NOTE: THIS ESSAY DEALS WITH LARS EIGHNER'S TRAVELS WITH LIZBETH. IT IS INTENDED FOR AN AUDIENCE AT LEAST PARTIALLY FAMILIAR WITH THE WORK. IF YOU HAVE NEVER ENCOUNTERED IT, YOU SHOULD. IT IS FUNNY AND INFORMATIVE. AND... WELL, A LITTLE SNOTTY. ANYWAY, IF YOU HAVEN'T READ IT, YOU'LL JUST HAVE TO TRUST ME.

Bruce Seaton
Prof. Julian Yates
Fetish Essay #1
04.04.06

Commodity Fetishism and Dumpster Diving

The world of Lars Eighner as described in the seventh chapter of his book Travels with Lizbeth, titled simply “On Dumpster Diving,” is a world not unlike the utopian vision of Marx’s communism. The two writers both use and reject capitalist society, twisting its faults into virtues of their own. Both also suggest certain points of view about the relationship between people and their possessions. Eighner’s and Marx’s worlds differ, however, in several important ways.

“On Dumpster Diving” begins as a practical guide to urban wilderness survival, suggesting ways in which one can efficiently subsist on what more monetarily wealthy people in cities throw away. Because Eighner’s existence is dependant upon the flotsam of a consumer-rich economy, his world is similar to the communist utopia of Marx, which can only exist after a preceding capitalist society has established the necessary machinery and superstructure to produce what people need to live. Eighner does not produce anything truly on his own, and without the dumpsters, his way of life would not be possible. Eighner emphasizes that his chosen hunting ground is an area “inhabited by many affluent college students” who provide a wealth of perfectly good second-hand food and clothing (115). For this reason, both Marx and Eighner fall short of the total independence achieved by Tom Brown and described in his Guide to Wilderness Survival, in which Brown details the techniques and knowledge necessary to live completely alone in the wilderness for an indefinite period. It is exactly this complete isolation, however, that makes Brown’s world infeasible for any society larger than a very few people, and in many ways, Eighner’s world is a happy medium of Marxist ideals and Brownian independence.

Eighner, like Marx, prefers the more neutral ground of thing-for-thing exchange, a barter system based solely on an item’s use value, to monetary exchange (in particular the exchange of cash for alcohol by the loathsome can scroungers, who are blind even to the spare change sometimes left in the dumpsters in their desperate search for cans). Eighner also suggests that his world can be inhabited by anyone willing to use common sense, since there is “no special knowledge” required for Dumpster diving; recycling garbage is an equal-opportunity lifestyle (114).

The problems with Dumpster diving, predictably enough, have to do mainly with a scavenger’s relationship to the things he or she finds. Eighner speaks of a stage in the career of a Dumpster diver that seems to be a turning point, and depending on the outcome of this stage the Dumpster diver either becomes a successful scavenger, or “becomes lost.” This is the point at which a new scavenger’s daintiness and queasiness over Dumpster diving is lost, and he or she begins to greedily hoard things, becoming a “pack-rat” (118). Perhaps Marx would argue that at this point a diver either abandons capitalism and the commodity fetishism inherent in it, or is overwhelmed by it, becoming the marginally psychotic junk collector encountered occasionally by Eighner.

Although he (with no small pride) asserts that “true” scavengers, as if obeying some unwritten honor code, leave behind the things they find but don’t need for others, Eighner also admits to having “proprietary feelings” for “his” dumpsters (119), and in passing goes so far as to say he would prefer to “live the comfortable consumer life,” despite his apparent disdain for it (112). Even this man who so fiercely and loftily defends his trade is not free from the drives instilled in him by capitalist society.

Despite this small discrepancy, Eighner’s view of things is remarkably similar to the view posed by Marxism. There is, on the other hand, a more serious difference between Eighner and the rational equality envisioned by Marx—namely the stratification of the scavengers and the scroungers. Although Eighner has what he sees as good reason for detesting the can scroungers, it seems clear that he sees them as being somehow less human—or at least, less civilized—than their scavenging counterparts.

This bizarre caste system imposed by Eighner, despite his reasoning, is strongly in opposition of Marxist principles. It is not even the fact that the can scroungers are really after booze or drugs that bothers Eighner. He is instead incensed that they are blind to the other perfectly good things that they ruin in their overeager rooting of the dumpsters. This tangles Eighner in a kind of capitalist/Marxist bind; he is simultaneously enraged that the scroungers have ruined what could otherwise be his things, and upset that the scroungers are blind to the inherent value of the things they destroy looking for nearly worthless cans. There seems to be a unique hypocrisy at work here, perhaps a true hypocrisy of capitalism: “if you are going to steal from me, at least steal something of value.”

Despite his proprietary predispositions, however, Eighner manages to lead a largely possession-free lifestyle, much like that of a Jain monk or Platonic guardian. He manages to sublimate his desire to ownership into a simple loathing for those who do not see the world through his new idealism, picking up, keeping, and using only the things he needs, and only discarding those things when they are consumed or become useless to him.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.