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Another Old Interview about Freeganism

What follows is another blog posting of an interview I did about Freeganism. This one was in 2012. It was also conducted by a person I met on a "trash tour" with the freegan.info group in NYC.

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Hi Adam,

 We met really briefly at a trash tour last winter - although I don't expect you remember me.  I'm a PhD student at [Omitted] who has been involved with freegan.info off-and-on for the last five years.  As maybe I told you, I'm trying to write up my experiences into a book that explores freeganism as a new form of anti-capitalist politics.  

 I'm writing to see if you would be interested in talking to me for my project.  I've seen from minutes, the meet-up, and the lists that you've been engaged with the group for a bit.  I'm also really interested in the intersections between Occupy and freeganism, and I recall from our brief chat that you were involved in both.  Basically, I'd really like to include your perspective!

Please let me know if you'd be willing to talk via phone, skype, or e-mail any time in the future.  If you wanted, everything could be anonymous / confidential.  Also, I'd give a chance to review any transcript before quoting you.  I'm also hoping to donate the proceeds from the book to freegan.info or another group engaged in similar activism.

 Thanks for your consideration.  Be well,

 [Omitted]

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[Omitted],

 Okay, sure. You're best bet with me is probably email. How about I send you the stuff I've written for every other person who's asked me questions in the past, and you send your specific questions about occupy and freeganism in a reply, along with any follow-up questions you have about my freeganism story. So far as I can tell, none of the "reporters" or "researchers" who've asked in the past have actually done anything with my responses (I guess that's why I don't take the time to re-write everything each time?). You're welcome to quote and use my name; the only exception is that I'd appreciate my name not being used right next to talk about me being a student debt resistor.

 Adam

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Hey Adam,

Thanks for your reply.  I totally understand why you don't re-type everything every time, especially because these responses are already great.  For what it's worth (probably not much!), I do have some academic work on freeganism already published - I'm attaching an article in case you find yourself incredibly bored at any point in the near future.

I have a few follow-up questions, but please don't feel any pressure to answer any of them if you don't want to: what you've written me already is great.  And I will, of course, respect your wishes about confidentiality.  FYI: I only use first names.

-  Could you tell me any more about your background, particularly any early experiences (prior to 2007) that influenced you politically or your development as an activist?

- Your answers emphasized your own personal practice of freeganism, and for many freegans, freeganism is an individual lifestyle endeavor.  What (if any) significance or value do you see to practicing freeganism in a group like freegan.info?  What is it that drew you to this group in particular?

- In terms of freegan practices, you mention dumpster diving / scavenging and its impact on your interpersonal relationships.  Are there any other activities you engage in that you consider "freegan"?  Any contradictions?

- What do you see as the relationship between freeganism and other social movements, such as Occupy Wall Street or debt resistance?

- I realize that many freegans (myself included) resist labels like "anarchist", but how would you identify yourself politically / ideologically (if at all!)?  Or more concretely: what kind of world do you see yourself building through freeganism?

- Finally, how would you define freeganism?

Anything else you feel is important to add is, of course, most welcome!

Sincerely,

[Omitted]

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[Omitted],

Hm... These questions are quite general. I feel like you'd have to be doing some really impressive work to be making much use of this kind of depth of biographical information. As a kid who got into psychology through a sort of feminist-ethnography-to-understand-epistemology-and-ethics angle (In a Different Voice, Women's Ways of Knowing, The Space Between Us, etc.) I'm quite excited about that. I've always felt that freegans manage to miss in their typical talk most of the interesting parts of their own practice, which have nothing to do with sabotaging capitalism in a material way and everything to do with sabotaging it's ability to infect people's life-worlds. Some digging is warranted. It seems like the whole practice could be described as un-reification for some... I digress.

Early experiences leading to activism?

Well, before 2007 I was a convicted capitalist and catholic, excited by and well versed in both traditions. Probably there are still relevant pieces of my early life though... I'll blabber, and let you decide what counts and doesn't as relevant biographical information. I'll spare you the psychoanalytic side of the tale as it runs in my head, but if you want that too, just let me know.

Maybe it's not to really answer the question, but it seems relevant that the "activist" word has a kind of awful taste in my mouth. I guess it's because it sounds like a phase I don't think I went through, or (in a more ridiculous and conceded way) points to a subculture I'm often annoyed by. For me, there was always a sort of world I was trying to realize. Certain material conditions were a part of it, but they certainly weren't ever the essential part. I guess the elements that were most important in the utopia I was aspiring towards were, in preferential order, and with approximate age of acquisition marked:

(as far back as I can remember)

1. Loads of intimate, non-aggressive, non project oriented, creative leisure time with a circle of close friends, with some balance of both one-on-one time and smallish group time, with enough conflict to demand growth (intuitive psychological skills, tolerance, flexibility, etc.)

(since perhaps age 8, when I was introduced to open-ended crafts through 4H, summer school, a backyard tree house, a garden and forest in the backyard, etc.)

2. A variety of readily available physical projects to work on and occasionally get recognition for, hard enough to demand growth, and especially ones involving housing and food production/prep

(since age 10, when religion class {I was a catholic school kid} started to involve philosophical discussion)

3. A variety of readily available mental projects to work on and occasionally get recognition for, hard enough to demand growth, and especially the planning and execution of creative discussions, writing projects to be shared with friends, and mathematical/engineering problems on paper

How does this relate to roots of activism? Well, I guess it's also important to note that I spent a whole lot of time visualizing/dreaming/planning the world I figured would allow that list to be realized.

So then there was a chaotic high school period. I guess I learned a lot about myself there. First and foremost, I learned just how much I sucked at socializing. Having left my 25 kids-per-grade private k-8 school, the people I was closest to disappeared into social circles I couldn't figure how to access and my group of two dozen day-to-day friends shrunk to one or two people that'd give me the time of day.   I ended up with a normal enough path through, excelling in but always internally resenting the overly aggressive athletic programs, overly scripted theater groups, overly distant lunch-room conversations, depth-lacking lectures, anti-creative assignments, strange security-state-minded adults, peers who exuded physical and mental off-limits-ness, all or nothing attitudes towards intimacy, and probably other bits that bothered me so much I don't even remember them. By graduation, I ended up with was a box full of letters from people who never knew quite how to respond to my desire for closeness and an important piece of knowledge: this system, these people, and pieces of myself, were absolutely irreconcilable with the world I had imagined.

Then there was college. While it didn't (at first) present a different system or inhabitants, and demanded more or less the same lack of growth on my part, it did give me the tools to understand why people and society where the way they were. In the space of less than a year, I encountered the Marxist analysis of capital, the existentialist analysis of religion, the feminist analysis of ethics, the Lacanian/Freudian analysis of mind and relationships, and the Hegelian analysis of society. These things clicked more or less at the same time, and freeganism fell into place shortly after.

If you want moments, I'm not sure what to point to. Perhaps there were moments in intensely passionate relationships, moments of  home life bad enough that made me dream of what could be, some fictional examples that helped me flesh out a utopia, but I guess the overarching theme was a clear sense of some elements of life I wanted and an attitude of non-compromising dissatisfaction towards what I found. Maybe the real moments to point to are negative ones, things that didn't happen. What are the moments that make so many people come close enough to satisfaction with the world that they put up with it? Perhaps I missed some of those.

But did any of that lead me to be an "activist?" What's an activist? Seems to me that many of the people I know who call themselves that are deeply satisfied in a way I'm not. Not satisfied with society per se, but satisfied with their life and situation because they find their work to improve it to be satisfying. Maybe the problem is exacerbated by the fact that most of the "activists" I've met I've met since I moved to the city, and I find city life and any one who can put up with it to be about as far as things get from the way I'd like to be living. Fundamentally, I perhaps-am-but-despise-being an activist living in New York, I want to be an inhabitant of the world post-activism, probably on a rural farming commune where I can build stuff, grow stuff, help educate children, and grow inter-personally, rather than pick up more of the bad mental habits of puritanical-late-capitalist city life.

Why Freeganism.info? What's there?

They were the first result on my google search when I got to the city, I guess. I have to admit there's something deeply amusing about the fact that behind perhaps the leading public face of freeganism is three kind of grouchy middle-aged women. They're fun enough to watch, really mean well, and of course have all sorts of great technical skills related to foraging, repair, etc., so there's lots for me to learn, but I really wish the group was more of a commune, or at least a co-op. I've not much to add to a group that just spreads information on how to meet material needs without money; it's not a particularly challenging task. If we were doing embodied projects about how to not just get stuff off the grid but practicing travel, feelings, relations, and life off it, I'd be more into the group. Someday when I'm not on the graduate student clock or doing more interesting stuff through occupy, I might try to contribute to the group the stuff I wish it already had.

Freeganism beyond the dumpster? Contradictions?

Whether it makes me look like an ass or not, I'll quote the relevant section of the bit I already sent you, and add some highlight and some analysis.

I think one of the first things that it changed was it brought me and my last roommate (still a very close friend) together. We were both sort of solitary, perhaps skeptical people, who were generally put off by the lifestyles of many around us. We both had just left rooming situations that we weren't real happy about when we started some freegan practicing together. It was through this that we decided we'd be compatible enough to live together, I think. Happy times were certainly had under that roof and in dumpsters together.

I think it was during a triangular friendship between the above roommate, another person, and myself that freeganism had one of the most explicit and happiness-inducing effects on me. It's a story I don't know how to tell well because I don't think it fits the traditional vocabulary of things friends do well. At some point, there were the three of us hanging out and there was an explicit decision to try to have a "freegan" friendship. The way in which this sort of made sense in our minds is really what I'm struggling with, (because I think it's the answer to your question I want to give) but we can say something like this: Freeganism is something I experience as spreading over my life practices like a healthy bacteria (you know, like the ones that make it okay to eat yogurt from the trash well past it's expiration date). It begins with simple practices (scavenging, repairing) motivated by only tangentially anti-capitalist thinking, like thrift, and anger at the system, and such. But as the sort of "well, let's see how we can get creatively off the capitalist grid" thinking takes off, other practices get colored. One develops slowly a reflexive, even instinctual, questioning of all the desires normally satiated by consuming goods and services which sustain our abusive system.

For me it was only a matter of time before ideas and behaviors themselves became things worth questioning. It was an interesting mental context, I think, in which it seemed like a good idea to throw a freegan's suspicious eye on the idea and tradition of friendship itself, and ask "well, maybe this thing too is a consumer good infected by capitalist thought. Maybe this thing too can be creatively done in a non-capitalism-participatory way". (There's thinking done by John McMurtry that deserves some credit here, and I was reading some of that sort of thing at the time.) We didn't come up with any super specific plans as to how to engage in such a freegan friendship at the time, other than agreeing that clearly we couldn't participate in any group ventures that involved paying for goods or services in any regular way. There were many exploits, and there was a whole lot of moments where we had realizations of the type: "this is the sort of situation where the pattern response is for friends to do, or say, or feel such and such, let's try to do something different and more creative, subversive, etc." Many there were many long walks, bike journeys, yard games, camping trips to places that weren't campsites, verbal fun, ventures with Frisbees, sneaking into places to avoid monetary exchanges, often with an importantly explicit dialogue about what words, activities, and relational structures we avoiding and substituting. We found a lot of enjoyment we wouldn't have otherwise located. We also learned a lot. I miss them greatly, but I think too, that my time spent in such places certainly added a method for enjoying life that's stuck with me.

If you want a specific list of things I do now,  I perform because of something like freegan-mindedness (I'm past the point of simply calling an act anything. I've read too much John Dewey for that kind of nonsense. Life is varieties of experience, acts alone don't explain much.) behaviors such as:

Using material waste as food, furniture, appliance, clothing, etc.

Walking around with no destination in mind, watching the city do its thing

Hitchhiking and couch-surfing

Practicing mental, manual, and technical skills for their own sake, and occasionally using them practically or demonstrating them while noting I have no intention to use them for profit

Pointing out the internal contradictions of lives (my own and others')

Inventing things to do with friends that are either discouraged by capitalist norms or encourage a suspicion of those norms (Examples include: disregarding spatial and temporal boundary lines, accosting merchants with authenticity that pierces their sale-lines, lighthearted vandalism, refusing to give robot-people-retailers-and-authorities the emotional reactions they want/expect, giving them the opposite ones instead, corrupting the youth, giving people time and purportedly "private" property for free such that they feel they ought to pay me, and then inventing ways to prevent them from paying, and generally being a gadfly of capitalism wherever possible)

How about those contradictions?

Frustrating answer first: It seems to me that this popular desire to learn about subcultures that seem to be rules-based is really fucking narcissistic. As near as I can tell, it works like this psychologically: 1) Find out about a group that does something kind of different and which implicates slightly your own massified, uncreative life. 2) Become passingly aware of that group's norms. 3) Decide that these norms imply a set of rules. 4) Find the points where some members seem to break the rules some of the time. 5) Use this information to non sequitur to the conclusion that the whole group can be negated (passed off) as not implicating your own life after all. 6) Continue living your uninteresting life, and spread this process to others, helping to ensure that there doesn't arise any sort of larger cultural awareness of how different the group really is that would implicate you. 7) Find another group and repeat.

Now the answers you were looking for. I guess the biggest contradiction I feel currently is just living in this city. I don't really thrive here, and would probably be more productive elsewhere. I tell myself I stay because of my academic department and the master's degree I'm halfway through, but I also tell myself it's a crappy department, I'm being exploited, and I don't really care about a degree anyway. I'm also really starting to get pissy about paying for an apartment. What's my landlord using the rent for? Sends it off to the financial capitalists to pay his mortgage, no doubt. So long as buildings are owned by those bastards, they should be vacated or squatted in, and here I am living in one. Finally, I'm putting in way to much alienated work-time in front of a computer screen. I don't buy the idea that people should work like this at school or at home, but yet here I am so often, zombified just the way the capitalists want me. Do I feel like buying a bag of black beans or a jug of soy milk from the corner grocery store is a relevant contradiction in my life? Absolutely not. That's penny-pinching compared to the other contradictions. If everyone ate the way I did, we'd still have capitalism dead some time next week, not because I'm perfect, but because most people shop awfully and it's a fragile system. Being a perfectionist about just food acquisition is a way to narrow one's focus and rid one's self of a responsibility-guilt one probably ought to have. Not my thing.

What about Occupy? What about Strike Debt?

Occupy seemed like it might end up tending towards freeganism at first, but I don't think it has much. It's trying to spread an anticapitalist sentiment, but its done next to nothing as far as spreading anticapitalist life. I don't often have fun at events, my needs are rarely met, and it asks little of me in terms of growth. Horizontal Pedagogy (part of Occupy University) is working towards something that might become freegan-minded education, but long-term rigorous education through the group is a long way off. The conceptual work is real though; I already learn as much there as I do in my philosophy & education department, so there's hope.

Strike Debt is even less interesting as freeganism, but potentially more valuable as a way to spread anticapitalist thought, because debt matters to people. Perhaps some day a functional squat network or mutual-aid network will spring up. Right now, we're too caught up in info-spewing for my taste. The DROM is pretty sweet, though.

Labels? Anarchism?

I guess I resist labels in one sense and embrace them in another. What I don't like is the way they're employed as part of negation-cycles. The one I mentioned above is one example, but the liberal rhetoric of "everyone's beliefs are importantly unique" and people's listing their "isms" like they're supposed to constitute their identity is another I despise. It allows people to hear that someone believes something without having to give a shit about why they believe it. If you tell me you're a [insert label] and I care about you at all, I have a responsibility to figure out what that means and whether I should (a question of ethics, not desires) be one too. Belief sets shouldn't be treated like favorite ice cream flavors, and I think the liberal labeling culture tends in that direction. Even if we were all atheist, communist, humanitarian, communitarian, and feminist, you'd still be responsible for developing a creative personal identity or being mostly worthless.

On the other hand, there's an anti-labeling culture that's just as despicable. Ever go to a literary theory conference and watch some guy in a fancy getup wave his arms as he says "well no, my work doesn't fit into any of those labels" as if anyone cares? There's a kind of too high-culture for your petty labels business that goes on among too many folks I run into these days. If I had to chose between this or the labels-as-identities folks, I'd pick the latter, if nothing else, I they give me a sense of where they're at.

Seems to me our responsibility is to get comfortable having labels applied to us inexactly, but also try to push them when we have the opportunity.

Am I a freegan? If you ask me on the street with my head in a bag of garbage and give me three seconds to respond before you get bored, I'll say yes if I think it means I can talk more and explain myself, but as I hope is clear, I'm quite critical (in a loving way, really) of the practice of many folks under that heading.

Am I an anarchist? Depends on who asks. If I've time, I'll usually say: Yes, in the sense that I think all present nation-states are sufficiently fucked to demand replacement with something so different as to be unrecognizable. Now do my visions of that "what" they're to be replaced with represent some kind of J.S. Mill, libertarian, do-whatever, no central government thing? Not really. I think there are multiple ways to answer the question of how we see to it that everyone has access to excellent work, material conditions of survival, and wonderful structures of recognition. I guess I think most of these solutions involve people pooling resources in an authority that's probably a bit too big for the tolerance of your run of the mill anarchist, but how much difference does that really put between our beliefs? After all, we're probably both deeply interested in destroying much of the states that are. We shouldn't let our specifics about utopia get in the way too much, as we'll have time to get that right together later.

Freeganism: define it.

Freeganism is a disease of the mind, a creeping suspicion that's infected piece after piece of my life since I've gained the conceptual tools to see how irrational culture is. It's a drive to pry out the bullshit, the bad habits, the thoughts and acts that strengthen unnecessary pain, slavery, and irrationality, and replace them with acts express the possible freedom and excellence of human life beyond capitalism or any other force that stands in our way.

Thanks for the prompts, this has been swell,

If you need help in some other way or have other questions, I'm here.

Adam

arvencheese · 1163 days ago
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arvencheese
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