The Day After Payday: Graduate Students, Gleaning, and Apocalypse

Jean-François_Millet_(II)_-_The_Gleaners_-_WGA15691Finally after a long, cold summer, payday finally arrived! It was yesterday, the tenth of October. The frost has melted and the money has blossomed. It is for some the first payday since school ended in June. Sure, it was a glorious summer, sitting everyday in a library, reading and writing. After all, as long as you “do what you love,” the conditions in which you live do not matter. So I’ve been told.

One point of reference for this frugal summer has been Agnès Varda’s 2000 documentary, The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse). Varda’s film covers the history and contemporary practice of gleaning in France. Gleaning is the agricultural practice of gathering scraps leftover from the harvest, such as grain, potatoes, or whatever is available. It is a practice largely reserved for indigent peoples. While I initially picked up this film for the short interview with psychoanalyst, Jean Laplanche, since viewing the whole documentary, I have thought much more about gathering scraps.

Historically, gleaning has been considered a common practice, recorded as far back as the Bible, at least. It was often conducted by women and in groups.  But in 1788, gleaning was criminalized in England (collecting dead wood on the property of someone else was made illegal in the same year, which informs the plot of William Wordsworth’s “Goody Blake and Harry Gill”). In many court cases involving gleaning, it was actually the land-owning farmers who were the accused, namely for assaulting gleaners.[i] But regardless of who brought charges against whom, according to the “law,” there was one less way to survive.

Today—or at least thirteen years ago—Varda observes that gleaning has become somewhat of a solitary practice. Not only do gleaners search farmland for leftovers, but also the markets, garbage bins, and alleyways. Largely urban dwellers, Varda discovers that a good gleaner knows which grocers, bakers, and even which fishmongers throw away food before it has spoiled. It is striking how many of the people Varda meets glean out of repulsion to the capitalist culture’s insistence that consumers continuously purchase commodities. For some, their commitment to glean is very much a moral issue.

In Seattle, where I live, it is illegal to forage in public parks, another form of gleaning. Over the summer I heard a news broadcast about how foraging is illegal here but that the Seattle Parks department is becoming more tolerant and actually teaching people how to forage for things, like nettles, without destroying ecosystems.

I am simultaneously pleased and troubled by this decision. I am pleased because it seems wise to use these spaces to also grow and harvest food so that urban dwellers are not limited only to imported products, which cost more money and require more fuel for distribution than locally grown products.

But if gleaning is given a bit of a (neoliberal, hip, west coast) shine to it, in the same move we become complacent with regards to very real things that cause some people to glean out of necessity, for instance, corporations and governments that rely on interns, or universities that rely on adjuncts and graduate student teacher assistants.

In a “roundabout” way, such complacency is already recognized. Shifting attitudes with respect to foraging in public parks (in other major cities, as well) follows from fears about an “uncertain future,” namely: “Climate change, extreme weather events, rising fuel prices, terrorist activity.”[ii] The reason that cities are softening up on gleaning is not because the poor have suddenly found a place in the proverbial hearts of middle-class Americans. Rather, gleaning needs to be appropriated by the so-called “creative class” in order to survive the next 9/11, tsunami, or cosmic collision.

Here I am reminded of Slavoj Žižek’s now well-circulated quote concerning apocalypse: “we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on…it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”[iii]

In other words, rather than make it so that a real majority in the world has access to basic health care, clean water, safe food, warm shelter, as well as access to a quality education—and thus possibly diminishing the desires of some to destroy the planet or large sums of it—we are learning how to identify and cook nettles, and openly admitting that we are doing so in preparation for the next big catastrophe.

Perhaps there is no solution. Perhaps the damage is too great. But too great for what? Yes, climate change is real, its current trajectory is being driven primarily by human actions, and its effects will be profound, and most likely, profoundly bad.

And yet, this past weekend at the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts’ annual conference (this year’s theme was the “Postnatural”), I heard about another approach. One of the keynote speakers, Subhankar Banerjee, an artist and environmental activist, spoke about “long environmentalism.”

The concept itself is still being worked out, but I would contrast it to assumptions that technological innovation is going to suddenly fix that whole climate change problem. Likewise, governments, corporations, and universities are not going to suddenly care about the needs and welfare of the displaced, the underpaid, and the overworked. I would say that these two seemingly disparate issues both require a similar “long” solution. For any problem humans and other species face today, the solutions require drastic changes to our ways of living: no quick turnaround is to be had. It’s great that cities are legalizing foraging and the colleges are starting recycling programs. But these are paper towels on a massive oil spill.

I do not promise organic unity in the conclusion of this post. That would be perverse. Instead I conclude with an anecdote:

Walking through campus after the English department’s annual reception during the first week of classes (that is three weeks ago), a number of my fellow graduate students and I came across a box of cookies left on top of a trashcan. One of us grabbed the box, to the horror of some and the ecstatic glee of others. As hands reached into the assortment of cheap, sugary treats, I announced to my cohort, “We’re gleaners!” At least one of them looked at me and understood my meaning. We smiled our intoxicating smiles and forgot for a second that we were really gleaning.



[i] King, Peter. Crime and Law in England, 1750-1840: Remaking Justice from the Margins. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. 281-338. Print.

[ii] McNichols, Joshua. “Urban Food Foraging Goes Mainstream In Seattle.” KUOW.ORG. KUOW News and Information, 1 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.

[iii] ŽIŽEK! Dir. Astra Taylor. Zeitgeist, 2005.