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The Anthropology of Trash: An Interview With Robin Nagle

by Alison Feldmann

Sep 27, 2010

"Every single thing you see is future trash. Everything." Dive head-first into the cultural significance of garbage.


I think about trash. A lot. Every time I struggle down the stairs of my fourth-floor walk-up with yet another heavy, seams-bulging sack of garbage, the weight of the bag equal only to the pull on my valiant, striving-to-be-environmentally-mindful soul. I try to recycle as much as I can, but it's tough; throwing a few bottles in another plastic bag hardly appears to make a difference. Trash just seems to be an unpleasant reality that has existed for all times and, if anything, its true purpose is that of a cultural barometer on what was deemed disposable, meaningless or lost in a particular time. As someone who routinely attends estate sales and trawls thrift stores, it's amazing to draw conclusions based on the remains of a life tossed aside without context. ("Jeans with tassels on the front. Obviously into country music.")

Today I'm sharing an excerpt from a recent Believer interview with Professor Robin Nagle, the anthropologist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation. Her thoughts on the ephemeral nature of "owning" anything really resonated with me, particularly the idea of object nihilism: that "every single thing you see is future trash. Everything." She hopes to ultimately form a Museum of Sanitation in New York. 

On to Alex Carp's interview. Read the original post in its entirety here.


Indigestible stomach contents of baby albatross. Photographed by Chris Jordan.



Since 2006, Robin Nagle has been the anthropologist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY). She is the first to hold this title (though DSNY has had an artist-in-residence since 1977), which, the department claims, makes it the city’s “sole uniformed force…with its own social scientist.” As an anthropologist, she trained in fieldwork and the tools of social science; as a sanitation worker, she had a route in the Bronx.

One of Professor Nagle’s largest current projects has been the attempt to build support for a Museum of Sanitation in New York. Reviews of a preliminary museum exhibit Nagle staged last year treated it largely as a curiosity, not really a surprise in a city that wants its garbage out of sight and out of mind. It is often when focusing on the paradoxes of this attitude that Professor Nagle’s work is at its richest: many of her insights come from exploring the social energy and meaning of an accelerated elimination process that, in the effort to make a city’s garbage invisible, has created Fresh Kills, one of the only man-made structures massive enough to be visible from earth’s orbit.

—Alex Carp


Photo by *caramimi* on Flickr


THE BELIEVER: You’ve said that “garbage is very scary to us culturally, and it is also… one of the single most fascinating things you could ever study.” And, at least back when you started, garbage was a “cognitive problem” that you didn’t fully understand. Why do you think most people, at least overtly, don’t react to garbage with such a complicated fascination?

ROBIN NAGLE: It’s a complicated answer because it points in so many directions at one time. Garbage is generally overlooked because we create so much of it so casually and so constantly that it’s a little bit like paying attention to, I don’t know, to your spit, or something else you just don’t think about. You—we—get to take it for granted that, yeah, we’re going to create it, and, yeah, somebody’s going to take care of it, take it away. It’s also very intimate. There’s very little we do in twenty-four hours except sleeping, and not always even sleeping, when we don’t create some form of trash. Even just now, waiting for you, I pulled out a Kleenex and I blew my nose and I threw it out, in not even fifteen seconds. There’s a little intimate gesture that I don’t think about, you don’t think about, and yet there’s a remnant, there’s a piece of debris, there’s a trace.

There’s a scholar at Stanford, his name is Bill Rathje. He wrote a book called Rubbish! and he’s an archaeologist of contemporary household waste. He trained classically at Harvard as a traditional archaeologist and did work among the ancient Mayan ruins. He says garbage is a highly visible problem that we choose to make invisible.

BLVR: You’ve written that a sanitation department that does its job well will make itself invisible, and, more generally but along the same lines, there is a sense in which garbage is the negation of culture. And William Rathje, whom you mentioned just before, has noted that humans are the only animal species not drawn in by garbage’s smells and colors. And yet, sanitation is such a gigantic component of city budgets and urban life, and, in New York at least, has created a landfill that can be seen from the earth’s orbit. That suggests that this blind spot is doing a lot of ideological work.


Photo by Jaymequack on Flickr

RN: Yes. There’s a Buddhist saying about housework, that it’s invisible labor because you see it only when it’s not done. That’s sanitation’s mission writ large, and in fact a hundred years ago it was understood to be municipal housekeeping.

BLVR: The anthropologist Mary Douglas is famous for writing about dirt as a shifting category for everything that is out of place: shoes on the floor aren’t dirty, but shoes on the dinner table are; it isn’t dirty to have cooking utensils in the kitchen, but it is to have them in your bedsheets. She sees what counts as dirt as a gateway to the bigger systems that judgments like this are caught up in, and a way to figure out how commonsense judgments become that way.

RN: Well, her argument is partly that you can understand the entire cosmos of a culture by looking at its definitions of dirty and clean, and acceptable versus unacceptable, the profane and the sacred. You can start with something as humble as dirt and read it out to an entire worldview.

As a scholar, you can start anywhere. And that’s the beauty and the challenge, the frustration and the terror and the lifetime obsession of a scholarly bent. I start with this set of questions because I just can’t figure it out.

The goal of a scholar is to reveal things that otherwise might never be seen or studied or considered or understood or debated. But that’s an infinite list! It’s also in many ways the job of an artist, to show us things about ourselves. The scholarship of anthropology sometimes gets trapped in its own lofty language…. If I can help illuminate some facet of us as a species that makes culture, as a species that tells stories, as a species that plays in ways that connect us to each other, then I’ve done my job. My entry point is through things we decide are no longer worth keeping.


Photo by annwood on Flickr


BLVR: Can you tell me about some of the things you envision putting in the Museum of Sanitation in New York? What do you want it to look like?

RN: I want people to come through the museum, and when they get to the other side, they will understand the importance and the difficulty of the labor and the people who do it. I want them to have a sense of who is doing this work now and who has done it in the past, what it’s been like. Who literally shoulders the burden? Because it is still a bluntly physical responsibility in many regards. I also want people to understand how we are all implicated in the process of creating garbage, which is why you need a well-run sanitation department. I would also like, and this may or may not come to pass, for people to understand why it’s better that it be public rather than private. That’s been a debate since the Dutch: should it be a public responsibility or privately contracted? I want people to see the machinery and how it works and why it makes so much noise and what happens when you put twenty-two hundred pounds per square inch of pressure on a bag and it explodes back at you. I want a mongo collection.

I want people to understand what you and I talked about earlier: the actual topography of New York is garbage-based. Cities all over the world, that’s what was done with garbage for centuries. There could also be—I don’t know if this would be a permanent exhibit or something that would be a show—but how have other cultures and times dealt with this problem? You talked about how we’re now at fifteen feet, and we used to be at six feet. Well, ancient Troy, ancient Rome, Babylon, Jerusalem, Paris, all these old cities, it’s the same: you’re standing on centuries of the physical detritus of those who preceded you. So we’re walking on history all the time. Wouldn’t it be cool to know that?


Photo by neuroxik on Flickr


BLVR: I recently read a history of urban garbage, which had been reprinted twenty years after it was first published. In the new edition’s preface, the author wrote that during the time between printings—which I guess means since the early 1980s—“garbage has not changed as much as garbage history has.” What’s behind this relatively recent interest in what he called “garbage history”?

RN: If you look at the environmental movement of the ’60s and ’70s, and how concerns about the environment are no longer bracketed as separate, but are increasingly becoming central to our understanding of ourselves, politically and economically, for short term and long term, questions of garbage are inevitable inside those conversations. Therefore, since scholarship is always—well, sometimes—a step or two behind public conversation, of course scholars would come to garbage eventually.

BLVR: Another thing that’s come up a lot in things you’ve written is how easy it is to forget that as cities industrialized and grew quickly, a stench became a part of everyday life. It wasn’t rare to have people leave garbage, or even human waste, under their buildings or throw it out their windows daily. In the book you’re writing now, is this something you try to convey in a visceral way?

RN: It is easily forgotten. And it’s not just with industrialization. Cities stank. There’s a beautiful book by a guy named Terence McLaughlin called Dirt: A Social History. He talks about how Paris was so rank in the 1100s that the king wouldn’t stay there. And how in the 1300s London paved its streets as an attempt to do something about the smell. Because, yes, people would tip their chamber pots, and animals would defecate, and there would be all kinds of waste just thrown into the streets, which were dirt. Then it would become this mud that was apparently redolent with really bad odor.


Photo by Curious Expeditions on Flickr

BLVR: A number of the archaeologists who use their training to dissect landfills make the argument that a landfill, a collection of a community’s garbage, can speak about communities and human behavior in ways that people in those communities can’t. I came across one example by Arizona’s Garbage Project that found—during a beef shortage and then, again, during a sugar shortage—that more wasted food turns up in landfills when that food is known to be scarce. This would seem to be unintentional but is still pretty striking.

They also found, repeatedly, that people are unable to accurately estimate the amounts of things they buy, or eat, or throw out, but that they are pretty reliable when reporting on their neighbors, or at least much more reliable when reporting on their neighbors. So it doesn’t seem like most people lack the ability to make these sorts of estimates, but that they do have some sort of block that prevents them from knowing their own behavior but doesn’t prevent anyone from being perfectly functional in their daily life.

RN: Well, look, my child is always blameless in any altercation, but yours is a damn bully! I mean, that’s very simplistic, but finger-pointing outward is certainly easier than finger-pointing at yourself. And wagging your finger in judgment at your neighbor is as old as the first time two people settled down next to each other. And in fact it’s a pretty powerful social control mechanism. There’s a deep anthropology about exactly that.


Photo by Roadchubbs on Flickr


Excerpted with permission from The Believer. Read the original post in its entirety here.

What will live on after you're gone? What's the cultural significance of what you create? Let's discuss in the comments.

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Alison Feldmann

Alison Feldmann is the head of editorial and brand content at Etsy. When she's not trawling Etsy for pottery, folk art, and vintage oddities, she enjoys traveling, historical nonfiction, thrift store shopping, and cooking (poorly). She loves a good cat video.