Last year, the ABC’s Media Watch (17 Oct. 2005) noted the continuing outrage in the tabloid media over “the dirtiest house in NSW”. The program took issue with Sydney newspaper The Daily Telegraph, and the descriptor “exclusive” attached to their article on a property in beachside Bondi (9 Oct. 2005). In fact, as Media Watch pointed out, Channel Seven’s current affairs flagship Today Tonight had already made repeat visits to the residence. A Current Affair, Channel Nine’s rival show, as well as Bondi’s local newspaper also offered coverage. However, I am interested not in the number of times the story appeared – though this is certainly a symptom of what I do want to talk about. Instead, I want to consider the affect generated by this reportage. In turn, I want to consider what this reveals about our attitudes to refuse, and how these attitudes work to constitute social order in capitalist discourse.
The overwhelming affective register of the language deployed to speak about the house is disgust. Adam Bell in The Sunday Telegraph paints a visceral picture entitled “A stinking mess”. He writes that the Bondi premises are
engulfed in a stinking three-metre high pile of decaying rubbish that poses a serious health and safety risk. …
Stacked with empty boxes, beer cartons, broken furniture, canned fruit, newspapers and cardboard, the waste dump fills the entire front and backyards of the house and spills onto the street.
On hot days, the stench of the rotting garbage is detected blocks away while at night, rats and cockroaches are regularly seen running in and out of the mess. …
The rubbish is piled so high only the roof of the 1920s Californian bungalow is clearly visible from the front. (9 Oct. 2005)
Bell’s follow-up speaks of “the huge pile of filth at the infamous Bondi rubbish house” and of “a team of cleaners dressed in forensic ‘space suits’” (27 Nov. 2005). Other News Limited journalists who subsequently visited the site conjured similar imagery (Goldner; Cummings). Television was not to be outdone: Today Tonight called it “the house from hell”, whilst A Current Affair focused on the “disgraceful pile of rat-infested rubbish [that] just gets higher and higher” (Media Watch).
The tonality of the language is a dimension of the prevalent discourse of “aspirationalism” that is central to the popularist politics of Australian Prime Minister John Howard. One key signifier of “aspiration” is property ownership expressed through the rhetoric of the “home.” The affective dimension of the reporting—the disgust—stems from the disjuncture of the exalted (Bondi Beach, high property values) and the abject (refuse). It is a tool used to discursively fix the inappropriate physical and social location of the refuse so as to locate what is culturally valued. Bell’s initial article mentions no less than three times in 600 words that the house is a “million dollar property” and is “located in one of Sydney’s most prestigious and expensive suburbs” (9 Oct. 2005). His second article also mentioned the property’s value (27 Nov. 2005), as did another article by a colleague at The Daily Telegraph (9 Dec. 2005). Today Tonight emphasized that the house was in “an exclusive beachside suburb” and that it was “smack bang in the middle of one of Australia’s most expensive and best known suburbs” (Media Watch).
William Ian Miller in Anatomy of Disgust explains how the affective response to an encounter like the one with Bondi’s “rubbish house” can be attributed to feelings about organisation. Miller positions disgust as “a strong sense of aversion to something perceived as dangerous because of its danger to contaminate, infect, or pollute by proximity, contact or ingestion” (2). In other words, disgust is the product of an aversion to something that breaches the lines of containment, and therefore signals a threat to established order. The body – a network of physiological and neurological processes, which constitute multiple systems of order in their own right – cannot cope with such a breakdown and reacts accordingly. David Trotter elaborates:
Psychological activity [is] an attempt to impose order on experience: bodily paroxysm is a way of confronting and resolving urgent abstract dilemmas. According to this view, you vomit because you have lost confidence in your ability to make sense of the world: your ability to categorize, order, explain, or tell stories about what has happened to you. Disgust is the product of conceptual trauma. (158-9)
The “conceptual trauma” in the case of Bondi’s “rubbish house” is a reaction to a transgression of the order of capitalist social space, which then becomes a discursive conduit for its hegemonic renewal. Indeed, the concern with the malfunction in social order that the misplaced refuse represents confirms what anthropologist Mary Douglas has been telling us for some time:
If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place. This is a very suggestive approach. It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is a system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements. (36)
Certainly, the associated health risks to Mary Bobolas, the house’s owner/occupier, and the wider community from her hoarding are not purely ideological. However, it is impossible to divorce the social discourses surrounding refuse from the series of social and technological developments that Dominique Laporte in his History of Shit calls the “privatisation” of waste (28). The social and technical apparatuses which enable dominant sociogenetic attitudes regarding refuse include the increasing emphasis on private property, the emergence of the family unit as the primary site for the coalescence of socializing forces and inventions such as the toilet (Elias 137-40). Laporte believes that this process in instrumental in creating the individuated, capitalist subject, which, in the context of contemporary Australian capitalist discourse, is the middle-class homeowner.
The construction of complex regulatory architecture to manage practices and tastes substantiates American novelist Don DeLillo’s proposal that
civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage came first, inciting people to build a civilization in response, in self-defense. We had to find ways to discard our waste, to use what we couldn’t discard, to reprocess what we couldn’t use. …
Consume or die. That’s the mandate of the culture. And it all ends up in the dump. We make stupendous amounts of garbage, then we react to it, not only technologically but in our hearts and minds. We let it shape us. We let it control our thinking. Garbage comes first, then we build a system to deal with it. (287-8)
Most of the systems to which DeLillo refers are designed to counter the visibility of refuse and channel it to a demarcated, separate space. This is the paradox of refuse: our sense of order depends upon it, yet in affluent society we are anxious about confronting it. Over the years, Bondi Beach has been sanitised both materially and socially. The sewage outfall is a heritage site and the area is no longer working class. Yet, it seems the shit is still washing up on the shore: significantly, the refuse Bobolas accumulates is other people’s rubbish collected from “the streets, garbage bins and council clean-ups” (Bell 9 Oct. 2005). It is produced by the very homeowners whose disgust is so palpable. However, the media coverage of the “rubbish house” does not merely remind the rich and famous residents of their own refuse, nor does it function as a critique of conspicuous consumption. The media event of the “rubbish house” illustrates how “matter out of place” and the resulting affect of disgust are exploited discursively by hegemonic culture in order to maintain the ideology of “aspirationalism” and reiterate the wider capitalist project.