- Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction: Legacies of the Avant-Garde by Rachele Dini
Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction presents a historical account of representations of waste in twentieth- and early twenty-first-century literature. Dini situates the book as a contribution of the field of discard studies, and traces the way that waste has been deployed to critique capitalism. The book is divided into six chronological chapters. It begins with an extended Introduction to outline the key terms of the debate on waste and commodity culture. The second chapter focuses on the moment of the historical avant-garde to discuss three narratives associated with surrealism (André Breton's Nadja, Giorgio de Chirico's Hebdomeros, and Mina Loy's Insel), while the third chapter focuses on Samuel Beckett—the first of two chapters on a single author. The next chapter addresses works by Donald Barthelme, William Gaddis, and J. G. Ballard—writers who coincide with the emergence of the sixties counterculture, and whose work explores themes of the dystopian underside of consumer culture. The fifth chapter focuses on Don DeLillo, particularly Underworld, which exemplifies the central themes of Dini's argument. The conclusion reads as an additional chapter, extending the argument into the twenty-first century in analyses of recent works by Thomas Pynchon, Jonathan Miles, and Tom McCarthy.
Dini draws on the anthropological perspective advanced by Arjun Appadurai and Igor Kopytoff to explore the dynamic life cycle of the commodity.1 Commodities possess use value in addition to exchange value, and this use value is mutable. Hence waste is one moment in the life story of the commodity; it is what remains when use value has ebbed to zero. Dini contrasts waste as "matter out of time" to Mary Douglas's description of dirt as "matter out of place," which allows her to explore the commodity's life story as it shifts from useful to useless, desirable to abject; it also introduces the temporal dimension of waste as a catalyst to narrative (5).
Dini outlines the argument as "the representation of manufactured waste and remaindered humans … in literary critiques of capitalism by twentieth-century writers associated with the historical avant-garde and their descendants" (2). In giving Peter Bürger's notion of the historical avant-garde a central role, Dini unwittingly misrepresents his argument, recuperating the iconoclastic, political force of the historical avant-garde within the tradition of modernist and contemporary literature. This is closer to what Bürger calls neo-avant-garde: works that recuperate the strategies of the historical avant-garde as new literary or artistic techniques.2 Indeed, the historical avant-garde functions as a stand-in for a break with realism that Dini associates with surrealism, which then provides a model for writing that re-configures the relation between narrative and waste. Here Dini cites Roland Barthes's and Franco Moretti's discussions of realism, particularly the distinction made between primary events that advance the narrative (Moretti's "turning-points") and secondary events or descriptions that serve to establish verisimilitude ("fillers"). With surrealism, "non-events and useless objects" assume prominence over narrative [End Page 618] logic to the point where "waste" objects appears to generate the narrative (35). Waste here is used broadly to describe the type of objects that attracted the surrealists' attention: outmoded, anachronistic, or enigmatic objects open to being repurposed.
Strictly speaking, the surrealists were fascinated less by waste than objects or images with diminished cultural status. While the outmoded was one example of this status, contemporary advertising icons like Bibendum or Bébé Cadum, or pulp fiction thrillers like Fantômas also attracted the surrealists' attention. The key quality of these images was their lack of status within the hierarchy of high culture. Even the objet trouvé in the marché au puce is not waste, since it circulates in a secondary market—and here the vendor has already recognized its potential economic value. To describe these objects as waste...