Trash Life

Both landfills and data storage facilities are teeming with threatening vitality

In Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 drama, Chungking Express, a recently dumped cop buys a can of sliced pineapples for every day that passes since his ex stopped answering his calls. He seeks out cans with an expiration date of May 1, his birthday; he’s decided that if they are not reconciled by then, his love, like the canned pineapples, will expire. Swallowing his pride, he begins eating the past-good fruits at midnight on the 1st of May and in their wake erects a tower of discarded tin cans. Bathed in a Kar-wai veil of electric blue, the cans evoke for me the compulsion to hold onto things as well as the ascetic pleasure of purging and the unbearable weight of accretion.

A pile of trash, especially of my own creation, has an abject allure. It shimmers between debris to be forgotten, discharged into nonspace, and an accumulation to be prodded and appraised, as though shelved in a thrift store. I infuse my trash pile with a vitality that contradicts its inertness: Each discarded object issues a call that is not just an echo of its forgone human utility but something wholly its own.

Moving your things, even moving them to the trash, only underscores their burden

When I moved across the country last year, I threw away a lot of what I had accumulated over three years of living in New York — unread magazines, American Apparel outfits, Sephora samples — all stuffed in trash bags, most donated, some dumped. When I purged myself from my possessions, I was both relieved — manic, even, finding the glee of disposing as intoxicating as consumption — and disgusted at my accretion, at my waste. Moving your things, even moving them to the trash, only underscores their burden. Their materiality becomes a problem, to be resolved and forgotten.

Malls and museums are built on the premise that objects draw us in by calling out; they are in themselves virtual viewing devices into history, knowledge, joy, relief, pleasure, an idea of the future. Now, smartphones and laptops, TVs and FitBits, even refrigerators can talk back, alert, track, and keep our attention transfixed in their pull. Despite the fact that smart objects act out their vitality more explicitly than most, they often end up as trash — that most ubiquitous of objects. And this is because the iPhone’s planned obsolescence, in the logic of American materialism, protects production and reassures us that our phone’s data — its soul? — is not in our pockets but on the cloud. Data’s immateriality and that inevitable “new upgrade” feed the hyper-consumptive tic of cyclical purging.

Robert Sullivan, touring a New Jersey dump, describes how the “garbage hills are alive … there are billions of microscopic organisms thriving underground in dark, oxygen-free communities.” The teeming bio-waste exhale methane and other greenhouse gases while leachate, “an espresso of refuse,” seeps and contaminates groundwater. In the oceans, plastic waste, curdled into giant floating trash piles, disintegrates into tiny shards that drift below the water’s surface. Marine microbiologists recently discovered that each of these shards of “plastic confetti” is its own “reef of biological activity,” supporting bacterial life that actually digests the plastic. While this is a potential blessing — this bacteria might aid in disappearing the ocean’s debris — it also means that toxins, such as phthalates, could be absorbed and reintroduced into the food chain. Our waste doesn’t just come back to haunt us — it is of us.

Political philosopher Jane Bennett asks in her book Vital Materialism, “Why advocate the vitality of matter? Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption.” If we flatten the hierarchy of being and more humbly commune with non-human matter, humans might — here’s hoping — not extinguish that which we have assumed is already lifeless by treating it as less than alive.

Bennett’s metaphysical love note to (or from) objects undoes the primacy of humans as the sole subject of philosophical discourse. She studies the capacity of things — that we eat or buy, but also weather systems, infrastructure, or metals — to not only mitigate human will but also have a quasi-will of their own. Objects have their own “trajectories, propensities, or tendencies,” she argues. Bennett invokes the childlike ease of encountering a world populated with animate objects, rather than dividing between humans and everything else. For Bennett, eating is an act of integration rather than consumption, and electricity is not just a resource but an actant, a force.

Speculative philosophies of intersubjectivity and animacy have, as Bennett, notes, a “rich metaphysical tradition in the West” — in Spinoza, Thoreau, and Deleuze — and an often unacknowledged debt to indigenous thinkers for, as scholar Zoe Todd writes, “their millennia of engagement with sentient environments, with cosmologies that enmesh people into complex relationships between themselves and all relations, and with climates and atmospheres as important points of organization and action.” Todd is specifically thinking of Inuit activists like Rosemarie Kuptana and Sheila Watt-Cloutier, for whom the Inuit concept of Sila — which could translate to climate, but also breathe, and life force — has done more to organize and activate awareness around climate change in the arctic than has the Gaia, the Mother Earth of Greek mythology, that European scholars often cite in their environmental philosophy. The thinkers of “ontological turn” in philosophy — which Bennett is a part of — offer this reconsideration of the more-than-human as far-reaching progress, while it actually runs parallel to the indigenous philosophical traditions European philosophers and anthropologists have studied for at least a century.

If objects can “call out,” the hoarder is attuned to their clarion shrill. Hoarders offer poignant, if not harrowing, case studies for arousal by accretion. In her article, “Powers of the Hoard: Further Notes on Material Agency,” Bennett suggests that hoarders are not “mentally ill” but rather differently abled, with a highly sensitive capacity for becoming enthralled by objects. Their capacity to hold space for objects the way we hold space for other people can exceed the physical capacity of their homes. The hoarder’s private sphere becomes a controlled stage for the inescapability of objects. While hoarders appear to be the antithesis of the ecologically minded consumer, the way they cohabitate with their excess intimates a more honest relation with their consumption. Most people forgo any material reminder of their ecological footprint in the bottomless abyss of the trash can. The hoarder remembers everything.

Most people forgo any material reminder of their ecological footprint in the bottomless abyss of the trash can. The hoarder remembers everything

Artists too, like hoarders, are devoted to the call of objects. But rather than “hoard,” artists “curate.” Even when they create messes, like Tracey Emin does in My Bed, each object retains meaningful specificity within the artwork. These messes, too, are considered to be the products of carelessness or resignation. The inclusion of each object signifies the artist’s intent, and the viewer can play at deciphering the lurking order of organization. The hoarder, rather than exhibiting objects, prefers the pile, where access to each object is subordinated until the gravity of mass becomes an aesthetic in itself. The particular aesthetic value of each object gives way to the pile as an aesthetic object in its own right.

The hoarder is considered a freak-show act in the circus of contemporary capitalism. In the show Hoarders, the afflicted are analyzed and pathologized while experts “offer support” and viewers gawk. Yet the hoard may serve a vital function for its owner. Some hoarders amass objects as a way to cope with mortality — a parent passing, a child leaving home — finding solace in most objects’ slower rate of decay. Others see the hoard as “comfort clutter,” shrinking underneath the hoard’s protective cocoon, or compare a separation from their possessions to an amputation, their porous bodies too entwined with their hoard to part with it. Others still speak of hoarding not as a choice but as acquiescence to a command. They’ll describe how “things just took over,” how things “overwhelmed” them, or how an object “demanded to be taken home.” In an episode of Hoarding: Buried Alive a woman named Caryn describes her hoarding as symptomatic of her “OCD: over-compulsive desire.” Hoarders are attached, but this attachment is more than just a pathological transference of meaning onto holding on to objects. It is also a sensitivity to the very vitality of what they own, and how they are implicated in, even a part of, their hoard, in the same way that we are attached to our limbs because our limbs are attached to us.

In holding on to their excess, hoarders enter into a controlled relationship with their waste in the privacy of their own home. For the hate-viewers of Hoarders, the most incorrigible aspect of hoarding is people’s willingness, their necessity, to live among their trash. It’s more desirable, or at least more comfortable, to displace waste. But, as Bennett writes, “vital materiality can never really be thrown ‘away,’ for it continues its activities even as a discarded or unwanted commodity.” Objects persist after their banishment from utility, accumulating in landfills that engender their own kind of abject power. This is the failure, or rather the reality, of waste management — objects deemed functionless render whole landscapes functionless, at least until waste is patched over with some dirt, as if swept under the rug. But landfills remain stubbornly, suffocatingly alive. While objects become useless, landfills retain a vital function: They persist.

Hoarders’ concessions aside, thing-power’s venerated prophet is, since at least 2014, Marie Kondo, the self-proclaimed “most organized woman in the world.” Her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has sold over four million copies worldwide, fashioning ascetic, zen-inspired interior design as a form of self-help: her KonMari method. Kondo makes decluttering simple: Necessary objects transmit elation; everything else must go. Kondo even coined her own phrase for this affective dimension of objects: “spark joy.” “The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away,” she writes, “is to take each item in one’s hands and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’”

Because it doesn’t “take up space,” we amass archives that, much like the hoarder’s hoard, form a kaleidoscopic view of habits and desires. Our internet stockpiles are our new self-portraits

Kondo confesses that at one point in her life, she “was virtually a ‘disposal unit.’” While to her, spark joy is a metric for what to keep, not what to get rid of, Kondo makes a ritual of throwing stuff away. “Express your appreciation,” she suggests, “for their contribution to your life.” Thank objects — even if all they offered was the reassurance that they weren’t needed. For Americans weaned off of Depression-era frugality, that an object’s worth is measured by affect rather than utility is profane. But for Kondo, gratitude anoints the object before its disposal, and assuages the purger’s guilt.

Collectively, a space occupied only by objects that spark joy will radiate purpose and clarity for its human inhabitants. Of course, nothing is new about this idea that exterior surroundings affect, if not reflect, interior dispositions. But Kondo suggests that beauty is not in the beholder. It beams from the beheld. Her insistence that objects can spark joy only haptically, when they are physically held, underlines that the feeling is not a projection of an inner disposition but a physical sensation transmitted through touch. This joy, according to Kondo, is felt by both parties — objects both transmit and experience the spark. This places hoarders and KonMari converts on the same animistic spectrum; both hoarders and tidiers are in reciprocal emotional relationships with their objects, although for hoarders the relationship is in a sense emotionally abusive.

Hoarding and purging are no longer merely in the realm of the physical. The nonhaptic arousal objects are capable of — the feeling when, on entering a store or gallery, certain objects and not others direct your attention and desire, when something invisible moves across to move us — suggests the curious immateriality of materiality’s power. Something of this power surges through us, buried as we are now under our digital hoards: data servers containing our browser history, crowded desktops scattered with jpegs. Often I am my messiest in my hard drive, where I store in poorly labeled folders everything I have ever downloaded, for no good reason. One friend described to me hoarding tabs. Can we call the person who has 14,000 unopened emails a hoarder? Can you imagine clearing out your inbox with the KonMari method: Does this email spark joy?

Digital hoarding is more socially permissible, given our seemingly infinite capacity to store the immaterial. Because it doesn’t “take up space,” there is little keeping us from saving anything we find online, amassing archives that, much like the hoarder’s hoard, seem like junk file-by-file, but collectively form a kaleidoscopic view of our habits and desires. Hence, the recent Instagram meme in which you post your last four saved photos or notes: Our internet stockpiles are our new self-portraits.

Landfills remain stubbornly, suffocatingly alive. While objects become useless, landfills retain a vital function: They persist

Hard drives epitomize the vitality of objects that Bennett describes. They are our digital repositories, etched with our traces, containing our multitudes. And despite the apparent immateriality of data storage, nothing will send me on a frenzied purge more than realizing I have no storage space left on my phone.

This vitality turns sinister when we imagine the data banks that store the near entirety of our digital lives: those cold rooms of monolithic servers extending endlessly, half-alive with knowledge of us. It’s no more possible to avoid leaving traces on these servers than to live in a consumer culture powered by obsolescence and not leave behind a ton of trash. And both landfills and data storage facilities remain hidden sites that are teeming with, perhaps, threatening vitality.

It’s worth asking if this wave of interest in the subjectivity of objects is more than a spiked hangover from hyper-consumption. Bennett fears that any “attempts to cross the ontological divide between people and things lead only to incoherence, animism, romanticism, vitalism, or worse.” Thing power could, to the averse reader, slide too near to anthropomorphism, where we merely project human qualities onto objects. Is “spark joy” just a cute code term for commodity fetishism, for our goods becoming more human than the humans who produce them?

In My Life With Things, anthropologist Elizabeth Chin, reckoning with her own “consumerist diaries,” returns to the etymology of fetish. When Karl Marx completed Capital in 1867, fetish did not suggest kinky sexual proclivities. Rather, the word came from the Portuguese and described Africans’ “mistaken” belief that spirits inhabited objects. Already, Marx’s use is divergent: Animists believe that spirits inhabit objects, but they worship the spirit, not the object itself. “Veneration of the object,” Chin writes, “is most certainly not the point of animism,” though when Marx accused European consumers of fetishism, he was “leveling an insult of mammoth proportions, stating directly that those who bought commodities were as primitive and backward as Africans.” In other words, “fetishism,” in Marx’s use, was a racial slur. As much as vital materialists, or object-oriented ontologists, or any other crop of thing-happy philosophers would like to declare their daring leap across the ontological divide as a necessary advancement of Western thought, the fact is that recognizing matter’s agency is a recapitulation of very old knowledge, knowledge that was systematically dismissed and persecuted. Now, much past the eve of environmental collapse, we need to remember this old knowledge, not reinvent it.

Ana Cecilia Alvarez’s words on art and women, among other topics, have appeared in several publications, including the New Inquiry and Vice. She lives on a hill in Los Angeles.