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Speaker explores relationship between garbage and humanities

SALISBURY — In some ways, the humanities are the studies of forgotten things — unearthing secret histories and returning them to the light. And it’s a commonality the field shares with something innocuous: garbage.

That similarity is one of the things that drew Stephanie Foote, an English professor at West Virginia University, into a long-term study of waste, excess and trash. On Thursday evening, Foote spoke about how the two are intertwined at the Center for the Environment at Catawba College. The program was co-hosted by the center and the college’s English department.

“Where does it go?” Foote asked about garbage. “Where does it go when you throw it away? Where does it go physically and where does it really go?”

One is a scientific question, and the other, a moral and philosophical one. But both questions are ones that the humanities can help answer. It’s a relationship she’s been exploring in her new work, “The Art of Waste.”

“It’s about real garbage and about the stories we tell about garbage and the stories we hope garbage will tell about us,” Foote said.

Modern-day society is, in many ways, distanced from trash while at the same time being intimately acquainted with it. Each day, people make decisions about what to keep and what to throw away — categorizing items by usefulness and sentimental value.

But once something has been tossed in the trash, it’s out of sight, out of mind. Few are aware of how large the garbage industry truly is or where their trash ultimately ends up.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Foote said, the U.S. handles more than 2.5 billion tons of trash each year, only 254 million tons of which is categorized as municipal solid waste — or trash and recyclables.

“That means most of what we throw away is not recycled or sold. It is buried or burned,” she said.

That trash can end up in unlikely places — overseas, the middle of the Pacific Ocean or in other states. And when that trash includes storm debris — such as that left in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Harvey — it can have “extraordinary international repercussions that we’re implicated in.”

In short, Foote said, it is important to know where your trash is going, who it is effecting, and the stories of those people. And that is where the humanities can shine a little light.

“It’s waste that we want to forget about. … But it’s waste that will go on to affect other people, and we don’t yet have a way to tell a story about this,” she said.

In other words, the humanities can help people answer the question of how to see the invisible, the disappeared — when it comes to trash and the people who ultimately end up surrounded by the world’s garbage.

And, in some ways, that’s because the humanities themselves are often shoved into the dark.

“The humanities are often cast — when you read the newspapers and listen to the senators — as a waste of time,” she said.

But like trash, the humanities have a relationship and a relevance with everyday life.

“It helps us characterize what we cannot see,” she said.

Garbage, Foote said, is “overcoated with meaning” in a world that is experiencing a crisis of agency.

“Garbage has within it coiled those twin ideas of loving and loathing, forgetting and remembering,” she said.

And it’s these things — the stories hidden within overlooked and forgotten objects — that artists, philosophers, writers and the great thinkers of humanity are so good at pulling out. Through the humanities, things rejected by society can be given new meaning and restored to a place of significance.

“The Art of Waste” is not Foote’s first exploration of garbage. The writer said she became interested in the subject when a dump near her home was turned into a trash transfer station.

Foote is the author of “The Parvenu’s Plot: Gender, Class and Culture in the Age of Realism” and “Regional Fictions: Culture and Identity in 19thCentury American Literature.”

She also co-edited “Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice” with Elizabeth Mazzolini. Most recently, she edited and co-founded “Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities.”

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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