THE BELIEVER: You’ve said that “garbage is very scary to us culturally, and it is also… one of the single most fascinating things you could ever study.” And, at least back when you started, garbage was a “cognitive problem” that you didn’t fully understand. Why do you think most people, at least overtly, don’t react to garbage with such a complicated fascination?
ROBIN NAGLE: It’s a complicated answer because it points in so many directions at one time. Garbage is generally overlooked because we create so much of it so casually and so constantly that it’s a little bit like paying attention to, I don’t know, to your spit, or something else you just don’t think about. You—we—get to take it for granted that, yeah, we’re going to create it, and, yeah, somebody’s going to take care of it, take it away. It’s also very intimate. There’s very little we do in twenty-four hours except sleeping, and not always even sleeping, when we don’t create some form of trash. Even just now, waiting for you, I pulled out a Kleenex and I blew my nose and I threw it out, in not even fifteen seconds. There’s a little intimate gesture that I don’t think about, you don’t think about, and yet there’s a remnant, there’s a piece of debris, there’s a trace.
There’s a scholar at Stanford, his name is Bill Rathje. He wrote a book called Rubbish!and he’s an archaeologist of contemporary household waste. He trained classically at Harvard as a traditional archaeologist and did work among the ancient Mayan ruins. He says garbage is a highly visible problem that we choose to make invisible.
BLVR: You, and William Rathje also, see it as also a cognitive problem.
RN: Well, it’s cognitive in that exact way: that it is quite highly visible, and constant, and invisibilized. So from the perspective of an anthropologist, or a psychologist, or someone trying to understand humanness: What is that thing? What is that mental process where we invisibilize something that’s present all the time?
The other cognitive problem is: Why have we developed, or, rather, why have we found ourselves implicated in a system that not only generates so much trash, but relies upon the accelerating production of waste for its own perpetuation? Why is that OK?
And a third cognitive problem is: Every single thing you see is future trash. Everything. So we are surrounded by ephemera, but we can’t acknowledge that, because it’s kind of scary, because I think ultimately it points to our own temporariness, to thoughts that we’re all going to die."
---remembering Rosemary's Baby
---Rosen's advice for future journalists
---Jonathan Franzen and the fragmentation of postmodern life:“You could also make the case that we are way past the heyday of the novel. There is no question that as peoples’ lives get broken up into ever tinier, useless, electronic bits, the whole notion of sitting down to lose oneself in an imaginary world becomes more and more untenable."