(Oh, okay, that’s a lie.)
Today, we sally forth in Drunka’s fine footsteps, attempting the near impossible: to see if we can integrate academic meanderings about popular culture into our everyday lives, specifically, we will delve into waste management.
Surveillance, Paranoia, and Abjection: The Ideological Underpinnings of Waste Management in the EPA's Measuring Recycling Guidelines and Don DeLillo's Underworld.
: The Journal of American Popular Culture, Spring 2006, Volume 5, Issue 1 Americana
By Jeremy Justus (of
) West Virginia University
Justus posits, as we all have from time to time, that ideological surveillance, at the core of so many American policies, informs a host of American cultural articulations. If that is the case – and Justus, of course, sets out to prove that it is - “then we should be able to locate the ideological underpinnings of waste management and the literary manifestations of these underpinnings in the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) recycling guidelines as well as in contemporary, American literature.”
I was pondering exactly that hypothesis only six months ago, although, in general, I have never been so amoured of government guidelines or other such government penned offerings as to view them as a specifically literary manifestation. I’ve always thought that government documents were the anti-Christ of literature.
The other fleeting thought that I share with Justus, as I’m sure many of my fine readers have, are the ideas proffered by Neil Evernden, who:
“articulates the problems of anthropomorphizing nature in terms of the human tendency to interject ideologies onto non-human subjects in the very process of humanizing them.”
I did exactly that only this morning, in between having a philosophical discussion with a coffee cup, and prior to taking the toaster out for morning walkies.
Justus is pretty hung-up about the idea of humans being so persistently human. Not only do we view the environment from a human psychological and ideological perspective, but we minister to and interact with the environment in much the same manner, that is, a uniquely human manner.
Justus acknowledges the difficulty of humans behaving in some other manner, but appears to deeply regret that humans do not view the world in a more tree like, or perhaps orangutan, manner.
“Nature is subject to human control by virtue of being defined, understood, and treated by human "authority."
“ecology, as a human attempt to be "ecocentric," treats nature in linguistic, and thus human terms."
"... we might consider what empathy implies: an underlying similarity between the human and the natural world". Any similarity is necessarily a human construction, and, thus, entirely one-sided.” “... That is, nature, as far as we can tell, lacks an intrinsic ability to reciprocate our empathy unless, of course, we perceive that it can (in which case, again, nature's empathy is still a distinctly human construction).”
It doesn’t matter which way you turn it or slice it and dice it, everything is a human construct. If only orangutans would step up to the plate and write a few academic articles we wouldn’t have this embarrassing surfeit of human-centric thinking.
“Moreover, understanding nature in human terms means projecting our own egos onto nature – viewing nature in egocentric rather than truly ecocentric terms. Regardless, we are bound to approach the study of nature from limited, human perspectives.”
See what I mean? We are limited by our limited human perspective. From now on I’m going to try to think and act and interact with the environment like an orchid.
Having established our disgracefully human limitations, Justus jumps straight into the deep end of our complementary ideological goals. (Not that Justus thinks they are complementary, but more on that later.)
“On one hand, earth-friendly ideologies cast recycling, for example, as a responsible approach towards non-human subjects. On the other hand, ideologies that favor a strong, national defense, for example, enable us to justify the potential use of nuclear weapons (and, thus, the potential destruction of the earth as we know it).”That is, I argue, in a self-perpetuating cycle, ideologies that cast both waste management and the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction as responsible approaches to the treatment of non-human subjects both describe our attitude towards the earth and prescribe our actions toward it.”
Yes, that thorny ancient ability to both nurture and destroy. Love the thing you destroy; destroy the thing you love.
Ooops, sorry, that was me and my human musings.
“As Foucault states, "Visibility is a trap" . By virtue of being so exposed, nature remains constantly vulnerable to surveillance and, thus, remains a trapped environment. The trap, however, is not so much in nature's visibility, but in its being subjected to human ideologies that cast surveillance as a necessary means of social regulation. As nature is anthropomorphized, it also becomes subject to the surveillance used to regulate human subjects.If this is the case, then panoptic surveillance also governs our environment, if, for no other reason, because humans represent a controlling force over the environment.An environment, then, is a deliberately enclosed space, subject to surveillance and supervision, and, by virtue of being circumscribed by human activity, it is also subject to ideologies that dictate human behavior and attitudes.”
In fact, Justus gets a little carried away while mulling about this anthropomorphicizing business. An environment may well be a “deliberately enclosed space”, but jumping from there into suggesting that enclosed spaces are a human construct, with a surveillance and supervision meta-floating signifier attached, is one uber-egocentric assumption, which takes no account of context, history or time.
Earth is an environment, in and of itself, and it was a defined space before we came along, just as it will continue to be a defined space long after we are gone. Ditto this and all the billions of other galaxies out there. Matter existed and environments existed when there was no one watching, no one to conduct surveillance, no one to supervise.
Justus is on a confined popular culture / political mission though, so we must ignore the obvious.
He argues that just as schools and hospitals, for example, are enclosed environs that serve as a means by which to gather information about human subjects, on behalf of the state, if nature is truly an environed space, then organizations responsible for the collection of ecological information also function as ideological state apparatuses.
At long last, Justus takes us into an analysis of EPA literature, which, amongst other things provides “a standardized tool for the measurement of recycling rates, the guide both describes and prescribes specific processes for gathering this type of information".
"In short, the guide, on one hand, describes a uniform approach to measuring state and local recycling statistics while, on the other hand, it prescribes the same approach that it describes.”
Which isn’t “in short” at all, in fact he uses more words the second time to clarify an already clear and succinct point.
Why Justus finds this notable isn’t obvious, since governing bodies do this sort of thing all the time. The choice of metaphor, for example, will always determine and telegraph the means and the ends, such as it does and always will for things like the “war” on drugs – a description, prescription for process and outcome, all tied up with a little bow. However, this habit of picking metaphors or processes to both define and prescribe is not confined to government agencies, it comes from the bottom up, just as often as it comes from the top down. But, that's by the by.
Justus steps through the recycling process, concluding that “waste” is not designated as waste until it has been consumed, very often in the private sphere, at which point it becomes a matter of surveillance for the EPA. He then ponders, lightly, that this is a means by which the EPA infiltrates and monitors the private sphere.
He spells out the utterly mundane point:
“In this sense, the cereal boxes on our cabinet shelves are in the process of becoming recyclable waste through their daily use.”
No shit Sherlock.Furthermore:
“by prescribing definitions and procedures that involve domestic spaces, the EPA's procedures of information gathering have a trickle-down effect that become embedded en route with a type of ideology that inadvertently transforms statistical research into another means of surveillance.”In fact, measuring and monitoring recycling, in particular, does not especially infiltrate, advertently or inadvertently, the private sphere. Waste was monitored and measured long before recycling became fashionable. In that regard, government bodies have always had an intimate view of and interest in the waste generated in private spaces. This, and a myriad of statistical collections, has never been inadvertent.
At this point Justus leaves us and our domestic waste entirely in the lurch, diving into Don Delillo’s Underworld, claiming, quite outrageously:
"As is often the case, fiction expresses contemporary power situations and relationships and tells larger truths that historical records often gloss over."If he believes that, we can hazzard a guess that he hasn't read much history, which is far less glossy than Justus imagines.
But, this is why we abruptly move from Foucault and EPA guidelines into Underworld – because fiction will be more informed than real life.
The Underworld tells the story of the search for a lost baseball. An artist in the story uses spent bomb casings to create her art. This is clearly intended to be a profound signifier, but of what, I don’t know, other than that recycling is de rigueur, especially for modern artists.
Toward the end of the book, the human dichotomy of saving and destroying the world are neatly (too neatly) drawn together in a scene in which we witness the use of an underground nuclear explosion to obliterate human waste, which has, of course, been stored underground. That all of the action and the waste is literally out of sight – underground – and the explosion is likewise, unseen, the metaphoric significance of it all is conflated, for the idiot reader … in case they really don’t get it. Waste and weapons together at last, both tantalizingly unseen. Ta da!
Analyzing the novel, Justus highlights depictions of the human fascination with surveillance of the natural environment. For example, one character is mesmerized by photographs of the earth and space. This, according to Justus illustrates the voyeuristic appeal of surveillance. In other words, characters in the book react, in a human manner, to the environment, becoming part of a mechanism of surveillance, and, if they enjoy this activity, they enslave the environment for their voyeuristic delight.And all this time you thought that gazing at a pretty sunset, or photos beamed back from the Hubble, with a suitable degree of wonder and awe, was a normal (human) response. Ha! You’re just part of the voyeuristic surveillance machine!
“Underworld reveals both a certain characteristic post-Cold War paranoia and nostalgia, while illustrating waste's metaphorical role as both the abject, underlying, discarded remnants of the paranoia and nostalgia. Moreover, Underworld also expresses a characteristic appeal of ideological surveillance as it manifests in the character's reactions to environed spaces.Indeed, Justus nails those assumptions pretty sharply! Who among us would disagree?
How, then, might we discuss ideological surveillance as it is enforced upon non-human subjects? We can assume that non-human subjects don't internalize ideological surveillance, and, if they did, we probably would have no real way of knowing it.”
But let’s not let a momentary acknowledgement that trees and rocks and mountains and the ocean and such are unable to, or at least unable to tell us about, their internalization of ideological surveillance, lead us to anything remotely sensible.
“Even our approach to waste management, as Evernden suggests, reveals a characteristically egocentric approach to non-human subjects. The idea that nature is in danger of being "imperiled through profligate waste and human mismanagement" suggests that humans are both the cause of nature's imperilment and that "it is up to us to devise the means to its salvation", thus justifying our surveillance of the environment.”The alternative, it is implied, would be to close our eyes, thereby solving the problem of humans being the ideological purveyors of all that they survey.
I’m not entirely sure how that would address anything, or what it would contribute to anything, other than being an alternative ideology, akin to the romanticisation of primitive and impoverished communities.
We should avert our eyes - really? For what non-purpose?If only we would stop being voyeuristic perverts, the environs, unobserved, and spared ideological grafting, would live long and prosper.
You’ve no doubt been wondering how abjection comes into all of this, holding as it does, so much promise in the title of the essay.
”The purification of the abject – the recycling and sublimation of waste – is a particularly important recurring theme in DeLillo's fiction.”“…Underworld's Klara Sax reclaims material waste as art, thereby reclaiming and purifying the abject.”
Then things get a little grubby, with discussion of art as abjection and ejaculatory expressiveness.
“Helyer notes, on one hand, that art is just another form of evacuation, that "[a]rt is firmly linked to abjection as something ejaculated in an attempt to reinforce a difference, a separation, and to ward off the inherent fear of being engulfed by sameness"I would assert, on the other hand, that Sax has, by choosing to work with material waste, metaphorically done the opposite: Sax has reclaimed what was once ejaculated and has integrated that into a new configuration.As Kristeva notes, the ultimate, cathartic method of purifying the abject is through art. I concede that artwork necessarily involves placing oneself on the canvas, and that an artist may certainly use art as a means of "ejaculating" her own, unwanted waste; however, the amalgamation of material waste and the metaphorical projection of Sax's self illustrates, if nothing else, the reclamation (and thus the recycling) of the abject. In both investing herself in the art and incorporating waste into the product, Sax creates a place in which the abject ebbs and flows both out of and into a manufactured identity.”
I’m not sure how or why that happened, but then, I don’t understand why, having given a passing review of EPA literature, the EPA is never mentioned again, not in the Underworld, and not in the essay. The EPA is simply forgotten, in favor of the excitement of abjection, ejaculatory art and the purifying metaphor of such activities.
”DeLillo writes that "[a]ll technology refers to the bomb" (Underworld 467). If this is the case, we might assume that the technology of waste management, as DeLillo illustrates, also refers to the bomb – as in the final chapter when waste is eradicated by an underground, nuclear explosion.”DeLillo describes Jell-O molds as "sort of guided missile-like" and a vacuum cleaner as "satellite-shaped".
Justus concludes exactly where he started, having enlightened no-one, nor delighted the audience with colorful displays of erudition or the esoteric.
"Recycling waste. Building bombs. Both are evidence of ideological perspectives as they influence our attitudes toward and treatments of nature. We create environed spaces, monitor them, justify saving and protecting them by means of recycling technology, and protect their boundaries with weapons of mass destruction.Regardless, either way, the ideological underpinnings of earth-friendly endeavors represent distinctly human constructs that determine our ecological approaches to nature."
Well, not for me buddy!
This is me, in my new guise as an orchid, looking at the environed world through distinctly orchid constructs.
(That thing in the top left corner is my floating signifier.)