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A Discourse on Pigeons & Review of Nancy Isenberg’s ‘White Trash’

in Ark Review/Essays/Review by

The Avian Abject: empathy for the trash-bird

The pigeon is a maligned object because in it we find reflected our species’ shortcomings. The pigeon is ugly because we are ugly, the pigeon is filthy because we spread filth, the pigeon is unwanted because in rejecting its presence we recuse ourselves from confronting our failures.

The pigeon does not produce the squalor for which it is blamed, it may inhabit squalid conditions or thrive amongst waste, but this is an ecology it has chanced upon. The pigeon is not the architect of its environment, though we project its environment unto its being. When you say “the pigeon lives in dirty alleyways” what is meant is that the pigeon is complicit in the dirt. This is not the case. The pigeon ‘benefits’ from our detritus in as much as it survives on our waste. Were there a world without humans, the pigeon would rather be finding food on the forest floor instead of a discarded crisp packet. The pigeon does not encourage our waste, it is not complicit in the behaviour which has produced the waste, and it only benefits because it scavenges – rarely is it the intentional recipient of our discarded matter.

When you throw a bone to a dog you are intentionally permitting that animal to feast on what you have left behind, you still maintain total control over what is permitted to be consumed and whom might consume it. Waste is meant to be out of sight and consequently beyond our consideration, urban scavengers like pigeons, foxes, and rats unsettle us because in their consumption of waste they reanimate what we intended to put to rest. In deciding that the food has become waste we have determined that it no longer holds utility, it has been transformed by our consumption from a useful and nutritious product into something unsightly and undesirable. The pigeon draws attention not just to waste, but to the fact that we are wasteful. In this way, our judgement, our lifestyle, and our ability to delimit production is uncomfortably challenged.

The pigeon disrupts the biopolitical sovereignty of the human over the urban space. By installing our settlements on the Earth, we have decided that this space ought to be dead so that we might live on it. We tear up the land and replace it with concrete, bricks, and what is left behind of the ‘natural world’ is what we have permitted. It is our intention that nature is driven out of what has been claimed as human territory, and what is allowed to remain has been domesticated and made acceptable to our design. When you pitch your tent on an ants’ nest your first thought, as you wake covered in bites, is to consider the ants the intruder. If a pigeon shits on your car, you decide that the pigeon is the one who ought not to be on the street – you don’t consider that the street is something which has been imposed onto the land. In a world without humans pigeon-shit would be inoffensive. The fact that a squat, grey, refuse loving bird is bathing in our great marble fountain is offensive because it means that a space that we have delimited as ours has been interrupted by an undesirable and repugnant being. The pigeon interferes with the fetish of total human conquest over natural spaces, in this way the pigeon undermines our mastery.

We highlight that pigeons are the carriers of disease, with the logic that this disease arises from their interactions with our waste. In this way, the pigeon is regarded as essentially dirty rather than polluted. This is a critical difference because we infer that the pigeon is not a polluted body, but rather a body that pollutes. If we are to accept the belief that the pigeon bears sickness, this sickness is our product rather than something inherent to the bird. In the abjection of the pigeon then we find a fear of the return of waste – we blame the pigeon for reminding us of the sickness we have created, and we worry that it might re-transmit the pollution we have produced. A boy does not become sick because he swims in a river, he becomes sick because the river has been flooded with sewage and industrial waste – he becomes sick because he has bathed in human effuse which is incidentally borne by the river; the river is blameless but remains the object of malignancy because this conveniently omits our society’s agency in his sickness. The problem is the environment, not what we have done to it. The cure becomes ‘fixing the environment’ rather than confronting our behaviour. Cleaning oil from seabirds does not prevent or cure the ecological havoc wreaked by the petrochemical industry.

The pigeon begs, and begging unsettles us because it means that we are asked to provide. The pigeon pollutes, and pollution unsettles us because it means that what we have sent out into the world is returning to us. The pigeon flocks together, and the flock unsettles us because it challenges our sovereignty over urban space. The pigeon revels in waste, and its revelry unsettles us because it reminds us that the world reacts to what we discard. The pigeon is tentative and anxious because we read unto its body our own concerns, and thereupon displace our responsibility to reflect and amend.

Review: White Trash by Nancy Isenberg

‘White Trash’ is an ambitious history of class in the United States of America, tracing the treatment of the underclass from the early years of colonial history until the present day. This text almost exclusively focuses on the history of white working-class groups and gives little attention to the situation of either native peoples, Latinx, or African Americans. This is obviously a difficult choice to make as it risks invoking criticism for a lack of inclusivity or perspective, but at the same time writing a history of social class in America without certain delimitations could have risked vague and sprawling outcomes. White Trash is entirely accessible to even those without much of a background in American history as it clearly maps its narrative onto a steady exposition of the nation’s history and is clearly written with an eye to offering its own account rather than simply a critique to piggyback on others’ works. In this way, Isenberg’s work is a narrative in its own right rather than a footnote to established histories.

One of the strongest points of White Trash is Isenberg’s attention to the establishment of ‘trash’ status and disentangling its connotations across the centuries. She disaggregates the ‘colonialist’ category and discusses how the white supremacist thought that enabled the colonial project existed within a system of taxonomizing and hierarchising Creation. In this way, all life was (and in some circles continues to be) conceptualised as existing on a quasi-Linnean systematisation, where the freeborn landed noble is at the apex and the enslaved or indentured person is at the base.  In the broader patterns of colonial ecological epistemologies there existed an obsession with ideas of reproduction – whether the fertility of the land, the eugenics of ‘breeding’ a subservient class, or broader notions of how powerful white men might direct the growth and evolution of a ‘young’ nation. Isenberg’s discussion of ‘trash’ draws attention to how from even the earliest days of colonial settlement there was a clear schema of how the social strata was to be arranged, and what qualified each group for their position. Her attention to the language of early colonialism pulls out what it meant for the unsettled plains to be ‘wasteland’, and how ideas of disposability, inherent inferiority, and functional undesirability accompanied the discussion and creation of white working-class America.  

Too often ‘white trash’ is an epithet used to dismiss and dehumanise a broad section of society, not dissimilar to how ‘chav’ was used in the early 2000s as an excuse to depersonalise and discredit working class groups in Britain. Deconstructing the idea of ‘trash’ and exposing the utility to which it has been put is essential to beginning any considerate and empathetic steps to addressing the harm that class division has done to society. So many articles written since the 2016 election have been written as though ‘Trump’s America’ is composed entirely of hillbillies, hicks, and rednecks. This cosmopolitan disdain and dejection for groups from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds risks creating a dangerous ‘two worlds’ narrative which blames under privileged groups for their predicament. Crucially, such a reading of society displaces the blame for the ‘two worlds’ onto a group which has lost out in this dynamic. Exploring what we mean when we talk about undesirability, and what is implied when we associate a living being with ideas of ‘waste’ is critical, if we are to have a world which focuses on empathy rather than perpetuates exploitation.

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash (Atlantic Books, 2016) is soon to arrive in Ark.

For further discussion of pigeons see The Global Pigeon by Colin Jerolmack (University of Chicago Press, 2013)


Simon's background is in American history and postcolonial studies. He wrote his dissertation on pirates, the extreme-Right, and the weaponization of historical memory. He now studies migration and displacement at Copenhagen University. Favourite topics: Eastern European and Antipodean literatures, zine making, modernism, and sentimental trash.

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