by Stephanie Sodero
Picking Up is about the seemingly mundane and certainly smelly world of garbage collection in New York City. NYU Professor Robin Nagle is motivated by the question, “Who cleans up after us?” She works as an anthropologist-in-residence at the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) where she drives trucks, collects waste and clears snow. Nagle offers the reader an insider’s perspective on the four seasons of a sanitation worker: spring, maggots, leaves and night plow.
I came across Picking Up at the Tenement Museum in New York’s Lower East Side (combine with The Big Onion’s ethnic eating tour for wonderful afternoon!). Nagle, perhaps not unlike mobilities scholars, is attentive to infrastructures that are ubiquitous to the point of invisibility. In Picking Up, she shines a headlight on the flow of garbage in New York from curb to landfill, observing the workplace practices and politics of the 9,000 strong workforce.
I picked up the book because I am curious about the life of overlooked but critical mobilities. As one of Nagle’s colleagues reflects:
If you’re lucky, you can go your whole life without ever having to call a cop. And you can also go your whole life without ever calling a fireman. But you need a sanitation worker every single day.
When functioning as intended, waste collection is ho-hum. Nagle observes how sanitation work is invisible to New Yorkers:
Because of the mundane, and largely successful nature of his work, his uniform … acts as a cloaking device. … his truck and his muscle punctuate the rhythms of neighborhood at such regular intervals that he becomes a kind of informal timepiece.
Sociologist Bruno Latour reflects on the way “technical work is made invisible by its own success.” Dan Saltzstein, writing in The New York Times, wonders “If the Police Department represents New York’s Finest … what about the Sanitation Department? … New York’s Most Invisible?”
Perpetual circulations of sanitation workers and trucks make New York habitable. If collection halted for any reason, the cityscape would transform. One only needs to look to the experiences of recent garbage strikes: Madrid, Toronto and Naples (also New York in 1968 and 1981 – events about which Nagle is curiously quiet) to appreciate the role of sanitation workers. Nagle recounts seeing a san man, as they call themselves, at work the day after 9/11.
As with all such systemic infrastructures, disruption leads to profound visibility. It is only when what Bruno Latour refers to as the black box (black garbage bag?) of urban systems cease to function that components and complexity become apparent.
How does the steady and mundane work of the DSNY intersect with what I refer to as crisis mobilities? How do we move things, like waste and snow, when the going gets tough? I look to history and extreme weather.
1895: Disciplining garbage
Waste was a chronic crisis in New York dating from the arrival of the first settlers in 1624 and exacerbated by a skyrocketing population. Nagle’s description is pungent: scenes of “heaps upon heaps upon heaps of horse manure marinated in millions of gallons of horse urine (and often mounded around the maggoty carcasses of dead horses, dead dogs, dead cats, who might lie where they fell for weeks)” were not uncommon. Acute disease outbreaks made regular rounds.
In 1895, a Civil War veteran, George Waring, was hired as New York’s first sanitation engineer. Waring was able to affect a shift from a state of chronic crisis of immobile garbage to the expectation of swift and smooth waste removal. In three years he overcame endemic corruption and ineptitude, securing the workers and equipment necessary to unearth the city from its mantle of garbage.
Drawing on his military experience, he imposed discipline on New York’s waste, issuing white uniforms that transformed workers into visible symbols of hygiene. He practiced what social theorist Michel Foucault refers to as biopower, first controlling New Yorkers’ waste and, in turn, transforming the way in which New Yorkers’ regulated themselves.
2010: Overwhelmed by weather
The DSNY, despite its name, is not only responsible for moving garbage, but also for moving snow. In 2010 the city was hit by a snowstorm – not an unusual event. The Department rolled out its operations with initial success. But gradually the workforce was outpaced by fast falling snow and high winds. Approximately 258 DSNY vehicles – and their drivers who are obligated to remain with the vehicles – were stranded across the city in what Nagle describes as a “slow-motion pileup.”
Suddenly sanitation workers were an all too visible focal point of a frustrated public. Accusations of an intentional work slowdown led to a six-month investigation. Findings included issues with equipment failures, lack of communication and a centralized structure that does not respond to variable conditions on the ground.
The creation of the DSNY and the 2010 snowstorm are responses to two different expressions of crisis mobilities. The historic incapacity to deal with waste was chronic and indicative of corruption. The more recent snowstorm was acute and symptomatic of how more frequent extreme weather events may challenge urban mobilities. In the former, rigorous mundanity was a response to crisis, while in the later case, crisis was an exception to steadfast reliability. This suggests a close relationship between mundanity and crisis, where one state may quickly flip to the other. The commonality is that change was unexpected.
Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2013).
A Killam/SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow, Stephanie Sodero researches crisis mobilities at Lancaster University's Centre for Mobilities Research and the University of British Columbia's Liu Institute for Global Issues.
by Stephanie Sodero
Anatomy of a Soldier tells the story of a British captain injured in Afghanistan. From this compelling starting point, author Harry Parker adds a twist: forty-five objects narrate the story. Though a bestseller this book wasn’t on my radar until Ole B. Jensen, when speaking at Lancaster University’s Centre for Mobilities Research, made an off-hand but enthusiastic reference to it as an example of materiality.
I tweaked to it for two reasons.
First, as a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Mobilities Research, I am focusing on crisis mobilities. How are mobilities carried out in the midst of disruption, such as severe weather events exacerbated by climate change?
Second, I am curious about vital mobilities. That is, the movement of materials that are critical to one’s life chances, such as blood, water and medicine. Informed by science and technology studies, I am interested in following objects to get a sense of what networks and infrastructures are activated and enabled by their movement and, critically, the social-ecological power dynamics at work.
What, I wondered, might a fictional focus on following objects in a conflict setting yield theoretically and methodologically in terms of my work as a mobilities researcher?
By way of the briefest of sketches, Anatomy of a Soldier tells the story of BA5799 (O POS) a soldier in the British Army who loses a leg when he steps on an improvised explosive devise (IED). The first chapter is told from the perspective of a tourniquet. A bag of blood, a drone and a spore of fungus narrate other chapters. For me, it works and I heartedly recommend it (for full book reviews, see Kirkus and The Guardian).
As a social scientist with an interest in materiality, five main take-aways emerge (with effort made to minimize plot spoilers!):
1. De-centring humans
Telling the story from the perspective of objects serves to both de-centre the human characters and to re-focus on the human from a fresh perspective. (Christian House, writing in The Telegraph aptly describes the approach as “literary cubism”). It also serves a practical purpose as BA5799 is unconscious or sedated for much of the book – his being reduced to a medically managed collection of bodily systems. Anatomy of a Soldier is part mystery as the reader deciphers clues to determine what object is narrating each chapter. To view a scene – especially scenes we often hear about through media – from a foreign perspective, helps to see it in a new light. Reading the book felt like watching a muted movie – the absence of human narration allows previously unobserved details to emerge and other details to land with unexpected impact.
2. Porous boundaries
A theme throughout is the permeability of the human body. Earth and debris explode into BA5799’s legs. An intubation tube inhabits his body. Blood from numerous donors circulates in his bloodstream. Even once crisis has passed, friction from his prosthetic leg aggravates his stump. BA5799’s body is disabled and enabled – again and again – by objects. While sociological terms like cyborg and social-technical co-construction are not used, the concepts are emphatically conveyed.
For Parker, using objects allowed him to distance himself from telling of a semi-autobiographical story. For the boy planting an IED, focus on reciting a mantra distracts him from danger and fear. For the surgeon, concentrating on a steady hand diverts him from the fact of amputation. The intubation tube narrates: “They bent all their concentration on you and slowly you were brought back from the edge. You were not whole to them, just a wound to be closed or a level on a screen monitor or a bag of blood to change.” Focusing on the part channels attention, casting the whole into relief.
Though objects enjoy the privileged role of narration, they most often do not outlive the novel. Disposability and impermanence are central. The intubation tube observes “Seven days and four thousand miles after I had been inserted into you…. A nurse picked me up, pushed the foot pedal of the bin and threw me into a yellow surgical waste bag. I was no longer part of you.” After intense and intimate use, backpacks, tourniquets and prosthetic legs are all discarded. Humans do not fare better (though the intense investment in saving BA5799’s life contrasts with the lack of health care access for the average Afghani).
5. Narrative ambiguity
The narrative omniscience of the objects varies. Some know names of specific things and the roles of certain humans. Others don't. Some evoke sympathy in the human characters. Others don’t. Of his process, Parker states: “I set myself rules. The objects don’t have emotion, they can’t speak. … they can only know what someone is thinking if they are touching them. The rules don’t really matter for the reader but they mattered for me as a writer to keep a structure” (The Telegraph). Chris Power, in The Guardian, found “the more you wonder why body armour is more poetic than a running shoe, or why a detonating bomb favours alliteration, the less absorbed in the book you become.” I found it nothing more than a fleeting distraction. However, it points to the difficulty of potentially anthropomorphizing objects in an academic attempt to follow the object. The interface of narration and agency is sticky at best.
Anatomy of Soldier will inflect my approach as I navigate undertaking and presenting my own research, lending me courage to de-centre the human in order to refocus on the human, concentrate on the part in order to reveal the whole and create my own narrative rules in order to get at a larger truth.