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Trash Culture

Objects and Obsolescence in Cultural Perspective

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Gillian Pye

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, concerns about the environment and the future of global capitalism have dominated political and social agendas worldwide. The culture of excess underlying these concerns is particularly evident in the issue of trash, which for environmentalists has been a negative category, heavily implicated in the destruction of the natural world. However, in the context of the arts, trash has long been seen as a rich aesthetic resource and, more recently, particularly under the influence of anthropology and archaeology, it has been explored as a form of material culture that articulates modes of identity construction.
In the context of such shifting, often ambiguous attitudes to the obsolete and the discarded, this book offers a timely insight into their significance for representations of social and personal identity. The essays in the book build on scholarship in cultural theory, sociology and anthropology that suggests that social and personal experience is embedded in material culture, but they also focus on the significance of trash as an aesthetic resource. The volume illuminates some of the ways in which our relationship to trash has influenced and is influenced by cultural products including art, architecture, literature, film and museum culture.

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Joel Burges - The Television and the Teapot: Obsolescence, All that Heaven Allows, and a Sense of Historical Time in Contemporary Life 201

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JOEL BURGES The Television and the Teapot: Obsolescence, All that Heaven Allows, and a Sense of Historical Time in Contemporary Life Progress has a dark twin. Commonly understood as an unstoppable force of historical change that forever launches us into the modern, progress is shadowed by obsolescence. Every time we advance historically, things, structures, and people are rendered obsolete, as are the cultural values, social relations, political hopes, and personal desires they embody. This does not mean that any of these vanishes. Whatever is rendered obsolete does not disappear. It accumulates, piling up both in public sites such as landfills, flea markets, secondhand stores, and collectors’ markets, and in private locations such as trashcans, attics, basements, and closets. It endures as the rubble of a bygone modernity in the form of abandoned industrial infrastructure and as the ruins of an ancient culture now transformed into a venerable tourist destination. The obsolete persists as a reminder that life was once dif ferent, even that life might have turned out dif ferently. On the most massive scale, obsolescence produces reminders of entirely foreign orders of things, traces of bygone modes of production that long ago organised economics, politics, and aesthetics. Such traces – prehistoric ruins, structures of antiquity – can be signals from the past that commu- nicate little more than that the past was other than the present, unless those signals have been decoded across time by archaeologists unearthing their lost meanings. On a much more modest scale, obsolescence is the source of...

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