Conference Paper: A New Paradigm for Literary Analysis, Something is Rotten in the Denmark of Beowulf and Hamlet

22 10 2009

Susan Morrison
(Texas State University – San Marcos)

To read this article and its associated commentaries for free just click on the PDF links below.

Morrison PDF

Commentary 1 PDF – Valerie Allen (John Jay College, CUNY)

Commentary 2 PDF – John Scanlan (Manchester Metropolitan University)

In order to post your comment and response, please use the comments box at the bottom of this post. All comments are moderated and will appear shortly after they are submitted.



The field of Waste Studies emerges out of a conversation increasingly focused on filth, rubbish, garbage, litter — even excrement — all of which are central to how we see and treat the world and those who inhabit it. In a world in which material prosperity and life itself are inevitably linked to pollution and the production of waste, how can we humans – ourselves sources of waste both bodily and in terms of all that we discard – understand and cope with it? From the garbage-filled moats of the Middle Ages to the overflowing landfills of today, waste has been and continues to be an enduring issue.

In the Kuhnian model of scientific revolutions, paradigm shifts occur when there is an accumulation of too much superfluous matter (data/information) that cannot be explained or subsumed into or under the existing paradigm. This superfluous material is waste, until a new paradigm emerges into which the excess can be subsumed, processed, and thereby understood. Waste is everywhere; we need to understand how we theorize, manage, and are implicated in waste.  The paradigm shift is now.

Those who handle filth, literally or figuratively, become tainted by it morally and socially. If the scholarly action of analyzing references to filth and excrement is a suspect act, how can we talk about it?  An inherently cross-disciplinary approach, Waste Studies borrow from those writing on rubbish, garbage, and excrement to offer ethical and moral frameworks for us to pay attention to, understand, and act on bodily, cultural, and societal waste — material aspects of our world. There is a veritable canon of anthropological, archaeological, sociological, and theoretical works that address waste as a category.  Waste Studies force us to confront our own ethics, ethical position, and subjectivity.

This paper will 1) explain the approach of Waste Studies; 2) apply it to Beowulf and Hamlet, and 3) conclude by contextualizing waste within ethical and moral criticism.

Origins are key for Waste Studies since, in historicizing, we find it necessary to create waste, disposing of inconvenient moments from the past. Within each literary work, figures are discarded by the political victors:  Grendel and his mother are aggressively defeated by the mercenary Beowulf; Claudius sends his nephew and rival Hamlet to be executed. Both texts emerge from periods concerned with the establishment of a new religious order: Christianity after paganism and Protestantism after Catholicism.  Traces from earlier periods exist, littering society and culture.

Waste stalks Beowulf — in the many deaths of living beings and in the decay and destruction of culture and civilization. Cultural artefacts become trash, insignificant in the wake of violence. Waste lards Shakespeare’s play as well; the leftovers are even literal – funeral meats are to be used for a wedding celebration.  The famous “digressions” in Beowulf – the detritus, rags and tatters, recycled moments from the past – remind the poet’s listeners of tragic events in the past, events that haunt the present. Ophelia spreads the detritus of popular discourse, the rags and litter of culture. Though in both works female sexuality becomes the privileged space sanctioned for the most virulent physical and verbal garbaging, male bodies are likewise subject to filth. The waste of the other is irreconcilable, but forces us to confront our own ethics, ethical position, and subjectivity. Beowulf enjoins us to remain thoroughly mindful of our own inevitable decay.  The graveyard scene in Hamlet illustrates a fundamental aspect of death, that all our bodies become garbage. The “civilizing process” is just that — a process — never a finished state.  Part of our civilizing process is to recognize the value of that which we deem uncivilized and to see ourselves in that threatening, filthy alterity.



13 responses

22 10 2009
Dennis Mazur

I n you abstract you use the phrase “too much superfluous matter (data/information)”:

In the Kuhnian model of scientific revolutions, paradigm shifts occur when there is an accumulation of too much superfluous matter (data/information) that cannot be explained or subsumed into or under the existing paradigm.

Let us take the case of “data” and let us assume that we are talking about “scientific data”. By “scinetific data” I mean date gathered through an appropriate scientific method where the research study has the following components: (1) a scientific hypothesis, (2) a study design, (3) decisions made about which data (observations and measurements) are to be made, and (4) a set of decision rules specifying criteria for how decisoins are made considering whether a partcicular case is or is not judged to be a datum for inclusion in the scientific database.

In the above case, the data in question that did not enter the database would not necessarily be considered as “superfluous matter”, but just data over which experts might differ and data (observations and measurements) that are held over for a new research study.

Although I use the term “scientific study” above, the study in question could involve any process whereby there is observalable and measureable cases that can be studied, for example, in literature.

Would you agree that these extra cases in need of future study and analysis were not “superfluous”?


22 10 2009
Susan Morrison

First please let me just say how much I appreciate the careful and thoughtful commentary of Valerie Allen and John Scanlan. My essay for Compass is part of a much longer project so your questions and commentaries will certainly resonate for me over the next months as I attempt to articulate further my thoughts about Waste Studies. And they have provoked me to refine ideas half-formed and in a nascent state of development.

Valerie: you hit on one of the main problems: what is waste? And it’s true: many things do (in my reading) constitute waste as you point out (digressions, leftovers, puns, decay, etc.). What is the connection between them? One might say excess, though again, one person’s excess may be someone else’s necessity. I suppose one definition might be whatever is not or no longer utilitarian, as in the early usages of waste in English where something is squandered or simply empty and lacking purpose. Your excellent question [“What the is the history of waste – a constant battle with the unusable or a shifting index of our sense of value?”] makes me think, initially, both are true. The history of waste records our shifting relationship to whatever is seen as constituting waste (which can shift over time).

As for writing rubbish, I’m ever mindful of the irony of writing about waste—are academics just contributing, as you put so amusingly, “useless byproduct” in their “published words.” I do think it interesting that we call some literature “trash”—generally it’s genre fiction in which the plot is key; the verbiage exists to propel a plot along (whether it’s in a romance or crime fiction, etc.), while so-called “great literature” is not simply plot-driven. I’m thinking of books like Sterne’s Tristram Shandy or Joyce’s Ulysses in which the plot is not dominant but lots of other “stuff” is—as though in “good” literature it is the extra, the excess, that is the “gold” (Freud, of course, famously linking money and excrement). And I need to return to Kuhn and am grateful for you expanding on his paradigm shift model.

And thank you, John, for taking the time to comment on the dimensions of this subject. I agree that literature concretely deals with issues that philosophy addresses more abstractly and that the moments of “waste” I comment on could come down to the binary of “life versus death” and touches on what sustains or threatens humans. The linking of the metaphorics and matter of waste over various time periods does seem apt. Bauman’s “wasted humans,” those people “othered” or despised, become metaphorically or literally linked to waste or trash as your example of communists in Cold-War U.S. points out.

As for the issue of non-“western” traditions: I wouldn’t feel competent to make a big statement about non-“western” cultures, though I do think this approach would be appropriate for more recent Anglophone literature produced by writers who grew up in non-“western” countries. It could be that waste issues as articulated in the Anglophone canon early on (as in Beowulf and Hamlet) carry weight for later writers of the English language who may not have been raised in a “western” country, but were steeped in the Anglophone canon.

You ask if this work is a break from my home discipline. Yes, it is, in that my degree is in Comparative Literature, but the analysis of literature has always been, in some ways, linked to moral issues. Some of the earliest literary critics were medieval Christian exegetes of the Bible – clearly their commentary would have been seen by them as a form of moral discourse. I think (hope) that ultimately there is more to gain in arguing for a new waste paradigm as an aspect of ethical criticism. Valerie asks about the value of what we produce in the “academic business.” I’ve pondered that too. All of us want to “make a difference” with our work. The danger with making a difference is if we stay, as Roger Griffin in his essay for this conference has articulated, “splitters,” specializing only in our home fields. If we become “lumpers,” we run the risk of antagonizing those whose field we trespass on. As Regenia Gagnier has pointed out, practitioners in a discipline can be identified as members of a “distinct culture,” so we take risks when we travel into other cultural realms (for me, as a literary scholar, to tiptoe into sociology or philosophy, etc.). But I feel that we can make more of a “difference” by making forays into other disciplinary “cultures.”

As for the question about the continuity of “waste” studies between periods and if it is “necessary that it [bridge] the disciplines”: clearly one must be wary of making equivalencies about waste between the medieval period, say, and the 20th century. As Valerie points out, the meaning of waste in earlier English periods has a subtle nuance not necessarily entirely portable to contemporary English. That said, it does seem striking that various tropes linked to waste appear repeatedly over the centuries. For example, the linkage of waste and humor, from Chaucerian scatology to Swift’s viciously funny use of excrement with the Yahoos. Or the linkage of wasted ruins and the lament of historical decay in texts as diverse as the Old English “The Wanderer” or “The Ruin” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” These works are not addressing identical moments in history, but they both do use images of decay and “waste” to articulate their considerations of historical “garbage.” I think it’s necessary for waste studies to bridge disciplines and centuries to show how it is and has been a concern for Western culture and the Western canon.

I, too, as you say, see “waste” in everything – and I need to be careful of putting the theory before the material I study. Wendell Berry, ecocritic and poet, has argued that by knowing where our food comes from and where our waste is disposed, we can prevent alienation and, in turn, cultivate within ourselves a sense of responsibility toward taking care of the environment. By articulating a wastes studies model, I’m not romantically imagining that readers would transform their lives. But understanding waste in literature may achieve what scientific and technological endeavours cannot always do alone. The emerging religious environmental movement (such as “Green Christianity”) recognizes our society’s resistance to responding to environmental degradation despite our scientific and technological ability to do so. Using the term “creation care,” evangelicals see religion as a modality that can help make social change by changing the heart. It’s possible (I say that cautiously) that we can learn from literature (and film and art) what models might best contribute to ethical relationships with the world around us. Waste studies deal with materiality and its outcomes, forcing us to confront our responsibility. Ethically informed literary criticism may help us to understand how we theorize, manage, and are implicated in waste. Only through that understanding might we (perhaps) change our hearts and hope for social action, justice, and responsibility. This is a big hope, but I would feel I had wasted my opportunity had I not tried to articulate these thoughts.
Again, many thanks to both of you for your detailed, provocative and serious comments. I will be returning to them in the future.

22 10 2009
Susan Morrison

Dennis, You are correct, of course—it is only “superfluous” until it is read/understand in a new way (in the “new research study” you cite, for example). Then, such “data” is no longer superfluous but key or necessary. I wonder this might pertain to Tim Cooper’s paper where he articulates the difference between dirt and waste – whereby “superfluous” data/material is seen as dirt until it is “revalorized” or recuperated as waste/material for use or study.

22 10 2009
Dennis Mazur

Susan and Tim,

If one examines what it take to build and develop a model, whether it be a scientific model, a literary model, or other type of model, there seems to be the following set of requirements: (1) a list of basic concepts upon which the model is to be developed, (2) the set of definitions of each concept, (3) a set of observable or measurable criteria, and (4) decision rules on which to judge whether (and to what extent) a case in Nature is held to be a datum to be included in the dataset of future analysis. Tim Cooper’s distinction between “dirt” and “waste” would enter the model as two concepts that are then defined and considered in the development of a “new” future model.

Cultural issues related to “concepts” and “definition” are also clearly important as one culture’s “waste” becomes another culture’s basic building blocks of day-to-survival. An example of Tim’s distinction is “recoverable waste” in developing countries. In those developing countries that have a high use of computer hardward, groups emerge in those developing countries who separate “recoverable” and “reusable” versus “non-recoverable” and “non-reusable” elements of computer hardware, for example, motherboards. Here, there is an addition element of “personal risk” attached to those who separate the “reusable” and “non-reusable” from discarded hardware, and a certain set of obligations of “disclosure of risk” owed to the exposed groups within that population.


22 10 2009
Susan Morrison

Dennis, I like your articulation of what constitutes a model (very lucid). As for the flexibility of the definition of “waste”—in your example of how “one culture’s ‘waste’ becomes another culture’s basic building block of day-to day survival”: in my own work on excrement as it appears in late medieval culture, specifically Chaucer’ Canterbury Tales, I wanted to take seriously the moments of scatology that generally were interpreted as a sign of his medieval “innocence.” I guess I think no one is innocent, especially when it comes to waste (that is to say, pretty much all of us). So what was frivolous waste to previous critics became valuable resource for my study.

22 10 2009
Dennis Mazur


Nicely said.


23 10 2009
John Scanlan

Susan (and Valerie, Dennis and other contributors)

There is a great deal to think about in these responses.

That there is an important continuity between different historical periods and their relationship to waste seemed to be evident in Valerie’s opening comments (in her suggestion that in embracing waste we close the gap between the polarized self and the other). This moves the debate onto territory that in a sense universalizes the possibilities of these ‘waste’ studies. In Tim Cooper’s paper, too – and in the comments by Zsuzsa Gille, Dennis Mazar and Susan – the possibility that waste studies might develop a more ethical dimension (might encourage us to change our relationship to the world around us) comes through clearly.

As someone whose approach to the study of ‘waste’ was to take a broadly cultural phenomenological approach – to abandon the negative terrain of criticism and try and get in amongst the ‘phenomena’ of waste and worthlessness – such an ethical dimension is at most merely implicit in the work (although not taking up a critical stance was central to the undertaking). Nonetheless, Susan’s contribution and the comments that have so far been generated by it has – again, like the discussion with Tim Cooper’s paper – quickly moved onto themes and issues that resonate with current concerns about environmental and social justice.

Some other comments … Valerie’s response to your paper was an elegant statement of some of the issues waste studies must confront. In asking the question, ‘what then is the history of waste – a constant battle with the unusable or a shifting index of our sense of value?’, I think she poses the same question that, in a way, we are all thinking about. The epistemological connection between what is usable and the shifting index of our sense of value seems to me to imply – with reference to the present – the challenge we face in closing the gap between ‘the polarized self and others’ (to quote Valerie again). As a colleague of mine, Jennifer Gabrys, has argued in a number of articles, the fact that waste is disruptive of conventional networks of disposal, and of regulation and control, and is now global means it can – in some of its forms – be put out of sight in such a way as to obscure the danger of failing to see our own relationship to the residues we reject.

The question of whether or not our writings, musings, and so on, are yet more rubbish is an interesting and amusing one. We are almost compelled to publish by volume as a means of maintaining a foothold in academic life today. We undoubtedly live in an era of more ‘chatter’, ‘noise’ and ‘gossip’ – a time of excessive doing and perhaps a decline in thinking and reflection. It reminded me of something George Steiner wrote in his ‘Grammars of Creation’:

“By far the major part of texts in the ancient world have perished. A ship-wreck virtually in sight of Venice has erased forever classics of literature and philosophy which were being rescued from the ravaging of Constantinople.” (p. 292)

Yet, the fragments of thinking and storytelling that did survive an age before ‘writing’ are seem to have proved their durability as more than mere historical curios.

25 10 2009
Scott Noegel

Dear Susan,

Thank you for your interesting paper. Honestly, I had not heard of Waste Studies before, and it intrigues me. In some of the comments to your paper, the question arises as to the utility of Waste Studies for studying non-Western cultures. My own work focuses on ancient Near Eastern languages and literatures. I write to assure you that there is plenty worthy of study through the lens of Waste Studies! From the many accounts of warfare, ruin, and destruction to widespread ritual obsessions with purity and pollution (hence Douglas), it would seem to me to be a fruitful avenue of inquiry.

All the best,


26 10 2009
Eileen Joy

Susan et alia: thanks for such a rich discussion, which I am coming to a bit late as I was traveling and involved in another symposium until yesterday. I think the conversation that has emerged so far over Susan’s paper, especially in relation to the historical particularities of what waste means in different times and places [one of Valerie’s points] as well as what it might mean in different cultures and disciplines, and how it might signify differently in philosophy, sociology, literature, etc. [and also, whether or not there is a universalizing function at work here; further: when is ‘waste’ a theoretical issue and when is it a material one, with all the polarizing effects that causes], has been very productive. The only thing I have to add here, Susan, in relation to the issue of humans themselves as waste [or, as entities that can be easily disposed of], is that you might want to read the work of Elizabeth Povinelli, a professor of anthropology at Columbia who works with aboriginal culture in Australia. She has written several books, but I recommend first her article “The Child in the Broom Closet: States of Killing and Letting Die,” South Atlantic Quarterly 107.3 (Summer 2008): 509-30, where she writes,

“In contrast to cruddy, cumulative, and chronic lethality are special forms of enemies and spectacular forms of death that capture and rivet the imagination of late liberal societies and act as an alibi for the concentration and consolidation of state executive power. Certain kinds of enemies, events, and history are seen as having a spectacular, even sublime, quality: they cut time into two present decisive ideological struggles and demand that exceptional measures be taken. Those within late liberal societies seeking to increase state surveillance powers cite these decisive kinds of enemies and devastating images of airplanes, nightclubs, and towers exploding and vomiting forth singed and dismembered bodies. The lethal state of indigenous life hardly competes with the society of the terrorist spectacle: bodies in hoods, in naked piles, attached to real or fake electrodes. Bodies disappear only to reappear with drill marks. These forms of violence seem to oppose and stand outside of the everyday uneventful forms of misery and dying that characterize indigenous life.” (p. 521)

[My own thanks to Julie Orelmanski, a PhD student in medieval studies at Harvard who is working on a dissertation on lepers/leprosy in the Middle Ages, and who passed on this citation to me recently]

26 10 2009
Susan Morrison

Dear John, Dennis, Scott and Eileen et alia,
While “’universalizing’” “waste studies” is problematic (waste not being understood the same way in various places over various time periods), certain aspects remain constant: waste is always material (first) and figurative (second). I think it is unavoidable that we have moved into issues of ethics in the field of waste and have made comments that, as John puts it, “resonate with current concerns about environmental and social justice.” As Jennifer Gabrys is certainly right to point out, waste is disruptive and put “out of sight.” This is from an article by Celia W. Dugger, “Toilets Underused to Fight Disease, U.N. Study Finds,” The New York Times, November 10, 2006: “’Issues dealing with human excrement tend not to figure prominently in the programs of political parties contesting elections or the agendas of governments….They’re the unwanted guests at the table.’ The human cost of that taboo, however, is more unspeakable than the topic itself [Kevin Watkins, author of a UN report entitled “Beyond Poverty: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis”] said. Every year, more than two million children die of diarrhea and other sicknesses caused by dirty water and a lack of ‘access to sanitation.’” So people die in part because of the unseemliness of the issue of waste. That’s why it’s important to keep talking about it!
Still, every day the newspaper has articles on topics ranging from environmental garbage polluting our planet to populations “wasted” by their oppressors in various parts of the globe. I will certainly look at Elizabeth Povinelli’s work, Eileen; thanks for alerting me. While the wasting of select populations has gone on for millennia, we can certainly find out about the multiple and various forms of waste and wasted humans all too quickly and can be, perhaps, overwhelmed, or inundated, by a wave of trash and waste in the periphery of our lives at all times (DeLillo’s White Noise?). My worry is that this can immobilize us and make us feel impotent to act.
Scott, I appreciate your response since I know so little about your field. Gilgamesh has struck me as a text that is rife with waste too—from the Bull spewing dung all over Enkidu to the filth of Humbaba. Are there other works that you would recommend looking at?

29 10 2009
Wendy J. Turner

Dear Susan et alia,

I enjoyed your paper–certainly not a waste at all–and the comments of Valerie, John, and the others subscribing to this list. I can see potential for looking at society and history through the lens of ‘waste studies’ both in terms of values, morals and ideas as well as ‘real’ waste as in cast-off materials, goods, by-products, and general garbage. I wonder about looking at the topic on a broader scale. To use the colloquialism of ‘One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure’, we could for example examine each generation to find what they valued that the preceding and subsequent generations did or did not. But perhaps more valuable would be to look at what we as a species consistently value (if anything) and why, as well as what we consistently discard. This would be a great question in one of those ‘values and ideas’ courses for students to wrestle with across disciplines and time periods. Thank you all for a lively and interesting discussion.

Wendy J. Turner

29 10 2009
Susan Morrison

Dear Wendy et alia,

I’m glad you brought up teaching since one hope, I imagine, of many of us participating in this conference is to have it influence what we teach and what the university considers appropriate subject matter (interdisciplinarity being fraught due perhaps in part to money–if I team-teach with someone from another department, who pays for it? My department or my colleague’s?).

I am actually teaching an undergraduate honors seminar now called “Rubbish, Waste, and Litter: Cultural Refuse/als” (the title is “recycled” from a conference in Warsaw a few years ago organized by Tadeusz Rachwal). This is the course description for anyone interested:

This class focuses on filth, rubbish, garbage, litter, refuse, and even excrement: the field called Waste Studies. In a world in which material prosperity and life itself are inevitably linked to pollution and the production of waste, how can we humans – ourselves sources of waste both bodily and in terms of all that we discard – understand and cope with waste (garbage, trash, dirt, litter, refuse, excrement)? Has waste always been viewed in the same way in Western culture or have views changed over time? How has waste been understood in the various disciplines of the humanities? From the garbage-filled moats of the Middle Ages to the overflowing landfills of today, waste has been and continues to be an enduring issue. Waste may not be aesthetically palatable, but, given that waste has appeared in literature, has been key to historical documents, has been of concern in philosophical and religious treatises, and has been a focus for anthropological, environmental and biological research, it has been and continues to be central to how we see and treat the world and those who inhabit it.
Theoretical and material inquiry in the humanities and sciences has progressively focused on the subject of waste. The material conditions and processing of excrement have been increasingly investigated in anthropological, archeological, and theoretical undertakings all arguing how, in varying ways, we have disciplined our selves with regard to excrement. Anthropological approaches influentially set up the category of dirt and its relationship to order and boundaries, reading excrement as impurity and disorder. Then there are those theoretical texts that focus on the development of culture as a rejection or disciplining of our animal selves as seen in our waste, filth, or dirt. This course focuses on the disruptive body, capable of political, social and cultural discomfort, and a society immersed in filth. The tension between private and public stemming from fears of waste is one focus of this course.
This course explores what that theoretical approach might entail when applied to American and World literature and culture. The origins of our cultural legacy, sedimented in waste, have had and continue to have repercussions for the Anglophone canon. Each week places emphasis on the ways waste has been addressed by differing disciplines and over time in generically diverse Old Testament, medieval, modern, and postmodern works.
This course considers the body, society, and culture in new ways by borrowing from those writing on the ethics of waste and garbage to develop a philosophy and understanding of waste. To understand the ethical aspect of paying attention to waste, the course is grounded in the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas, particularly Humanism of the Other, where he argues that an openness to the “Other” is a sign of the ethical. Waste provides us with a reason for acknowledging affinity among all people, one normally denied. Other core works influencing this course include Zygmunt Bauman’s Wasted Lives, Gay Hawkins’ The Ethics of Waste, and John Scanlan’s On Garbage, which varyingly interrogate the moral and ethical history and philosophy behind waste in Western culture. These key theoretical texts are supplemented by historical, sociological, anthropological, scientific and psychological works.

That’s the course description. We started out with Leviticus and have worked up to (currently) A. R. Ammons’ _Garbage_ and Calvino’s “La Poubelle Agreee.” It’s a lot of fun! Next week: gender and waste…..

30 10 2009

Greetings from The Management. We’re thrilled that you’ve found such fruitful grounds for discussion and exchange. You’re welcome to continue here after today.

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