exponential increases to the rat population? The garbage strike becomes the basis for fear at a very, very deep level and it brings us face-to-face with conflicts and tensions that we would rather wish away.
Uncollected trash exists as an insult to the notion of how far we have come as a human race, to how completely we have transcended the problems so endemic to the “pre-industrial city,” a place, as Lofland describes it, where “the sheer filth of the streets” was commonplace and garbage as well as human and animal excrement were part of the everyday landscape of the urban (A World of Strangers 32). Many people have come to believe that the modern city has little or no connection to the nightmare Lofland describes; by contrast, it is a place in which we should never (or rarely) see or smell our waste. If the garbage cannot be cleared away, something must be wrong in Denmark at the very core of the waste society. The issue is Platonic; notions of the good and the beautiful pull so strongly against the presence of garbage in the streets. In the midst of the strike, borders and prohibitions become fuzzy, porosities emerge, and most importantly, the categories of modernity begin to vibrate.