This essay explores the cultural economy of commercial waste. Drawing from ethnographic research with Dumpster divers in Seattle, Washington, and other cities with comparable waste streams, it explores the ways in which waste may constitute a distinct cultural-economic logic with the capacity to produce value. In particular, I argue that massive quantities of unspoiled food and other discarded commercial goods with persistent use values constitute a kind of abject capital, the economic significance of which is precisely that it is removed from circulation. Drawing on Giorgio Agamben’s description of the nature of political exclusion, and Julia Kristeva’s work on abjection, I locate this abject capital at the intersection of cultural logics of capitalist exchange and consumer aesthetics. Quarantined in exceptional spaces like the retail or wholesale Dumpster, its economic and cultural value is paradoxically evacuated and preserved in the imprint of its absence from the market and as such is conferred upon those goods remaining upon the shelves. Exception and abjection, therefore, respectively describe the biopolitical and affective dimensions of waste and the preconditions of commodity exchange. I conclude that abject capital may thereby constitute both a functional boundary to capital and a threshold for the inception of those forms of life, such as Dumpster diving and squatting, that are anathema to the dominant market calculus.

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