Dumpsters, difference, and illiberal embodiment

By Dr. David Boarder Giles, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington, Bothell

The politics of detritus

Waste almost inevitably has a whiff of anarchy about it. Insofar as it is ejected from within a given social system according to that system’s peculiar norms, waste (or contact with it) carries within it the possibility of subverting those norms. To wit, the high-stakes markets and publics of post-Fordist consumer societies incorporate and exclude subjects according to diverse modes of embodiment—from genteel germ-phobia to homelessness. And in so doing, they also exclude a wealth of commercial waste from public circulation—from less-than-perfect food spurned by urbane consumers to real estate abandoned to property speculation and gentrification. Incipient within the commercial waste streams of these societies, therefore, are distinctive possibilities for what I’ll describe below as “illiberal embodiment”—both of the personal body and the body politic.

In particular, my research has focused on the ethnographic worlds of Dumpster-divers, squatters, and other scavengers who mine this detritus. My work has consisted of five years of multisited research and collaboration in Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and Melbourne (Australia), with each city’s respective chapters of Food Not Bombs (www.foodnotbombs.net)—a global movement of anarchist soup kitchens that recover wasted commercial food surpluses (by donation or “dumpstering”), prepare them, and redistribute them publicly. Within such projects there is the possibility of embodying otherwise. Food Not Bombs and endeavors like it, I would argue, also create the conditions to queer categories of embodiment like race, class, and sex and interrogate their privileged incorporation by prevailing markets, publics, and institutions, cultivating emergent spaces of embodiment, contact, and collaboration across difference.

“Yo! Don’t get Food Not Bombs’ veggies moldy. Don’t unplug the fridge!!!” (The sensory world of Food Not Bombs’ shared kitchen space, New York City.) Photograph courtesy of Vikki Law.

“Yo! Don’t get Food Not Bombs’ veggies moldy. Don’t unplug the fridge!!!” (The sensory world of Food Not Bombs’ shared kitchen space, New York City.) Photograph courtesy of Vikki Law.

Dirty habits and abject economies

The ethnographic worlds in which I’ve moved are dirty—but not filthy. The sensory worlds of Dumpster-divers, squatters, punks, Food Not Bombs chapters, and other anarchist projects illustrate anthropologist Mary Douglas’ famous dictum that dirt is “matter out of place” (1984). In material terms, they’re largely harmless: in seven years of ethnographic research, I have only met two people who’ve been ill after eating dumpstered goods or dining with Food Not Bombs. (Compare that to most fast food establishments.) But in semiotic terms, the sights and smells of anarchist soup kitchens and their ilk are beyond the pale of prevailing public decency. They are crowded with signifiers of obsolescence, valuelessness, and disorder. They share a rough, unfinished aesthetic, from their salvaged pots and battered old appliances, to Dumpster-dived produce and a patent rejection of bourgeois body ritual. All the Food Not Bombs kitchens where I have cooked and collaborated have shared a certain je ne scent quoi—a common sensory palette that can often be identified by smell alone (slightly overripe produce, unwashed punk rockers, and so on).

These are symbolic political choices, to be sure. But it is all too easy to arrest our analysis here (and many do), either romanticizing or dismissing these efforts as mere gestures (heroic or hubristic, respectively). This ignores the matter at hand, literally: they also reflect a thoroughly pragmatic set of material, embodied practices. Chief among them is the reclamation of wasted surpluses. Punks, anarchists, Food Not Bombers, and fellow travelers in these countercultural worlds dive in commercial Dumpsters for unspoiled food and other goods; they wear perfectly serviceable second-hand clothes; they squat in abandoned buildings or simply live cheaply in devalued neighbourhoods.

By design, the post-Fordist consumer economy’s cup runneth over with such excess goods (cf. Packard 2011, Liboiron 2013), which sooner or later find themselves forgotten at its margins—their exchange value often negated long before their use value has expired. Often they’re obsolete before they’re even sold. Their abandonment in the Dumpster, their boarded up windows, and so on, seemingly constitute points of no return with respect to market exchange.

That certain enterprising scavengers instead, recover, revalorize, and recirculate these ex-commodities therefore amounts to a distinctly “dirty,” out-of-place sort of sociality from the point of view of the average consumer. Inspired by Mary Douglas, the psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva used the term “abjection” to describe the visceral, embodied experience of such moments of ambiguity or out-of-place-ness with respect to the formation of a self, an identity, or an ego (1982). Abjection for her is that unsettling revulsion that occurs within us at “the place where meaning collapses,” (2) whether that collapse is prompted by a corpse or the skin on a glass of unhomogenized milk. The subdued horror, germ-phobia, and creeping suspicion often attached to discarded, surplus, or second-hand goods could well be described in such terms.

From the point of view of the bourgeois consumer, then, these aftermarket practices amount to an abject kind of hexis—a set of embodied, enculturated rituals, repertoires, recipes, and tastes that are experienced as second nature or common-sense—that confounds the norms of liberal consumption. Where liberal consumers often find their stomachs turn at the thought of clambering into the Dumpster, for example, Dumpster-divers leap in with aplomb. Where the former’s attraction may be embedded in a constellation of fastidious and expensive body rituals (shaving, grooming, perfuming, gym-going…) the latter are often viscerally drawn in by the opposite (the unshaven, the unkempt, the naturally scented, the scrappy physique or the fuller-figured…). Where the formers’ anxieties and fears of contagion—seated deep in their limbic systems—are kept at bay by the security of a sell-by date or the hermetic seal on a single-use commodities, many abject anti-consumers’ confidence is more inspired by do-it-yourself solutions to their material needs. And so on.

This abject hexis has more than merely symbolic implications: in each city I met a wide range of people for whom Dumpster-diving, squatting, and other kinds of scavenging made possible new lives and new communities. To the extent that these abject embodiments are shared across Food Not Bombs chapters and related networks of Dumpster-divers, itinerant punks, and so on, they amount to a sort of abject economy, one animated by surplus rather than scarcity. It is true, perhaps, that this abject economy relies upon the capitalist one for its raw materials. But it is equally true that, as J.K. Gibson Graham (1996), Anna Tsing (2013), and others have argued, the capitalist economy inevitably relies on a diverse range of non-capitalist economies for its raw materials too (material and cultural alike). So the relationship could be said to be symbiotic rather than parasitic.

Such relationships, I would like to argue, are often politically productive. They may become the foundation of political formations and identities that by turns underwrite and contest the hegemonic institutions of what anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli calls “late liberalism,” as I’ll discuss below (2011).

Late liberalism and liberal embodiment

For Povinelli, “late liberalism” describes the present moment in politically and economically liberal societies, a moment shaped by the hegemony of neoliberal market logics, and also by the paradoxical imperative to discursively mark and manage the participation of a spectrum of social differences in a public sphere defined by the abstract equality, equivalence, and individuation of its participants (as consumers, as citizens). Late liberalism is therefore defined by that set of technologies and discourses by which difference is incorporated and recuperated into the social contracts of market and state. The doctrine of multiculturalism, for example, in which difference and culture are celebrated, and made economically productive at the same time as they are judirically and politically annulled, is a classic project of late liberalism. Marriage equality is another.

In the incorporation and management of difference, then, late liberalism is distinctly biopolitical. In other words, it is profoundly concerned with bodies and embodiment. In particular, certain kinds of embodiment make themselves readily available to such projects of liberal governmentality—which, in turn, make possible the discursive projects of the market and the state themselves. We might think of those sorts of hexis, then, as liberal embodiments. Liberal embodiments are, of course, a diverse species. The bodies of undocumented manual labourers are no less incorporated into the market economy than the bodies of bourgeois shoppers with their distinct palates and preferences. As Eva Cherniavsky has pointed out, bodies are differentially incorporated into relations of production (and, we might add, consumption) according to race, class, gender, sexuality, and a host of other differences (2006). Indeed, from Marx and Dubois on, class and race have both been recognised as differential embodiments of and for the market. Povinelli (cribbing from Foucault) illustrates some of the ways in which they, along with gender and sexuality, are differentially integrated into those biopolitical projects of late-liberal governmentality—from the clinic to the prison—that enable these very relations of production and consumption

In other words, the politics of race, class, sexuality, and gender, have classically reflected liberal projects of embodiment. This is true whether we locate their ontology in technologies of governmentality and biopolitical incorporation—from the War on Drugs to the erosion of Roe versus Wade—or in those redemptive movements that aim to incorporate them differently—from the Civil Rights Movement to Marriage Equality. Such liberal embodiments persist as historically-specific formations largely to the extent that they are policed, both figuratively and literally, by the disciplinary power of liberal institutions. Differential incorporations of racialised bodies in the United States, for example, persist largely to the extent that they are underwritten by the expansion of the carceral state, the militarization of the border, and so on. Differential embodiments of class are underwritten by disciplinary trends like the criminalization of homelessness—those municipal ordinances that penalize the everyday practices of people without permanent shelter, like public sleeping, eating, and excreting. And so on.

The latter example, the criminalization of homelessness, is especially telling. Under the relevant statutes, a range of minor embodiments are declared uncivil, and juridically excluded from the public sphere, leaving only the more civil(ised) embodiments of downtown business and consumption. In just such ways do minor embodiments contribute to the larger liberal formations of embodiment (in this case formations of social class and bourgeois consumption).

Food Not Bombs diner and-or volunteer, Tompkins Square Park, New York City, 1996. Photograph courtesy Vikki Law.

Food Not Bombs diner and-or volunteer, Tompkins Square Park, New York City, 1996. Photograph courtesy Vikki Law.

Radical social projects, queer encounters, and illiberal embodiment

In the same way, however, a constellation of minor embodiments may equally contribute to larger incipient formations of illiberal embodiment. Illiberal embodiments, then, are those enduring formations of hexis and habitus that evade or actively resist incorporation into the liberal biopolitical projects described above. And here is where we return to those Dumpster-divers, squatters, and other urban scavengers who reclaim the use value of those surpluses abandoned by liberal publics. We might think of their abject hexis as one kind of illiberal embodiment. There is no pretension here, of course, to a life lived “outside” of capital. (Indeed, many Dumpster-divers are critical of what they call “drop-out” culture, which naively pretends to live in this undiscovered country.) But nor do liberal economies or polities command all spaces and social worlds equally. As Povinelli points out, late liberal discourses live in an ongoing process of aggregation and disavowal of places, practices, and things. And in those things disavowed, there is the possibility for reassembling radical social projects. Such social projects, Povinelli writes, “disaggregate aspects of the social worlds and aggregate individual projects into a more or less whole,” (7). In other words, they represent queer rearrangements of prevailing discursive norms.

Anarchists sometimes put this prosaically: a common slogan reads, “Another world is possible, and exists in the shadows of this one.” To a large extent, that world is built of abandoned surpluses disavowed by late liberalism. The free feed-ins of 1960s radical street theatre collective, the San Francisco Diggers, for example, no less than the community organising and free breakfast programs of the Black Panthers, rested partly on the recovery of grocery surpluses that could be repurposed and redistributed. Fueled by such surpluses, excluded bodies and practices are freer to convene, and to constitute enduring worlds wherein they may imagine their relationships differently than under the prevailing liberal discourses.

In just such a fashion, Food Not Bombs has endured and grown steadily over three decades, from a single chapter in 1980, to hundreds of chapters on every continent but Antarctica. The social worlds of which it is a part have grown in corresponding fashion. In the process, it has often brought together both sheltered and unsheltered people—both at public food sharings and also in the kitchen—in relationships not possible within the typical liberal soup kitchen or food bank—with its sharp distinction between volunteer-providers and clients. Food Not Bombs’ informal structure, and the permissive atmosphere of community spaces, squats, and low-rent communal houses where it often cooks (which, importantly, tend to disavow or discourage any reliance on the police or the carceral state), the plentitude of its resources, and so on, also cultivate what geographers Victoria Lawson and Sarah Elwood have called “spaces of encounter” within which a range of people may collaborate, with some of the usual classed and racialised differences attenuated (if never entirely suspended) (2014). In a sense, then, social class itself is queered in the space of the kitchen. Similarly, Food Not Bombs and other anarchist projects are often spaces of encounter for new arrivals in a city—including both domestic and international migrants. To the extent that they create more egalitarian spaces of encounter, not directly premised on market or state recognition (and even hostile to these things), these social projects also queer categories of racial and national recognition. Thus do the minor illiberal embodiments—like squatting or dumpstering—scale up into larger illiberal configurations of identity and agency.

The privileges and oppressions that accompany liberal regimes of difference do not, of course, simply disappear at the doorstep. As one Black punk rocker put it, in James Spooner’s brilliant documentary Afropunk, his fellow white punks, can often just “put on a suit” and blend back into mainstream society—a privilege not available to punks and anarchists of colour. Nonetheless, as I’ve written above, the market and the state do not command all spaces equally, and the ethnographic spaces of encounter in which I have worked function in ways that resist or queer subjects’ wholesale interpellation within those liberal forms of embodiment described above. Their corresponding privileges and the projects of liberal governmentality that underwrite them are disrupted in the interest of, if not growing the proverbial “other world,” at least holding space for it. A “radical social project,” in Povinelli’s prosaic terms, is in this sense not only possible, but it endures in the detritus of liberal social worlds.

David Boarder Giles is a lecturer in Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Bothell. He writes about cultural-economies of waste and homelessness, and the politics public space in global cities. He has done extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Seattle and other cities in the United States and Australasia with dumpster divers, grassroots activists, homeless residents, and chapters of Food Not Bombs – a globalised movement of grassroots soup kitchens. 

This post is part of a series on Emergent Socialities of Waste that includes:
Dumpsters, difference, and illiberal embodiment by David Boarder Giles
The Value of Time and the  Temporality of Value in Socialities of Waste by Britt Halvorson
The Time of Landfills by Joshua Reno
Trading on Obsolescence on the Streets of Hong Kong by Trang X. Ta


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Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.            Lawson, Vicky and Sarah Elwood. 2013. Encountering Poverty: Space, Class, and Poverty Politics. In Antipode 46(1): 209-228.

Liboiron, Max. 2013. Modern Waste as Strategy. In Lo Squaderno: Explorations in Space and Society. Special edition on Garbage & Wastes. No 29.

Packard, Vance. 2011 [1960]. The Waste Makers. Brooklyn: Ig Publishing.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2011. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Spooner, James. 2003. Afropunk: The Original “Rock and Roll N***er” Experience. (Independently released.)

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2013. Sorting Out Commodities: How Capitalist Value is Made Through Gifts. In HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, Vol. 13, No. 1: 21–43.