rio de janeiro’s Praça XV flea market: the paradox of waste


This is a version of a paper that I gave at the Global Garbage conference hosted by the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis’ (ASCA) Cities Project in Paris last year. It is included in the collection Global Garbage: Urban Imaginaries of Waste, Excess, and Abandonment, to be published by Routledge in December 2015.

At the end of each day, very little rubbish remains on the streets of Rio de Janeiro’s affluent and middle-class suburbs. Through the night and early morning phalanxes of sanitation workers and scavengers, working in both the informal and formal economies, sort and clean up much of it. Some of that rubbish is handpicked and re-classified as waste, and bound for secondary markets where it can be sold and bought anew (Coletto, 2010). Informal and formal secondhand or ‘flea’ markets are a node within this network of secondary economies that generates valuable social, economic, and material infrastructure in cities (Evers & Seale, 2014; UNHabitat, 2010).

From 1979 until the end of 2013, the Feira de Antiguidades da Praça XV set up every Saturday in Rio de Janeiro in an otherwise unused channel of land hemmed in on the sides and from above by roadways. The flea market took its name from a nearby square, Praça XV de Novembro, that is both national monument and tourist destination. The square and the area occupied by its namesake market are incorporated in Rio de Janeiro’s ‘Cultural Corridor’, a central urban precinct geographically demarcated because of its heritage and cultural attributes (del Rio and de Alcantara, 2009). Following Mary Douglas’ (1966) influential formulation, the flea market is ‘matter-out-of-place’ because it is at odds with the official place-image (Shields, 1991: 61-62) of historic, touristic Praça XV, and of Rio de Janeiro itself as an egalitarian, modern metropolis (Seale, 2014). The market’s conspicuous display of waste in the street resists hegemonic projections of what constitutes liveability in urban contexts (Coletto, 2010: 59). This, combined with the visible congregation at the city’s political, financial and cultural centre of market’s community of ‘urban outcasts’ who are usually pushed to the social and spatial peripheries of the city (Wacquant, 2008), is interpreted by some as a failure of urban governance (Hiebert, Rath and Vertovec, 2014). However, counter to the secondhand market’s discursive positioning within the representational and material orders of the city, Feira da Praça XV instigates order in an arena where many assume there is none to be found. The market as a space, a set of practices, and a community reinstitutes order amongst previously discarded objects through inventory, exhibition, and above all, commodification. The vendors at the market are entrepreneurial (Seale, 2014), re-incorporating waste back into circuits of exchange in a process that provides employment and waste management for the city.

We are socially and culturally pre-disposed to view waste pejoratively (Elias 1978; LaPorte, 2000). Some of our rationale for marginalising it may have sound physiological basis. Nevertheless, waste is an obligatory, insistent, and above all, valorised component of global, neo-liberal capitalism. Waste is neither abject, nor excessive; rather it sustains capitalism’s growth. We might even say, as David Trotter does, that in capitalism ‘the success of the enterprise can be measured by the waste-matter it produces, by the efficiency with which it separates out and excludes whatever it does not require for its own immediate purposes.’ (2000: 22) As indications of the status quo, we can look to the existence of a globalised industry whose driver is the management and movement of the catastrophic amounts of material waste we produce, or to the deliberate configuration of products to deteriorate or to become technologically or stylistically obsolete. To be measured successful, such industries and innovations are dependent on generating increasing amounts of waste. The disconnect between waste’s symbolic role and waste’s actualised role in global capitalism is what I understand to be the paradox of waste. Through diagrammatic reference to Feira da Praça XV, I aim to construct a theory of waste that acknowledges this paradox.

Waste and refuse

Waste is a convenient catch-all category under which various types of refuse are grouped; for example dirt, excrement, pollution and garbage. Recent trans-disciplinary literature on refuse and/or waste (Hawkins, 2006; Scanlan, 2005; Hawkins & Muecke, 2003) uses the terms more or less synonymously. In theory and in practice the two are often situated as inter-changeable, yet they are different. Waste, through its production and consumption, is reincorporated into an economy. Waste therefore has value, whereas refuse does not because it is no longer circulating within an economy. One of the most cogent explanations of the distinction is from literary critic David Trotter in his analysis of nineteenth-century Europe capitalism. Trotter says:

[W]aste can often be recycled, or put to alternative uses; if the system which produced it cannot accommodate it, some other system will. Waste remains forever potentially in circulation because circulation is its defining quality. […] However foul it may have become, it still gleams with efficiency. (2000: 20-22)

Trotter’s observation on classical capitalism is an iteration of Georges Bataille’s metaphorisation of biological reproduction as capitalism in The Accursed Share Vol.1.:

The living organism […] ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy can be used for the growth of a system; if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically. (1991: 21)

In Bataille’s schema, we might understand the excess energy which is re-absorbed to be waste, and the excess which is lost without profit to be refuse. Waste is legitimised through its exchange-value, which (re)constitutes it as a commodity. Waste is therefore neither mere coda to the existence of the commodity, nor its other. Conceptually, empirically, waste and commodity are two sides of the same coin – as the trade at Feira da Praça XV illustrates.

On the other hand, refuse’s failure to endlessly reproduce marks the endpoint of commodification, and refuse therefore exceeds the threshold of capitalist requirements. This excess is heterotopic. Foucault in the Order of Things says that heterotopias ‘[break] up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, […] continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other.’ (1973: xviii) A photographic image of a massive landfill in Mexico by contemporary German artist Andreas Gursky visually represents the heterotopia of refuse. At first glance Gursky’s Untitled XIII (Mexico) 2002 looks monotonous, yet on closer inspection it reveals a chaos of discrete discarded objects: plastics, metals, food matter stretching beyond the frame of the photograph. There is no order to this profusion, in spite of any attempt to contain it within the architecture of the dump. It represents a promiscuous breakdown of the taxonomies that once ordered all this matter. The commodity’s attendant matrix of socio-cultural significations proves arbitrary and unsustainable and becomes redundant when it is discarded as refuse, and the unfathomable scale of refuse accumulating in the dump provides an unwelcome allegory on the fetishism of commodities. We might even think of refuse as the immanent critique of the commodity (Adorno, 1973: 97) given, as Karl Marx claims in Grundrisse, that consumption, the act which brings the commodity into being, is dependent on the using up and ultimate degradation of the commodity into refuse. (1973: 91).

In his 1999 novel Underworld, Don DeLillo identifies waste as one of the defining narratives of American (and global) culture going into the twenty-first century. DeLillo writes, ‘it all ends up in the dump. We make stupendous amounts of garbage, then we react to it, not only technologically but in our hearts and minds. We let it shape us. We let it control our thinking. Garbage comes first, then we build a system to deal with it.’ (1999: 288) DeLillo’s protagonist Nick Shay works in waste management: ‘We designed and managed landfills. We were waste brokers. We arranged shipments of hazardous waste across the oceans of the world.’ (89). Like the vendors and ragpickers at Feira de Praça XV, Shay organises refuse into waste. Waste, unlike refuse, can be ‘managed’ through reincorporation into capitalist circuits of exchange. The distinction between waste and refuse is therefore not material; rather their classification as one or the other hinges on how we treat or deal with them. Feira da Praça XV mobilises this phenomenological difference. The waste that is sold there is other people’s leftovers, rejectamenta, detritus. The movement of other people’s garbage to the market is the movement from refuse to waste.

Waste and symbolic and material order

Our notion of what is waste varies from culture to culture, is dependent upon our material circumstances, and changes according to our position within a social order. Attitudes towards waste can mark cultural variance or similitude, and proximity to or distance from waste is frequently based on the politics of difference. ‘Waste’, Richard Sennett reminds us, ‘[is] a problem only dreamed of by scarcity societies.’ (2008:109), and assumes a surfeit of resources from which to have left-overs. What ideas and practices to do with waste often share is an objective to sanction, segregate, marginalise, and discriminate. John Scanlan observes, ‘the meaning of waste carries force because of the way in which it […] operates within a more of less moral economy’ (2005: 22). Indeed, waste management as a discourse where the unwanted is firstly separated and contained, and then, of use once more is so symbolically powerful that it is metaphorically deployed in a number of social and political contexts (Bauman, 2004); for instance work-for-the-dole programs whose ideological function is to recoup labour capital from ‘wasteful’ welfare expenditure. In Italo Calvino’s fabular city Leonia waste management performs the sacred task of keeping the unclean at bay. The city’s sanitation workers are ‘angels’ and their task ‘a ritual that inspires devotion.’ (Calvino, 1997: 114) Leonia’s culture of sanctified waste management absolves its citizens of the consequences of over-consumption. Calvino understands that contrary to waste’s symbolic abjection (Kristeva, 1982: 65-7), waste is a actually a mode of reassurance because its very categorisation is indexical to some kind of order or system at work that sorts, classifies, and divests.

the paradox of waste

Indeed in Underworld, De Lillo proposes that culture is born of the urge to order refuse:

 Detwiler said that cities rose on garbage, inch by inch, gaining elevation through the decades as buried debris increased. Garbage always got layered over or pushed to the edges, in a room or in a landscape. But it had its own momentum. It pushed back. It pushed into every space available dictating construction patterns and altering systems of ritual. And it produced rats and paranoia. People were compelled to develop an organized response. This meant they had to come up with a resourceful means of disposal and build a social structure to carry it out – workers, managers, haulers, scavengers. […]

‘See we have everything backwards,’ he said.

Civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage came first, inciting people to build a civilization in response, in self- defence. We had to find ways to discard our waste, to use what we couldn’t discard, to reprocess what we couldn’t use. Garbage pushed back. It mounted and spread. And it forced us to develop the logic and rigor that would lead to systematic investigations of reality, to science, art, music, mathematics. (1999: 287-88)

DeLillo’s assertion is not unconnected to Douglas’ assertion that our feelings about the abjection of refuse come out of feelings to do with organisation. Douglas observes that we are never more disturbed or repulsed by something than when it has slipped past the processes designed to contain it (1966: 4). It is the ruptures or blockages in a system of waste management that produce ‘matter-out-of-place’. Waste reverts to refuse. In the city where I live that might be raw sewage washing up on the coastline; or a hoard of rubbish building up at a residence in an affluent suburb (Seale, 2006); or a broken, leaking garbage bag lying uncollected on a suburban street. The last example signifies a series of failures. The garbage bag has malfunctioned. The proper (etymologically derived from propre, the French word for clean) place for the garbage is in the bag, not spilled out on the street. The rubbish and the bag should have been placed in an appropriate receptacle, or picked up by the city’s sanitation workers.

matter out of place

The unease that occurs when waste confronts us with its materiality emerges from expectations regarding order. In Purity and Danger, Douglas observes that the desire to install order leads to ‘ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating [… that] have, as their main function, to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created.’ (1966: 4). William Ian Miller says that material or symbolic threat to this order provokes the affective response of disgust. Disgust is ‘a strong sense of aversion to something perceived as dangerous because of its danger to contaminate, infect, or pollute’ (1997: 2; see also Miller, 2004). The body, a network of physiological, biological and neurological processes that constitute a system of order in its own right, cannot cope with a breakdown in the management system, and reacts accordingly. David Trotter elaborates:

[P]sychological activity [is] an attempt to impose order on experience: bodily paroxysm is a way of confronting and resolving urgent abstract dilemmas. According to this view, you vomit because you have lost confidence in your ability to make sense of the world: your ability to categorize, order, explain, or tell stories about what has happened to you. Disgust is the product of conceptual trauma.

 When systems of waste management are functioning as they were designed the conceptual trauma is allayed, not only through the reversion to order, but because waste management affectively and materially affirms, enables, and finally maintains those aversions.

Feira da Praça XV, as it moved through formal and informal articulations, was always subject to numerous practices of ordering carried out at multiple micro- and macro-levels of the market. The infrastructure at the end closest to Praça XV was that of a licensed market. Vendors with more expensive stock in better condition had uniform stalls provided by central management. The regulated parts of the market at this end were more spread out, and consequently were more pleasant spatially and aesthetically. Sometimes, their collections were curated and carefully arranged. This was the closest the market came to the phenomenon of fetishized vintage (Gregson and Crewe, 2003; Palmer, 2005). Some were highly specialised in their collections. One stall sold only vintage surplus pencils in their original tins and boxes; another stall was heaped high with (to my mind) sinister-looking used steel surgical implements and tools. As you moved away from this section of the market, the space under the Perimetral narrowed, and so, too, the space between aisles, stalls and people was reduced. Here there was a second tier of stalls with red-and-white striped canvas shades instead of green. The wares on display in this section were more eclectic, thrown together, visually messy. Things might be broken, missing a part, or the single remnant of a pair. The flyover’s pylons functioned as de facto markers signalling increasingly ad hoc spatial organisation and goods until the market trickled out with groups of sellers who displayed their goods on a towel or directly on the ground.

inventory, exhibition, commodification

On the fringes of these final sections were groups of Rio de Janeiro’s globally renowned catadores (see Lucy Walker’s 2010 documentary Wasteland) who sorted through the leftovers. Even here, where the market seemed more like a scrapyard than the stage for consumption, there were processes of sorting and ordering at work.

 Cleaning Up Rio de Janeiro

 Like many secondhand markets across the globe, Praça XV set itself up in an otherwise unused urban space; in this case in a wasteland under an elevated roadway in central Rio de Janeiro. Indeed, the market’s location and its history are tied up in the making and un-making of urban wastelands. In the early 60s construction started on the Perimetral as a measure for Rio de Janeiro’s coming automobility. The road cut straight through Rio de Janeiro’s impressive Municipal Market. The Muncipal Market, which was built in 1907 in the European iron and glass pavilion style with four octagonal glass towers imported from Antwerp, was subsequently pulled down in stages. The demolition of the central market produced a wasteland in the precinct by replacing pedestrian and commercial infrastructure with a roadway that cut off the port and harbour from the CBD. Over the next decades, the area’s previous function as Rio de Janeiro’s central market was metonymically remembered through one remaining corner tower (housing the Albamar restaurant, which continues to trade today), a square named for it on the site (Praça Mercado Municipal), and the emergence of two new markets in the area in the late 70s: Feira da Troca, effectively a swap meet that functioned through barter, and Feira do Albamar, a more conventional showcase for antiques dealers. The establishment of the markets did not improve the amenity of the area, and the latter moved to the well-heeled suburb of Gávea in the mid-80s, leaving Feira da Troca to evolve into Feira da Praça XV (Freitas, 2013).

The market’s terrain within the designated Cultural Corridor, and its inclusion within the catchment area of the Porto Maravilha public-private partnership for urban renewal in the Port area ensured that this cramped space could not remain overlooked indefinitely. The prevailing demands of urban infrastructure development driven by global mega-events—Rio de Janeiro hosted the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and is staging the Summer Olympics in 2016—led to the demolition of the freeway to facilitate rehabilitation of the area. Rumours about the market’s re-location dated from at least my first visit in 2008, and were still circulating when I returned in May 2013, yet despite the apparent inevitability of re-location some stallholders only found out that the site was no longer available when they turned up to find that the dismantling of the Perimetral had commenced (Freitas, 2013).

Flea markets are often pushed to the social and geographic peripheries of cities because of their trade in waste, their entanglement with informality, and because the communities who patronise flea markets, as producers or consumers, belong to groups who are socially and economically marginalised (Mörtenböck and Mooshammer, 2008). The liminal and precarious position within the global urban order of those who work with waste, and of the locations where they carry out their trade is predicated upon social perceptions produced by symbolic representations that locate waste as marginal and abject, not waste’s actualised value within local and globalised economies. Informal and/or secondary circuits of commodity exchange, particularly those that manage waste, are indispensable for urban livelihoods in Brazil and globally (Evers and Seale, 2014; Coletto, 2010), and for socially and materially sustainable cities (United Nations, 2010), but their vulnerability to the currents of local and global governance and development is compounded by the structural inequalities of a hierarchical informal/formal binarism which deprives those in the informal sector of economic and political power.

The market has since been re-located into Praça XV proper and it remains to be seen if all stakeholders in the market, and in the city more widely, will benefit equally from the ‘cleaning up’ of the market and its surrounds. The market has been renamed Praça do Mercado Feira de Antiguidades, signalling a separation from the previous market. It is spatially very different, too, in that it spreads out on the square instead of being confined to a linear formation. The increased exposure of this iteration of Feira da Praça XV has not, however, transformed the city’s relationship with waste, rather it seems to occlude its presence even more by presenting second-hand goods as a statement of cultural capital or taste, rather than a material necessity or consequence of consumption.

To address the environmental consequences of the paradox of waste requires an epistemic shift in attitudes towards waste, and in the design of associated technologies. Previous epistemic shifts in our social and material relation to waste were designed to render waste invisible. Elias (1978) and LaPorte (2000) link the construction of the bourgeois individual to an accompanying privatisation of waste. Writes Elias, ‘weeding out of the natural functions from public life, and the corresponding regulation or moulding of drives, was only possible because, together with growing sensitivity, a technical apparatus was developed which solved fairly satisfactorily the problem of eliminating these functions from social life and displacing them behind the scenes.’ (1978: 137-140). In her social and cultural history of rubbish in the United States, Susan Strasser retraces how the emergence of new ideas about the correct place for waste instigated the development of industries, products and consumers for its banishment.

Personal cleanliness had signified moral superiority among middle-class people at least since the Civil War, and dirt was a sign of degradation. Industrialization made both cleaning and keeping clean easier and cheaper. Cleanliness became big business, as manufacturers of washstands, basins and tubs, towel, plumbing parts, and the large-scale devices necessary for urban sanitation all flourished. (1999: 174).

One reason that the presence of refuse is confronting is that it is a material manifestation of what waste management systems are designed to move out of sight. The visible proliferation of refuse acts as a tocsin warning of unsustainable production and consumption, and resulting environmental degradation. The paradox of waste therefore privileges the symbolism of waste over the materiality of waste. Yet for neo-liberal capital, waste is not a dirty business. Future cities need to transform their relationship to waste in what is effectively an inversion of the current paradox. It is time that urban dwellers became far more uneasy with the systems that obscure the material scale of waste production, and far more comfortable with its matter so that we can interact with it in a way that is realistic and sustainable. Not engaging with waste because it is conveniently hidden away, or because it is considered abject, directly inhibits the design and development of socially and environmentally sustainable and resilient cities.

Works Cited

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Author: Kirsten Seale

I am a Sydney based researcher and academic, and the author of numerous articles on cities, urban culture, and place. I am the co-editor of Informal Urban Street Markets (Routledge, 2014) and the author of the forthcoming Markets, Places, Cities (Routledge, 2016). This is my research blog.

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