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Utopia Gleaners

“The figure of the trash collector has a long and complex history; the image of the modest person who heroically or selflessly stoops to gather what others have refused has itself often been “picked up” by artists, writers, filmmakers, and cultural critics, and invested with exactly this kind of utopian resonance.”

By Tina Kendall
Image by Edward Burtynsky

On April 22, 2001, the streets of Buffalo, New York, were taken over by a group of “anarchist” protesters, a self-styled army of “trash can warriors” known collectively as the Garbage Liberation Front (GLF). Armed with shopping carts, flags, banners, and their mascot, the “giant liberation rat,” they stooped to conquer the city of Buffalo, picking up litter, recycling what they could, and erecting a tire swing for neighborhood children. Their mission? To expose the scandal of the disposable logic of consumer capitalism, which stimulates economic growth by encouraging wanton wastefulness.

In their “Communiqué No. 1” they insist that what passes for trash in our contemporary consumer societies is “rarely waste.” Rather, they maintain: “Garbage is a lie. . . . Why are dumpsters locked? Why do compactors destroy food when so many remain hungry?” For activist groups like the GLF and other such communities of dumpster divers, saving useful goods from the trash is a way of life, a protest, and a means of mobilizing social action against the environmental and socio-economic consequences of our society’s heedless wastefulness.

In these groups’ informational forums online, dumpster diving is often framed as an urban adventure, a hobby, or even a meditative practice like fishing. It is understood as an activity that enables a new relationship to the everyday, with trash functioning as a kind of threshold permitting passage from the mundane to the marvelous. A community called the “freeganist” movement advocates dumpster diving as part of an environmentally and socially responsible lifestyle, which recognizes that “in a complex, industrial, mass-production economy driven by profit, abuses of humans, animals, and the earth abound at all levels of production.”

But in the GLF’s “Communiqué” trash collecting is given a meaning that transcends economic or environmental activism. They assert that “We are the reconstruction workers, come in the name of liberation to demonstrate the power of community, the beauty of diversity, and to allow for the freedom of all. WE ARE PICKING UP THE TRASH OF FREE TRADE.” The utopic message of the manifesto is clear: the Garbage Liberation Front aims to liberate much more than our trash; it desires the “freedom of all” from the tyrannies of “capitalism gone mad,” and proposes a utopian ambition: to imagine the new kinds of social relations that might emerge from a changed relationship to waste. Trash is framed here as something that holds a utopian residue of hope that might be channeled into a social critique.

The signatories of the GLF manifesto are not the first to speculate about the utopic possibilities of trash—its hidden energies that are ripe, as it were, for the picking. The figure of the trash collector has a long and complex history; the image of the modest person who heroically or selflessly stoops to gather what others have refused has itself often been “picked up” by artists, writers, filmmakers, and cultural critics, and invested with exactly this kind of utopian resonance. The cultural critic Walter Benjamin places a great deal of faith in the power of collecting. For him, every collector is a potential revolutionary, but none so radical as the chiffonnier, or ragpicker. In formulating his theory, Benjamin draws on the writings of Charles Baudelaire, for whom the chiffonnier was one of the heroes of modernity. Ragpickers were marginalized figures of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, classed amongst Paris’s growing population of homeless and poor, who earned their living by scavenging the streets and collecting the refuse produced by the emergent processes of industrial capitalism. Although largely disdained as a dirty tramp by the popular imagination of the time, the ragpicker was reclaimed by Baudelaire as a key figure for understanding and defining the experience of urban modernity.

In his essay “On Wine and Hashish” Baudelaire pauses to contemplate the ragpicker’s relation to the new culture of consumption and waste that was then taking shape: “I have sometimes thought with horror that there were labors that brought no joy, labors that brought no pleasure, worries without comfort, sorrows without recompense.” Confronted here by the increasingly grim realities of modern urban life for the most disadvantaged workers, Baudelaire is moved to melancholic despair. But he soon corrects himself, saying: “There I was wrong. [The ragpicker] is responsible for gathering up the daily debris of the capital. All that the city has rejected, all it has lost, shunned, disdained, broken, this man catalogs and stores. He sifts through the archives of debauch, the junkyards of scrap. He creates order, makes an intelligent choice; like a miser hoarding treasure, he gathers the refuse that has been spit out by the god of Industry, to make of it objects of delight or utility” (7). The ragpicker’s task is the Sisyphean one of sifting through all that his age has deemed useless and thrown away. Much more than just a victim of socio-economic circumstances, though, Baudelaire’s ragpicker is an agent of redemption who converts trash to treasure, an unofficial archivist documenting and preserving the evidence of excess and social injustices that others pass by or choose to ignore. He finds illumination in trash, documenting the new experience of everyday life in flux; in this respect, the ragpicker bears an uncanny resemblance to the poet, who “stumble[s] over cobblestones[. . .] wandering in search of rhymes.” The essence of ragpicking is creative, reimagining and reinvesting new value in what is otherwise framed as trash. The trash collector effectively “dreams” his way into a better world by reorganizing the material and the social. This is precisely the task of cultural critique as Benjamin conceived of it. The critic sifts and searches through the pile of debris that the “storm of progress” trails in its wake, thereby redeeming objects and people cast aside as worthless by dominant modes of organizing and fixing value.

If Baudelaire’s writings on the ragpicker articulate a central truth about the experience of modernity in the nineteenth century, Agnès Varda’s documentary films, The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later (2002), can be seen as a manifesto for the ways in which everyday life in our time might change in response to the call of trash. The films follow various gleaners as they go about their routines of gathering up what other people throw away. Some of them pick up agricultural leftovers deemed unfit for sale and dumped in fields or left to rot; others, city dwellers, forage for food or household goods in urban trash; and artists—like Varda herself—incorporate trash and found objects in their work. In an interview, Varda explained that the film began with her desire to address an important social issue: “I had to piece it together and make sense out of it all in the film, without betraying the social issue that I had set out to address—waste and trash: who finds a use for it? How? Can one live on the leftovers of others?”

What is perhaps most striking about Varda’s Gleaners, however, is the fact that she declines the usual documentary filmmaker’s stance of observing her subject from a safe and sanitary distance. Varda allows herself to, in her words, “live in the film, to ‘let in’ the film,” to let herself come into contact with matter that is normally shunned and rejected, or ignored. Indeed, as the title suggests, Varda’s film is also a document of herself, an act of self-portraiture, a meditation on aging and the power of film to save images from the inevitable decay of time. There are moments of introspection in the film, and an affectionate complicity between Varda and her subjects; the filmmaker foregrounds her affective responses to others and her feelings of responsibility for what others might repudiate as worthless trash. She shows us that what we reject as trash, we also refuse as resource and as possibility.

The gleaners in Varda’s films embody the kind of generosity that might be possible for all of us if we learned to see the world outside the narrow definitions of value and meaning provided by consumer capitalism. They call our attention to the hidden social connections that are so often obfuscated in the circuits of trash. She explains: “We have been so much in this civilization of being beautiful, being young, being seen, being this, being that, being rich, and consuming. And the film is totally on the other side . . . [in] tenderness and peace with people. Some people don’t even look at gleaners. They see them in the gutter and they turn their head, because they think they will be ashamed. But it’s the one who looks who should be ashamed, because the other one when [the gleaner] opens the garbage he can say, well stupid people who throw out everything” (Rigg).

In this, Varda’s film reminds us of what Gay Hawkins has called the “relational processes that bind us to waste.” In her recent book, The Ethics of Waste, Hawkins argues for the need to consider the ethical significance of trash in everyday life. For her, representations of trash such as those in Varda’s documentary are powerful precisely because they present us with the “ethico-political” challenge of “imagining a new materialism that would transform our relations with the things we pretend not to see” (Hawkins 81). Varda responds to that ethical challenge by proposing the gleaner as a figure through which we might rethink our relations to waste. But beyond that, The Gleaners and I and Two Years Later demonstrate, as does the GLF manifesto, “the power of community” by framing a response to trash as a concern for those whose lives and livelihoods depend on it.

The Garbage Liberation Front, the filmmaker Agnès Varda, and the writings of Charles Baudelaire insist on or portray the duality of trash as a symptom of consumer excesses and as a figure of Hope. In other words, trash can document the world as it is, but it can also open up a space for thinking in unabashedly utopian terms about the world as it might be. To say, as the GLF do, that “garbage is a lie” is to define it as the product of a false way of organizing and consuming the world. The trash collector is emblematic of the call to found an alternative relationship to trash: ragpickers, dumpster divers, and gleaners are figures who represent the possibility that people and things that have been tossed aside, neglected, or destroyed might be lovingly gathered back up and reincorporated within the social system that rejected them. The trash collector’s gesture of redemption implies a generosity that encounters with trash could teach the rest of us. At their most powerful, collectors, gleaners, and gatherers document the injustices produced within the present, and in so doing they create a space for us to dream ourselves into a better future. This is what trash collectors do: by foregrounding the alienating effects of our disposable culture, they mobilize and make use of the utopic energies buried within the trashy, the outmoded, the worn-out, and the cast-aside.

Sources Cited:

Charles Baudelaire (1996) Artificial Paradises
Stacy Diamond, trans.
New York: Citadel Press

Walter Benjamin (1969) Charles Baudelaire: Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism

Harry Zohn, trans.
London: NLB

—(2000) The Arcades Project

Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, trans.
Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press

Laurie Essig (2002) Fine Diving

Salon June 10

Garbage Liberation Front (2001) Communiqué No. 1
Independent Media Center

Gay Hawkins (2005) The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish
Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield

Julie Rigg (2002) Gleaning Agnès Varda
ABC Arts Online August 21

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