A Wall of Rusted Razors: Modernity and the Culture of Waste

This text is the English translation of the article “Bir Duvar Dolusu Paslanmış Jilet: Modernite ve Atık Kültürü“, by Yiğit Yolcu, published on arete portal on 19 August 2022. The text was translated into English by Emin Aslan Özbek.

Modernity has brought progress, ease, and comfort to our lives. So, what did it cost? A quote from Le Corbusier’s 1927 manifesto, “The house is a machine to live in” is now an unopposed certainty. Considered a visionary text for its time, this manifesto sets the spatial quality standards of today. Prior to this, Marinetti’s ‘Futurist Manifesto,’ published in 1909, argued that the human body was mechanized because of industrialization and framed its interpretation of art accordingly. These two manifestos, which shook the circles of art and architecture at the beginning of the 20th century, succeeded in taking their places in everyday life in a swift fashion. Standard household appliances such as refrigerators and vacuum cleaners were designed so that the houses, which are considered to be machined, could work more effectively. While these tools have become the nut and screw of the house, the personal care industry has come to our rescue so that we can turn the wheels of our bodies in a more ‘gracious’ manner. Makeup products, shavers, and epilators were also produced and employed on a mass scale for the first time in this century.

Early razor blades, which were created to remove the hairs on the face and body, succeeded in replacing the barber’s razor or straight razors in the 19th century. These new forms of razors provided a safe and comfortable shaving experience for every user with their protecting materials on the blade itself. But the blade edges, which eventually soon became dull, had to be sharpened and re-sharpened again. In the design that King C. Gillette patented in 1904, unlike the previous designs, the razor blade could be removed from the razor and re-inserted. The blades were disposable, so instead of sharpening the blade after each use, the blade was thrown away. Thanks to its easy use, this product quickly became popular, and even though the name of the product was identified with the prototype of the product itself, ‘gilette (jilet)’ became the word for razor blade in Turkish. Gillette razors, which remained popular until the 1970s, were discarded after the widespread of disposable designs with blades encased in a plastic body and the longer life made possible by these innovations. But it was not just the design that was discarded.

The disposable razors in the 1904 design could not be thrown into the rubbish away after use due to their sharpness. Because razors would injure stray animals that scavenge, people found unusual ways to ‘put away’ razors. Some of the people collected razors and burned them in their gardens. While it was a sensible method of extermination for those living in the countryside, this practice was obviously unsuitable for urban life. A different solution was found: The shaving people came up with the idea of throwing the razors into a designated gap between two wooden posts by making a hole in their bathroom walls. Thus, this specific compartment was a popular element or attachment in the structures of the period. So much so that if you live in a house built between 1910 and the 1960s, you may find a narrow but long groove in the mirror cabinet of your bathroom or on the wall next to your bathtub. This practice, completely abandoned and forgotten after the 70s, is reminded of humanity with the razor piles that reappeared while demolishing old buildings.

These walls of rusted razors epitomize modernity and the very concept of ‘waste’ rewritten on its brink. What the razor reminds us of is the non-recyclable raw materials of the industrial world, the society that consumes them insanely fast, and the abject lack of environmental consciousness. I wonder what people before us were thinking when throwing razors down the hole, that the razor has magically gone out of their material existence? Or that it went through a metal grinder sandwiched between the walls and crumbled into safe pieces? This practice, which cannot be understood when looking back a century later, reveals other dangerous or non-recyclable things that humanity ‘discarded’ and ‘trash’ in this century. Count the single-use plastic products you have used today for as long as you can remember. If you are not a conscientious consumer, understand this: Almost half of the world’s population consumes as much plastic as you do. In Turkey, the situation is even way worse. There is no standardized recycling system. The vast majority of the population does not separate their waste. Most importantly, we are still not conscious of the life of the waste. For some reason, we do not realize that everything we buy and use will continue to exist in this universe in some form after it is used and that if it is not adequately categorized and removed, it will irretrievably contaminate all the natural resources we have. When purchasing products marketed as time-saving and user-friendly, it should be our duty to search for more environmentally friendly alternatives. In terms of design, how the product will be decomposed and mixed with nature, and if it can be reused, how this will be achieved should be a much more important criterion.

Yiğit Yolcu

Yiğit Yolcu

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