“A Lot of Alluring Trashscapes Had to be Left Aside”: Talking “Waste” With Brian Thill


What is waste? Alternately, what isn’t? Whether you’re looking at things from a physical perspective or a more intellectual one, the degree to which waste can quickly occupy our lives is both fascinating and terrifying. Brian Thill‘s new book Waste examines its subject from a number of angles, and encompasses everything from forgotten 1970s sitcoms to the way that massive amounts of garbage can inspire fascinating art. (It’s part of the same series of short volumes as Joanna Walsh’s excellent Hotel.) I talked with Thill about the scope of his book, how he came about its focus, and science fiction’s particular role in the aesthetics of waste.

The scope of Waste encompasses everything from Dead Horse Bay to the photographs of Ed Burtynsky. As you were working on the book, how did you determine what you did and didn’t want to leave in?

This was one of the biggest challenges in writing the book. How do you even begin to stop talking about waste, which is one of the biggest and (for me) most consequential components of contemporary life? The immensity of the subject and my unhealthy interest in it were such that the book could easily have been five times its size if I’d had my way. Fortunately, I had a great team of editors and a very narrow word count limit to work with, so it forced me to make the kinds of soul-crushing decisions I might not have made otherwise. A lot of alluring trashscapes had to be left aside and a lot of writing left out, which is probably for the best. So within those restrictions, it seemed that there was really just one main criterion for determining whether it made the cut or not: Could I stop thinking about it? If I found that I could, I left it out this time around. And there is a lot of wonderful garbage out there I don’t even get around to mentioning in this particular book. If on the other hand my mind kept circling back to the plastic-choked birds or the orbiting space debris or the episode of Hoarders I just watched, then I knew it had to find a way into the finished book, because for me the process of writing it was less about developing a systematic academic critique of the concept of waste than it was about finding an analytical language that would let me begin to document a personal obsession. It isn’t the most polemical or efficient way to write, but in this instance it was the only kind of writing worth doing. At the same time, I’m heartened to hear someone describe it as possessing a certain scope or breadth, since that was certainly one of the things I was trying to achieve, within the tight space of the book itself.

Is there any of your own writing that you would describe as having been a precursor to this particular project?

It’s often very difficult for me to see at the early stages of writing just what affinities there are between the thing I’m working on and what’s gone before. There was a time when I thought that each new piece of writing of mine was a conscious departure, either in subject or in tone, from what I’d written before; I felt this to be true of whatever it was I was working on. This conscious departure from earlier work (or at least the belief that it existed) was actually one of the things that felt important to me to cultivate, and as someone with a natural aversion to specialization and branding and expertise, this eclecticism kept me interested in the work I was doing. While this was certainly true to some extent—I might be writing about Puritans and Thomas Pynchon one year, Occupy Wall Street the next, and special effects in Hollywood films the next—what was actually more true was that, being human, I have an idiosyncratic but ultimately definable set of interests that I carry around with me year after year, from writing project to writing project. The problem is that you never quite know if anyone else out there shares those interests; so writing is what you do while you wait for the answer to that question.

I think Waste bears the marks of many of these earlier interests. A piece I wrote for The Atlantic seems to have reawakened in me an obsession with the ignoble fates of animals in a human-dominated world, something that is relevant to certain small but important parts of the book. Other work I’ve done on thinking through the challenges of meaningful political activism and radical change (on John Brown or Angela Davis or others) found its way into the book as well, although not in any overt way. I think the book is politically motivated without being polemical in tone, but I’m not sure if others would see that in it. And clearly the two largest overarching themes of the book—time and desire—are subjects I habitually return to in my nonfiction, in my poetry, and even in—especially in—my flurry of tweets, which is as much a record of my thoughts as anything more socially respectable has been. Anyone bored enough to scroll through a few thousand of those would pretty quickly recognize that I tend to oscillate between boiling outrage and very dark and cynical humor, both of which are directed at the waste-strewn world in which we find ourselves.

What was your process like for putting this together–did you have a sense of some general points that you wanted to hit with it, or were you looking for something more free-associative?

At the conception phase, the book had a clear plan with specific chapter outlines and a clear argumentative arc and a well-balanced and totally coherent such-and-such, but then when I actually sat down to write it, roughly half of all that went out the window and the book began to shift on me in some odd and unexpected ways. For example, I didn’t intend at the earliest stages for there to be so many autobiographical elements to it, but these began finding their way in there regardless of my efforts to keep them out. The sections themselves began to shrink or expand, and I did my best to be mindful of this while also realizing, as every writer must, that on some fundamental level you are never really the one in control of these kinds of things. The writing itself begins to insist on certain things from you and make its own demands, and it was my job to serve as midwife to the work as best I could. As long as a piece of writing is speaking a certain kind of truth, your job is to get out of its way and let it speak it, or to do your part to present that truth in the best way you can. I realize this all sounds very nebulous and strange, but that’s basically how it felt when I was writing the book, and how it feels with anything else I’m writing that is not completely and irredeemably atrocious.

I had had no idea that a Buck Henry-penned show about garbage collectors in space had existed in the 1970s. Was this something you’d been aware of beforehand, or did you learn about it as you were writing Waste?

I’m only a little ashamed to say that I already knew about it. Garbage and the 1970s are two of my favorite things—maybe the plural form isn’t necessary there. But yes, I am among the small handful of unfortunates who has endured that show, although I’m certain there must be some obscure Quark fan club or subreddit or something out there devoted to it. But it really is garbage, and you should avoid it: bad writing, bad acting, bad set design, bad politics, everything. I’m guessing the Andy Griffith show about a sanitation worker in outer space from that same period is probably “better” in most of the ways we use that word, but alas, there was no space for that in the book either. On one level, something like Quark does not deserve even the very little bit of attention I give it; life is too short, and we could use that time to be watching Deadwood or Gilmore Girls instead. But the combination of topics, time, and circumstance was too much for me to resist.

But your question also gets me thinking about something else that bothered me about writing this book: there is no on-to-one correspondence between how good or worthwhile something is and my level of interest in it. I think I got around to a passing mention of J.G. Ballard once in the book, which is unforgivable; I could have easily written a hundred pages about Ballard, and anyone who doesn’t read his work is missing out on one of the most important bodies of work in the past century. And yet I found myself compelled to write about the excavation of the Atari E.T. video game cartridges. But then I think about it again and I realize, wait a minute, someone else could see me mention it and then they could come along and write a brilliant in-depth piece of work on a piece of crap like Quark. Written by the writer of The Graduate? Starring Richard Benjamin, whose acting and directing work deserves much more attention? There are so many forking paths one could take.

What was the most bizarre fact that you learned over the course of researching this book?

Max Liboiron, a professor and activist whose scholarly research focuses on waste, noted that 97% of our waste is not household waste but industrial waste, which is often disposed of on industrial property and therefore largely hidden from public view. Before getting underway with the book, I had a rough sense that industrial waste of this type was a major contributor to the totality of wastescapes that plague our planet, but it was only after I came across her research that I realized just how large a percentage of it came from those kinds of sources. Even if that percentage isn’t exactly bizarre in itself, what is bizarre is just how often the mental pictures we have of everyday waste focus on that other three percent. We tend to think of household trash and litter and filth first, and while it’s true that we bequeath staggering amounts of it to our descendants, it’s also the case that the industrial societies we’ve developed over centuries are leaving the most in their wake.

This small piece of information is bizarre because it’s just another instance in a long series of instances where we have in large part failed to make our conceptions of the relationship between the practice of everyday life and the productive forces we’ve unleashed correspond to planetary realities. While we live in the minutiae of everyday life and its detritus, which some of us ignore and some of us ponder incessantly, the global and historical impacts we have had are never quite felt or experienced in any direct way. This is another of the things that interested me and terrified me in contemplating waste as a fundamental object of contemporary existence. There is something about how intimately tethered we are to waste, and yet how separate we imagine ourselves to be from it, that warrants attention.

There are plenty of references to science fiction in the book, from Samuel R. Delany to Wall-E. Do you feel that this genre is best equipped to deal with our cultural propensity for waste?

This is one huge chunk of work that got mostly lopped out of the finished product, simply because it deserves a book—multiple books—in its own right. Our culture is now far too byzantine for any one genre to accommodate, but it is absolutely true that science fiction, in its exploration of the conjunctions between technological development, political structures, and historical consciousness, is particularly suited to engaging with the conditions of our time. I was born into a particular moment in history, and have lived just long enough, to witness a disconcerting series of shifts in my relationship to science fiction, which I’ve been reading since I was a child. First, there were my initial encounters with the works of Delany, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, Octavia Butler, Stanislaw Lem, and a hundred others, in which I found myself thrust into exotic and alien futureworlds that seemed to exist in some alternate dimension, only vaguely linked with our own. Later, there was a second phase of thinking with these writers, as I found that many of them who had labored in relative obscurity or been relegated to second-class literary status were slowly but surely being taken seriously by more and more people, as readers and scholars confronted their work and the robust and complex ideas they were wrestling with.

But then a bit more time passed; and then one day, as if we had all awakened into a different universe than the one we’d been inhabiting (but of course we hadn’t, it was only another day), we awoke to the horrifying realization that the worlds that Ballard and Dick and so many others had conjured in fiction had slowly but inexorably become the world we now found ourselves in. The horror and allure of something like Black Mirror today is not that it depicts a world fundamentally different from our own, but that it now seems so damn close. It enrages me to say that science fiction has unwittingly become our new high realism. This was supposed to be a reality that we would not let come to pass. This was just one of the things the genre had been trying to teach us, but like so much of the intellectual and creative work the genre has done for so many years, we briefly attended to its stories and then threw them, like so much else, into the dustbin. But our refuse always returns, because even though we always think we’re done with it, it isn’t nearly done with us.

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