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Trash and the AnthropologistTrash and the Anthropologist

Trash and the Anthropologist

BLVR: You've written that a sanitation department that does its job well will make itself invisible, and, more generally but along the same lines, there is a sense in which garbage is the negation of culture. And William Rathje, whom you mentioned just before, has noted that humans are the only animal species not drawn in by garbage's smells and colors.

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Topics: Cities
Trash and the Anthropologist September 20, 2009  |  By Alissa Wilkinson
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The director of my old graduate program at NYU is also an expert on something kind of weird: she's an anthropologist of sanitation, and has been the anthropologist-in-residence at NYC's Department of Sanitation for years. If that wasn't weird enough for you, she's interviewed in The Believer this issue. Fascinating stuff, actually—especially if you're interested in the hidden parts of a city's infrastructure.

BLVR: You've written that a sanitation department that does its job well will make itself invisible, and, more generally but along the same lines, there is a sense in which garbage is the negation of culture. And William Rathje, whom you mentioned just before, has noted that humans are the only animal species not drawn in by garbage's smells and colors. And yet, sanitation is such a gigantic component of city budgets and urban life, and, in New York at least, has created a landfill that can be seen from the earth's orbit. That suggests that this blind spot is doing a lot of ideological work.

RN: Yes. There's a Buddhist saying about housework, that it's invisible labor because you see it only when it's not done. That's sanitation's mission writ large, and in fact a hundred years ago it was understood to be municipal housekeeping.

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