Since 2006, Robin Nagle has been the anthropologist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY). She is the first to hold this title (though DSNY has had an artist-in-residence since 1977), which, the department claims, makes it the city’s “sole uniformed force… with its own social scientist.” As an anthropologist, she trained in fieldwork and the tools of social science; as a sanitation worker, she had a route in the Bronx.
Alex Carp in The Believer:
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.
More here. [Thanks to Cyrus Hall.]