Permanent Error – A Distraction by Pieter Hugo

Photo by Pieter Hugo

I slowly cranked the handle on the end of the bookcase, sliding the high-density shelving over, clicky-clicky-clicky-click. The books I wanted were way in the back and I had about eight bookcases to move, large wedges of books moving slowly across the floor in the basement of the main library here at Berkeley. It’s finals week, so I took extra care that no students were hiding or sleeping between the stacks. When I got to the book I was looking for, I immediately took all the books to either side, and a few miscellaneous titles that caught my eye. I can’t really tell if it is a good or bad habit–you understand the range of literature on the subject that you are interested in, but you pick up a lot of random and possibly distracting books as well.

I managed to find an empty end of a long desk, and put my huge stack of books next to me. It is a pleasure to be back in a library where I can work this way again, weeding through large stacks of books, gleaning references, cross checking on worldcat, finding all the journal articles that cite the books, and so forth. I assembled the books on digital photography to review, noting a few new additions–working on digital media is always a losing battle, as it’s a field that is in flux and constantly growing. One of the additions was a medium-sized orange-red volume, pleasingly bound, and heavy with photography–Contemporary Photography from the Middle East and Africa. A distraction, surely, but…why not?

I paged through large, lush panels of photographs, discovering a few new names, modes, inspiration, but then I came across one of those arresting photographs that I will never be able to forget:

Jatto with Mainasara, from Pieter Hugo’s ‘Gadawan Kura – The Hyena Men Series II’

Sadly the version on the screen can’t do this photo justice, but the active pose of Jatto, the hyena, the photographer’s framing–spectacular. So I went looking for more Pietro Hugo:

Of course! He directed “Control” by Spoek Mathambo, the amazing darkwave South African track that was going around last year.

Finally, I went to Pieter Hugo’s webpage to see what else he has worked on. I immediately found more of his Hyena series, then clicked on Permanent Error, his latest work.

Photo by Pieter Hugo

Hugo has been documenting an obsolete technology dump in Ghana. From the artist’s website:

Notions of time and progress are collapsed in these photographs. There are elements in the images that fast-forward us to an apocalyptic end of the world as we know it, yet the alchemy on this site and the strolling cows recall a pastoral existence that rewinds our minds to a medieval setting. The cycles of history and the lifespan of our technology are both clearly apparent in this cemetery of artifacts from the industrialised world. We are also reminded of the fragility of the information and stories that were stored in the computers which are now just black smoke and melted plastic.

Photo by Pieter Hugo.

Why do people litter?

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It’s hard to escape it in the Middle East–loads of garbage lining the streets, blowing across the desert, and covering the beaches.  I was surprised at how shocked and outraged I was the first time I saw people casually throwing large bags and empty bottles out their car windows–we are fairly well-indoctrinated in the States against that sort of behavior, outside of smokers who still toss their butts on the ground.  I try to carry a plastic bag with me to the archaeological sites I visit so that I can pick up at least some of the trash, but it feels pretty futile.

Like any good anthropology nerd, I started doing a little bit of research.  I realized that while we research trash exclusively as archaeologists, there isn’t a whole lot about modern attitudes toward trash beyond William Rathje’s Garbology.  (As a side note, Rosemary Joyce mentions the excavation of Spoerri’s “Lunch Under the Grass” over on the Berkeley Blog – I have to look into the project!)

In the journal Waste Management–and it thrills me beyond all belief that there is such a thing, I mean, they have articles on food waste as a peat fuel replacement and the physico-chemical and calorific values of poultry manure! Pure gold!–there is an article on solid waste management in Jordan by H.A. Abu Qdais cites the increase in population and life-style pressures combined with lack of funding from individual municipalities as exacerbating Jordan’s problems, especially in large metropolitan areas.  Still, this does not explain behavior in a very satisfying way.

In Fall of 2008, Keizer, Lindenberg, and Steg published a fascinating study in Science about disorder, crime, graffiti, and the Broken Window Theory.  As it is taught in most intro Sociology and Anthropology classes, Broken Window Theory (or BWT) is a familiar concept, introduced by Wilson and Kelling in the early 1980s and used in the 1990s to clean up New York.  Basically, if there are existing signs of neglect or vandalism, more neglect and vandalism will follow.  This concept has been hotly debated in social science ever since.  The Science article, The Spreading of Disorder, describes six field experiments that specifically test the BWT, providing high correlations between visual (and audio!) disorder and the increase in bad behavior, including littering and even theft.  So if you are surrounded by garbage already, according to this article, you are much more likely to litter.  Indeed, you are more likely to behave poorly in general!

This all seems a bit too easy though.  Richard Sampson’s publication Disparity and Diversity in the Contemporary City: Social (Dis)order revisited (freely available!) claims that these perceptions of disorder are contextually shaped by social conditions and that “Seeing disorder…is intimately bound up with social meaning at the collective level and ultimately inequality.”  In other words, if signs of disorder are not perceived and evaluated negatively, it’s not seen as a problem.  So it’s possible (maybe even probable) that the trash just isn’t seen in the same negative light.

I would be more inclined to believe that had I not witnessed the constant maintenance of the sidewalks in front of shops by shopkeepers.  They are always sweeping and spraying down the sidewalks, pushing trash into gutters. So could it be a differing perception of personal space and civic responsibility? Now we’re getting back into the realm of archaeology.  Hodder’s classic The meaning of discard: ash and domestic space in Baringo describes differing discard patterns among the Baringo in Kenya and how discard is linked intimately with social interactions. (PS: Hodder, you have lots of students, assign one of them to link your publication off-prints to your webpage–it’s the nice thing to do.)

This has gotten too long for a blog post and I want to go for a swim, so I’ll try to wrap it up.  How would we stop people from throwing trash around? Would more trash receptacles help? A nation-wide campaign like Don’t Mess With Texas, the incredibly successful 1980s anti-litter slogan that everyone outside of Texas thinks is just another expression of Texas machismo? Better drinking water so that everyone doesn’t constantly use bottled water?  I’m not sure.

Any ideas?