Creativity · Teaching

Cardboard Counterpublics and Collective Creative Pleasure


Bibliographical books are thought to transcend their bindings. I can still, in accord with standard bibliographic thinking, take any book on my shelves, rip its binding off, and have it rebound without changing its bibliographical identity.

-Joseph Dane, What is a Book? (150)

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For cartoneras, the cardboard binding is inseparable from the identity of the book. What would a cartonera book be without its cardboard? The matter of the cartonera book helps us to understand the social transformation of the movement in relation to the national depression. Yiyi Jambo, a cartonera collective in Paraguay, writes in its manifesto about the cultural and affective possibilities of cardboard:

“Turn cardboard into books into life into art into bread.”

“The joy of cardboard is a fiction that exists.”

“Invent the cardboard book-dildo.”

What do we know about cardboard? It is inexpensive, it is easy to obtain, it is matte, it is usually brown. Anyone who has ever tried to break down a large cardboard box knows that it can be unwieldy and difficult to fold; it does not like to stay folded. Craig Epplin writes that “these books are often unwieldy, somewhat difficult to keep open and physically read. Cardboard makes a poor cover, and the paper is often clumsily folded against its natural grain” (Late Book Culture in Argentina 64). The matter matters for the cartonera book.

Cardboard was a popular material around The Bubbler at Madison Public Library when I was there, and probably still is.

The neoliberal adjustment packages introduced in Argentina in the 1990s devastated many economically: over this time, 40,000 people went to work as cartoneros (or wastepickers), whereas before the economic depression, there had been around 10,000 doing this work at night. Headlines alone help to tell the story of this transformation: “The Other Nightlife in Buenos Aires: The Story of Argentina’s Cartoneros” (Verge Magazine, 2010). The cartoneros rode into the city on a middle-of-the-night train dubbed the “ghost train” for its desolation, searched through trash bags on the streets, and sold a number of materials, including cardboard, for a pittance. The cardboard is plentiful, as the Yerba Mala Cartonera manifesto goes: “Cardboard is today’s mark of urban consumption and unnecessary waste (consider the seas of cardboard on the trashed beaches of large cities)” (Akademia Cartonera 135). The economic depression of Argentina is not the only national depression in which cardboard came to play a role. In fact, in the Great Depression in the United States (beginning in 1929 and lasting about a decade), cardboard was used to line the inside of shoes when the soles wore out; when used this way, it was dubbed “Hoover Leather”.

Many cartoneros are undocumented. Derrida has suggested that the interchangeability of these terms “undocumented,” “paperless,” and “alien,” lay bare a relation between materiality and subjectivity, that to be without documents or paper means that one is other, and that it is documents and paper that legitimize one’s place in the public sphere. (At the same time, it is interesting to point out that when workplaces move toward electronic-only operations, they boast about “going paperless”.) The collection work of the cartoneros was illegal until the 1990s. Now, they are encouraged to join co-operatives and to register with authorities; those who do are issued work gloves and reflectors. (With legitimacy, of course, comes increased regulation.)

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Cartonera covers are often made with stencils, like this one from the cartonera collection at University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, started by Paloma Celis Carbajal.

Renu Bora has written that there are two kinds of texture: “texture” and then “texxture.” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, expanding on Bora’s use of this theory, describes the latter one, “texxture,” as “the kind of texture that is dense with offered information about how, substantively, historically, materially, it came into being.” In other words, texxture is a way to describe a material that bears the history of its body. This is in contrast to “texture,” which withholds this information in what Sedgwick describes as a “willed erasure of its history”. I propose reading the cardboard of cartoneras through texxture, in that the materiality contains and transforms its history. This in fact is one opportunity for study made possible through the fields of book history and new materiality; as Jonathan Senchyne has written in relation to the Combat Paper Project, “Paper, normally considered a mere support for written expression, itself performs the work of reappropriating and resignifying the experiences held within its repurposed cloth.” In this case of not paper but cardboard, the experiences held within the recycled cardboard are ones of political disappointment and public depression.

Cardboard deteriorates, or maybe it is more useful to say that it transforms. This, too, is significant. Indeed, many of the cartonera collectives write in their manifestos of an identification with the present moment, describe their project as ephemeral and shifting. Even in its other uses, cardboard precipitates the transformation of something to another thing; take, for example, compost. Adding cardboard to compost provides a rich source of carbon that feeds the microorganisms that turn food waste into nutrient-rich compost. In order to be effective in this way, though, the cardboard has to change forms; simply tossing a cardboard box into the compost will not work; the cardboard ought to be broken into small pieces or shredded, and turned into the compost to mix. This, too, is part of our cardboard semiotics. There is already something in cardboard that accompanies transformation. When we think of cardboard, we think of recycling, reusing, using again. Yiyi Jambo (Asunción, Paraguay) declares in its manifesto, “It’s not necessary to keep plundering nature just to make art. Among the detritus abound cardboard and other remains for fueling the invisible mambo of the visible, for cartonerism to keep sprouting up without end and without repetition.”

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My rabbits also take pleasure in cardboard.

There are several different kinds of cardboard. For its part, Wikipedia declares, “Often the term “cardboard” is avoided because it does not define any particular material.” The kind used for cartonera books is corrugated, meaning between its layers it has ridges, and without shine on either side. The haptic experience of cardboard is a different way of making and encountering a book; cardboard does not feel or fold or stay folded the way that conventional bindings do. It feels different. This different feeling is central to the matter. The book workers of the cartoneras could be understood as “produc[ing] a reparative experience of depression by literally engaging the senses in a way that makes things feel different” (Cvetkovich 177). This builds on Walter Benjamin and Barbero’s work of reading social change through sensory change and vice versa. Here is an excerpt from the manifesto of Bilbija Cartonera that connects these possibilities (emphasis mine):

“The scissors on the screens will never cut someone nor make a body bleed, but the ones that are used in the workshops of the cartoneras could. The colors on the screen never leave spots on the hands. The temperas of the cartoneras always do. To work together, to pass glue, brushes, inks from hand to hand, to touch the body, human or textual, to hear the voice of a friend, these experiences are what all of the members of the cartoneras identify as invaluable, unique, precious. It is what brings the constant sensation of festivity, passion, the carnivalesque spirit that transgresses authoritarian, economic, social, and political injustices.”

(Cartonera 31)

I read the material aspects of cardboard—easily available, inexpensive, corrugated, matte, difficult to fold, tending to deteriorate—as a new sensorium for those who encounter it, from the waste-picker to the book-worker (sometimes the same person) to the eventual reader. I’m interested in this cardboard counterpublic.

Counterpublics and Collective Pleasure

One way to read the work of the cartonera collectives is through José Muñoz’s disidentification: “a survival strategy that works within and outside the dominant public sphere simultaneously” (Muñoz 5). Javier Barilolo, a founder of Eloísa Cartonera, writes, “In our minds, distribution neither aligned us nor isolated us from the public, and it was done without mediators.” (Akademia Cartonera 49) Disidentification is a stance that, when assumed, Muñoz writes, “contribute[s] to the function of a counterpublic sphere” (7), a liminal space that presents an alternative to the public sphere. Crucial to disidentification is its middle ground between identification and counter-identification; it “tries to transform a cultural logic from within, always laboring to enact permanent structural change while at the same time valuing the importance of local or everyday struggles of resistance” (11-12). The cartonera movement does not seek to separate from the everyday materials or overthrow the work of the local cartoneros, but rather, to transform each: the cardboard into books, and the waste-pickers into book-makers. The cartonera movement harnesses everyday materials and labor to enact social and affective change and energize people.

The cardboard counterpublic of cartoneras is deeply tied to affect of melancholy and depression. This is central to the very atmosphere from which the cartonera movement emerged; in my reading of the scholarship on politics, culture, and aesthetics in late twentieth century Latin America and Argentina, a word that I encountered over and over was “disenchantment.” When Munoz writes, “Like a melancholic subject holding onto a lost object, a disidentifying subject works to hold onto this object and invest it with new life,” (12) I am reminded of cartonero workers and, in this case, a found object, cardboard, an excess waste byproduct produced by capitalism, for which the cartonero searches through trash bags… and invest it with new life, by selling it to a cartonera, and even joining the cartonera as a book worker.

I have mentioned that the cardboard counterpublic is touched by disenchantment and melancholy. Now I want to expand on that through Ann Cvetkovich’s idea of depression as a public feeling, which the more I read, the more it seemed to me an interesting way of understanding the role of cartoneras. Through Cvetkovich’s involvement with a group called the Feel Tank Chicago, the slogan of which is “Depressed? It Might Be Political!” (Cvetkovich 3), she began to think about “political depression”—depression not as a strictly private pathology experienced by an individual, nor as a strictly economic state of a nation, but as an interrelation between the two; as “a category that manages and medicalizes the affects associated with keeping up with corporate culture and the market economy, or with being completely neglected by it” (12). She is interested in “how capitalism feels,” (11) which seems to be so much of what the cartonera movement offers a response to, and in the ways that a Marxist experience of alienation through labor is felt by an individual, through “the loss of connection—to the body, to a meaningful sense of work, to relations with others—that characterizes depression.” (192-3) I connect her emphasis on the feeling of political depression—reading politics through affect—with Bora’s “texxture,” reading history through materiality. And all of this comes together in the cardboard counterpublics. Through Cvetkovich, we can read cardboard as an “abject form” of the “marketplace of commodities” (185) and the cartonera movement as a collective transformation of that abject form that replaces alienation with connection, that replaces disenchantment with pleasure.

Cvetkovich’s idea of public depression leads the way for us to consider public responses to depression. If we understand, as Cvetkovich does, depression to be a block or impasse, then it follows that it may be best addressed or transformed not through individual medicalized treatment, but rather, in creative or unconventional breakthroughs that for Cvetkovich are always social. Cvetkovich asks us to “reimagine therapy in ways other than one-on-one sessions delivered through expensive or managed health-care systems” (110). I want to make explicit a connection between Cvetkovich’s understanding of depression as a public experience and Coronado’s discussion of happiness as a public experience—la felicidad publica. The work of cartoneras is happiness in public, and it seems to be an effective counter to public depression. It is true that the cartoneras themselves seem to understand their work as one of finding ways to counter depression: “Down with the vogue of DEPRESSION and STRESS,” says the Yiyi Jambo cartonera manifesto. And in the Eloísa Cartonera manifesto: “There are so many of us in the carto… and so much happiness.”

In this space between disenchanted private individuals and an economically depressed national public, cartoneras provide an alternative that is built on collectivity, pleasure, and transformation. This is the crux of the cardboard counterpublic. Cvetkovich writes that “the intimate rituals of daily life, where depression is embedded, need to be understood as a public arena, or alternatively as a semipublic sphere, that is, a location that doesn’t always announce itself or get recognized as public but which nonetheless functions as such” (156). Reading this alongside the Sarita Cartonera manifesto, which describes its work as providing “a link between the public and the private spheres” (76), it is easy to see how the cartonera movement has developed into a cardboard counterpublic in so many countries across Latin America.

I want to turn to a question about the risks and possibilities of considering the cartonera movement as social art therapy for depressing public times. Cvetkovich uses a term “craftivism” to describe a kind of working with one’s hands that is social, political, and yes, therapeutic. Craftivism, which may seem like an annoying portmanteau, describes the link between the cartonera movement, public depression, and political disappointment. “Crafting is a form of body politics” (168) against mass production, Cvetkovich writes, and the social aspect of the crafting circles she describes does seem to echo the literary salons of a Habermasian public sphere, except that this one is filled with capitalism’s excess in terms of both material (cardboard) and workers (cartoneros). “It’s possible to talk or listen while the hands do the work,” Cvetkovich writes. “Crafting’s basis in collectivity and its connections to working-class culture have long been part of its social power” (176). Cartoneras themselves describe their work as a body politic against mass production, as in the Yiyi Jambo manifesto, which refers to their books as “invenshuns instead of copies and books of all shapes and sizes.” Inventions that are not mass productions at all, and the description of the variety of their books echoes that inclusive body-positive slogan: bodies of all shapes and sizes.

What I have hoped to compile are some ways to understand how cartoneras intervene in the alienation between producer and produced, “mak[ing] their labor more social” (Cvetkovich 173) and, as the Bilbija Cartonera writes in its manifesto, “accumulate[ing] readers instead of capital” (Akademia Cartonera 30). Many of the cartoneras are explicit and intentional in their manifestos about creating a social alternative, one that is more in tune with the political disappointments of its readers: “Cartonera books are Latin American. Conventional books are for capitalist societies” (Javier of Eloísa Cartonera in Akademia Cartonera, 53). And Sarita Cartonera writes: “We try to get close to the reader, for the reader to get close to us, and to avoid the solemnity that we have become used to” (76). This intimacy, refusal of solemnity, and identification with the unconventional are the ways in which the cardboard counterpublic responds to, and transforms, public depression and political disappointment through collective pleasure.

This is a revised excerpt of an essay I wrote in 2014 titled “Cardboard Counterpublics: Cartoneras and/as Collective Pleasure in and out of Argentina,” for Jonathan Senchyne’s History of the Book graduate seminar at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Reading List/Resources

Barbero, Jesús Martín. “Art/Communication/Technicity at Century’s End.” Brooksbank Jones, Anny, and Ronaldo Munck. Cultural Politics In Latin America. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 2000.

Bilbija, Ksenija. Akademia Cartonera: A Primer of Latin American Cartonera Publishers = Akademia Cartonera : Un Abc De Las Editoriales Cartoneras En América Latina. Madison, Wis: Parallel Press, 2009. Print.

Bora, Renu. “Outing Texture.” Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction. Ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1997.

“Cartonera Publishers / Editoriales Cartoneras: Reading Lists.” University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries Research Guide. <;

Cartonera Publishers Database. University of Wisconsin-Madison Digital Collections. <;

Coronado, Raúl. A World Not to Come: A History of Latino Writing and Print Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression : a Public Feeling. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.

Dane, Joseph. What is a Book? Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012.

Derrida, Jacques. Paper Machine. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Epplin, Craig. Late Book Culture in Argentina. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

Epplin, Craig. “New Media, Cardboard, and Community in Contemporary Buenos Aires.” Hispanic Review, vol. 75, no. 4, New Media and Hispanic Studies (Autumn, 2007), pp. 385-398.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications : Queers of Color and the Performance of  Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, and Adam Frank. Touching Feeling : Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

San Roman, Gabriel. “”Seeds of Resistance” Collective Marks 5th Anniversary with New Cartonera Zine.” OC Weekly. N.p., 25 Mar. 2016. Web. 29 June 2016. <;.

Senchyne, Jonathan. “The People’s Republic of Paper: Rag Paper and Material Memory. In Media Res. 2010.

For Teaching

Critical teaching of art necessitates an awareness of how often art classrooms appropriate cultural practices and imagery, while erasing or generalizing unique histories and meanings. (See: dreamcatchers.) Teaching with cartoneras can be ideal for bilingual/bicultural literacy instruction and culturally relevant pedagogy; please give your students the information to understand that they are engaging in an act of repurposing and publishing that is used in specific contexts in specific Latin American countries, one that has a unique meaning and a particular history. I encourage you to always teach cultural context with as much specificity as possible, and understand what cultural appropriation is and how to avoid it in your teaching practice.

Berg, Nichole. “Cartoneras Meet the Common Core.” Teaching Tolerance. Southern Poverty Law Center, 21 Jan. 2014. Web. 29 June 2016. <;.

Glavin, Chris. “Cultural Appropriation within the Classroom.” K12 Academics. N.p., 2011. Web. 15 July 2016. <;.

“Lesson Five: Constructing Our Own Cartoneras.” From Trash to Treasure. <>

“Making Cartonera Books in Your School or Classroom.” Books Del Sur (The Bilingual Teacher Resource). <;

Martinez et al. “Biliteracy Through Cartoneras.” Madison Metropolitan School District. 2014. <;

Supplies List

  • Cardboard (clean, flat, enough for each person to have a section that, when folded, is slightly larger than their folded story on paper)
  • Paint (I like fluorescent tempera paint for this)
  • Stencils (optional, to be used with paint for the cover)
  • Paintbrushes
  • Poems or stories written by each student
  • Paper
  • Glue (once the story is folded, glue the back of the back sheet down to the inside of the back cover of the cardboard)