I sit on a stool in a recording studio at the University of Michigan. Oversized orange rubber gloves cover my hands. Plastic bags from the University Library have replaced my shoes and shield my feed from the slush. A plastic liner is protecting the floor from my archive.  Garbage. I have just dumped the contents of one and a half campus trash cans onto the studio floor. Unsure whether to laugh or cry, to hold my breath or to vomit, I ignore the camera, the stench and the fact that I, at anytime, could just get up and call it quits. Instead I focus on what really matters: Paper to paper. Plastic to plastic. Food and yard waste in a pile of their own. The stuff I am not prepared to remove from the protective plastic that conceals its true (and most likely organic) nature – I set aside as well, uncategorized, mystery preserved …

The movieAfter I sort the last item (well actually two because I separate the gum from the paper it’s been wrapped in) I turn to face the camera, the stench and my own sense of failure. For months I have read like a maniac. For week’s I’ve been thinking about what to say, when, how and where. In a mere four days, we’ve recorded more video and audio footage than we will ever be able to use. After all, this is not a movie. Much less is it a film. It’s a lecture on global garbage dressing up as an instructional video for Coursera. I know I will get up, strip my feet of the plastic bags and take off my rubber gloves, wash my hands, slip into my shoes, go home, take a shower and return to my life of archives, books, articles, computers, and classrooms.

This was last May and I’m still recovering.. but here is an explanation:

In the winter term of 2013, I gave a guest lecture on global garbage in the course of a colleague entitled “Zoom: A History of Everything.” This course, spanning the period from the big bang to the universe’s demise in the distant future, is part of Michigan’s Coursera initiative and so in May, my lecture like everyone else’s, was recorded. I decided to include visits of contemporary waste management facilities and the hands-on and nose-in exploration of a University ‘archive’ to do something historians only rarely do – get their hands dirty.

The common saying ‘out of sight out of mind’ does not readily apply to garbage. Rather, as scholars have already articulated,  the puzzling phenomenon of garbage is that even when visible it somehow manages to escape our consciousness. I meant to bring ‘garbage’ into mind, to invite students to think beyond abstraction. Whether my pedagogical experiment works on my students remains yet to be seen (the video is still stuck in the post-production process but there’s a little taste below). In any case the experiment did work on myself.  I did get my hands dirty, my feet and my nose. But I am not a historian of the Rankian tradition. I don’t understand garbage any better because I’ve touched it.  I began to think about garbage as a material force in its own right. Because: the proximity, the material reality of noxious garbage produced a very acute sense of crisis. While the notion of a ‘global garbage crisis’ is alive and well, my personal mini-garbage crisis, was quickly bagged up and rinsed off.