Discussing Life and Labor with Kathleen Millar

An image of the cover Kathleen Millar's Reclaiming the Discarded
Image description: A photograph shows large bags of recyclables at a garbage dump in the foreground, with trees and a body of water in the background.
Caption: Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio’s Garbage Dump, Kathleen M. Millar
. Duke University Press.

Kathleen Millar speaks with Joseph Feldman about Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio’s Garbage Dump, winner of the 2019 Society for Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology (SLACA) Book Prize.

Joseph Feldman: First, congratulations on being awarded the SLACA Book Prize and thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Perhaps you could begin by telling us how you came to this project and how the research that led to Reclaiming the Discarded evolved over time?

Kathleen Millar: Certainly! I actually started working with catadores before I began any anthropological research. At the time, I was living in the south of Brazil in Rio Grande do Sul and got to know a few leaders and advocates of the Landless Movement (Movimento Sem Terra [MST]) who were assisting in the formation of new worker cooperatives involving catadores. These catadores collected recyclables on the streets in the city of Passo Fundo and their work fascinated me, particularly their efforts to organize as a social movement. When I eventually began exploratory ethnographic research on recycling in Brazil more broadly, I often stopped to chat with catadores I encountered on the street. I describe this briefly in the book. One such encounter in Rio de Janeiro, in which a catador suggested I visit the dump in Jardim Gramacho, led me to this project. I later found it apropos that I learned about the Jardim Gramacho dump the same way most catadores did—by word of mouth. As the research evolved, I continued to be interested in cooperatives and the political organizing of catadores, but I also came to realize that only a small, very small, minority of catadores participated in such efforts. While cooperatives of catadores have tended to draw the most attention from scholars, I came to see a kind of politics in a broader sense at work in Jardim Gramacho and became interested in exploring the meaning of work for those catadores who had no desire to be part of a cooperative or movement. This shift sent the project into new directions and ultimately inspired the book’s central question: Why it is that catadores continue to return to the dump?

JF: The book uses the concept of “forms of living” to critique a tendency to view the labor of catadores as formless or defined by what it lacks (e.g., “informal”). Could you talk a bit about this intervention, and how you were able to connect the particular experiences you documented at Jardim Gramacho to anthropological debates about economic precarity in Brazil and elsewhere?

KM: There was a physicality and a materiality to the work of catadores that I found surprising and compelling. After spending months trying to learn the rhythms, techniques, spatiality, and precise ordering entailed in collecting on the dump, I found it irritating, to be honest, to read literature upon literature that described this type of work as “informal.” Nothing about the work struck me as informal. In fact, everything I had to learn was about recognizing and altering form. As I reflected on this disconnect, the problem seemed to go even deeper. When something is defined by what it lacks, that “what” upholds a particular normativity. I wanted to see if there was a way to conceive and write about the work of catadores for what it is, to describe the very forms that it takes and creates. That was one of my aims in writing the book. As for debates on economic precarity, I also encountered numerous contradictions between my experiences in Jardim Gramacho and what I was reading at the time. Fordist forms of wage labor, for example, had never been the historical experience in the families I came to know. And most importantly, seemingly “stable” wage labor made the instabilities of everyday life in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro much more difficult to manage.

JF: Reclaiming the Discarded offers vivid descriptions of the lived reality of catadores at Jardim Gramacho, showing the reader how catadores would learn to experience the dump “not as an overwhelming mountain of garbage but as a rich assemblage of things.” Could you discuss some of your sources of inspiration as a writer?

KM: As a writer, I have drawn a great deal of inspiration from fiction writing, including by authors reflecting on their own writing process such as Anne Lamott’s (1994) Bird by Bird or even Stephen King’s (2000) On Writing. I began to think about theory construction in ethnographic writing as a kind of plot development that is embedded in the narrative and includes the importance of suspense. I also began to think about narrative as rooted in and emergent from the persons whose lives I was seeking to understand. This led me to center on a specific person or persons in each chapter, allowing their stories to guide me and ultimately to drive the arguments I was making. As for the sensory and phenomenological approach I took in my fieldwork, this emerged out of my experience in Jardim Gramacho. Catadores were the ones who taught me to appreciate the multiple and layered materialities of waste with all of my body.

JF: Could you share some of your thoughts on the book’s reception. Have you found, for instance, that Reclaiming the Discarded is being engaged with and taken up in ways you did not necessarily anticipate when you wrote the book?

KM: One beautiful surprise for me has been the ways students have responded to the book, many writing me directly to tell me how the book has influenced their own research interests and projects and commitment to ethnography. These students have been from many different fields—not just Latin American studies or anthropology. I take this as a sign that there is a desire among a new generation of scholars for what I have come to think of as a humanistic approach to knowledge creation.

JF: This is perhaps an unconventional question, but considering that the rhythms of labor and life is one of the book’s central themes, I was curious about whether you find yourself drawing connections and contrasts between your experience as a participant observer at Jardim Gramacho and the nature of your work as a university professor.

I began to think about theory construction in ethnographic writing as a kind of plot development that is embedded in the narrative and includes the importance of suspense.

KM: Absolutely! I think one of the reasons I was drawn to this project and found the work of catadores compelling is that its temporalities resonated with my own experience of academic work. I think I mention in the book that my departures and returns during various fieldwork trips made sense to catadores who were themselves accustomed to leaving Jardim Gramacho for one reason or another and later returning to work on the dump when needed. In his essay, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” E. P. Thompson (1967) mentions that this pattern of weaving together intense bouts of work and leisure is still very common among artists, writers, and students. If I am being honest, the ability to maintain this kind of rhythm, at least to a certain extent, is a primary reason I continued on as a student for so long and eventually became a university professor. We often think about “academic freedom” only in terms of the ability to pursue and communicate our research freely. I’d like to think that there are additional, more subtle dimensions to academic freedom, like greater autonomy in a work-life rhythm that is so not capitalist in spirit. Of course, that rhythm is being increasingly threatened by productivist demands as university education becomes more neoliberal. My hope is that catadores have a lot to teach us about why holding onto this dimension of academic freedom is worthwhile.

JF: Is there anything else you’d like to add that we were not able to address earlier?

KM: Thank you so much for these thoughtful questions. I’d also like to add that in writing Reclaiming the Discarded, I aimed to be grounded in and to evoke the very place of Jardim Gramacho and its place within Brazil and Latin America more broadly. So, it means a great deal to me that the book resonated with other Latin Americanists and has been recognized in particular by SLACA.

Kathleen M. Millar is associate professor of anthropology at Simon Fraser University and coeditor of the Anthropology of Work Review.

Joseph P. Feldman is assistant professor of anthropology at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

Please contact Joseph Feldman (joseph.feld[email protected]) with your essay ideas for the SLACA section news column.

Cite as: Millar, Kathleen M. 2020. “Discussing Life and Labor with Kathleen Millar.” Anthropology News website, October 15, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1515

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