Out of the hot mess and into the dumpster fire?
If there’s one thing that can be said for the times we live in, it’s that it has been an unusually fruitful era when it comes to words to refer to a catastrophe. The first decade of the twenty-first century brought phrases like epic fail and hot mess to prominence, and now here in the US we find ourselves in the midst of a presidential election cycle that has been variously called a train wreck, a clusterfuck, a shitshow, and, perhaps most evocatively of all, a dumpster fire.
Although we see a fairly steady rise and fall in frequency through 2013 and 2014, usage runs unusually high between the beginning of last summer and the end of 2015. Curiously enough, Donald Trump just happened to announce his campaign for the presidency on June 16th of last year.
Which was the first dumpster fire?
Trying to determine exactly when and how this sense of the term came into existence, however, is difficult for a couple of reasons. In the first place, waste containers do seem to really catch on fire with alarming frequency in the United States, so the vast majority of evidence for the phrase actually refers to literal dumpster fires. Secondly, the figurative meaning’s meteoric rise in visibility is inseparable from widespread online use of an image macro featuring a green dumpster with a terrifically implausible conflagration blazing from its top. Part of what makes the Internet as unpredictably creative and innovative is just this kind of hive-mind collectivity, but, in this case, it comes at the cost of obscuring who first thought to exploit the unusually cathartic absurdity of watching stuff you didn’t want any way go up in flames.
So, while we may never know where exactly this meaning of the phrase began, one very early example can be found in a movie review that appeared in the Arizona Republic, critically panning the 2003 remake of the classic horror film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In it, movie critic Bill Muller wrote, “This bloody, exploitative mess is the cinematic equivalent of a dumpster fire—stinky but insignificant.”
Why has the term caught on?
I would argue that, in the thirteen years since, a shift has taken place that has increased our cultural tolerance for and even enjoyment in a good old fashioned dumpster fire. What it shares with all the other, faddish terms lately coined to describe extremely bad situations is a specific emphasis on spectacle, on the inexpressible thing about a situation gone horribly wrong that makes it weirdly captivating. It’s a feeling encapsulated well by phenomena like car-crash rubbernecking or the perennial appeal of movies about natural disasters (hence terms like car crash and shitstorm as well). Paradoxically enough, there is a strange kind of satisfaction to be derived from watching something fall apart.
In the tradition of western thought, this experience is referred to as the sublime, probably most famously defined by the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant as the contemplation of nature’s absolute greatness and power exceeding anything the human mind could ever imagine. For Kant, along with other thinkers and artists of the time, the sublime was encapsulated not only in forces of nature like stormy seas and earthquakes but also in the unique political turmoil of the time, above all that of the French Revolution. What links all these experiences together is the manifestation of such extraordinary forces in the world that their outcome is literally unimaginable.