Wednesday, August 31, 2011

vagabondia - book - 2006 - Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging

Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging
Jeff Ferrell
New York University Press
2006
222 pages

Jeff Ferrell is currently a professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX, where he is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.  He has been teaching University-level courses in criminology and sociology since the late 1970s.  He has also written a large number of journal articles on countercultural topics, including: Peter Kropotkin, street gangs, graffiti (a subject he returns to repeatedly through his career) and Critical Mass (cf. Bipedal, By Pedal).  In 2001 Ferrell left a tenured position at Northern Arizona University, moved to Fort Worth, and for two years took up scavenging found materials before finding another academic appointment.  The result of this interim lifestyle was Empire of Scrounge.

Empire of Scrounge is a scholarly book, written by a professional scholar, based upon the life experiences of the author.  Ferrell creates the impression that he was not living the life of a scrounger for the purpose of doing field research.  Instead, Ferrell was living off of his scavenging out of necessity, taking metal to the scrap yard, holding frequent yard sales, keeping items for his own use. Ferrell would use any means at the disposal of the scavenger underground to extract value from his found objects, and it was through this resourcefulness that he was successfully able to make a living off of finding and sorting valuable garbage.  

The Empire that Ferrell refers to is not a geographical location but rather a social undercurrent that operates beneath the cultural consumerist surface, a necessary underlay to hegemonic modes of being and acting.  In the sense that it is not really a place but an underlying social mode, Ferrell’s Empire is akin to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's terrorizing security state the Nobel laureate called Gulag Archipelago - except that the empire exists in the contemporary consumer society rather than the totalitarian society of Stalin’s Soviet Union.  The Empire of Scrounge may be understood as bound by real geography (wherever conspicuous consumption is mandatory to the maintenance of middle-class status) but it's appearance is concealed by dominant forces.  

Much of Ferrell’s book is composed of anecdotes of his forages through the Fort Worth neighborhoods, searching for discarded wealth.  Ferrell often traveled through his city via bicycle, recalling the search activities of 1920s German master of found-material-art (and cyclist), Kurt “Merz” Schwitters.  Ferrell describes encountering others who pursue similar lifestyles, and occasional contact with the people who are leaving the discards.  These encounters range from friendly to hostile, but when Ferrell discusses how opening a trashbag can lead to unpleasant social revelations, this hostility is understandable despite its absurdity.  Much of the book are journal notes about great finds, and sometimes Ferrell just goes into lists of objects and book titles.  Other sections on the book are reflections upon the social significance of the things he finds, including ammunition and the still-packaged gifts of a baby shower.  People expect their secrets to be carried by sanitation workers into an anonymizing whirpool of consumer-culture exhaust but instead Ferrell, a trained sociologist and criminologist, looks through it and ultimately comments upon it in a book.

Much of the book is about the marginal social world and sub-economy that has emerged around the practice of trash-picking.  In some parts of the world, scouring garbage for neglected wealth is a very common practice, in a society where middle-class consumerism is dominant, the practice is deviant.  The author discusses, via citing thinkers such as Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, and cultural theorist Michel De Certeau, how scrounging leads an individual to engage with the city in a different way from those who create scroungeable waste.  The author also discusses the large tangle of bylaws urban areas are enacting to criminalize the practice of garbage-picking and resale (Fort Worth, for example, has strict laws regarding yard sales).  

Ferrell’s book is about the author making his living, but much of it is also about his observations of what he finds while scrounging.  His observations are supported by citing a wide range of literature, including Jacques Derrida, Guy Debord, and the Anonymously penned hobopunk novel, Evasion.  To evoke another literary source that is (unfairly!) not given any consideration in Empire of Scrounge The author is reminiscent of the character Christie Logan, from Canadian author Margaret Laurence’s novel The Diviners.  Logan is a trash collector who ‘divines’ knowledge about his condescending neighbors through the refuse they put out.  Ferrell does similar work in Empire of Scrounge, demonstrating an ability to read discarded refuse as texts and to make discarded objects valuable again on multiple levels of meaning.


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