The Triumph of the Insignificant

Tahl Kaminer

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)


The poet and playwright Théophile Gautier famously rebuked the idea of utilitarian art by pointing out that the most utilitarian object in the house is the latrine. Whereas trash is usually understood as disposable and art as ever-lasting, Gautier’s statement could be extended to suggest that art and trash belong to the same sphere – to the superfluous, to the unnecessary, to the sphere of the insignificant from an objective perspective. The romantic approach to trash, epitomised by Baudelaire’s reverence for the ephemeral, the transitory and the discarded, has ceased to be provocative in a society which loves its garbage, indefatigably displaying and recycling it.

Rather than romanticise trash, the proposed paper would like to describe it as a product of industrial society which has grown to monstrous proportions in our current post-industrial, late-capitalist society. This will be done by reconstructing trash as a historical category which was born as the excess of industrial production. The history of trash intertwines in the nineteenth century with the ascent of ‘collecting’ in middle-class society, an activity which gave trash ‘a place in the world’ and tied it to individuation. Stamps, coins, ship-models, badges, maritime souvenirs, trade cards, insects, dental casts, all became collectable items, marking the newly found importance given to insignificant objects. The trajectory of the paper will lead to the emphasis, by the 1960s, on the insignificant properties of commodities as a means of personalising serially produced objects, and end with ‘Junkspace’, the dark, apocalyptic essay by Rem Koolhaas in which he describes all products of modern civilisation as trash.

The paper will demonstrate the manner in which the disposable, the superfluous, and the useless has been transformed from the rejected leftovers of society to being its central product, not only revered but also responsible for very real economic interests, marking ‘the triumph of the insignificant’.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTrash Culture
Subtitle of host publicationObjects and Obsolescence in Cultural Perspectives
EditorsGillian Pye
Place of PublicationOxford, Bern
PublisherPeter Lang Publishing Group
Number of pages17
ISBN (Print)978-3-03911-553-2
Publication statusPublished - 2010

Publication series

PublisherPeter Lang
ISSN (Print)1662-0364


  • architecture theory
  • Production
  • Culture


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