Trash and Modernity

This weekend I read Rachael Graff’s Disposing of Modernity: The Archaeology of Garbage and Consumerism during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (2020). This is obviously a book that I should have read about a year ago, but for some odd reason, did not.

I really enjoyed the book and admired Graff’s ability to balance between intimate and highly specific details and more expansive conclusions. She handled issues of particular significance to both historical archaeology – namely the emergence of consumer culture – and to archaeology more broadly as a discipline – namely time and modernity – with brilliant common sense and this will almost certainly open up these often tricky and abstract debates to a wider audience.

Graff’s book looks at two site which she and her colleagues excavated in Chicago. One is in Jackson Park which was the site of the 1893 World’s Fair and the other is on Chicago’s Gold Coast and associated with the Charnley House (now the headquarters of the SHA) designed by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Both the World’s Fair and the Charnley house represent major statements of modernity in the United States. The Fair celebrated progress and the coming of age of mass consumer culture. The triumphant parade of convenience, innovation, and capital at the Fair established Chicago’s place in the constellation of major American cities and distinguished contemporary American (and European) culture from its more exotic, “primitive,” and “undeveloped” peers. In this context, the “closing of the American frontier” represented a coming of age for American society where the science, industry, and technology has established American culture on a new and radically different trajectory. 

The Charnley House is often considered the first “modern house” in the United States. It’s clean lines, modern conveniences, and open plan represent an important example of a kind of domestic architecture that severed the relationship between the space and design of elite homes and their traditional functions. Graff’s work is not very interested, however, in the architecture of the Charnley house and instead focuses on a rather substantial midden discovered adjacent to the house and filled with trash deposited between the last decades of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century. In other words, just as the World’s Fair was showing off the amazing creations of industrial science and technology, the various residents of the first modern house were disposing their trash in same way that had occurred for centuries (if not millennia). That the trash deposit consisted of a wide range of modern manufactured products simply reinforced the notion that modern and “non-modern” behaviors existed side-by-side in the city of Chicago as it negotiated its own place in the narrative of progress.

Graff reinforces the tensions between the egalitarian promise of the “modern” with the realities of life in Chicago with detailed prosopographies of the organizers of the World’s Fair and the society in which folks like the Charnleys circulated. In contrast to the shadowy lives associated with the individuals who worked at the World’s Fair, collected the trash from its massive venue, and manufactured the goods so proudly displayed, Chicago’s elite pop from the page in high relief and parade about as vivid reminders that the progress and modernity associated with closing the frontier were unevenly distributed.

There are a few things in this book that directly relate to my research interests and made me regret not reading this book until now.

1. Garbage and Modernity. One of the first chapters in my book is on garbology which I connect to the development of archaeology as a modern discipline. Of course, Graff’s book makes this point amazingly well as it situates the excavation of trash as more than simply attempting to uncover a window into late 19th and early 20th century Chicago, but the excavation of the modern world itself. This connection between modernity, archaeology, and trash offers a nice way to emphasize how a growing awareness of a disposable culture informed how archaeologists connected their discoveries to what people did in the past. 

2. Ephemerality of the Modern. One of the most remarkable things about the 1893 World’s Fair is that the entire site consisted of ephemeral buildings. They were built, wired, connected to plumbing, and then removed within a few years. The ephemerality of the fair in many ways represented the disposable culture of the trash heap projected on a monumental scale. Ironically, however, the things that made the fair work proved in some ways to be the most persistent. The infrastructure of pipes, wiring, and foundations likely remains below the level of Jackson Park and preserve, in some ways, the lives of the more monumental world above ground.

The relationship between pipes and wires and infrastructure and the monumental, if ephemeral, traces of modernity embodied in the World’s Fair is a brilliant metaphor for the contemporary situation where we struggle to erase the visible reminders of humanity’s hubris and irresponsibility (or never ending quest for profit and progress), while leaving behind the traces (scars?) of what made this all possible. I can’t but help think about the ephemerality of work force housing in the Bakken oil patch and how much of the the subsurface remains will persist. Or, more to a point, the flow of capital might not be particularly visible, but the impact of this capital and the networks of colonialism, violence, and power that make it possible will last for centuries.

3. Time and the Fair. The ephemerality of the fair ground reveals the way in which the fair used a sense of time to contrast ideological arguments. The disappearance of the fair paralleled the growing understanding of materiality as ephemeral and promoted obsolescence as a driver of  consumption in an economy whose capacity to produce was constantly bumping up against the limits to the capacity to consume. 

The constant coincidence of past practices (such as dumping trash in an alleyway next to an elite residence), future hopes (in the promise of progress) and the fleeting present (embodied in the disappearance of the fair) created the kind of temporal pastiche that has come to characterize our experience of the modern world. The various temporal encounters that celebrated in such works as Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina or her notion of “clockpunk” archaeology suggested that the modern world’s relentless commitment to progress would obscure the persistent values of the past for the sake of the past. Instead, the 1893 fair suggests such “residual” features are not some form of irrepressible patina that challenges our commitment to modernity, but rather a feature of the modern appropriated by its totalizing discourse and presented to reinforce the potential for the next iteration of the present to make available past pleasures in new and improved form (now with MORE NOSTALGIA ™). 

As someone fascinated by mechanical watchmaking and vacuum tube stereo amplifiers, the concomitant rise in vintage watch market and the efforts by watchmakers to produce upgraded and improved versions of vintage designs demonstrates the recursive need to preserve the past as both a baseline for progress and as aspirational goal. The continuous efforts to capture the “vintage sound” of vacuum tube stereo components with the latest technology is not some form of anti-capitalist critique, but part of a larger process of commodifying the past in the present. The ephemerality of the present, then, is part of a larger strategy to create “instant classics” in which memory itself becomes a fungible commodity. It goes without saying that the rise of archaeology is part of this same effort to turn the past into something that can be sold.  

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