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 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.

That was in May 2014…

Since I’ve actually tried versions of this experiment in my classrooms. Together my students and I have sorted through University garbage, thinking about what questions it raises, what it reveals, and what it hides. We think about the categories we use to sort and disappear it before we explore the history of waste and waste management since roughly the middle of the 19th Century.