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. Continue reading