"emberwall" is a short story about kinship, time, and loss, with elements of magical [sur]realism and nonlinear narrative.
guiding questions // clues for the curious:
The lamp shone over the desk, occasionally flickering. Energy surged; it flitted in pathways through wires from bulb to socket to circuit. In the faint glow one could make out the sheets of paper, several of them, spread across the floor, tacked onto the walls in no cohesive order. Energy surged. Hood draped over his head, demented friar, Ari crouched over the desk, blotting. Beginning at the top of each sheet, he scratched the pen side to side, each word made illegible. Now and then he held it down and let the ink seep into the sheet and onto the desk. An excess within needed to overflow, to spill elsewhere. No one needed to read his thoughts, to squander their efforts. It would never synchronize properly. Sheet after sheet, then onto the notebooks, fetched sporadically from the carpet, blotting.
He did not understand what had compelled him to devote a life to researching and writing, to attempt to invoke some deep-rooted significance from an existence which certainly lacked that which certainly was a slow motion decay several motions of which he had yearned to halt distill and alchemize. Every book in the best library would boast only black ink on black pages so the eyes would not strain more than necessary which if they must do so at all was more than necessary. Reading is decoding is scrutinizing is not necessary so blot it out black it out and for god's sakes have it over with. If you must print books print black on black and save the populace the strain the mind does not need to be bothered so. Thoughts are ephemeral so write them down so they do not remain so but the mind's sparks are ephemeral too and it's all so confounding and circular and so erase and scratch and cross out the symbols.
These books in particular needed to be blotted for the sake of Ari's reputation and protection. He had found the research groundbreaking and very much necessary in order for him to reach into the vortex and yank out something substantial and he did not know this but all he had done was regress not reverse was undo not redo. He had meticulously crafted a tapestry but now had come time to unravel the strings. It was hard to imagine who among his colleagues at the university and companions elsewhere would approve of the writings and the final action they suggested.
His hands shook incessantly. And so he crossed out the characters.
He came across the last page of the last notebook. The illustration: an inverted equilateral triangle; writing along the edges; a vertical eye in the center; above, the scribbled ignition. Other variations with different shapes and starting points for the words had been inscribed elsewhere on the page, but were now crossed out. Ari found himself staring at the eye in the triangle and it stared back and he blinked and it didn't. Its reach beyond his, a godly perception beyond the flesh here immortalized, yet his pen had etched it. A transient sense of purity. What had he meant? If he hadn't defaced the previous pages he would know. Something within seemed to know he could know but lied to him and said there's no point there's no point erase damn it erase.
Air rippled through the room almost imperceptibly but it did not follow the expected flow; it seemed to branch out in random currents in random zones and Ari was still staring into the eye on the page. If it would only blink and acknowledge and subsequently envelop him but it wouldn't it was not his and he could not will it and its inscribed being enthralled and surpassed him and he stared and did it stare no only he stared. Without deciding he decided to leave the image untarnished.
← ← ←
Lucas sat in the twilight on the couch with the needle in his arm, the one that would always be there at some point or another. The gaps between his molecules were vast and unassuming, forming the loosest parameters of a complete mind. Watermelon-like, the cells served only to hold the liquids vaguely in place. His fluid had yet to congeal, and in its vulnerable turbulence dribbled from him and down the chins of others. It was imperative that he condense, and do so at once. Once solidified he would come to know the defiance that is the birthright of all autonomous things.
But would these thousand spirits gain entrance to the celestial realm wherein lay, coveted and luminous, the uniform self? Could he synthesize the shards without the aid of a needle? What was buried could not be exhumed, even by him it ensnared, not in any literal vulgar way nor by any other method. His old pal had tried with his pen. Had tried to offer him another go at their kinship and his outlook. It was for him the dial most needed reversal, but it was he who had been left behind by the blood, hers not his, in that accursed tri-tipped image—left before and after only with the needles, bittersweet friends, keys to that dazzling galaxy within his arms.
← ← ←
Hers not his. The sound seemed to bounce from the air around her into the doorbell as she pressed it. The ringing had been emanating in the hallway beforehand, reverberating in the musky air. Then pulled like a vacuum into the button and the silence upon pressing. As it were, Julianne Porter stood oblivious to this, gaze unfocused on the door. Everything was periphery everything particles first miniscule then wider until they overtook anything in the foreground. Feet shuffling and then door opening and Ari there looking and him goddamn it what do I have to do now this visit can only create how do I erase.
Can I come in? Yes.
Ari walked away and sat on the couch and Julianne closed the door and the sound of silence at the wrong time again not what you'd expect and neither noticed. Julianne sat across from him and there were a great many blotted pages everywhere.
Ari, can we talk? Yes.
I need your help.
Neither was looking at the other or in front of them or at anything else and what else was there. He made no reply.
Another publication fell through. No reply. I'm at wit's end here. No reply. It seemed as though words might have come out but she wasn't sure, like they had but had been sucked back in but she hadn't been able to catch them like if the mouth moved it was all quiet and if it didn't there might have been something but she couldn't be sure. She tried again.
I'm not asking for money or anything. Can you just read over my manuscript again?
The intonations did not synchronize properly with the motions of either set of lips.
No. Why not? Because I can only tear down, not upraise. What do you mean? Why, look at the floor.
So she strained her eyes to exit the peripheral glaze and see minute forms so she noticed the words all scratched out and desynchronization over and over again which did not mean a thing and she did not grasp it on the most conscious level but something submerged shook and rattled and growled at the sight of what had divorced them all from each other and from themselves. She might have pleaded further but the space between her and the submerged was too deep. It was useless and he wouldn't change his mind and the submerged Julianne touched that without really transmitting it to her and without volition the legs stood up and crossed the room and the being inside if you could call it that did not think or decide.
Goodbye Ari. And again the sound that failed to correlate properly and again that no one noticed.
← ← ←
Like a faulty windshield wiper glazing debris along a windowpane, the junk smeared across his vision. The glaze was uneven, leaving little pockets of high definition peppered occasionally throughout. Julianne stood there before him in mostly sepia tones. Her once upright figure stood slumped and haggard. The wrists that always snapped into motion behind the keyboard were no longer limber; they dangled like worms at the sides of her dirty sweatpants. How could she have altered so drastically in so brief a period of time? What compelled her to suddenly come by so frequently, without judgment or condescension? She lacked the proper marks from using, especially on one with such delicate, pristine skin. Lucas knew this all too well. It wasn't drugs. Perhaps it was a death. Perhaps he could get it out of her this time, if he could emerge from his own murk to begin with. And so.
Are you sure you don't want to sit down? I wouldn't say that. So you do want to then? Nor that.
Lucas watched her look into the air and then across the floor, every so often stealing a glance at him, holding it for an instant without nervousness or concern, then sinking back into her own wiggling domain. She served merely as the point into which objects reflected their existence, a static ephemeral thing next to their perhaps undeniable solidity. Radical idealists held that the existence of physical objects was contingent upon the mind of an observer, that if the sensory perception of said mind were to be removed, the external would disappear completely. With Julianne it seemed quite the opposite; if the masses enveloping her were to retreat, even momentarily, she would recoil backwards and inwards into a patch of air.
Lucas thought she might slip imperceptibly into a shadow cast by the wall and it made him uneasy. The unease made him not quite but almost lucid. He strained his eyes to see her. He was sober and her outlines were shaking and the wall behind her wiggled. Little dots of static wiggling about the expanse that held her, ever so tenuously, intact. Embers blazing side by side fusing to erect a facade but they could not and then only chunks of wiggling hellish charcoal.
What's happened to you, Julie? I can't… I can't say. Yes, you can.
A long silence, then faintly. No.
Spit it out. Why are you here if you don't want to talk? I don't know… why I'm here. Pause. I don't know… what's happened… to me.
Did someone die? No… I don't think so… I can't remember.
The faintest, faintest flicker of recognition on the outlines of her eyelids.
Did I die? No, you're still here. Were things different before?
Not for me, but for you, much different. But how can you not know? Did you take something? Did I take something? A drug I mean. A needle… here. I mean did you take something else with someone else. Not that time with me.
Slowly thinking, then saying. If I said I had taken something, would that be an explanation? It might.
I want to say so, then. But I don't believe I did… I don't believe.
Was it with Ari?
It was the first Lucas mentioned of him in years, but it didn't faze Julianne. Ari… I don't think so. I didn't take anything, I don't think… Ari. But he's the same as me.
The same as you? How? Yes. The same as me.
Ari had not, as long as they had been friends, dabbled with substances. It was unlikely he would now. He relented. He could not assess the situation. The fissure between them could not be bridged, the two obscured by distinct forces: his hazy sepia, her rippling outlines. He knew she was lost. How it came to be did not matter. The rigid woodpole she had spent her life constructing had been hacked down, down, woodchips thudding onto the floor, a nebulous shaking outline in its place. It was not that the real Julianne Porter had been marginalized somewhere within the frame of those jittering lines, but that her very selfhood had been extinguished, swallowed up quietly and entirely. She stood there before him, rippling.
Lucas did not know what to say or do. She, the writer, even less so than he. Like the candle, the highest tip had been ignited, the fuel and energy sparked and used. This slow burning could only bring about one end: what was once a beacon would thereupon be a wax puddle, misshapen, pale and indicative of its prior state only in form, never in spirit.
← ← ←
The figures excised from the last scrapbook still sat in the kitchen trashcan, removed from the memories and buried beneath browning banana peels and damp coffee filters. It was as though they, the heaps of trash, were endowed with endless value and the spaces around them, shiny and pristine, were meritless by contrast. The scraps had not been cut out of photographs; photographs had formed around those empty spaces. Janis Hudson excavated these figures, exhuming a dozen Janises from their resting places, smiling or sitting or cooing, and placed them on the kitchen counter. Hello to you too. And you and you. Why were you abandoned so, little selves? To hell with that, and to hell with them all. She found herself transfixed by the figures, each an instance of her youthful radiance, each a projected self, a direction she could move in and embody, each a fresh, vivacious, beautiful little thing, ready to engage and love and proliferate.
Transfixed by the figures. Their dark eyes gentle and cheeks faintly shaded, rose-like. It was good that she had separated them from the rest, the non-Janises. She did not need them. Why bemoan the absence of those who clearly lacked commitment, who did not understand devotion? She would make a new set of scrapbooks, and these would counter the others. As for the others, she wouldn't keep them. They were to be tossed. After all, who had ever wanted them? Her husband had disappeared without a word. Her son with his absurd theories and his inscrutable nonsense all the damn time. No, this new series would feature only her, darling, loveable Janis, a testament to her will and success. At the pinnacle of these reflections, her phone rang; the words slid quietly atop the pile of voice messages she hadn't and wouldn't listen to. Complacency and joy the same, inextricable to the subject for whom they hold.
In the bathroom, she gazed longingly at herself in the mirror. No longer the miniatures but the real thing in its supposedly three dimensional glory. Or she thought she gazed at herself but in fact the mirror gazed at her, projecting her flatter-than-she-thought image from the glass onto the linoleum in front of it. A projection of herself, of beauty, of confidence. Traits that she lacked before but had suddenly, inexplicably acquired, as if through chemical or ritualistic means.
As if through chemical or ritualistic means. She applied the foundation as usual, then the lipstick and eyeliner normally reserved for special occasions. And why not? If beauty can be augmented, from gorgeous to glorious, why thwart that? Her heels clomped across the living room floor and over to the door, body in pursuit of legs. Her clothes were tight and revealing and she did not think of herself as a mother, even a member of society, subservient to no entity other than glory, clomping and turning deeply interested heads. She would go into the city and meet someone. And why not?
← ← ←
The eye had something of a conscience and so it deemed that she could know; this information might need an alternate form, an illusion or distortion perhaps, but she would know regardless.
Things were not always this way an inkling pervaded Julianne that there had been somewhere a prenatal existence somewhere in the surrounding static wind she had been searching for an envoy who would inform remind save but he was not there or elsewhere and it all sloshed about in the ether disparate points beertop foam swirling in the dried engravings of her cerebral cortex almost thoughts almost. Something had pulled her apart from herself had taken the individual segments of her persona threaded together so tightly to form a core and pulled the thread and some pieces remained but others permanently lost and those that remained were not in the right order were out of synch like the sounds and words and lights and wind about her.
The rippling outlines solidified temporarily, unified enough to form a sensation like determination, a sensation that propelled her to at least comprehend what she knew she could not amend. She had willed the fragments to pull together briefly—it had to be so, they could not hold long—to grasp the predicament, the nature of her curse. It was all she had left of her bygone mentality, to analyze and open portals, to scrutinize to the third degree, knowledge that she knew would not yield change, but was a form of knowledge, an innate and not an instrumental desire, valuable in itself even if she remained stuck.
It was for these reasons she stood in the hallway outside Ari's apartment, there during the Philosophy course he instructed, there with the ringing that sounded when the bell wasn't being pushed but lapsed into an uncomfortable silence when it was. But she would not press it today, and if she had he wouldn't be present to open the door regardless, he had not spoken to her since her last visit but she had checked the department's website, easy enough to discover the proper time but the method hadn't come to her yet. But it would, she knew. She would literalize the fragmentation of her core to disperse and seep and seep she did the pieces became dots the whole loosened it was only conjoined through the faintest remainder of a will so if she allowed her concentration to lapse it all would follow shred dissipate seep into the deep ridges alongside and underneath the doorway through the minute openings feeling and perceiving nothing cognition and selfhood relinquished.
Then Julianne or something akin to that on the other side of the door. Molecules in their conventional place now to investigate and comprehend. She strode slowly to Ari's study and began perusing the papers strewn on the floor, on the desk, tacked up onto the walls. Everything blacked out scratched vehemently thoroughly not a word to be gleaned. Every ripped sheet and every page of every notebook. Even the black tome with the sheets dipped in ink not a spot of white nothing whatsoever to read. The submerged grasped that Ari was not always a destroyer of language; he had, in some lost history, been the opposite. Something had changed and lay hidden within the pages.
She finally came upon it, one sheet partially salvaged, in the back of a leather bound volume, the most regal of the collection. The Kings passage reversed ending with the vertical eye in the triangle. Julianne did not have to read the excerpt to comprehend. Her eyes widened, wide as they could, petrified, glistening at the edges, moistening with tears. The eye stared at her, its iris flaring up, the beacon she sought, that elevated force more perfect than the beings from which it borrowed its outlines, that which directly perceived and absorbed all, transmuting it into coal-colored flames, burning with the fuel of perception, more direct and immediate than the text that hugged it on all sides, it wanted her to know what he didn't, her to be privy as a small recompense for the mishap of blood, her the accidental victim and he the usurper of its grand vision, and so she looking into it, transfixed, knew what he had considered but had not realized fully, though she could not possibly know this, it was truly logically impossible for her to know this: that the dial of Ahaz was improperly constructed, the story indeed amounted to nothing more than myth, titillating but vacuous, Ari's belief in a collective imaginative faculty willing its mythology into reality false, the factual basis for the mechanism distorted, the mechanism enabled gone awry and so too the trinity of bodies within its scope, and so not reversal, not the intended reunion and reconciliation, but instead sighs and whimpers, only sighs and whimpers, forever sighs and whimpers, until those too would disperse.
The suggestion of a breeze trickled in through the windows of the study. Rays of summer light reached inward and struck Julianne's desk in direct, linear strokes. From the source to the receiver, as one would expect. They fell upon a stack of cerulean hardcover books, each a discrete iteration of a single work entitled Flights and Follies. Below the title shined the name Julianne Porter, and the underside obscured a serious but pleasant photograph of the young author.
Across the next room, the door unlatched and the illustrious woman in question stepped inside.
She placed her keys on the hook by the door and removed her blazer with one motion, hanging it on the coat rack. After crossing into the study, she seated herself at the desk and released a condensed sigh. Her eyes fell upon the book stack, much like the rays of daylight before her. Straight lines from the eyes of the sun and the woman converged at the same spot from their respective focal points. Upon converging, the narrow lines rebounded, returning to their sources, transmitting the knowledge to both minds. Julianne smiled with pride, and the slightest hint of vanity appropriate for a person so youthful and grand.
Catching herself in this brief moment, Julianne opened her laptop and began perusing the day's emails. A series of congratulatory messages greeted her, from friends and acquaintances of all sectors of life. She had acclimated to these effusive outbursts and the associated sensations of embarrassment were beginning to subside. She would respond to each later, adding the new group to yesterday's backlog. After closing her laptop, Julianne retrieved an envelope that lay within the top drawer. Handwritten in the man's eccentric, nearly inscrutable script, the letter, from its fond address to Jules and throughout its tailored, specific reaffirmations to her character, substantially augmented her long-awaited sense of achievement. Ari, whose name sealed the close of the contents, was not one for whom such words came readily or frequently. Julianne slipped the letter back into its place and resolved herself to the cult of forward motion.
→ → →
Miss Hudson leaned forward from the green couch and towards the coffee table. Sunlight and dust had washed out the fabric and made it a sickly khaki color, one that engulfed her as her weight sunk into the mold of her bottom, a mold decades in the making. She shifted slowly through the array of photographs on the table, one after the other, sorted perfectly and neurotically by the date in which they were taken.
Three such photographs were deemed the most crucial for the succinct efficiency in which they encapsulated a life. A boy with black hair and bright eyes tightly clutching a yellow puppy in his arms like the most precious of infants. The same boy with another, with lighter hair; this other boy expressionless while the black-haired one beamed profusely. And one of herself, with the child from the other two, flanked by a man whose eyes caught something outside the frame at the last moment. The images all belonged to the same period of the boy's life; in them all he stood ready, vital, and unaltered. Miss Hudson looked at her younger self at his side and caressed each with a lingering finger. With a pair of scissors, she carefully excised herself from the photograph. This she did in every scrapbook; each one a wholesome conglomeration of images with the occasional ghost looming in the background, its figure expunged from the composition because it was deemed unworthy, it was not a complete being, it had attempted to engage the masses around it but this attempt went unreciprocated, he and he and the masses and they would not be her stalwarts, her beacon or her patrimony, they would not so she could not and so she would slip inwards and backwards, the memory would be altered, only those in essential existence allowed to have a presence. Miss Hudson slumped deeper into the couch. Her gaze blurred in and out of focus, from crisp strokes of vision to a uniformed periphery and back. She would make this scrapbook for her son, and slide it tenderly atop the others.
→ → →
And he made darkness pavilions round about him, dark waters, and thick clouds of the skies. The eyes scanned left to right, down, left to right, down. Move and shift and move and shift and do not look away just yet. The piles of texts on Ari's left would have them think his was a religious studies dissertation. And while they were invaluable for the context, the truly vital tome was much newer and quicker to read. It sat beside his notebook, a desperate thing filled with those trademark inscrutable scribbles, the only volume not from the aisles surrounding him, obtained rather surreptitiously. An unfinished work, the small leather-bound book lay heavily in its own enshrined austerity. Why was it unfinished? It needn't be, it needn't be. But Ari could only peer inside when he was certain no passersby approached his sequestered den on the top floor.
The connection between each side of the desk was clear, the dichotomy split evenly by his notebook: ay, he would let the shadow return backward ten degrees. It was no light thing. And that was what, but how? The small leather book provided the knowledge, but its author had only arrived at conditional and not actual truths. Ari found himself clutching a lantern in the outskirts of a primordial woodland. The lantern had taken years to discover, both in its object and operations. All that remained was the exactitude of steps, the lefts and rights and directional flourishes of toes forward and diagonal towards the beacon beyond the trees, luminous but obscured by trunks and undergrowth. And so Ari reread the texts and scribbled frantically in his notebook, pulsating with the thunderous ache in knuckles and synapses that would finally seize the vigor of he who rides on clouds.
No one would expect Ari Hudson's apartment to be any different from the way it was. Everything meticulously stacked by subject atop the desk, or filed away in drawers below. Writing utensils grouped by color and type in their respective holders. Walls barren and sterile because knowledge had been contained, ushered into hidden pockets and clandestine volumes. His mother had tried to inject décor through her trademark photo collages. Much to her dismay, however, he hung these only in unfrequented corners. Ari had appreciated the sentiment but found them clunky and overbearing in their hyper-nostalgia: a mere glance at Lucas or his old puppy would immediately reinvigorate the despondency that sat like a rough-hewn tar chunk in his gut. Luke. He found it a curious matter that the two of them, so deeply bisected at odd ends of experience, could then coalesce at the same locus of misery. A rough-hewn chunk in his gut. His writings and books did not make him feel this way, and so it was these that he hunched over at his desk.
The hanging lamp kept the shadows at bay. The link was clear; now for the particular movements. And Isaiah the prophet cried unto the Lord: and he brought the shadow ten degrees backward, by which it had gone down in the dial of Ahaz. Ari wrote the excerpt from left to right. But this was merely a starting point. Though his aim was not unlike theirs, he would not trace the steps of the disciples. Form would follow function. And so below he wrote the inverse. zahA fo laid eht ni nwod enog dah ti hcihw yb, drawkcab seerged net wodahs eht thguorb eh dna: droL eht otnu deirc tehporp eht haiasI dnA. This would not suffice, as Ari had expected. He was still writing from the top down, and why? Merely because that is what one does. And why?
The inverse again, this time from the bottom upward. Ari had foreseen this failing as well, but he was working through the steps to slowly dismantle the paper's sense of convention. Though no longer going from left to right, the origin remained stubbornly on the left. From the bottom right and up, then, and again in columns until the top left corner. But why use a rectangle at all? Form must follow function. Man's disobedience was crucial, and Ari was almost there. He had pushed the branches aside and was standing directly in front of the beacon. It still shone a heavenly glow. He would touch it and it would change, reform its flame to shades of obsidian. But he would need more than knowledge entwined with defiance to do so. Ari left enough space for one more character in the center of the page. He would shift to the appropriate shape when necessary.
The process, as far as he understood it, was succinctly thus: first, desynchronization, then reconstruction of the temporal elements in the desired arrangement. Desynchronization the stripping away the divorcing of each human body from its knowledge and identity. Once divorced the parts could be reassembled as necessary. His reconstruction would be a reversal, wherein the predominant ethos of each would return to a prior form, untainted by the entropy that had gnawed them all down over the years and placed them at odd angles of the triangle without hope for convergence.
He realized, without fear, that one portion of the process could succeed, while the other could suffer complications. Everything out of synch and only disarray. Things worse than they were before, though they seemed unbearably low at present and he could not fathom a suffering beyond the present. Perhaps it was for that reason that no one had attempted it. Perhaps too they had regarded the Book of Kings as a mere myth. Ari certainly did, but thought that enough belief in something could—could—yield materialization, that perhaps a collective imagination, even in something so hopelessly ludicrous, would usher it into being in some weak but exploitable sense. And if the story had even a shred of truth to it through this collective ascription of significance, then it could be extracted and thrown on its head.
That was the theory anyway. A theory imagined through words, utilizing words, hoping to affect something beyond words. It had taken Ari ages to realize that erudition alone would not suffice. The black tome had hinted that one could get this far, then still be one step short. Ari was confident that his studies could help him bridge this final gap, but knew too that no amount of arcane letters alone would do so. He would step beyond what was formed and organized and proliferated and human, beyond and back into the primordial juices that charged and could recharge. An ignition image and blood. Sight and feeling utilized so that sight and feeling could be altered. Once he had the blood they would no longer be stuck. It was no light thing.
→ → →
Lucas tied off his left arm with his right. He needed to lay off the right for a while. The bruise peered back at him, an indigo glimpse into another galaxy. The sun had just set and he slumped on the couch amid the graying embers of remaining light. He had somehow convinced Julianne to join him the night before but tonight he would be alone. The little syringe he had provided for her sat next to his larger one. Lucas only gave her a small helping but she hadn't enjoyed herself. Her stomach had splintered and her head swam with nausea. It was too much. She wanted to experience all that life had to offer but not that. He had shrugged at her reaction, saying nothing until she left. She had given him one final, lingering glance. Then the door closed quietly, sound and movement synchronized.
Lucas applied pressure to the syringe. Lucas was the wooden frame around a flash of light, the parameters around something nebulous that had once began the process of burgeoning but was thwarted shortly after inception. The path had grown too dusty too soon and so he sank himself into the dust.
The agents that would have enabled him to do otherwise were not to be trusted. They were arrogant, pretentious, parading their masturbatory writings in the name of creation and scholarship. He hadn't congratulated either of them; not her for her novel, nor him for his various acclaimed theses and articles that were rapidly circulating every department. He read most of Flights and Follies but couldn't get past the first page of any of Ari's theoretical treatises. Their works were heaps of words heaps of letters heaps of lines marks scrapes and nothing more. The last true feelings were scratched vaguely onto cave walls centuries ago. Everything else was merely another layer atop the systematized construction of human endeavors, a massive, inorganic pile of floating space expanding infinitely only to strengthen and extend ephemeral institutions. Lucas applied more pressure to the syringe, exhaled. He would evade their trap and take a detour. He would not permit mankind to obstruct the direct and immediate flow of one spark to another.
→ → →
Ari was still standing in front of the beacon and it was still heavenly but it wouldn't be soon and in the wake of this he grinned. In moments it would meet his fingers and he would be healed like Hezekiah before him. Only he would achieve it himself, without the need for Abraham or any other being. In the attic, the necessary components sat before him. Their acquisition proved supremely difficult both physically and psychologically. Ari had gone into the country and purchased the goat from a jovial farmer who assured him her mother had been as strong and reliable as they came. He had drugged the infant beast and placed it in a potato sack just outside the coal outline of the triangle, under the table in a small tub. He couldn't bear to look at it for the time being.
Ari's second source of internal contention had to do with his mother, whom he had visited earlier that evening. It was the first time in over a year and her stagnancy seemed to subside for an hour while they reunited over tea. While she prepared the biscotti on an elegant silver tray in the kitchen, Ari dropped and stirred three Ambien capsules in her cup until they dissolved. She remarked that the tea was not as good as she remembered and apologized repeatedly. After she had fallen asleep, Ari slipped a needle in and drew a small volume of blood from her arm. It pained him to do it and he had would have preferred a more subtle method but it would not hurt her and even if it did it would not matter once the dial was set back. She would wake up groggy and perturbed the next morning but it would not matter once the dial was set back.
The three vials lay on the table next to the knife, the brush, the torn sheet of paper from the notebook, and the black tome. The other vials were easy to procure both literally and psychologically; one was his, the other Luke's. Ari had found his living room window ajar. His old friend had been unconscious on the couch with a large needle sticking out of his arm, and so Ari took the smaller one on the table nearby, filled with blood from what looked like the night before, before heading out through the window. He deemed the theft doubly warranted: firstly, there was no shame in removing a tool that would only harm a junkie. More importantly, Luke was sure to benefit greatly from the experiment as he would get a second chance at everything.
And so would they all. The researchers before him were daunted by the radius of effect they needed to invoke. They had been too ambitious. They wanted the dial back for everyone, for the world itself, as conventional desires had dictated for ages. Ari would greatly limit the scope and thereby ensure its success. The secret was in three, not in infinite, points. His aim was not a lofty or lustful one. It was for himself and his loved ones alone, and even then only the troubled ones on the brink of absolute despair. What he had to do was unpleasant but it had to be done. If it could be, if all the volumes of texts and endless ruminations accumulated to this evening, why shouldn't he reach forth to reach back? Even if the energy he needed to invoke was vile, why shouldn't he reach forth to reach back?
Ari stepped forth and took the blade in his hand. He was not proud of what was coming but expiated all reservations from his skull for the sake of precision. He hunched under the table and lifted the heavy potato sack. He removed the small goat from the sack and placed it into the tub, forced the blade into its virgin heart. The fur matted as its life ebbed out. The beast did not cry or awaken. Ari pulled out the blade and let the carcass drain and pool into the base of the tub. With the brush he painted over the outline of the triangle with the blood, beginning from the bottom angle and moving clockwise until he met the starting point. He then copied the excerpt from the notebook, dipping his fingers in the tub and painting the letters inside the triangle, following its outlines from the bottom and counterclockwise until the center. He left enough space only for the ignition image, a vertical eye whose composition would be human and not beast. This he painted in the vacant space in the very center, first with his blood, then a second and third coat with his mother's and Luke's. A small volume remained in each vial, which he smashed onto each corner of the triangle in the same order. The glass shards glistened at each point and Ari's hands bled afresh.
Each step had been executed slowly, deliberately, with the careful exactitude of a man whose craft had been years in the making. With the final vial shattered it was complete. Ari stood up at the base of the inverted triangle and stared directly into the crimson eye at its heart. It returned his stare. Its outline thickened and pushed outward in every direction, pulsating with the juices of its subjects. The beacon was lit and flared up, the flames flickering the color of coal. Some sort of regress was imminent. In the attic, the great eye widened and widened.
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selected literary criticism & music journalism
 Introduction: Situating the Critical Discourse Surrounding Waste
A paradoxical and porous category, waste presents a series of cultural conundrums: simultaneously repulsive and attractive, ubiquitous and invisible, utterly necessary yet, by definition, valueless. Whether in the form of material waste or refuse, bodily waste and excretions, social waste (sometimes wasted, and more often than not deemed wastes of space) and the places they inhabit, these subjects, objects, and spaces are considered extraneous and inessential, a waste of time itself to ponder, when considered at all. Yet waste starts to turn up everywhere the moment we look for it, the everyday castoffs of the various economies that we participate in, and in which we are inescapably embedded. There is, in fact, a quiet but long-standing history of literature and art fixating on waste as the thematic, formal, or social centerpiece, the subject matter, the aesthetic principle, or in some other capacity, the very ethos of the work. What purpose or purposes could an artwork centered on waste, an aesthetics of trashiness, possibly serve? How does art respond to and work towards the production of paradigm shifts in the history of trashmaking? How might these castoffs signal back, tellingly, to the economies which birthed them, and where else might they signal?
This dissertation seeks to examine waste in its literary forms, primarily but not exclusively as represented by twentieth-century American prose writers, as they develop alongside the institutionalization of private and municipal waste management and a consumer culture increasingly divorced from the stewardship of objects. First popularized in literary modernism and cultural studies in Charles Baudelaire’s mid-nineteenth century landmark work Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), and later excavated in Walter Benjamin’s 1930s writings on Baudelaire, the interrelated topics of waste and trash, waste’s most omnipresent manifestation, have since grown exponentially, becoming a discourse unto themselves. From 2014 to 2016, a series of critical works across the disciplines of literary and cultural studies, philosophy, environmental studies, urban planning, and sociology (Viney 2014, Bozcagli 2015, Morrison 2015, Rania and Jazairy 2015, Alworth 2016, Dini 2016) have focalized waste as an increasingly pressing and dynamically flexible rubric for excavating the discarded elements of modern literature and culture. In this way, the study of waste often serves as recovery work: trash gets swept aside, trashy literature unflinchingly centers it, and literary, social, and urban garbologists extend that centering.
While this dissertation focuses on twentieth-century U.S. prose, these texts cannot be fully understood without some recourse to foundational texts produced in nineteenth-century European literature. Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde, two important apologists for trash and uselessness respectively, establish a contrarian ethos and aesthetics which the next century of waste-oriented literature, by scrutinizing the lowly and abhorrent, generally retains. Les Fleurs du Mal, Baudelaire’s decadent scrutiny of urban and erotic experience, opens by announcing to its appalled audience that its principle aim is to “find charms” in the “most repugnant objects. His poem “The Little Old Women” maliciously addresses the newly developed urbanite, who “trudge[s] on, stoic … / through the chaotic city’s teeming waste” (Baudelaire, IV, 1-2). In marked defiance to this apathetic figure, Baudelaire suggests that the urban poet must immerse himself completely in this ignored refuse material, directly and with a morbid tenderness. In poems such as “To a Red Haired Beggar Girl,” he extends this poetic attention and sympathy to the socially discarded, though no poem encapsulates this ethos as thoroughly as “The Ragpicker’s Wine,” wherein the ragpicker moves through the Paris, here termed a “muddy labyrinth” collecting “the dregs, the vomit of this teeming town,” in direct relation to what Baudelaire considered the poet’s task: to engage wholecloth the city’s discards in lieu of myopically or hypocritically denying their existence whatsoever (4, 16). Walter Benjamin drives this point home in his 1938 essay “Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire”: The poet’s task is to locate his “heroic subject from this very refuse,” to serve as a counterweight to the masses of ordinary citizens who fail to see it (108). As opposed to the Romantic subject whose engaged aesthetic is nature, the modern poet considers, in the words of Bill Brown, “the detritus of culture” his “fully engaging aesthetic object” (11).
Alongside the figure of the ragpicker, fin-de-siècle aestheticism works to instantiate alternative systems of value that twentieth-century art continues, complicates, and rejects. “All art is quite useless,” declares the infamous preface to Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and it is precisely this uselessness which is to be cherished, not bemoaned (xxiv). The aestheticists demand an autonomy of art from other intersecting manmade institutions—political, economic, and moral—seeking a prized sphere of production not tethered to the vulgar and literal-minded pragmatism of the marketplace or Victorian didacticism. Uselessness becomes the standard by which art is judged because usefulness serves as that standard for the majority of other discourses and practices. Here we see an early and influential initiator of an alternate and contrarian economy of value, one which confers value onto valuelessness largely due to its negative assignation by the dominant order of the historical moment. In the interwar period of the next century, this inverted aesthetic hierarchy is taken up by Virginia Woolf, whom Douglas Mao dubs “an inheritor of those rebellions in which the aesthetes and decadents pitted a doctrine of beauty as terminal value against the renowned Victorian tendency to stress art’s powers of moral instruction” (29).
In aggressive contrast to the nonobjective and aesthetically autonomous aims of early abstract art, the avant-gardes of Dada and surrealism—in particular the readymades and the surrealist found objects of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray in the mid-1910s through the 1930s—highlight the contingency, rather than the autonomy, of the art-object in particular and the institution of art altogether. This is sometimes achieved through the use of trashy or lowly objects, in part because such materials make the supposed disparity between art and non-art most immediately and jarringly apparent. More broadly, however, this is performed through the historical avant-garde’s attempted fusion of art with the quotidian, the material manifestation of everyday life as a countermeasure to aestheticism’s dissociation from “the life praxis of men” (Bürger, 48).
The foregoing proto-modernist and avant-garde explorations of the undesirable, the overlooked, and the displaced speak to the relationship between waste studies and Anglo-American modernisms. In the eyes of the urban majority, trash—a ubiquitous, worn-out element of experience stripped of its commercially appealing, visually dazzling appearance—is designated as banal. Trash and other banal objects are seemingly inappropriate subjects for mimetic representation, yet modern art repeatedly focalizes and renders them both visible and significant, whether due to their intrinsic or potentially transcendental properties. Duchamp’s radical interventions play an essential role in this abrupt and jarring switch. While a readymade is not a piece of trash or even a form of waste—after all, a bicycle wheel, urinal, or comb, modified though more or less intact, still retains some glimmer of functional use or exchange-value—the way in which the readymade is repeatedly dislocated from one network of value and reinscribed in other, purportedly mutually exclusive networks, functions in parallel fashion to trash-centered art. For it is the artist’s surprising and even shocking choice of debased, lowly, or quotidian subject matter and materials—in Thierry de Duve’s formulation developed from Michel Foucault, the enunciative function which states “This [lowly rubbish] is art”—which is responsible for the object’s passage into the aesthetic realm (98). By puncturing the plenum of each previously sequestered domain and re-situating their contents, such a passage fundamentally uproots the foundations of both systems thereafter (98).
“The Lowly Remains” is informed by a wide array of critics, functioning in part to survey influential scholars in the field as starting points for cultural excavation. It is a critical commonplace for scholars of waste to begin with cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas. Indeed, nearly every book on the topic—Gay Hawkins’ The Ethics of Waste (2005), William Viney’s Waste: A Philosophy of Things (2014), Zygmunt Bauman’s Wasted Lives (2005), David Pike’s Subterranean Cities (2005), Susan Morrison’s The Literature of Waste (2015), David Alworth’s Site Reading (2016)—opens with a discussion of Douglas’s analysis of polluting behaviors in Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), the landmark work in structuralist anthropology which might be considered the ur-text of what this dissertation terms “trash studies,” the literary and sociological extension of the overlapping fields of garbology and archaeology. Mary Douglas famously defines dirt as “matter out of place” (45). Her examples illustrate how cultural concepts of pollution rest upon spatial context and a violation of the ordering principles entailed therein: shoes, for instance, “are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining-table; food is not dirty in itself, but it is dirty to leave cooking utensils in the bedroom, or food bespattered on clothing” (45). If, then, dirt is “dirty” in a bed but not in a garden, then what makes dirt problematic is not its material fibers, but its violation of categories and its penetration of borders regulated by complex rituals which keep polluting behaviors and objects at bay.
Recent scholars such as Martha Nussbaum and William Viney have challenged Douglas’s ideas, including her radical stance on relative structures of difference or her over-emphasis on place rather than time. Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, Nussbaum’s 2004 study reconsidering contemporary U.S. obscenity laws, criticizes Douglas for defining impurity almost exclusively in terms of spatial anomalies. Nussbaum notes that there are anomalies that do not elicit fear or disgust, suggesting there is more to the phenomenon than its contextual outlier status. The example she uses is a dolphin—as sea-dwelling mammals, dolphins violate biological and spatial borders but are not viewed as dirty or contaminating (Nussbaum, 91). In Waste: A Philosophy of Things (2014), William Viney challenges Douglas’s emphasis on matter out of place, opting instead for an emphasis on matter out of time, given that notions of inutility and uselessness operate not merely in a spatial but also in a temporal framework. Because it is tied not only to where it is and is not, but when it has and has not been, waste is “both inert and mobile, in and out of place” (Viney, 112).
Despite these criticisms, most work in the field is coextensive with Douglas, applying the porous boundaries of dirt and cleanliness to other spheres, such as urban space, literary taste, and bodily contact. Douglas’s assertion that dirt is a contingent rather than necessary substance opened the doors for scholarship to consider multiple forms of undesirable detritus in the context of social practice—that waste matter can be “read,” and that such readings reveal that waste is context-dependent, ultimately working to unsettle the borders between private and public, between cleanliness and trashiness, and between the categories that order space itself.
Douglas’s account, then, provides an intriguing and flexible rubric for examining various discarded elements of modern culture. If cleanliness must eliminate trashiness, the identity of which is predicated on its expulsion from “a systematic ordering and classification of matter,” then trashy literature and art poses a radical potential for disordering basic categories, be they related to commodity production and fetishism, literary aesthetic values, border-averse emotions such as fear and disgust, or the ordering of matter in the form of urban planning, to name a few applications pertinent to our inquiry (Douglas, 45). Trash writers and scholars have used Douglas’s basic assertion—that waste is contingent, legible and culturally informative—to ends as diverse as these, some of which will now be outlined, before we eventually turn to alternate methodological starting points and limitations.
While matter is classified along lines of pollution and cleanliness in every epoch and culture, where those lines are drawn and which principles they enact varies greatly. The particularities of modern regulatory practices and attitudes towards the production of goods and the excesses they create must therefore be attended to at some length—specifically, the transition to a modern Anglo-American consumer culture intent on efficient production, a paradigm shift which constitutes the historical backdrop of the dissertation’s first chapter on corporate waste. Alongside Douglas, the work of this dissertation is heavily indebted here to American historian Susan Strasser and French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose contributions to the field will now be summarized.
Strasser’s Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (1999) details the many minute transitions in the means of production in the nineteenth- and twentieth- century U.S. and the corresponding social attitudes towards possessions and refuse—and, more crucially, how objects progressively slide from one category to the other at faster rates over time. In examining a wide range of primary documents including domestic advice books, household and factory inventory lists, sanitation policies, reform efforts, and trade journals, Strasser produces a taxonomy of common goods and their increasingly public, rather than domestic, production. Here, Waste and Want echoes the now well-documented transition from agrarian to industrial capitalism, wherein the production of basic necessities shifts primarily from the home to the factory, from within the household to without. Prior to this transition, customers “practiced habits of reuse that had prevailed in agricultural communities” (Strasser, 12), including boiling food scraps into soup or feeding them to livestock, taking worn-out items and clothes to their makers or mending them one’s self, reusing grease for cooking or to craft candles or soap, repurposing worn objects as toys, or burning them to heat rooms and cook (Strasser, 30).
Strasser’s text utilizes Lévi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage, one central to this dissertation, to illustrate the fundamental paradigm shift in the modern history of trash. In The Savage Mind (1962), Lévi-Strauss defines the bricoleur as “someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman” (16-17). The bricoleur does not limit his materials to the conventionally received set—the “materials and tools conceived of and procured for the purposes of the project”—opting instead for “whatever is at hand” from a wide and “heterogeneous repertoire” (Lévi-Strauss, 17). This odd-job man thus exhibits a synergy, rather than a divide, “between the toolbox and the junkbox,” or, in its gendered nineteenth-century equivalent, the sewing kit and the scrapbox (Strasser, 11). The rise of factory production, by contrast, widens this divide. Whereas nearly “everyone was a bricoleur in the preindustrial household of the American colonies and, later, on the frontier” (Strasser, 22), as the site of production shifts outside domestic space, the general populace’s “kinesthetic knowledge of materials” wanes (Strasser, 11). More and more, fewer people can mend worn-out objects and feel a decreased sense of responsibility and proximity towards those objects, as what was once a necessity becomes a superfluous hobby. This, in tandem with an increasing emphasis on convenience and speed, marks the gradual move towards a fledgling interwar consumer culture—emphases which, as will be demonstrated, expand significantly in the postwar era.
The shift to modern consumerism entailed, then, not merely a change in where commodities originate, but in who possessed and continuously practiced the tactile skills to produce, evaluate, and repair them—not merely a shift in the social organization of producers or their attitudes towards equipment and nourishment, but the range of technical abilities upon which those attitudes rest. From the standpoint of the unskilled or underskilled user, the object’s period of usefulness is truncated more and more, its range of life at that node of its circulation lessened. As obsolescence occurs much earlier in an object’s life cycle in contemporary history than ever before, discarded objects become more and more materially present and conceptually pressing. As will be illustrated, trashy literature and art often opts precisely for these bricoles—the odds and ends jettisoned from dominant economies of value—in part as an effort to bring them into an alternative system of circulation with wider and less rigidly utilitarian and pragmatic parameters than those held by the factory or average consumer.
Systematic practices thus arise in turn to meet and form the demands of a consumer culture whose relationships to objects becomes increasingly transient and atomized. Much as the expulsion of dirt defines purity, capitalist models of mass production are predicated on the expulsion or mitigation of inefficiency, of useless matter and wasted energy. In this vein, cultural critics Anson Rabinbach, Mark Seltzer, and Elspeth Brown examine the paradigm shift that arises in the development of Western industrial capitalism deemed the productivist model of efficiency. Rabinbach’s The Human Motor (1990), a detailed study of the relationship between nineteenth-century European scientific discourses and the development of the fully-fledged bureaucracy of industrial capitalism, defines “modern productivism” as “the belief that human society and nature are linked by the primacy and identity of all productive activity, whether of laborers, machines, or of natural forces” (3). Emerging scientific discourses analyzing the release and containment of energy, such as thermodynamics, form the basis for a factory model which unites modern subjects in the establishment of values pertaining to speed, efficiency, and the reduction or elimination of waste. Rabinbach looks at the emergence of conceptions of fatigue and neurasthenia in nineteenth-century science, which take on central importance in Western culture in the 1870s and beyond. This manifests as a “widespread fear that the energy of mind and body was dissipating under the strain of modernity,” with increasing attention afforded to “the need to conserve and restrict the waste and misuse of the body’s unique capital—its labor power” (Rabinbach, 6).
As we will see again in waste discourse, waste is aligned with, and often defined through, fear: the fear of wasted energy, objects, subjects, and spaces alike, and the violation of dominant principles and borders that this entails. Seltzer’s Bodies and Machines (1992) and Brown’s The Corporate Eye (2005) extend Rabinbach’s analysis (Brown’s explicitly stated purpose is to apply Rabinbach’s European framework to corporate American visual culture), noting that this paradigm shift entails a rethinking of the human body as a mechanism whose inevitable waste products must be controlled in the name of orderly production. Seltzer notes that “bodies and persons are things that can be made,” and that the “conversion of bodies into living diagrams” allows for a transcendence of their limitations through both scientific and ideological management (3, 160). In turn, Brown considers the manner in which photography was put to use in American corporate culture precisely through the diagramming that Seltzer observes—that the advent of photography made it such that bodily movement “could be frozen, broken down, and reassembled into a more efficient combination of individual movements,” which in turn could be used to instantiate the ideal “subjective relationships to the workplace and to finished goods” in the name of a highly programmatic direction of energy into maximum efficiency with zero waste (4). In their discussions of productivism, Rabinbach, Seltzer, and Brown take up early sociologist Max Weber’s concept of rationalization, defined in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) as the secular reorganization of “economic life, of technique, of scientific research, of military, of law and administration” around the principle of efficiency rather than religious belief (26). As with productivism, the facet of rationalization specifically concerned with labor, rationalization substitutes efficiency for “magic as a means to salvation” (Weber, 117).
Both the fear of waste and the quasi-metaphysical belief in production as the prime mover of nature and industry alike are epitomized in Henry Ford’s My Life and Work (1922). The specter of waste looms over the industrialist’s autobiography; indeed, it is anathema to Ford, appearing on nearly every page as a deplorable and unnecessary condition of the status quo. The opening passage excoriates the contemporary factory model for encouraging workers to “waste so much time and energy” and therefore lose the “full return from service” as a result (Ford, 2). In criticizing agrarian labor methods, Ford identifies “waste motion—waste effort” as the culprit for high overhead and low profits (15). Elsewhere he identifies ignorance as the culprit for waste in its many iterations: “Waste is due largely to not understanding what one does, or being careless in the doing of it” (Ford, 19). Waste aversion culminates in detailed rationalization as a scientific and technocratic antidote when Ford calculates that reducing ten steps a day per each of his employees would result in saving “fifty miles of wasted motion and misspent energy” (77). Wastes of space are also targeted, as he details the measurements required to give each worker the exact amount of room to operate his machinery: though the workstations “may seem piled right on top of one another,” they are in fact “scientifically arranged” according to this principle, so as not to squander an inch (Ford, 113). Since the industrialist exhibits “a horror of waste” both “in material” and “in men,” the onus rests on him as manager and arbiter to strategize and implement the appropriate regulatory methods to combat this horror (Ford, 16). The essentialist rhetoric of intrinsic horrors and aversions that every industrialist exhibits here closely echoes Thorstein Veblen’s discussion of humanity’s inborn appreciation of efficiency in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), wherein he states that man “is possessed of a taste for effective work, and a distaste for futile effort. He has a sense of the merit of serviceability or efficiency and of the demerit of futility, waste, or incapacity” (15).
Time, energy, materials, motion, space, and men: all can be wasted under careless management, yet all can be salvaged through calculated, scientific arrangement. While Ford’s immediate inquiry concerns the manufacture of automobiles, the parallels to theological salvation narratives are clear, as Weber and Rabinbach have noted. Ford himself expands the reach of productivism to moral and metaphysical domains, for instance, when he vehemently states that “nothing is more abhorrent than a life of ease” and that “there is no place in civilization for the idler,” directly echoing Christian intolerance of sloth as well as its value-laden rhetoric, or when he expands the range of his postulations to “the largest application,” insisting they “have nothing peculiarly to do with motor cars or tractors but form something in the nature of a universal code” (13, 3). Under productivism, the principles of mechanical production are not specific to industrial capitalism but extend to all worldly registers, guiding and animating matter itself.
Certainly, attempts to minimize the wasted energy of labor efforts are not unique to modernity, though the scale to which they were rigorously theorized and implemented in these decades was unprecedented. While Fordism is the most well-known of these systems, it relied on foundational precepts inherited from Taylorism, so named for American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor. At the turn of the century and through the 1910s, Taylor instantiated the system of scientific management expanded and transformed by Ford. In our history of corporate mechanisms undergirding waste production, as well as the transition from steward to consumer culture, the transition from Taylorism to Fordism is worth attending to here. Martha Banta’s history of this transition in Taylored Lives (1993) corroborates Ford’s own comments on the expansion of productivism beyond the realm of the factory. Whereas Taylor “had concentrated upon the man as laborer,” he paid “no attention to the house environment to which the scientifically managed worker returned at night” (Banta, 215). By contrast, Fordism “insisted upon the tight fit between laborer, citizen, and homeowner,” a tripartite structure aided by the establishment of the Ford Sociological Department, which provided varied benefits and assistance in procuring single-family housing (Banta, 215). Whereas Taylorism provided laborers with the minimum income necessary for subsistence and focused on the standardization of the labor process, Fordism instantiated a more pervasive model of production, consumption, and habitation by providing higher wages allowing for and normalizing commodity consumption and homeownership (Brown, 5).
Productivism and waste aversion therefore permeate well beyond the context of the factory or the public sphere, operating on domestic, moral, bodily, spatial, and social registers, as this dissertation seeks to demonstrate. Gay Hawkins’ The Ethics of Waste (2005), drawing upon Strasser’s historiography, shows how these principles extend into domestic space by means of a rhetoric oriented around convenience, noting that the production and marketing of more streamlined and packaged domestic products in the 1920s, whose aims were to prevent unnecessary domestic labor, brought “economic rhetoric about efficiency and streamlined production” into the household, thereby extending productivist principles and transforming the domestic sphere “into a site of fast, competent production” (26). American home economist and Taylorist Christine Frederick helped popularize these ideas through a series of articles in the Ladies’ Home Journal throughout the 1910s, as well as her book advocating domestic consumerism as part and parcel of a wider American ideal, Selling Mrs. Consumer (1929).
The logical extension of this ever-expanding discourse also manifests in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), whose citizens move “steady as the wheels,” delighting in, above all else, “the principles of mass production at last applied to biology,” among other sectors (7). The novel’s dystopian application of Fordism satirizes modernity’s secular substitution of transcendental mysticism with overtly theological overtones. The majority of the novel’s characters, part of a labor force whose consciousness is homogenized in the name of efficiency, literally worship maximized production and hygiene, reciting Fordism’s hypnopaedic slogans such as “Cleanliness is next to Fordliness” and “History is bunk” or valueless (Huxley 91, 28). This latter aphorism, the aim of which is to lessen the parameters of understanding with respect to products and subjects alike, is telling in a waste-averse culture—one of the dissertation’s central arguments, detailed in the chapter summaries to follow, is that trashy literature aims to expand a historical understanding of objects not merely within, but beyond, the economies through which they circulate. As will be demonstrated, Viney is correct to assert that the practice of hiding waste matter spatially and ideologically also entails temporal consequences—when trash is only given serious consideration at the apex of its market value, its subsequent degraded forms are omitted or obscured from historical consciousness, as the consumer views only a narrow slice of processes of production, circulation, consumption, disposal, and reincorporation. It is also detrimental to the productivist machine itself, which paradoxically remains inefficient due to its wasteful jettisoning of materials; productivism aims to maximize market value while simultaneously narrowing the parameters of that value.
Thus far we have been attending to waste aversion, theorization, and implementation on the corporate scale, particularly the ascendancy of scientific management and rationalization under early twentieth-century American capitalism. While rationalization mitigates wasted motion and energy of the discrete laboring body, it does not explicitly probe the interior waste matters of that body. A second and slightly messier subcategory of waste studies analyzes the production of organic, rather than corporate, waste, on the anatomic level. Although the fear of wasted energy and materials mirrors the fear of debased human matter, the operating principle here is not efficiency, but disgust, having less to do with ideology and more with materiality. The corporate subject may disapprove of or discard trash, but it would be an exaggeration to say that it repulses him in the way bodily waste usually does. Alongside Douglas, the precursor here is Julia Kristeva’s influential definition of the abject presented in Powers of Horror (1982). The abject, neither subject nor object, draws the subject “towards the place where meaning collapses,” near but not beyond the margin of understanding (Kristeva, 2). It disturbs “identity, system, order,” and violates “borders, positions, rules,” attracting and repulsing the subject, threatening its radically contingent integrity, beckoning it towards a fatal destruction (Kristeva, 4). The parallels between Kristeva and Douglas are abundant, but for Kristeva the analysis revolves around a substance more debased than dirt: bodily excrement. “Excrement and its equivalents (decay, infection, disease, corpse, etc.)” present a fundamental “danger to identity that comes from without: the ego threatened by the non-ego, society threatened by its outside, life by death” (Kristeva, 71). While Kristeva’s account is primarily psychoanalytic and not anthropological (the abject reveals a traumatic separation from the maternal body into the ordered realm of the Symbolic), waste matter is once again coupled with unstable boundaries and the horrific fear of their undoing, a fear inextricably tied to our relationships to the undesirable. Along the same vein, Jesse Oak Taylor defines abjection as “the body’s reaction to its own matter out of place” (117). In other words, one way of conceiving Kristeva’s theory of abjection is by viewing it as a transposition of Douglas’s reading of dirt onto the human body; whereas Douglas considers “the sociocultural level of the social body,” Kristeva focalizes the individual body’s subjectivity and materiality (Taylor, 117).
Recent work in affect studies extending Douglas and Kristeva has sought to thoroughly define disgust, often through a taxonomy of disgusting objects, their effects on human psychology, and the ideological implications therein. Disgust is, according to affect scholars Colin McGinn and Carolyn Korsmeyer, primarily an aversion to two loathed facets of human reality: debased materiality and mortality. Disgust arises, in other words, when the human subject is reminded of the fleshiness and eventual decay of his or her body. McGinn’s The Meaning of Disgust (2011) analyzes disgust in terms of its tendency to elicit recoil: we turn away from the disgusting object in order to “preserve our disgust-free state of consciousness,” so as to “keep consciousness ‘clean’” (11). Korsmeyer echoes this directly in Savoring Disgust (2011), writing that disgust “erects a protective barrier between subject and object”—i.e. it rejects the subject’s proximity to the object in favor of distance (35). What is actually being kept “clean” is consciousness itself, not merely (and sometimes not at all) the body. Nevertheless, the content of such unacceptable ideas has to do with the corporeality of the body: blood, snot, and semen make it such that “our vaunted quasi-divinity dissolves into the mess of organic reality” (McGinn, 74). Bodily excretion revolts because it disturbs an anti-materialist idealism of transcending one’s flesh, an “ontological distance from our animal bodies” (McGinn, 74). Waste matter is, as we will continue to see, deemed better unseen, even as it flows dangerously beneath the surface.
Korsmeyer, returning to Kristeva’s theory of abjection, analyzes the disgust produced by proximity to corpses, arguing that “the ultimate recoil is from our own mortality” (35). Disgust arises when consciousness is threatened by contamination, with the central fear of losing “our bodily integrity,” which here means dying, decomposing, and becoming “the disgusting object itself” (Korsmeyer, 35). When it comes to bodily waste, then, fear is bound up with expulsion: not the expulsion of trash or of inefficiency, but of undesirable biological facets of lived human experience. Most interestingly for our purposes of examining trashy literature, perhaps, is the idea that such emotions arise indiscriminately in response to aesthetic and physical objects, or to representation and presentation alike. Korsmeyer notes that disgust has the capacity to “impart an intuitive, felt grasp of the significance of its object” in a fashion that other emotions do not—that the power of disgust informs the subject of the disgusting object with a sharp intensity (8). Disgust “achieves a direct and immediate arousal that penetrates the screen of mimesis or artistic rendition. That is, one recoils viscerally whether the object of disgust is aroused by art or by an object of life” (39). This idea, while dubious as thus boldly formulated, poses potentially radical consequences for the trash scholar, and maps onto a long-standing series of debates regarding the relationship of art and life and the challenges modern and postmodern art pose to classical conceptions of mimesis. If disgust overrides a suspension of disbelief in the reader, then disgusting literature has the potential to harness a potently disruptive aesthetic power, not merely a categorical or conceptual one, and one that allows for something akin to mimetic transparency, or, as will be argued in a later qualification of Korsmeyer’s assertion, semi-transparency. In the intermediary space between aesthetic and external reality, the literature of waste forces the experience of abjection onto the reader, but at one layer of removal, bringing abhorred objects back into focus in a way that physical interaction with them cannot.
Given the multitude of economies that function through the production and attempted elimination of waste, trash studies centers on a third and related subcategory: spatial waste, which shifts in both focus and scope from the corporeal to the industrial, from the microcosmic view of the body from within to the macrocosmic view of the city from below. The practices of urban planning, public sanitation, and urban renewal enact the concerns of a waste-averse culture on a grander scale through the attempted containment of undesirable populations, the construction of sewage and other streamlined waste disposal systems, and gentrification, respectively. In “Walking in the City,” the influential chapter on urbanism in The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), French philosopher Michel de Certeau follows the through-line inaugurated by Douglas and later taken up by Rabinbach and other scholars investigating rationalization of the body, analyzing the maintenance of polluting behaviors, bodies, and objects in the context of the modern metropolis. City planning, writes de Certeau, regulates and produces space by repressing “all the physical, mental and political pollutions that would compromise it” (94). Productivist civic administrations, utilizing the Fordist efficiency model of the factory, produce a regulatory taxonomy on a much grander scale—a classifying system of “differentiation and redistribution of the parts and functions of the city” which divides and orders subjects and objects according to its streamlined rubric (de Certeau, 94). That which cannot be organized and assimilated in this way then “constitutes the ‘waste products’ of a functionalist administration (abnormality, deviance, illness, death, etc.)” (de Certeau, 94).
The question that arises, then, is what to do—and what has been and continues to be done—with these seemingly unassimilable remainders? Beginning with de Certeau, Thomas Heise’s Urban Underworlds (2010) delineates the material, social, and ideological processes that produce undesirable zones of urban space and their inhabitants: how industrial capitalism produces rapid industrial expansion, which leads to population density, which in turn results in cultural clashes and the production of difference. Heise’s text then historically details the manners in which various industrial practices such as urban planning work to contain and regulate the resultant material and social waste to undesirable zones in the city out of “mandates for efficiency and legibility,” as well as sordid entertainment value in the form of slum tourism and the nightlife industry (95). The inhabitants of this underworld form the underclass—“the residuum that remains when all use-value is extracted from a given population”—which forms the basis of the following interrelated rubric on social waste (Heise, 54). In concert with Heise, David Pike’s Subterranean Cities (2005) examines how the image of the underground serves as a repository for socially deviant or undesirable populations in the urban imaginary: “alien urban categories,” including “ruins of things, places, people, and outmoded commodities” become pathologized and vilified before they are submerged and “metaphorically assimilated to the space of sewers” (3, 12).
The spatial focus of each of these urbanist scholars entails, unsurprisingly, an emphasis on perspective and visibility—on where one is positioned spatially and the range of visibility this allows and disallows. “Walking in the City” famously opens with a description and analysis of Manhattan viewed from the 110th story of the former World Trade Center, wherein de Certeau looks at “yesterday’s buildings, already transformed into trash cans” (91). De Certeau’s elevated position grants him an all-encompassing bird’s eye view—he is looking down, “totalizing the most immoderate of human texts,” in a city-to-text comparison frequently found in the novels of James Joyce, Paul Auster, and Don DeLillo (92). The panoramic view positions the subject as voyeur—it “puts him at a distance,” and elevates his perspective from a labyrinthian, immersive, and invested ground-level position to the detached, contemplative, and metatextual (de Certeau, 92). This contrasts considerably with the visibility afforded to the “ordinary practitioners of the city,” the pedestrians who exist “below the thresholds at which visibility begins” (de Certeau, 93). The story of the everyday subject, whose view is situated and not totalizing, “begins on ground level, with footsteps” (de Certeau, 97). For de Certeau, the pedestrian who is barred from the panoramic view also manages to escape its panoptic vision, diving into alleyways, under awnings, into bars, and other public, obscured realms of the underworld. De Certeau therefore deems this subcategory of pedestrians “beneath the discourses that ideologize the city,” unapproved subjects whose illegible, nontransparent refuse-status resists being co-opted by a purportedly totalizing functionalist program, “impossible to administer” as a result of their avoidance of approved byways (95). De Certeau’s account, in tandem with Heise and Pike’s analyses of underground spaces, therefore presents at least three central urban positions: the city seen from skyscraper, the city seen from street level, and the city underground, each with its attendant range of perception. In light of the relationship between urban space, trash, and visibility, then, how does trashy literature superimpose poetic cartographies on top—or, as is more often the case, below—the modernist machine of productivism which delineates and orders urban design and administration?
The preceding discussion of the urban underground as spatial waste is inextricably linked to its trashy inhabitants, who form the fourth and closely related subcategory of waste discourse. If, as Seltzer says, bodies are things that can be made, then they can be tossed aside; if individual bodies or categories of human subjects are overly repellant, then the dominant order recoils and they become its living waste matter. The metaphor circulates widely through the public lexicon: to adhere to various gendered, classed, and racialized principles of appearance, status, and behavior is to be “classy,” whereas to fail is, tellingly, “trashy.” Waste studies, applied to the social realm, therefore broadens and draws from gender and sexuality studies, critical race theory, and urban geography, all of which critique the asymmetrical configurations of power and value embedded into everyday life. The drunk, the drug-user, the homeless, the prostitute, and all stigmatized subjects who fail to uphold dominant standards of efficiency, cleanliness, and taste, are aligned with uselessness, social disruption, and contamination. Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts (2005) describes this as the production of “human waste,” or “more correctly wasted humans (the ‘excessive’ and ‘redundant,’ that is the population of those who either could not or were not wished to be recognized or allowed to stay)” which “is an inevitable outcome of modernization, and an inseparable accompaniment of modernity” (5). Bauman’s text presents human waste as the useless and unwanted refuse of an indifferent productivist machine intent on economic progress and order-building, and one that explodes in the last two centuries due largely to population growth. In Frames of War (2009), American theorist Judith Butler scrutinizes ideologies of war that differentiate grievable from non-grievable lives, an uneven discursive structure which produces horror and indifference when necessary to further its agenda. Alexander Weheliye’s African American feminist work Habeas Viscus (2014) provides a taxonomy of racialized social categories—from full humans, to not-quite-humans, to nonhumans—which collectively form a fractured but “relational ontological totality” running the gamut from wholly useful to wholly useless (32). These types of scholarly accounts together form a discourse which aims to ascribe value to the socially discarded and present a counterhistory to the dominant orders which sweep them aside.
The four categories of and approaches to waste just enumerated—corporate, bodily, spatial, and social—correspond directly to the four chapters of this dissertation, which are summarized in detail in Part 3 of this document. Chapter One examines three distinct but interrelated uses of trash in Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), Virginia Woolf’s “Solid Objects” (1920), and Paul Auster’s City of Glass (1985); Chapter Two foregrounds the messy, synecdochal blood, semen, and fecal matter found in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959), and Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1984); shifting to a built environment approach, Chapter Three excavates the subterranean spaces in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Lived Underground” (1943), while the fourth and final chapter focuses on homeless populations as social trash as depicted in Ironweed (1983) by William Kennedy and Tropic of Orange (1997) by Karen Tei Yamashita.
 Talking Trash: Waste Terminology
Before proceeding to the chapter summaries, a taxonomy of the central terms in waste discourse is in order. The terms “garbage,” “trash,” and “refuse” are largely synonymous, and are often used interchangeably by scholars and laymen alike, though some key differences are worth noting. In Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage (1992), garbologists William Rathje and Cullen Murphy distinguish garbage and trash thusly: garbage is composed of wet and dry discards alike, while trash is exclusively dry (9, 11). Architects Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy make a similar distinction in Geographies of Trash (2015), detailing that early twentieth-century Americans separated waste into garbage, ash, and rubbish (here synonymous with trash), designating organic materials as garbage and inorganic materials as rubbish or trash (ash formed a third category as furnaces and chimneys were in daily and necessary usage as means of generating heat and disposing of the unwanted). These distinctions indicate that trash normally designates inorganic, manufactured objects with minimal use-value to others after being discarded, a modest form of value which garbage, usually organic, rotting and pungent, does not.
The Oxford English Dictionary provides three definitions for garbage: 1) the offal of an animal used for food; 2) refuse in general; filth, and 3) worthless or foul literary matter (“Garbage”). The first of these corroborates the designation of garbage as specifically organic refuse, the second broadens the scope so as to make it interchangeable with other forms of waste, and the third broadens it further to incorporate literary materials which are not literally but figuratively deemed worthless in accordance to prevailing standards of taste and decorum. Garbage is therefore a highly relative category. As Walter Moses notes in “Garbage and Recycling: From Literary Theme to Mode of Production” (2007), because “each cultural system, or sub-system such as art, has to deal with the category and the reality of garbage within its own logic,” what is garbage in one system may serve as a “useful, functional cultural artifact in another” (1). One man’s foul literary matter is thus the beloved tome of another, functioning in a distinct economy of value. This is also generally true of its related terms.
As with garbage, trash has three primary definitions in the OED: 1) Discarded matter; refuse; 2) Cultural items, ideas, or objects of poor quality, and 3) A person or people regarded as being of very low social standing (“Trash”). A similar and occasionally indistinguishable term (the OED, for instance, defines trash as “domestic refuse” or “garbage,” particularly within the United States), “trash” is deployed idiomatically more often than “garbage,” and in a greater variety of contexts. One can talk trash, exist as a piece of trash, and exhibit trashy or socially deviant, unproductive behavior. While two of the three definitions overlap to a degree, trash expands to include the social realm and its attendant hierarchies—not merely objects, but subjects of poor quality as well. After trash, “refuse” is the term most often deployed as a social value-judgment to mean a “despised outcast,” “worthless group of people,” or “the scum or drugs of a particular group or class” (“Refuse”).
As an adjective, “trashy” means “worthless” or “disreputable,” most often with reference to people (“Trashy”). Likewise, The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang defines trash as “a contemptible person,” tracing its colloquial usage back to early seventeenth-century England (“Trash”). Part of what earns disrepute or contempt in this context may be found in distinct definitions of the noun as well as its adjectival form: in drug slang, trash refers to illicit substances such as marijuana and heroin, and if “very drunk or drug-intoxicated,” one is “trashed.” The colloquialisms “wasted” and “shitfaced” designate the same, aligning intoxication and generally disruptive behavior with fecal matter and other forms of waste (Partridge). It is therefore the consumption of illegal substances, or the excessive consumption of legal substances, which appear to make the consumer trashy or waste-like. Here we observe, on the micro-corporeal scale, how trash operates as a polluting behavior—one which moves beyond bodily and social borders, and is to a degree determined by the quantity of the pollutant that makes it across.
Partridge provides two more telling definitions for the adjective “wasted”: “absolutely exhausted” and “depleted of value” (“Wasted”). In the discursive field of waste, these notions are tethered to one another—to get wasted is to expend one’s finite energy towards unproductive ends, to exhaust the body without contributing to the productivist mechanism. Inefficiency is the enemy of the assembly line, and intoxicating the body, whether as a means of recreation or self-destruction, contributes to this inefficiency. Moreover, the erratic and unknowable elements associated with substance experimentation and abuse violate a fundamental tenet of productivism: the imperative to diagram and direct the corporate worker, making not only the body but interiority itself “visible, legible, and governable” (Seltzer, 95). As we have seen, the central aim of productivism is the complete “elimination of waste” from the labor process, from both the objective and subjective realms (Brown, 18). As Alworth notes in his discussion of Burroughs, “getting wasted, in this sense, entails becoming like material waste,” therefore constituting an undesirable behavior to be eliminated (65). Disorderly, destructive, disturbing, and in various states of decay, “both junkies and cadavers” fall into the realm of “wasted subjects” which populate much of the texts in this dissertation and are the focus of the fourth chapter (Alworth, 59).
Before scrutinizing the term “waste” in its own right, two more usages of “trash” and “trashy” must be attended to, with particular attention to the aesthetic domain. While trash is used in the public vernacular to refer to the socially disreputable, in literary studies it sometimes refers to lowbrow or popular generic tropes, the remnants of the literary past more generally, or an aesthetic project which knowingly and often ironically incorporates such elements.
Pulp fiction, for instance, is almost ubiquitously considered trashy for its poor paper quality, its Fordist rate and philosophy of production, its titillating and recycled contents, and its predominantly working-class readership. Named for the cheap and fragile woodpulp paper on which they were printed, twentieth-century pulp magazines and novels “were seen as disposable literature produced cheaply on disposable (almost instantly disintegrating) paper,” their quick physical degeneration rendering them “trashy and ephemeral” (Earle, 6, 7). Erin Smith notes that pulp magazines were deemed “unambiguously trash, cheaply produced escape literature designed to be thrown away once read” (19). The pulps, in other words, never aspired to endure physically or enter the historical canon (beyond the 1930s through the 1950s of their peak popularity), but acknowledged and acceded to a built-in obsolescence as ephemera. The transience of pulp fiction was not only material, however, but applied also to the accelerated rate of composition. Pulp companies aimed for maximum profit, neglecting sustainability or consideration of impact; writers were paid by the word, meaning speed of composition took precedence over revision or narrative quality. Pulp writers “had little to say about the aesthetics of their fiction, but they recounted with pride their long hours, speed, and productivity,” sometimes producing an extraordinary 200,000 words a month (Smith, 21; Earle, 100).
The contents of pulp fiction also contributed to their disrepute in certain circles, generally among the literary elite associated with high modernism. The pulps were largely genre fiction, comprised of spy novels, thrillers, horror stories, and melodramatic romances, with sensationalized covers, titles, and stories designed to entertain and sell rather than innovate or provoke contemplation. As Clive Bloom notes in Cult Fiction: Popular Reading and Pulp Theory (1996), “aggressive marketing, lurid covers, violent and erotic stories about money, drugs, the city, teenage delinquents, mobsters and action combined with a very low price gave these paperbacks an air of sleaze, and cheap soon stood for nasty” (43). In addition to featuring risqué content, the pulps were highly formulaic, indeed even self-consciously and blatantly so. Pulp mystery writer Frank Gruber, for instance, identified the eleven elements necessary for any writer, himself included, to compose a mystery novel, while Frederick Faust claimed to have written three hundred Westerns by use of a single plot (Earle, 95). In the 1930s, companies even began publishing indices of standard tropes specifically written for pulp fiction writers to utilize—one such series was called The Plot Genie (Earle, 96). Defined against the ambitious innovations of contemporaneous avant-gardes, trash becomes associated with a system of mechanical reproduction which substitutes superficially distinct elements within a rigid formula. Bloom details the art-trash dichotomy through which pulp fiction is relegated to the latter category:
art is serious and permanent, trash is ephemeral and light; art reveals and trash conceals; art is a new reality and trash is an old reality repackaged; art is unique and authentic while trash is formulaic and mechanical; art is history and trash is nostalgia; art is truth but trash is lies (150).
Lurid, hackneyed, mass-produced and largely interchangeable, pulp fiction manifests as a particular iteration of a more general conception of trashiness as the lower stratum of aesthetic production conceived vertically. Since the pulps operate through a plot-by-numbers construction, individual texts, plots, characters, and themes are all replaceable, and hence disposable, from the vantage point of an economy of value prioritizing singularity.
As with getting trashed through intoxication, the association with or ingestion of trashy materials renders the subject equally trash-like. Pulp fiction was read by predominantly working-class readers including soldiers, factory workers, sailors, and miners, often with only a grade-school level of literacy (Smith, 23). It was affordable and easily digested on the level of sign and structure, qualities which many of the slick “middlebrow” magazines and the experimental “little” magazines resisted and vilified (Thacker, 24). In a 1933 Vanity Fair article tellingly entitled “The Pulps: Day Dreams for the Masses,” for instance, Marcus Duffield deems the aesthetic province of the pulps the “underworld of literature,” into which “most of us never dive” except to browse “the literary preferences of those who move their lips when they read” (26). Likewise, in a June 1937 issue of Harper’s, pulp fiction is derided as “staple fodder,” its readership comprised of “immature minds” who are “stirred by the same things that would interest a savage” (MacMullen, 98). While drawing from an elitist and Eurocentric hierarchical tradition wherein the poor and non-whites amount to social trash, these proclamations also draw from a more egalitarian rhetoric of contamination: anyone can degenerate if he or she reads enough trashy literature. Margaret MacMullen’s article warns that it is the “steady reader of this kind of fiction” who becomes infiltrated by its degenerate predilections (98, emphasis added). Within a larger system of waste discourse, then, extensive exposure to trash aesthetics lowers the consumer into the lower stratum of social trash.
Trash aesthetics are not limited to the domain of pulp fiction or even lowbrow cultural production, however. Critics Larry McCaffery, Ben Highmore, and Patricia Yaeger employ the phrase “trash aesthetics” or “aesthetics of trash” to describe the more canonically “highbrow” works of Donald Barthelme, Walter Benjamin, and William Faulkner, respectively. In his analysis of Snow White (1967), McCaffery notes that “although fiction may not be able to transcend the limits imposed by its trashy, too-familiar materials,” it can “accommodate itself to this condition” through “incorporating this same debased condition into its very fabric” (150). In the context of Barthelme’s experimental novel, the trashy materials McCaffery refers to are the tropes and archetypes of fairy tales and other commercialized, popular forms of narrative which the art-trash dichotomy considers antithetical to high art. An avant-garde work aims for novelty, yet culturally ubiquitous and tired tropes found everywhere are hardly novel; an aesthetics of trash, however, incorporates these base materials into its composition despite of, or because of, their incongruity.
Along these lines, trash aesthetics align with the nexus of ideas sometimes associated with postmodernism, insofar as postmodernism may be said to fixate on John Barth’s conception of literary exhaustion. 1967 oversaw the publication of three important texts concerning an aesthetics of trash and an anti-individualist ethos Frederic Jameson and Jean Baudrillard would later associate with postmodernism: Barthelme’s Snow White, Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion,” and Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author.” A plastic factory tour guide in Barthelme’s novel explains what he calls the “trash phenomenon”:
Now you’re probably familiar with the fact that the per-capita production of trash in this country is up from 2.75 pounds per day in 1920 to 4.5 pounds per day in 1965, the last year for which we have figures, and is increasing at the rate of about four percent a year. Now that rate will probably go up, because it’s been going up, and I hazard that we may very well soon reach a point where it’s 100 percent. Now at such a point, you will agree, the question turns from a question of disposing of this “trash” to a question of appreciating its qualities, because, after all, it’s 100 percent, right? And there can no longer be any question of ‘disposing’ of it, because it’s all there is, and we will simply have to learn how to ‘dig’ it—that’s slang, but peculiarly appropriate here. (Barthelme, 103)
Trash here is meant in the literal sense, but the novel’s frequent metafictional commentaries intimate that the postwar inescapability of trash is also an inescapability of the literary past—just as there is no escaping trash, there is no escaping “the drek of familiar, banal language,” in a motif extending Barthelme’s predecessors Joyce and Eliot (McCaffery, 121). In this way, Barthelme’s trash phenomenon maps onto Barth’s calls “the used-upness of certain forms” or the “felt exhaustion of certain possibilities” in postwar U.S. literary history (64). Barth argues that there no longer exists an outside to artistic exhaustion, if indeed there ever had to begin with. In lieu of utter abandonment of the creative endeavor, the artist’s task is to learn to “dig” trash, to excavate and incorporate it into its very constitution, thereby producing something that, while still garbage, succeeds in some other, perhaps ironic or self-reflexive, capacity. Barthes’ seminal “The Death of the Author” produces a similar, albeit broader, position: artistic production in any period must make use of a “ready-made lexicon” inherited from already-existing linguistic structures, literary genres, and tropes which precede and proceed the author historically and discursively (53). These three texts hinge around ostensible endings: the exhaustion of literary forms, the end of originality, and even art itself, insofar as art is conceived of as pure and trash-free.
Trash is therefore generally the operative term in the literary-aesthetic realm, and this dissertation will follow the aforementioned critics in using the terms “trash” and “trashy” with regards to this domain, though the term is employed here less with regards to literary inheritance and more with regard to literary decorum. In other words, in this dissertation, trashy aesthetics and trashiness will largely refer to the inclusion of obscene and lurid elements associated with pulp fiction, and so will be deployed most often in Chapter Two, focused on bodily waste and its oft-contested inclusion in literature. This literature is also considered “dirty” insofar as it is “unclean in action or speech” (OED).
While trash is a central term, “waste” is the default term of the dissertation writ large for a number of reasons. The most capacious of the related terms, waste includes garbage, trash, and refuse, and it operates on corporate, environmental, aesthetic, bodily, spatial, social, and moral registers alike. As a noun, waste can refer to an “uninhabited” or “uncultivated” region, a “lavish abundance of something,” to any “refuse matter” or “unserviceable material remaining from any process of manufacture” (OED). As a verb, waste refers to the act or process of wasting, and any act of “useless expenditure or consumption” (OED). Waste therefore refers to regions and wastelands, organic and inorganic waste ejected from the industrial, social, or anatomical body, and to any processes which yield waste, including being “wasted away by disease,” substance abuse, or systematic oppression (Seltzer, 153). With regards to the rhetoric and practice of modern productivism, the operative term is again waste—wasted movement, wasted energy, wasted materials (Ford, Banta, Rabinbach). The infrastructural systems that deal with garbage and trash together are referred to as waste management systems (Alworth, DeLillo, Trumpeter). Garbage disposal in the form of municipal hauling and landfill maintenance is but one facet of a wider system of waste management (alongside urban design, sewage systems, and fecal sludge management).
This dissertation therefore follows a number of other texts in waste studies in considering waste a “flexible category grounded in social relations,” though also asocial material systems (Hawkins, ix). Moreover, the term waste is preferred insofar as it foregrounds the economy of its birth: in the terms “nuclear waste” or “medical waste,” for instance, “the wasted material gestures back to the economy that produced it” (Hawkins, vii). In his reflections on the subject in Object Lessons, Brian Thill describes waste as “ambient,” thereby associating it with wider networks and environments (3). This dissertation is drawn to the category of waste due precisely to its pervasive ambience, its foundational yet unobtrusive background status, its elusiveness as concept. Thill deems waste “resistant to capture,” since “every thought about waste seems much too big or much too small” (5). Indeed, “The Lowly Remains” finds motivation in the difficulty of locating the proper scope of examination for such a porous and multi-discursive category, and identifying the rhetorical and ideological cross-pollinations of its distinct iterations.
The related phrase, “the literature of waste” is frequently employed as well. Richard Poirier first used this phrase in The Performing Self: Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life (1971) to mean a literary text wherein a “writer displays not so much an external waste land as the waste which is his own substance” (50). Poirier defines substance as the “realities impressed upon him by the literature and idioms of his own day and by images from the literature of the past that seem to overlay the landscape of the present” (50). Poirier’s understanding of literary waste as residues of the past and present in the form of the artist’s available repertoire of cultural and linguistic materials thus aligns with conceptions of art explored by Eliot, Barth, Barthes, and Barthelme. The literature of waste, as employed here, aligns more closely to the broad usages of Christopher Schmidt in The Poetics of Waste (2014) and Susan S. Morrison in The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter (2015) to designate the entire corpus of texts dealing with waste matter, whether in terms of direct mimetic representation or structural and aesthetic incorporations. The literature of waste therefore includes texts which find beauty or repugnance in waste objects, an aesthetics of waste which intentionally create baroque excess, structural incongruity, unassimilable remainders, and any form of textual waste.
While most waste scholarship begins with Douglas, her conceptions of dirt and pollution, at least with respect to her literal examples and less so with abstract cultural ideas surrounding purity, cannot be easily equated with trash or garbage per se, as the polluting object can be placed back in its rightful place within the spatial taxonomy and utilized as new. Dirty sneakers found in the bed may be cleaned, placed by the door, and worn outside. Dirt designates “unclean matter, such as soils any object by adhering to it” and so is not is not so much the waste product of a process but the sullying of a “clean” object (“Dirt”).
“Pollution” is the preferred term within moral, corporeal, environmental, and anthropological discourses, and will be used with respect to them. Derived from the Latin polluerre, meaning “mortal contamination of a person,” the concept of pollution thus exhibits a “theologico-moral origin” (Garrard, 8). Pollution not only includes spiritual or moral impurity, but also “physical impurity conveyed by bodily contact,” and so necessarily speaks to contact zones and ingestion of substances and bodily excretions (“Pollution”). With regards to environmental concerns, pollution refers to damaging human activity in the form of light, noise, and organic waste. Pollution and “polluting behaviors” are the primary terms used by Douglas to refer to the rituals that ward off impurity in various cultures (3).
The terms applied to various forms of waste in different disciplines and discourses frequently bleed into and draw from each other. More often than not, this linguistic and conceptual permeability is not accidental but rooted in material conditions, working to produce and solidify a complex ideological constellation of negative associations, the fear-based rhetoric of which may be then put to oppressive purposes. Iconoclastic art often works, in turn, to disentangle this cultural web. Trash, race, gender, sexuality, and class, for instance, have formed an associative constellation for millennia. In Histories of the Dustheap (2012), Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini note that since sanitation industries have disproportionately been located and operated in the neighborhoods of working-class and ethnic minorities, literal garbage and social garbage become linked in the cultural imaginary—the latter then “appear to be the source, rather than the victims, of contagion and contamination” (10).
Spatial proximity therefore becomes conflated with causality and moral bankruptcy; this conflation then becomes essentialized, assumed, and reproduced by the general public (particularly the upper classes), and challenged by literature and scholarship. In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), for example, bodily and social waste frequently arise together in telling ways. Pynchon’s characters Tyrone Slothrop and General Pudding undergo scatological and sadomasochistic fantasies and experiences which are symbolically and visually linked to blackness and homosexuality—Slothrop fears being raped by a black man as he falls into a toilet in the Roseland Ballroom while Pudding cannot help but imagine a black penis while consuming his master’s feces. In their study of the novel, Luc Herman and Steven Weisenburger consider these episodes manifestations of a “deeply unconscious cathexis of blackness and shit,” a troubling coupling which illustrates the manners in which human subjects become symbolically substituted by excrement and thereby dehumanized (95).
Such connections bring to light the fact that particular waste-averse discourses symbolically map onto and substitute one form of waste for another, which poses a methodological challenge for any study which wishes to perform a neat material and aesthetic taxonomy. These racialized, sexualized, and classed associations have been tethered and essentialized in any number of modes of social regulation and border patrolling, as seen in the historical practices of miscegenation and segregation laws, and, more recently, unofficial systems of urban stratification and institutionalized violence. Moreover, this can be observed in the frequent, if not dominant, trope of a fictional text beginning with an examination of physical waste before extending its parameters to the social realm—as seen in the works of nearly all the writers considered in this study. Far from seeking to quarantine or hermetically seal these categories of castoffs from one another, “The Lowly Remains” asserts that through these cross-pollinations, symbolic substitutions, and conflations, an intricate, multi-faceted culture of waste aversion establishes and maintains its regulatory practices across registers at once literal and figurative, conscious and unconscious, microcosmic and macrocosmic. A multi-discursive Scylla of sorts, waste aversion operates through the suggestion and deployment of aesthetic and functional similarities as well as spatial proximities between various forms of unwanted materials, be they byproducts, excretions, places, or even lives.
: Chapter Summaries: (I) “Tracing Trash,” (II) “Excretory Histories,” (III) “Underbellies and Urban Spatial Logic,” (IV) “Disposable Bodies”
The dissertation seeks to answer the following questions: What are the relationships between waste and modern productivist history—in the form of Fordist and post-Fordist models of efficiency, of classical conceptions of artistic unity and coherence, of urban concentration and ecology, and of social networks of domination, subordination, naming and namelessness? How do these manifestations of waste pose a problem for the situated and ideologically embedded practice of historiography and, more radically, the metaphysics of plenitude which these systems sometimes presuppose? If trashy literature makes the invisible visible, what exactly is invisible, what aesthetic countermeasures are deployed, and where are they positioned? Is there a difference between garbage that signals back to its systems of production and consumption, garbage which intentionally exacerbates its uselessness, and garbage which stubbornly clings to its linguistically indeterminate material status? In what ways do modern and contemporary waste culture practices paradoxically narrow the parameters of value which productivism wishes to widen?
The four chapters of “The Lowly Remains” correspond directly to the four subcategories of waste enumerated in the foregoing summary of the theoretical literature: that is, the four chapters are divided thematically between literal waste or trash, bodily waste or excrement, spatial waste or underworlds, and social waste or devalued subjects. As noted, waste discourse operates in multi-discursive fashion: the same feeling of disgust elicited in the obscene literature in the second chapter is mobilized as a means of abjecting disposable populations in the fourth chapter, while the industrial factory, the urban metropolis, and the social body are sometimes conceived of in corporeal terms. In light of these figurative substitutions, as well as the manner in processes by which the physical environment literally permeates the individual body via air, food, microbes, and contaminants, the segmenting of chapters is more in the service of thematic and organizational coherence than an ontological assumption or claim.
Chapter One: “Tracing Trash”
The first chapter deals with literary texts which directly foreground trash in terms of subject matter, particularly those which follow the full lives of products beyond the conventional range of consideration. To this end, “Tracing Trash” focalizes what is perhaps the most sustained and comprehensive literary exploration of refuse: Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), a sprawling narrative loosely centered around waste management executive Nick Shay (who considers himself a “cosmologist of waste” [DeLillo, 88]) and his prized possession, a home-run baseball from a sporting event in the early 1950s. This section argues that DeLillo’s novel, the quintessential narrative frequently cited in studies of literary trash, deploys waste matter in order to problematize the myopic view of trash as useless detritus, instead presenting the full life-cycle of objects in their entirety—both within and beyond their economic production, circulation, and consumption. If, as Nightwood’s Dr. Matthew O’Connor proclaims, “destiny and history are untidy” — so much so that “we fear memory of that disorder,” DeLillo presents Nick’s home run ball as an ordering principle, an effective counterweight against the disorder of history, unifying the novel’s non-chronological presentation of roughly fifty years (Barnes, 126). Examining the novel’s postulations on the notion of an “underhistory” of refuse, as well as its sprawling, epic structure, this chapter claims that trash in Underworld functions as a transgenerational and intersubjective mediator, the effect of which is to reconceptualize and expand our understanding of history itself—inheriting but greatly expanding the scope of the ragpicker’s findings beyond the range of the modern or immediate (DeLillo, 791).
The modernist precursors for DeLillo are abundant. Underworld inherits and extends the interest in objects as intersubjective mediators, and more specifically, trashed objects, from Woolf—to which the chapter turns afterwards—as well as the archaeological goals of surrealism. The scope here, however, is significantly broader than most modernist examinations of objects—DeLillo is concerned less with, say, a clock tower producing a transient union of focus between spectators (as with Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway), or a glove producing a collective, psychological glimpse into the uncanny or irrational (as with Breton in Nadja), as he is with examining the mediation of objects transhistorically, with a long view spanning several decades as opposed to the detailed minutiae of an instant or day. Trash is selected in particular because it automatically implies a diachronic view—what once had market value is now diminished or absent.
Much like DeLillo, Joyce works against the notion of the object without history. In the “Ithaca” chapter of Ulysses (1922), frequently considered a pastiche of the Catholic catechism structure or the language of detached empiricism, the unnamed narrator and interlocutor examines the origins and movements of the water which runs through protagonist Leopold Bloom’s kitchen sink faucet. The interlocutor asks, “Did it flow?” before launching into what is certainly the most technically and minutely detailed literary description of the hidden, quotidian life of domestic water (of which the following is only a snippet):
Yes. From Roundwood reservoir in county Wicklow of a cubic capacity of 2400 million gallons, percolating through a subterranean aqueduct of filter mains of single and double pipeage constructed at an initial plant cost of £5 per linear yard by way of the Dargle, Rathdown, Glen of the Downs and Callowhill to the 26 acre reservoir at Stillorgan, a distance of 22 statute miles, and thence, through a system of relieving tanks… (U 17.164-169).
Ariela Freedman considers this particular passage “symptomatic of the historical insistence of the text,” and also asserts that, more broadly, the novel in its entirety “insists that nothing comes from nothing and emphasizes the materiality of the tactile, lived world” (854). Ulysses, then, rejects the ahistorical conception of existence ex nihilo, a conception which a thorough and serious consideration of the quotidian works to undermine. Frederic Jameson’s earlier essay on the same passage, “Ulysses and History” (1982), contends that this moment performs “dereification,” since the flow of water is “disalienated and by the most subterranean detours traced back… less to its origins in Nature, than to the transformation of Nature by human and collective practice deconcealed” (151, emphasis added). By making manifest the invisible human labor responsible for the purportedly autonomous technological object, Ulysses reveals the intricate and wide-reaching social, economic, and infrastructural matrices which facilitate the most banal yet essential experiences of everyday life. Illuminating the clandestine pathways that connect production, consumption, and disposal through meticulous attention to the transmission and transformation of waste objects throughout time is perhaps the central function of the literature of waste, realized most fully in Underworld.
The object world serving to mediate disparate subjectivities across both space and time, a central concern of DeLillo’s, is arguably the dominant motif across the entirety of Virginia Woolf’s oeuvre. Utilizing Martin Heidegger’s, Douglas Mao’s and Bill Brown’s formulations on subject-object relations, the chapter then turns from DeLillo to Woolf’s “Solid Objects” (1920) to qualify the preceding section’s instrumentalist reading of Underworld. In light of the modernist and aestheticist notions of quiddity or thingness inherited from Aristotle, the study of waste objects must be careful not merely to read them as the discarded elements of cultural economies, hierarchies, and values, but also in their status as trash itself (Auster, 117; Brown, 2; Derrida, 266). In the passage on broken equipment in Being and Time (1927), Heidegger analyzes the ways in which subjects approach objects not in terms of their objecthood, but primarily in terms of the pragmatic function or activity they allow the user—a “towards which,” which is only interrupted when the object is broken or misused (102). When the object is no longer “ready-to-hand,” it becomes “conspicuous” or phenomenologically nontransparent, an excess of its objecthood prompting attention of a distinct and more nuanced order (Heidegger, 103). In the same way, trash can be read instrumentally and intrinsically, and on one reading, the instrumental analysis of trash brings it back into systems of value which its deteriorated state resists—a new readiness-to-hand, however alternative the context may be.
Woolf’s text problematizes any reading of garbage as cultural signifier, of returning trash to an economy which its material status resists. The ragpicking protagonist of “Solid Objects” becomes enamored with, and begins to collect, bits of material refuse. He is drawn to them because of their indeterminate history and form (“impossible to say whether it had been bottle, tumbler, or window pane”), their tangible and undeniable materiality (“so hard, so concentrated, so definite”), and their lack of instrumental purpose (“of no use to anybody, shapeless, discarded”) (Woolf, 4). Eventually, John abandons his friends as well as his post as a politician, devoting himself full-time to the pursuit and appreciation of the artfully crafted and discarded object, in what may serve as an allegorical Künstlerroman for the development of the aesthete, poet, or metaphysician. As Brown notes in his extrapolation of Heidegger in “The Secret Life of Things (Virginia Woolf and the Matter of Modernism)” (1999), it is only when one looks at objects as ends, not means, that they can become dislodged “from the temporal dictates of modern life,” dictates pertaining to histories and practices of production and exchange, and even their possible translation into art (9). John’s alienation corresponds to a paradigm shift from viewing objects instrumentally to viewing them intrinsically, with the implication that productivist mass culture’s emphasis on instrumental use-value and exchange-value is precisely what causes the majority of his community to ignore the useless zones of matter which become relegated to the realm of trash. John, by contrast, appropriates these objects in an operation which, in Brown’s parlance, discloses their thingness in excess of their objecthood.
Here we observe an echo of affect studies fixated on disgust—it may be the case that, against Mary Douglas’s influential postulations, what demands our attention is not merely waste’s position within an ideological system, but its objecthood, or rather what exceeds this objecthood. German sociologist Georg Simmel’s conception of the fragment is paramount here as well: as he writes in The Conflict of Modern Culture (1968), “even the lowest, intrinsically ugly phenomenon can be dissolved into contexts of color and form, feeling and experience which provide it with significance” (69). Debased matter may be decoded hermeneutically, but it also exhibits intrinsic formal properties, and a nearly ineffable something beyond them. Because these properties lie so far at one end of, or perhaps beneath, a spectrum of value, they resist legibility from the standpoint of conventional paradigms. In part, then, Simmel is not only interested in the significance of the lowly, but also in its existence beyond or beneath the parameters of signification altogether. Due to its illegible status, the lowly remains an irreducible excess, or, in Benjamin Highmore’s reading of Simmel, an “unassimilable fragment,” one which speaks to the social conditions of modernity as well as the fractured aesthetics of modernism and its scrutiny of the quotidian (30). While much of this dissertation locates particular waste-objects in order to indicate cultural values and historical transformations, it also considers their lack of assimilability—their status as residue alongside or instead of their status as historical document, as evidenced in “Solid Objects” and the constellation of philosophical and aesthetic texts with which it is in accordance.
The first chapter closes with an examination of the densely metafictional City of Glass (1985), Paul Auster’s anti-detective novel that produces a complex and suggestive matrix of correspondences between the ways in which its characters collect literal garbage, detectives gather clues, New York accrues its ever-increasing homeless population, and how readers, writers, and thinkers consume and release linguistic detritus— a matrix which bridges this chapter’s more literal focus on trash to what is metaphorically out of place in later chapters. Characters sleep in dumpsters, the entirety of New York City is deemed a mere pile of industrial waste (“The whole city is a junk heap” [Auster, 122]), plotlines wind up unresolved; the form, structure, and metaphysics of the text is thereby made to waste, exceed, and approach formlessness.
City of Glass initially presents detective fiction as an efficient, mechanized, closed system: one which, once decoded properly, produces no textual, thematic, or aesthetic excess. Fictional detective fiction writer Daniel Quinn admires mystery novels due to “their sense of plenitude and economy. In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant” (Auster, 14-15). Every piece of the plot, every linguistic inscription—whether productive clue or red herring—eventually finds its place in the narrative economy through the tight structuring and decoding the writer and the fictional detective figure employ respectively. The novel defines the detective as one who navigates a “morass of objects” and discovers the unifying narrative principle “that will pull all these things together and make sense of them” (Auster, 15). City of Glass opens with this principle and introduces the requisite archetypes and tropes of the genre only to abandon them. Quinn’s methodical detective work throughout the text yields no such illumination, only a notebook of clues and ideas which fail to solve the mystery, gesturing only towards inconclusive ends. This is deeply exacerbated by the novel’s elaborate metafictional layers which form, at their most coherent, a Möbius strip of biological and fictional figures and texts which generate each other in multiple directions. Protagonist Daniel Quinn writes under the pseudonym William Wilson, a fictitious author whose stories revolve around fictitious detective figure Max Work, much like Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Quinn is mistaken by the Stillman family for the detective Paul Auster, and attempts to perform this extratextual identity throughout the text, drawing upon his experiences writing the exploits of Max Work. This is complicated further by the introduction of the novel’s “actual” Paul Auster in later chapters, who tells Quinn he is not a detective but a writer, and who is writing an article on the question of disputed authorship in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605), the initials of which happen to correspond to Daniel Quinn’s birth name.
In the final analysis, City of Glass leaves the reader with an inscrutable set of intertextual and intratextual relationships without origin or resolution; the mystery which Quinn is hired to solve ends an unresolved MacGuffin, receding in light of the text’s radically unstable ontology and its nonlinear chains of multi-discursive textual production. The reader, deprived of the organizing principle upon which detective fiction rests, is therefore left only with the morass of objects, in a “neverland of fragments, a place of wordless things and thingless words,” (Auster, 113). By presenting such an indeterminate and ambiguous narrative under the guise of a detective novel, Auster produces textual detritus, the excess that Quinn finds antithetical to the genre and which the reader in turn struggles to assimilate into the corpus of the text against its deliberate openness and inefficiency.
Auster draws from a wide array of implicit and explicit intertexts across historical and national boundaries. While the novel’s central intertexts by Poe and Cervantes are American and Spanish, the structure of the novel and its genre subversion belong to a French “lineage of metaphysical detective stories by nouveau roman authors such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor, who subverted the genre by devising unsolvable crimes” (Sacks, 1). Another body of texts repeatedly echoed are those of the Anglo-American modernists, particularly their emphasis on a crisis of language—language in decay, language as waste matter itself—as initiated and explored by, among others, Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, and Faulkner. Much like Stephen Dedalus, in Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, walks through Dublin among “heaps of dead language,” Auster’s text implies that the medium through which a garbage-filled reality is organized is itself perhaps broken and can no longer hold (193). The multiplicity and fragmentation of figures who go by “Paul Auster” in the novel eventually leaves the name meaningless; it becomes a “husk without content” not unlike Addie Bundren’s condemnation of the signifier as an “empty door frame” in As I Lay Dying (Auster, 98; Faulkner, 173). In an extensive metafictional episode, a character navigates the city, picking up and renaming every discarded object, asserting that “words no longer correspond to the world,” and, worse, that the signifier “hides the thing it is supposed to reveal” (Auster, 121-122). At least one crucial distinction must be noted, however, between interwar and postwar examinations of trash: as seen before with DeLillo, trash is no longer primarily a symbolic concern for the postwar era, accumulating and becoming more and more materially and environmentally pressing with its increased concentration. The more literal garbage crisis in postwar America manifests in the inescapable presence of physical waste in the novels of DeLillo and Auster.
II. Chapter Two: “Excretory Histories”
The association between literature and trash provides a logical transition to the second chapter, “Excretory Histories,” focused largely on bodily excess in the form of fecal matter and sexual fluids, and the trashy, deviant literature which unflinchingly foregrounds them. The chapter opens with Gravity’s Rainbow’s infamous disqualification for the 1974 Pulitzer Prize, a particularly telling moment in the history of modern literary and artistic standards and the social regulations of bodily borders. Despite the jury’s unstinted praise and unanimous recommendation for the award, the overseeing advisory board vetoed the recommendation on the ground that Pynchon’s novel was “unreadable” and “obscene,” due in part to its overwhelming, sprawling structure, as well as its extensive passages detailing scatological fetishism and coprophagia (Kihss, 38). Modernist scholars will here recall a striking parallel with the rejection of Duchamp’s Fountain from the 1917 exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, of which Duchamp was a founding member. Duchamp’s readymade was, for some, “immoral, vulgar;” for others it was deemed “plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing” or a “familiar fixture of bathroom furniture” (de Duve, 129; Camfield; 78). The diction of waste is not only deployed, then, in the name of oppressive systems of social and political intolerance, but is frequently utilized to disqualify art from the realm of “proper” aesthetics, discursively tethering bodily disgust and moral disapprobation within a multi-faceted regulatory apparatus.
The section then argues that Pynchon thematizes feces as the most potent symbol for death as the prime mover of history, serving as a nauseating and corporeal counterweight to the vacuous and misleading rhetoric surrounding war. Pynchon’s novel, centered on the final months of World War II, follows hundreds of characters through every nation involved as they attempt to uncover the mysterious relationship between protagonist Tyrone Slothrop’s erections and the sites of V-2 rocket explosions. In an early hallucinatory sequence, Slothrop, searching for his lost harmonica, descends through a toilet into its pipes, wherein he gazes at “shit, elaborately crusted along the sides of this [...] tunnel he’s in: shit nothing can flush away” (Pynchon, 66). Crucially, Slothrop finds these “patterns thick with meaning,” and upon emerging from the toilet he, “uncannily shit-sensitized now,” learns to “read old agonies inside poor Dumpster” (Pynchon, 66-67). In one of the final passages of the novel, German cat burglar Emil Bummer states that “shit is the presence of death, not some abstract-arty character with a scythe but the stiff and rotting corpse itself inside the whiteman’s warm and private own asshole” (Pynchon, 701). Through these passages and a series of others detailing scatological fetishism’s relationship to wartime occupation, alongside harrowing descriptions of concentration camps, shit is presented as a direct and perhaps unmediated manifestation of death. Moreover, it is textual; shit is a legible and historically signifying text, which, when granted attention, provides access to the reality of death in a way that secular history—deemed a “diversionary tactic”—does not (Pynchon, 170).
Actual death, the novel suggests, is disgusting and nauseating, unlike the abstracted rhetoric which surrounds and instigates it. By contrast, the gritty and unflinching aesthetics of Gravity’s Rainbow force death upon the reader through its most pungent and poignant byproduct and messenger. The literal reading of human waste matter is therefore tied to the classic Pynchonian motif of the paranoid whose discerning eye, directed towards overlooked realms, uncovers secret patterns, underworlds, and covert histories in opposition to a dogmatic and deceptive History. If, for DeLillo, waste is the management of history—the transgenerational link between events and people—it is, for Pynchon, the reality of history, bypassing metaphor and constituting history itself.
Pynchon’s novel, continuing a transgressive tradition initiated by the Marquis de Sade in the late-eighteenth century and taken up by Georges Bataille, William Burroughs, and Kathy Acker in the twentieth, brings visibility to bodily waste as it intersects with non-normative sexual practices, and harnesses the visceral quality of disgust to reveal a subjugated excretory history of bodily contact and unruly dejecta. Bordering on or simply collapsing into the pornographic—Bataille’s The Story of the Eye (1928) fixates on the increasingly perverse and violent fetishes of a couple pushing their sexual and psychological boundaries, while Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) features extensive and graphic depictions of interspecies rape and child molestation—such texts are not merely literature about trash a la DeLillo and Woolf, but are themselves deemed trashy in their flagrant violation of classed principles of modesty and propriety bound up in a history of bourgeois decorum and aesthetics.
In The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity (1993), Lynn Hunt traces the early history of the literary genre, which, in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, was “most often a vehicle for using the shock of sex to criticize religious and political authorities,” before developing into its more familiar predominantly sexual iteration towards the end of the nineteenth (10). Hunt’s history presents pornographic writing as a radical literary-political underworld dissenting beneath many major intellectual transitions in Europe, including the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution: “pornography came out of the demimonde of heretics, freethinkers, and libertines,” she writes, constituting the “underside” of those developments (11). Following the French revolution, however, the most prevalent function of pornography became arousal rather than political criticism; its subsequent policing, then, took place predominantly within moral rather than political realms.
Foucault’s “Preface to Transgression” (1963) looks at the paradigm shift occurring at this time, one which takes place through the Marquis de Sade and the rise of the modern state. Sade’s disturbing and pornographic writings “lifted us into the night where God is absent, where all of our actions are addressed to this absence in a profanation which at once identifies it, dissipates it, exhausts itself in it” (Foucault, 31). Sade’s pornography therefore marks the beginning of a modern tradition of transgression which responds to secular cultural limits, and in so doing, defines those limits. It is in the late-eighteenth century in which contemporary boundaries of bourgeois propriety and decency were demarcated as a result of the Enlightenment and the erection of the new civil state after the French revolution. Sade’s link between sexuality and transgression forms the basis for Foucault’s essay, as well as Bataille’s conception of excess, as that which challenges a closed sexual economy predicated on “the principle of classic utility,” production, and rational consumption (Bataille, 117).
The intersections between transgression, sexuality, and excess established in this earlier French pornographic tradition bring us back to the twentieth-century explorations of bodily waste explored in this chapter. While the corpus of writing by William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, Samuel Delany, J.G. Ballard, and Karen Yamashita is sometimes referred to as “the fiction of transgression,” Christopher Breu suggests their works instead be called “the late-capitalist literature of materiality,” a group of texts which engages “the increasingly obscured, yet ever proliferating material underpinnings of everyday life in the era of late capitalism” (201). The central thrust uniting these writers, argues Breu, is “towards uncovering the abjected, degraded, obscene and discarded forms of materiality” ejected by Fordist and post-Fordist models of production, especially the matter of the “variously abused bodies that form the exploited flipside to late-capitalist fantasies of discursive or technological transcendence” (201). Breu contends that the rise of this grotesque body of literature in the mid-to-late-century corresponds to an increasingly dematerialized culture, the alienation of which expands from the manufactured object to the manufactured body, wherein commodity fetishism transforms into “avatar fetishism,” a desire for a transcendent and non-material body (211). The notion of avatar fetishism comports with analyses of disgust in affect studies previously enumerated, namely that disgust in the face of bodily dejecta arises as a fear or denial of the biological and material realities of the anatomical body. This rather confrontational corpus of texts, whether called the fiction of transgression, the late-capitalist literature of materiality, or the literature of excretory histories, targets these aversive emotions by turning the body back towards itself.
The literature of excretory histories not only uncovers subjugated narratives of bodily contact, then, but also works to reveal that the body is implicated in that which it abhors—that abhorred substances quite literally constitute the purportedly transcendent self. In Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Despisals” (1973), the speaker considers various despised places and substances, both in the industrial and corporeal realms of “the ghetto” (2) and “the body’s ghetto” (16). The speaker admonishes herself “never to go despising the asshole” (Rukeyser, 17), “never / to despise the clitoris” (Rukeyser, 19-20), before extrapolating this reversal of emotion to all despised objects: “Not to despise the it. To make this relation. / with the it : to know that I am it” (Rukeyser, 23-24). If disgust with one’s bodily substances and fear of mortality results in dematerializing the body, a psychological state exacerbated by the history and practice of bourgeois decorum, a poetics of bodily waste works to rematerialize it in turn—to attempt to reconcile the subject with the inescapable condition of his or her embodiment, however uncomfortable or counterintuitive such a reconciliation may be.
In addition to considering the historical and corporeal intimations of an aesthetics of disgust, the chapter examines the disjointed “cut-up” methods utilized by Burroughs and Acker (inherited from Tristan Tzara, Andre Breton, and John Dos Passos), whose collage aesthetics work to produce textual detritus that violates artistic models of coherence, efficiency, and legibility, though through a much grimier method than Auster’s. Burroughs’ novel in particular, which makes excessive use of synecdoche in order to sever limbs from their bodies, amounts to an amalgam of “human parts shaken up around and poured every which way” (112). In this way, Burroughs makes use of a “dominant trope in pornographic writing” wherein “all bodies were interchangeable” (Hunt, 44). Indeed, as Susan Sontag notes, many tropes in pornography function in order to “multiply the possibilities of exchange,” to produce an indiscriminate economy of radically open contact and promiscuity (66-67). In terms of subject matter, Burroughs’ comes closer to this ideal than his predecessors by transgressing boundaries of gender, race, age, and even species in an endless series of indiscriminate sex acts and orgies; with regards to form, the constant use of synecdoche on the local level alongside the broader structural fragmentation amplify and transmute the pornographic ideal of “depersonalized organs,” here detached not only from their bodies and orthodox systems of morality, but also from any semblance of narrative coherence (Sontag, 40).
Against postwar policing of human contact and the segregation of suburbanization (the history of which is discussed in Chapter Three), there is an excess in every human body which Burroughs and Acker wish to force out; ejaculate and blood, theretofore sanitized, form a messy, communal mixture—mirrored and amplified by the erratic and nonlinear vignette forms whose fragments fail to fit together properly. Ultimately, this section of the dissertation contends that the fragmented structure of these texts aesthetically mirrors cesspools of bodily excrement, or what is called, in the lexicon of waste management, leachate: the “watery potage that drools to the bottom” of dumpsters and landfills (Rathje and Murphy, 88). The fluidity of these odious liquids undoes individual delineation and fissures signifying systems predicated on productivism—the formal manifestation of what Bataille calls “nonproductive expenditure,” expended irrationally and indiscriminately in every direction (117).
III. Chapter Three: “Underbellies and Urban Spatial Logic”
Chapter Three, “Underbellies and Urban Spatial Logic,” shifts in focus from bodily to spatial waste, examining urban underworlds and sewers, particularly as depicted in mid-century African American narratives of descent by Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, and the advent of urban planning that structures the social and material spaces the literature explores. In 2000, the World Bank hypothesized that urban poverty would likely serve as “the most significant, and politically explosive, problem of the next century” (Shi, 14). As Mike Davis, Heise, and Pike remind us, the contemporary proliferation of slums finds its institutionalized roots in the twentieth-century practices of urban design, development, and renewal that this chapter takes as its historical backdrop. If the early twentieth-century marks a profound series of transitions from steward to consumer culture, the mid-to-late-century metropolis oversees its foulest corollary: a grimy landscape characterized by “pollution, excrement, and decay” (Davis, 19). Not all spaces, of course, are made equal; crucially, these underworlds result from an unchecked and radically uneven proliferation of waste matter along classed and racialized zones which the productivist taxonomy regulates.
In their depictions of the literal and figurative underworlds of Harlem, Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Lived Underground” (1942) and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) chart uneven urban development and the racial and class inequalities wrought by the asymmetrical construction of space itself. In lieu of viewing setting as a static and “fixed container”—to borrow David Alworth’s phrase—subordinated to the privileging of plot, character, or theme, this methodological approach reads the process by which these texts deploy the trope of the black underworld in order to render it a dynamic and formative constituent of lived urban experience, and to critique an always-already selective and partial historiography that obscures the ways in which bodies and garbage alike are relegated to undesirable zones of the city (2). By foregrounding what is often backgrounded, a methodological focus on setting does not prioritize individual subjects but works instead to “materialize the climates of history,” in this case the climates of a racialized urban ecology (Taylor, 15). Chapter Three, then, utilizes a “built environment” approach, strategically emphasizing location over subject, urbanism over urbanite. In “The Anthropology of Lower Income Urban Enclaves” (1995), Delmos Jones defines the built environment in terms of both “physical structures” and “conceptual principles” (193). These principles begin with the regulatory and organizational tactics of urban design and development seen previously in the analyses of de Certeau, Heise, and Pike, including zoning ordinances, health and housing codes, and their manipulations and violations. The built environment, then, precedes and proceeds the urban subject it partially embeds, and attempts to exert control through both architectural and discursive development. Though this is by no means thoroughly exhaustive or pervasive—urban regulation efforts are less totalizing in practice than in theory—these pessimistic works of fiction do partly exhibit a racial, economic, and spatial determinism.
Rather than employing a simple model of structural determinism and segregation, the chapter examines the complex relationship these low-income spaces exhibit with the rest of their urban surroundings. Far from being rigidly contained, these underworlds permeate and intersect with more prosperous neighborhoods, the seductive interplay of which produces a dialectical commercial enterprise. Ultimately, this body of texts demonstrates an effort to reabsorb social spaces back into the history which ejects them, to write the city from below.
The trajectory outlined in this chapter is as follows: the historical development of Harlem as a specifically African American community in the early twentieth-century, particularly in the 1910s and ’20s largely as a result of real estate speculation, the labor shortages wrought by World War I and subsequent Northern migration, followed by exploitative and segregationist practices in real estate, urban development, and zoning legislation in the ensuing years, compounded with the Great Depression, which aided in Harlem’s transition from artistic hub into ghetto, a transformation compounded further in the 1940s through the 1960s as a result of another dramatic African American migration alongside the development of suburbia and resultant white flight, resulting in what has become known as, in the words of Arnold R. Hirsch, the phenomenon of “the second ghetto.” While tracing this material genealogy, this chapter explores the attendant racialized rhetoric of contamination and containment, one which would eventually manifest in the mid-century trope of the black underworld as deployed by post-Harlem Renaissance writers Wright and Ellison. The general movement of this narrative moves from urban concentration, to public anxiety and resultant containment strategies targeting surplus populations, culminating in the literature of waste approaching the issue “from below.”
The built environment approach utilized in this chapter is rooted in historical materialism, urban studies, critical geography, and critical race theory, particularly as manifested in the real estate development of Harlem throughout the twentieth-century, which is traced in detail in the chapter proper as it transforms through racialized cycles of zoning, overpopulation, urban renewal, and suburbanization. After detailing ways in which these “ghettos were built, unbuilt, and rebuilt” (Nightingale, 261) throughout the first few decades of the 1900s, the chapter focuses on the rhetoric of “infiltration theory” prevalent in the 1940s through the 1960s, the period in which Wright and Ellison write, drawing from the work of preeminent African American urban historians Arnold Hirsch, Raymond Mohl, and Carl Nightingale. The chapter then argues that infiltration theory, a macrocosmic iteration of the rhetoric of bodily contamination expanded to urban scale wherein a contaminant population “blights” a once-prosperous neighborhood, depends on the notion of a surplus population exceeding its boundary, as discussed by Foucault in his passages on race as “the precondition that makes killing acceptable” (254) in “Society Must be Defended” (1973), Lisa Marie Cacho in her discussion of racialized conceptions of property ownership and citizenship in Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected (2012), and Achille Mbembe’s work on the surplus in Critique of Black Reason (2017), wherein racialized surplus populations have been historically assigned “to more or less impermeable spaces according to a logic of enclosure,” in which groups are defined and divided in terms of their capacities as “carriers of differentiated and more or less shifting risk” (35).
These spatial boundaries and urban grids map onto a racial and spatial hierarchy that operates along a vertical axis, an assertion which turns to three accounts of vertical hierarchies by Susan Morrison, Sara Ahmed, and David Pike, which attend respectively to the relegation of waste-matter to the lower stratum of the individual biological body, the socioeconomic body politic, and the urban body vertically perceived. The underworld therefore becomes, in the urban imaginary, the repository for waste in its many iterations.
It is against this backdrop that Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison—members of what Ross Posnock deems the “post-Harlem Renaissance generation”—utilize the underworld as both literal site and metaphor for the spatial subordination of African Americans, racialized part and parcel of a wider mechanism of waste aversion and management (28). In Vicious Modernism: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination (1990), James de Jongh argues that “the impulse of the first literary generations employing the motif [of Harlem] was to regard black Harlem as a trope” (15). For the Harlem Renaissance writers, this trope encapsulated and invoked the dreamscape of jazz and blues experimentation, cabaret and nightlife activities, and Alain Locke’s New Negro sensibilities. Increasingly, as our history of post-Renaissance Harlem has shown, black Harlem as a trope came to symbolize the disenfranchised underclass trapped in the squalid conditions of New York’s premiere ghetto, complete with the attendant “traces of despair associated with the presence of an urban underclass” (Fernandez-Kelly, 230). If, in other words, Jazz Age Harlem stood visibly as triumphant celebration of African American literary and musical artistic production, by mid-century, Harlem had gone underground, the realities of the underclass manifesting in the subterranean tropes of sewers and underworlds.
“The Man Who Lived Underground” (1942) and Invisible Man (1952) employ similar tactics—both feature black protagonists whose names are either undisclosed or forgotten and whose oppressive narrative arcs lead them, in the final instance, to subterranean depths beneath the metropolis, to sewers, cellars, and underground clinics. Both narratives implicitly and explicitly consider how hierarchies of race and class manifest in the symbolic processes of naming and mapping, how these processes produce blind spots in the cultural imagination, and, ultimately, how they impinge both upon individual subject formation and the spatial production and transmission of collective histories. Moreover, these texts are narrated from below—a racial and spatial positioning responsive to the mid-century contamination anxiety previously enumerated. Examining both texts, Thomas Heise’s Urban Underworlds (2010) notes that Wright and Ellison explore “how underground space had become infused with race in the most literal of ways” (128). They achieve this through “narratives of descent” which immerse their protagonists in “the squalid geographies of racial denigration—sewers, cellars, trash-strewn streets” (Heise, 129). These texts literalize discursive associations between the lower classes, the lowly, and corporeal waste matter, and make use of a “nauseating cloacal imagery” to do so (Heise, 129).
In “The Man Who Lived Underground,” Fred Daniels flees to the sewers after a false criminal accusation. Through recurring comparisons to animals and objects, Wright’s narrator demonstrates Daniels’ degeneration and the process by which his dehumanization, in tangible and figurative fashion, results in spatial submersion and abjection. Accordingly, Daniels’ perceptions undergo a series of transformations: he learns “a way of seeing in his dark world, like those sightless worms that inch along underground” (Wright, 32). The degeneration of his qualitative experiences and methods of perception grows more extreme and eventually leads to utter social unintelligibility: in a brief moment of ascension above ground, Fred forgets his name, is unable to respond to basic questions in his native tongue, and begins to experience complete cognitive and linguistic collapse. Fred Daniels becomes a “sightless worm,” devolving into the less-than-human both figuratively and on the level of sense experience, as his perceptual apparatus adjusts to his mud-crusted, lightless home and fails to operate above ground. It is thus that Daniels, embodiment of an “alien urban category” and spatial contaminant, is consigned to his domain within a “verticalized conception of the city” (Pike, 3, 196). Ejected from the social order with its attendant values and symbolic taxonomies, he is also ejected out of a time and history produced above ground; eventually, murdered and discarded into the gutter, he becomes a “whirling object rushing alone,” relegated permanently to the underground, the sewer lid sealed shut (Wright, 71).
Ten years after Wright, Ellison considers the relationship of underworlds and their nameless denizens to the writing of history in 1950s Harlem. As the title and its corresponding motifs indicate, Invisible Man explores the axis of visibility and invisibility as it intersects with spatial and racial hierarchies. The narrator both resists and accedes to his invisible outsider status through narrating his life and disavowing the culture above ground. As with Wright, this manifests through the narrator’s namelessness and eventual subterranean position, to which he is consigned after being trapped by white men during a riot. Here, the underworld serves as a source of ironized comfort, insofar as it identifies and concretizes a more intangible and insidious form of oppression: “This is the way it’s always been,” he remarks, “only now I know it” (Ellison, 566). The narratives of descent in post-Harlem Renaissance underworld fiction therefore paradoxically conceal the black body in order to reveal an always-already-existent spatial subordination. When jettisoned from the narrative above ground, the invisible man irreverently tells his story from below, a story that also lies within: “I’d make invisibility felt if not seen, and they’d learn that it could be as polluting as a decaying body, or a piece of bad meat in a stew” (Ellison, 509). The narrator imagines his narrative itself as a form of material pollution, one which would contaminate the hygienic body politic, making “them gag on what they refused to see” (Ellison, 508). When polite society myopically averts its gaze from unpleasant truths, a visceral and disturbing form of waste, material and linguistic, arises as an aesthetically and politically viable countermeasure. Outside the established parameters of historiographical selection, this unrecorded excess, squeezed out of a system of purported unity, returns to pollute, occupy, and haunt its borders.
Eric Sundquist therefore suggests that Invisible Man be read as “a reconstruction of African American history,” a text situated in a wider black critique of American historiography emphasizing exclusion, omissions, and methodological limitations of the archive. As Maghan Keita writes in Race and the Writing of History (2000), historiography became compromised as soon as it operated on and reproduced a “scientific and specifically biological nexus,” including “degeneracy theory, phrenology, craniology, eugenics, and social Darwinism,” as a racially oppressive episteme in the nineteenth century (18). James Carson’s The Columbian Covenant: Race and the Writing of American History (2014) similarly implicates American historiography in ideology, tracing its reliance on “covenental thinking,” an exclusionary set of colonial and theological ideologies wherein the racialized Other lives “outside of the covenant God had made for His chosen children” (11). American covenental thinking therefore aligns with Keita’s notion of an “epistemology of blackness,” wherein blackness is defined only as negation, as that which is excluded from a positive definition (10).
More concretely, African American historiography faces a material challenge at the level of the historian’s primary materials: the archive, and the historical limitations placed on a people whose access to the written word was heavily regulated and repressed. Black historiographers must therefore grapple with the fact that, as John Ernest writes in Emancipation Historiography (2004), “much of their history was excluded from or deformed in the official records that served as historical evidence,” as Ellison’s narrator comes to realize (6). In this vein, Mbembe therefore poses a question central to this discourse: “How could one write history in the absence of the kinds of traces that serve as sources for historiographical fact?” (28). If it is therefore a commonplace among African American historians that such a history faces a number of serious ideological and methodological difficulties due to its situated and contingent past, and that the primary goal of African American history is to offer a reparative reading, corrective, or intervention, from what site must this counternarrative emerge?
If the official version at the top of the vertical axis is distorted, manipulated, or absent entirely, it is to the unofficial version, at the bottom of the axis, to which African American historians must turn. In “A New Interpretation for Negro History” (1937), Lawrence D. Reddick called for such a history:
In observing the black men themselves, the historian may become more penetrating if he turns away a little more from the articulate professional classes to the welfare, feelings and thoughts of the common folk—the domestic servants, the tenant farmers, the dark men on the city streets. (27)
Even more explicitly, Robin D. G. Kelley’s Race Rebels (1994) calls for a “black history from way, way below” (13). To Sundquist’s suggestion that Ellison’s novel be read as a “reconstruction of African American history,” then, it must be added that it is a history reconstructed from below (27).
The spatial determinism exhibited in this body of literature, then, is qualified somewhat by the return of the racially and spatially repressed in narrative form. Wright and Ellison’s texts serve as extratextual supplements which puncture the wholesome plenum of “postwar containment culture,” the spatial manifestations and truncated historiography of which have been the focus of this chapter (Ghosn, 22; Alworth, 54). In this way, the underworld “is not the space of the irredeemable Other,” but instead a “contested terrain where citizen-subjects try to take possession of their own history and spaces, and ownership of their representations in the wider cultural arena” (Heise, 11). African American narratives of descent serve as interventions in selective historiographies and attempt to bring subjugated knowledges to the light of day.
IV. Chapter Four: “Disposable Bodies”
There can be no underworld without its inhabitants, and it is to these denizens that the final chapter, “Disposable Bodies,” turns. Chapter Four centers on social detritus in the forms of homelessness, alcoholism, and disease. Indeed, the chapter examines how these stigmatized populations are rhetorically framed as diseases, polluting agents plaguing a social body intent on cleanliness and productivity, in an extension of the previous chapter’s discussion of surplus populations. Karl Marx, in “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” (1851) calls those subjects produced and discarded by capitalism “social scum… a passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society” (257). Jettisoned from and vilified by modern productivism, these economically vulnerable populations form the underclass—or, more dramatically, the “dangerous classes.” This loaded term forms the basis of The Dangerous Classes of New York (1872), Charles Loring Brace’s dogmatic and propagandistic taxonomy of vagrants, drug addicts, prostitutes, and other members of destitute urban populations. In a discursive set of characteristics which are repeatedly invoked throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to vilify and devalue lower income and minority communities, Brace defines the dangerous classes in terms of their ignorance, lack of practical training, intemperance, lasciviousness, ethnic origins, noise, and social disruption. Their beliefs, practices, and bodies constitute the “vicious fragments of the lower strata of society” whose unruly fragmentation and accordant uselessness makes their governance difficult and their presence unendurable (Brace, 47). Luc Sante’s Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991), which traces disreputable habitations and practices in the forms of tenements, saloons, flop houses, and drug dens in the Bowery, Hell’s Kitchen, and Harlem, similarly studies the lower classes of the city, which he calls “the ghosts of Manhattan,” who, not “entombed in their names, their works, their constructions” as the propertied classes are, form “the dispossessed, the depraved, the defective, the recalcitrant” (xiv-xv). If productivist rhetoric considers these undesirable characteristics causal rather than symptomatic, trashy literature in turn explores them as coping mechanisms and practices responsive to all-encompassing social economies and issues.
The chapter draws from a body of scholarship examining the relationship between cultural systems of value and particular groups historically dispossessed of that value. This includes the work of Bauman, Butler, Weheliye, Foucault and Mbembe presented earlier—a discourse which asks how certain populations acquire what Hannah Arendt calls “the right to have rights” (296) while others are consigned to the paradoxical category of what Lisa Cacho deems “living nonbeings” (6) whose subhuman experiences of existence constitute “something living that is other than life” (Butler, 15). Accounts of social value and social death ask who gets to matter and who does not, how value is assigned or rescinded in distinct epochs and locations, which groups benefit from the maintenance of these networks, and the figurative lexicon, tropes, and associations which form the corresponding rhetorical repertoire, most often tied to filth and other forms of debased matter.
In this vein, “Disposable Bodies” focalizes two postwar American novels: William Kennedy’s Ironweed (1983) and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997). While Auster, Pynchon, Ginsberg, and Samuel Beckett all explore homelessness to varying degrees, none do so as exhaustively as Kennedy, whose novel is populated entirely with what his jaded alcoholic protagonist Francis Phelan calls “social maggots” and “streetside slugs” (160). All of Francis’s transient occupations—grave digger, junk collector—have to do with garbage and decay, drawing suggestive parallels between trash as inescapable shard of the past and the manifestation of a life of abject squalor. Set in the Great Depression, the novel exhibits a savagely hopeless tone. Life on the streets of Albany is described as a ubiquitous and indifferent social wasteland: Francis’s “eternal landscape” is comprised of “bodies in alleys, bodies in gutters, bodies anywhere,” a “physical litany of the dead” (Kennedy, 29). Francis’s friends, lovers, and other fellow vagrants undergo harassment, beatings, theft, rape, and death by policemen, weather conditions, and other homeless men and women. This section also examines the links between class and namelessness. In Ironweed, history as a thematic concern manifests through the recurring motifs of cemeteries, junkyards, and empty lots. As Francis notes to Rudy in the opening passage in Saint Agnes Cemetery in an echo of Sante’s Low Life: “I never knew a bum yet had a grave” (Kennedy, 12). Later, when digging through a junkyard, he encounters a “sea of metal fragments that no longer had names” (Kennedy, 91). Without intervention, the symbolic reversal of naming renders these fragments formless and therefore indistinguishable and unimportant to posterity. Since the homeless don’t get graves, and Ironweed is composed almost entirely of fractured subjects whose names and identities have dissipated, the novel thereby probes some of the foregoing concerns regarding the relationship between social abjection and the omissions of history.
These disparate texts share an impulse to confer visibility to waste in its many manifestations, to trace that which is forgotten or undervalued, and to bring these byproducts into public consciousness in a way that simultaneously grants and resists legibility. As has been demonstrated, while texts in this tradition function in a variety of ways, they each share an archaeological function: trash is dug up, presented to the culture which spat it out, and imbued with a significance previously unafforded to it, whether aesthetic, historical, material, or philosophical.
Each central argument poses questions regarding the relationship between trash and history, in which trash is figured as the seldom-taken access point into knowledge of ongoing systems of production, circulation, and disuse. For DeLillo, waste is the management of history, its transgenerational mediator, the link between events and people; for Pynchon and his transgressive coterie, dead, messy matter is the reality of history, is history itself, dispersed and fractured across time and space; Ellison and Wright ask how, if at all, the black subject can position himself to avoid being lost beneath a hegemonic and selective history, while Kennedy and Yamashita produce harrowing, unpleasant histories that are submerged yet upon whose backs all culture is fundamentally predicated. Indeed, the fact that the vast majority of trashy literature raises questions about history speaks to a conception of history as itself a form of waste management, as a process of sorting through the residues of the past through historically embedded value judgments. More broadly, the literature of waste shows how the discourses and practices of efficiency, mechanization, and cleanliness are haunted by residues of grime in the forms of industrial runoff, obscenity, aesthetic detritus, ghettos, and non-normative bodies—how difference is produced by modernity, then vilified for its difference, then re-absorbed by literature and art.
While trashy literature makes the invisible visible and problematizes the selective shortcomings of historiography, a second and more radical function is to disrupt the notion of plenitude that defines the productivist mechanism, whose unified metaphysics aim to give each piece a deliberate, efficient, and functional role within the given economy—whether it be the assembly line, the structure of an artwork, the design of a city, or the network of social relations. By either focalizing and reintroducing discarded remnants of culture back into a system of circulation from which they were ejected, or by intentionally depleting the crafted elements of an art object of possible semantic or structural use-value, the literature of waste demonstrates that signifying systems predicated on productivist unity are inexhaustive and inevitably entail remainders.
As explored in the second chapter’s examination of Burroughs and Acker, twentieth-century collage aesthetics exhibit a telling case of structurally useless fragmentation. These figurative cut-up methods, an extension of the literal newspaper scramblings instantiated by Tzara, Breton, Dos Passos and their respective coteries (themselves extending visual and poetic experiments by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and F.T. Marinetti) actively and formally resist a metaphysics of presence with regards to authorial intention, structural unity, and the autonomy of the medium. By arranging fragments in haphazard, nonlinear fashion with minimized or lessened authorial selection, by intentionally producing artworks where the individual pieces fail to adhere to a unified whole, and by borrowing aesthetic practices and even literal physical materials from other media, collage practices achieve a number of extreme results. Because these effects are multi-directional, multi-discursive, and contradictory, they manifest directly in the domain of aesthetics but also entail metaphysical implications by puncturing the self-contained plenum of a discourse. In her analysis of futurist collage in The Futurist Moment (1986), Marjorie Perloff notes two such paradoxical effects of the avant-garde practices which lead to instability between discrete planes of existence. First, because a collage can simultaneously invoke an autonomous or fictional zone while its borrowed fragments gesture towards a space outside that zone, it simultaneously “refers to an external reality even as its compositional thrust is to undercut the very referentiality it seems to assert” (Perloff, 49). The fragmentation explored in the late-capitalist literature of materiality, building from the historical avant-garde, posits multiple incongruous ontologies which co-exist uneasily, material and immaterial at once. Moreover, the lack or mitigation of structural unity and didactic guidance which the viewer has become historically conditioned to expect makes it such that “the ordering signs that would specify the causal or temporal relations among presented elements” are “wholly suppressed” (Perloff, 58). Deprived of “overt connection or explanation,” the viewer who seeks answers must become a bricoleur, left to pick through the disjointed rags (Perloff, 58).
In the most extreme incarnations of collage, ragpicking in order to partly or wholly reverse fragmentation is a futile endeavor. Stubborn, the waste matter remains as an unassimilable remainder. In the case of Dada, for instance, pieces often jut out so anomalously that they simply cannot be absorbed into known systems of knowledge; indeed, their very composition and intent is to derail such systems entirely. Benjamin’s analysis of Dada poetry in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) makes precisely this point: he deems their poems “word salad,” containing “every imaginable waste product of language,” leveraged as a “means to achieve… uselessness” (678). Dada and surrealism specifically target bourgeois rationalism—a historically particular instance of secular humanism—by way of irrationality, absurdity, and non sequitur. This comports with W.H. Auden’s discussion of economies of form and excess in The Dyer’s Hand (1962), wherein he notes that much art of “a bourgeois nature” disapproves of “loose ends, irrelevance and mess” (57). As the dwarves in Barthelme’s Snow White metafictionally state: “We like books that have a lot of dreck in them, matter which presents itself as not wholly relevant (or indeed, at all relevant)” (112).
From which vantage points are fragments deemed wasteful? If, as Derrida notes in “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1970), essentially all discourse relies on a metaphysics of presence, hierarchically moving from an original presence of meaning to its absence or deprivation, then the work intentionally crafted to stymie the process of meaning-making poses a problem for these systems. In his reading of the newsreel sections of Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy (1930-1936), Kevin Trumpeter notes that the “lack of intelligible connections (or, conversely, the abundance of potential connections” presses the reader to make meaning of the disjointed pieces—but, crucially, “the recalcitrant manner in which many of these fragments resist being enlisted in a comprehensive hermeneutic scheme ensures that some free-floating excess will inevitably remain” (322). In Benjamin’s terms, the collage fragments constitute “waste products of language” because they exceed a classical system of value predicated on (descending from the macrocosmic to microcosmic) plenitude, reason, and efficiency—on the existence of a set of principles which, once discovered, may lead the analyst towards a stable and totalizing semantic or symbolic framework. For this framework to operate as a thorough metaphysics of presence, no individual fragment can lead to absence. When any or many individual pieces, placed provocatively or erratically out of place, cannot be made to work as part of the grander mechanism, they are aesthetically, hermeneutically, or functionally extraneous and wasteful.
With regards to disgust, a third set of stakes pertains to debates regarding the efficacy of linguistic and visual mimesis in Anglo-American modernism and beyond. The early twentieth century oversaw a particularly pressing and pervasive crisis in representation, a series of self-aware challenges to the foundational principles or preconditions of art largely centered on the question of any medium’s capability of rendering life itself. The problem facing many of these strands of modern art is the era’s recognition of nontransparency, of the perceived inability to move from one register to another without producing a dissatisfying loss or dissonance of some kind. These losses most often problematize classical conceptions of mimesis, or the ability for art to effectively render life. In terms of mimesis, the artist faced with this dilemma can take one of two broad routes—to mitigate or exacerbate the nontransparency of the medium. To mitigate it, he or she can attempt to arise to Mallarmé’s challenge in “Crisis of Poetry” (1886)—to create a “supreme” form and bring the sign as close to transparency as possible through discovering the most effective or suitable aesthetic principle which corresponds to veridical experience. Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., and Ernest Hemingway attempt this, for instance, by trimming stylistic flamboyance, digressions from the object of focus, and excessive focus on subjectivity.
It is the first of these two aesthetic paths that is at stake in the discussion of disgusting, abject, and iconoclastic art, which is, on the whole, representational, usually seeking to present, to various ends, concrete and unpleasant details of the external world. As noted in the introduction, Korsmeyer’s aesthetic theory of disgust contends that disgust arises equally whether the spectator views a presentation or a representation of foulness. Should this idea hold, it follows that an aesthetics of disgust may serve to circumvent the modernist aporia of nontransparency, effectively bridging the troublesome gap between art and life by producing an audience response that, in its indiscriminate recoil, does not distinguish between the two.
One particular method in affect studies positions disgust as existing neither neatly “within” nor “without” the text, but in a formally rooted orientation which allows a multi-discursive and dialectical exchange between the two. As Sianne Ngai notes in Ugly Feelings (2005), scholars can analyze affect without recourse to reader response through the aesthetic concept of tone. Ngai defines tone as “a cultural object’s affective bearing, orientation, or ‘set toward’ the world” (29). In other words, a text may be considered disgusting “without this necessarily implying the work represents or signifies disgust, or that it will disgust the reader” (Ngai, 30). By identifying a disparity between the chosen aesthetic materials of the art object and the dominant and historically influenced standards of acceptable subject matter beyond it, one may hold that the text presents an aesthetics of disgust, while also conceding that those with highly deviant standards may remain immune to its tactics.
On the other end of the spectrum, some hold that disgusting art merely aestheticizes disgust, which is to say it undercuts its own presumed effects by quarantining abject waste matter in the aesthetic realm, further separating, rather than uniting, art and life. In The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986), for example, Peter Stallybrass and Allon White critique nineteenth century slumming literature, which “made the grotesque visible while keeping it at an untouchable distance” (139). Disgusting literature may evoke unpleasant imagery and allow the reader to dwell on its import conceptually, but it cannot directly produce tactile or olfactory sensations, which seem crucial in order to trigger the full range of the emotion. What if one were to concede this point, but then consider the aestheticizing of waste matter not as a merely or a less-than, but rather as an instead? If the effect of disgust, a nearly-universal affect which causes the subject to recoil from the object of consideration, is to jettison waste matter from consciousness, does not disgusting art—at one layer of aesthetic removal from tactile, olfactory, and gustatory sensations while still retaining some of their potency—grant the subject the intermediary space to turn towards waste matter, and thereafter contemplate its historical origins, significance, and consequences? It is this dissertation’s view, then, that what we may, qualifying Korsmeyer, deem the semi-transparency of trash art—its in-between status in evoking recoil of a lesser intensity than physical waste matter itself, the aesthetic alternative wherein one confronts waste indirectly, troubling waste-averse consciousness without contaminating the biological body—is not its shortcoming, but its advantage. Therein lies the potential to circumvent an automatic visceral recoil, with its attendant historical, cultural, and bodily myopia.
In drawing these categorical connections, this dissertation does not mean to treat this body of work as a monolithic whole with homogenous aims, but rather to delineate its interrelated yet often distinct functions. As noted previously in our brief discussion of Woolf, it is imperative that the trash scholar not treat waste objects as transparent signifiers signaling towards cultural economies of value, but as nontransparent, dirty signs in their own right. It is the omnipresence, banality, uselessness, and materiality of garbage which allows for its deviant potentiality and indeterminacy; the relationship between the banality of garbage and the everyday constitutes a fourth use for waste studies which will now be recapitulated and extrapolated.
To a large extent, “The Lowly Remains” wishes to illuminate the value judgments embedded into not only aesthetics, but everyday life—a central concern of the modernists and their successors. Within this discussion lie at least two divergent paths: first, the everyday as it reveals transcendence, excess, and the overlooked; second, the everyday merely as it reveals itself. On the first trajectory, everyday objects are utilized as access points into historical narratives and cultural mechanisms. In this vein, Highmore notes that “everyday life registers the process of modernization as an incessant accumulation of debris,” an indication of the planned and perpetual obsolescence of commodities particular to modern systems of production (61). Much like his belief in the lower registers of the city evading a panoptic system of urban regulation, de Certeau holds that the everyday “has a certain strangeness that does not surface, or whose surface is only its upper limit, outlining itself against the visible” (93). De Certeau therefore suggests that the quotidian surfaces of everyday objects hold a potentially deep archive, one that, unexamined, evades “the imaginary totalizations produced by the eye” (93). In light of this, artists and scholars of waste work to focalize that strangeness and tease out its significance both within and beyond existing paradigms of value.
The second strain, more radically materialist than the first, presents the banal object in its texture, objecthood, and thingness. As evidenced by Woolf, Breton, and Bataille, an alternate approach to trash and the quotidian lies in the modernist approach to the object qua object, which is not interpreted instrumentally or pragmatically, not absorbed into any existing system of meaning or circulation. These artists figure waste not in terms of its history of production and exchange, sometimes even its possible translation into art, but often in terms of its unproductive and rationally useless quiddity. In Other Things, Brown notes that the found objects of the historical avant-garde “mean to disclose some thing about the objects, some significance emerging from the insignificant and ephemeral”—crucially, this ineffable some thing cannot be sensed “within the habits of the everyday” (37). Studies of the everyday therefore reframe and reconceptualize the default approach to the quotidian, instantiating an alternate mode of perception and network of value as a means to scrutinize the overlooked. The hope, for many of these artists, scholars, and philosophers, is to uncover and activate what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari deem, in A Thousand Plateaus (1980), “energetic materiality”: a “vital state of matter as such” which “doubtless exists everywhere but is ordinarily hidden or covered, rendered unrecognizable” (410). In provoking confrontation with obscured or neglected zones of matter and attending to their forms and contours, waste-oriented literature contributes to a wider field of cultural production intent on viewing quotidian objects, and the object world more broadly, not as extensions of, or spaces for, human subjects, but substances in their own right.
 Omissions and Restrictions
As noted in the introduction, the reach of this discourse is wide; every system produces waste, and nearly everything has been considered waste at some point in time. To keep the project productively focused so as to say something historically, geographically, and formally rooted, the dissertation’s framework is that of primarily twentieth-century American prose. Though the Anglo-American modernists were interested in an aesthetics of trash and the notion of modernity as linguistic, cultural, spiritual, and aesthetic wasteland, it is in the latter half of the century that new technological developments in disposable objects, such as the invention of Styrofoam in the early 1940s and plastic bags in the mid-1960s, alongside their new postwar waste basket, the sanitary landfill, began to aggressively transform and accelerate production, consumption, and disposal practices, making trash a more frequently recurring concern in literature and beyond (Bozcagli, 298; Alworth, 57; Roach, 2). Moreover, postwar paradigm shifts in national infrastructure, such as the development of municipal trash collection and the U.S. interstate highway system in the 1950s under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, along with the resultant explosion of mass-produced suburban housing and supermarkets, evolved concurrently with these new products and amplified prevalent values pertaining to disposability, invisibility, and waste aversion. It is therefore unsurprising that the unprecedented material proliferation of trash in this era correlates with its increased representation in the arts, from the Beatniks’ hostile attack on suburban homogeneity to the postmodern examination of supermarkets as hyperreal matrices severed from their material referents. The evolution of streamlined technocratic systems of mass production and waste disposal, predicated on and constitutive of the impulse to obscure and eliminate unwanted byproducts, makes garbage an increasingly pressing artistic consideration at this time.
Though poetry is in no way a central focus, poems that deal with waste, including those by T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Muriel Rukeyser, and A.R. Ammons are touched upon when aesthetically, thematically, or historically relevant. In the realm of social trash, the final chapter’s concentration on homelessness and substance abuse forecloses a concentration on queer geographies and subcultures, such as those depicted by Djuna Barnes and John Rechy, despite a longstanding scholarly interest and familiarity with those topics—though a gesture towards such alternate lines of inquiry may serve as a coda. Pulp fiction, designed and destined for the rubbish heap, is limited to a brief discussion in the taxonomy section of the introduction. Because “The Lowly Remains” prioritizes literature which poses complex questions regarding the production, consumption, and circulation of waste in fiction, a focus on the production of fiction as waste in the vein of textual studies is beyond the present scope. This dissertation is not an intervention in the canon of modernist studies so much as it is an exploration of a singular motif throughout modernism and beyond. This dissertation recognizes the foregoing topics as historically important to the literary study of waste, but truncates them to avoid overcrowding the chapters, to which they may be thematically superfluous or divergent.
Modern and contemporary visual art, with its recurring emphases on the found object and bricolage, specifically as exhibited in the Dada and surrealist camps, is analytically pertinent as it instantiates a radical paradigm shift in both artistic and everyday economies of value that is taken up repeatedly in the twentieth century. The readymade in particular—matter positioned provocatively out of place—unsettles long-standing conventions of representation, craft, and taste, in some senses allowing for the scrutiny of debased matter and the lewdly pornographic which follows historically. Due to issues of scope and scale, visual art appears only as the readymade, and is also restricted to the introduction.
One common direction that the study of waste may take, but which forms a slightly distinct line of inquiry than ours, is that of ecocriticism, a body of scholarship which scrutinizes similar primary materials to generally different ends. Foundational texts and recent developments in ecocritical discourse overlap to some extent, however, with the materialist and cultural studies approach of this text. In a text considered foundational to the discipline, Lawrence Buell’s Writing for an Endangered World (2011) provides a nuanced conception of the ecocritical perspective on nature. The importance of physical nature, Buell writes, “ceases to be located in its promise as past, present, or future sanctuary,” but instead in its “standing as humanity’s codependent and coconspirator in coping with the fact/awareness that the nature one engages must now be—if indeed it has not always in some sense been—not pristine but the effect of ‘second’ (i.e. modified) nature” (45). The contemporary view of ecocriticism, then, does not bemoan a post-Edenic “fall” into toxicity from a state of purity, but posits a multi-directional system within which human actants, physical spaces, and manmade contaminants interact with, influence, and impinge upon each other over time. Here, the ecocritical focus on ecology, conceived capaciously, resonates with the long view of systems of production, consumption, and disposal which “The Lowly Remains” foregrounds.
Many ecocritics employ an explicitly materialist methodology and resist the anti-essentialism of post-structuralism and cultural studies which, as Stacy Alaimo warns in Bodily Natures (2010), “may bracket or minimize the significance, substance, and power of the material world,” but which this dissertation retains (8). As has been noted, this dissertation aligns with new materialist studies wherein “matter itself becomes a text,” a “site of narrativity” not always reducible to instrumentalist analyses reflecting cultural narratives (Iovino and Oppermann, 83). “The Lowly Remains” utilizes a heterogeneous approach wherein either object-oriented ontology or cultural studies is deployed depending on the particular manifestation of waste in question, attending to the material with regards to undeniably toxic and poisonous residues, for instance, while attending to the cultural with regards to contingent categories of pollution which have been essentialized in moral and aesthetic economies, as well as examining the dialectic between the two domains.
On the other hand, some ecocritics, such as Greg Garard, consider the discipline an “avowedly political mode of analysis,” one tied “explicitly to a ‘green’ moral and political agenda” (3). By contrast, “The Lowly Remains” makes no allegiance to environmental justice, nor is it anti-environmentalist; it seeks foremost to elucidate the history, tropes, and interrelations between categories of waste and their literary manifestations in twentieth-century prose fiction of the United States. “The Lowly Remains” is aligned with what philosopher Slavoj Žižek deems the perspective of “a radical ecologist,” who does nostalgically long for a “pristine nature of virgin forests and clear sky,” but who accepts “waste as such,” who considers “the aesthetic potential of waste, of decay, of the inertia of rotten material which serves no purpose” (35). At the same time, the project resists the temptation to romanticize waste and produce a merely inverted hierarchy, attempting to elucidate alternative networks of value.
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“The engine beckons. Its cylinders shine perfectly. These same engines that propel men into flight. That carry flesh as thoughtlessly as napalm. These workhorses that somehow epitomize luxury, fractured. The pieces of seduction. Polished and warm, each organ, each setting, each cylinder calls to me. Like beginnings without ends.”
—Lawrence Chua, Gold By the Inch (1995)
In this passage, the narrator of Chua’s 1998 postcolonial novel watches his uncle take apart a Rolls Royce in an automobile workshop. As the machine is dissected, the narrator employs the language of commodity fetishism to describe his orientation towards the object. The car appears to him as an autonomous agent. It does not await response or input; it beckons, initiating communication. In propelling men into flight, it is the prime mover in the exchange, rather than its manufacturers or operators. It appears lively, organic, and sexual, a living entity, self-originating, bearing neither the traces of its mechanical creation nor of its eventual junkheap-bound future. The product, polished and gleaming, presents itself as an object without history, a beginning without an end.
Such a line of thinking is illusory from at least one standpoint. From the consumer perspective of its human operator, the car will reach an end: as its novelty-status wanes, its market value will depreciate; as its pieces wear down from use, certain functions will cease to execute properly, then entirely; when the burden of repair becomes too much, or a newer model beckons, it will eventually be sold, exchanged, or discarded. The moment in which the commodity shines is but an instant in a much lengthier chain of production, circulation, and disposal, composed of a process of mechanical reproduction, marketing and advertising and their effects on the rates at which objects become trash, and, after it is trashed, waste management, concealment, and recuperation. To reveal and interrogate this history, to delineate the origins and destinations of objects through narrative, is one function of the category of art we have been calling the literature of waste. The text which most concerns this chapter and most thoroughly realizes this goal—by moving, as will be shown, through historical and material axes, horizontally across, vertically down, and back and forth—is the waste-epic Underworld (1997).
This chapter details the history of the processes which, by the last decade of the twentieth century in which DeLillo writes, have made trash all but invisible to the American public. Beginning with Fordist rationalization of the workplace, the advent of ideas and products oriented towards convenience and hygiene, and culminating in the invention of plastics and streamlined trash-concealment technologies such as the sanitary landfill, “Tracing Trash” follows the development of trash production and obfuscation in the United States throughout the first half of the twentieth century, while exploring its material hangovers and cultural responses in the second half of the century in which the novel takes place.
Through the objects that appreciate and depreciate in value throughout their extensive circulation across the United States, the behavior and foresight of its characters, who work as waste managers, re-use artists, and memorabilia collectors, the sprawling forty-one year span of the narrative events, and the nonlinear yet carefully arranged sequence in which they unfold, Underworld considers a panoply of available approaches towards waste unified by an impulse to counterbalance a culture of waste concealment and denial. Focusing first on the processes by which trash, and the object world as a whole, is decontextualized and hidden, then on the countermeasures the novel deploys to recontextualize and historicize its role in a wider chronology, before finally considering the limitations of these countermeasures in and beyond Underworld, this chapter charts the novel’s representations of plastics and landfills, two twentieth-century technologies central to waste production and concealment, the homogenizing, distancing, and paradoxical effects of consumer culture on the object world, and the potential that a literary genealogy of trash holds to develop an expanded temporal understanding of the life-cycles and interrelations of objects and subjects alike.
Because a central claim is that DeLillo utilizes waste-content and the long novel form in order to write an expanded history of objects, the chapter reads, at length, items and materials that have yet to deteriorate into the status of trash, particularly plastics and related twentieth-century commodities. Uncovering the archive of early plastic production, in tandem with what this dissertation deems “plastic mysticism,” the chapter illustrates the violence embedded into the invention and persistence of plastic, a stubborn chemical that resists containment efforts. Additionally, plastic mysticism is situated within a wider system of technological systems revered for their ability to insulate the user from, and exert control over, the material world.
Shifting from plastics to landfills, the chapter reconsiders critical commonplaces regarding waste as matter out of place. The history of the sanitary landfill as waste-enshrouding mechanism, and its representation in Underworld, reveals that waste is both matter out of place and time, that the landfill compresses space and time in a manner that transforms the banality of isolated trash into a sizable, transhistorical spectacle. Moreover, this section reveals that by placing landfills in remote locations and restricting their access to waste management workers, the waste management industry transports and contains trash into strictly defined spatial parameters, the result of which is that waste in the postwar era is no longer out of place, but intentionally positioned within the landscape for optimal containment.
After examining the role of these materials in the novel, the chapter turns to waste-conscious practices deployed by the novel’s characters, demonstrating how the Shay family, by reconfiguring their approach from objects-as-beginnings to objects-as-ends, and asking where and how their discards will be received, replaces the notion of disposal with the notion of reception. Next, the chapter considers the practices of memorabilast Marvin Lundy, who similarly replaces an attitude of disposal with preservation. Intervening in the pathway of the commodity in order to preserve and transmit an intergenerational history and site of physical contact, Lundy traces objects-as-ends back to their beginnings, and in passing them on to future owners, repositions them as middles in a longer chronology.
As will be demonstrated, the waste-conscious efforts of these characters yield an expanded history of the life-cycles of objects, while also reversing and transforming their waste-status. In so doing, Underworld reveals the instability of waste as a category, and in nonlinear fashion, explores the notion of matter as a ceaseless series of transformations, as always constituting middles in an ongoing narrative. Bearing this complication in mind, the chapter closes by considering the structural ways in which the novel self-consciously undercuts its own aspirations, highlighting the infeasibility of waste management as a totalizing endeavor and recasting the notion of waste itself as unruly, turbulent matter in perpetual flux.
While examining these facets of the novel, the chapter frequently returns to the temporal framework presented by Chua and emphasizes the shifting perceptions of trash as diachronic phenomenon. Technological utopianism and commodity fetishism present the new product as beginning without end; waste, conventionally considered an end, implies a not-waste beginning and a becoming-waste middle; decontextualized ephemera in the novel are perceived as ahistorical middles, severed from their beginnings and ends; the Shays and Lundy place waste in a wider history in which its current iteration no longer functions as end but historicized middle. These considerations ultimately inform Underworld’s nonlinear waste historiography as one that does not move from commodity-beginning to trash-end, or trashy end to pristine beginning, but probes the historically, spatially, and categorically contingent nature of waste as a fluid phenomenon that pushes back against attempts to manage it.
From Safeguarding to Replacing // Towards Disposability and Single-Use
As discussed in the introduction, the opening decades of the twentieth century instantiated a radical paradigm shift in subject-object relationships due largely to the onset of rationalized mass production and modern advertising. For much of the nineteenth century, Americans predominantly produced, re-used and repaired their possessions, embodying an ethos of what Susan Strasser calls stewardship towards objects, an attuned object-consciousness. In the first half of the subsequent century, by contrast, Americans learned largely to discard and replace them. The domestic-public division of labor lessened the layman’s material knowledge of crafting objects or mending them once defunct; from the circumscribed perspective of the alienated user, the processes of labor exportation resulted in gaps in tactile knowledge and consciousness towards the item, eliminating “its origin and its final destination” and thereby truncating its narrated history (Hawkins, 29).
Whereas, in earlier decades of the nineteenth century, scavenging was widely practiced across class boundaries and held an important place in the flow of goods, towards the end of the century it became relegated to the working, and no longer the middle, classes. In 1872, social reformist Charles Loring Brace listed ragpickers among the eponymous Dangerous Classes of New York; a decade later, James McCabe’s guidebook to the unfavorable neighborhoods of the city reaffirmed this association. Along this vein, Strasser notes that the bricoleur’s harvesting of materials in public space became more and more identified with the lower strata of “beggars, scavengers, and ragmen” familiar today (Strasser, 140). Moreover, the neurotic fear of wasted time normalized by Fordist rationalization, compounded with a reduced need for castoff materials in households containing fewer capable craftsmen and less available storage space as a result of accelerated rates of production, made the time-consuming and increasingly stigmatized act of scavenging, and the bricolage it allowed, less viable. In short, as Americans owned more possessions than ever before, and grew increasingly alienated from them, objects that were once harvested and safeguarded slid with greater frequency into the category of trash and were disposed of accordingly.
At the same time, a series of newly-developed disposable products worked to usher in what would be an era characterized by lasting notions of convenience, cleanliness, and disposability. Paper cups, paper towels, paper plates, and paper straws, developed in the 1890s through the 1910s, were popularized via advertising in the 1910s and 1920s (Vinikas, 94; Frederick, 142-143). The price of paper, once exorbitant, declined with the invention of wood pulp and other mass-produced paper materials in the second half of the nineteenth century (Munsell, 203). As a result, napkins and tissues began to replace rags and handkerchiefs; toilet paper replaced re-used newspapers, a commonplace practice before the turn of the century (Strasser, 179; Arnold, 195).
As previously noted, the marketing campaigns accompanying single-use products focused on the convenience and cleanliness they afforded. Because they were quickly thrown away, they did not need attention or maintenance after the fact; no longer held accountable for safeguarding, the user could turn attention from labor to leisure. Literature and advertisements touting convenience predominantly targeted housewives: Lillian Gilbreth’s The Home-Maker and Her Job (1927) and Christine Frederick’s Selling Mrs. Consumer (1929) advised housewives to apply productivist efficiency models to domestic labor through consumption of disposable goods advertised in Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal. Both the form and content of mass advertising worked to increase trash production. Not only did the images and phrases found on magazine advertisements, mail-order catalogues, and disposable packaging actively encourage disposal—the materials themselves, designed to be read and cast aside, formed new categories of detritus.
In addition to their capacity to alleviate work, packaged products were marketed for their hygienic properties. The advent of modern hygienic discourse, established in the 1870s with the discovery and dissemination of information regarding germs and illness by bacteriologists and put into practice in subsequent decades by sanitation reformists, made single-use products particularly appealing; not only did they alleviate the drudgery of manual labor, they were scientifically proven to reduce health risks newly associated with dirt (McClary, 34; Cleere, 46). Late nineteenth-century sanitation reformist publications, such as those by New York street-cleaning commissioner George E. Waring Jr., produced in the public consciousness a “fantasy of a sanitary millennium,” or the arrival of a “modern era of cleanliness and hygiene” strikingly similar to and historically concurrent with productivist fear of waste in the restructured, rationalized workplace (Gleason, 65). The spread of household plumbing and commercial laundries facilitated newly elevated standards of cleanliness, and accordingly, per capita expenditures for cleaning supplies doubled from 1900 to 1930 (Wilkie, 654; Lebergott, 149).
Twentieth-century throwaway culture also made use of, and was augmented by, less efficient developments in the history of the production and circulation of goods. From the 1920s and onward, American manufacturers disseminated a novel set of ideas which would join convenience and cleanliness in the ideological pantheon of modernity: aesthetic and technological obsolescence. Fully-functioning objects could now be declared disposable based solely on the existence of newer models with modified appearances, and discarded and replaced accordingly. The contrast between the business models of Ford and General Motors in the fledgling automobile industry serves as the essential case study for this paradigm shift. Determined to eradicate waste and maximize efficiency, Fordist productivism worked to relentlessly and continually improve the functionality of its existing model in its early years. From 1913 to 1926, Henry Ford’s assembly line focused exclusively on the Model T, emphasizing durability, not disposability: Ford stated that his automobiles were “so strong and so well-made that no one ought ever to have to buy a second one” (Marchand, 158). General Motors, by contrast, focused on stylistic change, instantiating the influential practice of annual model updates in 1923, while only making technological adjustments every three years. In terms of marketing strategies, General Motors proved victorious: by 1927, the sleek and stylish Chevrolet had outsold the aesthetically-outdated Model T.
By the late 1920s, then, Americans had learned to discard and consume based solely on stylistic obsolescence, not functionality or use-value. Companies began to diversify the aesthetics of their products, introducing rainbow hues into items that were previously only black and white (Strasser, 190). Newly synthesized and color-malleable materials such as cellulose acetate and formaldehyde “offered bright colors and pastels for consumer goods” (Meikle, 64). As one commentator quipped, “the Anglo-Saxon is released from chromatic inhibitions.” In Selling Mrs. Consumer, Christine Frederick coined the term “progressive obsolescence,” an attitude she defined as “a readiness to ‘scrap’ or lay aside an article before its natural life of usefulness is completed,” and to spend beyond one’s means in the name of spurring industry innovation and new and vibrant experiences (246). Moreover, progressive obsolescence became aligned with national ideology and modernity as a whole: Frederick instructed Americans to resist the European attitude of “treasuring the old” and “disdaining the new,” which would obstruct both individual and national progress (246). In this way, the interwar period oversaw yet another transformation in the history of trashmaking, wherein objects came to be discarded not only after, but before, their value was extracted.
By expanding public perceptions of what constituted trash, early twentieth-century developments in conceptions of fashion and consumption therefore formed another branch of waste production and aversion. Indeed, being seen as wasteful served as a source of class distinction, as noted by Thorstein Veblen in his influential analysis of conspicuous consumption in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Having been demoted to only the ranks of the poor, scavenging and bricolage, and now even utilitarian consumption, were increasingly looked upon with disdain—in order to elevate his or her position, the consumer must visibly display an “expenditure of superfluities,” i.e. expenditure considered unnecessary or nonproductive from a strictly instrumentalist standpoint (Veblen, 276). “In order to be reputable,” Veblen observed, “it must be wasteful” (276). While such attitudes precede the twentieth century, conceptions of progressive and aesthetic obsolescence propagated in the 1920s amplified them considerably, expanding their reach beyond the purview of the leisure class. For many Americans, notions of obsolescence in terms of fashion and utility became conflated thereafter, and the rate of obsolescence accelerated dramatically, leading French social critic Gilles Lipovetsky to deem modern consumer culture an “empire of the ephemeral” (119). As obsolescence occurs earlier and earlier in the life-cycle of objects throughout the twentieth century, the reach of trash radiates not only in physical volume but as category and concept.
A number of paradoxes and complications emerge here. The revolution in attitudes and practices in corporate rationalization and consumer culture in the history of trash production cultivated aversion to waste while simultaneously creating that waste and extending the parameters of what counted as waste; at the same time, an ethos of disposability encouraged and even valorized waste as emblematic of modernity and progress. Progressive obsolescence would not have germinated as successfully in a culture of stewardship, and makes most directly visible the underlying mechanics and contradictions between productivism and consumerism. Mark Seltzer considers this phenomenon indicative of the “tensions, but also the relays, between an ascetics of production (self-discipline) and an aesthetics of consumption (self-aggrandizement),” competing and complementary systems respectively governed by restraint and excess (60). Rachel Dini similarly notes that “capitalism is thus contingent upon extreme efficiency on the side of production and extreme inefficiency on the side of consumption” (6). In this sense, waste functions as a highly unstable, relative economic category, the moral and social valences of which vacillate between positive and negative representations in different contexts in order to maximize corporate profit; vilified in one sector of industry, matter out of place finds its place in another. In manufacturing and marketing an ethos of disposability in order to spur consumer desire and absorb the material excesses enabled by rationalization, the foregoing history therefore illustrates how, as Michael Tratner asks in Deficits and Desires (2001), systems of production can induce “people to consume once again objects that they had already tired of consuming” (23).
“Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry”: Prepackaging and Plastic in Underworld
In an ostensibly unremarkable passage from Underworld, retired memorabilia collector Marvin Lundy eats a cantaloupe. It is cut in half, scooped, and filled in advance with “grapes clustered in the scooped-out part” (DeLillo, 193). The narrator explains that “this is how they sold it in the supermarket, packed in clinging wrap” (DeLillo, 193). In another place and decade, a young Eric Deming, who will grow up to be a nuclear scientist, peers into the fridge of his suburban home. He is transfixed by “the bright colors, the product names and logos, the array of familiar shapes, the tinsel glitter of things in foil wrap, the general sense of benevolent gleam” (DeLillo, 517). The sight of synthetic packaging fills him with a sense of “a world unspoiled and ever renewable,” or, in Chua’s parlance, of beginnings without ends (DeLillo, 518). This romantic sense of eternal renewal stems directly from the developments in product manufacturing and marketing, and the rhetoric attending them, previously enumerated. It is also, as we will detail in this section, a result of what this dissertation terms early “plastic discourse,” and, in the next section on the sanitary landfill, a result of streamlined systems of waste concealment.
Such quotidian descriptors abound in Underworld, the pages of which are littered with “crushed paper cups,” “little waxy napkins,” and a wide assortment of the new throwaways of the twentieth century (DeLillo, 16). DeLillo, whom Bill Brown deems “both critic and poet of the late-century object world,” including “its buildings and dumps, its baseballs and radios, its station wagons, computer screens, toxins, and art,” has a long history in thinking about postwar technological transformations and their consequences (14). Waste appears as a motif, dominant or otherwise, in the majority of his early novels, including Americana (1971), End Zone (1972), Great Jones Street (1973), Running Dog (1978), The Names (1983), and White Noise (1986). It is therefore no exaggeration when DeLillo stated, in a 2002 interview, that he’d “been thinking about garbage for twenty years.”
Underworld is littered not only with trash, but also, in what forms the subject of our present line of inquiry, the banal items that have yet to decline into the status of trash. The two descriptions which open this section are indicative of a prose style attentive to material surfaces; the narrator attunes the reader to the particular materials encasing the items of the prepackaged food Lundy and Deming encounter, in this case the postwar food-preserving technologies of Saran Wrap and aluminum foil, respectively.
This section unearths the history of plastics mid-century, in which the novel begins, and explores its treatment of trash-bound synthetic materials in the forms of condoms and gloves. These postwar technologies serve to amplify the reach of twentieth-century throwaway culture and the discarded materials both produced by, and jettisoned from, that culture.
DeLillo’s text follows a wide range of characters and objects loosely bound by their relationships to various forms of waste and a baseball that circulates between them. Moving nonlinearly between the years 1951 and 1992, the novel follows Nick Shay and Brian Glassic, waste management executives at Waste Containment who travel domestically and internationally to oversee systems of disposal and concealment; Nick’s brother Matt, who, along with his colleague Eric Deming, is a scientist working on nuclear warhead safety protocols and calculations in the New Mexico desert; Cotter Martin, an African-American child who catches a famous home run baseball which, over the years, finds its way through memorabiliast Marvin Lundy to protagonist Nick Shay; Klara Sax, a junk artist who repurposes decommissioned war planes and other defunct items for aesthetic purposes; the nuns Edgar and Gracie, who work alongside graffiti artist Ismael to care for the impoverished and diseased street-dwellers in the Bronx, and a host of other characters, products, and events encompassing the Cold War era. While the novel traffics in social, spatial, medical, and nuclear waste at length, our present line of inquiry focuses on trash, particularly inorganic corporate and household trash resulting from the invention of plastics and other synthetic materials.
The revolutionary role plastic serves in the history of trashmaking cannot be overstated. While the first plastic, celluloid, was invented in the 1870s, the introduction of thermoplastics in the late 1930s would permanently alter industrial, rural, and psychological landscapes alike (Meikle, 63). Unlike celluloid, thermoplastics such as polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, and polystyrene could be molded into any shape or color without manual labor (Meikle, 68). As Jeffrey Meikle explains in American Plastic: A Cultural History (1995), mid-century plastics were seen as “magically assuming any desired form, flowing continuously from chemical refineries into injection molding machines from which emerged the pristine artifacts of commerce and consumption” (18). Completely mechanized, injection molding machines dramatically reduced labor costs and allowed for a host of new product designs. Lighter in weight and chemically synthesized, the materials themselves were cheaper, easier to transport, and seemingly unlimited in volume and application (Meikle, 19).
Plastic proved to be the material of the twentieth century. In the service of World War II, plastics were molded for use in aircraft covers, helmets, and atomic bombs; over the course of the war, annual plastic production tripled, reaching 818 million pounds in 1945 (Meikle, 1). The most dramatic growth occurred postwar, however: by 1960, annual plastic production exceeded a stunning six billion pounds, up over 700 percent from the end of the war (Meikle, 2). Plastic now came in the forms of garbage pails, laundry baskets, Saran Wrap, picnic coolers, and Tupperware. As Meikle puts it, over the course of a single century, plastics pervaded the world, “moving from almost no presence at all to near ubiquity” (xiii). Plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups, and plastic bags, popularized in the postwar decades, “made trash proliferate in previously unimagined quantities” (Bozcagli, 228).
Notions of limitlessness, malleability, and dominion over nature dominated plastic discourse from its introduction in the 1930s through its proliferation during and after the Second World War. In his 1954 eponymous essay on the subject, Roland Barthes wrote that the eponymous material embodied “the very idea of… infinite transformation” (97). The “innate formlessness” of plastic suggested “the outlines of a material world ever more malleable in the face of human desire” (Meikle, xiv). Indeed, the etymology of the word itself indicates as much: “plastic” is derived from the Greek plastikos, meaning “something capable of being molded or shaped” (Meikle, 4). In their 1938 company magazine, explosives manufacturer Du Pont informed its readership that plastics were not “substitute materials,” but rather were designed “by man to his own specifications.” (It is no coincidence that Du Pont’s advertising slogan, “Better Things For Better Living Through Chemistry” is the title of the fifth section of Underworld, which takes place in a disquietingly synthetic depiction of 1950s suburbia.)
The glorified mythology surrounding mid-century plastics stemmed not only from their malleability, but also the mystery, from the layman’s perspective, of their state of existence altogether. Plastics joined a series of postwar waste-management technologies so complex and esoteric so as to defy comprehension. The domestic-public division of labor implemented by industrial capitalism, compounded with the ethos of disposability cultivated earlier in the century, had already lessened the American public’s tactile knowledge of producing or repairing items composed of traditional materials—but while some could still sew their own clothes, for example, plastic was completely mystifying. Strasser notes: “nobody made plastic at home, hardly anybody understood how it was made, and it usually could not be repaired” (267). As with the historically concurrent advent of garbage disposals and trash compactors, plastics formed part of an emerging body of postwar technologies that required highly technical specialization to safeguard, thereby deflecting stewardship, augmenting the mysticism of commodity fetishism, and increasing trash production.
The characters in Underworld interact with plastic commodities in a fashion that mirrors plastic mysticism and foregrounds the alienation such mysticism rests upon. When Nick takes his wife Marian on a hot air balloon ride for her birthday, the nylon balloon buoying them “did not seem like a piece of science so much as an improvised prayer,” a “larger-than-life toy we’d found ourselves wickered into” (DeLillo, 124). The synthetic polymer appears miraculous, even transcendental, exceeding the known bounds of secular existence, quite literally elevating them above their natural station. In a parallel passage from Gravity’s Rainbow, the narrator reads the invention of nylon as “an announcement of Plasticity’s central canon” (Pynchon, 253). Chemists, “no longer at the mercy of Nature,” could now “decide what properties they wanted a molecule to have, and then go ahead and build it” (Pynchon, 253). Here, too, plastic is deified, capitalized and pronounced the center of the universe, usurping the omnipotence of the divine. Divorced from the technical processes that yield the material, the Shays perceive only a narrow slice of the object’s history, limited to the act of leisurely consumption, a brief passage in a much lengthier narrative. As we will see in the novel’s treatment of landfills, DeLillo’s text ultimately deflates the elevated dreams of Meikle calls “plastic utopianism” (and what this dissertation has been calling “plastic mysticism”) and the ephemeral consideration of their origins, by revealing the enormity and permanence of the resultant waste.
While most studies of Underworld examine its treatment of waste, little attention has been given to the novel’s exploration of items which have not yet become waste. Plastic condoms and gloves in the text are presented as instruments of insulation, dematerialization, and neurosis, anti-waste technologies that further sever consumers from systems of production and disposal. In a Phoenix suburb in 1992, Nick Shay and Brian Glassic visit Condomology, an ostentatious store in a “neat clean minimall” containing a vast array of bright and unusual condoms (DeLillo, 109). Brian feels, smells, and licks sample condoms in the store, ultimately purchasing one for his son. Thirty years earlier, in a New York comedy club, comedian Lenny Bruce performs a standup routine using a condom as a prop. Though he and Glassic are separated by time and space, Bruce directly echoes the other man’s actions in a series of crass gestures: he “licked and rubbed the condom. He fingered it, twirled it, snapped it,” then tells his audience that “this is what the twentieth century feels like” (DeLillo, 584). (Modernist scholar Judith Brown concurs with Bruce: in her analysis of cellophane’s relationship to modernism, she calls plastic the “most twentieth-century of materials” .)
In their varied tactile and olfactory exchanges with these items, Glassic and Bruce draw attention to the elasticity befitting a product capable of molding itself to genitals of various shapes and sizes. The twentieth century feels elastic: chemistry and industry have united to create an malleable, permutable, impersonal commodity designed for the most personal of organs and exchanges; the textual echoes dilate the reach of the material across the century, suggesting its emerging omnipresence. As a technological manifestation of aversion to corporeal waste, condoms embody one iteration of a recurring paradox in the history of waste: isolating the body from one undesirable form of matter, they themselves, used once and cast aside, come to form another. Waste-averse but themselves constituting waste, condoms and similar products create the conditions they decry.
Phallic-shaped, designed to enable penetration and catch bodily secretions, and composed of plastic, condoms exist at the nexus between sexuality, violence, waste, and technological innovation. As Underworld and Gravity’s Rainbow frequently suggest, plasticity arises from and is a kind of violence. Indeed, the histories of plastics and of war are inextricable: polyurethane, the material from which many condoms are comprised, was first implemented in World War II to insulate military aircraft, while Styrofoam was developed for life preservers (Meikle, 189). The central narrative arc of Gravity’s Rainbow, the international search for the deadly V-2 rocket component known as the Schwarzgerät, centers on plastic: the sought-after material which determines the outcome of the war is ultimately revealed as nothing other an aromatic polymer called Imipolex G, a newly synthesized plastic which can withstand incredibly high temperatures. Pynchon’s text repeatedly underscores the connection between V-2 rockets and sexuality: aside from the obvious phallic shape of the missiles themselves, much of the plot concerns the bizarre phenomenon wherein rockets mysteriously land on any location protagonist Tyrone Slothrop has sexual intercourse; the maps of Slothrop’s sexual conquests and rocket strikes “match up square for square” (Pynchon, 87). Imipolex G is described as “erectile,” moving “from limp rubbery amorphous to amazing perfect tessellation, hardness” (Pynchon, 713). The ominous presence haunting the novel, which opens and closes with the firing of missiles, is that a “Rocket can penetrate, from the sky, at any given point” (Pynchon, 743). In making the earth elastic to mankind’s will, plasticity also yields worldwide vulnerability. Recurring in Pynchon and DeLillo is the omnipresence and sexuality of plastics, wherein condoms and rockets function as phallic instruments of violence on micro-personal and macro-national scales; the legacy of this brand of techno-fetishism is sexual waste, plastic and nuclear waste, and wasted lives.
Plastics not only allow chemists to modify the material world; in practice, they mediate human contact with its more harmful substances and enable domination over them. Latex gloves and sanitary landfills, two other waste containment technologies enabled by the invention of plastic, are frequently sexualized and likened to condoms in Underworld. When Sisters Edgar and Gracie visit the Wall, a Bronx ghetto “adrift from the social order” and characterized by the presence of Styrofoam cups, babies abandoned in Glad Bags, and homeless men and women dying from HIV, they always are sure to wear latex gloves (DeLillo, 239). Sister Edgar admires the “milky-slick feel of these synthetic gloves,” and feels “masculinized,” “condomed ten times over” (DeLillo, 241). Again we observe attention to the specific materials of, and fascination with, the object by the narrator and character, respectively. Sister Edgar gains pleasure from the tactile sensation the glove provides; moreover, she feels empowered, insulated from trash and disease alike, able to penetrate this hazardous space while keeping herself impenetrable. Likewise, when Shay visits a landfill his company manages near Los Angeles, he describes it as a “high-density membrane that was oddly and equally beautiful in a way, a prophylactic device” (DeLillo, 285).
It is therefore not only the malleability and boundlessness of plastic which contributes to its mysticism, but the protection from, and domination over, undesirable matter it provides. Alongside this protection often comes a hubristic sense of dominion over the material world itself, an expansion of previous industry practices of rationalization. While gloves and landfills, which block and receive, are arguably passive technologies, condoms are designed for active, penetrative purposes; by frequently comparing the other plastics in the novel to condoms, Underworld positions condoms to stand in for plastics as a whole, suggesting that the technological fetishism accompanying plastic mysticism amounts to a war on matter. Plastics do not merely replace existing materials in manufacturing; as membranes, they insulate subjects from the organic world altogether, seeking to redefine and conquer its limitations. Brown echoes this in Glamour in Six Dimensions (2009) when she writes that the “glassy sheen of cellophane,” an early form of plastic, “provided a protective veneer from dusty reality” (150). In so doing, the advent of plastic formed part of a wider technological “idea of conquering nature” (Brown, 162).
If early plastic discourse imagined a convenient, efficient, hygienic future free from waste, the violence and intractability embedded in the history and composition of the materials themselves would come to define the limits of that future. Whereas early twentieth-century plastic discourse was characterized by a sense of optimism and boundlessness, the end of the century, wherein emerged a “dawning recognition of the environmental costs of the explosion of cheap disposable products,” oversaw the fallout of that optimism and revealed the bounded realities of mass chemical production (Brown, 166). Because the perceived ephemerality of plastic in consumption is haunted by its physical permanence, notions of infinite possibilities became supplanted by the finitude of space in an increasingly crowded, polluted world. The characters in Underworld use condoms and gloves briefly before tossing them; when Nick and Marian ride the hot air balloon, its life-cycle is grasped only fleetingly; it appears as a toy or miracle, not a moment in a complex system of synthesis, manufacturing, marketing, circulation, consumption, disposal, and endurance. The average time a consumer uses a plastic bag, for example, is approximately twelve to fifteen minutes; the plastic bag thus shifts “from being a carrier of goods to useless waste with remarkable speed” (Ford, 1; Clapp, 202). While from the standpoint of the modern consumer, synthetic, single-use materials exemplify an empire of the ephemeral, plastic ephemera are anything but. Plastic materials take hundreds to thousands of years to degrade; when they do, they do not biodegrade, but photodegrade, simply breaking down into smaller pieces (Clapp, 201). In this sense, plastic is immortal: every piece ever manufactured still exists somewhere on the planet, and likely always will. Of the Great Pacific Garbage Patches, each of which doubles the size of Texas, ninety percent of the materials are plastic. There therefore exists a wide disparity between trash as social practice and as physical condition; alongside systems of disposability and plasticity, this disjunction results from streamlined postwar systems of waste management, such as the sanitary landfill, to which we now turn.
“No One Saw It or Thought About It:” The Sanitary Landfill and Waste Concealment
In a passage taking place during the mid-1980s, Waste Containment executive Brian Glassic makes a trip to the Fresh Kills Landfill to meet with engineers and surveyors. Upon arriving, he gazes in awe at the panorama of waste before him:
Three thousand acres of mountained garbage, contoured and road-graded, with bulldozers pushing waves of refuse onto the active face. Brian felt invigorated, looking at this scene. Barges unloading, sweeper boats poking through the kills to pick up stray waste. He saw a maintenance crew working on drainpipes high on the angled setbacks that were designed to control the runoff of rainwater… It was science fiction and prehistory, garbage arriving twenty-four hours a day, hundreds of workers, vehicles with metal rollers compacting the trash… (DeLillo, 184)
Glassic’s astonishment arises not from apocalyptic horror or environmentalist concerns. The tone is reverent: Glassic feels “invigorated,” finds the sight “inspiring” and admires the “ingenuity and labor” of the project, with its many complex operations which serve as a “delicate effort to fit maximum waste into diminishing space” (DeLillo, 184). As with mid-century Americans revering a new generation of arcane plastic products, Glassic comprehends but a fraction of the totality before him; because it exceeds him spatially and conceptually, the landfill threatens to overwhelm him. Simultaneously inspiring and unnerving in its enormity and scientific abstruseness, the Fresh Kills Landfill, and the wider, streamlined system of postwar waste management to which it belongs, embodies what David Nye calls the “technological sublime.”
Indeed, the link to plastic mysticism is not incidental but historical and material: the sanitary landfill, which had become “the dominant mode of refuse disposal” by the end of World War II, was enabled in part by plastic materials (Alworth, 52). Alongside clay and soil, each layer of a sanitary landfill is encased with plastic underlining, which enables the landfill to amass in height while masking the stench, deterring scavengers, and catching leachate, the viscous liquid which seeps to the bottom of the dump; plastic tubes also collect methane gas generated by organic waste, which is then burned as an energy source (Ghosn and Jazairy, 88). Like plastics, landfills dominate the landscape of DeLillo’s novel, as Glassic and Shay visit them regularly for business; like plastics, they function as dematerializing membranes, further divorcing the consumer from the material realities of garbage by way of esoteric technological innovation. Unlike plastics which have yet to become trash, however, sanitary landfills are situated at considerable distances from domestic space, usually in peripheral, peri-urban areas wherein urban clusters transition to rural, less-concentrated areas, meaning they go largely unseen.
Fresh Kills is located on Staten Island to the south of New York City, separated from New Jersey by the Atlantic. By the time Christoph Lindner writes of the landfill in 2015, roughly twenty years after the fictional Brian Glassic visits it, Fresh Kills has expanded from three thousand to twenty-two hundred acres, containing piles of trash over two hundred feet high (Lindner, 101-102). The landfill has received the majority of New York City’s household garbage since 1948, and remains the single largest domestic waste depository in the world (Lindner, 100). While Fresh Kills is comprised of the purchased and discarded commodities of urban households, a streamlined system of waste transportation and concealment keeps its contents literally and figuratively apart from them. In tandem with strong and elastic material which could “stretch to envelop irregular forms,” while “reliably containing smells and liquids,” postwar waste management became a highly efficient, streamlined system of dematerialization (Ghosn and Jazairy, 22). Insulating the consumer from trash, the already-wrapped-and-ready garbage bag also accelerated municipal trash pickup, moving it quickly away from the household and to the landfill.
In this vein, it is not merely scientific ingenuity that contributes to the sense of wonder Brian experiences as he gazes upon Fresh Kills, but the effect of redistributing waste-objects in space. There is in, in other words, an element of spectacle at play in this passage working alongside its invocation of technological sublimity. Glassic sees the landfill as the endpoint of all forms of transportation: “bridges, tunnels, scows, tugs, graving docks, container ships, all the great works of transport, trade, and linkage were directed in the end to this culminating structure” (DeLillo, 184, emphasis added).
Relocated and condensed in this way, trash exists in new, contradictory modes. The landfill is not merely individual pieces of garbage side-by-side, but a nexus of industry and productivity—piles of garbage collected, transported, and resituated, culminating in a towering monument which is more than the sum of its parts. In Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas writes that “the origin of the various bits and pieces is lost” when trash is conglomerated, as the once-discrete objects enter “the mass of common rubbish” (197). The effect of the landfill is, on this reading, homogenizing, resulting in an indistinguishable mass.
At the same time, however, by gathering the remains of various eras and locations in one locus of abandonment, and increasing their collective mass, junkyards compress space and time, existing diachronically and in some spatio-temporal sense heterogeneously. By removing the everyday from everyday spaces, landfills alter the everyday: composed of banal objects, yet repositioning and superimposing them so as to take on new and uncanny signification, landfills invert the quotidian, transforming useless items into spectacles by redistributing and consolidating them in a concentrated environment beyond urban and rural boundaries. What is easily and frequently overlooked in one setting in part due to its miniscule size—the detritus tucked away in domestic waste baskets or littered in dirty alleyways—once amassed, draws attention in another. Exported from their contexts within the spaces of the everyday, and collectively expanded in size, such fragments decline in banality.
If, by transporting and piling undesired matter into a dense, strange mass, the landfill functions as transhistorical spectacle, its peripheral location and restricted access ensure that this is a predominantly private view limited to specialists and technicians. As Glassic observes:
The mountain was here, unconcealed, but no one saw it or thought about it, no one knew it existed except the engineers and teamsters and local residents, a unique cultural deposit…. And he saw himself for the first time as a member of an esoteric order, they were adepts and seers, crafting the future, the city planners, the waste managers, the compost technicians… (DeLillo, 185)
Because dumps are both science fiction and prehistory, because they contains the objects of the past, the indestructibility of which necessarily makes them the persistent objects of the future, expelling them to remote sites alienated from the origins of their constituent materials not only severs the public from the material realities of its consumption in that historical moment (thereby enabling further consumption and disposal), but from access into a wider history of objects preceding and proceeding that moment. In its distant location and arcane complexity, the landfill serves as the apex, or perhaps the nadir, of a century-long narrative of disposability and waste-aversion; in increasingly specializing systems of production, circulation, and disposal, waste production and management make trash, and the object world to which it belongs, the realm only of an “esoteric order.” While trash is matter out of place, landfills are, by contrast, quite intentionally placed, “territorially embedded” at great distances so as to keep matter out of sight (Ghosn and Jazairy, 13).
Here we arrive at another tension in the history of modern waste—namely, the inverse relationship between the rate of trash production and its general visibility over the course of the twentieth century. As Alworth notes, postwar waste management technologies “address the ‘ubiquity’ of garbage while keeping it far from view” (57-58). Moreover, as our discussion of plastic commodities in the preceding section argued, there exists another, parallel tension between the increasing ephemerality of commodities and their simultaneously increasing permanence, a contradiction between social practice and physical condition, a disparity widened by the symbiotic relationship between disposability in marketing and advancements in waste concealment. As Kevin Trumpeter observes in his discussion of the advent of domestic electric and heating appliances emerging in the interwar years, the “wired home radically decreased the individual’s contact and concern with the waste that their visibly cleaner households continued to produce in ever greater volumes” (310). Just so, the postwar emergence of the garbage bag and the sanitary landfill allowed for an inverted relationship between trash production and trash consciousness, where trash becomes physically omnipresent and subjectively invisible.
As systems of production and disposal become more efficient than ever, the life-cycle of commodities and trash in public consciousness evanesces; as the material endurance of the landfills and plastics attests to, however, this perceived transience is haunted by physical remainders that will not disappear. When an industrialized country exports its waste to a developing country, for instance, or when a city exports its waste to its outskirts, the perceived disappearance of trash in one region results in its appearance and endurance in another, shifting the burden elsewhere in what Jennifer Clapp calls “ecological shadows” of waste (206). The stubborn persistence of trash discloses that waste can only be deferred, continually transported and expelled, not eliminated.
“It Is All Part of the Same Thing:” Free-Floating Ephemera and the Flattening of History
Underworld considers how waste-aversion has dematerialized the layman’s relationship to the object world, and how this in turn yields a decontextualized, ahistorical conception of the world in general, which the novel works to reverse. We now shift our attention from specific materials and sites that the novel employs to explain the history of waste production and aversion to a series of broader juxtapositions and responses employed by the characters and structure of the novel itself, which serve to recontextualize trash within a broader, more totalizing framework.
Just as the invention of plastics and landfills form part of a wider system of waste production and containment, the obfuscation of matter and history brought on by waste management is itself a piece of a broader historical condition DeLillo draws attention to: the flattening or erasure of history resulting from the confluence of commodity fetishism, mechanical reproduction, and an oversaturation of media. Because the origins and destinations of things are seldom considered—or rather, because the development of the material world has positioned its subjects so as to make this a process to be sought after, rather than a default condition of daily existence essential to survival—the postwar American subject finds him or herself unmoored from the full experiences and narratives of objects, adrift in a series of ahistorical middles without beginnings or ends.
Underworld best illustrates this in its prologue, “The Triumph of Death,” which takes place in New York on October 3rd, 1951, a day that oversaw a dramatic home run in a baseball game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The prologue is set at this event, following the experiences of fictional characters, and fictionalized versions of nonfictional characters (including J. Edgar Hoover, Frank Sinatra, and Jackie Gleason), as they watch the game.
This opening section cleverly establishes the narrative arc, motifs, and methods of the text. The home run ball, which will shift ownership over the next four decades, circulates between the players throughout the chapter, becomes imbued with national identity, and is caught by chapter’s end; a gentle ambience of waste operates rhythmically in the background, as the narrator regularly reports that scorecards, matchbook covers, and the like are being continually thrown by fans and flying through the air; and events and objects echo one another across geographical and temporal lines: Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover is preoccupied with the Soviet Union’s atomic test which occurred exactly a week prior, on September 24th; October 3rd, 1942, exactly nine years prior, is also the date of Germany’s first successful V-2 rocket test. The narrative thus begins with a juxtaposition between two events and industries, in what serves a frequently recurring narratorial device; the lighthearted and leisurely tone of the game is haunted by the sinister threat of nuclear waste which, like the home run ball, will persist through and beyond the duration of the novel.
As the flurry of ephemera continues to fall, a pattern emerges:
Baby food, instant coffee, encyclopedias and cars, waffle irons and shampoos and blended whiskeys. Piping times, an optimistic bounty that carries into the news pages where the nation’s farmers record a bumper crop. And the resplendent products, how the dazzle of a Packard car is repeated in the feature story about the art treasures of the Prado. It is all part of the same thing. Rubens and Titian and Playtex and Motorola. (DeLillo, 39)
A number of processes yield the blurring of categories at consideration here. Product advertising is interpolated between narratives of economy, history, and art. The individual elements, like trash in a landfill, permeate one another, dissolving into an indistinguishable mass. No longer producing the tools at hand, the consumer relies on mechanically reproduced images of mechanically reproduced commodities, which are placed side by side with other forms of media and subsequently associated with them. DeLillo positions the magazine here as an agent further severing the consumer from the object world, muddying the boundaries between distinct sectors of industry and sources of knowledge acquisition, and physically functioning as ephemera itself. Moreover, in the act of tearing and throwing the pages, the baseball fans further fragment the medium: the pages, no longer intentionally arranged, flow haphazardly downwind. By the time it it reaches them, the information the audience receives is utterly disembodied and decontextualized several times over.
The most telling moment of this phenomenon occurs when a portion of a painting hits the F.B.I. Director:
In the box seats J. Edgar Hoover plucks a magazine page off his shoulder, where the thing has lighted and stuck. At first he’s annoyed that the object has come in contact with his body. Then his eyes fall upon the page. It is a color reproduction of a painting crowded with medieval figures who are dying or dead—a landscape of visionary havoc and ruin. Edgar has never seen a painting quite like this. (DeLillo, 41)
Transfixed, he studies the painting—Pieter Bruegel's The Triumph of Death (1562), notably filled with the corporeal waste of diseased and rotting bodies—at length, before later discovering, “when the left-hand page drifted down,” that “he was seeing only half the painting” (DeLillo, 49). Here, as the object moves through space, it moves also, with momentous speed, through ostensibly disparate categories: initially an irritating piece of trash violating Hoover’s personal space, it quickly becomes a fascinating, captivating work of art; decontextualized and free-floating as it is, the painting elicits a short-lived moment of scrutiny and interpretation, the contingency and instability of which is made clear by the arrival of its second half. This passage illustrates the instability of trash as a category relative to space and subject, the homogenization of experience and history wrought by specialization in waste production and management, as well as the fluidity and renewability of ephemera in particular, which circulate haphazardly, and in so doing, shift cultural significance in radical and unpredictable ways. If the expulsion of waste threatens to flatten history, the circulation of waste may flatten or transform it—depending upon where it lands.
Opening with a prologue wherein trash floats about chaotically and ahistorically, Underworld goes on to juxtapose this phenomenon with trash that is exhaustively anticipated, contemplated, contained, and redirected. Nick Shay and his family exhibit a waste-consciousness so acute that it precedes their waste disposal strategies, beginning with ethical product consumption. In “Long Tall Sally,” the first section of the novel following the prologue and historically situated in 1992, Shay explains the role such foresight plays in their grocery shopping:
Marian and I saw products as garbage even when they sat gleaming on store shelves, yet unbought. We didn’t say, What kind of casserole will that make? We said, What kind of garbage will that make? Safe, clean, neat, easily disposed of? Can the package be recycled and come back as a tawny envelope that is difficult to lick closed? First we saw the garbage, then we saw the product as food or lightbulbs or dandruff shampoo. (DeLillo, 121)
The contrast between this passage and the paper ephemera of the prologue could not be more pronounced. The Shays’ (French for “home,” as befits their suburban, containment-oriented lifestyle) approach to consumption, and to the object world more generally, is deliberate and far-sighted; employing the long view of history, they attempt to apprehend the widest range of the life-cycle of the materials they encounter and consume. The comically hyperbolic consequence of this foresight is that everything becomes garbage: if, in contemplating the Rolls Royce, the narrator in Gold by the Inch sees beginnings without ends, Nick and his family appear to see primarily ends, the beginnings almost an afterthought. While matter flows erratically out of place for some, who only partially and fleetingly grasp its significance, for others it is considered in and out of many places, at distinct stages across a lengthy temporal axis, in varied states of production, circulation, depreciation, disposal, and persistence.
The conscientious practices of the Shays form part of a broader series of attitudes and practices employed by the characters of Underworld to counter the twentieth century’s dematerializing, decontextualizing effects. Shay and company contextualize trash through waste management, Klara Sax re-contextualizes trash as art, and Marvin Lundy re-contextualizes trash as memorabilia. In each of these efforts, matter out of place finds sanctuary either within, or beyond, the object’s original economy of value. In a refrain that appears, with slight modifications, five times throughout the narrative, Nick explains, in extensive, ritualistic detail, his waste disposal practices:
On pickup days we placed each form of trash in its separate receptacle and put the receptacles, from the Latin verb that means to receive again, out on the sidewalk. We used a paper bag for the paper bags. We took a large paper bag and put all the smaller bags inside and then placed the large bag alongside all the other receptacles on the sidewalk. We ripped the wax paper from our boxes of shredded wheat. There is no language I might formulate that could overstate the diligence brought to these tasks. (DeLillo, 102-103)
Far from thoughtlessly discarding these materials, the Shays employ a detailed trash taxonomy, dividing and subdividing their castoffs into distinct categories distinguished by the materials of composition and their corresponding destinations. Informing this method is, of course, Shay’s position in the waste management industry, but also his knowledge of etymology acquired through childhood Jesuit training. As a result, Shay engages in an acutely discerning relationship with the trash receptacle: he knows where it is from, where it will go, and what constitutes its broader conceptual function and origin.
This approach to waste is profound not only in its expanded view of the life-cycle of objects, but in its radical reorientation of subject-object relationships. Defying a consumer paradigm wherein items are thought of in terms of personal use-value and subsequent disposal, Nick analyzes the items not from the site from which they depart, but from the site to which they arrive. Because the objects are viewed from where they will be received rather than from where they have been expelled, the notion of disposal itself is supplanted by the notion of reception. Something is waste or not-waste relative to a subject or site which assigns or rescinds its value; by shifting the primacy of that site elsewhere, reception not only yields expanded perception but reconfigures the locus from which value radiates, subtly transforming the subjects and objects in its radius. Waste-aversion becomes waste-consciousness; trash becomes a product to be exported.
Crucially, it is language that enables this contextualization and reconfiguration. Shay learns this in a childhood conversation, thirty-seven years prior, with his priest, Father Paulus, who explains the link between discourse and perception. Paulus introduces detailed terms through which to apprehend the banal particulars of Shay’s boots, telling him: “You didn’t see the thing because you didn’t know how to look. And you didn’t know how to look because you don’t know the names” (DeLillo, 540). He goes on to explain the etymology and significance of the word “quotidian,” “an extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace,” of the “most overlooked knowledge” (DeLillo, 542). Shay thereafter dedicates his life to the quotidian through waste management, and interfuses his practices with linguistic prowess, expanding his perceptions of language and objects and thereby accessing a deep historical axis outlining the movements of everyday things. The invisibility of trash and obfuscation of matter begins to recede: Shay begins to “see it everywhere because it is everywhere,” in some local sense resolving the contradiction of twentieth-century waste production and concealment (DeLillo, 283).
The parallels to James Joyce, which we have discussed as a prominent intertextual figure, are abundant: Shay’s Jesuit training, for one, recalls the Irish-Catholic upbringing of Stephen Dedalus (although Shay reveres the etymological knowledge gained throughout his life, and does not view his past as an ideological barrier to his personal development, largely because because he is not an artist). The emphasis on the quotidian recalls the insistence of the historical avant-garde on the everyday and the overlooked, particularly in the found art of Dada, the banal archaeology of surrealism, and the hypervigilant scrutiny of the stream of consciousness novel. Most importantly, the notion that language precedes and shapes these categories is a recurring philosophical concern in the early twentieth-century works of Ferdinand de Saussure, Joyce, and William Faulkner, to name a few. The role that the experimental form and structure of a novel—as wide-scale deployments of language paramount to the works of these writers—can play in underscoring and performing the relationship between discourse and physical reality, particularly the historiography and material status of waste, is the question to which we turn next.
The Role of Narrative and Structure in Waste Historiography
Underworld’s emphasis on language as instantiating and foregrounding everyday categories of perception brings us to a question fundamental to any inquiry on waste and literature, namely: what does a literature of waste enable, as opposed to other disciplines, practices, and forms of media? Narrative and waste both unfold in time: a story of course moves through temporal parameters of some kind, while waste, as an “end,” automatically implies a beginning or middle in which it is not-waste or becoming-waste. The reader will recall that in Waste: A Philosophy of Things (2014), William Viney recasts Douglas’s definition in terms of time, rather than space: waste is matter out of time, insofar as the period in which it held conventional use-value has terminated. Viney states that “thinking about time requires acts of narration”: that narrative plays, alongside waste, a pivotal role in thinking of the histories of objects (5). In their 2016 literary studies of waste and climate change, respectively, Rachel Dini and Jesse Oak Taylor argue for the primacy of the novel as the form through which to consider such questions. Dini writes that her focus on novels stems from a recuperative impulse and capability, a belief that “language and narrative have a unique capacity to reclaim meaning out of waste,” to confer meaning onto meaninglessness through storytelling (20). Taylor focuses on the novel form because “climate is an abstraction that can only be apprehended in and through time,” a comprehension that the “expansive scale and diffusive complexity” of the novel form facilitates (14).
In this vein, waste is best understood as a diachronic phenomenon—not a mere noun in stasis but a verb, an ongoing action, a process of becoming. The novel as a genre, particularly the long novel, can readily encapsulate the expanded temporality necessary to thoroughly examine transformations in matter over time; by taking the long view of history, yet choosing nonlinear narrative, the lengthy novel that is Underworld achieves this in particularly complex fashion.
In one of the many metatextual moments in the text, Albert Bronzini, the chess tutor of Matt Shay, considers the compressed temporality the novel form can produce: “Time passes in books in the span of a sentence, many months and years. Write a word, leap a decade” (DeLillo, 236). DeLillo’s text does just this, leaping erratically across decades between sections; unifying the fragments and grounding the narrative are the objects circulating between the characters over the years. Walking through the Bronx and peering at street trash, Bronzini wonders: “How deep is time? How far down into the life of matter do we have to go before we understand what time is?” (DeLillo, 222) The spatial implication here suggests archaeology, excavation, landfills: a vertical axis through matter, implying that time is both wide and deep, and that waste is both matter out of time and place, not one or the other. In attempting to write the “secret history, the underhistory” of waste, the structure and parameters of Underworld must move along both temporal and spatial axes, down, backwards, and across (DeLillo, 791).
By foregrounding lowly objects and narrating their life cycles in multidirectional fashion, DeLillo’s text positions the underworld of waste as a complex physical network of intersubjective mediation forming the foundation of personal and collective histories. “When you see a thing like that,” the narrator pronounces in the prologue, “a thing that becomes a newsreel, you begin to feel you are a carrier of some solemn scrap of history” (DeLillo, 16). Underworld consistently suggests that objects are not merely scraps of history, but that history itself is an accumulation of scraps. Once carried and transmitted, the object forms a material link; placed within a narrative economy, it discloses the wider implications of that link.
DeLillo’s exploration of intersubjectivity inherits and expands a topic central to the oeuvre of Virginia Woolf. In his discussion of the role of the intersubjective in Woolf’s novels, wherein the narrator frequently transitions between distinct streams of consciousness by way of a mutually considered object, Douglas Mao speaks of a more “complex situation in which the gazers are separated in time or space” (54). In Mrs. Dalloway, for example, various citizens of London gaze upon the clock tower, Big Ben, on June 13th, 1923. The trash and memorabilia gazed upon by the characters of Underworld, by contrast, circulate throughout the United States and Europe, over the course of forty years. In such narratives, “the object negotiates loss or geographical separation as well as intersubjective distance” (Mao, 54). We have seen instances of this phenomenon in our inquiry into the novel, when, for instance, Brian Glassic and Lenny Bruce contemplate and touch condoms with several decades and states between them, or Sax and Shay make separate trips to see the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, in 1974 and 1978, respectively.
Although the novels of Woolf and DeLillo are both preoccupied with the manner in which quotidian objects unite their observers, the scope of these texts differs greatly. As Joseph Frank convincingly claims, modernist novels frequently halt narrative sequence in favor of thematic and subjective exploration. The various sections of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), for instance, “relate to each other independently of the time sequence of the narrative,” and in Nightwood (1936), Djuna Barnes presents a “static situation, not a narrative,” leaving the reader instead with “only the various facets of this situation explored from different angles” (Frank, 18, 34). Given that the temporal fields of these novels is dramatically truncated, sometimes to a single day, passages and motifs are related spatially rather than temporally. The reader is invited to notice textual correspondences and place them in conversation with one another through a discursive framework not dependent on the unfolding of time, but instead in an abstract space of comparison and juxtaposition. Time dilates, and Joycean and Barnesian questions of national belonging or the violence of romantic desire, to name two prominent examples, are explored within that moment of stillness.
Simultaneity, or the occurrence of contemporaneous activities without recourse to sequential development, is therefore a strategy paramount to the structure of the modernist novel. Underworld, as we have seen, instead presents its textual correspondences across a lengthy temporal range spanning decades. If we consider time a horizontal axis, Woolf, Joyce, and Barnes probe the depth or verticality, through extreme detail, of a single point on that axis, while DeLillo seeks to move along both axes, sacrificing some depth at individual nodes in order to dive into the world of matter at a great many points and settings. To return to Albert Bronzini’s ruminations, Underworld wishes to both dig “far down into the life of matter” and “write a word, leap a decade” to unearth it from a separate access point. Characters do not gaze at Big Ben or observe a crumpled throwaway in the same city on the same day; they touch condoms and visit landfills in different cities during different decades. If, as Frank claims, the modernist novel gives its reader space, and not time, DeLillo’s postmodern novel works to create, at the structural level, a broad sense of time rooted in matter—to capture the essence of time through narrative sequence loosely unified through space, through an underworld of forgotten objects.
The home run ball most thoroughly illustrates this more complex case of intersubjective mediation across geographical and temporal boundaries. As the ball shifts ownership throughout the text, the waste-matter embedded into its fibers is repeatedly underscored and valorized. Cotter Martin, the child who catches the baseball at the end of the game, seeks it due to its material persistence: “The crowd can have the game. He’s after the baseball now, it’s the ball they play with, the thing they rub up and scruff and sweat on” (DeLillo, 45). Martin distinguishes the event from the object: the former is transient, the latter is durable, and while the event cannot be lived again, its physical traces can be. The ball metonymically encapsulates the event by association, touch, and endurance, linking it to Martin through the perspiration expelled from the bodies of the players. When we next see the ball, it is in the possession of Nick Shay; over the course of four decades, it has found its way to him from New York to Arizona. Again, the grimy and used texture of the ball is emphasized: it is a “deep sepia, veneered with dirt and turf and generational sweat,” “old, bunged up,” “bashed and tobacco-juiced and stained by... the lives behind it” (DeLillo, 131). Here, waste matter is not expelled and carted off, but preserved and revered; without the dematerializing membrane of plastics or postwar waste management systems, waste functions as a form of contact, a transgenerational haunting that narrates and unites.
When it is not swept aside, but delineated, traced, located, and preserved, trash therefore poses the potential to function as a countermeasure to disembodiment and dislocation, an object which allows for a tangible connection to other bodies and places. The journey of the baseball, and the many characters who preserve and transmit it, serves as a case in which Underworld works to contextualize waste matter in an era marked by its invisibility. In so doing, however, the fans, memorabiliasts, and collectors reverse the object’s trash-status. Now imbued with historical importance, the everyday object becomes the priceless relic of a single, remarkable day; jutting out from a homogenized field of time and matter, the ball ceases to count as waste matter. (In fact, Shay purchases the ball from memorabiliast Marvin Lundy for a sizable sum.) Lundy, whose life is spent “chasing down exhausted objects,” utilizes the narratives transmitted by history to cast the lost item as something to be found and brought back into history, in some sense replenishing what has been exhausted (DeLillo, 191). Much like how Shay interfuses etymological knowledge with an attentive trash taxonomy to supersede the notion of disposal with reception, Lundy traces the genealogies of objects to supplant disposal with preservation. The object finds its place in a distinct economy of value and continues its life-cycle; the end becomes the middle.
Preservation, like reception, is the concept that enables a challenge to waste-aversion, and even what constitutes waste as a category altogether. Dini reads the baseball as “an object that has been saved from the path to the landfill,” an “intervention of sorts into the natural fate of commodities” (157). Put into practice, preservation re-routes the avenues that tether production, consumption, and disposal. Dini goes on to say that nostalgic preservation forms a link to “both the physical and cultural body, bearing associations of eros and death alike” (157). Similarly, Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini write that old and broken things serve as “repositories of feeling”—namely, a vexed feeling that moves from esteem to apathy, embodying loss as the object deteriorates and depreciates (5). From the circumscribed position of the consumer who casts it aside, the commodity has reached the end of its life-cycle, thereby achieving a kind of local death; found again, it bears the traces of its prior use, perceived uselessness, and abandonment. Such a sense of loss emanates from the ball, which one of Shay’s coworkers deems “melancholy junk from yesteryear” (DeLillo, 99). Notably, Shay purchases the Thomson home-run ball not to commemorate victory, but to “commemorate failure”—both that of his preferred team, as well as his own personal failures (DeLillo, 97). The item thus binds individual and collective histories, not only as a membrane that absorbs the particles of its users as it travels geographically and temporally, but also as symbolic site which embodies and conjoins narratives of loss, forgetting, and remembering through metonymic association.
Although the baseball, along with the waste that circulates the text, poses the potential to counterbalance a limited, truncated understanding of the histories of objects, it cannot do so on its own. As we have seen, Underworld suggests that trash must be narrated in order to thoroughly expand historical perception; it is etymology that enables Nick to see the trash receptacle as facilitating reception, and it is the story of the baseball game, referred to as the “Shot Heard Round the World,” which helps Lundy trace, recuperate, and safeguard the baseball. As Maurizia Bozcagli argues in Stuff Theory (2014), the ex-commodity “allows one to rethink relationally,” situating “the object and myself in a multiplicity of relations” with “other materialities, people, discourse, events” (229). In the same vein, Bill Brown writes, in his reconsideration of subject-object relationships Other Things (2016), that “people and things cannot be disaggregated; agency must be distributed among multiple actants” in a complex historical and material network (6). The historiography of objects, then, can only occur through such a conglomerate of discursive and material forces, and a thorough understanding of their interrelations.
While a central function of Underworld is to present waste as an access-point into a deep axis of history, at least two major textual elements frustrate and complicate this purpose: genealogical gaps within the narrative and the disjointed, nonlinear fashion in which distinct portions are presented chronologically. Marvin Lundy is able to trace a nearly complete lineage of the ball in order to prove its authenticity; he traces generations of owners back several decades to a man named Charles Wainwright, but cannot locate “the last link” which would enable him to “connect backwards from the Wainwright ball to the ball making contact with Bobby Thomson’s bat” (DeLillo, 181). For Heise, this makes the ball a “broken link more than a sturdy connector,” something that attempts, but ultimately fails, to unify the sprawling text (237). Lundy, Shay, and the other characters never find that missing link, but the reader does: after Cotter Martin catches the ball, his father steals it from him and sells it to Wainwright for a profit. Because the reader has privileged access to a macroscopic, long view of history obscured from the characters embedded in the narrative, Underworld produces uneven levels of knowledge—a disparity between intradiegetic and extradiegetic epistemologies. While the link is broken within the narrative, it remains whole outside the narrative. Ruminating on his encounters with the various owners of the ball, Lundy thinks: “their stories would be exalted, absorbed by something larger” (DeLillo, 318). As it turns out, that larger something is the aggregate of stories that is the novel, only fully experienced by the reader.
When Shay visits the Watts Towers, the Los Angeles building composed of defunct railroad tracks, broken porcelain, soda cans, cement and mirror fragments, he observes a fraught wholeness: “Whatever the cast-off nature of the materials, the seeming offhandedness, and whatever the domination of pure intuition, the man was a master builder. There was a structural unity to the place, a sense of repeated themes and deft engineering” (DeLillo, 277). The structure of Underworld, with its plethora of historical and thematic correspondences and juxtapositions, makes it difficult not to read this passage metafictionally. Here, the narrator seems to assure the reader that the text is not a “large loose baggy monster,” with “queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary,” as Henry James famously said of some nineteenth-century novels (x). This long novel, DeLillo intimates, may be large and baggy, but is also deftly engineered, tight rather than loose, intentional rather than arbitrary.
To demonstrate this, an analysis of the novel’s structure is called for. The novel’s eight sections are as follows:
Prologue – “The Triumph of Death” (3 October 1951)
Part 1 – “Long Tall Sally” (Spring-Summer 1992)
Part 2 – “Elegy for Left Hand Alone” (Mid-1980s – Early 1990s)
Part 3 – “The Cloud of Unknowing” (Spring 1978)
Part 4 – “Cocksucker Blues” (Summer 1974)
Part 5 – “Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry” (Selected Fragments Public and Private in the 1950s and 1960s)
Part 6 – “Arrangement in Gray and Black” (Fall 1951 – Summer 1952)
Epilogue – “Das Kapital” (Sometime After Part 1, Likely 1992)
A number of musical, painterly, commercial, and philosophical allusions in the titles, all of which are directly borrowed and echo the flattening or homogenizing of media previously examined in the prologue, are worth noting briefly. “The Triumph of Death,” as previously stated, is the title of the Renaissance painting by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel that strikes J. Edgar Hoover in the prologue. “Arrangement in Gray and Black” is the title of a notable portrait by James Whistler, the American painter who frequently titled his paintings “Nocturnes” in an effort to evoke the abstraction of musical compositions, towards which his work aspired. “Long Tall Sally” is the name of a 1956 rock and roll song by Little Richard (as well as the name of Klara Sax’s junk art installation incorporating defunct WWII airplanes), while “Elegy for Left Hand Alone” and “Cocksucker Blues” refer to a 1929 composition by Polish-American pianist Leopold Godowsky and a 1970 Rolling Stones track, respectively. “The Cloud of Unknowing” is a textual prayer guide in the Christian mysticism tradition, written anonymously in Middle English during the fourteenth century. “Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry,” as stated earlier, served as the advertising slogan for plastic manufacturer DuPont from the 1930s through the 1980s, and “Das Kapital” is the most extensive text detailing the historical materialist philosophy of Karl Marx.
In borrowing from four different kinds of media, themselves incorporated into a fictional literary mode constituting a fifth (and in their hybridity forming a textual collage, a sixth), the novel’s section titles enact the dilemma presented in the prologue on a macrocosmic scale. Much like magazine advertisements, trash, and reproductions of paintings move haphazardly through the baseball stadium, the incongruous genres invoked here flutter messily through the titles that serve to organize the text. Severed from the contexts that endow them with meaning, and requiring intellectual labor to historicize, they prove challenging to delineate. Taken together, these fragments suggest that it is “all part of the same thing,” a history received in amorphous, flattened form, one that the reader, like the contemporary subject confronted with an overwhelming matrix of media, must work to separate, unearth, and recover.
In terms of specific structural correspondences, each of the novel’s eight parts is historically paired with another: for the three sections that take place predominantly during the 1950s (1, 6, 7), there are three sections that take place largely during the 1990s (2, 3, 8). Bisected, each half of the novel mirrors the other, albeit obliquely. This is illustrated in the following simplified diagram:
While this diagram ignores some structural irregularities (namely, that the third section takes place during the 1980s and 1990s, and that the sixth takes place during both the 1950s and the 1960s), even these irregularities are symmetrical: each portion that spills out over two decades corresponds to another that does the same. Within the text itself, a number of figures and sites balance one another: George’s cellar and the Watts Towers are both filled with detritus and situated in low-income neighborhoods, but the former is melancholic, the space of a dying junkie in the East Coast, while the latter is joyful, an inspiring work of junk sculpture in the West; for every landfill in the text, there is a Marvin Lundy intervening to create a collection that is to be displayed, not hidden; the Soviet nuclear bomb test is the dark twin to the baseball game occurring in the same week; the prologue and epilogue both depict collective public gatherings centered on advertising media (the magazine and newspaper flurries in the former, a large billboard in the latter).
The reader, observing the organization of the text and experiencing its full narrative arc, has access to a history of waste in a way distinct from any character or nonfictional subject non-discursively interacting with trash. DeLillo juxtaposes intradiegetic blind spots with a unified extradiegetic structure, a worm’s eye view with a bird’s eye view, in order to showcase the strength that a literature of waste can manifest, highlighting the particular potential that a fictional tracing of trash poses. The epic narrative of Underworld thereby attempts to produce an exhaustively expanded temporal understanding of waste, and the object world in general, through complex aesthetic flourishes accompanying the waste matter and waste-conscious practices of its contents. It should be noted, however, that while the novel suggests that trash-consciousness requires acts of narrating trash, such acts of narration need not be necessarily (or only) linguistic. The efforts of junk artist Klara Sax, which exceed the scope of our current inquiry, gesture towards the ways in which visual art can perform a similar task—as Sax states, “We took junk and saved it for art. Which sounds nobler than it was. It was just a way of looking at something more carefully” (DeLillo, 393). In this sense, DeLillo’s novel is but a single iteration of a much wider recuperative field of cultural production which excavates in order to scrutinize, with the collective goal of inventing the avenues through which to look at things more carefully.
Conclusion: Nonlinear Histories, Matter in Motion
We have yet to thoroughly account for the nonlinear chronology of the text, which complicates the foregoing considerations. If the novel aims to write a thorough material history accounting for the periods preceding and proceeding the narrow period of consumption, the choice to present sections out of sequence, in muddying the genealogies it seeks to trace, is a strange one. The concluding section of this chapter proposes two functions of Underworld’s nonlinear genealogy, one that demonstrates the archaeological function of waste management as a temporally reversed process, and one that points to the futility of waste management, literary or otherwise, altogether.
To illustrate the first point, let us look again to Marvin Lundy, the collector who attempts but fails to locate the missing link in the story of the home-run ball. Recall that Lundy struggles to “connect backwards” the sequence of ownership to the origin resulting in a genealogical gap, albeit only of a single day (DeLillo, 181). In another suggestively metafictional moment, Lundy’s wife Eleanor urges him to “finish the story,” pointing out that “without the final link to the baseball there’s no way to be sure how the story ends. What good’s a story without an ending? Although I suppose in this case it’s not the ending we need but the beginning” (DeLillo, 314). At this stage in the narrative, Lundy knows the ending (or, more accurately, an ending)—he possesses the ball—but fails to access the entirety of the beginning. So too will the reader recall that Nick and Marian have “reverse-garbage vision,” wherein they perceive all products first as garbage, then as new commodities. These processes suggest that trash historiography moves backwards: the trash is first excavated, ostensibly at the end of its life-cycle, then scrutinized to discover its prior histories.
Were the idea this simple, however, the novel would merely unfold in reverse, rather than back and forth. We have seen, however, that the economies of value which assign an object’s trash-status can also call it back, make it not-trash. Products not only become trash; recyclers, collectors, and artists recuperate and reroute trash, reviving it from disuse and allowing it to circulate once more. The categorical assignation of objects is highly variable and contingent; after all, as Mary Douglas says of dirt, it is “never a unique, isolated event,” but always a “by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter” (45). In Underworld’s prologue, Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death rapidly shifts from art to pop culture print to annoying ephemera and back to art again as it travels through transformations in site and medium. Because waste is, according to Brian Thill, “resistant to capture,” an ever-shifting locus, a process of becoming and unbecoming, an ambitious waste historiography must account for this fluidity (5).
It is therefore fitting that the novel employs neither a linear nor a reverse-chronology. If the problem with trash in consumer culture is the mirage of beginnings without ends, DeLillo is not content with tracing fresh commodities to their trashy ends, or exhuming trashed objects to unearth their shiny beginnings; rather, Underworld grants access to a much wider history of unruly matter in perpetual motion—in various, impermanent states of use, disuse, dislocation, alteration, and appropriation—none of which are privileged, but instead gesture towards one another in fluid, multidirectional fashion, unsettling the notions of beginnings and endings altogether. The novel thereby seeks to provide the most comprehensive underhistory possible while simultaneously maintaining skepticism about the feasibility of such an undertaking, which manifests as fractured, nonlinear cartography, an oblique roadmap into American history.
DeLillo’s novel makes it clear that a comprehensive or totalizing system of waste management—the productivist utopia of a system without traces of waste whatsoever, whether in hygienic practice or narrative discourse—is impossible. When suburban housewife Erica Deming uses “rubberoid gloves” to clean the dishes by hand before placing them in the dishwasher, she does so “because if you don’t get every smudge of organic murk off the fork tines and out of the pans before you run the dishwasher, it could come back to haunt you in the morning” (DeLillo, 519). Elsewhere, Sister Edgar attempts to eliminate waste by filtering it through multiple hygienic processes, which result in further processes:
That night she leaned over the washbasin in her room and cleaned a steel wool pad with disinfectant. Then she used the pad to scour a scrub brush, cleaning every bristle. But she hadn’t cleaned the original disinfectant in something stronger than disinfectant. She hadn’t done this because the regression was infinite. (DeLillo, 251)
In the novel, as in the universe, the smudges of organic murk come back to haunt us in the morning; what is used to cast aside dirt and filth is tainted by its contact with the debris in question. In cleaning, it is dirtied. In spite of the twentieth century’s many attempts to the contrary—from the advent of hygienic discourse and bacteriology, to the Fordist vilification of waste in systems of production, to advanced waste concealment technologies at work in the sanitary landfill—a totalizing hygienic system, a world without byproducts or remainders, remains an unachievable ideal. In the final instance, the lowly remains, a residue which can be incrementally deferred but never eliminated, a problem of infinite regress and physical persistence. In his analysis of the topic, Jesse Oak Taylor writes that pollution “provides a way for conceptually managing rather than eradicating the production of waste” (109). In no system of value or waste containment is “the eschewed substance or practice actually eradicated” (Taylor, 120). The dust-averse housewife is left with the ceaseless persistence of “insidious, all-pervading, unconquerable fluff” polluting the furniture, a never ending and, if its goal is absolute, ultimately futile war on matter (Campbell, 200).
Underworld’s narrative form thus serves as a macrocosmic attempt, though opposite in intent, parallel to the efforts of Erica Deming and Sister Edgar: rather than try to eliminate waste, the novel produces a re-historicized, multi-directional expansion of consciousness towards the objects that become, and cease to be, waste. At the same time, it recognizes that this historiographical effort itself is part and parcel of a wider neurotic impulse, less to do with the objects in question and more to do with an untenable mastery over a messy, disordered morass of objects which exceed subject and system, literary or otherwise. Because “disused or decaying matter, in its liminality, plasticity, and abjection, occupies space in new, unexpected ways,” the subject cannot “own it as she owns every other type of object” (Bozcagli, 231). Taken together, the fluidity of matter in motion, compounded with the problems of infinite regress and physical persistence of waste, frustrate attempts to organize and contain. “Cleanliness is a form of apprehension,” Matthew O’Connor reminds us in Nightwood—left to its own devices, matter is untidy, and the battle against undesirable matter is ceaseless, cyclical, and potentially maddening (Barnes, 126). As William Burroughs writes in a 1954 letter to Allen Ginsberg, the process of “some form on material… catapults me into a sort of madness” (22).
In recuperating trash as a “form of historical reclamation,” Underworld therefore also casts the exhaustiveness of that reclamation into doubt, as an “obsessive-compulsive effort to classify and order” that cannot hold (Dini, 25-26). Unable to contain the unruly material that is its subject, the text fissures. In exceeding the atomized subject, waste allows for transgenerational mediation, the formation of collective experiences, and the revelation of obscured narratives; by the same token, this very excess also disallows its mastery. Pushed aside, waste pushes back, exhibiting its “own momentum” and agency (DeLillo, 287). When classified and recycled, trash is redirected to the proper places and channels; re-assigned a lost importance and preserved, it is guaranteed to continue being in place in some alternative history or economy. These practices, while allowing for an expanded view of the history of objects that in some important sense counterbalances the historical myopia of consumer culture, constitute middles, not ends; elusive, waste wiggles out of co-optation, re-use, and narration, telling its own story and slipping out of place once more.
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0. Introduction: The “Other Tradition”
“They call me Hogg ‘cause a hog lives dirty. I don’t wash none. And when I get hungry, I eat my own snot. I been wearin’ these clothes since winter. I don’t even take my dick out my pants to piss most times, unless it’s in some cunt’s face. Or all over a cocksucker like you… I got worms, boy—had ‘em ever since I was a kid. But I won’t get rid of ‘em cause I like the way they make my asshole itch… I got a hairy ass and it sure cakes up crusty. But I just don’t believe in wipin’ when I got a freaky little son of a bitch like you to eat it out for me.”
—Samuel Delany, Hogg (1995)
Meet “Hogg” Hargus, the eponymous secondary protagonist of Samuel Delany’s graphic, transgressive novel dedicated to filth, depravity, and brutality. Hogg follows an unnamed narrator (whom the other characters simply dub “Cocksucker”), an eleven-year-old boy who meets and accompanies Hogg as he goes about his grotesque work. In what may be considered a twisted form of the picaresque genre, Hogg follows the titular rapist-for-hire as he inflicts his particular brand of disgust and violence upon a series of women, men, children, and infants—its loose, episodic structure is filled with toe jam, fecal crust, smegma, mixtures of blood, pus, and plasma that seep from torn-open, improvised, and sexually assaulted orifices created in thighs and other unconventional locations, and indeed every imaginable convergence of bodily excretion. The gang rape passages, which comprise the vast majority of the text, are so detailed, complex, and extreme that they dissolve into a disorienting mass of limbs and holes spewing various expulsions; the narrator is frequently unable to tell whose genitals or weapons are penetrating which orifices, or whose feces or mucus he’s consuming. The novel comes to a close when Cocksucker, who has come to prefer smegma (a cheese-like substance derived from fermentation of liquids in the foreskin) to his usual nourishment, leaves Hogg for another man with even poorer hygiene.
Hogg belongs to an enduring corpus of fetishistic, pornographic fiction that can be traced at least as far back to the work of the Marquis de Sade in late-eighteenth-century France, and in fact further back to seventeenth-century England. Though less violent, the eroticism and irrationalism championed in the life and poetry of Restoration satirist John Wilmot, who became emblematic of the figure of the “libertine,” also plays an important precedent. Indeed, American social reformist Henry Ward Beecher’s eponymous essay on the subject bears a strikingly direct resemblance to Hogg’s ideals: the libertine, eschewing morality and restraint, is “proud to be vile; his ambition is to be viler than other men” (128).
Generally disturbing, disorienting, and sadomasochistic (the term “sadism” is, in fact, etymologically derived from de Sade (“Sadism”)), these novels depict the unheard, the unseen, the unsmelled. In “A Few Notes on Two of My Books,” Kathy Acker, the postwar American writer to whom we turn later in the chapter, proclaims that the work of de Sade, Georges Bataille, and William S. Burroughs belong to “the other tradition,” “the non-acceptable literary tradition,” or “the black tradition” (6).
In what constitutes our present line of inquiry, we examine selected texts from the postwar American iteration of that “other tradition”—Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) by Thomas Pynchon, Naked Lunch (1959) by William S. Burroughs, as well as Blood and Guts in High School (1984) and In Memoriam to Identity (1990) by Kathy Acker—specifically the facets that foreground, or frequently represent, the waste products of the human body, as opposed to those of households, factories, cities, or social hierarchies. In turning from trash to excrement, from the inorganic to the organic, the literary analysis that follows necessarily entertains slimier considerations. In parallel fashion with the broader literature of waste to which it contributes, the literature of excretion reveals that the human body, like the economy of a nation, the grid of a city, or a class hierarchy, is a system of production, circulation and disposal: one that builds, consumes, extracts, and expels.
This broad correspondence notwithstanding, the readerly attitudes accompanying excretory fiction differ importantly, in content and degree, from those accompanying other subcategories of the literature of waste. From the perspective of the reading public, the most common reaction to these texts, and the matter that they describe, is that they are disgusting. A brief inspection of the initial reception of Naked Lunch, the last U.S. novel tried for obscenity in 1966, makes this clear. In an early review in The New Republic, John Wain wrote that Naked Lunch “consists of a prolonged scream of hatred and disgust, an effort to keep the reader’s nose down in the mud for 250 pages. From the literary point of view, it is the merest trash, not worth a second glance” (21). A few months later, in February of 1963, Mary McCarthy of The New York Review of Books stated similarly that the novel was “disgusting and sometimes tiresome, often in the same places. The prominence of the anus, of feces, and of all sorts of ‘horrible’ discharges… from the body’s orifices, becomes too much of a bad thing.”
These assessments and those that followed established and developed a series of motifs: the book was disgusting because it depicted bodily waste (and far too much of it—an excess of an excess), and without literary merit in both content and form. In a Times Literary Supplement review tellingly entitled “UGH…”, John Willet calls the writing “grey porridge” and “pure verbal masturbation,” a text that is both unpleasant to the senses and excessively self-indulgent, seemingly without a proper (to continue the analogy, reproductive) product (919). British poet Edith Sitwell concurred with Willet’s perspective, stating that she “did not wish to spend the rest of [her] life with [her] nose nailed to other people’s lavatories” (49). Finally, when the novel was on trial for obscenity, Justice Paul C. Reardon of the Massachusetts Supreme Court found the book to be “a revolting miasma of unrelieved perversion and disease,” or, put concisely, “literary sewage”: not simply lacking in literary value but so foul as to be considered a contagion, a threat on a nearly corporeal level (55).
The fact that the same text spurred largely similar disgust responses in different contexts—across lines of gender, discipline and nation—is noteworthy, and forms the basis of the major analytic framework of this chapter. In psychology and affect studies, disgust is considered, alongside anger, fear, surprise, joy, and sadness, one of the six basic human emotions; in contrast with complex or reflective emotions, a basic emotion is considered more, or completely, automatic (Korsmeyer, 24). This definition raises a series of questions central to an examination of bodily waste: In which ways does disgust align with the forms of waste aversion thus far examined, and in which ways does it deviate from them? To what varying ends is disgust deployed by the literature of waste? Are there forms of excretory fiction that do not elicit, or intend to elicit, disgust? Can an individual subject’s disgust with corporeal waste be reconfigured through exposure to that “other tradition”? Given the ostensibly automatic, kneejerk nature of disgust, what does its use within the literary arts, the aims of which are often contemplative and subtle, enable or obstruct?
In the chapter that follows, we consider these questions in relation to some of the more revolting themes and passages in the novels of Pynchon, Burroughs, and Acker, in that order. After first establishing some of the biological, psychological, cultural, and spatial qualities of disgust, the second section examines depictions of scatalogical sadomasochism and excretion-filled concentration camps in Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon’s text places waste in direct conversation with war, death, and violence, foregrounding feces as the visceral manifestation of human history defined as a series of unrelenting antagonisms. Fecal matter operates in Gravity’s Rainbow as undeniable material counterpoint to the vacuous and manipulative rhetoric surrounding and spurring war; put simply, history is war, war is death, and death is shit. Just as DeLillo does with trash, Pynchon posits corporeal waste as an access point into history itself. If Gravity’s Rainbow is disgusting, this is because human behavior often is, in its darkest and most historically impactful episodes, equally so; disgust here speaks to the driving forces and consequences of political economy, and the reader must attempt to overcome this reaction in order to see its place within a wider narrative.
In a similar vein, the third section demonstrates that Burroughs depicts bodily waste as the naked reality of human brutality, but also, less polemically, human biology and embodiment itself. If, in turning away from its own undesirable products, disgust allows the human subject to deny its own undeniable corporeality, Naked Lunch fosters readerly embodiment by enacting that corporeality textually. It does this by, in Edith Sitwell‘s terms, nailing the reader’s nose to a seemingly endless series of lavatories that function to dismantle humanity into its biological components. Through minimal usage of protagonists and characterization, and maximal usage of synecdochal mixtures of limbs and fluids, Burroughs congregates large, undifferentiated masses of excretion, which signify a collectivist corpus of humanity confronting the disgusting materials that comprise it. Against critics who suggest that Naked Lunch may be considered a formal embodiment of a landfill or a sewer, this portion of the chapter also argues that a more apt metaphor for the textual anarchy of the novel would be a cesspool, but one that has been critically punctured.
Turning from the subject matter of corporeality writ-large to structural concerns of collage and nonlinear narrative, the fourth section examines the manners in which both Burroughs and Acker utilize the cut-up technique to create textual inefficiency at the level of the linguistic signifier. Continuing a tradition lifted from the historical avant-garde of the early twentieth century, Burroughs and Acker not only depict waste, but make words themselves inefficient, unassimilable, and wasteful.
Given that the majority of excretory fiction is pornographic, and pornography has and continues to be a patriarchal institution, the fifth and final section privileges content once more, considering a specifically female and feminist iteration of excretory fiction in the work of Kathy Acker. Examining waste in Acker’s novels reveals two prevalent misogynistic attitudes: firstly, that women are considered hollowed receptacles for semen and other male excretions, and, secondly, that menstrual blood is inherently disgusting and must be kept out of sight and speech. More so than the male authors considered, Acker’s work is anti-disgust; while Pynchon, and to a lesser degree, Burroughs, retain the efficacy of disgust to elucidate political and biological realities, Acker seeks to reclaim the female body by refuting that it is disgusting.
I. The Nature(s) of Disgust
“There has to be meat; meat stinks.”
—Kathy Acker, In Memoriam to Identity (1990)
As a biological, psychological, cultural, and spatial phenomenon, disgust functions variously as a necessary evolutionary deterrent, an irrational response without a clear function, an oppressive discursive category, and a mechanism that orders subject-object relationships. In this section, we establish the foundational characteristics of disgust pertinent to our analyses of excretory fiction. As it turns out, disgust, and the forms of waste to which it responds, is bound up in issues of containment and leakage, dichotomies of public and private space, asymmetrical hierarchies of class and gender, as well as aesthetic hierarchies of the senses, each of which are essential contexts for our examinations of Pynchon, Burroughs, and Acker.
Burroughs is interested in retaining the full range of disgust in order to depict an explosion of waste that amounts to both excretory and textual anarchy, while Pynchon and Acker mitigate the efficacy of disgust in order to allow reflection and reconsideration towards the lowly bodies that its politicized manifestations abhor. If the reader can overcome their disgust—a significant “if”—they can confer attention to, and analyze the historical deployment and consequences of, excretion.
At the broadest and simplest level, disgust exists in a framework co-extensive with other forms of waste-aversion, wherein perceptions of value and valuelessness serve to establish and delineate boundaries. In the majority of cases, the object of disgust is rejected in favor of distance—be it physical distance from the body, psychic distance from the forefront of consciousness, or ideological distance from identification with the behavior or social group in question. In this sense, disgust marks its object as inferior, disposable, trash-like. As with trash, the default response is banishment to the periphery. In accordance with other streamlined waste-concealment technologies detailed in the preceding chapter, such as municipal trash collection and the sanitary landfill, modern technological developments in disgust-management, such as the toilet (a subject central to each of the writers that follow), work to remove waste with minimal disturbance or effort on behalf of the waste-producing subject.
Nevertheless, while trash is frequently considered useless or irksome, it is not usually deemed disgusting. In fact, as Colin McGinn notes in The Meaning of Disgust (2011), disgust, properly defined in psychological and non-metaphorical terms, arises only with respect to the biological, not the mechanical or plastic (71). While disgust is frequently utilized in moralizing rhetoric, only organic matter causes visceral disgust responses in humans; oil leaking from a car may be filthy, and one may be figuratively disgusted by the behavior of competing social formations, but Hogg’s ass-crust is truly revolting in a physiological sense.
Studies in neurobiology and animal physiology have probed this visceral link: exposure to disgusting stimuli lowers a subject’s heart rate and blood pressure, and in extreme cases, causes nausea and vomiting (Korsmeyer, 19). Certain stimuli, such as fecal matter, can cause harm if consumed. Excretion, or the removal of harmful waste products formed as a result of metabolic activities, contains a series of toxic nitrogenous compounds, such as ammonia, that the body of a mammal cannot tolerate in large concentrations (Rastogi, 285). While coprophagia is safer than is generally thought, it can lead to illness and death in extreme cases: Brigadier General Ernest Pudding, the central coprophage of Gravity’s Rainbow examined in the next section, does in fact die from the practice. These biological facts seemingly point to the conclusion that disgust developed genetically as an evolutionary mechanism of protection—that, unlike the historically contingent developments of productivist efficiency or disposability seen in the preceding chapter, disgust is an essential, universal phenomenon designed to protect against bodily contamination.
A quick examination of particular details and a refinement of related but distinct categories of emotion suggests that this simplistic reading is incomplete. According to affect scholars, disgust and fear are distinct, and fear is the default emotion if one legitimately expects bodily penetration of contaminants. “Physical harm is not the aversive stimulus where disgust is concerned,” McGinn notes, because disgust frequently arises in cases wherein there is no possibility of bodily harm; in cases of potential physical harm, “fear is the appropriate response” (11). This observation leads McGinn to conclude that disgust is “consciousness-centered, not body-centered,” that disgust arises in response to perceptions and experiences that often do not present a biological threat in and of themselves (11).
Such an idea gains more credence when we consider the relationship between bodily waste and the spaces in which it is situated and experienced. Like dirt and trash, organic matter categorically transforms as it circulates. As is often the case in this discourse, returning to Mary Douglas yields a fruitful spatial and analytic framework: recall that dirt is dirty in a home but not a garden, that shoes are dirty inside a bed but not outside. As the magazine reprint of “The Triumph of Death” moves through the baseball stadium and collides with DeLillo’s fictionalized J. Edgar Hoover in Underworld, it is sometimes intriguing art, sometimes irritating ephemera.
Anatomically and psychologically, organic fluids passing within the body (secretions: one organ secretes its materials to another) are, at worst, neutral or unremarkable, while organic fluids expelled from its borders (excretions: an orifice excretes its materials from the body) are frequently met with disgust and horror. Blood and saliva circulating in their proper channels within an organism are simply serving their biological functions, while blood spurting from a wound and saliva spat from the mouth are generally met with repulsion. Saliva transferred from mouth to mouth is also acceptable so long as it is not observed passing between vessels, visibly leaking from either orifice. In these examples, then, disgust arises when organic matter is out of place—while true that disgust only responds to corporeal phenomena, it is less concerned with the organic content of the materials, and more concerned with the disruption to a consciousness that perceives their escape from the containers that keep them hidden. We therefore have reason to believe that, had Burroughs simply kept his discharges where they belonged, his critics would not have responded with such revulsion.
Disgust, like the waste it abhors, is a highly contextual phenomenon; understanding this allows us to consider its usage as a mechanism that in turn demarcates spatial and social contexts. In other words, while disgust gains its meaning through space in the abstract, it is subsequently deployed to define and distinguish broad spatial categories and their specific manifestations. Disgust with bodily waste is anti-biology, against the necessary functions of the body; sites wherein these repellant biological realities appear are walled off symbolically and practically. As will be demonstrated, Pynchon, Burroughs, and Acker each take up this tension, unsettling its boundaries and thereby revealing the underlying assumptions and historical ramifications entailed.
Put into cultural practice, disgust manages the historically and geographically variable conceptions, and tangible spatial divisions, between what constitute public versus private behaviors. The divisions of the discrete anatomical organism are also the divisions of the urban-social organism writ-large; abhorred matter that must be hidden within the containers of individual bodies must also be restricted to specific devices and situations. Depositing or exchanging excretions becomes a private matter reserved for bathrooms, bedrooms and sex dungeons, spaces designed for and imbued with privacy.
At the same time, a toilet does not exist ex nihilo as a private excretory-conduit; it exists and operates through public engineering and wide-reaching infrastructural mechanisms, mechanisms that comprise portions of the body of waste-concealment technologies developed over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As explored in the preceding chapter, the development of municipal trash collection and the sanitary landfill over the course of the twentieth century enacted a paradigm shift wherein individual households were no longer directly responsible for managing their waste. In this vein, toilets and sewage systems do for excretion what trash collection and landfills do for trash. In Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographies in Victorian London (2008), Michelle Allen describes the excretory equivalent of this paradigm shift. Until the mid-nineteenth century, cesspools functioned as the repositories for domestic waste in England and the United States. Pits dug into the ground adjacent to one’s home, cesspools had to be manually maintained and dumped by residents. As urban concentration made corporeal waste accumulate in unprecedented amounts, sewers eventually replaced cesspools as a more streamlined, all-encompassing, and dematerializing form of waste management.
Sewers supplanting cesspools as the dominant excretory containment system transformed the public-private dichotomy in a number of ways. Like the factory model of industrial capitalism with which it was historically coterminous, the sewer system made formerly private matters public: as commodity production became exported from the home to the factory, excretory maintenance became a civic rather than a domestic duty, migrating from ground-level to beneath, from semi-visible home-adjacent sites to invisible subterranean circulatory systems. As another iteration of modern waste-concealment, it worked to materially and psychologically distance laymen from their byproducts and bodies—removing the presence of waste matter from daily life also removed it, and the embodiment it implicitly disclosed, from public consciousness.
In a tangible, spatial sense, the cesspool-sewer shift linked private households to a vast public network. Allen reads this paradigm shift as one that “posed a threat to the ideals of domestic privacy and enclosure,” wherein once-discrete containers were now opened and joined to a “vast drainage system” (25). As with the landfill, the sewer system existed out of sight for most citizens. While disgusting to sojourn into its depths, for the aboveground layman it functioned more like an enclosed kiss, circulating excretion from container to container without visible spillage and thus no disruption to consciousness. More broadly, waste-management became a public health issue for which the state and its contractors were responsible. Susan Strasser notes that, in the postwar United States, “American cities of all sizes embraced the Progressive position that government—and not free enterprise—was responsible for public health and should exercise that responsibility in the matter of refuse” (120).
These transformations in civic infrastructure and the public-private dichotomy mitigated disgust by lessening exposure to the bodily. Landfill-like, they also conglomerated formerly separate byproducts in one locus; as will be demonstrated, such a comingling of fluids both serves as the subject matter and formal arrangement of Naked Lunch.
Before proceeding to our primary texts, the hierarchical facet of disgust, taken up by Pynchon, Burroughs, and Acker in their respective critiques of fascism, individualism, and patriarchy, is worth noting. Disgust is invoked asymmetrically with respect to race, class, and gender. The preceding discussion of Anglo-American sewer systems illustrates this clearly: one’s bodily byproducts must be deposited privately in adherence to public/private etiquette, but this is itself a privilege largely reserved for those who have access to private spaces. Economically vulnerable groups, such as slum dwellers and homeless populations, automatically violate the decorum of disgust by lacking adequate access to privacy. As Mike Davis explains, slums notoriously do not have toilets; if they do, they exist in major disproportion to the population, meaning most who live in slums must defecate and urinate in public and inevitably become associated with filth and degeneracy (141). In an interrelated hierarchy dictated by rejection of biological realities, women are frequently considered disgusting by virtue of their menstrual capacities, an involuntary case of waste-matter spilling beyond its container. Disgust also functions unevenly in the subject’s interior hierarchy of self and other. As McGinn observes, when presented with the same category of substance produced by the self versus that of another (i.e. one’s own spit or feces versus those of a stranger’s), we are generally more disgusted by excretions that are not our own (42).
In these examples, we observe the vertical component of disgust: we are generally more disgusted by that which is lower on the anatomical body, physical setting, or social hierarchy. Indeed, disgust may even be viewed as an intrinsically hierarchical emotion. As Ian Miller observes in The Anatomy of Disgust (1997), “disgust evaluates (negatively) what it touches, proclaims the meanness and inferiority of its object,” and, as a corollary, the superiority of the disgusted subject (9). In this regard, disgust may be seen as a taxonomic and performative gesture, wherein the disgusted subject intimates an elevated position within a stratified system of values and substances.
Operating within a framework of high and low, near and far, disgusting materials also speak to a hierarchy of the senses. Historian of visual culture Martin Jay writes that “most commentators in the West since the Greeks” have placed the “distancing senses of vision and hearing” above the “other, more proximate three” senses of touch, taste, and smell (310). Music, an intangible, abstract phenomenon, exists in a quasi-ethereal mode; it cannot be touched, smelled, or tasted. Perhaps by virtue of this, it cannot be disgusting in a literal sense. Disgust is anti-proximity: placed in contact with the loathed object, the disgusted subject seeks distance. Such theories of aesthetic sensibilities work to separate artistic beauty from the bodily and the sensuous, privileging that which fixates on artistic and intellectual development, positioned as distant, transcendent goals, as opposed to the viscera that is nearby and within—in this framework, disgust and waste are categorically incompatible with the elevated realm of art.
How, then, can an aesthetics of disgust be considered artistic? What kinds of cultural and aesthetic work does literary exposure to abhorrent tastes, smells, and forms of contact perform? We turn now to our three writers to examine the functions of disgust and excrement in their novels.
II. Gravity’s Rainbow, the Body Politic, and the Semi-Transparency of Disgust
“The body does not lie.”
—Kathy Acker, “A Few Notes on Two of My Books” (1989)
Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon’s monstrous World War II epic, is a notoriously challenging text. Following several hundred characters in dozens of locations across the United States, England, France, Germany, Switzerland, the geographical reach of the novel is wide in scope. As various organizations with differing political and philosophical allegiances attempt to discover the true nature of protagonist Tyrone Slothrop’s relationships to the mysterious V-2 rockets believed to be the keys to victory, the reader is exposed to dense bodies of data from a variety of disciplinary experts, including military commanders, statisticians, psychologists, rocket scientists, electrical engineers, and plastic experts. Unlike Underworld and Invisible Man, the other two gargantuan novels in this study (examined in the preceding and proceeding chapters respectively), the temporal scope of the narrative is fairly limited. Excepting the hallucinatory, time-skipping epilogue, the novel takes place primarily during the final year of the war. What confounds in Gravity’s Rainbow is not a density of time but of data, plot, and location, all of which is further muddied by epistemological uncertainty: as with other Pynchon novels, the characters find themselves bound up in complex, far-reaching conspiratorial mechanisms, the effects of which make delineating paranoid delusion from fact a challenge, if not an outright impossibility.
Gravity’s Rainbow is also notoriously disgusting, difficult to stomach on a visceral level, depicting a graphic series of scatalogical sexual encounters and oozing piles of bodies decimated in concentration camps. As stated in the introduction, its 1973 publication elicited disapproving responses not unlike that of Naked Lunch. As in Underworld, the presence of waste loosely unifies the disparate narrative strands of the novel. Unlike Underworld, that waste is excretion, most often feces. Restricting our analysis to the fecal motif in Gravity’s Rainbow, we see that it operates as a quasi-textual object requiring readerly attention, and that this attention yields an understanding of feces as a manifestation of brutality in wartime, a counterweight to the manipulative rhetoric of imperialism, and a tangible representation of the abstract power relationships behind these forces. The body does not lie, Acker tells us, and Pynchon suggests that it is through the revolting expulsions of the body that we may approach something resembling truth in times of mass deception.
Early in the novel, Pynchon explicitly presents fecal matter as an important form of signification demanding attention. When Slothrop goes to the bathroom in the Roseland Ballroom, he accidentally drops his harmonica in the toilet. What follows are a series of hallucinatory passages wherein Slothrop enters the toilet and travels through the plumbing system in search of the harmonica. As he traverses this waste-filled nether region, he becomes attuned to its textures:
For some time he has been aware of shit, elaborately crusted along the sides of this ceramic (or by now, iron) tunnel he’s in: shit nothing can flush away, mixed with hard-water minerals into a deliberate barnacling of his route, patterns thick with meaning… He finds he can identify certain traces of shit as belonging definitely to this or that Harvard fellow of his acquaintances. (Pynchon, 66)
Slothrop’s fecal journey proves illuminating. Sticky and resistant, the feces coating the tunnel cannot be fully flushed away: deferred downstream, it persists against management efforts, leaving pathways, traces. When granted attention, the shit discloses a history: it traces his route like a trail of (digested and excreted) breadcrumbs, and its varied textures help identify its producers. “Uncannily shit-sensitized now,” Slothrop begins to discover hidden stories, to “read old agonies inside poor Dumpster,” including the fecal movements or migration patterns of his friends and “who’d tried suicide last semester” (Pynchon, 67).
The diction is telling: Slothrop reads the shit as he would a text, which in turn reveals submerged and forgotten narratives. Here, feces are both legible and historically signifying; this introductory passage signals to the reader that the many excretory passages that follow are to be taken seriously, that their patterns are in fact “thick with meaning” beyond their mere appearance or disgust-content.
While strange, the idea that excrement can disclose detailed information is less far-fetched when we consider that it is a central method of communication between mammals. In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Zoology, researchers found that scent marking, “a common mode of communication in mammals,” conveys more information than previously thought (McGuire et al., 163). In fact, not only the biochemical and olfactory contents of the excretions, but their spatial arrangement and volume, are significant: most mammals urinate as high as they can, and in the greatest volumes, on the object to maximize visible and olfactory transmission. The farther away from dirt, and the longer the reach, the more likely the scent is to be distinguished and registered. When another mammal investigates the excretion, they learn highly specific details about its producer, including “individual identity, sex, age, reproductive status, health, kinship, and histocompatibility,” (McGuise, Olsen, Bemis, Orantes, 163). Whether the animals have met before, whether their relationship is friendly, antagonistic, or sexual, where they fall on a hierarchy of health and dominance—all of this is disclosed by way of excremental interpretation. In a very literal, material sense, waste can function as a mode of communication, not unlike (but, as will be argued, also not reducible to) a text.
Slothrop’s fecal sojourn thus establishes corporeal waste as legible, quasi-textual, communicative, and historically-signifying object. Like a zoologist, the reader is asked to put aside his or her disgust and grant attention to what information can be culled from the material. As Gravity’s Rainbow proceeds, bodily waste frequently appears during violent, pornographic episodes depicting fetishistic exchanges. These passages probe the interfaces between excretions and the bodies through which they pass, zeroing in on the materials as they leak from one container and are received by another. Bodily waste, and the body more generally, is presented as a simplistic, honest counterweight to the vacuous rhetoric that spurs war and the dense layers of espionage, conspiracy, and bureaucratic bloat involved in global conflict. Moreover, in concretizing abstract, intangible power relationships, it aids in their comprehension.
In one illuminatingly grotesque passage, British Brigadier Ernest Pudding, an old, infirm World War I veteran, consumes the urine and feces of Katje Borgesius, a Dutch spy and dominatrix. The highly ritualized exchange, but one in a nightly series that eventuates in the Brigadier’s death, relies upon the visceral reaction of disgust as a form of erotic domination—paradoxically, because it proves identifiable and comprehensible, the pain incurred through waste consumption ultimately provides a profound sense of relief. Pudding, “bare as a baby” upon removing his military garb, gets on his knees, approaches Katje as she sits on a high chair, calls her “Domina Nocturna” and offers himself to her torturous whims (Pynchon, 236, 235). After kissing her ring and boots, she whips him repeatedly, then commands him to consume her bodily expulsions. Groveling on the ground in paradigmatically lowly fashion, Pudding waits for gravity to do its job.
What follows is a passage that unflinchingly describes the appearance, touch, sound, taste, and smell of excrement, while thoroughly tracing a full trajectory of the waste products before and as they move through Katje’s body through their emergence and transmission. It begins with the residue of what Katje has consumed—just before she begins the process of excretion, Pudding glances at “the bottles on the table, the plates, soiled with juices of meat, Hollandaise, bits of gristle and bone…” (Pynchon, 238). In this moment, Pudding briefly perceives the remnants of the ingredients for his impending meal, the nourishment that has become waste and will soon become nourishment again. As Pudding kneels beneath her genitals, the narrator describes the motions of her “thigh and abdominal muscles” that facilitate the resulting spray (Pynchon, 238). When Katje then urinates, Pudding “opens his mouth to catch the stream, choking, trying to keep swallowing, feeling warm urine dribble out the corners of his mouth and down his neck and shoulders, submerged in the hissing storm” (Pynchon, 239). Pudding is unable to contain the warm, noisy torrent of urine as it moves between their orifices, exceeding their containers, drenching his upper body and clinging “golden clear” to “the glossy hairs of her quim” (Pynchon, 238).
Next, the narrator details the sensory experiences of both the expelling and receiving bodies as Katje begins to defecate onto and into Pudding. Again, this begins within the body just before the moment of expulsion, when Katje’s “intestines whine softly” as she feels “shit begin to slide down and out,” through and beyond her rectum and anus (Pynchon, 238). Kneeled below, Pudding observes “a dark turd” emerging “out the crevice, out of the absolute darkness between her white buttocks,” which he subsequently envelops “with his lips, sucking on it tenderly, licking along its lower side” (Pynchon, 238).
As it crosses beyond the threshold and into his body, Pudding begins to taste and smell the feces, triggering memories and ruminations:
The stink of shit floods his nose, gathering him, surrounding. It is the smell of Passchendaele, of the Salient. Mixed with the mud, and the putrefaction of corpses, it was the sovereign smell of their first meeting, and her emblem. The turd slides down into his mouth, down to his gullet. He gags, but bravely clamps his teeth shut. Bread that would only have floated in porcelain waters somewhere, unseen, untasted—risen now and baked in the bitter intestinal Oven. (Pynchon, 238)
The “stink of shit” momentarily discloses a memory, a historically significant one, transporting him backwards through time and space: from London, 1944, to the battle in World War I where he and Katje met, in Passchendaele, 1917. Feces, nature, and war all form a nexus of association, as Pudding’s sensory apparatus groups the smell of shit with the mud of the trenches and the piles of rotting corpses. The scent is tellingly sovereign: powerful, evocative, but also, because it competes with other senses, transient—the repulsive taste and sensation of the feces moving into his body overpowers the scent, returns him to the present moment wherein his body is gagging uncontrollably in an attempt to expel the abhorrent substance. Experienced with these matters, he resists his impulse and obstructs its exit with his teeth. While swallowing, he likens the material to bread, bringing the excretory genealogy full circle, back to the earlier glance of Katje’s dinner plate. He thinks of her intestines as an oven: both are systems of production that receive, process, and expel organic outputs. The metaphor grants the feces value in a twisted, alternate economy of needs. Rather than allowing it to float in some nebulous, wasted state, he consumes it—that which is usually “unseen, untasted” is seen, tasted, smelled, and reconsidered.
A series of parallels with Underworld emerge here: we observe the circulation of matter in and out of borders and so in and out of waste-states, albeit across microcosmic, biological interfaces rather than on industrial, corporate, or national scales. So too does Pynchon posit waste as a seldom-taken conduit to submerged memories and histories with particular attention paid to textures and surfaces. Like the material surface of the trash-object that unites two geographically and historically separate subjects, the fecal particles that penetrate Pudding’s nostrils register and recognize similar olfactory content from another international war, an earlier iteration of an extended narrative undercoated with waste. Moreover, in this slimier case, it is a powerful, natural material—disgusting, but sovereign, situated on the threshold of something that may be considered nondiscursive.
The notion of waste as conduit, however, operates somewhat differently for Pynchon—and that difference stems from the important distinction between inorganic and organic waste. While all forms of waste, as argued in the introduction, result from a confluence of discursive and material forces, excretory fiction privileges the material as direct manifestation of undeniable, powerful biological truths pertaining to embodiment and mortality.
Pudding’s brief, subjective reminiscence is cut short by the commanding sensory experiences of the coprophagia he is engaged in, by a gag reflex that exceeds a consumer’s disinterest in trash. Psychological distance from the moment at hand is undercut by the overwhelming emotions of pain and horror: “Spasms in his throat continue. The pain is terrible. With his tongue he mashes shit against the roof of his mouth and begins to chew, thickly now, the only sound in the room…” (Pynchon, 238-239). Unrelenting, the textual reproduction of the senses continues; much as the scent of excrement gathered and surrounded Pudding a moment prior, now the sound of his teeth chomping on the warm, thick fecal matter radiates in reach, all-encompassing, leaving him only with the experience of revulsion and suffering occurring within his body. There is a directness, an immediacy to the act that is powerful, and this power lies largely in its capacity to elicit the commanding presence of disgust.
Pudding’s internal monologue during the scene of torture reveals that pain and disgust with bodily waste, and pain and the bodily more generally, offer him a momentary reprieve from the convoluted, intangible systems of discourse, hierarchy, and ideology present elsewhere in the text. At Katje’s scatalogical mercy, Pudding finds himself:
bound by nothing but his need for pain, for something real, something pure. They have taken him so far from his simple nerves. They have stuffed paper illusions and military euphemisms between him and this truth, this rare decency, this moment at her scrupulous feet… no it’s not guilt here, not so much as amazement—that he could have listened to so many years of ministers, scientists, doctors each with his specialized lies to tell, when she was here all the time, sure in her own ownership of his failing body, his true body: undisguised by uniform…. Above all, pain. The clearest poetry, the endearment of greatest worth. (Pynchon, 237)
The passage invokes a conventional dichotomy (nature versus culture, concrete versus abstract, material versus discursive reality) to unconventional ends (the justification and exaltation of coprophagia). On one side we observe the complex, indirect mechanisms of culture: “paper illusions,” invoking the linguistic as thin and insubstantial, as well as a means of distortion and trickery, and “military euphemisms,” the use of rhetoric to recast the horrors of war in more palatable, and thus manipulatable, terms. In their most extreme form, these terms amount to “specialized lies,” methods of avoiding the truths of the body, of the torture and death and putrefaction it will endure. Operating antithetically to these dematerializing systems are his “simple nerves,” working directly to transmit data from one organ to another within his “true body,” the decaying body of an old man experiencing pain.
Being forced to eat excrement, while revolting and horrific, is a direct process—unlike the invisible, conspiratorial, manipulative war machines that drive human history by foregrounding nationalist and fascist platitudes and backgrounding the resultant waste, Pudding can follow the path of the food from the plate to Katje’s body to his own, a form of waste-empiricism. Moreover, he can feel it in the simple, linear process of input and output his nerves experience: harmful stimulus in, painful feeling out.
As will be explored in our closing section on Acker, the body here functions, albeit by negative example, to reveal the political: since the body is the site onto which the political is inscribed, it is also the site from which political critique must emanate. The body, with its simple nerves, discloses a truth that war, in its complexity of operations and dematerializing rhetoric, does not. Pain is elevated to the realm of poetry, a pure poetry that, in an echo of imagism’s “direct treatment of the thing” itself, captures its object as closely as possible, the word transmitting the thing to the reader like the nerve transmits the sensation to the mind: a linear, transparent move from a to b (Flint, 199).
Pudding’s metaphor erases some crucial differences between pain and poetry, between excrement and excremental fiction. Let us take this comparison at face-value for the moment; in the closing pages of this section, we will challenge the equivalence posited here and present a more qualified consideration of the potency of disgust in Pynchon and the literature of waste more broadly.
Scenes of torture, pain, and the body, often including excretion, are littered throughout the text, most prominently articulated as paradoxical reprieves from the complexities of wartime—a tangible exchange offering respite from more tacit or concealed forms of oppression, of the befuddling, hypocritical complexity of war bureaucracy and hypocritical separations of word and deed we see elsewhere in the novel. Indeed, Katje, who serves as dominatrix in her relationship with Pudding, is entangled in another scatalogical relationship with the Nazi Lieutenant Captain Blicero and his sex slave Gottfried. Of these exchanges, wherein she serves as a submissive partner, she reflects:
In a conquered country, one’s own occupied country, it’s better, she believes, to enter some formal, rationalized version of what, outside, proceeds without form or decent limit day and night… it would seem Katje, Gottfried, and Captain Blicero have agreed that this Northern and ancient form, one they all know and are comfortable with… shall be their preserving routine, their shelter, against what outside none of them can bear, the War, the absolute rule of chance, their own pitiable contingency here, in its midst… (Pynchon, 97-98).
The bodily pain inflicted by scatological fetishism operates as a tangible, predictable, microcosmic manifestation of intangible, unpredictable, macrocosmic forces; neither Pudding nor Katje can know the outcome of the war, or the mechanisms that will determine their respective fates, but they can enter rituals with expected, knowable outcomes that play out directly in the pathways of the body. The horrors inflicted by waste help concretize, and thus psychologically manage, more abstract forms of oppression and subjugation wrought by imperialism.
Finally, Gravity’s Rainbow directs us to the ultimate waste-products of World War II—the rotting piles of corpses resulting from Nazi concentration camps. In a lengthy episode from the third section of the novel, entitled “In the Zone,” the reader follows Franz Pökler, a young German chemical engineer whose daughter Ilse is held hostage by Captain Blicero. Ilse is held in Mittelbau-Dora, a concentration camp dedicated to producing the V-2 rockets that are the focus of the novel. Pökler, a plastics expert who is forced to engineer the ballistic missiles, is allowed to see Ilse once a year until his work is complete and she is released (although, as yet another figure of Pynchonian paranoia, he is never certain that the girl he meets is actually is daughter or a similar-looking prisoner). Upon her ostensible release, Pökler decides to enter the camp, where he observes a gruesome scene:
He was not prepared. He did not know. Had the data, yes, but did not know, with senses or heart…
The odors of shit, death, sweat, sickness, mildew, piss, the breathing of Dora, wrapped him as he crept in staring at the naked corpses being carried out… to be stacked in front of the crematoriums, the men’s penises hanging, their toes clustering white and round as pearls… while he lived, and drew marks on paper, this invisible kingdom had kept on, in the darkness outside… all this time… Pökler vomited. (Pynchon, 439-440)
The camp is filled with waste, in the form of the expulsions of dying and dead bodies. It is also centrally animated by waste: by the notion that its occupants, superfluous to humanity, amount to living waste, and are fundamentally disposable. Again, the strength of its physical presence is underscored, as Pökler, conceptually aware of the proceedings but unexposed to them in person, is overcome with pain and disgust: the sights and smells of Dora yield profound effects that mere knowledge, as an abstract phenomenon, did and could not.
In Gravity’s Rainbow, bodily waste speaks the truth of wasted lives in a way that discourse cannot. It reveals, without lies or euphemisms, the cruelty of war, destruction, domination, and death. The resulting mess, the byproducts of human operations in times of war, is disgusting. Pynchon therefore belongs to a group of writers whose texts foreground waste as emblematic of the violent tendencies of the human species. As Acker’s fictionalized Arthur Rimbaud states in In Memoriam to Identity, “history is the flow of human blood” (202). So too does Johnny Truant, one of the narrators in Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), call “sweat, urine, shit, blood, flesh, and semen” the “scent of human history” (xvi).
Such statements do not simply imply that exposure to the scents of human history is essential to understanding that history, but that history is itself comprised of the flow of human blood and piles of festering corpses. As put bluntly in Gravity’s Rainbow, “shit is the presence of death, not some abstract-arty character with a scythe but the stiff and rotting corpse itself” (Pynchon, 701). Fecal matter is not a symbol of death like the grim reaper, which abstracts away from, and sanitizes, the sensory experience of death by depicting it indirectly; it is dead matter itself. Real death, unlike the symbols and euphemisms that dance around it, is disgusting and horrifying; Pynchon’s novel attempts to transmit this sensory experience through its most pungent and poignant byproduct and messenger.
Is it possible for a novel to transmit disgust directly, as our foregoing analysis suggests? Recall that, in many cases of disgust, the repulsed subject does not believe the stimulus poses a bodily threat—its mere perception constitutes a threat to a disgust-free, waste-averse consciousness. As explored in the introduction, an aesthetics of disgust appears to hold unique potential due to its seemingly transparent mode of signification. In Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics (2011), Carolyn Korsmeyer defines the “transparency of disgust” as the phenomenon whereby disgust elicits “a direct and immediate arousal that penetrates the screen of mimesis,” which is to say that the audience “recoils viscerally whether the object of disgust is aroused by art or by an object of life” (53, 39, emphasis original). According to Korsmeyer, the extreme, automatic, and visceral characteristics of disgust blur the distinctions between art and life, representation and presentation, signifier and signified. By fusing mimesis and reality, Korsmeyer holds, disgust overrides the distancing effects of suspension of disbelief in the audience, thereby circumventing the “paradox of fiction” recurring in literary studies (53).
Korsmeyer’s account is fruitful but overstated. While true that reproduction of disgusting materials in the visual arts often provokes extreme and undiscerning responses, it is not clear that the same holds for all media, for all senses. Consider olfactory perceptions, which often elicit the quickest and most drastic disgust responses, as in the scents of excrement or putrefied corpses. How disgusting—in the rigidly psychosomatic sense we have been considering—are such passages in Gravity’s Rainbow, given that the reader does not actually smell the stenches described? Martin Jay argues for the inefficacy, and perhaps the nontransparency, of literary representations of scent: “Who, after all, would settle for a description of a rose’s scent rather than the real thing?” (309) The very opposite could be said for the object of disgust: excepting outlier cases of coprophages and others with deviating emotional wiring, who would prefer the scent of shit, to inhale its repellant molecules, over its description?
It appears that, at least in certain categories of sensory experience, disgust is not a fully-transparent sign. In Gravity’s Rainbow, shit may be “death itself,” but its depiction is not reducible to shit itself. Pynchon’s novel, as a novel, is discursive; the reader experiences excrement indirectly, through language.
For Pynchon, the grim reaper, and even symbolism of any kind, is ultimately ineffective; it abstracts away from the raw matter of excrement, the offal of corpses piled high and left to rot. If Pynchon presents excretion as a counterweight to the dematerializing effects of military discourse—a tangible, smellable, consumable manifestation of the death wrought by its euphemisms and other diversionary tactics enacted through language—what function could its textual reproduction, similarly mediated, serve?
As it turns out, excretory fiction retains, but weakens, the visceral potency of disgust in order to enable a mode of reflection disallowed by the overwhelming revulsion most experience in the physical presence of excrement. In excretory fiction, disgust operates in a semi-transparent, rather than wholly transparent, fashion: literary reproductions of waste repel just enough to disturb and unsettle, but do not disgust so thoroughly that the audience, psychosomatically overwhelmed by its appearance and scent, disavows the subject matter entirely. Insulating the reader from the most poorly-tolerated elements of biological reality, but highlighting their important ability to disclose the consequences of history, the excremental author allows the reader to confer attention towards a sphere of matter almost universally disregarded and unread.
Literature can thus transmit a comprehension of the material world that waste-aversion makes difficult. In his analysis of art and materiality in Other Things (2016), Bill Brown suggests something similar: while possible, as we have done, “to argue that any medium (by definition) denies immediate (unmediated) access to materiality,” he notes that “a more robust line of reasoning has insisted that media disclose an otherwise inapprehensible materiality” (40, emphasis added). By overriding the most potent facets of disgust, fiction allows for a comprehension of the subject matter that, paradoxically, unmediated matter frequently disallows.
Exposure to repulsive art can even transform disgust into something else entirely. Let us return again to the key moment in Underworld wherein J. Edgar Hoover is literally and figuratively struck by the discharge-ridden vista depicted in Pieter Brueghel’s morbid “The Triumph of Death.” In this passage, “dear germ-free Edgar, the man who has an air-filtration system in his house to vaporize specks of dust,” exhibits “a fascination in cankers, lesions and rotting bodies so long as his connection to the source is strictly pictorial.” (DeLillo, 50). Not only does the highly waste-averse Hoover not experience disgust and turn away, he studies the image with intense interest. By aestheticizing the grotesque, Brueghel has simultaneously enabled and obstructed its transmission. In the cases of Hoover and, arguably, every author examined in this dissertation, aesthetic insulation can mitigate disgust and even transform it into fascination. Exposure to this “other tradition” allows its subjects to overcome their cultural and biological programming and widen their ranges of experience and comprehension in both aesthetic and historical spheres of existence.
In their discussion of nineteenth-century slumming literature in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986), Peter Stallybrass and Allon White note a tension in the function of such texts, which simultaneously made “the grotesque visible while keeping it at an untouchable distance” (139, emphasis original). This is true of the entirety of the literature of waste, and is also its greatest strength.
III. “Human Parts Shaken Around and Poured Out Any Way They Fell”: Bodily Contact, Anti-Individualism, and Waste-Anarchy in Naked Lunch
“I don’t know what or who’s happening.”
—Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School (1984)
Most of the texts in this study are concerned with the relationships between waste and history. How have the systems and materials of commodity production and waste management changed over the last century, and how have these developments transformed habits of consumption and disposal? What histories does excrement grant access to, and in what capacity? DeLillo and Pynchon often explore these questions genealogically, by tracing the circulation of trash or feces as it moves to a landfill or down a toilet. The pathways through which waste travels imbue it with significance, and the texts map the pathways in order to interrogate the narratives submerged therein.
Naked Lunch presents a peculiar case in this regard. As an artifact of 1950s postwar containment culture, “a prolonged scream of hatred and disgust,” it is very much a product of its historical moment: after decades of war, depression, and unrest, waste has been concealed and compartmentalized within and beneath the American suburban facade, and Naked Lunch works to transgress those barriers with an eruption of semen, blood, and pus (Wain, 21). While not ahistorical, however, the novel cannot be said to trace a history. A chaotic series of vignettes largely lacking a plot, discernible settings or time periods, recurring characters, or even a throughline of enduring waste-objects, the novel operates more like a waste-cacophony: rather than following plastics through a half-century or feces through a war, it presents an incoherent deluge of discharge and putrefaction.
To take a cue from Pynchon: what can we, “uncannily shit-sensitized now” like Tyrone Slothrop, learn from reading excrement in Naked Lunch? A Slothropian descent into the lavatory tunnels of the novel reveals a frenzied pool of discharge severed from its once-discrete containers that does away with the boundaries separating the bodies responsible.
By utilizing the pornographic trope of interchangeable bodies, minimizing the presence of complete characters, stylistically severing their expulsions from their bodies by way of impersonal lists, and mixing the results together in a writhing, synecdochal morass of sludge, Burroughs's novel presents bodily waste as a permeable, unstable series of interfaces, the stinking materials bridging zones of bodily contact that dissolve personal boundaries to no discernible end. While it may be read to this or that end, the result is too erratic and haphazardly structured to trace the developments of anything: a textual anarchy of waste, dangerous and uncontained, a release of energy without utilitarian purpose.
In the “Atrophied Preface” that follows the main body of the text, Burroughs states that the novel does not “presume to impose ‘story’ ‘plot’ ‘continuity’” (184). To this we can also add characterization, which, while occasionally present, is not a focus of Naked Lunch. With the occasional exceptions of Doctor Benway, the sadistic madman who relishes controlling, torturing, and killing his patients, and the informant William Lee, a junkie always on the hunt for the next score, the novel is without what one would conventionally term “characters” in the fullest sense of the term.
Instead, there are nameless types, generally categorized by race, gender, sexual position, or occupation. In a section emblematic of this phenomenon, we observe what appears to be a violent sex club. It is occupied by a “Satyr,” a “naked Greek lad,” a “Negro,” a “Chinese boy,” a “Javanese dancer,” an “American boy,” “two Arab women with bestial faces,” and “a little blond French boy,” among others, all of whom are ejaculating, urinating, bleeding, or defecating onto and into one another (Burroughs, 66-67). Elsewhere, in a section that shifts from prose to drama, the dialogue is attributed to figures who are likewise defined only as categories: “SUBJECT,” “TECHNICIAN,” “ARTISTIC ADVISER,” “LIEUTENANT,” “JUNKY,” “PROFESSOR,” “FAG 1,” “FAG 2,” and so forth (Burroughs, 115-120). Even Lee, whom critics often consider the protagonist as well as the author’s textual surrogate, describes himself in categorical terms: “I tied up for a shot,” he tells us, “my hand trembling with eagerness, an archetype dope fiend” (Burroughs, 176, emphasis added).
While deviant from a conventional realist perspective, impersonal narratives devoid of individuality are a common characteristic of pornography. As Susan Sontag writes of the subject, the “pornographic imagination” prefers “ready-made conventions of character, setting, and action” (51). As a result, pornography “is a theater of types, never of individuals” (Sontag, 51). By eliminating the presence of individuals in the narrative, Burroughs instead foregrounds the exchanges between separate, deindividuated bodies, the moments and sites wherein their fluids spray and intermingle, and the resulting pools of discharge.
As a theater of types, pornography utilizes archetypes in order to minimize difference and maximize sexual exchange. According to Sontag, pornographic narratives “function to multiply the possibilities of exchange. Ideally, it should be possible for everyone to have a sexual connection with everyone else” (66-67). To achieve this, the author “tends to make one person interchangeable with another and all people interchangeable with things” (Sontag, 53). The ideal pornographic system is an open one intent on maximal sexual production, wherein every piece fits, or could fit, into another. At first glance this may appear similar to a productivist system: every subject and/or object (they have become interchangeable) plays a role in the network, and there is no sexual remainder, no superfluous body, no wasteful excess.
Pornographic systems, like rationalized factory systems, do produce excess—every Fordist assembly line terminates in a landfill, every climax a discharge. Naked Lunch, comprised of a series of gratuitous, graphic sexual encounters that depict and bring out the materials that exceed the boundaries between bodies and between public and private, may thus be said to epitomize excess. Most importantly, however, it is an excess of a nonproductive kind, one that leads to nothing else, in accordance with Georges Bataille’s notion of “nonproductive expenditure.”
In “The Notion of Expenditure” (1933), Bataille presents a critique of the “principle of classic utility,” or the idea that cultural practices, in order to be valid, must be useful with respect to some productive principle (117). The principle of classic utility measures human behavior against “the fundamental necessities of production and conservation” of matter and energy in accordance to rational ideas (Bataille, 117). Bataille divides consumption into productive and nonproductive, or instrumental and innate, categories, arguing that the latter are largely excluded from dominant economies of value, but nonetheless exist as valid and fundamental zones of experience. He defines nonproductive expenditures as:
luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity (i.e. deflected from genital finality)—all these represent activities which, at least in primitive circumstances, have no end beyond themselves. (Bataille, 118)
Bataille’s pornographic novella, The Story of the Eye (1928) demonstrates this through the increasingly unorthodox sex acts of its protagonists. Despite the constant occurrence of sex in the story, penetrative, vaginal intercourse is nearly nonexistent. Instead, labias are dipped in milk, bodies are peed upon, and eggs are cracked within rectums. While orgasmic climax, or “genital finality,” is often achieved, the modes of contact responsible are circuitous, inefficient, and bizarre. Consequently, they become difficult to evaluate within a purely rationalist framework.
The concepts of nonproductive expenditure and perversion are essential to understanding Naked Lunch, and place the twin dyads of disgust/attraction and inefficiency/efficiency in conversation with one another. Acts of nonproductive expenditure, which place matter in motion without secondary intent, defy productivist and rationalist paradigms. So-called perverse sexual behavior, the subcategory of expenditure which concerns us presently, occurs when the dialectical relationship between disgust and attraction careens too far towards attraction with respect to something that most frequently elicits disgust. From the perspective of the non-fetishist, perversion is nonproductive expenditure insofar as it incorporates superfluities and appears irrational and incomprehensible.
Perversion of all kinds is the dominant sexual mode of excretory fiction; the presence of consensual heterosexual coitus motivated by reproductive or orgasmic purposes is almost entirely absent from these narratives. When sexuality is measured by the metric of productivist efficiency—minimize waste and maximize production of a useful kind—straightforward, reproductive intercourse becomes the ideal, if extreme, model, followed by intercourse motivated by, and culminating in, orgasm. Coprophagia, urophagia, torture, and other fetishistic practices that fail to adhere to this model may thus be said to confound as much as they disgust, or perhaps confound because they disgust, and vice-versa. As a man only named “PROFESSOR” states, coprophilia is a “redundant vice” (Burroughs, 118). Fetishes that incorporate the excesses of bodily waste and violence appear superfluous to the goal of genital finality, which is, in non-fetishistic intercourse, usually achieved without their incorporation. In certain cases, then, there appears to be a direct relationship between the perceived inefficiency or uselessness of a sex act and the disgust felt by the reader, viewer, or subject otherwise “outside.”
Naked Lunch imagines modes of contact not tethered to production, reproduction, or any form of utilitarian expenditure. No one procreates; the sex is predominantly homosexual. Semen and fecal matter leak from almost all encounters: of the twenty four sexual exchanges in the novel, only three fail to mention waste. In the majority of these cases, the resulting discharges are treated as mere byproducts—they are not fetishized, consumed, paid attention to, or endowed with value. Receding into the background as another exchange immediately supplants them, they are never incorporated back into the system.
For a novel exclusively containing fetishistic intercourse privileging excretion, waste is deployed wastefully, in a manner antithetical to Slothrop’s toilet readings or Pudding’s fecal consumption. In a passage epitomizing the manner in which both bodies and their excretions are forgotten, an anonymous young man, called only “the boy,” is sexually violated before being killed. As he climaxes, he “crumples to his knees… shitting and pissing in terror. He feels the shit warm beneath his thighs. A great wave of hot blood swells his lips and throat. His body contracts into a foetal position and sperm spurts hot into his face” (Burroughs, 63). Later in the sequence, another boy “snarls, bites, kicks, collapses in tears as his cock rises and ejaculates” (Burroughs, 66).
These boys are but two iterations of a ubiquitous type, penetrated by a series of similarly interchangeable and ruthless older men. Such descriptions abound throughout the text, and follow a largely uniform pattern, one that suggests a lack of bodily agency and productive expenditure. While there is genital finality, it is unconventional. The penetrating partner almost never achieves ejaculation, as is frequently the goal of sex; rather, the receiving partner always ejaculates and defecates without intent or volition of any kind. In these passages, the prime mover is the bodily, the pathways and default responses of the body subject to another—bodies appear as senseless, helpless, waste-producing machines.
To argue that these exchanges are useless, nonproductive, anarchic eruptions of waste in line with Bataille’s formulation, we must consider and disprove potentially productive functions. While there are a number of possible positive or logical reasons that may be suggested to explain this bizarre phenomenon—sex-positivity and arousal appear as the most viable candidates—in the final analysis it is fundamentally nonproductive.
One tempting reading emerges from the nonfiction writing of fellow excretory fiction writer Samuel Delany. Delany, like Burroughs, valorized, promoted, and participated in radically open, deviant, and public sexuality both within and beyond his writing. In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), Delany recounts his experiences having intercourse with men in movie theaters and other public spaces in New York from the 1970s through the early 1990s. He traces the subsequent repression of this sexual subculture as a result of gentrification and real estate development, particularly the Forty-second Street Development Project of 1995, which closed down porn theaters, bath houses, and other cruising spots in the name of public interest.
Delany explains this phenomenon as a resurgence of hygienic discourse, here coded in terms of safety and danger: the valorization of safe sex, safe neighborhoods, and safe cities espoused by urban renewal efforts of the late twentieth century functions as a form of regulation and discrimination “much the way the notion of ‘security’... did in the fifties” (122). Delany argues that the notion of safety only applies when viewed from the narrow standpoint of a heteronormative middle class, since “the danger is rarely specified in any way other than to suggest its failure to conform to the ideal bourgeois marriage” (122). The real function of urban renewal and gentrification is to demolish “the various institutions that promote interclass communication” (Delany, 122).
In Naked Lunch, this rhetoric appears in the fictional setting of the Freeland Republic, the culture of which amounts to a “hygienic facade” of citizens who are “above all clean” (18). In an extreme form of hygienic discourse, all forms of contact, bodily, linguistic, or otherwise, are forbidden: “No one ever looked at anyone else because of the strict law against importuning, with or without verbal approach, anyone for any purpose, sexual or otherwise” (Burroughs, 20). In the name of cleanliness, all forms of communication and contact are barred.
That such a cultural paradigm is harmful is the central thesis in “Times Square Red,” the second portion of the text wherein Delany switches from social history to social criticism in order to argue that public sites of sexuality, particularly among queer and other “perverse” subcultures, are essential in a democracy. “Interclass contact and communication in a mode of good will” is the most egalitarian form of social contact in post-industrial capitalism, but is constantly eroded by forms of invisible class warfare masquerading as social justice or progress (Delany, 111). As such, we must perpetually imagine and produce new modes of enabling these practices.
To return to Burroughs: does Naked Lunch do for the outcasts of a newly suburbanized midcentury America what the porn theaters and bath houses of New York did for queer urbanites in subsequent decades? Do its gratuitous queer sex passages reflect sex-positivity, or work to widen the parameters of the normative paradigm beyond the classed and gendered limitations of the bourgeois marriage?
In short, no—while the novel is replete with interclass contact and communication, it is decidedly not conducted “in a mode of good will.” While intercourse frequently occurs between the wealthy and the poor, the majority of it is unambiguously rape, much of which results in, and often continues after, murder. It is tempting, given the novel’s anti-individualistic ethos and frequent depiction of orgies, to read the function of sex and waste in Naked Lunch as antithetical to Gravity’s Rainbow, wherein waste functions as a Delanyan form of connection and unity, rather than brutality and death. Death and ill will, however, occurs far too frequently for this to hold: of the twenty four sexual exchanges in the novel, sixteen are unambiguously nonconsensual or result in serious harm or death.
Naked Lunch therefore belongs to the sadistic history of the libertine. As Alphonso Lingis writes of the work of de Sade, sodomy “is not simply anal eroticism,” but “anal eroticism biblically and theologically interpreted as an act that functions neither for the reproduction of the species nor for species bonding, as an act done to gore the partner and release the germ of the species in his excrement” (xiii). Violent, excretory intercourse—goring the partner and releasing his excrement—constitutes the dominant sexual mode of the text.
But what of eroticism? Sexual arousal, a prominent characteristic of pornography, appears as a second explanatory function that, if convincingly argued, would endow the novel with productive purpose. This explanation can be discredited by demonstrating that the novel is unlikely to provide sexual satisfaction, in the cases of both dominant and deviant communities, i.e. non-fetishists and fetishists alike. While sexual arousal varies greatly between individuals and cannot be fully accounted for here, for a text to prove sexually gratifying, it should attempt a convincing mimesis of sex acts—the text should comport to a realist paradigm of sensory detail and duration, such that the reader can imagine the scene and occupy it long enough to achieve release. Naked Lunch may titillate, but because it fails in both these regards, the text is ultimately unsuitable for sustained arousal or genital finality.
Firstly, the novel’s descriptions of sex acts are incredibly fleeting, manifesting in zoomed-out, impersonal, vague terms. Of the twenty four pornographic passages in the novel, only five could be considered detailed. The majority of the passages amount only to a sentence or two, providing only an image or a mention, rather than an enduring exploration, of intercourse:
“Sharp protein odor of semen fills the air. The guests run hands over twitching boys, suck their cocks, hang on their backs like vampires,” reads one paragraph, while the next appears unrelated: “Naked lifeguards carry in iron lungs full of paralyzed youths” (Burroughs, 68). In a panoramic mode, the focus shifts suddenly to something else. This erratic, single-sentence style constitutes the dominant mode of the novel’s sexual narration, wherein an exchange is briefly depicted, then abruptly dropped:
Wooden cubicles around a hot spring… rubble of ruined walls in a grove of cottonwoods… the benches worn smooth as metal by a million masturbating boys.
Greek lads white as marble fuck dog style on the portico of a great golden temple… naked Mugwump twangs a lute. (Burroughs, 98)
While such descriptors may initiate arousal in the reader, their vagueness and transience makes sustaining that arousal difficult. The bodies at play are termed only “twitching boys,” “masturbating boys,” “lads white as marble.” Few, if any, details regarding genitals, orifices, or motion are present. They are weakly mimetic and unenduring; they put forth an image or a fantasy only to wrest it away.
The five detailed passages that deviate from this paradigm, and may thus be said to arouse through sustained focus and sexual detail, are, for the overwhelming majority of readers, abhorrently disgusting. They read as similarly deceptive, a means of thwarting rather than gratifying sexual desire. The lengthiest pornographic episode, and one of only two depicting heterosexual intercourse, illustrates this point. It begins rather innocuously, with a woman named Mary performing anilingus on a man named Johnny. As the scene continues, it becomes more perverse: the characters break each other’s necks, light each other on fire, then kill and eat each other (81-83). After murdering Johnny and having sex with his corpse, Mary “bites away Johnny’s lips and nose and sucks out his eyes with a pop… She tears off great hunks of cheek… Now she lunches on his prick” (Burroughs, 82). In a case of radical discontinuity that occurs only to enable further excess, the next passage sees both figures inexplicably alive and unharmed; thus reset, they proceed to immediately kill each other once more in another series of violent sex acts. “Blood spurting out his cock,” Johnny gives Mary “a douche of jungle bone-softener,” which makes her “vaginal teeth flow out mixed with blood and cysts” (Burroughs, 84). So ends the scene.
The average reader is not typically aroused by necrophilia, cannibalism, and vaginal teeth. As the survey of responses that opened this chapter revealed, the overwhelming response to Naked Lunch was horror and disgust—not at the graphic nature of the sexual passages, but rather at the overwhelming presence of repellant bodily fluids involved in them. As argued earlier, the secretions involved in sexual intercourse do not generally repel as they move within and between bodies, but the presence of excretion, which Naked Lunch makes very present, does.
The pornographic interludes of the novel therefore constitute acts of nonproductive expenditure; their nonconsensual violence and cruelty make them ineligible for a liberal politics of sexual progressivism, and their fragmented form and repulsive content make them unsuitable for sexual arousal for all but extreme fetishists interested in cannibalism, pedophilia, and necrophilia.
Our reading of absence now considers presence. What remains when characters, coherence, and arousal are removed? Only the lowly—a morass of bodies, of sludge, of humanity dissolving into a revolting cesspool of matter. Operating predominantly through a panoramic perspective, the novel is replete with extensive lists of waste, corporeal and otherwise: the reader moves “down through condoms and orange peels, mosaic of floating newspapers, down into the silent black ooze,” through “bedpans full of blood,” “dust and shit and litter of dead kittens, carrying bales of aborted foetuses, broken condoms, bloody kotex,” “dried excrement and sweat and genitals,” “cocks ejaculat[ing] in silent ‘yes,’” and the “reek of semen and cunts and sweat and the musty odor of penetrated rectums” (Burroughs, 5, 63-64, 90, 63, 124).
Synecdoche controls and unites these passages, which, conspicuously lacking whole bodies, amount only to parts. Excretion, which inevitably emerges from this or that body, appears independently of its makers; the narrative mode, zoomed-out, scans a wide, inhuman vista populated entirely by human waste, a “writhing, frenzied, heaving mass” of “human parts shaken around and poured out any way they fell” (Burroughs, 124, 112). Synecdoche functions to dissolve borders between individual bodies; instead, there is a collective pool of commingling discharge, impossible to organize, delineate, or contain.
The result is a radical synecdochal sludge, parts so thoroughly mixed together such that they no longer signal back to the whole, pieces of bodies untethered to the sources of production, too chaotic to sort through and trace.
How is this mess best described? David Alworth suggestively argues that the novel “assumes the formal structure of a landfill, a site governed by the logic of putrefaction,” the end result of which “is to render everything as a single substance” (52-53). While an apt comparison, a landfill is too bureaucratic, orderly, and sanitary a space for the substances depicted. “Writhing” and “frenzied,” the animated mass of waste always finds a way beyond any container. “An awful purulent discharge is subject to flow out,” we are told, “just wait till you see it” (Burroughs, 36). See it the reader does, ad infinitum. Because discharge is subject to flow out—because the novel is a case of many forms of discharge flowing out in every direction—it resists the containment of Alworth’s metaphor.
Rather, Naked Lunch should be seen as a cesspool, but one leaking from a critical puncture, a nonproductive release, a revolting, anarchic spray of unfiltered sewage. Municipal trash collection and sewer systems dematerialize; no longer responsible for emptying the household cesspool, consumers are severed from their excretions. Naked Lunch reverses this separation, returning them to cesspools, but refusing their containment, releasing the energy latent in waste to reveal a “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork” (Burroughs, 199).
What lies at the end of every fork? As Acker argues in “William Burroughs's Realism,” Burroughs's novels ultimately amount to “discontinuity and dissolution,” wherein “humans melt into cartoonlike characteristics and parts of bodies gone haywire” (2). Korsmeyer posits death and corporeal dissolution as the ultimate object of disgust: that, in the final analysis, the disgusted subject recoils from the idea that they will one day lack “bodily integrity—die, decompose, and become the disgusting object itself” (35). What is seen on the end of the fork is ourselves, dissolved and rotten—humanity, naked without its systems of denial, forced to see itself at its most repulsive, complicit in that which it loathes, collapsed into the lowly biological components of reality it disdains.
IV. “They Separate in Meaningless Mosaic”: Cut-Ups, Collage and Textual Inefficiency
“Now I, William Seward, will unlock my word hoard . . .”
—William S. Burroughs, “Atrophied Preface” to Naked Lunch (1959)
To return again to the early critical response to Naked Lunch, this time with an eye for form: In “UGH,” the Times Literary Supplement review by John Willet, the text is derided not only for its depiction of foul material, but for “pure verbal masturbation” that ultimately dissolves into a mess of “grey porridge” (919). For Willet, it is not merely the repellent content of the novel that offends, but also the texture of the prose itself—tedious, self-indulgent, and poorly-structured, an uncontained excess that collapses into a single and unremarkable substance.
This stems not from an unaccountable idiosyncrasy of taste, but long-standing literary principles first established in Aristotle’s Poetics (335 B.C.) and retained largely to this day. In his analysis of economies of form and excess in The Dyer’s Hand (1962), W. H. Auden writes that most art of a “bourgeois nature” disapproves of “loose ends, irrelevance, and mess” (57). Acker, in “William Burroughs's Realism” (1990), also links continuity and unity of form to the model established in Classical antiquity as well as bourgeois realism. “Well-measured language,” including “novels which structurally depend on the Aristotelian continuities, or any formal continuities, cannot describe, much less criticize” any culture that also depends on them (Acker, 2). Because this literary mode exists as an extension of a normative paradigm, Acker argues that any artistic exercise situated in “educated bourgeois terms and modes” is ultimately a “spurious exercise” (1).
In “Writing as a General Economy” (1998), Steve McCaffery also criticizes unity and usefulness as unexamined assumptions underlying acts of literary production: as an “unquestionable value,” utility has historically exercised a “philosophical hold” over “the notion of writing” (202). Textual expenditure must have a secondary purpose, must respond to some need within an economic system of value and demand; so too must each of its separate components. Without this, it is merely linguistic masturbation, a wasteful discharge that fails to fertilize.
These postwar observations, by Auden, Acker, and McCaffery, are not new. They are, as we will see in the brief history of collage that follows, essentially pithy summaries and reiterations of related criticisms found in several authors and agitators of the historical European avant-garde from which Burroughs and Acker derived their methods—and even these have predecessors in the libertine tradition. Within the Classical, and later, bourgeois rationalist model of writing, textual production must exhibit unity in order to have value (in narrative, this means a beginning, middle, and end); unity has value insofar as it permits a clear, direct transmission of information, a utilitarian form of expenditure. From the standpoint of the patriarchal and heteronormative nuclear family, the central social unit of the bourgeoisie decried by Burroughs and Acker, art and life must be efficient and productive. Consequently, for these authors, the Classical unities of setting, plot, and character poses a problem. What these paradigms do for culture they do for literature as well: establish a model of conduct that, in limiting the parameters of value, creates and eschews waste.
Not content merely to depict waste, Burroughs and Acker create waste at the level of sign and structure. As in the previous chapter, wherein we shifted from the treatment of trash as subject matter to its formal manifestations in the complex arrangement of Underworld, we now focalize structural organization briefly with Burroughs before turning to Acker. We have already implicitly demonstrated as much in Naked Lunch in arguing that synecdoche drives the anti-structure of the text: the “whole” to which the parts signal is anything but. This section first explores the aesthetics of inefficiency deployed by Burroughs before turning to its deployment in Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School. (Although similar in form, Acker differs importantly in content—a difference explored in the closing section on feminist pornography.)
Naked Lunch is a collage masquerading as a novel, and, given its dearth of novelistic elements, not very well. The technique, introduced to the visual arts in the early 1910s by cubists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, and brought into the literary realm by poets Tristan Tzara and André Breton later that decade and throughout the next, fundamentally fragments the organizational structure and conceptual underpinnings of art. By interpolating and juxtaposing heterogeneous elements from beyond the frame, collage introduces randomness and incoherence, as well as evocative new forms of signification, into what was previously a more rigid and contained system. As will demonstrated throughout this section, such practices constitute waste or nonproductive expenditure at the formal level.
As we pivot from disgust to inefficiency, what appears like a major framework shift is in fact an extension of the preceding methods. Fragmentation does to the text what excretion does to the body: like discharge, the elements interpolated into a collage violate the purported solidity or unity of the container. That which exceeds the medium, genre, or method becomes incorporated, revealing the fragility of its boundaries. Untethered from the sticky, morbid facets of biological reality that constitute excrement, textual excess does not elicit in the reader a psychosomatic response; rather, as a violation of poetics and reason, textual inefficiency halts the reading process, throwing a wrench into the hermeneutic assembly line and generating frustration. A smooth and efficient interpretive mechanism becomes clunky and wrinkled—or, from the viewpoint of the historical avant-garde (and, later, Derridean poststructuralism), the supplementary excess reveals an always-already presence of wrinkles smoothed out by rational discourse.
Viewed this way, excretory fiction written in collage form extends its cacophonous deployment of excremental subject matter to its “framework” as a whole: the anarchic qualities of waste radiate outward to the level of the containment (anti-)structure.
Before returning to Burroughs and Acker, a condensed history of collage is called for. Collage and waste are united materially as they are conceptually: from the onset of the art form, ephemera provided much of the primary materials. As analytic cubism transitioned to synthetic cubism in 1912 with Braque’s Fruit Dish and Glass and Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning, avant-garde painters became multi-media artists, incorporating recycled newspapers and patterned papers in their papier collés. Trashy materials, in the form of informational and tangible detritus, had penetrated the visual arts.
Collage found its literary champions in European vanguardists Tzara and Breton, whose Dada and Surrealist manifestos, respectively, explained and encouraged its usage in poetry. In section VIII of the “Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love” (1920), Tzara instructs his audience: to make a Dada poem, simply cut up a newspaper article, place it in a bag, shake it up, let the pieces fall where they will, then disregard the criticism of “the vulgar herd” that is the audience (92). Breton would later give these instructions, almost verbatim, in his First Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924. Burroughs, recall, would attempt the same with the body: “human parts shaken around and poured out any way they fell” seems to be the ethos, the compendium, and the anti-format of Naked Lunch, all at once.
What resulted from these experiments was nonlinear, nonsensical, and baffling to the average reader. This was precisely the point: for these writers, the perspective of the general public (which Tzara called, in the same manifesto, “the voracious mass” (78)), inculcated in a bourgeois rationalism fixated on instrumental utility, was inconsequential at best. At their “cores” (a notion Tzara and other Dada practitioners explicitly disdained, given its invocation of unity), Dada and Surrealism were vehemently anti-reason, and so too efficiency and productive expenditure. As Tzara’s first “Dada Manifesto” (1918) stated, the school (again a paradox, as an anti-institutional institution, one that “recognize[d] no theory” (138)), was born of a “distrust for unity” (141). It detested, in no uncertain terms, “objectivity, and harmony, the science that finds everything in order” (Tzara, 141).
As distinct but interrelated iterations of the historical avant-garde—a military metaphor aligning these artists with the vanguard of an army, positioned aggressively at the forefront of consciousness—Dada and Surrealism held that rationalism, an ideology born of the humanist leanings of the West since the Renaissance, smoothed out what we may deem wrinkles in language. Such wrinkles or excesses contained a latent energy, something hidden in words by conventional, logical modes of thought and reading—by what Breton called, in his first Surrealist manifesto, an “imperative practical necessity” of “arbitrary utility” (4).
John Wilmot, the early figure of the libertine known as the Earl of Rochester, had, in fact, put forth similar criticisms of rationality in seventeenth-century England. In the poem “A Satire Against Reason and Mankind” (1676), the speaker states that, were he free to choose his form of embodiment, he’d be “a dog, a monkey or a bear, / Or any thing but that vain animal, / Who is so proud of being rational” (5-8).
The rationalist, acculturated to an economy of value wherein words, like everything else, pointed linearly to some secondary meaning that was to be culled and extracted, absorbed words only semicritically through a limited system of apperception “exhausted by discursive reason” (Artaud, 50). Consequently, the rationalist lost access to this latency, to entire zones of subjectivity and materiality obscured by instrumentalism. The result was entrapment within a limited sphere of logic, which Tzara called “the dance of those impotent to create” (81). Illogical, confounding, inefficient “hordes” of words, in the form of collage, digression, and circumlocution, could disrupt these readerly practices and thereby tease out that energy, making inert language dynamic, strange, and potent.
John Dos Passos was among the earliest practitioners of literary collage in American prose, employing the technique most thoroughly in the “Newsreel” sections of the U.S.A. Trilogy (1930-1936). These sections, comprised of newspaper collages that were actually cut and pasted before they were transcribed, did for prose what his European influences did for painting and poetry: they disrupted “sequence, hierarchy, causality,” and indeed “all the effects of the basically linear organization of print” (North, 144). So too did the Joycean, multidiscursive modes of the novels—a blend of Newsreel collages, stream-of-consciousness “Camera Eye” sections, biographical interludes, and more conventionally “realist” narration—form a collage of a macrocosmic order, a structural device that Burroughs and Acker would take up in their later experiments.
It was to Tzara and the visual arts, however, that Burroughs ascribed the advent of the collage technique. An essay illuminating his method, “The Cut Up Method of Brion Gysin” (1963), opens by describing a Surrealist rally in the 1920s wherein Tzara “proposed to create a poem on the spot by pulling words out of a hat” (Burroughs, 29). It was thus, Burroughs argued, that “the cut-up method [brought] to writers the collage, which [had] been used by painters for fifty years” (29).
Burroughs was drawn to Tzara beyond his appreciation and application of cut-ups. In the same essay, he implicitly criticizes the infamous exclusionary practices of Breton, who frequently policed membership to avant-garde circles. As demonstrated in the preceding section of this chapter, there is a collectivist impulse in Burroughs’s work, emblematized in its aesthetic reconfiguration of discrete bodies as circulatory systems for waste and decomposition, open interfaces through which matter passes. So too is there an egalitarianism that mirrors his collectivist thought: “Poetry is for everyone,” Burroughs writes later in the essay, directly quoting Tzara. He goes on to state that “cut-ups are for everyone,” “anybody can make cut-ups,” and that “all writing is in fact cut-ups,” or “a collage of words read heard overheard” (31-32). In a rhetorical device lifted from the modernist manifesto genre, he then enacts this assertion through instruction, providing the reader with a cut-up tutorial complete with examples.
A collage artist and thus quintessentially modernist, Burroughs aligns himself with the egalitarian, rather than the elitist, strain of the movement. While Naked Lunch seems designed to (and, by all accounts of its initial reception, did) offend the “vulgar herd” in line with many provocative and antagonistic tendencies of the avant-garde, its use of the cut-up technique sought to reconfigure, and not merely assault, the rationalist sensibilities of its readership. Moreover, the collage form itself not only results from egalitarian notions seeking to universalize the reach of artistic production, but produces them structurally through parataxis. Composed of fragmented vignettes, placed side-by-side without context or explanation, collages lack proper succession, development, conjunction, or subordination. The ordering principles removed, nothing is thoroughly foregrounded or backgrounded: because no single element has a fixed or privileged role within the text, any element can play any role. In this regard there can be no textual hierarchy.
In her analysis of modernist collage, Marjorie Perloff explains this fundamentally paratactic function of collage, the discrimination ete units of which exist “without overt connection or explanation, the ordering signs that would specify the causal or temporal relations among presented elements” are “wholly suppressed” (58). Paradoxically, the radical discontinuity and heterogeneity of the fragments renders them homogenous insofar as they are equally unmoored in the textual cesspool.
In Naked Lunch and Blood and Guts In High School, parataxis operates macrocosmically and microcosmically, at the broad (anti-)structural level and the local level of individual passages. Let us take three “sequential” sections from Naked Lunch as an example. In one, entitled “The Black Meat,” we briefly encounter three figures in a cafe: a “shoe shine boy,” “The Sailor,” and a man named “‘Fats’ Terminal” who runs the cafe (Burroughs, 43-44). After their introduction, the narration shifts to the impersonal, panoramic viewpoint characteristic of much of the novel, depicting a wide view of “the City” (Burroughs, 45), then returns to The Sailor in the cafe again, before ending abruptly.
The next, entitled “Hospital,” focalizes “main” characters Lee and Benway: the former receives medical treatment for heroin addiction, while the latter callously performs failed, fatal surgeries on unnamed figures. In the proceeding section, “Lazarus Go Home,” Lee, no longer in the hospital, meets a fellow addict named Miguel in a place described only as “the room” (60).
While they may be inferred, the relationships between these sections are not specified in any way. Any structuring principle is absent: vignettes, they open and close cryptically en media res, temporally and spatially adrift. In fact, as Burroughs informs the reader in the novel’s “Atrophied Preface” placed last in sequence, “You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point” (187). Because they were cut, shaken, and pieced together again, the textual fragments “can be had in any order” (Burroughs, 191).
In Naked Lunch, then, it is not only that bodies that are interchangeable (in accordance with the pornographic tradition), but that textual fragments are interchangeable (in accordance with the collage tradition). Because they signal to one another in unpredictable, multidirectional fashion that is not reducible to a rational (or rationalized) system wherein input x begets output y, they operate anarchically and inefficiently. The reader, unable to defer to a linear and unified system of cause and effect, experiences each fragment as a wrinkle, a wrench. The result—what Tzara calls, in his first “Dada Manifesto,” “indomitable madness, decomposition,” is a chaotic mess “without design, without organization” (81). Unassimilable by a rational apparatus that endows them with value and thus failing to signify within its economy, the fragments become informational detritus.
“I try to focus the words,” says William Lee, narrating his futile attempt to decode the linguistic units of a newspaper (Burroughs, 58). He fails in his efforts: “they separate in meaningless mosaic” (Burroughs, 58). In this elusive moment, paradigmatic of the insolubility of the text, Lee functions as surrogate not only for the author but for the reader as well, futilely attempting to impose a container around the words as they disperse.
Nonlinear and paratactic, the cut-up method responsible for Naked Lunch allows it to be read as a collage—or, as we put it earlier, a collage masquerading as a novel. As a novel, however, a collage-novel exhibits limitations relative to the visual genre from which it derives its methods. In the original sense of the term, a collage must be cut and pasted together from various incongruous materials: “collage” is derived from the French “coller,” meaning to paste or stick (“Coller,” Cambridge French-English Dictionary). Synthetic cubism differed from analytic cubism in that the latter was not merely a fragmentation of the methods within the medium, but a fragmentation of the medium itself—not the painted depiction of a mandolin fragment arranged in violation of an orthogonal line, but an actual newspaper fragment interpolated in violation of the painterly mode of production.
To exist in the fullest sense of the “medium,” a collage must not only incorporate a variety of discourses but a variety of media. Naked Lunch incorporates other textual genres in the form of diary entries and dramatic interludes, mixes them with prose, chops them up and serves them without the ordering principles of the novel form, but still exists as a novel in prose. Though they obstruct the smooth order of rational efficiency, these wrinkles are figurative; they refuse assimilation into Classical systems of signification, but they are ultimately assimilated by the medium of the text. This is not the case with cubist collage and its successors in the visual arts; there is a tangible variety in texture in Braque’s Fruit Dish and Glass, a tactile friction between the pasted wallpaper and the canvas not present on the flat pages of Naked Lunch.
Qualifying the preceding analysis with this caveat in mind, it may be more accurate to classify Naked Lunch as a novel masquerading as a collage, while reserving the earlier designation (a collage masquerading as a novel) for Blood and Guts in High School. As another haphazardly-structured, yet ultimately smooth-paged novel, Acker’s text appears to fall in the same category as Burroughs’s. By incorporating several more forms of media from “beyond the frame,” however, it comes closer to a full multimedia object; if Burroughs employs nonproductive expenditure by way of multidiscursive fragmentation, Acker does so in both multidiscursive and multimedia fashion, in some sense out-Burroughsing Burroughs.
An anti-pornographic anti-bildungsroman, Blood and Guts In High School follows a young girl named Janey Smith as she tries and fails to develop into an adult. The narrative begins in Merida, Mexico, where her father, with whom she is engaged in an incestuous romantic relationship, leaves her for another woman. Janey is sent to New York where she intermittently attends high school, abuses drugs, gets abortions, joins gangs, and drops out. Afterwards, she is kidnapped by an Iranian-American slave trader, Mr. Linker, who trains her to be a child prostitute. In captivity, she rewrites portions of American novels, teaches herself Farsi from Iranian texts, and gets cancer. Once released, she accompanies a fictionalized Jean Genet to Morocco and then Egypt, where she is jailed again and dies.
The concluding segment of this chapter examines Acker’s use of toilets and menstrual blood as feminist revisions of pornography and disgust. Before that, we consider the textual inefficiency of her collage aesthetics. Blood and Guts in High School is a polyvocal, heteroglossic collage replete with diverse forms of excess that place considerable pressure on its textual container. Constantly shifting between linguistic, visual, and hybrid formats, it incorporates prose (including Janey’s diary entries and a series of parables and fairy tales), poetry, drama, foreign language instruction, pornographic illustrations, maps, architectural schematics, and complex diagrams. Locally and structurally, discursively and pictorially, Acker’s novel enacts a multidirectional expenditure which, more so than Burroughs, short-circuits the wiring of rationalism, containment, and linearity.
At the broadest structural level, the text places several formats side by side, as in the following:
In these two pages, indicative of the dominant mode of the text, the reader encounters at least two mediums (image and text) and four genres (pornography, dramatic fiction, prose fiction, diary). A fragment from the previous page (“TURN MY EYES INSANE, WHILE BEING CORRUPTS ITSELF, AS A POOL OF SHAME, IN THAT HOPE” (Acker, 29)) reappears, in truncated form, as a caption for a pornographic illustration of a leaking penis: “TURN MY EYES INSANE” (Acker, 30). After this interpolated image, the text returns to dialogue in the form of dramatic prose, then is followed by a fragment in the same frantic, capitalized voice as the caption (“PLEASE / ME NO LONGER MYSELF” (Acker, 31)). Next, it shifts to third person prose narration for a sentence of exposition, then an interpolated excerpt from Janey’s diary. Insofar as these fragments signal to other genres and media “beyond the frame” of the text, they constitute excesses, extratextual supplements brought from without and forced within, placing pressure on their tenuously-intact container.
Textual appropriation, both generic and specific, works in similar fashion. Such is the case when Acker borrows both the subject matter and typography of the modernist manifesto:
Typographical variance in size and capitalization, a common characteristic of the manifestos produced in the 1910s by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Mina Loy (and, later, Tzara and Salvador Dali) serves a number of functions. Like a poster, advertisement, or painting, the large font commands attention from afar. Similarly, the removal of syntax, resulting only in nouns arranged paratactically (what Marinetti called, in his 1913 manifesto, “imagination without strings” or “words-in-freedom”), moves writing closer to the visual arts, by relying on a similarly implicit and nonlinguistic adjacency. In appropriating the aesthetic of the manifesto, itself a hybrid genre, the text fissures further—its mosaic becomes less and less assimilable by a hermeneutic apparatus operating through unity. Consequently, the apparatus must adjust to a metric of heterogeneity and disunity.
There is, additionally, a pictorial quality at play in the novel’s many handwritten pages, as in that below:
(Acker, 107, arrows added.)
On these pages, the handwritten words move about in unexpected directions: letters slide sometimes only slightly (as in the subscript-like “HANDS I STINK”), or move vertically downwards instead of horizontally across (as in the vertically descending “ACROSS,” a form-content paradox reminiscent of René Magritte), or diagonally (“MY FACE LOTS”). Smaller words are located within, and then extracted from, larger ones (“END” and “OF” are both derived from “OFFENDER,” nonsequentially, as “OF” occurs before “END”). On an even more minute scale, individual letters within words are modified, as when each “m” in the phrase “me me me” displays what appears to be a superfluous curve or hump. These instances of wordplay reward a slow, multidirectional hermeneutics and resist easy assimilation into a rational system that aims to transmit information clearly and effectively. The gargantuan size of the lettering, which only allows for seven lines on the entirety of the page, also may be considered a waste of textual space.
The device perhaps most emblematic of textual inefficiency, and where Acker enacts Burroughs’s professed nonlinearity more thoroughly than he, is the use of semilinear prose-poetry erratically inserted into Janey’s revisions of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). “Once upon a time there was a materialistic society,” a paragraph begins innocuously, before subtly changing its operating mechanism:
In this society there was a woman who
freedom and suddenly the black night opens up and
fucked a lot and she got tied up with ropes and
on upward and it doesn’t stop
beaten a lot and made to spread her legs too wide
the night is open space that goes on and on,
this woman got so mentally and physically hurt
not opaque black, but a black that is extension
she stopped fucking even though fucking is the thing to do.
This woman was really tied up. One day a
and excitement and the possibilities of new
man tried to fuck the woman. She loved him
desperately so she wouldn’t let him touch her
open her find her all gooky and bloody and screaming (Acker, 99, underlining added.)
In this passage, which does not contain typographical queuing in the form of the underlining provided above, prose becomes verse: the paragraph, which opens without line breaks, begins to make use of them mid-sentence. What is more stylistically deviant, however, is that the breaks do not proceed in sequence; rather, as the words move down the page, they skip lines, the sentence continuing on alternating lines. Moreover, once the attentive reader acclimates to the organizing principle of alternating verse, the pattern breaks: sentences occasionally continue on the line directly proceeding, as would be, but is no longer, expected.
Such methods of composition and of reading are wildly inefficient, producing extra labor for author and reader alike. Language and linearity, as implicit or transparent systems operating in the background of perception, are here foregrounded. As tools aiding communication, they become clunky, burdensome. The signifying structure behind the linguistic product is made nontransparent; the product itself, its semantic content, becomes more difficult to receive, consume. It is thus that Acker, like (but unlike) Burroughs before her, and like their modernist predecessors, disrupt a discourse and a consciousness organized by rationality and efficiency. A primary goal of Dada, as stated in Tzara’s first manifesto for the movement, was to “destroy the drawers of the brain and of social organization” (140). In making words—the discursive drawers that contain and structure brains and the societies derived from them—wasteful, these authors confer cultural significance to waste at the level of the sign, a nonproductive expenditure that is, paradoxically, profoundly transformative.
V. Conclusion: Revising Femininity as Waste-Receptacle in Acker
“And then I thought that, one day, maybe, there’d be a human society in a world which is beautiful, a society which wasn’t just disgust.”
—Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless (1988)
“I make nothing new, create nothing.”
—Kathy Acker, “A Few Notes on Two of My Books” (1989)
In the preceding section, we noted textual appropriation as one of Acker’s many collage methods. Blood and Guts in High School makes use of early avant-garde manifesto typography, and features extensive textual incorporations of The Scarlet Letter, wherein Janey positions herself as the disgraced Hester Prynne, as well as The Screens (1961) by Jean Genet (a similarly fragmented and antimimetic text), wherein Janey assumes the role of Leila, the hideous, veiled wife of the protagonist.
The early Blood and Guts in High School, published in 1984 but written in 1978, may be considered her most “original” novel: while making liberal use of the aforementioned texts, it still presented itself as a semi-autonomous object through its title and independent plot elements. Her next two novels, Great Expectations (1982) and Don Quixote (1986), would further foreground and employ this plagiaristic impulse that would importantly characterize the entirety of her oeuvre.
A collectivist undercurrent flows through the loose container of this chapter, which on the whole is about containment efforts exerted on bodies and texts. Insofar as they dissolve bounded entities or identities through the use of penetrative supplementary materials or interchangeable bodies and archetypes, pornography and collage are anti-individualistic enterprises. As we have demonstrated, both incorporate waste, whether in the form of inorganic detritus or organic discharge, as means of exerting pressure on these containers.
When Burroughs stated, in 1959, that “all writing is in fact cut-ups,” “a collage of words read heard overheard,” he was in some sense anticipating transformations in literature and academia that took place in the following decades, wherein structuralism and its predecessors would revise basic conceptions of selfhood and originality within philosophy and the arts. Important works by Roland Barthes, Donald Barthelme, and Michel Foucault—“The Death of the Author” (1967), Snow White (1967) “What is an Author?” (1969)—picked up where early twentieth-century work in semiotics and Marxist linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure and Valentin Voloshinov left off, together recasting the notion of subjectivity as a fundamentally discursive and intertextual phenomenon.
We conclude our examination of excretory fiction with a focus on the relationship between femininity, the body, and waste in two decidedly unoriginal works by Acker: Blood and Guts In High School and In Memoriam to Identity. Acker, the provocateur whose ideas have haunted this chapter in the form of epigraphs, comes last not because she is least important or superfluous, but because of her role in literary history as a textual revisionist. An admirer of Burroughs and inheritor of postwar anti-individualist thought, Acker intervenes in the corpus of pornographic literature to challenge its patriarchal conceptions and depictions of women as waste, as disgusting and secondary supplements to men.
The fact that the authors of Acker’s intertexts are male and that she modifies, inserts, and foregrounds femininity in her appropriations of them is crucial: if all (male) writing is (male) cut-ups, women can, quite literally, dissect and revise narratives in order to interpolate information and perspectives absent from them, or to reconsider the treatment of the narrative elements already present. In “A Few Notes on Two of My Books,” Acker argues that, in the destructive political moment of the late twentieth century, the artist “doesn’t need to find out the limits of his or her medium, to ‘make it new’” in accordance to Pound’s famous modernist dictum (11). Instead, “the artist, though politically and socially powerless, marginalized, must find the ways for all of our survival” (Acker, 11).
To that end, Blood and Guts in High School and In Memoriam to Identity function to recast misogynistic notions embedded in pornography, and Western patriarchal culture more broadly, of women as receptacles for and producers of abhorrent corporeal waste. This is achieved through two recurring waste-motifs—hygienic devices (such as toilets and washcloths) and menstrual blood—which patriarchal discourse directly and indirectly positions as symbolic for or constitutive of femininity. Acker’s texts, frequently aggressive and manifesto-like in accordance with their egalitarian political aims, hyperbolize more subtle and insidious iterations of these ideas in order to make their detrimental consequences plain.
Excretory fiction, as an almost exclusively male subgenre of pornography, is not simply tied to, but originates in, longstanding efforts to subjugate and devalue women’s bodies. As second-wave feminist scholar and activist Andrea Dworkin argues in Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981), the histories of pornography and gender are inextricable. The word “pornography,” from the Greek porne (“whore”) and graphos (“writing”) means “writing about whores” (Dworkin, 199).
The predominance of homosexual intercourse in Naked Lunch generally precludes the presence or involvement of women; when they do appear, however, they are depicted as disgusting, hysterical, or irksome. When Lee is in the hospital for heroin detoxification, for instance, he describes a room occupied with “bedpans full of blood and Kotex and nameless female substances, enough to pollute a continent” (Burroughs, 53). The substances are not simply pollutants in line with Douglas; they are nameless in line with Kristeva’s conception of the abject as that which exceeds subject/object relationships and the disgust generated therein. While a major function of the novel, as argued previously, is to remind humanity of its inherent vileness through biological waste, there is a particular distaste present in this passage reserved for feminine waste that is absent in the novel’s many neutral descriptions of male ejaculation.
Examining corporeality in her texts reveals two prevalent cultural attitudes at the nexus of waste aversion and patriarchy: one, that women are simply containers for male waste, and thus inherently secondary; the other, that when women are seen as primary figures, the materials that define them—blood and related organic detritus— are unspeakably filthy.
That women are materially and ideologically responsible for containing male excrement is made explicit across several of Acker’s novels. Abhor, the female protagonist of Empire of the Senseless so named for her abhorrence, states plainly that “women are wet washcloths you can use to wash the grime off different parts of your body” (Acker, 209). In Blood and Guts in High School, Janey herself refers to her vagina as a “men’s toilet” (36). A third-person narrator in a later passage echoes this demeaning sentiment, stating that “the smallest building on this street is Janey’s cunt” (Acker, 87). Although Acker’s warped bildungsroman discards some of the genre’s central characteristics—instead of gradually maturing into adulthood, Janey is abruptly hurtled into a harsh world of abuse and dies at age fourteen—it retains the every(wo)man status of its protagonist. After Janey’s death, the narrator informs us, “many other Janeys were born and these Janeys covered the earth” (Acker, 165). Like Burroughs’s William Lee, Janey is an archetype. In Acker’s bleak, deterministic landscape, Janey is universalized into an abject figure defined entirely by her gender, which is in turn defined by its utility.
If Janey’s vagina is a toilet, then, so is every woman’s. Women as washcloths, toilets, and buildings: though distinct metaphors, they share passive and instrumental functions. They are objects and spaces defined by male usage, penetration, occupation, and possession—specifically, to contain excesses by absorbing, flushing, or holding them in place. The etymologically-attuned Dworkin helps corroborate this concept historically: in Latin, “vagina” literally means sheath or scabbard, the container around a sword or “gladius” (25). Within the framework of a culture that valorizes the phallus, the female is positioned as a framework, an enclosure, a negative space.
Like other organic materials, semen possesses or lacks value or valuelessness depending on where it travels, and how its passage is perceived. In Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (2004), an examination of the relationship between contemporary obscenity laws and the emotions from which they are derived, Martha Nussbaum notes the contaminant characteristics of semen. Because, in heterosexual intercourse, many men view semen as disgusting “after it leaves the male body,” and because “the woman receives the man’s semen,” she ultimately “becomes the sticky mortal part of him from which he needs to distance himself” (Nussbaum, 111-112).
Nussbaum therefore echoes affect scholars who tie disgust to denial of the lowly components of biological existence, discharge and death. In Acker’s novels, as in mammalian social practice, male excretion is a marker of possession. Much like a dog urinates to mark his territory, so too does the man inseminate. While the space that receives the material is not seen as worthless, its value is only of a secondary order, the negative, passive space that allows for positive, active occupation. In the most extreme incarnation of this line of thinking—the ugliest, plainest iteration Dworkin and Acker are concerned with—women are waste-receptacles, at best hollow, at worst contaminated whores with cunts. Disgust, as previously demonstrated, is an intrinsically hierarchical emotion. Pornography, as the mimesis of whores, harnesses misogynistic disgust to reproduce and transmit a gender hierarchy.
Recall that disgust often occurs asymmetrically with respect to self and other, as when one’s own feces is deemed less disgusting than a stranger’s. Patriarchal discourse retains this paradigm for men but inverts it with respect to women. As Arthur Redding writes in “Bruises, Roses: Masochism and the Writing of Kathy Acker” (1994), “Masochism in Acker emerges from the familiar and familial-cultural processes whereby the despised image of the self is internalized. That self remains abject, ugly” (285). Janey sees her genitals as a toilet because she has internalized the male perception of vaginas as contaminated by semen absorption: she has learned to orient disgust towards herself and not the other. When it comes to the lesser sex, patriarchal discourse redirects the default direction of disgust, makes it self-loathing.
Observing the application and transfer of disgust throughout a network in tandem with its primary antibiological function reveals a chain of deferral. The antibiological facet of disgust, arguably its primary or underlying function, denies the primordial sludge within the human body that makes it appear filthy and weak. If women are taught to hate themselves because men hate them, it is only because men hate themselves: misogynistic waste-aversion amounts to a deferral of disgust, of the mortality and ooze it discloses. That which is deferred—the nadir in which the organism putrefies and becomes the waste it rejects—can only be deferred, not erased, as argued in the previous chapter.
It is a truth universally unacknowledged that women, in possession of fertile reproductive organs, menstruate. In The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo (1999), Karen Houppert analyzes what she calls “menstrual etiquette,” or the “elaborate machinations” men and women practice to avoid acknowledgment of the “simple biological facts” of female anatomy (4, 8). Houppert’s text examines the cultural attitudes accompanying menstruation through probing the rhetoric found in advertisements in Good Housekeeping (1885-present), Sears catalogues (1888-1993), and trade publications by Kotex from the 1920s through the 1990s, all of which consistently emphasized stealth and secrecy as a means of averting embarrassment.
Though it may appear hyperbolic, Houppert’s title speaks directly to the sentiment accompanying female waste in The Sound and the Fury and its appropriation in In Memoriam to Identity. Faulkner’s narrative centers on the tragic dissolution and decline of the Compson family, most of whom ascribe the source of their suffering to the rebellious Caddy’s violation of feminine purity. The materials that the Compson men associate with Caddy’s loss of virginity are frequently pollutants, contaminants: her muddy drawers, or her cursed and dirty blood. Nihilistic patriarch Jason Compson describes Caddy’s menstruation as a “delicate equilibrium of periodical filth between two moons balanced … liquid putrefaction like drowned things” (Faulkner, 128).
Acker’s version of the story focalizes this symbolism more blatantly, replacing Faulknerian circumlocution and intimations with direct discussion in line with her reformist aims. In In Memoriam to Identity, the female uterus is unambiguously described as “THE FILTHY WOMB OF BLOOD” (Acker, 7). Moreover, menstrual blood is viewed both as a disease and a curse: “women are diseased,” Acker’s fictionalized version of Quentin tells the Caddy-surrogate Capitol, and “their own flesh and blood curses them” (Acker, 156, emphasis original). The bacteriological joins the supernatural in a strange rhetorical nexus: menstrual cycles are a curse bestowed upon all women that makes them permanently contaminated from birth. The supernatural (in this context theological) component works to essentialize the relationship, erasing the important role socialization plays.
In this iteration of misogynistic waste-aversion, women are not viewed simply as receptacles for external (male) waste, but as constituting waste-matter themselves. In other words, they are not neutral spaces that become contaminated, but are always-already contaminated from the start. The two female waste-symbols—toilets and blood—work in complementary fashion. Already dirtied by blood, and in fact designed as such, the vagina-as-toilet exists as the designated site to deposit waste, enclosing it and ensuring the cleanliness of the remaining spaces.
As recurs across the history of waste, the material that discloses the underlying structure must not be seen or mentioned. Menstrual blood is, in Lee’s terms, a “nameless female substance” that must be contained in accordance with menstrual etiquette (Burroughs, 53). In leaking from the female body, it threatens a patriarchal conception of the female body as “perfect enclosure” for male fluids and genitals (Acker, 166). As with other organic discharge, it gestures towards the other side of fecundity, decomposition and death. This is why, Nussbaum argues, the female body is “the locus classicus of group-directed projective disgust,” across geographical and temporal lines (111).
For Acker, revealing and identifying with the lowly provides the solution. Abhor in Empire of the Senseless dreams of a “world which is beautiful, a society which wasn’t just disgust” (227). The body does not lie: in “Critical Languages” (1980), Acker calls for a literary “return to the body,” through employing a language “of wonder, not of judgment” (82, 93). Airplane, the other female protagonist of In Memoriam to Identity, eventually does away with her self-oriented disgust and reclaims the waste that exists as a part of her: “I sense that blood is who I am” (117).
Disgust, as an intrinsically hierarchical emotion, has been frequently invoked as a means of establishing social hierarchies to ends such as genocide and gender subordination. Hierarchies derived from disgust then act as discursive distractions from the ultimate object of disgust: the decomposition that is the fate of every human body, and the realization that the most repulsive waste, supposedly separate, exists within. While corporeal waste transmits disgust to humans psychosomatically, the default response is too extreme and automatic to allow for reflection. Excretory fiction, in transmitting a textually-insulated form of disgust to the reader—forceful but not overwhelming, foul but bearable—enables extensive contemplation of the waste-object in question and illuminates its functions within biological and cultural systems of circulation. In so doing, it confers value to the unvalued, imbuing waste with profound significance that is otherwise lost.
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Introduction: Space, Race, and Waste
“A man ducks in and out of traffic shouting and throwing imaginary grenades that actually exploded during World War I; a boy participates in the rape-robbery of his mother; a man beating his wife in a park uses boxing ‘science’ and observes Marquess de Queensberry rules (no rabbit punching, no blows beneath the belt); two men hold a third while a lesbian slashes him to death with a razor blade…”
—Ralph Ellison, “Harlem is Nowhere” (1948)
“Panorama of ripped sights along the rows of ubiquitous loan shops, poolrooms, ‘bargain’ centers, billiard halls, cheap movie houses. Zombies in a ritualistic hungover imitation of life. Men staring dumbly at nothing. A body lies unnoticed in a heap by a doorway. An epileptic woman totters along the block… Mutilated harpies wobble along the street—past crippled bodies. A man beats a woman ruthlessly as the man’s two husky friends stand guard over the scene.”
—John Rechy, City of Night (1963)
So read two disturbing descriptions of urban life in postwar America: the first of Chicago’s South Side, the second of Harlem, in the northern region of Manhattan. The sources differ—John Rechy’s City of Night (1963) is a sprawling, semi-autobiographical portrait of the nether regions of several major U.S. cities from the perspective of a male prostitute and committed chronicler of the sex trade, while “Harlem is Nowhere” (1948) is Ralph Ellison’s nonfictional essay on the sordid state of the district at midcentury—but the sights are startlingly similar. It would not be much of an exaggeration to term these scenes hellish: indeed, their anarchic and sadistic qualities recall Judeo-Christian depictions of hell, replete with scenes of unchecked, widespread torment. These are not isolated phenomena, but belong to a wider set of tropes associated with what is sometimes called underworld fiction: poverty, alcoholism, violence, and lawlessness abound; the venues are dingy bars, hidden back rooms, urine-soaked alleyways, public toilets, all-night movie houses; the clientele are homeless, drug dealers, drag queens, gangsters, and sex workers (Heise, 149; Pike, 1; Bahktin, 30; Duffield, 26; Herring, 3; Vogel, 134; Shanks, Platt, Rathje, 53). In twentieth-century American fiction, such illicit underbellies appear in the queer geographies mapped by Rechy and Djuna Barnes, in the noisy and lurid depictions of cabaret life in Jazz Age Harlem Renaissance novels by Carl Van Vechten, Claude McKay, and Nella Larsen, and in the organized criminal cabals and conspiratory networks of the noir and anti-detective fiction of Raymond Chandler, Thomas Pynchon, and Paul Auster. As we will see, they may or may not literally operate below ground level—Rechy plunges into the subways, Richard Wright and Ellison into sewers and cellars—what is required for the association is that they are considered, in some way or other, lowly, dangerous, or unclean.
Having examined bodily waste in the last chapter, this chapter shifts in focus and scale to spatial waste, reading the urban underworld as embodiment of this phenomenon, particularly as depicted in two instances of midcentury African-American fiction and the advent of urban planning that structures the social and material spaces the literature explores. As used here, spatial waste denotes a geophysical area, usually urban or peri-urban, that receives, holds, and reproduces waste matter, either by design or neglect. While the most salient and literal example of a cultural dumping ground is the landfill (discussed in the reading of Don DeLillo’s Underworld  in Chapter One), this chapter turns to the racialized low-income neighborhood perceived as underworld by city planners and middle-class citizens, a district discursively associated with uncleanliness, vice, and undesirable populations, most thoroughly explored in literary criticism by Scott Herring, Shane Vogel, and Thomas Heise.
While these studies of twentieth-century underworld literature have explored the intersections of race and space, this chapter situates the conversation within a wider system of waste-aversion, uniting analyses of midcentury urban planning practices and contamination rhetoric with the notion of a surplus population in critical race theory in particular, and waste studies more broadly. Although most literary studies of waste discuss trash, excretion, and dehumanized populations (the topics of the other chapters of this dissertation), few include or focalize space; while studies on industrial space examine the role of the underworld in the urban imaginary, that is usually their exclusive focus. Here, these discussions are placed side by side in order that, in true congruence with Mary Douglas’s conception of dirt as matter out of place, space be considered not as only the framework by which the category of waste is measured, but that space be conceived as a form of waste itself. In other words, space is not a neutral set of parameters that imbues objects with waste-status; as a local zone inscribed within a broader space, space can itself be out of place, yielding the resultant metric of spatial waste. The concept of spatial waste allows waste scholars to turn attention not only to objects that are wastes of space but spaces that are deemed wasteful in the aggregate. Because space is a precondition for waste, conceiving of spatial waste is an exercise in self-reflexivity, a hermeneutic circle wherein the zone inscribes the object and the object in turn defines the zone. As opposed to previous accounts wherein space is positioned as a metric for the subjects and objects within its radius, this chapter calls for a more thoroughly dialectical analysis of waste wherein environment and object co-constitute one another. The question of how this phenomenon intersects with racializing and urbanist discourses of the underworld in midcentury Harlem, of how the neighborhood and its occupants have been depicted as disposable excess, is paramount to the present line of inquiry.
Wright’s atmospheric depiction of the sewer in “The Man Who Lived Underground” (1942), the centerpiece of this chapter, best illustrates the process by which subterranean waste is spatialized into a dense membrane of fluids and bodies, an all-encompassing waste ambience. (Emphasize ambience more here?) A principle upshot of the spatial waste approach is the multi-discursive dialectical process wherein space, subject, and object permeate each other—as will be made clear, the urban underworld is not merely a repository for devalued bodies, nor simply the spatial manifestation of a verticalized hierarchy of class and race, but a material and psychological space engineered in order to perpetually reinscribe and reproduce its inhabitants’ status as social waste. (Maybe horizontal here?) On the other hand, privileging space runs the risk of extending the neglect and erasure of its inhabitants. For this reason, the readings of Wright and Ellison that follow scrutinize, at the level of sense-experience and psychology, underworld subjectivities as impinged by space and vice-versa.
Sequentially, the chapter opens with a history of the Western underworld, from pre-modern, classical literary accounts of Hades to the development of lower-income neighborhoods, vice districts, and their attendant reformist literature in the United States. Alongside this history we look at dominant and recurring categories associated with metaphorical and literal underground spaces, including waste, darkness, and deviance, in order to eventually detail the methods through which these ideas are retained, employed, and updated in post-Harlem Renaissance fiction. As the discussion nears twentieth-century Harlem, our history of the underworld becomes one of urban planning: of zoning ordinances, restrictive rental agreements, and national interstate construction, which arise, in tandem with waste-oriented notions of surplus populations manifesting in racialized rhetoric of contamination and containment, primarily as tools of racial and class segregation and subordination along a vertical axis. A detailed history of urban planning in the early decades of the century reveals a transition (though by no means exhaustive or totalizing) from Harlem as site of Jazz Age splendor and spatial conduit for collective racial and artistic histories to a post-Harlem Renaissance Harlem of squalor, decay, and alienation.
The discussion that follows then scrutinizes two midcentury works of black underworld fiction, Wright’s “The Man Who Lived Underground” and Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), both of which spatially and psychologically submerge their readers into the nether regions of the city replete with filth and corpses. These texts demonstrate the consequences of an asymmetrical and verticalized development of space as experienced by lowly subjects treated as disposable waste matter; in so doing, they serve as a critique of a master narrative that omits or downplays the role the organization of space has played in the urban history of American racial oppression.
Because underworld literature is bound up in a fraught history wherein reformist exposure yields sensationalist and ahistorical effects, Wright and Ellison are careful to produce their slum cartographies from a racially and spatially situated standpoint. Rather than refuse the genre’s inherited purpose of exposure as critics have supposed, they invert the top-down paradigm of these earlier narratives: you have placed us below, they intimate, so let us speak from below.
The latter half of the chapter explores the surreal and inverted techniques through which Wright and Ellison approach urban cartography and experience; viewed from below, the underground is not merely imprisoning but revelatory, not simple enclosure but transformative ambience. In closing, the chapter considers the importance of the lowly as privileged epistemological and narratorial site in excavating hidden geographies and elisions in African-American historiography. In so doing, these spatially-sensitive narratives serve as models for an alternative racial history.
From Hades to Harlem: an Underworld History
The history of the underworld is nearly as old as the history of Western literature itself. Deployed in a vast panoply of spaces and contexts from antiquity to modernity, the underworld shifts from metaphysical repository for the dead to metaphorical repository for deviant, usually criminalized and racialized, populations. Despite many transformations, certain salient characteristics—death, darkness, absence, inversion—recur across iterations. The epic poetry of Homer and Virgil provides some of the earliest iterations of the underworld. In the Iliad and the Odyssey (circa 765-750 BCE), the underworld is a morally-neutral holding-cell located within the earth that houses all dead spirits, benevolent or otherwise. In the Nekya, the eleventh book of the Odyssey, Hades is called “Erebus,” translating to “world of darkness” (Albinus, 68). From the outset, then, the underworld is associated with shadows and obscurity, a motif which pervades the subterranean fiction of Wright and Ellison. According to theological scholar Lars Albinus, Ancient Greek epics represent the underworld “primarily in terms of negation (i.e., by stating what existence in Hades is not, rather than what it is)” (67, emphasis in original). It may therefore be more accurate to describe the underworld as the shadow of the world above, its negative double. As our readings of Wright and Ellison will elucidate, these mythological motifs are translated into racial and economic realities: the black urban underworld of the mid-twentieth century is characterized by its absence of light, sustenance, and other basic necessities.
For the living, accustomed to life above, traversing the underworld constitutes an enormous feat with no guarantee of escape. In this vein, the Ancient Greek conception of the underworld is essentially heroic: Odysseus must descend to Hades and ascend once more, overcoming displacement in distant, foreign lands to return to the familiarity of home (Bremmer, 2). Virgil’s Aeneid (19 BCE), wherein the hero Aeneas descends into the underworld accompanied by the prophetic Sibyl, subdivides the underworld into distinct realms segregated by ethical abstractions. In the Aeneid, Hades is but one of many underworld zones, including the pit of Tartarus, which houses the wicked, and Elysium, the resting place of the virtuous and heroic. While Albinus notes that the division between Hades and Elysium “is clearly present in Homer,” it is not “explicitly accompanied by a moral distinction” as it is in later Ancient Greco-Roman texts, such as those of Pindar or Virgil. It is noteworthy that these nether regions are situated in adjacent fashion and are therefore organized along a horizontal axis: as Hades and Elysium exist side-by-side beneath the earth, the language of high and low that figures prominently in Christian theology and urban planning alike is not yet in use. (We will return to the horizontal component of the underworld in our reading of Wright re: degeneration.)
In the Virgilian iteration of Greco-Roman underworld literature, then, the dead are rewarded or punished according to their actions while living. This moralizing valence is then transmitted to Christian theology and famously and meticulously taxonomized in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (1320), wherein the poet, under the guidance of Virgil, traverses the three realms of the dead. Whereas, for the Greeks and Romans of classical antiquity, the underworld contains the spirits of all the dead, righteous and sinful, in Christian theology a vertical segregation occurs: those who adhere to Christian morality are transported to an ethereal domain above the earth, while the underworld transforms into an exclusively sinful realm, a division largely resonant today. In tracing the development of this spatial hierarchy, medievalist Paul Binski observes that a central Christian tenet—the redemption of the fall of man—“reflected even in its elementary metaphors a spatialization of thought,” namely that, along a vertical axis, “the material was beneath the spiritual” and thus an “object of contempt” (166, emphasis added).
Over the course of the next several centuries, the underworld rose. In thirteenth through eighteenth-century Paris there existed urban conglomerates known as cours des miracles (“courts of miracles”), which served as historical antecedents to modern slums. Luc Sante defines a cour des miracles as “a cluster of houses that by some mix of tradition, common accord, and benign neglect was deemed off-limits to the law,” a zone wherein a “permanent feast of misrule persisted” (97). Victor Hugo dramatized these areas in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831). In the novel, which takes place in late-fifteenth century Paris, a cour des miracles is likened to:
A sewer from which flowed out every morning and to which flowed back every night that stream of vice, beggary, and vagrancy that always floods the streets of the capital; a monstrous beehive to which all the hornets of the social order returned in the evening with their plunder… an immense changing room for all the players in that eternal comedy which theft, prostitution, and murder enact on the streets of Paris. (Hugo, 268)
Several recurrent underworld tropes are at play in this dense passage. The slum is compared to a sewer, a subterranean tunnel containing a torrent of liquid waste, here standing in for the behaviors and actions (“vice, beggary, and vagrancy”) of the slum residents. Spatially and, as it is intimated, morally beneath the city, this stream of sewage exceeds its confines, spilling upward and plaguing the city aboveground. Hugo’s prose also utilizes the language of degeneration and infiltration that will come to define urban planning discourse in the United States a century later. Plagued and defined by vice, the slum occupants cease to be, or perhaps never were, fully human; they are instead “hornets of the social order,” penetrating and disrupting the civilized zones of the city before retreating to their impenetrable and chaotic hive. At the same time, underworld denizens are cast not as thoroughly inhuman, but subhuman, possessing enough similarity to clothe themselves in disguises and thereby commit crimes while evading the law.
In verticalized moral systems, the rhetoric of high and low is used to distinguish between clean and unclean, vice and virtue, civilization and anarchy: those placed in the former categories exist aboveground, while those placed in the latter are consigned to the underground. Civilization implies a cultural contrast based on a negation: the term “barbarian” derives from the “Greek contrast between those who spoke intelligibly and those beyond the pale of civil life” (Stocking, 10). In the 1850s, Victorian ethnographers and anthropologists employed the language of high and low to differentiate between Western and non-Western cultures, much as Anglo-American slum literature distinguished between lawful and unlawful neighborhoods in the same decade. In observing cannibalism, patricide, and polygamy among the natives of Fiji, for example, Thomas Williams deemed these “monster expressions of moral corruption,” the behavior of those who had “reached the most appalling depths of abomination (145, 154, emphasis added). Charles Darwin similarly found the Fuegians of South America so repulsive that he expressed disbelief at their being “inhabitants of the same world” (213). Here, the practices of non-English cultures deviate so dramatically that the observers struggle or refuse to assimilate the behavior into their corpus of knowledge without positioning it as the negation of civilized existence. Underworld rhetoric functions as psychic repository for this unassimilable data. (JB wants me to include Critical Inquiry essay on James Cook here in a footnote)
The middle decades of the nineteenth century, particularly the 1840s through 1850s, oversaw a massive concentration of urban ethnography accompanying anthropological field work abroad. In London, journalist Henry Mayhew, whom critic John L. Bradley hailed as “the supreme recorder of mid-century urban squalor” conducted extensive research on the city’s lower classes (viii). First published in 1849 as individual pieces in the Morning Chronicle and collected in 1851 as the multivolume London Labour and the London Poor, Mayhew’s study exposed its middle and upper-class readership to the realities of the peep-shows smoke-filled flophouses, prostitutes, and thieves that populated the city. Composed of statistics, descriptions, and interviews, Mayhew’s text yields a highly detailed taxonomy of the lower classes: he separates street merchants into over a dozen variants based on wares, and scavengers into the subcategories of dung collectors, rag-pickers, dredgermen, and mud-larks, according to their primary methods and sites of collection. (add quote on his methodology from intro: how he sought to give them a voice.)
In Paris, Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris, published in installments beginning in 1842, served a similar function. Disguising himself in the attire of the lower classes, Sue frequented and gathered information from dive bars and other underworld locales in the Cité, a poor neighborhood that would be destroyed by the urban renewal efforts of Georges-Eugène Haussmann a decade later. Translated into English in 1844, Mysteries of Paris, “a sprawling tableau of lower-class Parisian life,” became immensely popular, spurring a series of Anglo-American investigative journalists to engage in slum tours of their respective cities. Following Sue and Mayhew, Ned Bluntine’s The Mysteries and Miseries of New York (1849), George Foster’s New York by Gas-Light (1850), and George Lippard’s New York: Its Upper Ten and Lower Million (1854) popularized literary slum tourism by providing detailed first-hand accounts of the city’s various urban underworlds and dramatizing social hierarchy.
In framing their studies as revealing narratives into deviant and distinct zones of the world, most of these texts relied on the language of high and low present in earlier underworld literature, and, more recently, Victorian anthropology. Travel literature critic Justin Edwards notes that George Foster’s New York by Gas-Light “uses the language of exoticism” to describe his journey into the hidden depths of the city, much as travel writers would employ to describe cultures abroad (9). Likewise, anthropology scholar George Stocking, Jr. argues that, in the eyes of mid-nineteenth century middle-class observers, “the primitivism at the bottom of the social scale now had a dual character,” i.e. rural and urban, abroad and in the city (213). In this sense, slumming literature adapted and localized anxieties concerning degeneration and “lowly” behavior from foreign to intraurban contexts.
Increasingly taking on a series of urban, secular, and metaphorical connotations over the course of the nineteenth century, the risen-underworld more frequently referred to an illicit network or neighborhood often tied to crime, vice, or other behavior perceived as aberrant or immoral, usually by theological, legal, or moralizing discourses. In contrast to its classical iteration, the modern underworld need not be beneath the city, and may operate in plain view. Indeed, it is this seemingly contradictory designation that befuddles the Haitian intellectual Ray in Home to Harlem (1928):
It was what they called in print and polite conversation ‘the underworld.’… Why underworld he could never understand. It was very much upon the surface as were the other divisions of human life. Having its heights and middles and depths and secret places even as they. And the people of this world, waiters, cooks, chauffeurs, sailors, porters, guides, ushers, hod-carriers, factory hands—all touched in a thousand ways the people of the other divisions. They worked over there and slept over here, divided by a street. (McKay, 224-225)
Ray’s ruminations on the subject situate the term. It comes from print and polite conversation, from the “regular” world above ground, though both are, as he points out, above ground. Ray’s list of underworld denizens, comprised entirely of working class African-Americans, suggests a hierarchical meaning of the term—those who work under, or for, the citizens of the other world, divided by raced and classed boundaries manifested in the gridlines of the city itself. An underworld must be perceptually foreign in this way; when Ray arrives in New York’s Harlem from Haiti, he finds himself in “the quivering heart of a naked world whose reality was hitherto unimaginable” (McKay, 224). Here, Harlem is so shocking and bare-faced—W. E. B. Du Bois famously stated that reading the novel’s uncensored displays of drinking, violence, and sexuality made him feel “like taking a bath”—so as to defy the limits of the civilized imagination (202). The urban underworld therefore possesses an otherworldly quality, an air of unreality partly retained from its mythical origins; once exposed to sights usually hidden from view, the middle-class citizen struggles to immediately assimilate them into his or her corpus of experiences.
Thus transposed from below to above, the term also proliferates from one broadly mythical space into subdivisions associated with urban categories, often ethnic, sexual, bohemian, or criminal in nature. Shane Vogel argues that the twentieth-century underworld is imagined as an “unproductive sphere,” inhabited by “criminals, prostitutes, gamblers, queers,” populations which face explicit or implicit moral disapprobation, and who threaten to contaminate honest, productive citizens (134). In this way the urban underworld may be considered the body of literal and symbolic sites that facilitate a shadow economy, the illicit and unofficial exchanges of which operate in the darkness beneath the official economy above ground.
As a space of deviance, the underworld is necessarily tethered to the modern production of deviance as social and analytic category, one solidified by the emerging discourses of sensationalist journalism, reformist literature, sexology, and criminology in the late-nineteenth century (Vogel, 9). The conclusions of such fields worked to “medicalize and codify individuals as ‘deviant’ or ‘degenerate,’” and were cited as evidence by “reformists, vice squads, and sociologists in the service of managing urban spaces and bodies” (Vogel, 9). By transforming “difference into deviance,” twentieth-century urban planning mechanisms, drawing upon these earlier Progressive Era models, deemed underworld citizens “unfit for full participation in the upper stratum’s institutions of public life” (Heise, 8).
(I’m too binaristic here, apparently; JB objects to ‘counterproductive’ and thinks I shouldn’t criticize these texts.) Of these various forces, late-nineteenth century slum tourism and slumming literature are of particular importance to post-Harlem Renaissance fiction. By providing physical and literary “tours” into less affluent neighborhoods and highlighting difference, these practices and texts played a crucial role in entrenching these binaristic, segregationist concepts in the American cultural imaginary. While late-nineteenth-century American reformist texts such as Charles Loring Brace’s The Dangerous Classes of New York (1872), James W. Buel’s Metropolitan Life Unveiled (1883), and Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890) foregrounded income and racial inequalities in an effort to thereafter mitigate their harrowing effects, they also sensationalized and essentialized their objects of inquiry, at times turning difference into lurid, pitiable spectacle. Riis, for instance, promises his readership exposure into the “netherside of New York,” replete with the “queer conglomerate mass of heterogeneous elements” of the impoverished ethnic groups he documents (63, 73). While Riis’s book both brought the slums into the public imaginary and directly spurred considerable tenement reform in New York City, the rhetoric through which this is presented sometimes reinscribes hierarchies that subjugate the classes he seeks to assist. The slum dwellers are depicted as “an army of ten thousand tramps with all that that implies,” whose presence threatens to “touch the family life with deadly moral contagion” (Riis, 6). Elsewhere in How the Other Half Lives, he describes a neighborhood as a “vast human pig-sty” needing “moral and physical regeneration” (Riis, 146-147). In deploying the language of contamination and degeneration that would pervade urban planning discourse over the course of the next century, these loaded statements present the urban poor as a bacteriological (“contagion”) and militaristic (“army”) threat to the wholesome middle-class nuclear family in a verticalized class hierarchy. Moreover, by foregrounding the ethical integrity (or lack thereof) of those in poverty, such descriptors run the risk of ascribing the source of filth and squalor to the individuals and spaces in question, an ascription which, as our history of New York urban development will reveal, problematically reverses cause and effect.
Riis’s predecessor Mayhew is less moralizing but also occasionally frames his topic with rhetoric that blurs the line between journalism and entertainment. In a description preceding an interview with a prostitute, he warns that the proceeding transcription contains facts “gross enough to make us all blush for the land in which such scenes can be daily perpetrated” (62). He goes on to write that there are several details “which it is impossible to publish” (Mayhew, 62). Mayhew’s and Riis’s studies, which both make reformist calls to action to their middle- and upper-class readerships and which had tangible legislative and infrastructural effects, simultaneously frame their subjects with dramatic flourishes and narrative devices that excite as much as they educate. These studies both responded to, and helped produce, widespread anxiety over the lasting industrial and social effects of industrialization.
Furthermore, by utilizing the “hero’s descent” trope—wherein an above-ground outside figure journeys beneath the surface and narrates his experiences to the reader—slumming narratives drew from and unified ancient and modern iterations of the underworld, in which the author served as Virgilian guide into strange and dangerous territories for a privileged and curious readership, one situated above the underworld and thereby insulated from its immoral and contaminating conditions. As will be explored in our later discussion of Wright and Ellison, slumming literature’s imperative to expose the subterranean secrets of the urban underworld only to commodify them will considerably complicate the manner and perspective in which Harlem and post-Harlem Renaissance writers of the underworld approach issues of visibility and invisibility. Wright’s and Ellison’s texts depict slums without sensationalizing them: to this end, their characters inhabit the lowest regions of vertical hierarchies and transmit the qualitative experiences of the lowly. By capturing the sensory details of underworld subjectivity, they invite their readers to identify with, rather than distance themselves from, the underground. In writing from this vantage point, their urban cartographies also work to rewrite the contours of spaces that had previously been written for them.
The Rise of Urban Planning: Harlem and Real Estate, 1909—1956
It is against the backdrop of nineteenth-century slumming literature and urban planning that Harlem as underworld trope develops in the first half of the twentieth century, which may be divided roughly into two phases: Jazz Age or the New Negro Renaissance and post-Harlem Renaissance Harlem, corresponding to Harlem as extravagant spectacle, vice district, and artistic renaissance and Harlem as abject, segregated lower-income urban enclave, respectively. While Jazz Age Harlem was known for the “illicit alcohol consumption, social dancing, potential for interracial contact, public displays of sexuality, and underworld connotations” associated with cabarets and nightclubs, this association declined sharply during and after the Great Depression (Vogel, 2). The metonymic images of “smoke-filled dives and basement speakeasies” home to blues and jazz experimentation that attracted white, middle-class slum tourists in the 1920s thereafter gave way to a decidedly less romanticized iteration of underworld life, as segregationist urban planning practices solidified and gained federal and municipal support (Vogel, 6). Harlem the exotic nocturnal playground and rich literary and musical sphere of production became Harlem the impoverished, neglected, state-sanctioned ghetto.
The spatial and racial development of waste-averse culture on an urban scale, stripped of its prior allure, manifests in the frequently macabre tone and contents of the later literature. As Ellison makes plain in the 1948 essay that opens this chapter, “its crimes, its casual violence, its crumbling buildings with littered areaways, ill-smelling halls, and vermin-invaded rooms… are indistinguishable from the distorted images that appear in dreams” (242). By midcentury, what was once an artistic haven had become a nightmare.
As Mike Davis, Heise, and Pike remind us, the contemporary proliferation of slums finds its institutionalized roots in the twentieth-century practices of urban design, development, and renewal that this chapter takes as its historical backdrop. If the early twentieth century, as we have seen in previous chapters, marks a profound series of transitions from steward to consumer culture, the mid-to-late-century metropolis oversees its foulest corollary: a grimy landscape characterized by “pollution, excrement, and decay” (Davis, 19). Not all spaces are made equal; crucially, these postwar underworlds result from an unchecked and radically uneven proliferation of waste matter and resources along classed and racialized zones that a capitalist urban taxonomy regulates.
In their depictions of the literal and figurative underbellies of Harlem, Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Lived Underground” (1942) and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) chart uneven urban development and the racial and class inequalities wrought by the asymmetrical construction of space itself. In lieu of viewing fictional setting as a static and “fixed container”—to borrow David Alworth’s phrase—subordinated to the privileging of plot, character, or theme, this chapter’s methodological approach reads the process by which these texts deploy the trope of the black underworld in order to render it a dynamic and formative constituent of lived urban experience, and to critique an always-already selective and partial historiography that obscures the ways in which bodies and garbage alike are relegated to undesirable zones of the city (2). By foregrounding what is often backgrounded, a focus on setting does not prioritize individual subjects but works instead to “materialize the climates of history,” in this case the climates of a racialized urban ecology (Taylor, 15). The built environment approach employed here strategically emphasizes location over subject and urbanism over urbanite while simultaneously considering their interrelations. (JB: place hints of this earlier.)
The built environment precedes and proceeds the urban subject it partially embeds, and attempts to exert control through both architectural and discursive development. In “The Anthropology of Lower Income Urban Enclaves” (1995), Delmos Jones defines the built environment in terms of both “physical structures” and “conceptual principles” (193). These principles begin with the regulatory and organizational tactics of urban design and development seen previously in the analyses of de Certeau, Heise, and Pike in the introduction of this dissertation, including zoning ordinances, health and housing codes, and their manipulations and violations, which are the focus of the present section. Though this is by no means thoroughly exhaustive or pervasive—urban regulation efforts are less totalizing in practice than in theory and are frequently met with resistance—these pessimistic works of fiction do partly exhibit a racial, economic, and spatial determinism.
Rather than employing a simple model of structural determinism and segregation, the chapter moves to the complex relationship these low-income spaces exhibit with the rest of their urban surroundings. Far from being rigidly contained, these underworlds permeate and intersect with the occupants of more prosperous neighborhoods, an intersection facilitated primarily through literary narrative. As will be detailed in subsequent sections, this body of texts demonstrates an effort to reabsorb social spaces back into the history which ejects them, to write the city from below.
Having explored the broader histories of the underworld and of slum tourism, the history that follows details the development of Harlem as a specifically African-American community in the first half of the twentieth century leading to Wright’s and Ellison’s texts. The general trajectory this history takes is of economically-instigated racial consolidation followed by the development of urban planning systems designed to contain African-American populations targeted as extraneous. A dramatic rise in real estate speculation converged with labor shortages wrought by World War I to produce the first major Northern migration in the 1910s and 1920s. The interwar years that followed oversaw exploitative and segregationist practices in real estate, urban development, and zoning legislation, compounded with the Great Depression, which aided in Harlem’s transition from artistic hub into ghetto. This transformation would be compounded further in the 1940s through the 1950s as a result of another dramatic African-American migration alongside the development of suburbia and resultant white flight. While tracing this material genealogy, this chapter explores the attendant racialized rhetoric of contamination and containment, one which would eventually manifest in the mid-twentieth-century trope of the black underworld as deployed by post-Harlem Renaissance writers Wright and Ellison. The general movement of this narrative moves from urban concentration to public anxiety and resultant containment strategies targeting surplus populations, culminating in the literature of waste approaching the issue “from below.”
(Wants me to mention its start as white/Dutch.)The genealogy of Harlem as an African-American community begins at the turn of the twentieth century, when black New Yorkers began to settle there in small groups. Prior to European settlement, the geographical region in northern Manhattan now known as Harlem was originally occupied by the Weckquasgesk tribe, though by the end of the nineteenth century it was home to Irish, German, Italian, and Puerto Rican immigrants (Freidenberg, 5). As John Jackson, Jr.’s history of the neighborhood in Harlemworld (2001) traces, nineteenth-century Harlem functioned as a reprieve from the “overflowing and diseased downtown areas,” an area that provided leisure for the middle and upper classes (24). While its relative distance from central Manhattan initially prevented widespread migration uptown, this would eventually change with the advent of the railway and subway lines towards the end of the century, in the 1870s through the 1890s (Jackson Jr., 24). These transformations in the technologies of urban transportation led to speculation and development of Harlem targeted towards middle-class white families in what was, by the turn of the twentieth century, a predominantly German American neighborhood with occasional pockets of African-Americans.
A housing boom, based on an overestimation of the consumer demand new transportation uptown would yield, led to an overdeveloped and largely vacant Harlem by the 1910s (Smethurst, 9). The later years of this decade were witness to the first “Great Migration” of 1.5 million African-Americans moving to northern cities during and after World War I, due in part to Northern wartime labor shortages, in tandem with increased Jim Crow-era racial animosity and violence in the South (Thomas and Ritzdorf, 5). As Patricia Fernandez-Kelly notes, in 1910, “almost 90 percent of blacks were living in the South, but sixty years later, little more than half remained there” (224). In response to this massive Northern influx of black migrants, white panic led to the founding of several community protest groups, such as the Harlem Property Owners’ Improvement Corporation, who demanded in 1913: “Drive them [African-Americans] out… and send them to the slums where they belong.” Local white resistance to the presence of African-Americans in the neighborhood ultimately failed: faced with a surplus of unwanted and empty properties, realtors and landlords began to proposition and lease to African-American tenants. White flight soon followed: between 1920 and 1930, 118,792 white residents left Harlem while 87,417 black residents arrived (Osofsky, 130). The ethnic makeup of the local population shifted rapidly and dramatically.
A vacant Harlem soon became an overpopulated one. Overcrowding, price gouging, and property neglect quickly became rampant. Homes designed initially for single families became occupied by a plethora of newly urban tenants paying exorbitant fees for shared rooms; landlords, not held accountable by tenants or the state, allowed properties to deteriorate below minimal housing and health codes. As Jackson Jr. puts it, “Particular class-based and racial concerns… had built Harlem architecturally, and a different set of class-based and racial issues (the inability of poorer blacks to afford the opulent homes initially built for wealthier whites, along with the realtors’ need to turn a profit) overcrowded it” (26). Gilbert Osofsky meticulously details this transition from utopia to slum, wherein “high rents and poor salaries necessarily led to congested and unsanitary conditions,” with occupants renting out rooms, beds, floors, and even bathtubs (136). In 1925, the average population in an already congested New York was 223 people per acre; in Harlem, it was 336 (Osofsky, 140). The mortality and disease rate in Harlem soon greatly exceeded that of the rest of the city, as tenants crowded together in “vermin-infested” homes (Osofsky, 141).
When increased demand for industrial labor and national migration patterns led to urban concentration in Harlem, the advent and mutual cooperation of urban planning and contamination rhetoric worked in tandem to contain the surplus. As de Certeau writes, urban development centers on the “question of managing a growth of human agglomeration or accumulation” (93). Municipal zoning legislation arises concurrently in the 1910s through the 1930s in part as a response to the problem of urban concentration. Zoning, the specification and restriction of land use along an urban grid, developed as an urban manifestation of rationalization—the management of space, traffic, and populations in the name of city-wide controlled efficiency. As Christopher Silver demonstrates, the histories of space and race in the twentieth-century United States are inextricably wedded in a double helix structure. While it was in 1908 that Los Angeles adopted the first city-wide zoning use ordinance, 1909 would prove a watershed year for the fledgling urban planning discipline and city-wide industrial productivism more broadly: the year oversaw Harvard’s first course on urban planning, the first textbook on city planning, Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago, the introduction of Ford’s assembly line production, and the country’s first national conference on city planning “which called for the reorganization of urban space around the values of economy, regularity, and efficiency” (Heise, 84).
By the mid-1910s, zoning, the dominant tactic of the urban planning discipline’s early years, was a widespread municipal practice in both Southern and Northern cities (Silver, 27). While zoning pioneers in the first decades of the 1900s believed that “zoning offered a way not only to exclude incompatible uses from residential areas” but also to “combat urban congestion and thereby improve the quality of working-class neighborhoods,” these aims soon “gave way to political pressures from those less inclined toward broad civic improvement” (Silver, 24). The real estate development and banking industries instead prioritized the protection of property values by excluding undesirable populations perceived to depreciate that value. Through the first several decades of the century, real estate developers placed no-minorities clauses (known as “restrictive covenants”) into property deeds, prohibiting entrance to unwanted members of nationalities whose occupancy would “clearly be detrimental to property values” (Wiese and Nicolaides, 225). Municipal government followed with zoning ordinances and building codes, while mortgage lenders complied by refusing loans to African-Americans and other people of color. (JB: specify what other people of color. Hispanic Am? Asian Am?)
Before turning to the contamination rhetoric utilized to target racialized surplus populations in zoning and other urban planning practices, mid-century developments in Harlem, which both exacerbated the slum conditions surrounding the Great Migration and diversified the strategies used to contain them, must be attended to briefly. In the 1930s, when Ralph Ellison first arrived to the neighborhood, the Great Depression “hit Harlem quite hard, leading to massive unemployment, evictions, and heightened racial discrimination” (Sundquist, 9). James de Jongh details the rampant squalor and disease of Depression-era Harlem, including untreated outbreaks of tuberculosis which thrived “in the crowded, unsanitary conditions of the tenements,” as well as the “neglect of delinquent or homeless Negro children by municipal authorities” (75). World War II compounded this sordid state of affairs, triggering a second northbound migration of African-Americans, this time greatly exceeding the previous influx and overcrowding an already excessively populated neighborhood (Thomas and Ritzdorf, 5). By the mid-1940s, Harlem “was just the best known of the emerging ghettos of America’s large urban centers at midcentury,” the Harlem Renaissance’s “glossy Jazz Age veneer” giving way to a wasteland devastated “by the stress of economic depression and the impact of a global war” (de Jongh, 80).
Zoning, which by this time had faced repeated legal challenges, was supplanted by a variety of newer urban planning methods under the broad aegis of postwar suburbanization, including urban renewal, federal initiatives in public housing, highway construction, and slum clearance. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 established a nationwide interstate system, and euphemistically named urban renewal projects “worked in conjunction with clearance for highway construction,” targeting slums and displacing “racial minorities from prime locations for redevelopment and highway construction” which would allow middle- and upper-class mobility to newly developed suburban territories and away from the socially contaminated inner-city (Thomas and Ritzdorf, 8). The creation of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, constructed from 1956 to 1963 and funded through federal subsidies, displaced approximately 60,000 Bronx residents across its seven mile pathway (Berman, 293).
Because, as James Baldwin made plain, “urban renewal means negro removal,” these postwar policies and practices together “shaped and defined the Black ghetto” while also radically transforming the model of the American metropolis to which it was incorporated (Thomas and Ritzdorf, 8). Heise deems this a paradigm shift from the “competitive-industrial city” under Fordism to the post-Fordist “corporate-monopoly city,” characterized by the “dislocation of industrial production from the urban center to emerging satellite cities” and the migration “of a new class of managers, supervisors, and other professionals out to the suburbs” (67). June Thomas and Marsha Ritzdorf concur with this paradigm shift, noting that postwar white exodus to the suburbs “established decentralization as the dominant urban pattern for the following decades,” leaving lower-class African-Americans in the inner city with limited economic mobility (7).
Aside from overdevelopment, tenant exploitation, white flight, and suburbanization, a number of other racialized urban planning practices and phenomena continued to plague Harlem throughout the middle of the century. In her ethnography of Harlem, sociologist Patricia Fernandez-Kelly details many of these procedures. In addition to the practice of “blockbusting” (the reselling of homes at exorbitant sums to a rising black middle class, Harlem developers from the 1930s through the 1960s made frequent use of “redlining,” or “designating certain areas within which real estate loans would not be made” (Fernandez-Kelly, 225). The 1934 creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), for instance, “discouraged integration by refusing to guarantee loans for homes that were not in racially homogenous areas” (Fernandez-Kelly, 225). Carl Nightingale notes that both the FHA and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation established in the interwar period instituted “highly discriminatory housing policies,” which “not only solidified the boundaries of ghettos but also pushed them outward from downtown” (265). Though such policies were challenged and revoked in the 1960s, their effects on racial segregation in urban development persist to this day. Such issues get compounded in other sectors of civic life, such as education; a neighborhood’s decreasing property values, for instance, affect public school financing, which “has historically depended on taxation based on property values” (Fernandez-Kelly, 226). The coalescing of these practices—racialized zoning grids, federal and local withholding of loans, inadequate funding for schools—inevitably leads to the production of ghettos, the spatial manifestations of urban environments dedicated to maximum profit at the expense of those at the bottom of hierarchies of class and race. (JB: maybe cut this part or move – need a stronger moment of pause, and these details don’t appear relevant; my advancement of the chapter is lost – where to end, though?)
Infiltration Theory, Surplus Populations, and the Lowly
(incorporate Priscilla Wald around here – or don’t, since it’s in ch. 1) The foregoing history of real estate made use of, conceptually reproduced, and materially spatialized earlier notions of immigrants, racial minorities, and the lower classes as deviant, degenerate, and unclean populations threatening morally upright and racially homogenous communities. As recurs across the history and rhetoric of waste, these anxieties became interfused with other forms of modern waste-aversion, such as an increasingly disposal-oriented and germ-conscious consumer culture whose default response was often expulsion and containment. This section unpacks the conceptual underpinnings operating in the foregoing history, particularly the notion of a surplus population, and the recurring metaphor of that population “spilling” beyond its designated area.
Scrutinizing similar rhetoric in real estate documents and neighborhood covenants more thoroughly illustrates the intersection of these discourses and reveals the ideological underpinnings that legitimized segregationist urban planning practices in postwar America. Examining contamination rhetoric in real estate appraisal manuals, Raymond Mohl writes that “the dominant belief in the nation’s real estate industry” in the 1940s was that “neighborhoods change, but never for the better,” in what amounts to a city-wide resurgence of fin de siècle degeneration theory (64) (me or Mohl? Make plain). In a section entitled “Racial Infiltration” in the Review of the Society of Residential Appraisers (1948), for instance, author George A. Philips warns readers of the depreciation of market value spurred by the “infiltration of unharmonious racial groups” into otherwise profitable neighborhoods (7-9). Fear of this “infiltration process” is pervasive in the official real estate literature of the time: Arthur Weimer and Homer Hoyt’s Principles of Urban Real Estate (1948) similarly details the process by which real estate value is “threatened by the infiltration of people of another racial or national type” into a racially homogenous district (123). Mohl’s history traces the rhetoric of infiltration theory, which utilizes euphemistic diction to pathologize populations of color in increasingly indirect terms, variously deemed “inharmonious,” “incompatible,” “contentious,” “blights” upon the neighborhood resulting in a “blighted area” (65-66, 69). Not limited to real estate or urban planning documents, mid-century infiltration theory was upheld and implemented by mortgage bankers, appraisers, and financial analysts (Mohl, 71). At the new suburban periphery, neighborhood associations and restrictive covenants expanded the reach of this mechanism beyond the confines of the city proper (Nicolaides and Wiese, 4).
Here we observe, on the macro-industrial level, the fear of what Douglas might have termed “bodies out of place,” and the productivist or rationalizing impulse to restructure place itself in order to confer order onto what is perceived as wide-scale urban entropy—this, despite the fact that the source of the squalor deemed dangerous and unhygienic arises, as our history has demonstrated, from historically specific urban planning practices which engineer and quarantine poverty on a grand scale, rather than essential qualities inherent in the racial group in question. Twentieth-century urban spatial logic is therefore, in this sense, illogical, vilifying and scapegoating conditions of life which it itself engenders, disavowing the necessity of this process to its own functioning. (“Save it,” says JB. What?)
Undergirding this discourse and practice is the pathologizing of populations of color, presented as contagions defiling an otherwise pristine and harmonious urban community. This midcentury practice draws upon and extends older nationalist notions of immigrants as “social contaminants,” carrying “disease, ignorance, and dubious morality,” which are then transposed onto older theological divisions of above and below (Fernandez-Kelly, 222). Locally, the concept of color as urban contagion arises concurrently with patterns of increased urban concentration in New York, Chicago, and other congested metropolitan areas previously described. What Kirsch, Mohl, and Nightingale consider “the second-ghetto era” of the midcentury American city from the 1940s through the 1960s occurs when African-American and other undesirable populations are perceived to be “spilling” out of ghettos and into neighborhoods already abandoned by white flight, expanding the reach of quite literally devalued spaces beyond control of urban planning mechanisms (Kirsch, xvii, Mohl, 59-60, Nightingale, 261).
In order to avoid casting urban contamination rhetoric as a solely white phenomenon, it must be acknowledged that the notion of a racial underworld was upheld by white and black middle class reformers in the early twentieth century. Vogel’s history of Harlem nightlife in The Scene of Harlem Cabaret reveals that, in an extension of the infiltration rhetoric deployed by white middle-class America, an elite branch of racial uplift ideology espoused by some New Negro Renaissance theorists and leaders relied upon a “moral differentiation and hierarchization” which yielded both “an economic norm—and black middle class—and a moral norm that figured the black ‘underworld’ as a morally deficient sphere” (11). In part, racial uplift ideology arose in response to white perceptions of black criminality and deviance; it functioned as a call to increase “the ranks of a visible and respectable middle class,” to “combat the perceived threat to the race as urban pathology” (Vogel, 7). In an 1899 publication, for instance, W. E. B. Du Bois championed the rise of a “talented tenth” of the race, which he contrasted with the “submerged tenth,” defined as “the lowest class of criminals, prostitutes, and loafers” (311). Accordingly, several pioneering black intellectuals and artists of the New Negro Renaissance, including Du Bois and Alain Locke, “viewed nightclubs and the music performed within them as the apotheosis of ‘low’ culture and approached them with ambivalence, embarrassment, or disapprobation” (Vogel, 9). Adopting the language of high and low, these communities of color sought to migrate a segment of the underworld population above ground, disassociating from the majority thought to be contaminated by hedonism and crime.
Ellison’s novel, to which we will soon turn, criticizes the intraracial divisions of racial uplift ideology through the all-black college that the narrator attends early in the novel, a fictionalized version of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee University in Alabama. In an early moment in the narrative, Ellison’s narrator is tasked with providing a tour of the college to Mr. Norton, a white trustee. When the narrator unintentionally brings him to the Golden Day, a black veteran hospital and bar on the outskirts of the college, Norton is disgruntled by the unfiltered manner in which the veterans address him. As a result, Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college expels him. “Instead of uplifting the race,” Bledsoe admonishes the narrator, “you’ve torn it down… dragged the entire race into the slime” (Ellison, 140-141). Tellingly, Bledsoe utilizes the diction of the lowly and the disgusting associated with waste. Mortified, the narrator, internalizing the association between blackness and deviant, underworld pseudo-citizen, wishes to distance himself from the “poor, ignorant people” steeped in “mire and darkness,” so that he may be aligned instead with “decent, upright citizens” who inhabit the upper strata of civilized, educated, affluent white society (Ellison, 99).
Crucially, this broader discourse of pathology and degeneration manifests in the particular metaphor of spilling—of human beings, coded as waste matter, exceeding their spatial demarcations and threatening to contaminate the entirety of the body politic, whether, in urban contamination rhetoric, of African-American communities spilling across interracial boundaries, out of ghettos and into respectable neighborhoods, or, in the rhetoric of racial uplift, across intraracial divisions between modest and immodest, pristine and slimy bodies (Vogel, 9). Such a figurative device gains its rhetorical, spatial, and political force through the concept of a surplus population.
A central notion in contemporary critical race theory and originally coined by Karl Marx, a surplus population is comprised of human bodies which exceed the parameters of value within an urban, suburban, or national economy. For Marx, members of the surplus population were those who could not, or would not, labor on behalf of the ruling classes, including “vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds” (257). Contemporary accounts of surplus populations often take as their departure Michel Foucault’s conception of race as “the precondition that makes killing acceptable” in his discussion of biopower in the collection of 1975-1976 lectures, “Society Must be Defended” (254). In his history of blackness as global economic concept deployed rhetorically and materially, Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason (2017) extends Foucault, defining race as “one of the raw materials from which difference and surplus—a kind of life that can be wasted and spent without limit—are produced” (34). It is on the grounds of this surplus-status that one’s “belonging is contested” within the body politic (Mbembe, 34). Mbembe deems race the preconditional “instrumentality that makes it possible to name the surplus and to commit it to waste” (34-35). In other words, because racially subordinated bodies are already equated with waste matter, they are expendable in the maintenance of other networks imbued with value; already ejected from a network of social value, it is not wasteful to dispose of them.
For our current purpose of examining the spatial logic of midcentury American urbanism, it is important that disposability is not always meant literally within this discourse. It must be born in mind that such critical accounts of race, following Foucault, use “killing” and “disposal” in a capacious rather than a narrow sense, including not only “every form of direct murder,” but also indirectly “exposing someone to death,” “increasing the risk of death for some people,” “political death, expulsion, rejection,” or, as applied here in the case of midcentury Harlem, rhetorical vilification and legislative containment within disease-ridden slums operating below acceptable living standards (Foucault, 256).
A surplus must exceed a boundary; a boundary is, or is imagined to be, spatial. Much as we have been tracing the relationship between the fledgling institution of urban planning in the U.S. and the racialized rhetoric of contaminant populations, contemporary accounts of race tether race and space in this way. As Mbembe notes, racial hierarchies have been historically assigned “to more or less impermeable spaces according to a logic of enclosure,” wherein groups are defined and divided in terms of their capacities as “carriers of differentiated and more or less shifting risk” (35). Transposing the micro-corporeal language of the individual biological body to the macrocosmic industrial scale of the collective urban body, contaminant populations are seen as pathogens that must be enclosed within the infected zones they occupy, lest that infection spread.
Space is not only deployed as a means of segregation and subordination; its material persistence continues to plague and reproduce the purported inferiority of its occupants. Lisa Marie Cacho argues that unevenly-developed space “does not only explain and naturalize human beings’ subordination; it was and continues to be central to engineering some of the most violent forms of exploitation” (73). In other words, it is not only, as Mike Davis writes, that a slum is a “dumping ground for a surplus population” (145), but that the adverse conditions of the slum continue to plague its inhabitants long after the dumping is complete. The urban underworld is not a random anarchic phenomenon but the product of urban design; it is not passive background but active agent. As Mbembe writes, “to endure, a form of domination must not only inscribe itself on the bodies of its subjects but also leave its imprint on the spaces that they inhabit as indelible traces on the imaginary” (127). A multi-tiered waste-averse culture thereby deploys systematic containment and maintenance of contaminating populations across spatial, bodily, and psychic registers.
It is within this environment that Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison—members of what Ross Posnock deems the “post-Harlem Renaissance generation”—utilize the underworld as both literal site and metaphor for the spatial subordination of African-Americans, racialized part of a wider mechanism of urban waste aversion and management (28). Writing of Wright and Ellison’s predecessors, James de Jongh argues that “the impulse of the first literary generations employing the motif [of Harlem] was to regard black Harlem as a trope” (15). For the Harlem Renaissance writers, this trope encapsulated and invoked the dreamscape of jazz and blues experimentation, cabaret and nightlife activities, and Alaine Locke’s New Negro sensibilities (enumerate). Increasingly, as our history of post-Renaissance Harlem has shown, black Harlem as trope later came to symbolize a disenfranchised population trapped in squalid conditions, complete with the attendant “traces of despair associated with the presence of an urban underclass” (Fernandez-Kelly, 230). If, in other words, Jazz Age Harlem stood visibly as triumphant celebration of African-American literary and musical artistic production, by midcentury, Harlem had gone underground, the realities of the underclass manifesting in the subterranean tropes of sewers and basements. As will be demonstrated, midcentury African-American writers who deploy the trope of the black urban underworld do so as a counterweight to and exploration of the material and cultural processes manufacturing their environments. In presenting local cases that problematize selective historiographies and narratives of omission, they work to illuminate the previously obscured role urban development plays in the production of low-income urban enclaves.
“The Man Who Lived Underground” and Invisible Man employ similar tactics. Both feature black protagonists whose names are either undisclosed or forgotten and whose oppressive narrative arcs lead them, in the final instance, to subterranean depths beneath the metropolis, to sewers, cellars, and underground clinics. Both narratives implicitly and explicitly consider how hierarchies of race and class manifest in the symbolic processes of naming and mapping, how these processes produce blind spots in the cultural imagination, and, ultimately, how they impinge both upon individual subject formation and the spatial production and transmission of collective histories. Moreover, these texts are narrated from below, from the perspective of the lowly—a racial and spatial positioning mirroring the midcentury contamination anxiety previously enumerated, as well as the sensationalist practice of slum tourism, which operated on the outsider’s view from above. The view from below, unpacked at length in what follows, is emblematic of the harsh and waste-filled realities of East Coast black urban experience while simultaneously presenting such experiences as surreal and otherworldly, a world operating on inverted and altered systems of perception.
Most importantly, both texts literalize and trouble discursive associations between the lower classes, the lowly, and corporeal waste matter. They shift registers between the lowly as urban underground, the lowly as subhuman, and the lowly as excretion of the body’s lower half. Such substitutions reveal the processes through which distinct locations stand in for one another to strengthen mechanisms of spatial oppression. When Ellison writes, in “Harlem is Nowhere,” that “to live in Harlem is to dwell in the very bowels of the city,” he is drawing upon the language of the lowly in the bodily sense—bowels exist below the stomach, they are the underbelly, associated with dirt and disease (242). As Susan S. Morrison writes in The Literature of Waste (2015), systems of class hierarchy often rest upon an association of the lower classes with a proximity to dirt itself: in one sense, the lower classes “are literally lower—closer to the ground with its dirt they wallow in” (47). Sarah Ahmed observes a related set of associations spatially perceived, between vertically-situated bodies, spaces, and waste matter:
Lower regions of the body—that which is below—are clearly associated both with sexuality and with “the waste” that is literally expelled by the body… Lowness becomes associated with lower regions of the body as it becomes associated with other bodies and other spaces. (89)
In the distinct and interrelated meanings of the term, “The Man Who Lived Underground” is a paradigmatic story of the lowly. Just as Ahmed and Morrison analyze waste matter on a vertical axis with regards to the micro-biological and macro-social bodies, David Pike’s Subterranean Cities (2005) interrogates the historical and technological processes by which subterranean spaces become the literal and figurative repositories for surplus materials and bodies on the macro-industrial scale. It is through the innovations of the nineteenth-century city, “with its complex drainage systems, underground railways, utility tunnels, and storage vaults,” that “the urban landscape superseded the countryside of caverns and mines as the primary location of actual subterranean spaces” (Pike, 1). This importation of the underground to the city indelibly transformed the urban landscape, giving rise to a “way of experiencing and conceptualizing the city as a vertical space” (Pike, 1). Verticality, the axis along which technocratic ideals of a city without residue are imagined and regulated, thus arises as an effective metric for literary explorations of transformations in urban development, racial hierarchies, and anxieties tied to filth, degeneration, and disease. As Heise puts it, “unequally divided geographies” with corresponding values of “rationality versus madness, cleanliness versus filth, law versus disorder” are “made strikingly visible by Wright’s sewer” (142).
Finally, it should be reiterated that the lowly is not only a state of abjection or a position of narration along a vertical spectrum, but also a literal space inhabited by the characters of post-Harlem Renaissance writers and nonfictional, historical citizens alike. Heise, writing of 1950s Harlem, notes that its residents were literally going underground in response to poverty: 39% of the neighborhood’s cellars were used as homes, significantly higher than other region in the city (133). Sewers and cellars thus figure in these narratives not only as tropes for containment and zones of contact with contagions, but lived forms of black urban experience.
The lowly therefore operates, as we have seen, in a variety of interrelated registers—on the material plane, the lowly designates that which is anatomically lower on the individual body and nearest to the ground on the social body, to the sexual organs, fluids, and dirt which are frequently associated with excess, filth, and degeneracy. On the discursive plane, the lowly refers to the behaviors construed as sexually obscene or debased (explored in Chapter Two), the wretched and impoverished populations at the bottom of class hierarchy, the squalid regions they inhabit, and the dubious moralities they purportedly embody. The coalescing and cross-pollination of these associations forms the multi-discursive body of material, affective, and regulatory mechanisms this dissertation has been deeming waste-averse culture. In Wright’s sewer, the mingling and co-constitution of these materials and bodies forms a dense ambience of waste.
Submersion, Inversion, and Waste-Ambience in Wright’s Underground
In “The Man Who Lived Underground,” Fred Daniels flees to the sewers after a false criminal accusation. Removing a manhole cover from the street, he descends into a world of slime, putrefaction, and death. In its defamiliarization of the senses, inversion of values and paradigms pertaining to light and warmth, dense cultivation of a surreal atmosphere of waste, exploration of its protagonist’s degeneration, dislocation, and ultimate namelessness and unintelligibility, Wright’s novella renders in detail the subjective experience of racial and spatial subordination. By foregrounding underground spaces and the material and perceptual effect they exert on the subjects cast as waste, “The Man Who Lived Underground” details, on a kinesthetic level, consignment to an underworld without the necessities of light, basic hygiene, and sustenance. What does it feel like, Wright’s story asks, to be thrown away?
Focalized through Daniels, Wright’s narrator devotes the majority of the text to describing his sensory experiences, particularly the inversion of his senses as he accommodates to life beneath the city. In a frequently recurring device, the narrator first presents an unidentified light source, shape, or sound, then follows Daniels’ thought processes as he comes to identify it. This inverted approach enacts, at the level of subjectivity, the means and order through which the discarded waste-subject experiences the city from below. In an early passage, for instance, the protagonist hears “faint sounds” through a wall, sounds that are “strange but familiar” (Wright, 23). “Was it a motor?” he asks, “A baby crying? Music? A siren?” (Wright, 23). Eventually, he realizes the sounds are those of churchgoers singing a hymn. Later, he becomes “aware of a soft, continuous tapping” (Wright, 35). Again, he attempts to infer the source. Initially he suspects a clock, before rejecting that hypothesis since “it was louder than a clock and more irregular” (Wright, 35). Several moments later he recognizes the sound is of a typewriter. A pattern controls these passages: the sound or shape always precedes the source, and Daniels employs guesswork and attentiveness to determine the identity of the object or phenomenon. The character does not behold the object and then consider it as is often done above ground, but must perform sensory work to behold it in the first place.
Wright employs this bottom-up trajectory at the level of plot development as well. From the main avenue of the sewer into which he initially descends, Daniels uses makeshift tools and eventually a stolen crowbar to dig his way into a series of linked basements and furnaces. The remainder of the narrative arc is episodic: Daniels observes the items stored in these underground rooms, hypothesizes as to what kind of building he is beneath, then makes brief ventures aboveground to steal resources and return to his sewer. A tightly focalized mode of free indirect discourse makes Daniels’ momentary blind spots the reader’s, too, submerging them far beneath the panoramic, top-down view Michel de Certeau describes.
The absence or negation of light and the inverted site from which objects and spaces are accessed precipitates Wright’s textual approach. Recall that the Greco-Roman underworld was defined by negation: Hades is characterized primarily in terms of what it lacks, not what it contains. As the opening of this chapter also argued, associations with death, darkness, absence, and inversion permeate the majority of cultural iterations of the underworld across regional and temporal axes. Wright’s text defamiliarizes the senses by depriving both protagonist and audience of light, then re-approaching the contours of everyday objects and phenomena from below. The nether region is defined by darkness, and in the absence of the full range of sensory input, the narrative inverts a common ordering of descriptors and access to spaces alike. In repositioning the site of subjectivity to the lowly, texts that scrutinize urban zones designated as waste—that spatialize and perceptualize the phenomenon of waste—therefore contribute to a recurring approach in the literature of waste as a whole, in part inherited from the historical avant-garde, which reconsiders the quotidian through displacement.
The manner in which this is achieved, however, exhibits important distinctions from that employed by DeLillo, for instance. Trash in Underworld is transformed through circulation and collection—it travels through industrial networks to peri-urban landfills or international destinations, and shifts its significance accordingly: a magazine page, free-falling in the wind, moves from commodity to discarded ephemera to art and back to trash again, or a conglomeration of waste condensed in a landfill contains within it the side-by-side temporalities and geographies of distinct epochs and regions, moving from heterogeneous disjecta to surreal, compacted mass. Wright focuses less on the matter that becomes waste or not-waste, but the site from which those evaluations emanate; moreover, the remoteness of the site bars intersubjective exchange. Thus Daniels resuscitates objects from disuse (such as the abandoned metal pole he finds against a dirt wall and uses to dig his way into cellars) not through their circulation through space but his own displacement and alienation. Beneath the city and perceived by the sewer-dweller, objects take on new signification, but for the sewer-dweller alone. We observe this in the shrine Daniels erects with the valuables plundered from basements: after stealing cash and jewelry, he glues the stolen bills onto the walls of the sewer as a “mocking symbol,” a repudiation of the economy aboveground (Wright, 54). This mocking gesture, however, is undercut by its limited reach: while he delightfully claims he “had triumphed over the world aboveground,” the thought that immediately succeeds it—“if only people could see this”—laments its limitations (Wright, 54).
As with other texts in our study, Wright’s narrative dislocates objects so as to reconfigure ascriptions of value bound by spatial economy. Unlike others, however, Wright does not place them into a shared economy of value. Buried underground, Daniels’ shrine exists for him alone. Once valuable items no longer have exchange value as there is no one present with which to exchange them. Divorced as radically as he is from aboveground life, Daniels’ reconfiguration of value operates only in a quasi-solipsistic state that in its stagnation cannot be considered an economy. In Wright’s novella, objects are so dislodged and inaccessible so as to obstruct intersubjective mediation. As we will soon see with Ellison, Invisible Man poses a potential, if attenuated, means beyond this problem by way of narrative.
As this chapter has frequently claimed, and as waste scholarship since Mary Douglas has considered but not yet fully explored, it is not merely subjective perspective or objective existence that assigns and revokes waste-status, but the space that envelops and shapes these elements. In order for a text to thoroughly spatialize the phenomenon of waste and thereby belong to the body of literature concerned with spatial waste, it must not take setting as a static backdrop but as an active and reactive participant in this process. As explained at the opening of this chapter, while the effects of space on territorially embedded subject and object have been analyzed by scholars working on urban design and trash, the multi-directional fashion in which waste-status is then conferred back upon the space itself has been neglected. Defining and scrutinizing the literary ambience of waste generated in “The Man Who Lived Underground” will help elucidate this notion more thoroughly.
In his influential definition of the music genre he helped pioneer, composer Brian Eno wrote that ambient music “must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” Ambience therefore involves the interplay between foreground and background; it encapsulates the dynamic of interest and ignorability within adjacent regions of a space. Waste lends itself particularly well to the notion of ambience. At the categorical level, as we have seen, waste is defined in terms of what is foregrounded and backgrounded, what is and is not looked at or thought about. (Say more here.) In an industrial landscape, particularly a lower-income urban enclave, waste is usually littered throughout, affecting the atmosphere of that setting. The level to which it is scrutinized and pulled out of the ambient mass, if at all, varies greatly. As an ambience, at turns homogenous and distinguished, waste accommodates diverse levels of attention among pedestrians. Waste-averse culture makes waste ignorable; waste literature makes it interesting.
“The Man Who Lived Underground” explores this interplay in several ways, most notably by playing with foreground and background, presence and absence. When Wright’s protagonist first descends into the sewer, he is struck by the filth and odor all around. Olfactory waste matter is present to consciousness. Soon afterward, however, “the odor of rot had become so general that he no longer smelled it” (Wright, 21). If waste is matter out of place, it ceases to be so when it occupies the entirety of that place: it cannot be a systemic outlier when it dominates and defines the local system. Daniels acclimates to the airborne waste particles because they are ubiquitous; in this sense, the environment is merely a spatial extension of waste matter in all directions, a homogenous middleground. Put simply, nothing in the sewer is waste because everything is. Foreground and background have mutated.
More directly, Wright cultivates this waste-ambience through populating the underground entirely with wasted subjects and objects, exploring their mutual constitution, and allowing them to dominate the contents and mood of his prose. What Daniels encounters is consistently morbid: he breaks his way into the basement of a butcher’s shop spattered in blood, as well as an undertaker’s basement housing cadavers. In the sewer conjoining these encounters Daniels brushes against a “tiny nude body of a baby snagged by debris and half-submerged in water,” its “mouth gaped black in a soundless cry” (Wright, 26). Taken together, the novella’s unrelentingly despondent tone and cast of discarded bodies cultivates a dense aura of morbidity and hellishness. Wright’s prose mimics and extends this omnipresence by constantly detailing the olfactory, auditory, and tactile imprints of waste upon its protagonist: Daniels breathes in a “hot stench of yeasty rot,” ceaselessly slides against “masses of debris,” sloshes through the “slimy bottom” of the waste-stream, is surrounded by “slate-colored water” and sinks into its “spongy slop,” while occasionally hearing faint “whispers of scurrying life” in the form of disease-carrying rodents (Wright, 21-22). As Daniels acclimates, these descriptors recede in frequency and intensity; the sensory and emotional impact lessens as the protagonist joins the homogenized field of sludge, stench, and death. It is important to note that, congruent with the methodology of this chapter, the effect of waste-ambience is not simply that the sewer neutrally or statically contains waste, but that the conglomeration of omnipresent waste-forms comprise an all-encompassing waste-status that is then conferred back onto the entirety of the surrounding space. The underworld is not mere repository for but spatial extension of waste—both at the textual level of Wright’s narrative and the expelled and discarded region it depicts.
The effect of extensive time in this zone is not solely transformative in the homogenizing sense just considered, but in a related, degenerative sense as well. The putrid air becomes less offensive not only because it pervades the space, but because, as subject and environment interact, matter and space pervade the man. As the protagonist’s underworld-exposure continues and these elements commingle, the text employs a series of animal similes that intimate an increasingly beastlike consciousness: in feeling his way along the walls, his “fingers toyed in the space, like the antennae of an insect” (Wright, 27). His vision becomes interfused with the kinesthetic, “like those sightless worms that inch along underground” (Wright, 32). In sliding through the tight channels of the sewer, the narrator describes his motions as “eel-like” (Wright, 45). In such passages, Daniels slips further and further down a vertical species hierarchy in a series of reverse-evolutions. Such a hierarchy is not only organized vertically; verticality itself appears to define the upper (bipedal) ranks, whereas Daniels the eel slides horizontally through the sewage.
The particular animals chosen are telling and mirror the way Wright conjoins the literal and figurative throughout the text. Such creatures are not only lowly through association and discourse, but in direct spatial terms: worms grub in the dirt beneath the ground, and as bottom dwellers, eels occupy some of the lowest inhabitable regions of the earth (Douglas, Abominations of Leviticus – unclean). These regions, along with the direction of motion, in turn shape their modes of perception. Moreover, without vertical distance from the ground, they are in constant contact with dirt, unclean. In the case of “The Man Who Lived Underground,” cultural abstractions are literalized because they have tangible consequences: dehumanization yields deprivation, which ends with abjection and decay.
Alongside the use of degenerative metaphors, a sense of anarchic animality pervades the theft spree that occupies much of the latter half of the text. Breaking into various buildings from below, Daniels pilfers a lunch pail, a tool kit, a pack of cigarettes, meat, fruit, diamonds, watches, and cash from a safe. Daniels’ subterranean position benefits him insofar as it enables him to bypass the aboveground security of these locations and evade what de Certeau calls the radar of city administration, beneath their horizon of vision and thus “impossible to administer” (de Certeau, 95).
Existing beneath the purview of civilization also invites the possibility of existing without its codes. Wright enacts his protagonist’s degeneration not simply through presenting his actions or atmospheric conditions, but through another telling absence or negation of the world aboveground: none of these acts of theft are accompanied by hesitation or ethical consideration. Invisible and amoral, Daniels simply forages for materials, procures them, and returns to the sewer. At both the level of behavior and consciousness, then, the rules of culture no longer seem to apply. (read Shelly Eversley’s piece on clinic in Ellison and footnote or write about: character positioned beneath super-ego/beneath civilized ethos.)
Neither the process of degeneration nor the cultural evasion it affords is so simple, however. Contradictions in biology, space, and perception coalesce to make this transformation a multi-directional, vexed process, not merely one of decline. Human beings, not being bottom dwellers, require light and air to subsist in good health for extended periods of time, and Daniels’ perceptual apparatus is wired differently as a matter of course. While he may momentarily adjust to his mud-crusted, lightless home, it is an unnatural and unsustainable habitat for him. Though he learns to grub like a worm through necessity, Fred Daniels is not a worm. Barring a subset of the species from humanity through rhetorically depicting them as contagions and restricting their existence within or beneath unsustainable neighborhoods is a result of a particular history of race, space, cities, and waste that runs counter to biological conditions.
As a member of an aboveground species consigned to the underground, then, Daniels experiences alienation, liminality, and degradation at the most rudimentary levels of material existence. As the narrator notes, Daniels never fully acclimates to the sewers, emotionally hovering in a purgatory “between the world aboveground and the world underground” (Wright, 40). Thus, for every site and object he encounters, and the aggregate of these that is the waste-ambience we have enumerated, he experiences both the worm’s eye view as measured against, and in tension with, the biped’s view. When Daniels hears a car driving “along the wet pavement overhead, its heavy rumble soon dying out,” it sounds instead like “the hum of a plane speeding through a dense cloud” (Wright, 21). Possessing a dual subjectivity that perceives both the distorted subterranean sound and the aboveground source, he concludes that “everything seemed strange and unreal down here” (Wright, 21, emphasis added). The juxtaposition and ineffable magnetism between two forms of reality—what André Breton calls “a kind of absolute reality”—generates the phenomenon of surreality, in this case an aural waste-ambience surreality (14). In Wright’s sewer, the unreality of underground experience conjoins the reality of prior aboveground experience. Wright’s text enacts, at the level of sense-data, the hybrid subjectivity that ensues from historically dislocating forces, themselves a hybridity of infiltration theory applied to and carried out by urban planning mechanisms.
Wright therefore defines and depicts the underworld not merely in its classical sense of negation, but through a surrealistic, purgatorial rendering of absence and presence intertwined: the deprivation of light, sight, and sustenance is accompanied and infused with the subject’s illuminated memories and perceptions. These forces shoot through one another just as the degenerating sewer dweller, socially and spatially discarded like so many forms of waste, comes to define the abject sewer that in turn defines him.
For all its surrealistic flourishes and intimations, “The Man Who Lived Underground” closes with a violent act of police brutality that serves as a harsh reminder of reality. Spurred by an inclination to share his experiences, Daniels emerges from the sewer. in a state of extreme social unintelligibility. Blinded by the sun and covered in feces, he walks aimlessly through traffic, then irrationally returns to the police station where he was falsely accused. Despite his desire to narrate his story, he finds he has lost most communicative abilities, including knowledge of his own name. He manages to state most of the details of the narrative, but at great effort, and in fragmented, nonlinear fashion; there is no guiding principle, context, or coherence. While “the images stood out sharply in his mind,” he “could not make them have the meaning for others that they had for him” (Wright, 79). Eventually, he realizes that the sewer itself can disclose what he cannot: “if he could show them what he had seen, then they would feel what he had felt” (Wright, 81). Space arises as a direct means of transmitting experience, and so he leads them to his sewer entrance. As soon as he opens the manhole cover, however, they refuse to follow, shooting him instead. Intratextually, his story is lost, his revelation, vague even to the reader, silenced. Socially unintelligible, he is ejected from a linear time and history produced above ground. Murdered and discarded, he becomes a “whirling object rushing alone,” relegated permanently to the underground, the sewer lid sealed shut (Wright, 71).
“Not All Sickness is Unto Death”: Survival in Ellison’s Underground
Ten years after Wright, Ellison considers the relationship of underworlds and their nameless denizens to the writing of history in 1950s Harlem. In turning to Ellison from Wright, we see similar concerns, even as the authors produce subterranean cartographies at odds with one another: Wright’s novella is a micro-geography of a single sewer over the course of a few days, while Ellison’s novel charts several decades and multiple settings, urban and rural. Additionally, while both texts present a dismal picture of social determinism—both terminate below ground and suggest that the matrix of oppressive forces characterizing midcentury urban America does not allow any sustained possibility of ascent—Ellison’s exhibits minute forms of agency and gestures towards productive means of dealing with these concerns through narrative.
As the title and its corresponding motifs indicate, Invisible Man explores the axis of visibility and invisibility as it intersects with spatial and racial hierarchies. The underground appears repeatedly in the novel as setting and structural device: the novel notably begins and ends in the narrator’s makeshift home “in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century” that he has occupied for seventeen years (Ellison, 6) When the narrator moves to Harlem, he works in the lowest region of a paint factory in yet another “deep basement” three levels underground (Ellison, 207). He is later lobotomized and undergoes electroconvulsive therapy in an underground clinic, which, in an echo of Wright’s Fred Daniels, causes him to forget his name. In these texts, prolonged exposure to the underworld enacts a transformative effect on its inhabitants, at turns degenerative and revelatory.
Thus transformed, the narrator both resists and accedes to his invisible outsider status through narrating his life below ground and disavowing the culture above. As with Wright, this manifests through the narrator’s namelessness and eventual subterranean position—for Ellison, however, the underworld figures not as mere prison but also as site of revelation.
As the Harlem Renaissance illustrated, space can and did function to transmit personal and collective histories previously obstructed. In marked contrast to 1920s Harlem with its prolific artistic production and subcultural exploration of alternative lifestyles and sexualities, Wright (and, to a lesser degree, Ellison) presents the underground as solipsistic wasteland. But not all underground spaces are equally contaminating, and as Ellison’s nameless narrator reminds us from his basement, “all sickness is not unto death” (14). Recall that in Wright’s novella, the protagonist’s subterranean experiences result in an undisclosed epiphany: living in the sewer and enshrining stolen items causes Daniels to realize something, and when he fails to communicate that something linguistically, he attempts to bring the policemen into the sewer so they can see for themselves. Whatever his insight, it is lost: the men murder him on the threshold of the sewer. For Ellison’s invisible man, the underground also induces an epiphany: “This is the way it’s always been,” he remarks at his new home, “only now I know it” (Ellison, 566). Insofar as this space identifies and concretizes the more intangible and unidentifiable forms of oppression engineered into and obscured by the city, it provides reprieve and insight. He can no longer gaze at the industrial horizon in hopes of achieving upward mobility and recognition; he resigns himself to life in a hole.
Rather than having to consume the empty, abstract platitudes of American equality promised to aboveground citizens while simultaneously experiencing the harsh limits of that rhetoric, the underground makes no such promises. The stagnation and decay of his container accords with his position as a member of a disenfranchised underclass. There is a stark nakedness to the underground that, while clearly hazardous and unsustainable, illuminates and bypasses the contradictions of civil life, the illogical arguments of urban spatial logic. It is limitation laid bare.
Ellison’s underground exhibits a moderate level of habitability that allows for the possibility of transmitting this revelation through narrative. A basement is not a sewer; the invisible man is not Fred Daniels or Tod Clifton, entirely discarded and forgotten. Daniels only survives in the sewer for a few days; while Ellison never discloses the exact duration of the invisible man’s quarantine, critic Patrick W. Shaw places it at roughly seventeen years (119). The narrator, who frequently corrects anticipated assumptions on behalf of the reader, is sure to clarify that his hole “is warm and full of light” (Ellison, 6). Ellison’s narrator counteracts the absence of light by populating his basement with thousands of stolen light bulbs powered by energy clandestinely siphoned from an electric company. When detailing this setting, the invisible man explains: “I say all this to assure you that it is incorrect to assume that, because I’m invisible and live in a hole, I am dead. I am neither dead nor in a state of suspended animation. Call me Jack-the-Bear, for I am in a state of hibernation” (Ellison, 6). In what appear as direct rejoinders to Wright’s underground, Ellison’s is not a place of death and darkness but warmth and life; in this vein, animal metaphors are employed not to signify degeneration but strength. Bears are powerful warm-blooded mammals high on the food chain, and hibernation is not necessarily stagnation, but can be, as the narrator notes, “a covert preparation for a more overt action” (Ellison, 13).
(Highlight disagreement w/ Brown; highlight her methodology; turn to primary evidence; the neurotic counting of lightbulbs – reader is supposed to question IM’s claims) As discussed in our analysis of Wright, however, human habitation underground can only last so long. Psychologically and nutritionally, a lightbulb and a sun are not interchangeable; we must employ some skepticism in the degree of long-term habitability afforded by a hole in the ground, well-lit or not. Taking the narrator’s claims at face-value, Adrienne Brown reductively reads the narrator’s basement as a comforting, quasi-suburban retreat from Harlem. Championing resistance and escape, Brown argues that the invisible man’s basement reflects a commitment to domesticity exhibited in Ellison’s life. Ellison, who refused to move abroad alongside his compatriots Wright and Baldwin, remained for forty years in his apartment outside Harlem. Brown claims that this manifests in the invisible man’s subterranean escape from the city, which mirrors midcentury white flight into the suburbs: the hole is not a painful, last-ditch effort a la Wright’s sewer, but a home to which the narrator is loyal: “a place of fixity, habit, and inertia” (Brown, 183). Moreover, the invisible man’s basement allows him “to make his own space after being treated as one by so many” (Brown, 183, emphasis in original). In other words, whereas the sewer’s sounds, shapes, and smells mold Fred Daniel’s hybrid worm-biped consciousness, and whereas the invisible man, aboveground, is treated as empty space or negation of properly embodied subject, the basement, as bounded subterranean space, empowers him to create an autonomous habitat and subjectivity.
Brown is correct to assert that Ellison’s underground exhibits a brightness Wright’s lacks, but overstates her case by overlooking the ambiguity of the setting. Like Wright’s sewer, Ellison’s basement is limiting, liminal, and purgatorial. The invisible man fares much better than Fred Daniels, but despite his adaptation and survival, his hibernation is insufficient for at least one crucial reason. As the invisible man laments, exasperated after his years underground: “damn it, there’s the mind, the mind” (Ellison, 573). While immobile physically, his consciousness remains active. The material hardships and surreal tensions constitutive of the black urban experience, made strikingly clear in the underworld, can be recorded, sent upward, and exposed. In allowing the invisible man to survive and narrate his predicament, Ellison’s underground allows for a transmission of underworld revelation not afforded to Daniels. While the basement permits the invisible man to gain ownership of his story, he does not find autonomy and emancipation in a thorough spatial sense; there remains a fundamental incongruity between man and habitat. The invisible man’s basement is brighter and more sanitary than a sewer, but it is a far cry from the suburban home of Brown’s comparisons, even if both function as forms of escapism. On a material level, the invisible man remains subjugated without basic necessities; any ownership of space he achieves is not within the physical confines of the city but in the abstract, textual spaces of history and storytelling.
Although he does not thrive in this space, he is able to survive, and think, and write: he can tell the story of the underground. In the closing section that follows, this chapter argues instead that the invisible man’s underground functions not as protective and comforting insulation but as ideal site for a racially and spatially situated narrative enterprise—the “view from below.”
Conclusion: Historiographical Elisions and the View from Below
“Why did he choose to plunge into nothingness, into the void of faceless faces, of soundless voices, lying outside history?” the narrator asks after his close friend, Tod Clifton, is murdered by policemen near the end of the novel (Ellison, 439). Clifton lies outside of history because history is told by historians whose practice is frequently tethered to productivist economies of value permeated by racial and economic convictions; the telling of history is mediated by its prioritization of “the known, the seen, the heard and only those events that the recorder regards as important,” making the cop who murders Clifton “his historian, his judge, his witness, and his executioner” (Ellison, 439).
When the invisible man speaks of history, he refers to the racially particular history of urban development, displacement, and subjugation we have traced in this chapter. In closing we now consider the possibility of an African-American intervention into an urban historiography that has largely excluded their own materials and perspectives, and in so doing, reverses, or omits entirely, the processes that engender urban poverty and spatial submersion. (Syntax: make clear: WHAT is reversing or omitting? The selective historiography) More concretely, given the limitations placed on a people whose access to the written word was heavily regulated and repressed for centuries, African-American historiography faces a material challenge at the level of the historian’s primary materials: the archive. Black historiographers must therefore grapple with the fact that, as John Ernest writes in Emancipation Historiography (2004), “much of their history was excluded from or deformed in the official records that served as historical evidence,” just as Clifton’s death causes Ellison’s narrator to realize (6).
Eric Sundquist suggests that Invisible Man be read as “a reconstruction of African-American history,” a text situated in a wider black critique of American historiography emphasizing exclusion, omissions, and methodological limitations of the archive (27). As Maghan Keita writes in Race and the Writing of History (2000), the practice of Western historiography became compromised as soon as it operated on and reproduced a “scientific and specifically biological nexus,” including “degeneracy theory, phrenology, craniology, eugenics, and social Darwinism,” as a racially oppressive episteme in the nineteenth century (18). James Carson’s The Columbian Covenant: Race and the Writing of American History (2014) similarly implicates American historiography in ideology, tracing its reliance on “covenental thinking,” an exclusionary set of colonial and theological principles wherein the racialized Other lives “outside of the covenant God had made for His chosen children” (11). American covenental thinking therefore aligns with Keita’s notion of an “epistemology of blackness,” wherein blackness is defined only as negation, as that which is excluded from a positive definition of salvation—a definition which, thus narrowly defined, serves to filter which narratives surface historically and how they surface (10). Indeed, blackness as negation arises as one definition of invisibility in Invisible Man; as one of the veterans from the Golden Day states, the African-American subject is “invisible, a walking personification of the Negative” (Ellison, 94). Here, black invisibility is the negation of white visibility, a default state of which the underworld subject is deprived, and which his deprivation defines by contradistinction. The reader will recall from the beginning of this chapter that the Greco-Roman underworld was also primarily conceived “in terms of negation” (Albinus, 67).
In this vein, Mbembe therefore poses a question central to this field: “How could one write history in the absence of the kinds of traces that serve as sources for historiographical fact?” (28). If it is therefore a commonplace among African-American historians that such a history faces a number of serious ideological and methodological difficulties due to its situated and repressed past, and that the primary goal of African-American history is to offer a reparative reading, corrective, or intervention, from what site must this counternarrative emerge? Given these forces, how may the midcentury black urbanite best position him or herself to avoid being swept away, like so many bits of detritus, by “the backwash of history” (Ellison, 375)?
Here we arrive at a crossroads between African-American historiography, slumming literature, urban planning, and underworld fiction. The operative principle in slumming literature, as previously noted, is exposure: the guide leads his readers, safely insulated by textual and class barriers, into the nether regions of the industrial landscape, exposing them to debased and sordid realities whose very appeal is their perceived unreality. The disparity between this “other” reality and the tourist’s imbues the slum with an otherworldly quality; this perceived foreignness then allows the slum to transform into form of entertainment, nonfictional yet nevertheless divorced from reality—while the slum tourist eventually returns to his or her above ground abode, the slum dweller does not. Since the slum tour, in making the unknown known, excavates submerged knowledge that may be put to disciplinary use, underworld scholars have argued that this exposes the district to shallow voyeurism and exploitation in lieu of historical understanding. In Queering the Underworld (2007), Scott Herring writes that such exposure “enables readers to become participant-observers in a disciplinary genre,” that slum tourism ultimately codifies and regulates the underworld specifically “through the act of closely reading it” and making it knowable (Herring, 7).
By divulging the details of hidden geographies, then, slumming literature allowed them to be contained conceptually. Exposure is therefore not inherently benevolent but, depending on the form that encases it, may be ambiguous, even counterproductive. By depicting impoverished neighborhoods as surreal and otherworldly, slumming literature afforded visibility to slums but often turned degradation into spectacle. It allowed engagement across barriers of class and race, but on uneven terms, as the slum tourist had luxuries the slum dweller did not: namely, the social mobility in electing to enter (and depart from) the slum, as well as the free time to pursue such an activity in the first place. At its best, slumming countered what Michael Thompson calls a “conspiracy of blindness” towards waste, applied to stigmatized bodies and spaces in the wider cultural nexus we have been calling waste-aversion (4). At its worst, its effects on the public imaginary existed at odds with its ostensible aims. While slum authors redirected the collectively averted gazes of a city towards its neglected back alleys, the manner in which they were redirected was not neutral but ideologically loaded. By describing the sordid yet alluring practices of prostitution, gambling, drug use, but encouraging resistance to temptation, slumming literature often reinforced white middle-class Christian values along a verticalized axis of morality.
Recall the irrationality of urban spatial logic previously enumerated—namely, that cities are zoned to contain surplus populations in sectors that reinscribe their spatial and material subjugation, while simultaneously presenting them as neutral containers, effectively shifting the opprobrium from urban planning systems to individual sites and occupants. Given this knowledge, perhaps the most troubling disciplinary facet of slumming literature is the use of essentializing language that represents the behavioral traits and practices of the lower classes as intrinsic rather than contingent. Recall the language employed by Riis in How the Other Half Lives: the other half are “tramps,” infested with “moral contagion,” occupying a “vast human pig-sty.” Despite elucidating and calling for the improvement of the economic and spatial processes that lower the quality of life in these areas, reformist journalists often naturalized the squalid conditions of their subjects and depicted them ahistorically.
As we have seen, urban planning develops in subsequent decades as a productivist discipline drawing upon the spatial hierarchies resulting from slumming literature and other fledgling urban genres and practices. Its ultimate goals—to manage problems of urban concentration and property devaluation—rest upon and work towards a utopian ideal of a knowable, organized, efficient, and lucrative city. The murkier areas of the city must be exposed, classified, and re-structured around a grid that best allows for the appraisal and circulation of citizens and commodities. As with the broader corpus of waste-excavating fiction to which it belongs, underworld fiction also appears to operate through a logic of exposure, presenting the reader with the full life-cycle of objects, subjects, or places, such as the state of the commodity after its market value is extricated, or the state of the slum between the acts—after one tour is complete, and before another has begun.
Given the overlap of narrative purposes entwined in the nexus of these histories, underworld fiction must grapple to some degree with the question of legibility—how does the chronicler of a submerged space expose the history of those lived experiences without folding them into a colonialist narrative of sensationalist exploitation and verticalized morality? Additionally, can underworld fiction avoid unwittingly participating in a Foucauldian form of discipline, wherein deviant spaces and bodies are made legible in order to comport to a regulatory taxonomy?
Exposure is necessary for historiographical intervention, but exposure has historically reproduced facets of the history it seeks to counter. The fates of Wright’s and Ellison’s protagonists also demonstrate that the recognition and understanding that visibility potentially affords may also result in vulnerability and misuse. When Fred Daniels emerges from the sewer in “The Man Who Lived Underground,” his exposure to the policemen leads directly to his subsequent murder. When the narrator of Invisible Man becomes the orator and chief spokesman of the Harlem district of the Marxist organization the Brotherhood, he becomes a public figure who is, for the first time, strikingly visible, but whose visibility allows him to be co-opted and manipulated by their political agenda. It is therefore highly tempting to contend, as both Herring and Heise do in their studies, that Wright’s and Ellison’s texts refuse the genre’s inherited purpose of exposure, luring the slum tourist reader with a promise of legibility that is ultimately frustrated. The cartographic exercises of the text, on this reading, prove self-defeating; in the final analysis, the author provides the reader with a nonfunctioning or incorrectly functioning map.
We observe the impulse to avoid rather than confront history in the narrator’s mixed ruminations on historical visibility in Invisible Man, which re-orients rather than intentionally disorganizes the map. The narrator considers Clifton’s anonymous, resigned death as an alternative response to the forces which have concealed, and will continue to conceal, the realities of Harlem. Perhaps, he thinks, “sometimes a man has to plunge outside history”—that, if to exist within history is to be co-opted by the stratagems of its more self-serving practitioners, “running and dodging the forces of history” is tactically preferable to “making a dominating stand” (Ellison, 377, 441). Here, evasion and intervention are both posited as potential countermeasures. The tension between these tactics manifests in the ambiguity of the unnamed narrator’s ultimate subterranean position—at the close of the text, he remains in his cellar, yet undecided as to whether or not he will eventually emerge. Trepidatious about both evasion and intervention, the narrator takes a hybrid approach—secluding himself underground, he literalizes his subordination and achieves a grimly epiphanic state, while simultaneously telling both his and Clifton’s story through the narrative that comprises the text.
Rather than create anti-cartographic maps that ultimately mystify what they promise to expose, Wright and Ellison invert the narrative trajectory and site that slum tourism employs, drawing the map from and not to the underground. This map, like the writing of history, takes the form of a narrative; in this vein, Brown contends that Invisible Man demonstrates that “narrative was as crucial a terrain for thinking through the spatial upheavals of the 1950s as Federal Housing Administration handbooks or racial covenants,” the fictional but equally necessary corollary to these primary documents (179). This is Ellison’s response to the troubled notion of a counterhistory—of how to best channel the “voice of invisibility issued from deep within our complex American underground” (Ellison, xviii). Direction and perspective are paramount; it is from and not into the underground that such a voice must emanate. “The counterhistory that is born of the story of race struggle will of course speak from the side that is in darkness, from within the shadows” writes Foucault (70, emphases added). Such a counterhistory must be taken on its own terms, divulged from its particular standpoint “within the shadows,” to evade co-optation by the dominant history’s methods, assumptions, or voyeuristic side effects.
If the official version at the top of the vertical axis is distorted, manipulated, or absent entirely, it is the unofficial versions, along the lower strata of the axis, to which African-American historians must turn. In “A New Interpretation for Negro History” (1937), historian Lawrence D. Reddick called for just such a history:
In observing the black men themselves, the historian may become more penetrating if he turns away a little more from the articulate professional classes to the welfare, feelings and thoughts of the common folk—the domestic servants, the tenant farmers, the dark men on the city streets. (27)
In keeping with Reddick’s 1937 essay, Robin D. G. Kelley’s Race Rebels (1994) explicitly calls for a “black history from way, way below” (13). To Sundquist’s suggestion that Ellison’s novel be read as a “reconstruction of African-American history,” then, it must be added that it is a history from below—one attending to, and produced by, the “dark men” on, and beneath, the city streets.
Aside from the spatialization of racial and socioeconomic hierarchy along a vertical axis, what else does the view from below imply and allow? Part of the answer may be found in the primary and primal materials of the poetic cartographies charted by this literature: namely, the stinking sewage and offal beneath the city as inescapable facet of midcentury black urban experience. Wright and Ellison are not slum tourists. Their narratives do not journey from privileged neighborhoods into downtrodden slums insulated by the promise of imminent escape; as has been noted, they open and close in underworlds of discarded subjects, objects, and spaces. Any tourism that takes place is of the rest of the city, not the slum. Both stories are divulged from representatives of the black underclass, and only depart from slums as momentary reprieves. This inverts the slum-tourist paradigm, wherein the underworld is experienced as brief recreational sojourn bookended by privileged aboveground existence. The subterranean view, manifested in these structural devices and atmospheric effects, not only emerges from, but is speckled with, the waste matter of lowly spaces, replete with feces and corpses.
In his discussion of subjugated knowledges, Foucault names a variety of “knowledges from below,” both in terms of “historical contents that have been buried” as well as “hierarchically inferior knowledges, knowledges that are below the required level of erudition or scientificity,” including the knowledges of psychiatric patients and delinquents (7). For Foucault, then, the lowly comes to mean deviant systems of thought not tethered to dominant or rational models; crucially, such systems are locally, historically, and spatially situated, responsive to the amorphous positioning of general, commonsensical, ahistorical platitudes. In this way, the view from below speaks to a racially and spatially positioned standpoint epistemology. As noted in our analysis of Wright, such a view does not simply represent a dirt-filled realism, but a purgatorial hybridity of above and below that is otherworldly. In its dislocation, liminality, and surreality, this perspective constitutes a hallucinatory site of commingling and contradictory modes of perception as historically produced facets of black subjectivity.
The narratives of descent in post-Harlem Renaissance underworld fiction therefore paradoxically conceal the black body in order to reveal an always-already-existent spatial subordination and record and exhume that subordination in language. When jettisoned from the narrative above ground, the invisible man irreverently tells his story from below, a story that also lies within: “I’d make invisibility felt if not seen, and they’d learn that it could be as polluting as a decaying body, or a piece of bad meat in a stew” (Ellison, 509). The narrator imagines his narrative itself as a form of material pollution, one that contaminates the hygienic body politic, making its inhabitants “gag on what they refused to see” as its nauseating scent drifts upward (Ellison, 508). When waste-averse culture myopically averts its gaze from unpleasant truths, a visceral and disturbing form of waste, material and linguistic, arises as an aesthetically and politically viable countermeasure. Outside the established parameters of historiographical selection, this unrecorded excess, squeezed out of a system of purported unity, returns to pollute, occupy, and haunt its borders.
The novel’s ultimate position may be encapsulated by the invisible man’s statement that, although “you curse and you swear to make them recognize you… alas, it’s seldom successful” (Ellison, 4). Seldom is preferable to never, and the contents of the novel constitute discourse between the two worlds. The spatial determinism exhibited in much of this body of literature, then, is qualified somewhat by the return of the racially and spatially repressed in narrative form. In the final analysis, Wright and Ellison’s texts serve as historical supplements which puncture the wholesome plenum of “postwar containment culture,” the spatial manifestations and truncated historiography of which have been the focus of this chapter (Ghosn, 22; Alworth, 54). In this way, the underworld “is not the space of the irredeemable Other,” but instead a “contested terrain where citizen-subjects try to take possession of their own history and spaces, and ownership of their representations in the wider cultural arena” (Heise, 11). In this vein, these African-American narratives of descent serve as interventions in selective historiographies and attempt to bring subjugated knowledges to the light of day. In Ellison’s words, “a slum like Harlem isn’t just a place of decay. It is also a form of historical and social memory.”
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☒ COVER ART FOR "---B---" BY NONFUNCTIONAL HARMONY ☒
♨ COVER ART FOR "---A---" BY NONFUNCTIONAL HARMONY ♨
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≁ EMERGE ≁
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warpedlines is the pet project of navid ebrahimzadeh, writer, programmer, designer, and doctoral candidate at the University of Washington. still in its infancy, warpedlines seeks to provide users with an interactive space to explore the intersections between text, image, and technology.