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Matter Unmoored: Trash, Archaeological Consciousness and American Culture and Fiction in the 1980s

  • TIM JELFS (a1)

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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1 Brown, Bill, “Thing Theory,Critical Inquiry, 28, 1 (Autumn 2001), 122 , 2.

2 Ibid., 6. See also Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (London: Routledge, 1979); Bill Brown, A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003); Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); John Law and John Hassard, Actor-Network Theory and After (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999).

3 Michael Thompson, Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 9.

4 Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Metropolitan Holt, 1999), 15.

5 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2010), 4–6; Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). For more on discard studies, see

6 Robert M. Collins, Transforming America: Politics and Culture during the Reagan Years (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 157. For other useful histories of the decade see Gil Troy, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); John Ehrman, The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005); Graham Thompson, American Culture in the 1980s (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007); Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008 (New York: HarperCollins, 2008); Bradford Martin, The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011).

7 Buford, Bill, “Dirty Realism: New Writing from America,Granta, 8 (1983), 45 , 4.

8 Milken, a trader with Drexel Burnham Lambert, was a controversial figure throughout the decade. For an account of his rise and fall, along with that of arbitrageur Ivan Boesky, the model for the era-defining Gordon “greed is good” Gekko in Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1986), see James B. Stewart's Den of Thieves (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991).

9 Bill McKibben, The End of Nature: Humanity, Climate Change and the Natural World (New York: Random House, 1989).

10 Robert H. Day, David G. Shaw and Steven E. Ignell, “The Quantitative Distribution and Characteristics of Neuston Plastic in the North Pacific Ocean, 1985–1988,” Second International Conference on Marine Debris. 2–7 April 1989, Honolulu, Hawaii, at; Inter-Agency Group (Space), “Report on Orbital Debris for National Security Council,” Washington DC, Feb. 1989.

11 Robert Hanley, “Many Beaches in Jersey Reopen; Source of Medical Waste Is Sought,” New York Times, 16 Aug. 1987, 42.

12 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), 35. The British anthropologist Mary Douglas claimed to have taken this well-known definition of dirt from Lord Chesterfield, but the attribution has been disputed. See Fardon, Richard, “Citations out of Place, or Lord Palmerston Goes Viral in the Nineteenth Century but Gets Lost in the Twentieth,Anthropology Today, 29, 1 (2013), 2527 .

13 Robert D. McFadden, “Garbage Barge Returns in Search of a Dump,” New York Times, 18 May 1987, A1; Richard C Firstman et al., Rush to Burn: Solving America's Garbage Crisis? (Washington, DC and Covelo: Island Press, 1989); Liz Goff, “The Old Disaster: Queens’ Garbage Standoff,” Queens Tribune, 8 Feb. 2001, available at

14 George H. W. Bush, “Acceptance Speech,” Republican National Convention, Superdome, New Orleans, 18 Aug. 1988, at

16 Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, first combined paperback edn (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2003), 40.

17 Alistair Cooke, “America's Polluted Waters,” Letter from America, BBC Radio, 29 July 1988, transcript available at

18 See, for example, Kathryn D. Wagner, “Medical Wastes and the Beach Washups of 1988: Issues and Impacts,” Second International Conference on Marine Debris, 2–7 April 1989, Honolulu, Hawaii, at

19 Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1947), 11.

20 Melinda Beck et al., “Buried Alive,” Newsweek, 27 Nov. 1989, 66–76; untitled editorial, Cape Cod Times, n.d., available at

21 Patricia Poore, “America's ‘Garbage Crisis’: A Toxic Myth,” Harper's, March 1994, 24–28.

22 William L. Rathje and Cullen Murphy, Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001), 108.

23 Ibid.; Hope Reeves, “The Way We Live Now: 2-12-01: Map; A Trail of Refuse,” New York Times, 12 Feb. 2001, at

24 “Let Them Eat Toxics,” Harper's, May 1992, 26–27.

25 William L. Rathje, “The Garbage Project & ‘The Archaeology of Us’” (1996), Symmetrical Archaeology, Stanford Humanities Lab, at See also Richard A. Gould and Michael B. Schiffer, eds., Modern Material Culture: The Archaeology of Us (New York and London: Academic Press, 1981).

26 Rathje; Rathje and Murphy, 130.

27 “Suffolk Votes A Bill to Ban Plastic Bags,” New York Times, 30 March 1988, B1.

28 Rathje and Murphy, 165.

29 Stuart Chase, “The Mad Hatter's Dirty Teacup,” Harper's, April 1930, 580–86, 585.

30 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd edn (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 137.

31 Ibid., 134.

32 Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, trans. James Benedict (London: Verso, 2005), 172.

33 Arendt, 137.

34 Beck et al., “Buried Alive,” 68, 71–75.

35 Thompson, Rubbish Theory, 9.

36 Alain Schapp, The Discovery of the Past: The Origins of Archaeology, trans. Ian Kinnes and Gillian Varndell (London: British Museum Press, 1996), 18.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid., 163.

39 David Macaulay, Motel of the Mysteries (London: Hutchinson, 1979).

40 Calvin Tomkins, “The Art World: The Antic Muse,” New Yorker, 17 Aug. 1981, 80–83, 80.

41 Marilyn Chase, “Museum Show Inspires Tutmania,” New York Times, 8 March 1978, C9.

42 Jimmy Carter, “Address to the Nation on Energy and National Goals,” 15 July 1979, in The American Presidency Project, available at

45 Thomas McEvilley, Julian Schnabel: Paintings 1975–1986 (London: Whitechapel, 1986), 15.

46 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999), 249.

47 Don DeLillo, Americana (London: Penguin, 1990), 375.

48 Don DeLillo, White Noise (London: Picador, 1999), 257.

49 Ibid., 290.

50 Ibid., 258.

51 Ibid., 126–27.

52 Don DeLillo, “In the Ruins of the Future: Reflections on Terror and Loss in the Shadow of September,” Harper's, Dec. 2001, 33–40.

53 Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude (New York: SUN, 1982), 10–11.

54 Bobbie Ann Mason, In Country (New York: Perennial, 1993), 244.

55 DeLillo, White Noise, 258.

56 Ibid., 259: Frank Lentricchia, “Tales of the Electronic Tribe,” in Lentricchia, ed., New Essays on White Noise (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 87–113, 106.

57 Evans, David, “Taking Out the Trash: Don DeLillo's Underworld, Liquid Modernity, and the End of Garbage,Cambridge Quarterly, 35, 2 (2006) 103–32, 111.

58 Don DeLillo, End Zone (London: Picador, 2004), 85.

59 John Updike, Rabbit at Rest (London: Penguin Classics, 2006), 349–50.

60 Ibid., 349.

61 Ibid., 449.

62 Jay McInerney, Brightness Falls (London: Bloomsbury, 1992), 41.

63 Ibid.

64 Don DeLillo, Underworld (London: Picador, 1999) 277–81.

65 Don DeLillo, White Noise, 259.

66 See Moore, Charles, “Trashed: Across the Pacific Ocean, Plastics, Plastics Everywhere,Natural History, 112, 9 (2003), 4651 ; Chris Jordan, “Midway: Message from the Gyre,” at

67 Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “The Geological Cycle of Plastics and Their Use as a Stratigraphic Indicator of the Anthropocene,” Anthropocene (2016), at

68 See, for example, Collins, Transforming America, 147, 157 ff.; Troy, Morning in America, 18.

69 See Leigh Clare La Berge, Scandal and Abstraction: Financial Fiction of the Long 1980s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); or how, contemplating the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Michael Lewis reflected on the curious longevity of what he calls “the financial 1980s.” “I thought I was writing a period piece about the 1980s in America,” Lewis writes, recalling his memoir of that era, Liar's Poker. “Not for a moment did I suspect that the financial 1980s would last two full decades longer.” Michael Lewis, “The End” (11 Nov. 2008), at Both are examples of the growing sense that the last few decades form a more or less contiguous period.

70 Quoted in Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (New York: Touchstone, 1990), 165.

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Journal of American Studies
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