By Kyle Stedman
When I watched Maximus Waste, I was eating soup made of everything that was left in my fridge and freezer: oldish celery, oldish carrots, two half-empty cartons of broth, and five bags of half-eaten frozen veggies, with some lentils tossed in for fun.
This soup made me feel cool when I watched the film. I was able to think, “Oh yeah, I totally identify with The Take-Out Tree Hugger. Seriously, why don’t other people have it as together as I do?”
But as I finished my soup and continued watching, I started identifying with other characters, and I didn’t feel quite as comfortable with that. For every kettle of leftovers soup I’ve made, there have been plenty of times I’ve stepped into the role of The Wretched Waster, tossing out nearly-bad produce just for the space in the fridge. (Sometime in the last year I silently slipped from a bread-heel lover to a bread-heel tosser, something I’ve never quite admitted to myself until now.) And plenty of times I’ve sniffed something, been pretty sure it was alright, but then let it go into the trash anyway, just as The Sustenance Stickler would have me do.
Maybe this is a stretch, but I’m reminded of literary theorist Kenneth Burke’s theory of rhetoric as identification. It’s overly simplistic to boil everything he means by identification down to a single quote, but I’ll try anyway:
The key term for the old rhetoric was “persuasion” and its stress was upon deliberate design. The key term for the “new” rhetoric would be “identification,” which can include a partially “unconscious” factor in appeal. . . . [I]dentification can also be an end, as when people earnestly yearn to identify themselves with some group or other. Here they are not necessarily being acted upon by a conscious external agent, but may be acting upon themselves to this end. (203)
Yes, this film uses some “deliberate design” in the sense of traditional, persuasive rhetoric: facts are being marshalled by the filmmakers, our emotions are being tugged on, all in purposeful ways. But beyond those carefully crafted rhetorical choices, I feel myself, using Burke’s words, “yearn[ing] to identify [myself] with some group or another” in the video; I’m “acting upon [myself]” to discover who I identify with, and what that means.
Of course, that’s how films work: we see characters on screen and unconsciously ask ourselves how alike or different we are from them. We put ourselves in their shoes. We remember the time that we, too, tried eating uncooked ramen noodles, and how tempting it is to eat leftover food from other guests’ tables at restaurants. (Is that just me?) We identify–and through that identification, we’re changed. That’s why it’s so important that this is a film, not just a website, not just a typed, monomodal (i.e. only using the modality of text) composition. For a complex subject in which all of us share a blend of complicity and concern, we don’t just need to be convinced of the topic–we need to be drenched in its complexity, identify with it from multiple angles. That’s one reason why the multiple genres of video that the filmmakers included in Maximus Waste make so much sense here (mockumentary, yes, but also formal and informal interviews, public service announcements, and realistic documentary): the more we see the topic from multiple angles, the more we identify, and the more we’re changed.
And clearly this topic matters. I mean, it was on NPR the day before I watched the video (Husted), which means these students were months ahead of that national coverage. Yes, that radio story had multiple voices, fleshed out with sound effects and all the affordances of sound. I love sound. But I listened to it it from the corner of my ear, while getting dressed, interested but not feeling like I had to take action or anything. Maximus Waste doesn’t leave me that choice. I gave it all my attention (or all the attention I could spare from my soup). I identified. So now I must act.
Burke, Kenneth. “Rhetoric–Old and New.” Journal of General Education 5.3 (1951): 202-09. JSTOR. Web. 8 Apr. 2011.
Husted, Kristofor. “Consumers Contribute to Retail Food Waste.” NPR. NPR, 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.