Litter and the Shrug: Thinking the Politics of Infrastructure through Garbage in Twenty-First Century Palestine

By Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins
Submitted to Session P4573 (Infrastructure, Expertise, and Political Authority in the Middle East, 2016 Annual Meeting
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It is often argued that infrastructures become visible, and matters of political concern, when they break down. In twenty-first century Palestine, as in much of the Global South, it is just as common if not more so for the infrastructures of waste management to exist in states of suspension, unfulfilled promise, semi-functioning and breakdown. Yet unlike places like Lebanon and Egypt, Palestine has not seen widespread protests—or much public talk—in response to the pileups of trash on sidewalks, overflowing dumpsters and mounds of debris, plastic bags and bottles littering areas around checkpoints that dominate the landscape. Waste’s infrastructural failures are an “unmarked” everyday experience West Bank residents seem to shrug off or “get by.” Responses to wastes’ “successful” management (e.g. when landfills are built) garner no greater attention, however, whereas new housing projects, roads and telecommunications infrastructure do so, and widely. This suggests there may be something specific to the material and semiotic features of twenty-first century garbage in Palestine that distinguishes responses to its infrastructures’ breakdowns from political dynamics arising in other infrastructural contexts. It also suggests that waste infrastructures’ relationship to the political authority of experts mandated to manage the movements of garbage through Palestinian space (and never beyond its Oslo-defined borders) cannot be understood by asking normative questions about the relative success or failure of waste management as “development” or “environmental governance.” Nor can it therefore be assumed that residents’ acts of moving discards through that space (e.g. placing day old bread or soda cans on city ledges) can be read as direct responses to perceived municipal or Palestinian Authority failure, as “insubordination” to expert directives or, as many experts argue, as lack of “environmental awareness.” Based on over two years of ethnographic research, this paper will analyze trash pileups and the everyday movements of abandoned objects through the cities of Jenin (where the PA opened a sanitary landfill in 2007) and Ramallah (where landfill plans have been stalled since the 1980s) during those periods of suspension before municipal pickup and disposal. It will ask how understanding the relationship between modern garbage and urban infrastructures in twenty-first century Palestine helps us rethink the relationship between infrastructure, breakdown and political authority in infrastructural fields dominated by experts, trash and uncertainty in the Middle East and beyond.