‘Unproductive and Uninhabited’: Wastes of Place and Time

July 31, 2011

A version of this paper was given at the Rubbish Symposium, held on 30th July 2011 at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Part of my aim with this paper is to suggest that the topic of waste and the things we call waste should be treated expansively. The logically excessive, the semantically superfluous should, I think, assist our exploration of what waste is, rather than be treated as obstacles to overcome. I’m keen to avoid the denigrated and trashy sense of ‘mere’ waste and I want, instead, to tune into the fundamental and formative importance of waste in giving measure to our lives.

I must admit that this paper is born out a frustration with how the topic of waste seems to me to have become rather limited, closed down by a kind of discursive echolalia; I’d like to criticise a set of concepts or ways of thinking about discarded things that to me just don’t seem quite adequate. Chief among these, and most recurrent in recent writings on the subject of rubbish, is the regurgitated mantra that waste is “matter is out place”, a definition first given by Lord Palmerston in the mid-nineteenth century and incubated by the British anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her book Purity and Danger.

Douglas’ book is about purity, hygiene and notions of the dirty, and these important concepts have since migrated into more general understandings of rubbish in the social sciences and humanities. I prefer to use the word waste to describe the things that have, for whatever reason, been leftover from use or for which use has been precluded. My preference serves certain rhyming and rhythmic purposes but ‘waste’ also seems the only word capable of resounding beyond the echo chamber that I think academic understandings of rubbish have entered into.

For Douglas dirt is a spatial problem, a question of not what stuff is but where it is. It is a definition that is an outcome of spatial constructivism, of how we organise our environment. “Dirt”, writes Douglas, “is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements.”[1]  Rejecting things brings order. Displacing things is a sign of order taking place. Dirt is only dirty in certain places, when it is out of its correct position. Just as faeces, for example, is considered dirty when it is in our kitchens but not when it is in our bodies, so it is that our classification of waste depends on the location of objects. Originally published in 1966 and in print ever since, Douglas’ intuition about finding order by rejecting stuff has led to a large body of work that has defined waste in similar terms. Waste forms a denigrated, subordinate position within a spatial taxonomy dominated by binaries – clean and dirty, wanted and rejected, inside and outside. Waste is always to be found on side of the subordinate pole of these binaries; founded on a spatial distribution of things, it is our necessary negative in the attempt to order our surroundings.[2] The subtext to all this is that waste is a bad thing, a thing to be avoided.

Here are just a few examples, all taken from recent publications, that show Douglas’ theory seeping into more general discussions and definitions of waste.

John Scanlan, having cited Douglas, concludes that,

“daily acts of cleaning, scrubbing and concealing that we routinely indulge in conspire to remove the dirt, to hold the garbaging of the self at bay, and to put some order over our affairs, our bodies (and so on), we must recognize the symbolism of garbage is perversely found in its opposite of order and cleanliness, in the objects and arrangements that temporarily conceal it […]”[3]

Gillian Whiteley:

“All dirt is relative. Clearly, ‘matter out of place’ is ‘trash’ in one diverse modality of living – and treasure – or matter in place ­– in a different interlinked, coeval one.”[4]

Sophie Gee:

“Waste, even if it does not putrefy, is abject because it is characterized by misplaced, animating excess […] Waste is a form of pollution, marked as such by having participated in a process; that process is one wherein substance stops being acceptable or even valuable and becomes unwanted or taboo. This is important, because as Mary Douglas pointed out in Purity and Danger, pollution exists when a substance has crossed a border and become threatening to the system to which it now, improperly, belongs.”[5]

I’d like to summarise this confluence between dirt and a more general definition of waste in this way: the will-to-order, to which waste plays a malleable and objective antagonist, makes explicit the connection between the legibility of refuse and our acts of refusal. These are, I admit, definitions of waste that makes a lot of sense for those preoccupied with mobile, urban or bodily wastes and their method of disposal. But I have one or two conjectures that should caution against this too friendly elision between Douglas’ theory of dirt and its application to the concept of waste.

Not all waste is dirty, it not always dangerous, contagious or abject. A sense of contagion might be just one among many reasons for disposing something, but in my view it is not a necessary condition of waste. When I finish reading a newspaper I might throw it out, not because it is filthy nor because I consider it a threat to my sense of propriety, but because I do not, will not or cannot read it any longer. Indeed, this newspaper might well hang about my flat for months prior to me throwing it in the bin. I can think of it as rubbish long before I put it ‘in’ or ‘out’ of one place or another.

Secondly, and related to my first point, it should be noted that we recognise waste everywhere and not just in the places where we think it ‘should not’ be. We can find rubbish in the gutter, in the bin, on the living room floor, anywhere, everywhere; it is not territorially discrete, indeed, it is often felt to exceed any one place. Within the idea that waste is “matter out of place” lies the problematic suggestion that place is always bounded, discrete or delimited, and that place and matter are somehow separable. It is, I think, this separation of matter from place that makes the ‘matter-out-of-place-paradigm’ particularly unhelpful.

The idea that objects of waste are relatively small things contained within relatively large places can be challenged from a variety of angles – not least the way in which we use the word ‘waste’ to describe places. The earliest recorded uses of the word ‘waste’ invariably accounted for an enormous and empty sense of territorial separation, a depopulated landscape. As the OED describes, waste can mean an “uninhabited […] and uncultivated country; a wild and desolate region, a desert, [a] wilderness”.[6] The early uses of the word reflects its Latinate etymology: we take ‘waste’ from vastus, giving waste the same Latin root as the word ‘vast’ and meaning spaces that are void, immense or enormous – waste, in this light, is already a matter of place, overwhelming the spatial borders or boundaries we hope to set for it. Wastelands, wild and desolate regions – places are and become waste. In these situations, the presence of waste is not defined by its location as such, but a capacity to give co-ordinates, to be that place rather than be passive thing to be moved from one position to another.

As you might have guessed, the idea that waste is “matter out of place” strikes me as a little too tactile, hand-held, conservative; it loses sight, I think, of the vast and epic nature of rubbish that I have just hinted at. Douglas’ terms might be useful for describing moments when waste represents a resistance to my drive to cleanse and purify my environment, but deficient when considering the broader philosophical, temporal and theological dimensions of obsolete things.

What we might call the spatial bias of contemporary theories of waste confuses the crucial influence that time has in manufacturing and organising things. If I discard something it is not simply because I feel compelled to order my environment into hygienic allotments of clean space – I can think of quite a few situations where this is neither practical nor desirable. Waste occurs as I encounter the time of things, their propensity to coincide with my actions and projects, their capacity to be superfluous to those same actions and projects; in short, I think waste makes and gives a measure of time. I hope to expand the notion of waste, then, by considering its temporal effects and, by doing so, consider a few examples when waste is mobilised to mean something quite different to the disgusting, the abject or the dirty.

I think we’re all familiar with how ruination is a popular feature of the apocalyptic imaginary; visions of waste can mark the end of a time, a place or a civilisation. There are so many literary, scriptural, political or cinematic examples of this, I’ve chosen just two of my favourites. I rather like the moment when the two “discarded fathers” of Shakespeare’s King Lear – Lear and the Earl of Gloucester – meet one another on a waste land, the moor that dominates Act 4. During this intense conglomeration of differing wastes, Gloucester hears the now mad King Lear and exclaims, “O ruined nature, this great world / Shall so wear out to naught.”[7] Gloucester sees in Lear’s ruin the end of the natural world, now cursed to decay and dissolve, waste marks an end. Alternatively, consider this extraordinary painting by Joseph Gandy, showing Sir John Soane’s Bank of England in an apocalyptic state of ruination. It was a painting commissioned the same year that work on Soane’s building was completed; this wasted condition provides a means to articulate the building’s finitude, its projected end.

Joseph Gandy, Soane’s Bank of England as a Ruin (1830), John Soane Museum, London

But this end-orientated temporality of waste is actually a little more flexible; it does not simply mark an end to people, places or things. The vast etymology of waste I outlined earlier suggests places felt to be so large, empty or lacking in utility that they bring to bear an immobile, territorial waste out of joint with the time of human activity and proportion. This is matter that has never got going, a waste that stands in advance of our activities, a waste with which to begin.

Consider the Judeo-Christian belief, described in the Book of Genesis, of how the creation and distribution of the earth’s resources was founded upon a formless void. Genesis 1:2 can and often is translated as, “And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”[8] Variants in translation suggest that the earth was “without form or void”[9] or was “formless and empty”[10] but, semantically and etymologically, all conclude the original state of the earth prior to God’s intervention was one dominated by a vast and uninhabitable conception of waste that medieval uses of the word then tended to uphold: “a wild and desolate region, a desert, [a] wilderness.”

Some of the variation we find in English-language translations of this biblical waste are due to the peculiar and rather idiomatic Hebrew expression, ּובהוּ תהו tohû wābohû, which Judaic scripture employs to describe the condition of the earth in this ambiguous and desolate condition. There remains considerable debate about how to interpret and translate tohû wābohû but, following the work of David Tsumura, we may make the following distinction: tohû means a “desert” or “waste land” and bohû means “empty” or “uninhabited place”. Tsumura concludes that tohû wābohû should be understood as “unproductive and uninhabited”.[11] At the beginning we find an environment separate and distinct from all that is human, at the beginning we find a time that does not produce.

I think we can take something from this rather emphatic, Judeo-Christian view, and find a definition of waste that is not reducible to a particular spatial or physical quality, though these can often be important, and, instead, stress the sense of temporal separation structured by that which is unproductive or uninhabited. Whether it be marking ends or beginnings, the time of waste is a time that separates and divides, it is not the time of our plans, our lives, our ambitions, it is a time beyond our control, it exceeds. For instance, far from being a lowly and despised object, we can reassess the formative role that temporalities of waste play in religious activity. Giorgio Agamben has defined the religious, not as something that binds entities together but as that which maintains a separation between things sacred and profane: “Religion can be defined as that which removes things, places, animals, or people from common use and transfers them to a separate sphere.”[12] Put beyond common use, the reversible condition of waste might be said to fall on the side of the sacred. As Paul tells God’s elect in Corinth, “we are the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world” (1Co 4:13). Before this paper becomes a sermon on the religious significance of waste, I want to stress that not every encounter with waste is a religious one but that waste does have this sense of separation from the time of human use or what I like to call use-time. The tohû wābohû of Genesis, among other things, reflects a vision of matter at a point of absolute separation from the human, a world that falls beyond every possible human project, plan or ambition, unencumbered by the teleological imperatives of human use and command.

Yet, when considered waste, cigarette ends on the street, the oil that gathers on the beach, the stubble left after the harvest, all these things are marked not by their displacement from place or time – I seem to locate these things quite easily –, but they are marked by a separation from the purposive and teleological temporality of human activity. This is the temporal condition of waste, it might be temporary and it is, indeed, reversible. But as waste, having ended or never having fully begun, these are things or places that lack the anticipation of utile and temporal ends, they linger, they remain, they are time’s leftovers.

I’m going to end here – with the suggestion that waste might be quite useful in making time and in keeping time. It’s not just a thing to be shuffled about, in the Punch and Judy show of modern commerce and sociology.


[1] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo (1966; Abingdon: Routledge, 2002), 44. My Italics.

[2] See, for example, Dominique Laporte, History of Shit, trans. Nadia Benabid and Rodolphe el–Khoury (1978; Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002); Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, Bathroom, the Kitchen, and the Aesthetics of Waste (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997); William A. Cohen and Ryan Johnson, Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2005); Ben Campkin and Rosie Cox (eds.) Dirt: New Geographies of Cleanliness and Contamination (London: I. B. Tauris, 2008)

[3] John Scanlan On Garbage (London: Reaktion, 2005), 43.

[4] Gillian Whiteley, Junk: Art and the Politics of Trash (London: I. B. Tauris, 2011), 24.

[5] Sophie Gee, Making Waste: Leftovers and the Eighteenth-Century Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2010), 9, 10.

[6] The Oxford English Dictionary: Second Edition. 1989.

[7] William Shakespeare, “The Tragedy of King Lear,” in The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition, eds. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997), F.4.6.130–131.

[8] S. R. Driver, The Book of Genesis (1904; London: Methuen, 1948). Others have “a formless waste”, see E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible: Genesis (New York: Doubleday, 1983), 3.

[9] Revised Standard Version

[10] New International Version

[11] David Toshio Tsumura, The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2: A Linguistic Investigation (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), 31, 42.

[12] Agamben, Profanations, 74.

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2 Responses to “‘Unproductive and Uninhabited’: Wastes of Place and Time”

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