A trash bag made of gold sits in a corner with a royal blue wall and teal floor.

A look at what we accumulate and what we discard—and the changing systems and judgments surrounding both.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, Williams professors Joel Lee and Eiko Maruko Siniawer ’97 are fascinated by trash. For Lee, an anthropologist, what began as a cultural and religious history project within a community of sanitation workers in north India led to an ongoing exploration of urban sanitation infrastructure and how the organization of space has social, psychological and even biochemical effects on communities. For Siniawer, a historian, the experience of living in Japan while researching and writing a book on the institutionalization of violence in politics there sparked a scholarly interest in the country’s perceptions of waste in its broadest sense—including waste of resources, time, money and material possessions—the subject of her forthcoming book. In a far-ranging conversation in August, Lee and Siniawer spoke with sociology professor Olga Shevchenko, who studies memory, culture and consumption in post-Soviet Russia, about the material and moral implications of waste, shifting ideas about affluence—and Americans’ obsession with “stuff.”

Olga Shevchenko

Olga Shevchenko: Let’s start by talking about your scholarly interests, generally, and then more specifically about how these interests have led
to your research on waste and social values.

Eiko Maruko Siniawer ’97: My first book was on violence specialist types, mafia types and their involvement in politics—so political history from the 1860s to the 1960s. My current book project on waste and wastefulness in postwar Japan is a social and cultural history. If there’s anything that links these two projects, it’s an interest in phenomena that are unseen, or phenomena that people don’t want to see. But they are ubiquitous.

Joel Lee: Before graduate school, I was doing human rights work with the Dalit community. Dalit means “ground down” or “oppressed” and is the prevailing self-designation of those formerly called “the untouchables,” a fifth of the population of South Asia. When I went to graduate school, I wanted to do research with Valmikis, a particular Dalit community associated with sanitation labor. It started as a cultural and religious history project. In the course of my research, though, it became clear that sanitation labor and its infrastructures, rhythms and relations to municipal government profoundly structured people’s lives in ways that had to be taken into account.

Eiko Maruko Siniawer

Shevchenko: Can you talk about the specific social groups that emerge as key movers and shakers in these projects and how they fit into the larger social tapestry of the settings you look at?

Lee: In a lot of the world, including the U.S., sanitation work intersects with structural inequality based on class or ethnic group. In South Asia, sanitation work and work dealing with animal or human death have for a long time been the preserve of an intermarrying community or caste—the Valmikis in north India and Chuhras or Punjabi Christians in Pakistan—and they continue to deal with structures of entrenched discrimination.

Siniawer: For my work, it’s the middle class. I’m thinking about waste conceptually—not just garbage and trash but also wasted time, wasted effort. The history of waste consciousness in postwar Japan is bound up with the construction of the middle class. The middle class is supposed to be conscious of waste, whether it means being efficient with your time or clean and hygienic with your garbage or organizing your space in a particular way. Gender is very important. The housewife—defined as a woman who is married, even if she is working outside the home—has responsibilities including waste management in all forms: trash, running the household efficiently, managing monetary savings. The counterpoint is the more male notion of the worker who is efficient in the workplace, who is using time wisely or making double-sided copies to save paper.

Joel Lee

Shevchenko: In your case, Joel, it sounds like the groups generating ideas about waste may be rather distinct from the groups most directly affected by those ideas. Yet in yours, Eiko, it’s more like these ideas emerge from the self-identified middle class and pertain to the members of that same class. Is that fair to say?

Siniawer: Yes, ideas about waste are formulated by and for a middle class that is not defined in opposition to anything like the notion of an ultra-rich or a working class. So, the emergence of middle class-ness as a normative idea and, arguably, as a mass experience starting in the late 1950s and 1960s is defined by an ability to consume goods—the refrigerator, the car, the TV and later the color TV. It’s about the achievement of some level of comfort, security and convenience.

Shevchenko: Joel, what got you interested in waste?

Lee: Once you start thinking about how our notions of value seem to be ranged against notions of non-value, you get into conceptual categories that take you from the material to the moral world and back. How quickly does the word rubbish take you from a material thing to a social category? “Impurity,” “pollution,” “disgusting”—each of these categories takes us into the moral, the ethical, the social and the grossly material.

Shevchenko: Can you share some of your field experiences that drive these notions home in palpable ways?

Lee: I accompanied street sweepers on their rounds to get a sense of their work life. Doing the rounds with Jalads, members of a Dalit caste whose job is to remove the carcasses of goats, dogs and cats brought home the olfactory consequences of this form of labor. Temperatures are much higher in India, so decomposition happens at a different pace. There’s a backlog of animals. To do that work, you’re surrounded by the smell of rotting carcasses. The literature on the science of olfaction calls smells “odorants,” which are volatile chemical compounds. In Jalad work, these odorants lodge themselves in your pores, in your hair, in the folds of your clothes, and linger beyond the working day. In the olfactorily neutralized spaces of the global middle class, it’s very difficult to imagine that you’re breathing different air from others—to recognize that space is not neutral, not sensorily democratic, but partitioned into zones of different sensuous materiality. When you relate it to the literature of the U.S., it comes very close to what we call environmental racism.

Shevchenko: What you say about the olfactorily neutralized environment is interesting, because your work butts you against the limits of cultural relativism in that there are certain dimensions in which a sense of pleasant or unpleasant smell is culturally constructed. Travelers in the Soviet Union remark on the absence of deodorants, and of course it’s an everyday smell of human co-activity. Yet there are certain smells that one doesn’t get habituated to or that can’t be normalized.

Lee: What qualifies as perfume? Which kinds of smells are valued in different ways? Certain smells are universally culturally marked as bad, as opposed to something like animal manure, which some people may enjoy and appreciate and others might find disgusting.

Shevchenko: That gets at the connection between adjudications of pleasant and unpleasant, disgusting and not disgusting, in larger moral categories. Some of your work, Eiko, reminds me of the work I did about the late 1990s in Russia and the ways in which people dealt with the sudden influx of consumer electronics and household durables. What struck me in that setting was that people very enthusiastically bought new things, but they wouldn’t throw away their old ones. Instead, they reframed them as something else. You’d go to people’s homes and see three refrigerators—one of which was unplugged, working as a cupboard or a console for a TV. Or it would be there, as people said, in case of an emergency. It became clear that these kinds of judgments were also judgments about the insecurities of the present and the ways in which people always expect the worst times, so they stockpile these items as a buffer against threats that are still imagined. In that sense, waste could be used as a lens to understand larger anxieties, hopes or values in the present.

Siniawer: It reveals different things in different time periods—shifting ideas about the desirability of affluence, different levels of recognition about the costs and consequences of economic growth, and different definitions of wealth and affluence itself. In the 1950s and 1960s in Japan, the discussions were about what exactly should be considered wasteful, especially when it came to consumption of electronic goods, consumer durables, etc. In this transitional moment, with wartime and postwar poverty not so far behind, was it OK to spend money on a TV? Was it different to spend that money on a washing machine than a TV? There was a sense that consumption was a marker of progress and ultimately desirable. It was a sign that you were making it into the middle class. In the early 1970s, there was the oil shock and the war against garbage declared by the governor of Tokyo, and the economy faltered. It was a wake-up call that there were costs and consequences to high economic growth—that, in hindsight, we were acting wastefully in the 1960s. At the same time, there was a desire to hold on to the notion of a wealthy middle class life. By the 1980s and especially the 1990s, the umbrella for what constituted waste consciousness expanded. Waste was thought of in environmental terms and also in terms of what you did with your time. Being very efficient on the assembly line or in the office has been a thread in efficiency literature for a long time. But in the 1990s, people began to say, “It’s not wasteful to take more time for yourself,” not just for the leisure created by the leisure industry but in thinking about what meaningful time is to you. The more expansive thinking about waste goes hand in hand with the expansion of ways of defining and thinking about affluence—not just in terms of GDP growth but also in terms of social and environmental commitments.

Shevchenko: Joel, do you see fluctuations in how waste is thought about or practically handled over time?

Lee: For the last 200 years and more, it seems, as Marx observed, everything begins to assume the commodity form. Once everything assumes the commodity form, then things that were not considered waste before become waste. Take manure. Before the British government in India, manure was something that a particular group of people had a hereditary right to collect, distribute and exchange for certain privileges and a share of the collective grain at harvest time. This is a part of what is known as the Jajmani system. The British saw a potential source of profit and had a decades-long struggle with the community that has the hereditary right to the manure—which is the same community that does the sanitation work, historically—to turn manure into a commodity. The British argument was that they owned the municipality, the land and everything on it, and they wanted the right to sell manure at a profit to local farmers—a right they ultimately took by force.

Shevchenko: So, these transformations are diagnostic of larger cultural shifts or political or economic shifts.

Siniawer: I think about the example of “night soil” in Japan—where people from rural areas would come into the city, collect human waste and take it out to the rural areas to use as fertilizer. That practice was replaced in the early 1960s by chemical fertilizers, so human waste ceased to have value as a commodity and became valueless waste.

Shevchenko: Joel, what is the connection between the changing value of commodity and the value of people who traffic in that commodity? Is commodification a way to lay a claim to some kind of social contribution, or do you see the reverse in north India?

Lee: Anti-caste efforts within various Dalit communities have taken the line of: “Abandon these stigmatized forms of labor altogether.” The way out is to get a different kind of job, leave the village and go to the city—a radical break with traditional occupations and materials associated with them. At the same time, because municipal work is relatively well paying and secure, there’s a strong incentive for workers to stick with it but maybe to do the work in more dignified, safer ways. For example, sanitation workers’ unions have demanded basic protections to stop the slow violence of doing this work without gloves and masks.

Siniawer: In Japan, the social stigma of rag pickers (who make their livings scavenging rags and refuse) was quite strong. In the early 1960s, the figure of the rag picker disappeared. There was a push in the 1970s to build incinerators, but there was political contestation about where the incinerators should be situated. In Tokyo, they ended up being located in the middle of residential areas. The negotiation was: OK, there’s going to be an incinerator here, but the electricity generated by that incinerator is going to heat the community pool that we’re also putting in. The incinerator became a symbol of cleanliness, hygiene and the ability to tame waste, such that the social stigma of people who work for the sanitation industry—bureaucrats or municipal workers sitting in the incineration room looking at computer screens all day—is not the same as the social stigma of the rag picker who is handling the trash.

Lee: The mediation of a machine or technology is key. The largest category of sanitation worker in India is the municipal street sweeper who manually sweeps the streets. That was the case in New York—in most of the world—until the critical shift to trucks. There’s a desire, although an ambivalent one, among street sweepers in my fieldwork site, to mechanize. And here, too, you see how the mediation of the machine matters. When I take students in my Trash course to our local waste facilities, the people working there often tell us, “We don’t like it when people say ‘You work in the dump.’ This is not a dump. Everything is computer operated, look at the technology.” So even here in our region, the machine technology does a great deal of social work in distancing and overcoming stigma, yet the stigma lingers.

Shevchenko: In much of your work, waste is associated with stigma. But there’s a reverse logic where waste—being able to afford being wasteful—confers distinction.American sociologist Thorstein Veblen is very critical of what he calls “conspicuous consumption” of people who squander time and money, yet he argues this is just how people affirm their status in modern times.

Siniawer: Conspicuous consumption has been a marker of wealth in different ways at certain moments in postwar Japan. In the early to mid-1950s, as the country was just coming out of its most desperate economic situation, people began wondering, “What would be most scandalously luxurious? Maybe to be able to waste things. I could smoke half a cigarette and then throw it away! Wouldn’t that be the most luxurious thing?” The idea would be met with a gasp. In the 1980s, at the height of conspicuous consumption, there were women in their 20s with their Louis Vuitton handbags. But in neither case was there a flaunting of wastefulness itself.

Lee: We read Veblen in my Trash class. The students came up with the marble slabs in Williams’ library quad as an example of conspicuous consumption, a flaunting of the college’s wealth. One student did an analysis of the “Give It Up!” campaign. (At the end of each school year, the Center for Learning in Action and Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives organize a program for students to donate unwanted items, which local charities and nonprofits then distribute or resell to raise money.) She interviewed people at all levels—students, custodians, the people who organize the resale later. Her analysis was that this is, in effect, a redistribution of wealth that affirms the dominant status of those who are getting rid of the items and putting them into a secondhand market. Of course our notions of propriety keep anyone from actually saying, “I’m a conspicuous consumer.”

Siniawer: The popularity in recent years of the idea of decluttering has similar overtones. Marie Kondo (author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up) has been on The New York Times bestseller list for months. Her kind of decluttering has become as popular in the U.S. as it is in Japan. It masquerades under the idea of separation from stuff and materialism—decluttering as what the Times calls a “ruthless war on stuff.” But she’s also very concerned about what you keep and where you put it. It elides the fact that the people for whom the idea of decluttering is so powerful are people who have accumulated so much stuff that they don’t know what to do with it.

Shevchenko: That’s a great parallel to the marble slabs in the Williams’ library quad, which are rejected pieces from a quarry. They’re actually somebody’s trash.

Lee: And on the opposite end is the fascination with TV shows about hoarders and keeping stuff as pathology.

Shevchenko: Which is also very classed, right? Being preoccupied with stuff means you’re insecure.

Siniawer: There’s the tiny house phenomenon in the U.S.—not so much in Japan, because the average Japanese house is already much smaller than the typical American house. The idea of making do with less space is popular as a form of entertainment. But as a percentage of the actual real-estate market, it’s miniscule.

Shevchenko: Before we finish our conversation, talk about how your research factors into your teaching.

Siniawer: Early in my project about waste, I taught the Winter Study course Waste, which was formative for me. It was an opportunity to talk through with students a range of material and approach it in an eclectic way. We read everything from environmental literature to Don DeLillo’s Underworld.

Lee: My Trash class derives from my interest in sanitation labor and broader questions about race, value and culture. I want students to learn anthropology by doing it, so part of the idea is for them to rediscover themselves as embedded in and part of systems of waste production and circulation. We track the waste streams that Williams is part of—the incinerator in Pittsfield, the sewage treatment plant in Williamstown, the recycling facility in Pownal, Vt., and the composting facility in Bennington, Vt. Students do their own microethnographic study of some aspect of the local waste system.

Shevchenko: What are some of the lessons you hope students will get out of your material, intellectually or in terms of their own practice?

Siniawer: That Japan is not unique in terms of the ways it has thought about, defined and grappled with issues of waste and wastefulness. Questions of mass consumption, mass production and wealth should resonate with an American readership and trigger reflection about the ways in which decisions about waste permeate our lives—not just in terms of what we choose to keep or throw away but also what we deem meaningful to do with our time.

Lee: I want students to recognize their own emplacement and involvement in waste systems. I also want them to become more aware of how the shadow categories underneath value—waste, pollution, impurity and the disgusting—operate in clandestine ways in our moral codes and in the ways that we assess the social world and think about people and politics.