De Wolff on Zubiaurre, 'Talking Trash: Cultural Uses of Waste'

Maite Zubiaurre
Kim De Wolff

Maite Zubiaurre. Talking Trash: Cultural Uses of Waste. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2019. 246 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8265-2228-3

Reviewed by Kim De Wolff (University of North Texas) Published on H-Environment (February, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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Maite Zubiaurre’s Talking Trash: Cultural Uses of Waste is a visually resplendent addition to the growing field of discard and waste studies. Over the past few decades, humanities scholars have increasingly attended to materiality[1] while also looking beyond production and consumption to disposal and afterlives.[2] Talking Trash attends to the seemingly unremarkable “small trash” of predominantly urban environments, challenging readers to recognize the meaningful potential of even the tiniest scraps of litter. Zubiaurre’s greatest strength is in making a visual argument that teaches readers to see differently: your next walk down the street will not be the same as gum stains, scraps of foil, and broken chairs leap to life at once, “beautiful … ubiquitous and immortal” (p. 81). While demonstrating new materialist concerns with the liveliness of refuse, Zubiaurre’s lesson is ultimately about compassion, inequality, and the human condition, as “eventually, it is in the small and near where we recognize ourselves” (p. 4).

Talking Trash is a work of visual culture studies as much as it is a book about waste. Luxuriously littered (pun intended) with 163 full-color images, the physical artifact is a pleasure to peruse. These images constitute a comprehensive collection of “trash art,” including recurring photographic contributions by Filomena Cruz—author Maite Zubiaurre’s artistic alias. It is her incredible strength in reading often surprising texts, however, that is her standout contribution, from a promotional silent film for the very first dumpster to chewing-gum “fossil” archaeology and the belongings left behind by immigrants traversing US-Mexico desert borderlands. Through this powerful tour of imagery, the author elevates the status of trash and trash art alike by nudging the reader’s gaze downward.

The book is organized into four substantial main chapters framed by a much shorter introduction and conclusion. Chapter 1, “Sentient Filth,” focuses on how trash moves and is moved both physically and emotionally. Visual examples toggle between individual objects and massive accumulations, from beings cheekily composed of discarded toilets and cardboard boxes by street artist Francisco de Pájaro to the human bodies inserted into geologic-scale arrangements of e-waste by Daniel Canogar. While leading readers to see the beauty in trash, Zubiaurre does not shy away from the “obscenities of excess” (p. 53), the intersections of accumulation, waste, and violence.

Chapter 2, “Litterscapes,” considers the capacities of “small trash” to transform space. The first half of the chapter focuses on urban litter in a discussion of archives, order, and exclusion that incorporates “roadkill” plastic forks, constellations of chewing gum, and photographs of discarded medical gloves (that have taken on new meaning amidst a global pandemic). The second half of the chapter builds on these foundations to provide an in-depth analysis of belongings left behind by immigrants crossing the deserts of the US-Mexico borderlands where “the transformation of the landscape and topography is the result of brutality” (p. 98). While the contrasts between urban/natural settings is welcome and the analysis scales logically in size and political intensity, the parallels between the two sections get lost as the chapter expands over sixty pages. Perhaps the discussion of immigration, desert discards, and recovery would have been better served in a chapter of its own.

Chapter 3, “Dumpsterology,” is dedicated to the cultural history of everything dumpster, with particular attention to contrasts between openness and enclosure. The single-object focus provides a welcome anchor for a tour that spans from the dumpster’s origins, surprisingly tied to fortuitously eponymous Dempster brothers, through the rhythms of trash collection and an extended discussion of trash and gendered violence. The discussion of salvage includes a satisfying reading of Agnès Varda’s 2000 film, The Gleaners and I. Though the overall analysis stops somewhat short of the systemic causes of poverty and famine, the chapter is a creatively constructive account of the dumpster as “a powerful reminder of how life unavoidably circles back into nonexistence, how all that is alive is ultimately discarded” (p. 127).

Chapter 4, “Dirty Innocence,” turns to the not-so-innocent trash narratives of childhood as they are contrastingly structured across gender and especially, global wealth divides. This chapter notably contains the fewest images, as a major section turns instead to hoarding-focused memoirs. As a content warning, however, in addition to tough-to-read descriptions of childhood suffering, the chapter reprints controversial images of children of color posed among landfills. Imagery of squalor finds its counterpoint in highly sanitized children’s media representations of trash and cleansing imperatives. Given the sensitive human implications of the content, there are moments where a pause to dwell further with image politics would be more welcome than yet more examples.

The main chapters are lengthy in part because of the abundant images, but also as an artifact of a method that mobilizes juxtaposition. When this works well, the reader is rewarded with surprising visual parallels, for example between bodies depicted in trash art and Abu Ghraib (p. 53), or dumpsters and vulvas in a discussion of the gendered violence (p. 159). When this works less well, chapters can feel overly sprawling, and there are places that would benefit from more extensive written transitions and conclusions. There are also lingering theoretical questions about counts as “small” trash: Why wrappers in the gutter but not microplastic fibers in streams? Why postconsumer discards, but not materials that escape from production facilities?

Talking Trash would be equally at home in graduate or undergraduate-level courses on environmental humanities, urban studies, aesthetics, or visual culture. While Zubiaurre claims that this is “not a book on the environment or environmentalism” (p. 1), it is very much a book about waste and compassion across nature-culture divides, and, at the same time, a book that very successfully embodies a Berger-influenced “way of seeing” trash in a different light (p. 2).[3] In addition, the spatial component of chapter 1’s emphasis on movement and chapter 2’s litterscapes would be a good fit for cultural geography. Individual chapters stand well on their own, the critical readings of a wide variety of trash artforms are accessibly written, and the text overall is rarely jargon-laden (aside from a few literature review sections that briefly veer in that direction).

In sum, Maite Zubiaurre achieves visually what Gay Hawkins’s Ethics of Waste does theoretically: she decouples waste from vilification and disgust to reveal a much wider wealth of meanings and interactions. In bringing what is ignored or hidden into the center of the discussion, Zubiaurre repositions small trash as an entry point into all kinds of political conversations about race, class, gender, and violence while simultaneously challenging the institution of Art (with a capital “A”). The ultimate irony, then, is that by “talking trash” Zubiaurre does the opposite: instead of offering disparaging remarks, she treats even the most unremarkable refuse with dignity and care.


[1]. As articulated for example by Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); and Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds., New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

[2]. Defining texts of waste or discard studies include Susan Strasser’s Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Hold Paperbacks, 1999); William Rathje and Culleny Murphy’s Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001); and Gay Hawkins, The Ethics of Waste (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).

[3]. Jon Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 1972).

Citation: Kim De Wolff. Review of Zubiaurre, Maite, Talking Trash: Cultural Uses of Waste. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL:

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