Positive Violence and Recycling Waste

Positive Violence and Recycling Waste in late 20th Century American Literature. This is the provisional title of my PhD thesis, studied at the university of Hull under Jennie Chapman.

I want to speak a little bit about this title, and breaking down these terms.

Firstly, some definitions:

Waste: noun

  1. an act or instance of using or expending something carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose.
  2. unwanted or unusable materials, substances, or by-products


Recycle: verb

  1. to convert (waste) into reusable material
  2. to return to a previous stage in a cyclic process

The reasons that these definitions are important is as follows. Waste and recycling have an intrinsic correlation: increased accumulation of waste is the catalyst for increased recycling. Put differently, where recycling is a consequence of waste, waste is also a fuel for recycling. It is this dynamic that I argue produces something called “positive violence”.

I propose there is a new relationship occuring between waste and recycling in 20th century literature, due, in part, to the capitalist world that overrules it. This new relationship overturns the traditional hierarchy between material, waste, and recycling. When waste becomes seen as essential rather than useless, it causes the desire for unnatural and untimely production of waste.

I refer to this phenomenon as ‘positive violence’ – deliberating creating waste in the anticipation of recycling. This violence, in my definition, occurs both on the level of material waste and bodily waste.

This is the essence of my PhD thesis. The inspiration came from reading a quote by Tony Tanner in Scenes of Nature, where he identifies that the problem of waste has been long addressed in American literature. He argues that ‘from Scott Fitzgerald to Thomas Pynchon to Don DeLillo, you can hear the doomed sense of America transforming its God-given plenitude to a heap of waste, which can neither be recycled nor disposed of’(9). In my thesis, I will argue that in these late 20th century novels, the bond between plenitude and waste does not follow Tanner’s model. By this time, it is impossible to see the ‘God-given plenitude’ Tanner pines for. And, what’s more, recycling becomes a clear reality; a way to solve the growing waste problem in America. This even extends to bodily waste, with the introduction of the University of Tennessee Medical Center in 1971 – the ‘body farm’ where ‘people lie on their backs or in the sun, or sometimes in the shade, depending on where the researchers put them’ (Roach 61).

In our society, recycling is a necessity and is encouraged as something positive. But could the novels of the twentieth century reveal that some recycling could be somewhat dangerous, leading to a cyclical trap where waste itself becomes the only fuel for new material?

Food for thought.