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  • Waste and Value:Thorstein Veblen and H. G. Wells
  • PatrickRichard BrantlingerHiggins

Trashmass, trashmosh. On a large enough scale, trashmos. And—of course—macrotrashm! . . . Really, just think of it, macrotrashm!

Stanislaw Lem, The Furturological Congress

Introducing Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life, William Cohen declares: "polluting or filthy objects" can "become conceivably productive, the discarded sources in which riches may lie."1 "Riches," though, have often been construed as "waste." The reversibility of the poles—wealth and waste, waste and wealth—became especially apparent with the advent of a so-called consumer society during the latter half of the nineteenth century. A number of the first analysts of that economistic way of understanding modernity, including Thorstein Veblen and H. G. Wells, made this reversibility central to their ideas.2 But such reversibility has a much longer history, involving a general shift from economic and social theories that seek to make clear distinctions between wealth and waste to modern ones where the distinctions blur, as in Veblen and Wells; in some versions of postmodernism the distinctions dissolve altogether.

Cohen also writes: "As it breaches subject/object distinctions . . . filth . . . covers two radically different imaginary categories, which I designate polluting and reusable. The former—filth proper—is wholly unregenerate."3 Given the reversibility of the poles (and various modes of the scrambling or hybridization of values), what is the meaning of "filth proper"? Proper filth? Filthy property? Is there any filth that is not potentially "reusable" and, hence, valuable? Shit is valuable as fertilizer, and so on. Inversions and identifications of the two poles are possible if not always common in all cultures. They become commonplace in capitalist consumer culture, beginning roughly in the mid-1800s in Europe and North America. Modernity, then, can be defined as the age in which even filth [End Page 453] began to seem valuable, and postmodernity as the age in which anything has whatever value a consumer places on it. In Waste and Want Susan Strasser writes: "what counts as trash depends on who's counting."4 Our era, although not necessarily the end point or "last" stage of capitalism, is one in which everything can be turned to account, and yet nothing (not even the worker who turns into the valued consumer after work) seems to be worth anything. Wal-Mart has institutionalized this postmodern fact of life.

The equation between waste and money is perhaps as old as money itself. It emerges as a central element of socioeconomic theory, however, only with consumer society, after the initial phase of the Industrial Revolution from the 1780s to the 1850s. The shift in economics from emphasizing production to emphasizing consumption, marked by the "marginalist revolution" of the 1870s and the new centrality of price theory, was paralleled by the increasing subjectivism of aesthetic theory associated with the fin de siècle decadent movement and early literary and artistic modernism.5 Like the atomistic conception of decadence, the equally atomistic (individualistic, egoistic) notion of limitless consumption meant, in part, that anyone's values or desires were as worthy or as wasteful as anyone else's. The marketplace, where all values are valuable and everything has its price, was the central institution of the new consumer society, and the marketplace was increasingly equated with the total fungibility of mass democracy. Two diagnoses of these trends come from Veblen and Wells, one an American maverick economist and the other a British novelist, historian, and Fabian socialist. Central to their analyses is the ironic reversibility of wealth and waste.

This transatlantic similitude suggests that the equation can be found elsewhere at about the same time, from roughly 1870 down to World War I, in, for example, John Ruskin's notion of "illth," or in Friedrich Nietzsche's theory of "the transvaluation of all values," which influenced Georges Bataille's insistence on the primacy of expenditure.6 In The Insatiability of Human Wants Regenia Gagnier supplies other examples from the same period. The equation of wealth and waste achieves a postmodern apotheosis of sorts in the lucubrations on consumer society of Jean Baudrillard (who with Veblen in mind writes, "The consumption of leisure is a species of potlatch"), and more generally in "rubbish...


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