This article considers the cultural significance of the garbage panics of the 1980s, including the voyage of the infamous Mobro 4000 “garbage barge.” The article argues that the trash at the centre of these panics is important to our understanding of both the 1980s and the present because it demanded – and still demands – that Americans see and understand it as a class of matter unmoored from temporal as well as spatial boundaries. The alarming durability of the supposedly ephemeral refuse of a culture of mass consumption invoked an “archaeological consciousness” prone to muse upon the longevity of material remains. This consciousness was expressed in various cultural and discursive arenas throughout the 1980s, revealing that durable detritus was not just a pressing public policy issue but a marker of cultural anxieties emerging out of the operations of archaeological consciousness. From concerns about contingency of the mass-consuming culture of the late twentieth-century United States to reflections on trash's own epistemological complexity, trash spoke in unexpected ways throughout the 1980s, raising important questions about the relationship between producers of culture and their audience, whose receptiveness to the urgencies of archaeological consciousness suffers from a frustrating transience as far as trash is concerned.
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