Rubbish, trees, and a new place by Ramón E. Soto-Crespo

Ramón E. Soto-Crespo is an associate professor of English. 


Fall is my favorite season and today I discovered myself reading trees. This habit is new, it grew out of necessity for getting acquainted with my new surroundings. During the past decade I lived in a downtown loft apartment in the midst of a concrete jungle, where buses, cars, parking lots were numerous, but trees were not. These past couple of months, I have acquired greater appreciation for the ecology of my surroundings and enjoy looking at the mature trees on Church Street. Everyday we have visitors: cardinals, rabbits, squirrels, and the occasional garden snake. They are all part of a new place, a new habitat.

I am not only reading trees, but also enjoying reading rubbish. I don’t mean nature as rubbish, nor do I mean that I go around inspecting people’s bins on garbage day. I am referring to rubbish theory of the 1970s. For the past few years I have been reading Anglophone Caribbean postwar trash fiction, hundreds of pulp novels, from Christopher Nicole’s Caribee (1974) to Richard Tressillian’s Bloodheart (1986), wherein I have discovered a neglected literary world of historical novels that resemble the debris of rubbish and seaweed found in a Sargasso sea. My interest in this literary archive led me to what I am reading today: rubbish theory from the 70s and 80s.

Purity and Danger by Mary DouglasAt the moment, I am devouring Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger (1970), Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory (1979), and Jonathan Culler’s “Junk and Rubbish” (1985). All oldies, but good oldies.

Douglas’s dictum that “where there is dirt there is system” (2) offers a perspectival shift on how to reinterpret those things that are out of place. Her book is peppered with wonderful insights about the role of purity in Western culture and with examples of sexual practices that come across as dirty precisely because they are out of place. If sex sells, disturbing sex is a bonanza. Her theory is a wonderful heap of anomalies.

Rubbish Theory by Michael ThompsonThompson introduces a conceptual framework that places rubbish in a prominent place. Rubbish is for Thompson an object in limbo, that is to say, in-between the categories of transient or durable. We make this judgment call everyday when—without hesitation—we place some objects in a trash can and others in storage bins. Rubbish is the category for those objects that are in limbo: they have acquired a sentimental value that exceeds any use value that they once possessed and, as a result, they are kept. For example, souvenirs from our trips abroad, or prizes won in a county fair. Rubbish could eventually become trash or acquire immense collectible value. Often they become our most precious items precisely because their value cannot be assessed in economic terms.

Culler’s review of these theories is wonderful and he warns us: “the charm of rubbish” is that it is “really more important than most people think.” Culler’s essay puts rubbish theory in perspective as he describes books that had become rubbish to contemporary theorists until the new interest in waste and debt made us aware of them once again.

“Contemporary theories of trash are great, but rubbish theory from the 70s is even better!” I keep saying to myself, as I read and write to my heart’s content. However, the other day, I found myself aware that I had created a routine. I would read and write on rubbish until 4 o’clock and then go for a late afternoon walk where, without knowing, I have been reading trees. I have been inspecting the reddish, yellowish, bright orange colors of the fall foliage and I can see now the crevices in trunks and branches where squirrels live and hide. A whole new perspective opened when the trees became naked, revealing a busy habitat that had been out of sight until now.

Finite Perfection by Michael WeinsteinI remembered a quote by Emerson that my recently deceased dissertation advisor, Michael A. Weinstein, taught me: “Most persons do not see the sun.” At that moment, I became aware of two things of a personal nature. My reading of trees is actually looking at trees in a new light. Michael’s death had made me sensitive to the writers that he loved: William James, Emerson, Thoreau, Santayana, and Dewey. His passing had reawakened memories of our walks and conversations. At the same time, I became aware of something else, that where others had failed to see me, he had seen me. My eternal gratitude for this profound gesture was to see the world anew, to see what he loved, to value what others had deemed rubbish.

Emerson wrote: “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” I see today that the fall colors are brighter, the air cooler, and the trees livelier.

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About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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