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  • “There’s no Lack of Void”: Waste and Abundance in Beckett and DeLillo
  • Peter Boxall (bio)

The opposition between Waste and abundance offers itself, arguably, as that which structures contemporary culture more fundamentally than any other. The experience of living in the West today is defined by the perception of abundance, or of superabundance. There is more of everything. When George Bush famously quipped to his supporters at a fundraising dinner during his 2004 presidential campaign that they were the “haves and the have mores,” he unwittingly identified a deeper failure in the culture to think of wealth as in any sense limited, or balanced against poverty as its defining opposition.1 There is only having and having more, without the shadow of having less and not having. The physical sign of relative poverty in the West, accordingly, is not malnutrition, not wasting away, but obesity, as if what remains of poverty can only show itself in a weakened resistance to the dangers of abundance. Where the distribution of resources—commodities as well as capital and mineral reserve—has traditionally been understood as an unequal sharing, as balancing the wealth of the few against the poverty of the many, the global economy has produced, and been produced by, the apparition of a wealth without limit, a wealth that will grow by contact with poverty, until, in Tony Blair’s and Anthony Giddens’s vision of third-way globalization, the market will make everyone rich, will eradicate poverty and suffering.2 This is a benign version of the horrible sexual appetite that Hamlet so dreaded in his mother, the “increase of appetite” that “grows by what it fed on” (188, 1, 2, 144–145). But if wealth has absorbed or assimilated its other, in a utopian movement towards an unlimited global surplus, this supposed triumph of abundance over scarcity has produced another limit, another kind of boundary. Abundance may no longer be limited by poverty in the neo-conservative political imagination (although of course it is so in the material distribution of wealth, which is as uneven as ever), but it is shadowed instead by the more uncanny figure of waste. The more there is, the more we make, the more we consume, the more waste—that monstrous doppelganger [End Page 56] of abundance—gathers at the edges of our vision, unassimilable, unincorporable, and threatening the very integrity of the body politic. Waste, Julia Kristeva argues, occupies an “exorbitant outside or inside,” it accumulates “beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable.” “It lies there,” she writes, “quite close, but it cannot be assimilated” (1). The social production of space and of time, like the production of commodities, may have reached a new kind of peak, and might aspire towards limitlessness, but it is in this insistent, inescapable and fatal amassing of the waste product that the culture meets its limits. For the contemporary psyche, the image of clean, frictionless and limitless technologies, embodied in electronic money as well as in the clean lines of postmodern architecture, coincides with the opposite image of overflowing landfill sites, of melting ice caps, polluted seas, dwindling rain forests. The very forms of cultural production that make space seem limitless to us—the limitlessness, for example, of the virtual space of the internet—go hand-in-hand with the conditions that make another kind of space seem utterly restricted. We can move freely in our superabundant technosphere, while our movements in the biosphere become ever more confined. In the contemporary imagination, the scenario imagined by Beckett in Endgame—in which there is “no more nature”—has been almost realized (97). We have become accustomed to the thought that while there is more of everything, there is almost nothing left. No more rainforest, no polar ice, no diverse eco-systems, no coral reefs. The production of cultural abundance delivers a waste product that leads to an extreme form of natural scarcity. As the narrator of Don DeLillo’s vastly abundant novel Underworld tells it, “people look at their garbage differently now, seeing every bottle and crushed carton in a planetary context” (88).

So, waste and abundance form an opposition, arguably an opposition that structures...


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pp. 56-70
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