Waste, (over) Consumption, and Ethics

With all of the other blog writing I am attempting to do this fall (two course blogs: queering desire, feminist pedagogies; a research blog; and a diablog project on feminist pedagogy), I didn’t think that I would (or should) be writing in this blog…at least until the semester ends. But today, as I was looking over a book that I checked out of the library early this fall for an unrelated project, I felt compelled to return here and write briefly about waste, (over)consumption and ethics.

The book: The Ethics of Waste
The author: Gay Hawkins

I haven’t really read much of the book yet, but I am intrigued by his preface and the opening pages of his first chapter. Hawkins is interested “in the ways waste is implicated in the making of a self and particular ethical sensibilities” (ix). He asks: “How does waste feature in our everyday habits and practices” (ix)? He envisions his exploration of waste in terms of ethics, habits and bodies, and aims to think about “how it might be possible to change ecologically destructive practices without recourse to guilt or moralism or despair” (ix). Cool. For me, becoming unchained (specifically in relation to changing habits that involve/encourage overconsumption or unjust consumption) is all about developing ways to break habits that get out of the dangerous cycle of hope then despair then resignation. I see some of this cycle happening in STA’s entry and my response earlier in the summer.

Each of Hawkins’ chapters speaks to a different type of waste and set of accompanying habits: an overflowing bin (ch 1), plastic bags (ch 2), shit (ch 3), a dumped car (ch 4), empty bottles (ch 5), worms (ch 6). I wonder where I might fit in my thoughts about not wanting to waste food and having too many opened bags of tortilla chips?

Here are a few passages that I have read so far that got me thinking:

When waste is noticed something shifts in the mundane landscape of domestic habits (1).


As much as putting out the garbage may feel like one of the most ordinary and tedious aspects of everyday life, it is a cultural performance, an organized sequence of material practices that deploys certain technologies, bodily techniques, and assumptions. And in this performance waste matter is both defined and removed; a sense of order is established and a particular subject is made. Waste, then, isn’t a fixed category of things; it is an effect of classification and relations (2).

Excellent. I can’t wait to read more (and maybe come back to this second passage in order to put it in my words). For now, my computer is almost out of charge and I’m not close to a plug. I’m excited about this book; I imagine bringing it into my graduate seminar on queer ethics next semester–the abject/waste/shit is a central part of queer ethics…maybe a section of the class (a week or two or more) should be devoted to the intersections between queer bodies, habits and waste management?

Addendum (from the evening of 11/13): I read just a little more of the book and found an interesting passage that is critical of linking waste with the abject and disgust:

When I first began work on it [waste] I turned to psychoanalytic explanations of disgust and abjection as an important source. This proved to be of limited use. While psychoanalyses is useful for explaining the visceral power of disgust in relation to bodily waste–the ways contact with shit or blood or pus can horrify and overwhelm us–most of the waste we encounter is not bodily and nor is it experienced as abjecting. The detritus of urban life congealed in gutters or dumped onthe street doesn’t destabilize the self. It just hanges around largely ignored. The centrality of abjection in accounts of the self-waste relation seems too ahistorical and subjectivist; too blind to the social and political frames that mediate how all waste is subject to classification (3).

Hmmm. I’ll need to spend some time thinking about this critique some more….Also, here’s a video of Žižek at a garbage dump from the movie, Examined Life. It seemed fitting to include (especially since we have discussed Žižek before.

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