Between the age of seven and ten, I was obsessed with Barbie, and this playing spilled out far beyond my bedroom: it involved looking around the house, in the kitchen trash bin, and on the street for things my Barbies might need. Thus used bottle caps became plates and saucers. A ring box became a coffee table. An empty tissue box became a bed. Stacked one on top of the other and lined with brightly coloured paper, the packing boxes my parents had used to move our family from Pennsylvania to Minnesota became individual apartments for the Barbies’ families to inhabit. And so I created a small world out of refuse.
My fascination with remnants and my love of scavenging lingered long after I grew tired of dolls (and realised how problematic Barbies are from a feminist standpoint!). If anything, this interest has grown stronger. When, in my late 20s, I returned to academia after a brief stint in market research and advertising, I found myself drawn to novels and stories about “things.” More often than not, the things in question were abandoned, broken, and of questionable value—the very opposite, in fact, of the product innovations I wrote about while working in the private sector!
My first monograph, Consumerism, Waste and Re-use in Twentieth-century Fiction: Legacies of the Avant-Garde, published by Palgrave Macmillan in November 2016, extends these interests to explore the political ramifications of reclamation through attention to the representation of garbage in a range of experimental novels from across the twentieth century. From an initial exploration of waste and re-use in three Surrealist texts—Giorgio de Chirico’s Hebdomeros (1929), André Breton’s Nadja (1928), and Mina Loy’s unfinished novel Insel (1930-1961)—my book traces the conceptualisation of material waste, surplus humans, and time-wasting in the prose Samuel Beckett published between 1950 and 1964, Donald Barthelme’s Snow White (1967), J.G. Ballard’s Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975), William Gaddis’s J.R. (1975), and a selection of novels by Don DeLillo written between 1971 and 1997. The last chapter considers waste’s role in a range of postmillennial novels, including Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (2013), Jonathan Miles’s Want Not (2013), and Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (2015). Each of these texts attends to surplus matter and surplus people (the unemployed, the homeless, and refugees) in order to both interrogate capitalist ascriptions of value and test the novel form.
Crucially, my contention is that these two efforts—the challenging of capitalist ideology, and the challenging of literary realism—are in fact connected. The French Surrealists argued that cast-offs, or what they termed objets trouvés (literally, “found objects”), had the capacity to challenge bourgeois (middle-class) values: by resisting interpretation, and through its absence of an apparent function or financial value, the objet trouvé had the capacity to subvert the rationalism of everyday life. Not only: it also lent itself to imaginative re-interpretation. The task of the artist (or writer), was to unlock the hidden potential of the objet trouvé, and in so doing “awaken” capitalist society from the stupor of an encroaching consumerism. According to the Surrealist credo, the reclamation of waste was thus a radical political act.
Variations on this theme are apparent in all of the texts my book examines, although the waste forms on which the individual authors focus, the course their acts of reclamation take, and the political import ascribed to them vary greatly. Indeed, the waste with which they concern themselves comprises not only cast-offs but the contents of trash bins; landfills (and the people who roam them); crashed cars; piles of scrap paper; and, on a more abstract level, the myriad of waste-laden metaphors, from “shit” to “scum,” we use to designate worthlessness. These writers use waste in fascinating ways that not only challenge capitalist ascriptions of value, but shed light on how such ascriptions affect artistic production, culture, and the popular imagination. They reveal, in other words, the political and moral fall-out—so to speak—of capitalism’s obsession with the new, and question its efforts to cultivate disgust for the old.
The works I discuss examine the story behind the discard, the process by which it lost its value, and its geo-physical trajectory from rubbish bin to landfill (or, in some cases, the story of a vagrant’s travels from one dump or landfill to another, and the many ways a person might resist exploitation). They also assume, in different ways, that discards can not only shed light on capitalism but also serve as a bizarre equalizer, shedding light on humankind as a whole. All humans excrete, regardless of class, race or creed, and all humans produce rubbish. Once in the landfill, our leavings mingle with everyone else’s. Status symbols utilised to distinguish their owners from other people are reduced to putrid, foul-smelling relics. To attend to waste is thus also to think about commonality, and posterity.
The depictions of manufactured waste and remaindered humans I examine enjoin us to relate to inanimate matter and to each other in more compassionate, and ultimately more imaginative, ways. They enjoin us, in effect, to see not as workers, manufacturers, or consumers, but as children in the midst of play.
Rachele Dini is an interdisciplinary scholar and early career academic whose work primarily focuses on twentieth-century fiction (particularly post-war literary avant-gardes, and the work of Don DeLillo and JG Ballard), eco-criticism, and New Materialism. She has an undergraduate degree in English from the University of Cambridge, an MA from King’s College, London, and a PhD from University College London (UCL). She teaches at the Foundation for International Education (FIE), Murray Edwards College (University of Cambridge), and the BASc Degree Programme at UCL. She lives in London in a flat full of (reclaimed and re-purposed) waste objects.