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The transformation of waste / by Andrew McFarland

Within the context of neo-rock we must open up our eyes and seize and rend the veil of smoke which man calls order.
Pollution is a necessary result of the inability of man to reform and transform waste.
The transformation of waste
The transformation of waste
The transformation of waste
The transformation of waste is perhaps the oldest pre-occupation of man.

~Patti Smith Group, “25th Floor,” Easter, 1979

A popular saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” This expression notably acknowledges the subjectivity of the eye of the beholder, divides the world into either “trash” or “treasure”. This trash-treasure binary has become increasingly important in America, especially in the wake of the Great Recession. From fashion to real estate to energy sources – our society’s leaders proselytize a new gospel of progress predicated on realizing profits from overlooked or under-utilized resources.

In each neighborhood I’ve lived in over the last five years, I’ve watched brownfields and under-used warehouses give way to condos and apartments suited with restaurants and boutiques. Capitalism cannot not see a value beyond monetary profit, but now waxes poetically about the importance of the “community” and “culture” of neighborhoods -- neighborhoods that were for decades simply not on the radar until proved lucrative. Overnight, places went from being one man’s trash to the same man’s treasure. Is this the “transformation of waste” that was so praised?

It’s not my intention discuss gentrification in such a reductive manner, but I see this micro-effect as an example of a certain re-branding by the powerful to alter what they once understood as trash in order to suit their own ends. The trash-treasure binary, like many binaries, is a power structure that can overrule individual or collective truths and experiences to perpetuate its own logics and its adherents.

Is the current appropriation of trash -- as a newfound source of profit within capitalism -- a system that inherently exploits labor and resources for the benefit of capital-holders, a way beyond this trash-treasure binary? Or is it just a new triumph capitalism?

What goes beyond the binary? Where lies the Trash Utopia, as it were? How can we “open up our eyes and seize and rend the veil of smoke which man calls order,” as the Patti Smith Group declared in 1979? For me, a way through the mess of this binary was found in this very punk-poetry. Creating much of her music within New York City’s gritty downtown scene of the 1970’s, Patti Smith’s lyrics acknowledge trash itself as a muse. A central theme of punk music is glorifying the dispossessed, and the early music of Patti Smith, proclaimed Godmother of Punk, showcases this through glaring imagery dedicated to waste.

“Piss Factory” (1974) was one of Smith’s earliest recordings, portraying a worker’s triumphant escape from a hellish manufacturing plant that produces piss. The grueling life cycle of this factory is a stand-in for humanity itself. The worker daydreams and succumbs to the cruelty of Dot Hook, the Catholic fore-lady, who threatens, “You do it my way or I push your face in / We knee you in the john if you don’t get off your mustang, Sally.” Even by evoking the “john,” this overseer connects the threat of personal pain with the human waste of the bathroom for the offense of stepping out of line. Hook’s harassment is necessary to maintain order in the factory and to keep the piss flowing.

This motif of bodily excrement is again used in “Pissing In a River,” (1976) where a conflicted narrator laments her corporal outcast, piss, as it leaves her body and flows downstream. Here, urine is cast as an irreconcilable Other – once physically a part of the narrator but regrettably no longer – and the narrator thus mourns for its leaving as though grieving for a departed lover. The chorus repeats the appeal of, “Come back,” with mounting desperation, but to what would the piss return? The narrator challenges the trash-treasure binary by viewing her piss with an artful complexity and offering contradictory declarations like, “I’m a slave / I’m free.” Casting waste in this role equivocally meditates upon the consciousness of all things regardless of the status afforded by perspective.

Relating with shit – an empathy for pain and dispossession – is thus central to Smith’s philosophy, which is finely outlined in “25th Floor” through the insistence that, “[Man] must be connected to shit, at all cost / Inherent within us is the dream of the task of the alchemist to create from the clay of man.” Here, the Biblical allusion to God’s creation of humankind out of clay, which resembles shit in form, delivers a call for self-awareness that is often ignored when merely focusing on treasure. This perceptiveness recalls the “Piss Factory” narrator’s insight that, “You gotta relate, babe / You gotta find the rhythm within.”

Owning one’s shit and not just one’s treasure is essential to a sense of self-knowing and an appeal for a kind of Trash Utopia. In this time and place, the self-knowing of the piss factory’s worker replaces the domination of the forelady. It is a world where the power of the beholder no longer holds sway, thus disempowering the trash-treasure binary. Smith’s vision of a place beyond this binary finds alternatives in a pluralistic state where the order maintained by the beneficiaries of the binary no longer has power. To be a part of this order - to use trash and to be exploited as trash within society has no escape. A utopian alternative is fantastical yet not impossible. At the end of “Piss Factory,” the narrator escapes for the glory of New York City to “be somebody.” However, we’re not led to believe that this departure, however understandable, will end well for the narrator. The decision to choose the treasures of a life in the glowing metropolis only reinforce the notion of the piss factory as trash, all-while ignoring the trauma the binary produces.

Rather, a possible solution seems to lie in “sweet Theresa’s Convent,” a nearby nunnery that the narrator can see from the piss factory. In this different living paradigm, the sisters “look pretty damn free down there.” They live, yet seem to produce no treasure in a material sense. They smell simultaneously like both roses and ammonia, and one does not negate the other. The convent creates a kind of utopia that is as real as a vision, or rather, a state of mind, much like the poetry itself of Patti Smith. The art that ponders and challenges the system unwinds it, and in doing so, makes psychological room for an unknown order under a new space and time.

It engenders unforeseen possibilities beyond the dictates of what is trash and what is treasure, thus transforming the beholder. The “transformation of waste” is internal and personal. It is the evolution of the beholder beyond the binaries, and down into the shit of life itself.

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