(Texas State University – San Marcos)
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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.