Contextualizing the Garbage Project

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on a chapter dealing with Bill Rathje’s Garbage Project as part of the origin story of the archaeology of the contemporary world. In particular, I’ve been trying to put this project in its cultural context and this is pulling me back to thinking about the American West and its place within our historical imagination.

Most archaeologists are familiar with its academic context. The conversations between Rathje and Michael Schiffer and Jefferson Reid link The Garbage Project to the developing middle range theory of behavioral archaeology, systematic understanding of formation processes, and the study of modern material culture. Rathje himself unpacks some of this history in his conversation with Michael Shanks published a few years ago and Michael Schiffer unpacks this further in a 2015 article in Ethnoarchaeology dedicated to Rathje’s work and memory

What I’m interested in, however, is the broader cultural context for Rathje’s work. This is as much because the book that I’m writing is focused on the archaeology of the American experience (rather than the history of archaeology or archaeological methods) as it is because I’m not sure that I’ve seen the Garbage Project located within a distinctly American cultural landscape.

My argument is still rough, but it’s centered on three main points.

First, the Garbage Project is part of a larger critical engagement with consumer culture in post-war America. If the interwar period introduced Americans to the desirability of disposable goods, the post-war decades offered the first critique of so-called throwaway culture. The best example of this comes from Vance Packard’s series of influential books in the 1950s and early 1960s emphasized the close tie between consumption, the economics of production, and waste. In the introduction to his 1960 book, Waste Makers, he presents a series of fancifully wasteful anecdotes about futuristic “Cornucopia City” where the abundance of disposable goods produces a parallel abundance of trash. Heather Rogers’ has called the 1950s, the “golden age of waste.” It goes without saying that archaeologists have long connected waste – whether in middens or in other “systemic” contexts, with consumption patterns. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, this connection emerges in the context of contemporary American culture. By redirecting attention to garbage, which tends to be moved out of sight (and out of mind), authors and critics hoped to redirect attention to practices associated with post-war consumerism that likewise have escaped our attention. Michael Roller’s recent article in Historical Archaeology, while not uncontroversial, emphasized some of the mechanisms that produced the rapid transformation of American consumer practices in the mid-century.

Second, Rathje’s Garbage Project starts in Tucson, Arizona before branching out to other cities in the U.S. and abroad. It’s origins in the “New West,” however, are significant. The rapid growth of urban centers in the American West established the region as the most economically, socially, and culturally dynamic parts of the U.S. Tucson itself grew by over 340% between the 1950 and 1960 census expanding from 45,500 to 212,900 people in a mere 10 years. By the start of the Garbage Project in the early 1970s, Tucson was approaching 300,000 people situated in a series of sprawling suburbs extending to the southeast along the Santa Cruz River. The West, and the southwest in particular, was the vanguard of settlement change in the U.S. 

This Western urban growth influenced some of the work done by a group of artists loosely associated with a movement called the New Topographics who often used austere black and white photography vaguely reminiscent of the work of Ansel Adams to document settlement change in the post-war American West.   

If the 1950s and 1960s saw the rapid acceleration of American consumer culture, then, the expansion of the western American cities made manifest these attitudes in settlement as rapidly growing western cities literally consumed the western landscape. The changing character of American urbanism, however, created new challenges. One of the most relevant for the Garbage Project is the so-called “Garbage Crisis” that Martin Melosi charted in his book, Garbage in the Cities (1981). As Melosi (and many others since) recognized the so-called Garbage Crisis of the 1970s was as much a crisis of politics as a infrastructure or economics. (And I owe Bret Weber a debt of thanks for introducing me to the changing political landscape of American cities in the 1960s and 1970s). The formulas which allocated federal funding for certain services in cities changed at the same time that the growth of suburbs fundamentally altered the urban tax base. Many cities were faced with the dual challenges of reduced funding for essential services and higher costs associated with more dispersed suburban settlement. As development expanded from the traditional urban core, the rise of NIMBYism and the need to locate landfills and waste processing centers at ever further remove from suburban and ex-urban settlement brought into relief the realities of solid waste disposal in a changing political, demographic, and racial landscape. The growth of cities in the West, then, was part of a larger national narrative concerning new forms of settlement which required a rethinking of basic urban infrastructure. 

Finally and most intimidatingly, the Garbage Project emerged as a distinctive way of viewing the process of occlusion and visibility in post-war American society. Once again, so much of this is situated in our view of the American west. During the Cold War, the American West became home to numerous installation that operated secretly or with greatly restricted access from the infamous Area 51 to White Sands Missile Range and the Trinity Test site. The west is pockmarked with ICBM silos, home to NORAD, and frequent setting for conspiracy theories, UFOs, and top secret military projects which are both known and obscured under a veil of Cold War secrecy.

The interplay of the known and hidden likewise manifests itself in sites like the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site and WIPP or, on a more mundane and banal level, the Atari dump in Alamogordo (for the connection between these sites, go here). The burying of waste in the west, has parallels with a view of the west defined by the hidden costs of extractive industries. Timothy LeCain’s compelling work on sites like the Berkeley Pit in Montana, for example, make clear that the vastness of the West effectively hides the scars left by the extraction necessary to feed our consumption in the same way that it removes from sight the waste associated with our disposable culture. 

My observations here are not new and largely follow paths made by Rebecca Solnit, Lucy Lippard, Ellen Meloy, and others. In fact, this characterization of the American west is so fundamental that has shaped post-war western fiction (as John Beck makes clear in his book Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature (2009). Don DeLillo makes, Nick Shay, the main character of his epic Cold War novel Underworld a waste management executive who at one point relocates to Phoenix. Cormac McCarthy’s haunting narratives often play out against Western landscapes subtly shaped Cold War anxieties and understandings. 

As the legacy of the Garbage Project infuses the archaeology of the contemporary world today, it is hardly surprising that the Jason DeLeon’s amazing work along the U.S.-Mexican border relocates our post-war and Cold War anxieties in another western landscape: the Sonoran Desert. The Land of Open Graves documents the material culture, desperate conditions, and human cost of Mexicans entering the U.S. through this desert landscape. The remoteness of this landscapes allow Americans to project their militarism onto an “enemy” safely removed from the public gaze. Like Cold War installations, waste disposal sites, and the lasting scars of extractive industry, the American west of the Garbage Project was a place where Americans could both project their military and economic power and obscure its ultimate costs.   

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