Thursday, June 07, 2007

Urban Oddness

Yesterday I was on the westbound platform at Toronto’s Runnymede subway station when I saw an odd sight. A man, walking along the platform, turned his head to look at a round rust stain on the floor, a stain that suggested the former presence of a garbage can. The man then tossed a crumpled piece of paper in the general vicinity of the round stain. This action suggested three possibilities:

1. The man saw the stain but registered it in his mind as a garbage can, and therefore tossed his garbage in the proper direction.
2. The main disagreed with the transit commission’s decision to remove the garbage can, and therefore tossed his trash in the hope the garbage can would rematerialize some day.
3. The man didn’t know where he would find a garbage can, and so just tossed his garbage in the nearest available place.

Of these possibilities I find the first one the most intriguing, because it suggests that, for the man, a representation (the stain) took on the same value as the thing itself (the garbage can). This calls to mind French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s idea of the simulacrum. Professor Dino Felluga offers the following helpful précis: “Baudrillard is not merely suggesting that postmodern culture is artificial, because the concept of artificiality still requires some sense of reality against which to recognize the artifice. His point, rather, is that we have lost all ability to make sense of the distinction between nature and artifice.” I would suggest that a parallel to the man’s actions in the subway might be if someone whose pet had died adopted a plush toy animal, treating it just like the real animal.

I see though that I have been sloppy: the rusty circle is a trace of the garbage can, not a representation. It is a leftover, a relic, a remnant. So a better parallel to the man’s actions in the subway might be a widower who has taken to addressing his wife’s discarded shoes as though they were her.

Returning to our subway litterbug, the person’s actions show a stubborn ability to ignore an obvious loss (of the garbage can), in order to accomplish a task (trash disposal). This seems to me, in an odd way, to blend wishful thinking with well-developed survival skills.

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