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'Give Us the Dumpsters -Or - Give Us Life': Res Derilictae and the Trash of Free Trade1

Daniel Lang

Other Voices, 3.1 Recycling Culture
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What we call recycling, the rest of the world calls everyday life.2

It is a venerable pop-ethnographic cliche to describe how a "traditional" society uses "every single part" of its primary resources. Whether the group in question is an exotic one in a little-publicized corner of the global South, a representative of an earlier moment in the history of the global North, or a surviving remnant of a population under genocidal attack, this theme is used to mark a radical difference from "our" world. In the contemporary U.S., the classic instance of the exotic version is a recitation of indigenous North Americans' uses of the bison, while the ancestral type is best represented by Laura Ingalls Wilder's nostalgic depictions of the settler culture that displaced those indigenous populations. The striking thing about this trope is not how central it is to so many descriptions of other cultures, but that the phenomenon it points to is worthy of special comment in the first place. Only in the world of consumer cultures (the global North, in particular the U.S.—but even here only recently) is the use of leftover parts, byproducts of production and residues of use, marked as a separate phenomenon. Which is to say that only a society based on waste notices the avoidance of waste and considers it an act, an effort, an event.

694. Restoration
     .12 redeem, reclaim, recover, retrieve; ransom; rescue; salvage, recycle;
     win back, recoup.3

Culturally as well, the facts of thorough use and re-use are far less significant than the need for a label to distinguish them from the rest of life. Only in places and times where disposability and short shelf-lives are the forces shaping culture—that is, only when consumerism is the logic of life—has that need taken shape. In studies of folk songs, for instance, the units of analysis are as often as not "families" of songs, identifiably related in many cases across dozens of versions over many decades on several continents. The many incarnations of the "Captain Kidd" family are far from unusual. This tune may have begun circulation as a boilerplate gallows valedictory attributed (with adjusted lyrics) to chimney sweep Jack Hall (1700) and famed pirate Captain Kidd (1701) among others (Lomax 1960, p.7-8). It was later adapted as a hymn under the title "Wondrous Love", appearing in a shape-note setting in the U.S. by 1825 (Lomax 1960, 70). Another shape-note version with more pantheistic lyrics, known by its first words, "Through All the World Below" (or as "Captain Kidd"), became the Bread and Puppet Theater's signature melody in the 1970s. These varied forms, uses and functions, from Newgate shocker to Christian praise-song to utopian performance anthem are no more than those of many a tune from many a tradition.4 Klezmer tunes, themselves spawned from the mingling of Ukrainian, Roma, Greek, and rabbinical melodies in Southeastern Europe (and shared with other musical traditions), provide a range of recent examples. The twentieth century saw klezmer melodies in genres from swing (Benny Goodman's "And the Angels Sing") to surf (Dick Dale's "Misirlou" ) to avant-punk (Kletka Red's "Jew In Jerusalem").5 It is only by virtue of having survived into this century, within the borders of the U.S., that these reincarnations seem miraculous, seem a phenomenon to discuss.

Even in cultural forms of more recent origin, it is only when they begin to be incorporated into consumer culture with a particular intensity that their adaptation and reuse of older material becomes an issue. In hip hop's early days, for instance, when it was mainly a performance form and recordings circulated in circles tightly bounded by race and class, the incorporation of existing beats and samples into new tracks was hardly considered remarkable. When hip hop began to grow towards its current commercial status, however, the sampling and beat-borrowing that had always been at its core suddenly became an issue, even a topic of controversy for the white, corporate, "mainstream" media and its audience. Cultural workers in the African-American vernacular tradition, like George Clinton (whose work with Funkadelic, Parliament, and the P-Funk All-Stars was sampled more than almost anything else at the time of the "controversy"), responded to the debate by saying "that's what kept us alive" (Oliver 1996, Green 1999). Clinton welcomed the new use of his work, while insisting on being given credit for it; the use itself was never an issue for him. A further sign of the commercial roots of the "controversy" is the fact that flurries of attention like the one that surrounded MC Hammer's use of the bass line from Rick James' "Super Freak" in his 1989 hit "U Can't Touch This" have not greeted recent jazz tunes that use the chord progression of "I Got Rhythm" (a.k.a. "rhythm changes") as their base.6 The difference speaks to the two genres' relative positions in the consumerist marketplace of culture.

Recycling means never having to say you're sorry.

In many ways, here in the U.S., recycling presently serves both materially and rhetorically as an alibi for the continuing, accepted and acceptable absence of sustainability, not as a harbinger of change. Recycling is presented as a cornerstone of the environmental project, as an alternative to waste, even to consumerism itself. But its actual operation is something rather different, a way for corporations and governments to present a marketable "earth-friendly" face to consumers and citizens, without changing the impact their actions have on the ecosystems in which we live. This happens at all levels, from the personal to the societal. On the level of individuals, recycling often acts to assuage people's concerns about their actions' effects, becoming a way of "doing something" without doing anything to address the causes of the problem, or even anything to effectively address the symptoms. How many additional sheets, or reams, of paper do we justify using for just a line or two of notes because they'll be recycled, and thus do not count as waste? Why not instead insist on paper that comes from sources other than clearcuts and monoculture tree farms, or better yet figure out ways to avoid the "need" for it in the first place? On a larger level, the individualistic framework of existing recycling programs puts the focus on what happens to materials after they have been manufactured, distributed and purchased, rather than on their source: the decision to produce materials for disposal. Fast-food companies' shift from styrofoam packaging to "post-consumer" paper goods—without reducing the number of layers of wrapping to be discarded from around their products—are more the paradigm for actually existing recycling-as-environmental-consciousness than they are its betrayal. Furthermore, it makes consumption, or rather "post-consumption," the site of environmental intervention—an approach that is inevitably too late, even when it may not be too little. Recycling is an approach to the environment that depends on an unsustainable relationship to it, one that accepts the permanence of destructive waste (and thus its right to exist), rather than seeking its causes and taking aim at them.

Récoltage (récolter; récolteur/euse; récolte)
     - to harvest a crop
     - to reap, to gain
Reaping a healthy profit.

An undifferentiated focus on, and praise for, "recycling" on the cultural front has a function similar in many ways to that of current versions of material recycling. Here cultural recycling serves as an alibi on the one hand for the role of consumerism and the economic power of the conglomerates at the heart of the "entertainment" industry, and on the other for the power imbalances among different groups of cultural workers and artists. In this paradigm of recycling as cultural creativity, dubious re-use becomes a best-case scenario, not a failure, and certainly not something that can be criticized in a systemic way. Madonna may take flak for the visibility of her appropriations—her bindi, her kabala, her chant-tinged vocal tracks—but the equally white and wealthy producers of the latest ever-so-white teenpop sensation are praised for the creativity of their borrowed soft-R&B stylings. The dynamics here once more have little to do with cultural creativity, and everything to do with what is concealed by the language of "recycling."

Most importantly, the recycling rhetoric obfuscates the huge differences in social and economic power that exist across race, class, and other lines running through the cultural field. It casts all cultural productions as equally "discarded," as equally accessible to and unproblematically usable by all. In fact, of course, this is never the case. Despite the efforts of the Black Rock Coalition7 and many others, no African American playing punk or hard rock is likely to get press coverage beyond "wow! she's black! and she plays guitar!" On the other hand, an Italian American pop star can be praised for innovation when she makes a vernacular dance form created by gay and transgender people of color the flavor of the month, and a white filmmaker can get credit for "returning vogueing to its roots" even as she cuts the (largely impoverished) dancers themselves out of the substantial profits of her movie.8 The "need" for continuous consumption makes new blood a constant necessity, while the "need" for profitability ensures that it will come from tapping existing cultural reserves rather than allowing cultural workers the space to develop. The marketing process of appropriation and advertising, rather than the folk or artistic processes of transformation and influence, is in the driver's seat. "Recycling," with its ecological connotations, diverts the eye from the underpinnings of the most visible cultural processes in the consumerist world. In culture as in the material sphere, the notion of recycling serves to make the present modes of cultural production acceptable to those who feel queasy when they think about them "too hard."

Garbage is a lie. (GLF communiqué #1)

How can we approach the excess, the waste, and the thrown away, without endorsement of the indefinite continuation implicit in the concept of "recycling"? In the rest of this paper, I will argue that the Garbage Liberation Front (GLF) and the Trash Worship circle, from whom the previous two arguments were gleaned in large part, exemplify and propose one method. They, and the rest of the countercultural formation of which they are part, emphatically deny the terms "garbage," "trash," "waste," and "refuse." They argue that "resources" is the proper term for materials found on the street in a black plastic bags or found on a store shelf in transparent shrink-wrap.

The project that the GLF and Trash Worship embody can be thought of as the normalization of thorough use and re-use as opposed to recycling's separation of these "resources" from everyday life. It is an admittedly parasitic approach, but one that carries the potential for an escape or transformation, since it reduces dependence on consumption even as it feeds on others' excess. It proposes that excess can provide the raw materials for reconstruction, for transformation, not just opportunities for improving the efficiency of the present system (metaphorically, for eliminating packaging rather than reforming it). What follows will elaborate on these themes, the theory and practice of the GLF and Trash Worship, and the interplay between them, recycling, and other related movements.

658. Means
     .1 means, ways, ways & means, means to an end; funds, resources,
     capital; supply; power, capacity, ability; resources, devices; method
660. Store, Supply
     .4 source of supply, source, resource; well, fountain, spring, wellspring;
     quarry, lode; cornucopia

The "resources" approach of these groups is not a single process, elaborated theoretically in advance, but instead a web of many practices. Some versions, relationships, elements, and practices contained within it maintain a parasitic dependence on present conditions, while others maintain a potential of being transformative. It is the tension between these poles that, in part, makes it so fertile and varied a project. The common kernel of these efforts is the key shared element—a rejection not of recycling per se, but of the notion of waste, garbage, or trash on which the concept and practice of "recycling" is based.

Recognition of the excess surrounding those of us who live in the global North, those that benefit from the unequal distribution of resources and commodities, is at the root of what the GLF, Trash Worship, and their circles do. Here, that which is cast aside is recognized as something in-and-of itself, rather than as an absence of usefulness, a lack of function, a pause or dead-end in consumption. The quantity of so-called waste is acknowledged as representing more than enough resources for survival, an understanding that replaces sermons of scarcity with an economy of abundance. As the GLF declared in its first communiqué (2001), "the system has already created enough for us to reconstruct the world many times anew." In the global North, this recognition of excess as something to be dealt with as a phenomenon itself, rather than as a byproduct, has been a missing piece. The excess' origin in local and global structures of power and economy is key to that recognition and understanding, but is seen as raising two interrelated questions. The first: what can we do to end this system of exploitation and excess? The second: with that end in mind, to what use can the excess itself be turned?

One way to approach these questions is through investigation of the terminology originally employed during the period of modernisation and transition into our waste-based society. These terms are useful not as replacements for "recycling" in its expanded usage, but to examine what recycling pushed aside in claiming its most basic, semantic turf. Refusal of the obsuring language of "recycling" exposes a half-abandoned language that speaks about using what's left over as something normal, accepted, and not particularly praiseworthy. Scrouging, gleaning, salvaging, recovery, récupération, grapillage, cueillage, bifage, ramassage—these and other English and French terms (the latter drawn from Agnes Varda's stunning documentary The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse, 2000)10 mark a transition from traditional agricultural practices to dumpster diving and found-object sculpting, drawn together not by shared uses of excess and so-called trash but by a shared view of it as a resource, as something rather than nothing.

Glanage (glaner; glaneur/euse; glanure/s)
     - to glean unreaped or fallen grain
Gleaning the remains of the crop.

The most universally sanctioned traditional practice of thorough use and the most frequently attacked modern ones are nearly identical. Each is based on the use of abandoned resources for their original intended purpose, whatever it may have been. Just as gleaning was when the global North was an agricultural economy, today dumpster diving is incredibly widespread. Most New Yorkers have acquired furniture (and often books) this way, and a range of gleaners encompassing college students, houseless street peddlers, traveling punks, and thrifty Greenwich Villagers can be seen any night at the garbage cans of the gourmet groceries near Christopher Street. The GLF uses dumpster diving as the exemplar of their approach to waste. As a GLF member writes (Dumpsterland 2001), "every bagelry is a treasure chest, every grocery store, a farmers market" (2) once you learn to look for it. I can attest from my own experience that a refrigerator need never go empty, or a living room unfurnished, as long as current patterns of waste and discard continue.

One of the most important aspects of dumpstering, especially dumpstering food, is the insight it gives into the functioning of the consumption economy. Aaron Cometbus, a Berkeley-based writer, puts it very well when he writes (2002) that one learns first of all just how much perfectly useful stuff is thrown away, but also exactly how much spoiled, decayed, or otherwise ruined stuff is on the shelves waiting to be purchased. What is thrown out is a few hours at most from being on the shelves—which is as true of a deeply putrescent banana as it is of fresh but unsold bread. That these two faces of misuse are inseparable is the realization that can lead to an analysis of consumerism as part of larger systems of exploitation, tied to the excesses and deprivations they cause. The GLF makes this connection at the beginning of its first communiqué (2001):

The Garbage Liberation Front is a response to disposable culture, a direct action in defiance to the wanton wastefulness of prosperity through capitalism. . . . Trash is rarely waste. Garbage is a lie. There are no styrofoam trees. Why are the dumpsters locked? Why do compactors destroy food when so many remain hungry?

Gathering food, clothing, and other still-usable objects that other people have discarded is, for some, a latterday descendent of the Biblically endorsed right of the destitute to the leavings of the wealthy,11 which became the common-law principle of res derilictae: if you have abandoned something, anyone can take it. In another view—the one taken by many police departments and chambers of commerce—it is an intolerable nuisance whose practitioners must be pushed back into their roles as consumers by any means necessary. This enforcement can include anything from pouring bleach on cast-off vegetables, to slashing cereal bags, to police action. Any dumpster diver can tell stories of food rendered inedible, not by natural decay, but by store owners; an unlucky many can add stories like the one Agnes Varda includes in The Gleaners and I, in which collecting abandoned food becomes an arrestable offence. It is important to mention the details of these hostile reactions, which are quite revealing. A clean-cut white student picking up a couch is an unlikely target, while a person of color or punk collecting food is immediately suspect. The former is perceived as a consumer in some sense, albeit thriftily circumventing more conventional means of purchase, while the latter is revealing conditions of poverty which are not supposed to exist in the U.S. Furthermore, dumpstering for food responds to conditions of poverty not by seeking acceptable charity but through a minor form of direct action—an activity considered beyond the pale of appropriate behavior in many ways.

Ramassage (ramasser, se ramasser; ramasseur/euse; ramassis)
     - to pick up mushrooms, sticks or wood
     - to collect, to find, to condense, to crouch, to fall over, to fail
     - a bunch, a jumble
Collecting the varied leftovers.

Dumpstering had been part of explicitly political projects for decades before the GLF emerged. The international Food Not Bombs network, in particular, has made it a key part of their fight against hunger and militarism. As Food Not Bombs groups collect discarded food, cook it into savory vegetarian meals, and distribute it free to all comers, they transform gleaning from a survival mechanism of the rural poor into a political action that helps people survive. This refiguring movies the practice up a step by altering the scale from the individual to the collective. Where individual dumpstering or gleaning can satisfy a person or family's needs, it can also be a way of accommodating oneself to a system that does not provide enough food for all. Dumpstering as part of a politicized, collective movement points to the system as something in need of change, not accommodation.12

At the same time, dumpstering can be, and is, an integral part of day to day survival for many, just as gleaning had been in earlier periods. There is a conceptual tension between those for whom it is also (or solely) an indispensible source of food and those who choose and prefer it, but have other options available. It must be said, however, that by no means do all politicized dumpster divers have other options—the myth of the middle-class roots of radicals (and thus radicalism) has its ties to truth, but is mainly a fiction designed to delegitimize movements for social justice.13 On a larger scale, any practice of thorough use and re-use "in the heart of consumer abundance society" (as Trash Worship's Rolando "Wasteone" Politi calls it) is always somewhat paradoxical. To "strive to operate much like subsistence economies in the midst of scarcity familiar in the Southern Hemisphere" (Nonsense 2001) in a context of abundance has the potential to become an aestheticized self-denial, a withdrawal into one's own "purity." This tension is found in the position of anyone trying to work against the systems that we benefit from, while attempting to forge connections across the lines drawn by capitalism's distribution of resources.

The Garbage Liberation Front's founding action illustrates one way of dealing separately with this contradiction. During the April 2001 mobilization in Québec City against a planning meeting for the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a pair of puppeteers from the U.S. was refused entry into Canada and wound up in Buffalo, NY. They assembled a group of people participating in the mass civil disobedience there into "a guerilla trash cleaning crew" which chose a neighborhood "marginalized and left to rot," and on the main day of action "piled four shopping carts high with garbage, set up a tire swing for the kids in the neighborhood, and cleared a vacant lot". (Dumpsterland 2001, 22-24) Why? And so what? Weren't these just "a bunch of out-of-town white kids cleaning a minority neighborhood?" (Dumpsterland 2001, 24) In GLF spokesperson Grungetta's words to neighborhood residents:

You were told by the corporate media that we had come to trash your city. But when we got here, we realized your city has been trashed enough by NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] and Free Trade; far worse than we could ever have done in one day. We have collected four shopping carts full of the trash that NAFTA has left in its wake. Take a look! Take something home! Hang it on your wall as a souvenir of what the trash of Capitalism looks like. Really! We have plenty! (Dumpsterland 2001, 24-5)

The GLF aimed to show concrete solidarity with a community directly affected by the "free trade" policies they had intended to confront at the policy-making location in Québec. They did so in a way which linked the local and the international registers of action so tightly that one could not be discussed without mentioning the other. Furthermore, they did so in a way which had no destructive fallout for the community they worked in (or for the GLFers themselves)—no arrests, no mess to clean up, no lingering tear gas in the air. "Picking up the trash of free trade" (GLF 2001) as they did can created both a material improvement in people's lives and an increased awareness of the fact that what agreements like NAFTA do is create waste, and lay waste to cities and communities.

Cueillage (cueillir; cueilleur/euse; cueillette)
     - to pick fruit or flowers
     - to pluck, to snatch, to steal, to nab, to arrest
Plucking what's left unattended.

But not all practices bring analysis and concrete effectiveness together as seamlessly as the GLF did in Buffalo. Some seem to be so dependent on present conditions and structures as to risk feeding complacency rather than resistance. One of these is shoplifting. Many of those involved in the countercultural milieu from which the GLF and Trash Worship grew are involved in, and defend on political grounds, the disappearance of merchandise from store shelves. The overwhelming majority of these folks draw very solid lines between taking things from corporate chain retailers (acceptable) and from shops owned by individuals or families (unacceptable). This is part of a broader distinction between personal possessions and private property that runs through the anti-capitalist politics of these circles as well as a recognition of the different stakes involved—abstract "harm" to a paper profit margin versus a potential impact on the livelihood of a family. As with dumpster diving, food and clothing are the main targets of shoplifting.

When compared to shoplifting, dumpstering has a rather different relationship to excess and the distribution cycles that create it. It relies not on discards but on overproduction itself, a stage before commodities have a chance to be thrown out. This feeds into decisions about how much of a given item a store "should" stock, and thus how much will be produced. Corporate chains, in particular, assign a certain amount of production to offset pilferage (both internal and external). Nonetheless, shoplifting, like dumpstering, is in some cases a part of survival. In particular when discarded food is made inedible, or when the prices of quality produce and other foods become extortionate, it is very hard to distinguish the motivations for shoplifting from subsistence dumpstering. The key question, to my mind, is not whether it is at times necessary, or to considered unproblematic when aimed at corporate targets, but whether it can be political, whether the process can contribute to a broader project of transformation.

In most instances I tend to think not the case. Shoplifting, as currently practiced, is largely an alternative mode of consumption, less confrontational and public (of necessity) than dumpstering, even when both are purely individual efforts. Rummaging through trash bags on a street corner, or even in an alley dumpster, does not depend on secrecy and invisibility in the same way, though it may be safest when it attracts less attention. Both dumpstering and shoplifting can lead to a certain bargain-hunter's pride in possessions, but the former is far more able to "reduce . . . dependency on the 'buy new and consume' culture." (Politi 2001) The latter, by contrast, does not bring capitalism's waste back into use, does not contradict the lie of garbage. There is a revelation about capitalism to be experienced when shoplifting—though not one that illuminates its cycle of waste and consumption.

Grappillage (grappiller; grappilleur/euse; grappillon)
     - to gather grapes after the harvest
     - to pick, to sneak, to swipe, to appropriate ideas, to nibble, to scrape
     together a living
     - a small bunch, a cluster
Gathering the overlooked remnants.

One key shared element of these thorough use and re-use practices is the view, that "another world exists within the bowels of this one . . . and it is everywhere" (Dumpsterland 2001, 2). This is both a literal description of the pervasive presence of resources disguised as garbage and a metaphorical comment on modes of struggle for change. Thorough use can look very much like a set of tactics that remain within the system, just as easily as it can seem an ultra-purist no-compromises approach.

The main activities of the Trash Worship circle are a case in point. The informal group gathers in community gardens, at underground parties, and during political mobilizations and transforms whatever resources the streets and dumpsters have brought them into beautiful and often useful creations. Steel and aluminum cans decorate a garden's fence (and perhaps keep the pigeons off it); umbrellas and plastic bags become picket signs you can dance with; masks and toys emerge from almost anything—all happening as part of the events and spaces in which Trash Worshippers work. In practice, it looks like this:

If you catch [Rolando/Wasteone] at a Blackkat party or maybe some underground space like Rubulad he'll be engulfed by plastic cups and paper plates and empty cans. But look at his pile a little closer and you'll find something else: brightly colored flowers, wee perfect candle holders, fantastic angel wings. . . . [Since 2000, he] has taken a bucket of tools and some raw materials to gardens, block parties, [and] raves. . . with a few collaborators. . . [P]artygoers will come over to see what he's doing and end up pitching in—making costumes, party favors, or temporary decorations (Nonsense 2001).

This can seem innocuous, not unlike a Martha Stewart project involving walnut shells or autumn leaves from the backyard, or, from another angle, just another playful escapist entertainment for rooms full of people dancing their worries away. In some ways it is. There is a very real potential to ignore the world of waste and capital. The danger of mistaking an individual transformation for a societal one is genuine, here as elsewhere. The mark of these projects and practices which so far seem most able to avoid this pitfall is their collectivity. Trash Worship does not function as an isolated event with a "star" figure, but as an invitation to participate, as on-the-spot organizing. "Something about trash, or our approach to the worship concept, needs a bit of pushing to get it through to other people," says Rolando/Wasteone, "a patience so that I can get into these people, so they can open up to me. . . . It's back to the worshipper, who, with the right degree of humbleness, can get through" (Nonsense 2001).

Even so, there are ways in which another type of quietism can be seen within Trash Worship practices, not withdrawal but co-existence with the system it attacks. This is most explicit in the section of an interview with Rolando/Wasteone in which he speaks directly about politics:

N: You mentioned anarchy earlier. There are a lot of different philosophies that fall under anarchy. Can you explain what that means to you?
RP: . . . To live this autonomous life it requires taking some different routes. And mainly it is going where the system is neglecting the area. I don't think a pure anarchy is live and let live, not in a way of taking over the system, more in a way of just surviving for ourselves. Basically anarchists accept that we are a minority and that we will always be a minority. . . . We just want to survive among ourselves (Nonsense 2001).

Many (if not most) anarchists would disagree with this characterization of anarchism as a whole, but it is revealing as one person's view of his own mode of operation. In particular, its non-confrontational focus on surviving "among ourselves" in spaces neglected by the system shifts attention from how to create change in the world to how to live most freely while it remains unchanged. This statement also casts anarchists as an exclusionary "ourselves" separate not only from defenders of the system they oppose but also from others who suffer from that system's functioning. The implicit message is that the politics of Trash Worship practices is not a threat to the structures they critique, that the two can live side by side.14

Récupération (récupérer; récupérateur/trice; récup; récupérable)
     - to salvage a ship or cargo
     - to reclaim, to retreive, to rehabilitate, to find usable, to rescue, to co-opt, to hijack
     - refreshing, calculated to win over opponents
     - salvagable, recoverable, usable, re-usable
Returning the abandoned scraps to use.

All in all, thorough use and re-use practices seem most genuinely transformative and effective at creating change when they deliberately turn the present system's leavings (or the system's agents) against itself. The closer the underlying analysis is to the surface of the actions, the more clarity about the ultimate goals as well as the immediate aims of the action there is, the less likely a practice or project is to fall into withdrawal or quietism.

An initiative with close ties to both Trash Worship and the Garbage Liberation Front is a perfect example of the difference that this makes. Bikes Across Borders (and the overlapping Puppetual Motion Cycle Circus publicity/agitation project) is "an Austin, TX based group that works with the CFO [Comite Fronterizo de Obreras] to set up bicycle cooperatives with recycled bikes on the Mex[ico-U.S.] border." (Cycle Circus Collective (CCC) 2002, 6) They collect discarded bicycle parts in the U.S., reconstruct them into usable vehicles, and transport them across the border to become transportation for maquiladora workers, with whom they also share repair and building skills. The co-ops set up in this way serve as semi-formal centers for the CFO's workers' rights organizing, as well as providing autonomous transportation that frees workers from one aspect of the maquilas' hold on their lives. Rather than simply refurbishing bikes for their own use, the Bikes Across Borders group (after a chance encounter while dumpstering, according to the Circus' version of the story (2001, 2)) sought a direct way to turn the excess to which they had access into something useful to those without such resources. The CFO's grassroots, autonomy-building approach made for a perfect cross-border partnership.

The Bikes Across Borders group's approach to its work is also apparent in the way in which it is publicized. The Puppetual Motion Cycle Circus tours by bicycle, performing an ever-changing mixture of puppetry, radical cheerleading, bike and unicycle tricks, music, and agitprop theater. The venues where the Circus has performed include community gardens, public parks, and off-off-Broadway theater spaces. There are no advertisements; perhaps a raucous parade to invite people to see the show. There are no press releases; a comic book version of the Bikes Across Borders Circus show is available. The centerpiece is the tale of the Bikes Across Borders project—both a presentation of the epic exertions necessary to get the first 80 rebuilt vehicles across the border into Mexico and a crystalline depiction of NAFTA, the maquiladora system and the grassroots struggle against them on the South side of the border. The puppets, costumes and props are all created from so-called trash, as are the bikes and bike-trailers used to transport them. The threads that run through all these efforts are community grounding, sustainability, autonomy, and a refusal to play by the rules the corporate "mainstream" media sets for getting the word out.

This localized approach makes it difficult to know that a project like this exists unless you stumble across it, but it also provides a certain ability to slide beneath the radar of law enforcement and other hostile authorities. Bikes Across Borders' first border crossing experience is a wonderful illustration of this in operation. Their truck was stopped by Customs officials, who demanded $700 in tariffs, far beyond the group's means. Meanwhile, trucks full of oranges from Dole's plantations and electrical wire harnesses from Alcoa's maquiladoras passed by duty-free, thanks to NAFTA. After a few moments' thought, however, the caravan realized that the fee to ride a bike across the border was a mere 25Ę—$20 for the truckload. The officials apparently never connected the shuttling cyclists with the truck they'd turned away for lack of tariff funds. (CCC 2002, 5)

Similarly, under far more tense conditions, the Buffalo police department was so nonplussed by the GLF's trash-picking action that they stepped aside when the GLF "requested that they move as they were blocking traffic" (Dumpsterland 2001, p.24) in the intersection where an ambush had been set for the dangerous anarchists. "Helicopters swarmed. . . cop cars, paddy wagons, and K-9 units were deployed", but in the end, as a GLFer reports,

our actions utterly stumped the cops. They wanted to see us smash and slash car windows and tires. They wanted to beat us as they had been trained, gas us just to see. What we did out there was a complete surprise, confounding and hard to criminalize. They were bored and confused. Eventually, they tried to help us, but just caused a nuisance and got in the way. (Dumpsterland 2001, p.24-25)

This result is, of course, not a reliable one. The puppeteers who initiated the GLF in Buffalo, in fact, were not sure they would be welcomed by the organizers of the civil disobedience and day of action, for just that reason. "Sometimes", they explain, "people aren't so nice to puppet builders; they worry about puppet spaces getting raided by the cops and decide it's easier not to have them." (Dumpsterland 2001, 21) The raid on the Ministry of Puppetganda warehouse during the mobilization against the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia is probably the most famous such event. Midday on August 1, 2000, a SWAT team and over a hundred cops arrested more than 80 puppeteers and hundreds of puppets without provocation, under a sealed warrant. There were no convictions. Nonetheless, the principle of creative re-use that drives the practices of the GLF, Trash Worship, and their fellow travelers implies a commitment to ever-changing tactics and styles of political action so as to keep one step ahead, harnessing confusion and confounding expectations. The danger for practitioners is in standing still, thinking that a solution, a magic key has been found, and allowing the authorities' surprise to fade into a tactical response.

Sauvetage (sauver, se sauver; sauveteur/euse, sauveur; sauvette)
     - to save
     - to salvage, to redeem, to rescue, to cure, to run off
     - salvager, rescuer, savior
     - hastily, on the sly, unauthorized
Repairing without sanction.

It is important to remember, before it appears that thorough use and re-use practices are hallmarks of a kinder, gentler approach to fighting for social justice and sustainability, that confrontation with systems of exploitation and excess is a central part of the analysis behind them. The GLF, in particular, makes it clear that it is in no way willing to quietly work in hopes of a better day, that the change it seeks will not come without struggle. In their first communiqué (2001), they explain their work as a response to the ultimate end result of the unsustainability of the present system: "We fight because although capitalism will devour itself, it will only do so when there is nothing left. This is unacceptable." Trash Worship's Rolando/Wasteone, as well, frames the circle's work as "important just for . . . survival. To inspire the culture . . . to survive." The ostensible aim, or at least visible output, of Trash Worship, is incidental as well. "First comes the action, the community," he writes, "art may come as a byproduct" (Nonsense 2001). The focus is clear; the day-to-day work is not prefigurative but concrete, an actual step towards a changed world, an object lesson with teeth.

The question hovering over all of my analysis and illustration is whether these efforts can be successful in a sustained manner, whether the slide into individualism and quietism can be averted. I have tried to point out areas in which I see these practices working, in which there is a productive link between lifestyle and analysis. None of this is inevitable, however. I do not see a necessary link between dumpster diving or transforming trash into useful beauty and solid work for social change, no matter how well I believe they work together. Pursuing the world we want to live in through means that reflect that world is in no way a clear path. The risk of justifying unsavory means by glorious ends always lurks, but so does its opposite, mistaking the means for the end and finding satisfaction in ones own individual transformation. In a sense the groups I have discussed carry out a departure from consumerism, from the mindset of waste and excess, from capitalism. But it is a collective effort which, at its best, reaches out to connect struggles across borders and relate the local and global registers of struggle.

We are reconstruction workers. (GLF Communiqué #1)

The groups discussed in this commentary are all connected in one way or another to a countercultural movement of substantial size which does not yet have a clear name for itself. In my (rather tentative) analysis, the GLF, Trash Worship, Bikes Across Borders, and other similar groups are one aspect of the most politicized segment of this counterculture, whose most visible participants in the U.S. tend to be referred to as "crusty punks," "traveling kids," etc. It is a predominantly white movement in the U.S. and Europe (though it exists to varying degrees in the global South as well), with participants of mixed class backgrounds, with a substantial number of queer folks in its ranks. For disclosure's sake as well as to indicate my sometimes un-citable sources, I should make it explicit that these are circles in which I move and participlate—in actions and performances as well as discussions, arguments, and consensus decision-making processes with friends in these and other formations.

One major characteristic of this counterculture, in both its more and less politicized incarnations, is dumpster diving and other kinds of thorough use and re-use as a key part of everyday survival. This is done partly out of necessity, partly out of choice, and partly out of political commitment. The groups I have discussed are the ones who most explicitly politicize these practices—though any crusty punk you ask will give you a political interpretation of dumpstering for food if asked to explain herself. Other key characteristics include some connection to the punk or hardcore music scene, and to the "DIY" (Do It Yourself) aesthetic/political leanings rooted in it. The reach of this counterculture can be seen in the fact that scarcely a month after the first GLF action in Buffalo, one of its initiators had heard of autonomous GLF events in Ithaca, NY, Gainesville, FL, Pittsburgh, PA, and Milwaukee, WI—and this with no mainstream media assistance in publicizing the idea. (Dumpsterland 2001, 25) Similarly, the Trash Worship circle, though based in New York City, has close ties not only with the Texan Bikes Across Borders initiative, but Glover, VT's Insurrection Landscapers and less formal groups in Washington, DC and elsewhere.

This counterculture is a fertile space of cultural work, as a result of its eclectic, DIY approach. Puppetry, zine writing (from feminist theory, to poetry to suburban ethnography), radical cheerleading, guerrilla filmmaking, urban agriculture, neo-vaudeville and many other forms are thriving under its umbrella, as are more styles of music than I could list. In some ways, there is a deliberate attempt to revive the older modes of cultural re-use and thorough use with which I began this essay. Sometimes this goes horrifically wrong, developing into cultural appropriation of an unpleasant sort. Often, however, it results in thrilling innovations and complicated, beautiful creations. At a Valentine's Day party in Bushwick, Brooklyn, for instance, I heard a group of friends with no more audience than me and whoever else was in the next room unfurl a twenty-minute bluegrass-gone-blues ballad about Bill Clinton's plans for leaving the White House, trading hilarious verses over guitars, banjo and fiddle until they ran out of rhymes. The song would not have been out of place over a Hooverville fire, or in a turn-of-the-century hobo jungle. Then we all went downstairs and heard two violinists and a drummer play something atonal and avant-garde enough to satisfy a new-music audience, and then bask in the loud applause of the party-goers. This is not an unusual juxtaposition, but one that is echoed in Philadelphia's eclectic Puppet Uprisings, in the varied offerings of the gallery space at New York City's ABC No Rio, in countless living rooms and house parties each weekend.15

At the politicized end of the counterculture, there is an extremely wide range of activities. Many are involved in one way or another with the environmental and animal rights movements. Others are active in work against sweatshops, in solidarity organizing for the Zapatista movement in Chiapas (or more recently for Palestinian struggles), or in struggles against police brutality. These areas of focus converge, for the most part, within the radical (i.e. explicitly anti-capitalist) wing of the (for lack of a better term) global justice movement whose 1999 coming out party in Seattle startled those who hadn't noticed the mass mobilizations during previous World Trade Organization and General Agreement and Tariffs and Trade negotiating sessions in Uruguay and elsewhere. The overlap between this counterculture and the direct action mobilizations in the global North that the events in Seattle ignited is very high.16

The politicized participants in this formation are mainly non-sectarian anarchists. Individuals have widely varied commitments within the current revival of anarchism as a political force, from anarcho-syndicalists organizing bike messengers in the San Francisco Bay Area, to Situationist-inspired projects like CrimethInc, to the tendency that identifies itself most strongly with thorough use and re-use practices—anarcho-primitivism or green anarchy . No tendency, federation, or network has anything like a noticeable plurality, much less a majority position. It would take far too much space, even if it were possible, to summarize the thinking of, or relationships between, any of these tendencies here, but one or two clsoing notes are necessary.

The questions raised in here have been a subject of debate within the anarchist world over the last decade or more. The first recent round, fought mainly between the respective acolytes of Murray Bookchin and John Zerzan, began with Bookchin's essay "Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm" (Bookchin 1995; Zerzan 1994). A more recent scuffle has centered around the CrimethInc publications Days of War, Nights of Love (Maul 2001) and Evasions (Davis 2001). In this essay, I have tried to remain anchored in concrete practices rather than these ever more abstract debates, but they are worth dipping into for a taste of the context in which the practices I discuss, and my ideas about them, have developed.

More importantly, I see deep ties connecting the core principles of current anarchist theory and practice and the approach to waste and excess that I have examined. The rejection of garbage, of trash, of refuse as a valid concept, which lies beneath this approach, has an affirmative side as well. It involves a deep-seated belief that everything, no matter how battered or rejected, is useful—to someone, for something. This runs parallel to the anti-hierarchical core of anarchism, which insists on the validity of all voices, on the necessity for every voice to be heard and taken into account directly, not through an allegedly "representative" mouthpiece. Both insist that anything cast aside is a loss not only to itself but to those around it, to the entire community. More than this, however, I see this focus on the potential use and beauty of all things as connected to the anarchist commitment to decentralization. The idea of recognizing the different usefulness of each object (what it "wants to" be used for, as the Bread and Puppet Theater's vernacular phrases it), runs parallel to the notion that people work, live and struggle best when they decide what works for them, and base their actions on it. Looking at "trash" as a resource to be put to varied uses appropriate to varied needs and contexts is, in a sense, the extension to the inanimate world the balance of autonomy and coordination that is anarchist decentralization in action. This aim of creating a world in which each person and collective is able to pursue fulfillment in its own way, and of embodying that principle in the struggle for such a world, asks the same question as Trash Worshippers and Garbage Liberators: what could this be, that nothing else could? What is held within these discards, waiting to be released into freedom?

precious mongrels look around you
we're the trash they throw away
we built our lives out of garbage
we made it beautiful
we gave it meaning (Lamm 2000)

divider divider divider divider divider


1. This title is a graffiti slogan cited as "'Under the Bridge' Pittsburgh, PA" in Dumpsterland 2001. The Garbage Liberation Front's first communiqué (2001) ended "We are picking up the trash of free trade."

2. Similarly, what the rest of the Web calls everyday life, here seems to require a footnote. This essay is annotated with links to a variety of materials not mentioned in the bibliography or footnotes—Web pages with MP3 samples of tunes mentioned in the text, organizations' Web sites, etc. These are included in the spirit of the essay's topic, as available materials to be used and juxtaposed by the reader, resources rather than authoritative documents. Some links may no longer work by the time you read this. If so, use a search engine to find the sound file, image, or extra information you need. That is how I found most of these. This mode of annotation, in the borderzone of copyright law and citation etiquette, would pass without comment on most Web pages. Here it coexists with the "traditional" academic apparatus, in which citations are commodities with market values that rise and fall with the winds of prestige and fashion.

3. This another other similar, interstital texts is taken from Chapman 1977.

4. These tunes and other members of their family can be found in many collections of American and British folk music. See Folk Songs of North America for an overall view of the lineage, music and lyrics. The canonical shape-note collection, which includes "Wondrous Love," is The Sacred Harp (Sacred Harp Publishing Co., 1991). The Bread and Puppet Theater's "Captain Kidd" is collected in the Northern Harmony collection (Gordon et al, 1999). Fyfe 1970 is an exhaustive exploration of the roots of an early nineteenth-century New Zealand version, "Davy Lowston."

5. The most striking instance of this is perhaps the story of an Eastern European melody whose descendents include both a stirring revolutionary ode penned by Bertolt Brecht ("Song of the Moldau") and the national anthem of the state of Israel, "Hatikva."

6. Building new jazz tunes on older chord changes is a time-honored tradition. In the case of "I Got Rhythm," the re-use is so frequent that there is a name for the chord progression itself independent of any melody.

7. See BRC 2002. Also, for more on this particular side of the questions of appropriation, afro-punk: the "rock n roll nigger" experience, a film by James Spooner—full information, trailer, and distribution at www.afropunk.com.

8. See Runions 1998 for, among other things, a unique view of the Paris Is Burning debate and comprehensive references on the subject.

9. A choice of languages based merely on opportunity and fluency. Any language that has survived its speakers' transition from a thorough-use to a waste-based economy will have an analogous terminology.

10. A celluloid valentine to the whole range of forms of re-use and thorough use (traditional and recently devised) surviving in France—apparently in a far more accepted way than in the U.S.

11. With broad social consequences. See the Book of Ruth, in particular Chapter 2 (JPS 1985, pp. 1419-1424).

12. It can also, predictably, bring down more intense versions of the policing of consumerismís borders that affects all dumpstering. Most notably in San Francisco, CA, Food Not Bombs has been the target of new city laws against free food distribution, new restrictions on use of public parks, and all manner of assaults on freedom of assembly—without ever having been linked to a single case of illness, or even indigestion.

13. The best example of this myth in operation is the surprise still created by the 1966 University of Michigan survey (cited in Young 1991) finding that support for the U.S. war against Vietnam increased with education (and thus wealth)—because its conclusion is exactly the opposite of the common-sense knowledge shaped by 'mainstream' commentators from Todd Gitlin to Pat Buchanan.

14. For the sake of full disclosure I should point out that this interview was conducted shortly after the September 11, 2001 attack on New York City and Washington, and thus in an atmosphere which gave plenty of incentive for anarchists and other radicals to portray themselves and their beliefs as non-confrontational and calm. I have not asked Rolando/Wasteone what he currently thinks on this subject. Regardless, the sentiment he expresses is far from isolated, though usually stated less openly, if not disavowed outright, by those whose actions exhibit it. Itís also important to mention here (see below for more) that versions of this debate have flared on and off within anarchist circles for years—and that I can see the tendencies I criticize here alive and well on all sides of the recent versions of these conversations.

15. A similar, more recent example also seems worth mentioning. At the July 2004 convergence against the Democratic National Convention's anointment of the second official pro-war candidate to enter the race for the U.S. Presidency, a group of us gathered for a sing-along one evening. With different voices joining in at different times, and many continuing throughout, three generations of radicals harmonized on "Hallelujah, Iím a Bum" (from the IWW repertoire of the 1910s), "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" (updated from Phil Ochs 1960s classic), and "Baby, I'm an Anarchist" (an anthem of the 2000s by Against Me)—all three songs stressing the line between those who devote themselves to structural change and those who put their energy into half-measures and palliatives.

16. See Shepard & Hayduk 2002 for the prehistory of this movement in the U.S.

Works Cited:

Beregovski, Moshe. Old Jewish Folk Music (Mark Slobin, ed.). Syracuse NY: Syracuse UP, 2000.

Black Rock Coalition. Website at http://www.blackrockcoalition.org

Bookchin, Murray. "Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An unbridgeable chasm" (1995). Available as part of a Bookchin archive online at http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/soclife.html

Chapman, Robert L. Roget's International Thesaurus, 4th Edition. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1977.

Cometbus, Aaron. Despite Everything: A Cometbus Anthology. Last Gasp: 2002.

Cycle Circus Collective. Bikes Across Borders Cycle Circus Comic. Undated, but circa 2002. Available online through http://www.rhizomecollective.org

Davis, Nigel. Evasion. CrimethInc Workers' Collective, 2001.

Dumpsterland, Dave. Dumpsterland #10 (May 2001). Several articles of Dave's from this issue of his zine are cited above. The zine is available at your local infoshop or zine library or by sending postage and an address to Dumpsterland, P.O. Box 267873, Chicago, IL 60626-7873 and waiting for Dave to pass through town and pick up his mail.

Fyfe, Frank. "The story of David Lowston, a pre-colonial NZ song". Originally in the Journal of New Zealand Folklore, 1970. Available online at http://folksong.org.nz/davylows/lowstonfyfe.html

Garbage Liberation Front. "Garbage Liberation: the battle has begun". In Dumpsterland #10 (May 2001)

Gelbspan, Ross. The Heat Is On: The climate crisis; the cover-up; the prescription. Reading MA: Perseus, 1997.

Gordon, Larry, Anthony G. Barrand, and Carole Moody Cronpton, eds. Northern Harmony: Plain Tunes, Fuging Tunes, and Anthems from the Early and Contemporary New England Singing School Traditions, Fourth Edition. Marshfield VT: Northern Harmony Publishing Co., 1999.

Green, Robert. "Ambassador From the Mothership". Originally on synthesis.net in 1999. Available online at http://www.arielpublicity.com/george_clinton/press_2.html

Jewish Publication Society. Tanakh. Philadelphia PA: JPS, 1985.

Lamm, Nomy. "Sid's Aria". In The Transfused. Olympia WA: Yoyo Recordings, 2000.

Lomax, Alan. Folk Songs of North America. New York: Doubleday, 1960.

Maul, Paul F., CrimethInc Workers' Collective, et al. Days of War, Nights of Love: Crimethink for beginners. CrimethInc Workers' Collective, 2001.

Nonsense NYC. "Rolando Politi, Trash Worship". Website publication November 2001. Online at http://nonsensenyc.com/features/politi_int.html

Oliver, Alex. "George Clinton: Talkin' with the grandmaster of funk". In OffBeat (September 1996). Available online at http://www.offbeat.com/text/clinton.html

Politi, Rolando. "description". Listserv posting November 18, 2002. Archived online at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Trashworship/message/1

Politi, Rolando. "Trash Worship". In Satya (September 2001). Online at http://www.satyamag.com/sept01/rolando.html

Politi, Rolando. "Who we are". Website publication. Online at http://www.trashworship.org/whower/who.htm

Runions, Erin. 1998. "Zion is Burning." Semeia 82: 225Ė46.

Sacred Harp publishing Co. The Sacred Harp—1991 Revision. Chelsea AL: Sacred Harp Publishing Co., 1991.

San Francisco Food Not Bombs. Website at http://www.sffoodnotbombs.org

San Francisco Food Not Bombs. Archive at http://www.webcom.com/~peace/PEACTREE/stuff/stuff/HOMEPAGE.html

Shepard, Ben & Ronald Hayduk, eds. From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban protest and community building in the era of globalization. New York: Verso, 2002.

Young, Marilyn. The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Zerzan, John. Future Primitive and other essays. John Zerzan. Brooklyn NY: Autonomedia, 1994.


About the Author:

Daniel Lang is an independent scholar, theater artist, and activist based in New York City. His academic background is interdisciplinary, focused on cultural interaction and mixing, especially in al-Andalus (medieval Iberia) and the African Atlantic world. He has been involved in the recent anti-capitalist actions targeting international financial institutions, as well as Palestine solidarity organizing in the Jewish community and a range of activism on queer issues. His performance work has been primarily puppetry and movement theater, both for the stage and the street. For the last few years he has been working on ways to bring his intellectual, artistic and political work together; his paper for this special issue on "Cultural Recycling" is part of that effort.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Lang, Daniel. "'Give Us the Dumpsters -Or - Give Us Life': Res Derilictae and the Trash of Free Trade." Other Voices 3.1 May 2007. June 15, 2024 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/dlang/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Daniel Lang, "Give Us the Dumpsters -Or - Give Us Life": Res Derilictae and the Trash of Free Trade. Other Voices 3, no. 1 (2007), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/dlang/index.php› (accessed June 15, 2024)

APA Style Citation:
Lang, Daniel. (2007, May). "Give Us the Dumpsters -Or - Give Us Life": Res Derilictae and the Trash of Free Trade. Other Voices, 3.1. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/dlang/index.php


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