Queering Waste Through Camp

By Guy Schaffer
This post is part of the Discard Studies Compendium

Toilet Glitter. Photo by author.

Like queer theory, discard studies is interested in uneven remainders, things that don’t fit neatly into categories. Both concern themselves with the strange and imperfect construction of divisions (in discard studies, that between waste and not-waste; in queer theory, those between hetero/homosexual, between male and female) that do violence to humans, cultures, and environments, while still attending to the fact that these divisions have meaning for people, that they are strategic, and that they structure our thought in ways that are almost impossible to escape.

As a mode of thinking through and beyond and before binaries, or perhaps of thinking binaries promiscuously, queer theory is indispensable to the study of disposal. In particular, the merits of camp as a queer mode of reading trash can blur and transgress and cover in glitter those boundaries between waste and not-waste that are central analytics in discard studies. While camp is a useful mode of reading for any field of study marked by questionable binaries, it is particularly relevant with regards to waste because camp is all about the reevaluation of a culture’s trash. Camp offers a mode of celebrating, reappropriating, and rendering waste visible, without pretending that waste has stopped being waste.

“Celebrating waste” performs a useful corrective to the ascendant politics of “zero waste,” which embraces a concept of control and suggests that waste is possible to manage. Zero waste ideologies take on the (admirable) goal of designing systems that minimize material inputs and outputs by making materials and products continually reusable. These systems treat waste as a resource, which allows the framing of “zero waste”—nothing in a zero waste system is waste if it can feed back into the system (e.g. McDonough and Braungart 2002). While these efforts are laudable, recycling systems generally tend to sprout leaks and create wastes that are discursively hidden by the waste-reduction missions of recycling (Alexander and Reno 2012; MacBride 2012); at the same time they are capable of taking advantage of workers, and unevenly distributing the environmental harms of waste management (Pellow 2002). Furthermore, in engineering a solution to resource problems, zero-waste systems tend to be imagined as centrally designed and controlled, a design choice that can easily lend itself to systems that resist change or outside input (Winner 1986; Vaughan 1996).

Camp can work as a complement to “zero waste,” performing the impossibility of a world without trash. In the mindset of zero waste, waste is possible to manage; all outputs are knowable. Following Myra Hird, our relationship with wastes can be reframed to remain open to its profound unknowability (2012). Camp is one possible mode of making the unaccountable stuff that escapes management into something visible. Camp does not hide the wastes that cause real environmental, social, and personal harm. Rather, it makes them susceptible to new readings and alternative framings. In moving beyond moralism to an aesthetics of trash, camp offers a chance for a different kind of waste politics: a politics of visibility, of risibility, and of spectacle.

Camp as a Relationship to Waste

Camp is a mode of aestheticism devoted to excess, to failure, to ironic detachment and wide-eyed sincerity. It is hard to put a finger on just what camp is, and it is unclear whether the authors who have tried to define camp make it more or less identifiable in doing so. Perhaps this is strategic. Lists of things that are or are not camp exist, and might prove edifying (see Isherton (1999), Sontag (1999), or the Simpsons episode “Homer’s Phobia” (1997)). One theme that emerges from all these authors, artists, and taste-makers is a framing of camp as a certain form of relating to trash, broadly defined.

mondo-trashoCamp, in this sense, is a mode of reappropriating and revaluing “trash” while simultaneously broadcasting the “trashiness” of the things it glamorizes. Rather than granting a new life to cultural waste, a camp reading reminds us of its old life while still putting it to some new use. Mark Booth’s definition is instructive: “to be camp is to present oneself as being committed to the marginal with a commitment greater than the marginal merits” (1999: 69). “Trash,” in the sense of low-brow cultural products, is certainly open for camp interpretation (though, of course, not all trash is camp). But the “trash” of John Waters’ “Mondo Trasho” (1969) or Morrissey’s “Trash” (1970) bears material differences from the other forms of waste of interest to discard studies.
Susan Sontag implicitly characterizes camp as a relationship with waste when she suggests that “the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment” (60) for the thing being appropriated as camp—when a thing becomes waste, it loses its moral connection and becomes primed for camp appropriation by cognoscenti. The New Kids on the Block shirt, which meant so much to an adolescent in 1991, gains a new camp meaning once the earnest love of “Step by Step” has faded from memory. Andrew Ross describes camp as “a rediscovery of history’s waste” (1988: 151). Waste in this sense refers to those cultural products—ranging from coke bottles to movie stars—whose value has been lost, and which can be re-evaluated by a campy cognoscenti for the purpose of producing new forms of value. This understanding of camp is often described as a form of “cultural recycling” (Hamilton 1997: 237).

Film still from John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos”

Film still from John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos,” 1972.

But waste can also refer to literal excrement. Christopher Schmidt, writing about the poems of James Schuyler, examines the scatological side of camp (2009). Schuyler’s camp poetics treat the marginality of his and other’s bodily wastes, sidewalk trash, and daily excesses with a languorous tenderness. In Schmidt’s reading of Schuyler, the poet’s taste for waste is not merely a taste for those things that have been passed over by history, nor for the disposable products of capitalist production, but rather a taste for the materiality of waste: human excrement, used tissues, household trash. The dog shit scene in John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos” (1972) might serve as another emblem of excrement-as-camp.

No matter the form of the trash, waste, or ordure, camp requires a certain form of relationship with the stuff it appropriates. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s understanding of camp is useful here; unlike kitsch-attribution, camp-recognition doesn’t ask, “What kind of debased creature could possibly be the right audience for this spectacle?” Instead, it says what if: What if the right audience for this were exactly me? (1990: 156) Camp, for Sedgwick, is a queer way of knowing, one that emphasizes reader relations over any inherent meaning of a cultural object.

Camp as Social Critique

What of the hermeneutical frivolity of suggesting that fracking fluid or nuclear fallout might be rendered palatable through camp interpretation? As Sontag explains, “camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good” (61). What a camp lens can do is animate the ways in which the disposal of waste is never complete, that the boundaries created between waste and the social worlds that produce it are always partial. The following three examples illustrate the ways that camp works as a mode of social critique and potential form of political activism: Amy Sedaris’s trashy crafts, Nuclia Waste’s drag critique of nuclear infrastructure, and SPURSE’s trash-based meals.

1-largeAmy Sedaris has become a contemporary camp icon; her craft book Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People might be a first introduction to a camp attitude toward trash (2011). Appropriating both the wide-eyed stylelessness of “Hints from Heloise” and the less savory bits of her own waste stream, Sedaris remakes the world around her with a guileless glee. These projects appropriate trash for an exercise in bad homemaking; Sedaris does not encourage her readers to act like the trash-made objects are now valuable. Rather, she asks them to revel in putting their own valueless stuff on display: take the wig from an unloved doll and sew it onto a doorknob (30); inside an old shoebox, arrange “tatters of things” and leftover coffee grounds into a depressing home for a dying mouse (83); tape the hair from your hairbrush onto your chin for a makeshift fake beard (165). Sedaris encourages an attitude toward valuation that tosses glitter on unusable things in a serious but altogether tasteless way.

While appropriating waste is relatively simple with the household trash Sedaris manipulates, it becomes more difficult when we think about the kinds of waste that discard studies struggles with: toxic waste, ocean-floating plastic, frac fluid. In these contexts, appropriation on its own is never an adequate solution; no amount of idiosyncratic fashion sense can render fallout chic, or take the violent intrusions of waste into people’s homes and lives and turn it into an outré interior design element. However, camp opens up waste to creative, performative, and intensely personal interpretation. Here the sentiment that waste was created for “exactly me” does an interesting kind of work: what if we assume that the destructive spread of waste is not just the work of callous industry, or even that it is simply dumped disproportionately on the economically or politically disadvantaged, but that the wastes we live with are loaded with personal significance? This is the approach taken by the Denver-based drag queen Nuclia Waste, who Shiloh Krupar takes as emblematic of a queer ecology of waste in her work on transnatural ethics (2012). Nuclia presents herself as a mutant en-gendered by the ambient radiation of her post-nuclear hometown—Rocky Mountain Flats—embracing the fallout that has suffused her environment in order to point to the permeation of radiation throughout her lived environment. Nuclia poses her act as a counterpoint to the work of federal cleanup efforts, which serve to discursively and technologically contain the contamination of the site and return the surrounding environment to its natural state, failing to acknowledge that nuclear cleanup can never be complete.

Similar modes of performing waste might be found outside of the obviously-campy. The ecological activist artist group SPURSE, for instance, stages elaborate meals out of foraged and scavenged food, highlighting the trashiness of their meals using discarded wine glasses, and a table obviously manufactured from urban detritus (Ava 2012). As food performance, this work makes a show of its waste origins. Rather than the framework of “rescue” employed by food reclamation projects like City Harvest or Food Not Bombs, which returns food waste to the realm of food unscathed, SPURSE makes waste food into something beyond food by performing its food identity alongside its waste identity.

A camp attitude toward trash is capable of reveling in waste without forgetting its real environmental, social, and personal impacts. Camp might seem too much like play to have a politics—it thrives on ambivalence, after all—but camp has the power to imagine radically different modes of interacting with the world of trash, and shaping power in new and potentially beneficial ways. By nurturing an attitude that pays attention to waste, that sees waste as something beautiful, vibrant, and personal (even when it is simultaneously dangerous, disgusting, or industrial), camp enables new modes of waste politics that move beyond moralism into the realm of the aesthetic. Moralism regarding waste often fails precisely at the cusp of visibility; once the producers of waste can deny that they perceive waste, whether through incomplete burial, dilution in air or water, or the creation of distance, an opening emerges for irresponsibility. Camp, on the other hand, forces perception, displaying the horrible, wonderful wastes our world is made of.


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Anderson, Mike B. 1997. “Homer’s Phobia”. Television. The Simpsons. USA: FOX.

Ava. 2012. “Stories of Space: Issue Project Room’s Foraging Feast”. Blog. Socially Superlative. http://sociallysuperlative.com/2012/02/07/species-of-space-issue-project-rooms-foraging-feast/.

Booth, Mark. 1999. “Campe-Toi! On the Origns and Definitions of Camp.” In Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: a Reader, edited by Fabio Cleto, 66–79. Triangulations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hamilton, Marybeth. 1997. When I’m Bad, I’m Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hird, Myra J. 2012. “Knowing Waste: Towards an Inhuman Epistemology.” Social Epistemology 26 (3-4): 453–69.

Isherton, Christopher. 1999. “The World in the Evening (Selection).” In Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: a Reader, edited by Fabio Cleto, 49–52. Triangulations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Jenkins, Joseph. 2005. The Humanure Handbook. Grove City, PA: Joseph Jenkins, Inc.

McDonough, William. 2002. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. 1st ed. New York: North Point Press.

Morrissey, Paul. 1970. Trash. Filmfactory.

Pellow, David Naguib. 2002. Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Schmidt, Christopher. 2009. “‘Baby, I Am the Garbage’: James Schuyler’s Taste for Waste.” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, no. 10/11.

Sedaris, Amy. 2010. Simple Times. 1st ed. New York: Grand Central Pub.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sontag, Susan. 1999. “Notes on Camp.” In Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: a Reader, edited by Fabio Cleto, 53–65. Triangulations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Vaughan, Diane. 1996. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Waters, John. 1969. Mondo Trasho. DVD. Dreamland.

———. 1972. Pink Flamingos. DVD. Saliva Films.

Winner, Langdon. 1986. The Whale and the Reactor: a Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Further Reading:

Krupar, Shiloh. 2012. “Transnatural Ethics: Revisiting the Nuclear Cleanup of Rocky Flats, CO, through the Queer Ecology of Nuclia Waste.” Cultural Geographies 19 (3): 303–27.

Ross, Andrew. 1989. No Respect: Intellectuals & Popular Culture. New York: Routledge.

Thompson, Michael. 1979. Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.