Abjection: A Definition for Discard Studies

“Populations that deal with waste are tagged as dirty through their material association with trash (scavengers, trash collectors, recycler) (Gidwani and Reddy 2011).”

In this article, Mohammed Rafi Arefin highlights beautifully the socio-emotional challenges of bringing individuals into the open appreciation and practice of reuse. This risk of personal abjection (or emotional need to feel clean and through that, to belong) is why so many are loathe to embrace the traditional secondhand stores (the stores feel inherently dirty, and/or they feel dirty or second class for going there)… this is a real barrier to driving more sustainable behaviors at a grander scale.

As such, our best opportunity to collectively reduce what is perceived as ‘other’ or ‘unclean’ (both with respect to waste – and with respect to those who work with those things which are not brand new) is by helping our communities bridge the perception gap between what is trash (the abject) and what is (or could be) art (the sublime).

As S. P. Dennison puts it, “ability to see beauty is the beginning of our moral sensibility: what we believe is beautiful we will not wantonly destroy.”

I do believe that many of us see – and/or can be taught to see – that beauty… but while we may see it and want to embrace it, Mr. Arefin’s work points out that the stigma of abjection has made it a brave act to openly admit to an affinity for finding value in the waste of others…

First point: those in the business of sourcing and reselling all things vintage, reuse, and otherwise un-new (and potentially dirty) have a unique opportunity to drive societal change – and increase the perceived value of secondhand stuff – through transparency and education. Where do we get our stuff? What work do we do to make it palatable for a dirt-averse genpop? What is the value of prettying things up so genpop feels good about their sustainable consumption?

Second point: if we want to collectively draw a society of dirt-averse people into sustainable consumption behaviors, we currently have the wrong people sorting through our waste, charitable product donations, and recycling facility conveyor belts. We need artists and aesthetes, creatives and crafters. We need people who see possibility…who see beauty — and we need these people at all levels of the organizations involved in waste management.

Third point: If we want to be ready to manage demand as the formerly-dirt-averse join the early adopters in our open appreciation of the sublime (and potentially sublime), then we’re going to need a more effective supply chain for used products and materials, built around beauty.

Fourth point: for those wondering about how this relates even wildly to social media:
One of the reasons Junket has been so successful in its social media efforts is through transparency about where our products come from (the trash). We’ve embraced our otherness, our weirdness, openly and socially (despite the risk of abjection) and in so doing, we’ve made it okay for others to become part of a like-minded community of people who also proudly embrace what we embrace. … and this opportunity to alter one’s sense of self from fear-of-shame-or-rejection to security-in-belonging is a pretty powerful transition.

And yes, surely this example is specific to Junket’s mission. But here’s where it could also apply to you: does your chosen work solve a social problem? Could it? Therein lies your opportunity to engage the right people in something they care passionately about – i.e. passionately enough to pay attention to your message, and to want to be a part of what you’re creating – and with luck, passionately enough to involve others, as well.

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