Posts Tagged ‘class

27
Aug
08

saucepans, bonnets, and umbrellas

In Dickens’ David Copperfield, trash is a marker of class. When David goes in search of his irrepressible old school friend Tommy Traddles, for instance, he finds a street strewn with scraps of food and broken belongings, an index of Tommy’s straightened circumstances:

I found that the street was not as desirable a one as I could have wished it to be, for the sake of Traddles. The inhabitants appeared to have a propensity to throw any little trifles they were not in want of, into the road: which not only made it rank and sloppy, but untidy too, on account of the cabbage-leaves. The refuse was not wholly vegetable either, for I myself saw a shoe, a doubled-up saucepan, a black bonnet, and an umbrella, in various stages of decomposition, as I was looking out for the number I wanted.

Dickens ascribes a certain carelessness to the inhabitants, but the real difference between this street and a more upscale one would have been a lack of servants or other resources to have the trash cleaned up and carted away.

William Rathje, who analyzed and quantified residential garbage in Tucson and elsewhere in the US, showed that, in our own time, the wealthy create more garbage than the poor. Before we can throw something out, we have to buy it, after all. And the more money we have, the more we buy, the more we throw out. The effect may be magnified by consumerism, but there’s no reason to assume the state of affairs was essentially different in Victorian England.

The association of trash and poverty is by no means unique to Dickens, although its exact inflection varies from place to place and time to time. Phrases like “trailer trash” and “a trashy neighborhood” ring just a few of the many changes on this theme.

Calcutta Apartment Building

Calcutta Apartment Building

By and large, people distance themselves from garbage if they can afford to, but they do it in different ways, developing elaborate rituals for making it invisible or, on the contrary, refusing to handle it at all. In his Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins tells the story of how, in the 1970s, there was a lot of evident garbage in Saudi Arabia, only diminished by roving goats. A local source explained that Arabs considered themselves above handling garbage, so it was just thrown out of doors. I think perhaps in India a similar way of thinking produces such large amounts of putrescibles in the streets, in conjuction with and in immediate proximity to an intense devotion to personal cleanliness. I’d venture to guess that more per capita washing goes on in India than in any other place in the world.

In many places, the poorest of the poor live on and off garbage dumps. I assembled a brief list in a post about scavenging. Scavenging is for many practitioners an economic imperative, and the activity tends to brand them, functioning as a social shorthand for marginal status. One of Andreas Gursky’s large-scale photographs shows that it is nevertheless possible to make a life on the dump in terms clearly reminiscent of prevailing norms. The photo shows an endless stretch of open dump in Mexico City with a little dark clump near the horizon, which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be a village. An arrangement of makeshift houses is made complete by a parked VW Beetle, apparently in working order.

Advertising Poster for The Gleaners and I

Agnes Varda’s gentle documentary The Gleaners and I, about scavengers in France, points to other motivations besides economic necessity. Some gleaners don’t like the general wastefulness inherent in commercial farming, by which a good part of the harvest is dumped or simply never reaped. These gleaners follow a moral impulse diametrically opposed to the dominant econonmic mores of capitalist society, but perhaps there is also a certain waywardness in their behavior. Although there’s a general preference for orchards and fields over dumpsters among Varda’s heroes, there’s a general recognition that when the harvest is truly over in the fields, there’s another treasure waiting in the trash.

Varda also finds some who are simply fascinated by garbage, including the artists who scavenge their materials and build new things out of old in a way that exploits all the meanings adhering to the new and the old identities at the same time, the pathos and the courage both at once. Varda herself is one of these, and she shows up in the movie as a subject as well as the maker. What drives Varda, specifically, is a connection between trash and the tragic irreversibility of time, the entropic imperative by which all things progress to disorder. Her hands and her hair. Her ceiling with its leak, blossoming in frightful cabbage roses. Her carefully selected heart-shaped potatoes, from the poster, which show up several months later in an extremely disordered state.

Death and the end of time are foretold in garbage, and some prefer to make war on it, not by denial, but by careful inspection and, wherever possible, delight.

21
Jun
08

How the Other Half Used to Live

Jacob Riis (1849-1914), a muck-raking journalist who documented conditions in the slums of late-19th-century New York in his book How the Other Half Lives, is also a connoisseur of garbage and other forms of filth. Here he is on the city’s scavenger culture:

Riis, In the home of an Italian rag-picker

The discovery was made by earlier explorers that there is money in New York’s ash-barrel, but it was left to the genius of the padrone to develop the full resources of the mine that has become the exclusive preserve of the Italian immigrant. Only a few years ago, when rag-picking was carried on in a desultory and irresponsible sort of way, the city hired gangs of men to trim the ash-scows before they were sent out to sea. The trimming consisted in levelling out the dirt as it was dumped from the carts, so that the scow might be evenly loaded. The men were paid a dollar and a half a day, kept what they found that was worth having, and allowed the swarms of Italians who hung about the dumps to do the heavy work for them, letting them have their pick of the loads for their trouble. To-day Italians contract for the work, paying large sums to be permitted to do it. The city received not less than $80,000 last year for the sale of this privilege to the contractors, who in addition have to pay gangs of their countrymen for sorting out the bones, rags tin cans and other waste that are found in the ashes and form the staples of their trade and their sources of revenue. The effect has been vastly to increase the power of the padrone, or his ally, the contractor, by giving him exclusive control of the one industry in which the Italian was formerly independent “dealer,” and reducing him literally to the plane of the dump. Whenever the back of the sanitary police is turned, he will make his home in the filthy burrows where he works by day, sleeping and eating his meals under the dump, on the edge of slimy depths and amid surroundings full of unutterable horror. The city did not bargain to house, though it is content to board, him so long as he can make the ash-barrels yield the food to keep him alive, and a vigorous campaign is carried on at intervals against these unlicensed dump settlements; but the temptation of having to pay no rent is too strong, and they are driven from one dump only to find lodgement under another a few blocks farther up or down the river. The fiercest warfare is waged over the patronage of the dumps by rival factions represented by opposing contractors, and it has happened that the defeated party has endeavored to capture by strategy what he failed to carry by assault. It augurs unsuspected adaptability in the Italian to our system of self-government that these rivalries have more than once been suspected of being behind the sharpening of city ordinances, that were apparently made in good faith to prevent meddling with the refuse in the ash-barrels or in transit.

Jacob Riis, Bandit\'s RoostDespite the power of a passage such as this, How the Other Half Lives may be famous more for its photographs than for its fulminations against tenement conditions. Indeed, the pictures are amazing. Their documentary value is extremely high–the layers of filth over everything, streets and walls and skin and clothing , speak in a way no words can rival–but at least some of them do much more than document. They evoke the experience of the moment, not only through the eyes of the photographer, but through the eyes of their subjects. Some are just caught on camera–“shot,” as photographers are wont to say–but others are there with an idea of themselves, part of a world in which they exercise a degree of control.

And so they escape the limits of Riis’s own ways of making sense of the story. For all his empathy, Riis’s account is rife with the subtle superiority of one who’s never found himself among the teeming hordes on the wrong side of the documentary lens. Even more obvious than his class prejudice is a kind of universal ethnic disdain, which changes pitch but never disappears.

What saves Riis, in my eyes, what makes him still worth reading, is his mesmerized fascination with the splendid diversity of cultures, shifting like a checkerboard from block to block, that shines through his judgments. He is really a passionate ethnographer, animated not just by outrage over the exploitation of New York’s poor but by sheer joy in deepening his understanding how things work in the intricate cultural and operational machinery of a burgeoning metropolis. The poor, the slums, the garbage–all the less naturally attractive components–made a crucial part of that machinery, much as our own garbage is today.




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