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Learning from the landfill

Mary Foltz, assistant professor of English, studies 20th-century writers and examines their depictions of waste—representations of landfills, sewage systems and other methods of disposal—in fiction.

Discussion regarding the current state of our environment is not limited to scientists and policy makers. Some noted contemporary authors focus on the waste produced by society.

Mary Foltz, assistant professor of English, studies 20th-century writers and examines their depictions of waste—representations of landfills, sewage systems and other methods of disposal—in fiction.

Her research finds that these writers are deeply committed to depicting society’s destructive practices of disposal through fiction.

Whether it is the parodic works of Thomas Pynchon or the depictions of marginalized communities by Toni Morrison, Foltz argues that many postmodern novelists not only provide a critique of waste-disposal practices, but they also speak to the value and pleasure society finds in waste.

Environmental authors such as Reinaldo Arenas or William Gaddis depict representations of waste that connect to issues such as race, gender and class. They construct alternative subjects such as scavengers and trash artists who refuse to bury or to forget the wretched.

Rather than indulging in a routine call for recycling, Foltz says these writers show that discussing waste and claiming things that others discard leads to the development of truly sustainable communities. She finds that many postmodern authors are primarily concerned with why human civilizations are attacking the world with waste.

'An important ethical question for readers'

Many of the authors Foltz studies are more interested in why humans consume and dispose in such an aggressive manner. Their waste-focused ethics illustrate that the continuation of human life lies with addressing our waste and refusing to imagine a separation between the natural world and ourselves, says Foltz.

“Many current literary texts encourage the reader to avoid participation in the ecological disaster by finding value in the waste of both the individual and society. These authors create fictional communities and individuals who find pleasure in materials that might appear worthless to society,” she says.

Examining the works of postmodern writers gives Foltz opportunities to explore the importance of contemporary fiction in addressing today’s environmental challenges.

“I can work with environmental scientists, work with legal theory or study the works of people like James Fullard, who is working in environmental racism—choosing impoverished communities in which to put landfills or incinerators.”

Foltz’s current effort brings into the mix Fluxus art, or art made from waste, and connecting it to novels like Don DeLillo’s Underworld or Pynchon’s postmodern novel, The Crying of Lot 49. These artists are important in contemporary fiction because they are exemplary in their rethinking and reimagining of how to work and interact with the world.
 
“It’s an important ethical question for all of us as readers,” Foltz says. “I can examine these issues while maintaining a primary focus on the fiction. I think fiction can reflect a contemporary subjectivity—a violent subjectivity of disposers—and yet it can push us to imagine alternative ways of being in the world.”

Story by Robert Nichols

Posted on Thursday, December 02, 2010

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