Elizabeth V. Spelman

Elizabeth V. Spelman

What might trash—all the discarded materials considered no longer of use—say about its former owners? What can be inferred about the one casting out his or her refuse based on what is contained in the heap?

Elizabeth V. Spelman, the Barbara Richmond 1940 Professor in the Humanities, will explore such questions during her talk “Combing Through the Trash: Philosophy Goes Rummaging,” the 53rd annual Katharine Asher Engel Lecture, on Tuesday, March 22, at 5 p.m. in Seelye Hall room 201.

The lecture is free and open to the public. (View a poster.)

“By its very definition, trash is what we throw out, get rid of, implicitly pronounce as no longer belonging to us,” explains Spelman. “At the same time, there are many reasons we may not want anyone going through it, even though it is the very same stuff we’ve come to regard as no longer really ‘ours.’ The fact that some cases of trash-combing and garbage-divining have captured the attention not only of celebrity watchers but the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States suggests that we’re anxious and uncertain about just what our garbage does or doesn’t tell about us, should or should not be used to tell about us.”

The Engel Lecture is granted annually to a Smith faculty member who has made a significant contribution to his or her field. The lecture was established in 1958 by the National Council of Jewish Women in honor of Engel, its onetime president and a 1920 Smith graduate.

garbageindexSpelman joined the Smith faculty in 1982 after completing her doctorate in 1974 at Johns Hopkins University (bachelor’s degree, Wellesley College, 1966).

Spelman became interested in trash as an academic topic when participating in the 2007-08 Kahn Liberal Arts Institute seminar “The Meaning of Matter,” coordinated by Dana Leibsohn, Priscilla Paine Van der Poel Professor of Art History, and Brigitte Buettner, direct of the art department.

“I’ve been filling trashcans at Smith for almost 30 years,” Spelman jokes. “But I am drawn to topics involving common features of human life that are both very ripe for philosophical reflection and on the whole have not been systematically addressed by philosophers.”

In recent years, Spelman’s teaching and research interests have included the work of repair, the nature and function of desire in the context of consumer society, the uses and abuses of ignorance, and, most recently, the life and times of trash. Her published works include three books: Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought; Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention to Suffering; and Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World.

A reception will follow the lecture in the Paradise Room of the Smith College Conference Center.