Rhetorical Analysis of “On Dumpster Diving” by Lars Eighner
Lars Eighner’s “On Dumpster Diving” is an intriguing essay that details the necessary steps to effectively scavenge through dumpsters based on Eighner’s own experiences when he was homeless. The essay contains anecdotal evidence that is engaging to the reader because of how Eighner normalizes a rather unusual topic by presenting the information as if it were found in an instruction manual. While the essay serves as a useful informational guide for anyone who finds themselves having to dumpster dive, Eighner accomplishes more than just providing helpful tips by addressing society’s preconceptions about homelessness. Society has the tendency to generalize about people of lower socioeconomic status and, in the case of the homeless, this generalization has a negative connotation. Eighner’s essay attempts to dispel these preconceived notions by using academic diction, ethos, and a tonal shift from detached to emotionally passionate. These devices effectively allow the reader to appreciate Eighner’s experiences rather than disregard his viewpoint based on his social class, especially when Eighner makes overt claims about materialism and the affluent that is difficult for the target audience to ignore.
“On Dumpster Diving” contains a plethora of academic diction and is structured as if written by a scholar. Eighner intentionally presents himself as educated not only to disprove any assumptions the reader may have about him based on his socioeconomic status, but also to relate to the target audience. The essay was published in the Threepenny Review, a literary magazine that is read by many academics and scholars. Keeping the target audience in mind, Eighner establishes himself as being on the same intellectual level of the reader, which affirms his credibility and garners the reader’s respect. This is evident in the first paragraph of the essay, which begins with an account of how Eighner researched the origin of the word “Dumpster” by writing to Merriam-Webster, something that may come as a surprise to the reader. By adding this anecdote in the very beginning of the essay, Eighner is able to effectively “hook in” his academic audience. In fact, the continuous use of academic diction is akin to the type of language one would expect from an educated individual. In one instance, Eighner asserts that eating food from dumpsters is what “separates the dilettanti from the professionals” and even explains in detail the signs of botulism in canned foods and how to avoid its devastating effects, stating that “botulism is almost certainly fatal” but that “heat can break [it] down” (401). This form of diction makes Eighner more relatable to the target audience by humanizing him as the readers’ intellectual peer rather than someone who is intellectually inferior. Thus, the preconceived barrier separating the audience and Eighner is slowly reduced, allowing Eighner to creatively earn the reader’s trust by using diction to establish ethos.
Eighner is at a disadvantage from the beginning due to the presumptions the audience may have about his “modern form of self-reliance” (408). Yet, he is resolute in reversing these presumptions early on and portraying himself as a trustworthy source, as evident in the third paragraph. Here, Eighner asserts his preference of the term “scavenging” over “dumpster diving,” stating that he “like[s] the frankness” of the word and thinks it to be “a sound and honorable niche” (400). The word choice in this assertion establishes ethos by demonstrating that Eighner, not society, determines his own classification as a scavenger rather than a dumpster diver. Since Eighner is defining his status in his own terms, the reader’s social classification of Eighner becomes irrelevant while his credibility is affirmed since he proves that he is not limited by the perception of others. This assertion also elicits a sense of respect from the reader since Eighner is not only acknowledging and defining his circumstances, but also suggesting he does not desire pity from the audience since he does not even pity himself. Instead, Eighner reiterates his acceptance of his conditions and honestly reveals that he has even “learned much as a scavenger” (400). In fact, Eighner’s “frankness” is evident in the entirety of the essay and cleverly located at regular intervals to reemphasize his trustworthiness while avoiding an air of superiority.
For example, Eighner addresses his discomfort after accidentally consuming a large quantity of alcohol found in a dumpster during the middle of the day, admitting that some scavengers would have been ecstatic with the find but that it was “not [his] idea of a good time” (403). This subtle yet revealing line allows the audience to contrast Eighner’s responsible behavior from other scavengers and reaffirms his trustworthiness. After a few pages, Eighner brings up “scavenger ethics” and how he finds it unethical to invade personal garbage cans, a statement that earns even more of the reader’s trust. He even acknowledges that many would find “scavenger ethics too funny for words,” which demonstrates an acute awareness of how the reader may have assumed scavengers like Eighner lack a moral compass (406). This proves that Eighner is capable of thinking at the same level of his audience. In fact, he continues to describe, in a logical and surprisingly understanding method, how he understands better than anyone why scavenging through individual garbage cans is a severe invasion of privacy, which is understandable since he likely has more experience than the reader. Eighner states that individual garbage cans contain “less obvious sources of information” such as patient names, doctor names, and prescription types on pill bottles, revealing yet again a surprising sense of respect for others despite his isolated lifestyle (406). Eighner furthers his credibility and continues to reverse expectations about homelessness by employing strategic tone shifts to ensure that his audience follows him to his main point.
Throughout the essay, Eighner writes in a detached, matter-of-fact manner, which quickly instills a sense of normalcy in the niche subject. Rather than describing the sensory details of the dumpsters, Eighner focuses on the “practical art of Dumpster diving” to prevent isolating the intended audience from his own experiences. The detached, instructional manual-like tone allows the reader to almost forget that Eighner is writing about such an unusual topic. However, a shift occurs when the tone moves from a sense of detachment to intense distaste when describing the “can scroungers” (405). Eighner states that he “hate[s] the can scroungers” because of their carelessness, disruption of the scavenger code, and desperation for money to only buy drugs or alcohol (405). Thus, Eighner effectively creates a hierarchy within dumpster divers, separating the scavengers, people who “hate to see good stuff go to waste,” from the scroungers, those who “lay waste to everything in their path” (406). This final distinction makes it clear to the reader that there are differences between dumpster divers: the respectful scavengers are the ones who are trying their best to make an honest living without bothering others, while the can scroungers fit the reader’s preconceived image of the homeless. The ultimate result is that the tonal shift allows the reader to fully understand Eighner’s position as a dumpster diver and accept his words as credible and honest.
Thus, Lars Eighner’s “On Dumpster Diving” is successful in reducing the social separation between himself and the target audience in order to convey his concluding thoughts about materialism and the affluent while simultaneously retaining his credibility. His conclusion includes a realization that ideas are “longer-lived than other material things” and a bold statement comparing his experience with material abundance to the wealthy’s ability to consume what they please. The most impactful statement, however, is Eighner’s pity for those who go to great lengths to obtain material items. By writing in an academic fashion, he is able to equate his intellect to that of his audience. By writing in a straightforward and honest manner, Eighner garners the reader’s trust and dissipates stereotypes associated with the homeless. He is able to convincingly make these statements because of his established ethos throughout the essay. Ultimately, Eighner presents a very different perspective on a lifestyle that may not be respected by others and in doing so dispels the preconceived notions of dumpster diving.
McQuade, Donald. "Lars Eighner." Resources for Teaching The Writer's Presence: A Pool of Readings. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2015. 400-09. Print.