Thoughts on waste

April 29, 2020

I've been reading Underworld by Don DeLillo and playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which don't seem to have much in common on the surface. There is an odd chiasma -- parallel but divergent -- on the theme of waste in each text, though. Waste is, of course, omnipresent in Underworld, with several main characters interacting directly with waste in various endeavors. Nick Shay works for a waste management enterprise, discussing with a colleague a mythic ship that moves from port to port, unable to unload its cargo of hazardous waste. Klara Sax revives war planes for land art projects. Latex -- of condoms, of kitchen gloves, flitting between utility and uselessness -- becomes a totem in the book. I remember discussing DeLillo with a faculty mentor at the University of Montana, Louise Economides, who described waste as a postmodern sublime: when confronted, waste excites a terrible, overwhelming sense of the totality of civilization -- and a sense of civilization's capacity to slowly/quickly destroy itself.

Waste is practically non-existent in Animal Crossing. As players and characters populate and civilize a vacation island, in the narrative of the game and in the experience of playing the game, Animal Crossing offers an *almost* complete escape from the cycles of waste that accompany cycles of production and use. While there isn't waste generated out of the activities involved in sprucing up the deserted island, the player does weave the natural excesses of the island (tree branches, stones, weeds) into objects of use and exchange. An inspiring takeaway for all of the quarantine homesteaders adopting new hobbies amidst the real-world pandemic. Let's get an expansion pack that lets the player take out the garbage, too.

The selling of weeds is perhaps the most curious example, as players can pull weeds across the island and sell them for currency at the general store -- and really, anything can be sold in the game whether useful or not. This is where Underworld and Animal Crossing meet. Both the book and the game describe the enduring exchange value of waste, an exchange value that, when realized, can quickly transform the nature of the waste-object. The homerun ball hit by Bobby Thompson in the Giants 1951 season-ending game moves throughout the novel, passing from character to character, at times invaluable memento, at times something to be stolen and hocked, at times just an old ball. DeLillo orchestrates the narrative to overlap the movement of this ball with nuclear weapons/waste, with indissoluble latex.

While reading the book and playing the game, I also read an interview in Art in America with Sophia Al-Maria, an artist also deeply concerned with transforming waste. She references a pre-Islamic Arabic poetic trope, the "wuquf 'ala al-atlal," in which the poet, left in the night by his lover, describes the wasted ruins of his campsite. "These are the lines left by the tent, these are the ashes of the fire, this is the shit of the goats." It's interesting not only that waste is something artists/art have always felt compelled to account for (an broader economic/cultural phenomenon beyond the realm of art that Bataille names 'the accursed share'), but also how the attempt to account for waste -- to represent it -- is yet another transformation, this time a poetic ingestion.

To conclude, "these are the many-crumpled pages of my copy of Underworld, this is the extraneous plastic case that houses my copy of Animal Crossing."