Waste in Literature and Culture: Aesthetics, Form, and Ethics

This is part of our special feature, Confronting Waste.

Emerging as a response to the imminent dangers of climate change and overwhelming pollution, the critical exploration of waste has emerged as a field of literary and cultural analysis. Waste Studies offers ethical frameworks to pay attention to, understand, and act on bodily, cultural, and societal waste—material aspects of our world. As an aspect of the environmental humanities, Waste Studies expands traditional approaches of ecocriticism, once devoted to “nature,” a loaded and complex term. Rather than looking at, say, trees or flowers, the waste theorist focuses on decay, built environments, and dystopic or toxic sites. The website Discard Studies: Social Studies of waste, pollution & externalities,[i] regularly publishes conference calls for papers and notifications of publications centered on the topic of waste. A growing field, Waste Studies intentionally situates itself as touching multiple disciplines. A new journal, Worldwide Waste: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies,[ii] deliberately sees itself as eliciting scholars from varied fields, ranging from politics and social sciences to the arts. Waste theorists borrow and build on insights from those writing on rubbish, garbage, and excrement—including anthropologist Mary Douglas (Purity and Danger), sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (Wasted Lives), John Scofield (On Garbage), and Gay Hawkins (The Ethics of Waste). Practitioners appropriate ideas and approaches from across the waste spectrum, which are then applied to their own subject matter. This in itself reflects waste—a field of scraps, detritus, and snippets.

The history of waste records a mutable relationship that can alter over time and manifests itself in various literal and figurative manifestations—rubble, rubbish, trash, dirt, garbage, litter, filth, excrement, excess, and ruin. Always contextual, waste has ranged in meaning to include whatever is not or no longer of use, something squandered, or lacking purpose to barrenness and emptiness—such as uncultivated land.[iii]At the other extreme, waste suggests excess and surplus. As I argue in my book, The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter (2015), waste is both material and figurative. The substance of waste—landfills, trashcans, and garbage dumps—becomes metaphoric, to indicate, for example, psychological and spiritual states. The interiorization of waste renders one’s inward spiritual being as “a waste” or “wasted” and meaningless. 

Waste Aesthetics

Virtually any piece of literature can be analyzed from the perspective of Waste Studies, depending on what definition of waste is utilized. It has haunted the European and Anglo-American canons, from the late fourteenth-century crappy “tord” [turd] characterizing Geoffrey Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas to the trash can domiciles of the aging parents in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Literary scholars examine poems and prose narratives in light of waste—in terms of content or plot, form, and argument or meaning. Plots can range from including characters associated with waste (garbage collectors, profanity-spewing malcontents, or simply those denigrated as monstrous others) to those whose very existence causes waste (the deaths from Grendel’s cannibalism in Beowulf); concerns with historical decline and decay; to explorations into the meaning of life in a world replete with a surfeit of capitalistic greed (see Gatsby’s overabundance of shirts). Waste form often disorients the reader, jerkily shifting point of view or chronological sequence. The argument or meaning of waste texts frequently quizzes the significance of confused memory, worldly achievement doomed to rot, and the blind adherence to class, racial, or gender hierarchies. Waste-associated words lard such literature, with haunting references to cockroaches, slime, shit, and detritus.

While many pieces of waste texts ponder earnestly, even profoundly, on issues extending from human treachery to touching and benevolent transcendence, comedy plays a key role in Waste Studies. François Rabelais’ filth-filled ruminations of gorging and evacuation, the infamous fart in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale,” or Lawrence Sterne’s chaotic verbal diarrhea in Tristram Shandy—all these can be read within the category of waste literature. Even poignant moments—such as Baudelaire’s insight that the poet is analogous to a ragpicker or Yeat’s insight that “Love has pitched his mansion in/ The place of excrement” (“Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop”)—conjure up images of waste indicative of empathy, kindness, and compassion.

As a case study for the purposes of this essay, the works of East German author Wolfgang Hilbig constitute redolent dumps for experimenting with this critical approach. These elusive short novels have recently been evocatively and lyrically translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, making them more readily accessible to a world audience. Hilbig’s oeuvre explores themes such as memory, decay, trash, and ruins. As phantasmagorical poetic prose works, they readily lend themselves to aspects of a Waste Studies analysis. All emerge from a layered palimpsest of contemplated history. Hilbig, who left the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1985 for West Germany, obsessively rakes over the past. The memories of his protagonists, laden with vestiges they cannot escape, suggest how history junks inconvenient recollections to create a coherent narrative—and in the process sweep certain inconvenient occurrences under a dust-infested carpet. Hilbig’s works provide ample matter for analysis within a Waste Studies approach.

Waste Content and Plot

In The Tidings of the Trees [Die Kunde von den Bäumen, 2010; translated 2018], memories of the building of the wall encasing the GDR relentlessly suffocate Waller, who reflects on the stagnation of time. Emblematic of this status are some cherry trees, the only brightly spot—literally—for the protagonist; signifying his childhood, they are cut down along with his moments of joy. With that devastation, Waller’s ability to recollect erodes. Memories of the past are braided with decay and destruction. Descriptions abound with words conveying waste: dust, garbage dumps, ash (always ash—see 69), filth, effluvia, junk, rubbish, rags, rubble, rot, and manure. This encroaching refuse signifies the political situation of his confined country, asphyxiated by “the silence of history” (34).

In  Old Rendering Plant (Knackery) [Alte Abdeckerei, 2010; translated 2018], the narrator undertakes a dystopic walk through twentieth-century German history. Charged with eerie words such as “shroud” and “rotten” (5), this uncanny, wounded, and wasted landscape is personified with murmurings of death. Coming across a disturbing old rendering plant which morphs variously throughout the novel, unable to orient himself, this figure circles “concentrically,” just as history itself does. World War II is non-too-subtly referenced: “rubble fields of the bombed-out factories where I was forbidden to go” (21). The rumbles of trains echo repeatedly. He recalls “the fires from the air raids that had raged in our neighborhood” (29). The pitted landscape reflects his journey to the conflagration of the 1940s when he was only a young boy.

In The Females [Die Weiber, 2010; translated 2018], the male protagonist, referred to as Herr C., acts as a voyeur to women in a former munitions factory. Spying upward through a grate, he masturbates in the basement below. The plot, if it can be called that, exists in the mind of a man with an affinity for trash cans, filth, and “effluvia” (8). He himself excretes “smells” (3) as he works in this “waste mill” (10). Over the course of the novel, he is fired, dreams, remembers—or, rather, misremembers—confusedly. He writes pornography, defends himself even as he loses his identity, and utters (imagines?) an extended defense to the labor court head, Madam Magister. At last he flees the town he associates with oppression, rankness, and females for Berlin. Here, he seems to find female prisoners aligning themselves with him even as a male Stasi agent stares at him relentlessly.

Waste Form

Synchronic time frequently characterizes waste literature, where the dregs from the past inexorably materialize. The narrative line of The Tidings of the Trees struggles to clarify itself. Again and again circling around the vanished cherry trees, Waller remains mired in what was. Time, mixed up, confounds not only Waller, but the reader. Are we at the time of the border closing in 1961? Or is it twenty years later? Listen to the trees, Hilbig intimates; inanimate objects—whether waste or organic—speak to us of what has transpired, even if we humans are incapable of confronting our iniquities. Only in waste does truth appear: “…in this day and age only the garbagemen could bring a poetic thought to fruition….In the garbagemen’s presence things had escaped the constraints of utility and begun to tell stories…” (46-7). Frustrated that he cannot escape his recollections, Waller paradoxically seeks out waste to retrieve memory itself until he himself has become ash. The top layer of the past waits for the next deposit to settle over it in a palimpsest of decay.

The form of Old Rendering Plant reflects the essence of Hilbig’s account. Rather than a triumphant narrative of diachronic time and forward progress, his view of history remains mired in what has already occurred yet refuses to expire. Waste itself could suggest progress: creation—usage—junking. But that very discard persists in traces never to be evaded. The narrator cannot place his memories in disjointed time. Cyclicality and repetition suggest how we can never escape the vestiges of what came before, as inexorable as death and waste itself. Language fails to express this plight, through words like “fragment,” “random,” “decayed,” “toppled,” “debris,” “crumbling,” “rotting,” and “scrapped” (9). Just as the narrative slips through our fingers like quicksilver, it is “impossible to pin down with nouns” (26; also 52) what the protagonist experiences. Larded with adjectives, his words evoke decay: sludge, scabby, caustic, residue, dust, malodorous, spectral, dry rot, uncanny, slag, wounds, ash, and sediment. He looks for a lost sentence that would help explain everything, yet language remains inadequate to conjure up the horror of the past. His tour-de-force (72-77) describes the factory Germania II, where mass graves riddle the land and workers carry “gold teeth” (75) in their pockets. Language itself has become a wasteland bursting with corpses and death: “vowel-skulls, consonant-bones, carpus-consonants, pelvis-vowels, knuckle-punctuation” (75). These compounds unexpectedly juxtapose and conjoin substantives, just as Hilbig links present and past in creepy pairings. He resorts to nonsense words to articulate a mad history: “old rendering plant…old rendery…olrendery….dendery…endery…” (108). His ultimate descent into a rubbish language justifies his epigraph from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Language gives form; if language goes, so does memory.

The confused structure of The Females renders in linguistic form the stagnation, even impotence, of language in Hilbig’s country. Herr C. comments within a sentence about some previous words— “I had no idea what I meant by that” (11)—as though meaning itself no longer coherently signifies. Hence his repeated return to trash cans, where the contents swish and mingle in reeking disorder. He, a sickness himself, notices how “all the females had vanished from town” (14-5). Even “feminine nouns have fallen out of use” (15). Trash cans come to be sexualized in his imaginings (or are they realities?) as an avatar of Jack the Ripper. Perhaps it was not the females, but himself who dissolved from view. Riddled with waste-associated terms like “scraps,” “fragment” (31), “trash,” “stray dogs,” (33), “rubble” (35), “swamp,” “dark stench,” “moldy stacks of unwashed dishes,” and “litter” (73), Hilbig layers filth in our consciousness as we read.

The recurrence of past with present formalizes waste structure. Material waste itself can never be fully gone; even as smoke, it enters the atmosphere or our lungs. This layering of history penetrates narrative structures. World War II exists now, not just decades ago. The protagonist does not allow himself to forget the past; memory not only makes his account baffling at times, but renders him an outsider, a deviant sexually and politically, “relegated…to the trash” (27). The state declares his “I” invalid. His hatred of his own childhood is linked to the concentration camp barracks, site of his “chief playground until about the age of twelve” (35). World War II horrors gut language of meaning, transforming it into waste and our lives along with it. The hair of the tortured dead infiltrates his writing: “Into my isolated, snarled language, sick with shameful smells, and flying yellow beneath the sky in the sickly color of King David” (37). The Judenstern illuminates the monstrous past, infecting the gruesome present, sickening language itself.

The Significance of Waste

As the cultural model of waste is mapped onto humans, ethical dangers loom. Those who handle filth become tainted by it. Whole classes of human beings become equivalencies for trash, and, as such, worthy of disposal. Those who become contaminated socially as waste are “thrown out”—geographically, economically, and morally. We physically assign them to the proximity of waste dumps. In the most egregious instances, “wasted” beings are killed.

Yet the metaphor of waste can reveal the humanity we share. Only when something is seen, can that recognition spark change. If things have dignity, then we cannot “waste” other humans as things.

The argument or meaning of The Tidings of the Trees remains rooted in waste, alerting us to the dangers of forgetting. The eerie mannequins Waller finds stacked up in the hut of the garbagemen evoke the Holocaust with its grisly encounter of skeletal corpses piled up like no more than firewood. German history, Hilbig suggests, can never escape the ash of the crematorium, even in the Cold War period. This history haunts Waller, who knits a narrative rife with ghosts, corpses, and shadows. Stories themselves are in peril of vanishing, once forgotten by the spectral automatons of the GDR in the wake of invading garbage. Narrative is the only way the past can live again, hence Waller’s poignant and pointless pursuit of cherry trees, doomed to end in “historical ash” (34). While he vainly seeks a subject for his story, the “language of the trees” lies in “storytelling without motive, a stream of story that followed only the slow rhythms at work in the place where the trees were” (84).  The narrator—who may be Waller himself—attempts a comparable “language of return” (85), even as he continues to “live in this cloaca” (89). Unlike Dante’s pilgrim lost in the middle of life’s way within a shadowed, dark, or obscure forest, Hilbig’s wanderer can never emerge from the inferno of twentieth-century Germany.

The argument of Old Rendering Plant centers on the meaning of history. His journey turns into a death march of memory into Germany’s history. At one point, waking in the dark, he steps on a bloated object which explodes into a “stench so appalling” (37) that he cannot breathe. Perhaps it’s a dead rat, he considers; yet it seems to be the reek of history as the “same stench…kept me from crossing the railroad embankment” (39), the railroad that reminds him of “a smell of flesh” (39). Animal cadavers unloaded from cattle cars by humans in “shadowy uniforms” (60) suggest human corpses. The plant Germania II reeks, causing our narrator’s nausea at how he had “become a witness, made complicit by my knowledge, a participant in some Thousand-Year-Reich and its history” (64). Its smell can never be washed away. The GDR remains impotent, a mere “cadaver of the republic” (79). Germania II morphs into the Stasi, hiding “criminals…even old SS men and other lowlifes” (82). The washing powder produced in the factory is used to soft soap both history and present forgetting on this “[w]asteland…sleepland…barren ground!” (84). Language may fail to describe, but the earth remembers. His horror pilgrimage leads him over debris, fragments, remnants, ruins, and ashes, as the land vomits up the blood of history in response to the nausea of the past. In an apocalyptic nightmare with a monster swallowing the gaping landscape, Germania II “descended straight to Hell” (97). Despite our desire for freedom from obligation—”anything not to be responsible” (47)—the book obligates the reader to accept her liability for the ever-present horrors of the past, one that will ultimately become mythologized and integrated in the future. We cannot escape that for which we are all responsible.

As depicted in The Females, the GDR, ideologically obsessed with hygiene, only pollutes the present in cleansing itself of history. Analogous to Hilbig disgorging the horrors of the past, the landscape is riddled with filth: “sprawling garbage dumps, veritable pyramids of trash looming from a landscape of old, filled-in strip mines; dump trucks…scaled the mountainsides of trash until they finally found a place to disgorge themselves” (23). His obsession with women’s hair circles repeatedly back to the concentration camp adjacent to the former munitions factory where female prisoners worked, their hanks of hair turned to smoke or “snagged” in matted clumps on tree branches, “flags to mourn the murderous traditions of my homeland” (24).

While early on the protagonist seems highly sexist—associating females with sexualized trash cans as he peaks up their skirts—the narrative succeeds in redeeming, if redemption is even possible in such a dystopic place, his attitudes. He vanishes along with the females, losing his name and identity in solidarity with their loss. Incrementally, Hilbig makes a feminist argument. The fatherland has “evidently had all of its female parts castrated” (45). Even the country’s partition is rendered through the image of a female body cut in half, where the lower half is designated West German, “stuffed with money” (59). In imagining his own immaculate conception, “Generalissimo Stalin” (78) is his progenitor, making his mother a feminized state. A literally castrating woman—the sadistic Ilse Koch—threatens him in a dream riddled with memories he could never have had of World War II. He ultimately realizes women are pieced together by scraps of literature written and chosen by men. To transcend stereotypes, he will have to “adopt a female gaze first” (110).

His use of “females” rather than “women” seems denigrating as it is “animal, more earthly” (111). Yet, as he explains, “Yes, I felt I must describe the females who had lived in the torment and the simple solidarity of these barracks, where they were called females, because women staffed the guard details. That was where that honorific was invented: the female” (112).

Hence his doomed attempt to recapture them, the females, their hanks of hair going up in smoke. Even his birth took place synchronically with the killing of women at the concentration camp, yoking him to them irrevocably. Fleeing to Berlin, he works at a laundry, staffed by prisoners from a women’s prison. The female inmates, confined by women guards, indicate that they align themselves with him as he cries out that he loves them: “it was a sign aimed against the pure State” (127). Indicting his government, Hilbig identifies with the females oppressed by the state—whether Nazi- or GDR-controlled. Writers and artists under oppressive regimes, like women in patriarchal societies, find solidarity with one another, even as they are exiled, imprisoned, tortured, and possibly killed.

Ethical Considerations and Future Developments in Waste Studies

One struggles to read Hilbig’s novels in a constant striving to maintain clarity in the wake of disturbing images, alarming similes, and uncertain timelines. Only by taking one’s time can a path be scavenged among, around, and between the piles of historical and material detritus in the narrative. This slowness forces the reader to pay attention to, not only Hilbig’s, but also her own chronological dilemma: weighed by memory, how does one fashion a narrative line of coherence? Doesn’t such an endeavor junk people, events, and occurrences containing history and memory itself?  How can we disentangle ourselves from the past? And, if we do, don’t we risk forgetting what we need to remember in order to act for the future?

Questions such as these may be explored through ongoing developments in Waste Studies. Emerging models are developing to help us understand how we are implicated in waste. Fields like Actor Network Theory, Critical Plant Studies, Animal Studies, and Object-Oriented Ontology can be used to get at waste in unexpected ways. Dialogues among epistemic communities—from historians to literary scholars, ecologists to political scientists, biologists to poets—can develop new insights into waste from which we can all learn. We congregate in the big privy school of Waste Studies for the convivial ingestion, digestion, and production of ideas.

Waste deserves, indeed demands, attention.  Let’s make waste matter.

Susan Signe Morrison is Professor of English and Honorary Professor of International Studies at Texas State University. Morrison focuses on comparative medieval literature and cultural studies. Her scholarly research is located at the intersection of gender and ecocritical theory. Two of her books—Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics (2008) and The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter (2015)— interrogate how literature addresses and reshapes the history and philosophy of excrement and waste.


[i] https://discardstudies.com/

[ii] https://www.worldwidewastejournal.com/

[iii] See Vittoria Di Palma, Wasteland: A History (Yale UP, 2014)

Bauman, Zygmunt. Wasted Lives:  Modernity and its Outcasts. Polity Press, 2004.

DiPalma, Vittoria. Wasteland: A History. Yale University Press, 2014.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger:  An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge, 1966/2002.

Hawkins, Gay. The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish. Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.

Morrison, Susan Signe. The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Scanlan, John. On Garbage. London:  Reaktion Books, 2005.

Wolfgang Hilbig’s novels, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, published by Two Lines Press

The Females [Die Weiber, 2010; trans. 2018]

Old Rendering Plant (Knackery) [Alte Abdeckerei, 2010; trans. 2018]

The Sleep of the Righteous [Der Schlaf der Gerechten 2002; trans. 2015]

The Tidings of the Trees [Die Kunde von den Bäumen, 2010; trans. 2018]

Other Recommended Work to Explore Waste

Dini, Rachele. Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction: Legacies of the Avant-Garde. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Viney, Will. Waste: A Philosophy of Things. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Published on May 7, 2019.

Photo: Blooming green water | Shutterstock


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