- Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio's Largest Garbage Dump by Kathleen Millar
Kathleen Millar's Reclaiming the Discarded is an eloquent ethnography about the entanglements of work and life on what was Rio's largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, told through the life trajectories and labour practices of catadores, or garbage sorters, as they artfully wade through layers of discard under the hot Brazilian sun.
This book is an excellent example of what anthropologists do best. Methodologically, it is an ethnography that stands on its own. Millar draws on fieldwork completed between 2005 and 2012 – primarily in 2008 and 2009 – when she worked as a novato catador, or novice garbage sorter, on the dump and living in a neighbourhood closest to it. Textually, the book is a beautiful read from start to finish: clear, concise and full of colour and life. Beyond the prose, the narrative itself shines, as Millar clearly formed deep and meaningful relationships with catadores and the people living around Jardim Gramacho.
Chapter 1 launches the reader into one of the important theoretical contributions of the book. Millar walks the reader through what she refers to as her "first day-as-catador" (which was not her first day sorting garbage). Her battle with emotional and physical exhaustion, and her frustration with the materials, an injury and then a rain shower, provide cause for her fellow catadores to laugh and welcome her to the trade. Only when nearing the point of quitting does she begin to see labour as an ontological experience (53) where work, life and death are ever-present in the daily rhythms of labouring bodies. The narrative serves as an excellent hook, capturing the audience with its portrayal of life on the dump. Particularly impressive is the way Millar escapes a victimising narrative so commonly [End Page 166] embedded in the moralising discussions of what is described as "precarious" or "informal" work. Instead, her informants are equals, colleagues and agents – and makers of history in their own right (Thompson 1969).
What is the inescapable pull of catador work? Why did cat-adores repeatedly return to the dump, even when many had other (more permanent) opportunities to pursue? Each chapter assembles an open-ended answer to these questions to answer the puzzle of why people return to what is primarily a toxic zone of work. Upon reflecting on the kinds of questions other anthropologists have asked about her research, Millar suggests that this question is never asked because anthropologists have assumed they know the answer – garbage pickers return to the dump out of economic necessity. Millar argues that the catadores' decision to return can be understood as a political act in itself. It is a way "to break with normative forms of capitalist labour" (92). In this sense, Millar's work resonates with accounts of the flexible labour of mushroom pickers (Tsing 2015).
To support her claims that alternative forms of work are a political practice, Miller introduces the reader to the fascinating work of Edward Palmer (E.P.) Thompson. This move is a refreshing one, as I have always wondered why Thompson hasn't had more of an influence on anthropologists who study work and labour. Millar suggests that anthropologists have avoided Thompson because, while his work is intriguing, it is also challenging, as it lacks an apparent "thesis" or "theory" that can be applied succinctly to anthropological analysis. Rather than draw on the overly cited work on class consciousness from The Making of the English Working Class, Miller channels a Thompsonian essence throughout her ethnography. Her analysis demonstrates a resistance to overly economistic understandings of experiences, a rejection of the idea that subsistence drives people to work, and an acute attention to working peoples as the authors of their own political agency and history – regardless of whether or not these contribute to hegemonic understandings of organising – the topic of Chapter 5.
The main strength of Reclaiming the Discarded is – without a doubt – what it contributes to contemporary understandings of precarious labour. By troubling the...