What is it about other peoples’ junk? Last Sunday was Recycle Circus, the day in our town when people clean out their sheds and garages and bring the stuff down to the community center, which is called the Dance Palace. Volunteers unload the pick-ups and spread the items out on the street. People have a ball sifting through the old plumbing fixtures, exercise equipment and lengths of gutter.
Some do get a little grabby. They hover near the trucks as they are unloaded, ready to pounce on cabinet or desk. It made me think just a little of the wealthy matrons from the suburbs who would throng the entrance of the original Filenes Basement in Boston, and descend like vultures upon the sale bins when the doors opened. But that wasn’t the dominant note. Recycle Circus isn’t just about stuff, or even mainly. It’s a community event, a kind of festival, when you just enjoy being out with others with the winter finally gone.
This is how commerce started, in the plazas that surrounded Medieval churches, and at fairs that were annual events. The social occasion came first; what we now call “the market” glommed on later. Charlemagne ordered the serfs on his estates not to “run about to markets,” reports Henri Pirenne in his Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe. Those serfs weren’t going to maximize their utilities by expressing their preference curves as rational market actors, as present day economists would have it. They were going to be around other people and have a good time.
This is the dimension that corporate commerce, with its malled enclosures and big box discounts, has stripped away. Is it really a wonder that we Americans feel isolated and depressed, even though we are so wired and have so much stuff? Something is missing and it’s not just the “romance” of the coffee smell, as Howard Schultz, the Starbucks founder, put it about his chain in an internal memo not long ago. It’s the intimate and quirky places that coffee shops used to be – and the communal event that commerce used to be.
More than one person has noticed that items tend to reappear at the Recycle Circus. As a friend put it, “You take someone’s old stuff, put another year on it, and then bring it back.” I have a feeling that a lot of the stuff gets another year not of use but of nonuse. It just sits in the garage until a spouse issues orders to get rid of it. The exchange here – there is a moral obligation to bring stuff as well as pick it up – is not about utility. Rather it is a kind of ritual of reciprocity. The bringing and taking are a way of affirming a social bond.
Perhaps there is a little here of the gift-giving rituals called kula that Bronislaw Malinowski, the anthropologist, found in his study of “primitive” Pacific Islanders. (He told the story in his book Argonauts of the South Pacific.) In kula, the inhabitants of one island would canoe across the ocean to bring certain gifts to the inhabitants of another. Those would, after a given interval, bring those same gifts to a third island; and on and on until the cycle repeated itself.
Economists could not understand such commerce because they assume a “calculating, cold egotism,” Malinowski wrote. They “ignore the fundamental human impulse to display ,to share, to bestow,” he added. “They ignore the deep tendency to create social ties through the exchange of gifts.”
There is a we in our natures as well as a me. It is something the corporate economy represses but which, as recounted on this website and others, is starting to break through the concrete, in ways large and small. The word circus comes from the same root as circle. The Recycle Circus is aptly named.