Engendering Waste

Engendering Waste takes as its point of departure the nineteenth-century fascination with Sophocles’ Antigone to show how authors of the period, in framing her as the sublime apotheosis of feminine nobility, construct gendered visions of survival in an ecologically precarious world by weaving together seemingly distinct registers of sisterhood, mourning, and waste.

“[Sophocles’ Antigone is] one of the most sublime, and in every respect consummate works of art human effort has ever brought forth.”

– G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Fine Art II

My readings of these bodies as figurations of sisterhood, mourning, and waste both supplement critical discussions of waste as the byproduct of capitalism and exemplify how women and their affective labor are often consigned alongside these byproducts to the scrap heap of history.

Antigone au chevet de Polynice, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, 1868

In supplementing scholarship on waste as an economic and social phenomenon, I explore how scholarly attention to the environmental effects of waste depends on gendered representations of burial and mourning. Because the term waste etymologically (vastus) and conceptually designates vacated and useless materials, it threatens to empty them of personal, social, and political significance. In contrast, burial and mourning attempt to secure the human against the dread of a mortality that might empty the individual of meaning. In nineteenth-century literature, these attempts to secure meaning in the face of waste and death become increasingly associated with women who escape patriarchal ideas of feminine utility – reproduction, exchange, and inheritance. In breaking out of these uses, “sisters” not only sit in intimate and uneasy relation with the vacancy of waste, they also uncannily guard against the very emptiness they seem to signify.

The Field of Waterloo, British Museum, London

Awash in the historical encroachments of war, industrial pollution, and epidemic disease, Dorothy Wordsworth’s accounts of bodily illness and domestic refuse (Grasmere Journals), Mary Shelley’s visions of decaying and “hideous progeny” (Frankenstein), Thomas De Quincey’s eschatological nightmares (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Suspiria De Profundis), Emily Brontë’s literary and climatological atmospheres, and Charles Dickens’ accumulations of urban filth (Great Expectations) all use sisters to account for the evolution of waste from domestic scenes of burial to climate disaster imagined as the burial of the world. These sisters challenge us to rethink climate justice through women’s bodies and labor.

A version of the De Quincey chapter was published in Essays in Romanticism, and a related essay, published this fall in a collection of essays on literature and psychopharmacology, explores the implications of his opium-eating for our contemporary opioid crisis. A forthcoming essay in Configurations explores the scientific and ethical implications of sympathy in the nineteenth century, focusing on the ways physiological and affective definitions of the term collide in the medical discourse of the period. My broader interests are reflected by other published works, including an article about Coleridge that explores the tensions between friendship and animosity that animate his literary theory, published in the European Romantic Review and an essay on Jacques Derrida and his theories of sense and sensation.