Trafigura ‘to pay out over waste’

Probo Koala

A slight diversion from my usual interests, but this is too rich an issue to pass over. The BBC’s Liz MacKean has reported the dodgy-dealings of the oil-trader, Trafigura. MacKean claims that the company took waste from a ship called Probo Koala and illegally dumped it in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The news comes as a UN report has said there is “strong prima facie evidence” that death and injuries reported in Ivory Coast are related to the dumping.  This waste had been generated by the oil-trading multi-national,  which has bases in London, Amsterdam and Geneva.

You can watch McKean’s report on the BBC website. I found it particularly interesting because Trafigura’s waste came from oil, a process of extracting a functioning substance which produces an inevitable externality. Apparently, this process of extraction left a nasty sulphurous, toxic mixture that Trafigura did their nefarious best to dump on the citizens of the Ivory Coast. The reliance on this word ‘toxic’  in  McKean’s report is so marvellously ambiguous and caries with it such incredibly malignant overtones, that it’s not hard to see why it has been taken up in the financial community to describe ‘non-performing’ financial derivatives. The extraction and subsequent trading of credit leaves a residue that, for instance, becomes deeply problematic when a housing and financial bubble bursts.

More generally, I don’t think that the appearance of Trafigura’s waste on the Ivory Coast is unrelated to the broader usages of the term ‘toxicity’. What is exposed in both situations, both in Africa and the financial instruments which determine  how oil is traded in this region, are the extremes to which people and their employers will go in order to be rid of their waste. Perhaps that might sound a bit trite, but the point ought to be made. Hiding things away where no one will find them is one of the classic responses to objects that are thought to be beyond use, ‘non-performing’. I’m sure that Trafigura’s toxic assets will continue to haunt them for as long as they try and sweep them under the carpet, whether that carpet is in Holland or the Ivory Coast or wherever.

Cadaver tombs: funerary art and architecture

Transi de Rene de Chalon, Ligier Richier, 1547
Transi de Rene de Chalon, Ligier Richier (1547). Church of Saint-Étienne, Bar-le-Duc

According to late medieval theology, man from his beginning is ‘a foule thing, litel and pore, … a stynkynge slime, and after that a sake ful of donge, and at laste mete for wormes’ (Quoted in Owst, 1926: 341). For modern historians of religion, such as Eamon Duffy, such rhetoric found its visual equivalents in the rise to popularity, particularly among ecclesiastics, of so called transi or cadaver tombs. These tombs “portrayed the deceased as a decaying corpse, the skin stretched tight of grinning teeth, starting bones, and empty eye-sockets, the stomach bursting open to reveal a seething horror of worms and unclean creatures” (Duffy, 1993: 306). This might all be true, but cadaver tombs also make this inevitable and somewhat theatrically imagined decay strangely beautiful. Part vanitas part memorial, Ligier Richer’s tomb for Prince of Orange René de Chalons (above), who died in battle in 1544 at age 25, provides a wierd mixture of religious devotion, Counter-Reformation bombast, and architectural memorialisation. This French example, at Church of Saint-Étienne, Bar-le-Duc, has a little more swagger than the tomb of Sir John Golafre (d.1442) at Fyfield in Oxfordshire (below). The split level tomb was a traditional aberation of the recumbent effigy, giving a marvellous before and after (after-before, after-after?). It’s a bit like Grand Designs, in reverse, for the human body.

Tomb of Sir John Golafre (d.1442), Fyfield, Oxfordshire
Tomb of Sir John Golafre (d.1442), Fyfield, Oxfordshire

Agamben, Toys and Waste

Tinguely's works bring together notions waste, play and art
Jean Tinguely's works bring together notions waste, play and art

The temporal structure of toys has much in common with the time of waste, or waste-time. Here’s a quotation from Giorgio Agamben on the quality of toys: “The toy is a materialization of the historicity contained in objects, extracting it by means of a particular manipulation. While the value and meaning of the antique object and the document are functions of their age – that is, of the making present and rendering tangible a relatively remote past – the toy, dismembering and distorting the past or miniaturizing the present – playing as much on diachrony as on synchrony – makes present and rendering tangible human temporality in itself, the pure differential margin between the ‘once’ and the ‘no longer’” (1993: 71–72). We find a reprise of this line of enquiry in a later work, Profanations, which gives Agamben occasion to approach the problem of the sacred. Agamben defines sacred or religious objects as those that belong to the gods alone, removed from the “free use and commerce of men.”   Profanation describes the practice of taking what is sacred and allowing it to pass across a threshold into human use.  To profane an object is thus to reverse the sacrificial process that removes an object from use, it neutralizes and collapses the spaces that separate human and sacred activity.  For Agamben, the division between the sacred and the profane is the basic requirement for religious activity, “there is no religion without separation … [it is] not what unites men and gods but what ensures they remain distinct” (2007: 74, 75). The division of objects according to their place in time is precisely how waste is constructed, manufacturing and manufactered by a certain kind of time. Waste objects also depend upon the “differential margin between the ‘once’ and the ‘no longer’” and become distinct by their seperation from human use. Somehow, toys, relics, and waste share this temporal structure – distinct from yet intimately structured by a time of separation.

Waste Words and Throwaways – A Reading of Joycean Disjecta

Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding, but resisting, began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it’s not too big bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! Costive. One tabloid of cascara sagrada. Life might be so. It did not move or touch him but it was something quick and neat. Print anything now. Silly season. He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell. Neat certainly. […] He tore away half the prize story sharply and wiped himself with it (U 4.506–13, 507; UP 83–84, 85).[1]

The temporality of literature is placed under an ironic microscope towards the end of ‘Calypso’, both literature’s use and functionality are playfully distorted. Bloom’s shit in the outhouse and his concurrent digestion of Philip Beaufoy’s prize story suggests a canny enmeshment between literary production, literary reception and the production of waste. As Maud Ellmann has demonstrated, the passage serves as a description of Bloom’s interaction with the short story and a description of his defecation.[2] Whilst Beaufoy’s story and Bloom’s faeces might both be judged “neat”, the activities of reading and defecation become comically mixed. Indeed, the activities become indistinguishable. The boundary between waste and the written is, as we have seen in the wok of Eliot, a boundary distinguished by uncertain limits. In the outhouses of Ulysses, thought, story and bodily excretions occupy and contaminate one another. Bloom wipes himself with the story, free indirect discourse becomes stylistically cloacal, and the words and waste are rendered textually and conceptually proximate. An object of the narrative and a synecdoche for the narrative act itself, Bloom’s use of the Beaufoy’s short story is an object and fulfilment of a narrative act. One might want to argue that by wiping himself with the story Bloom signals the end of the story’s use as reading material, as ‘literature’ and pronounces the story’s transformation into an implement of bodily hygiene. And yet, it is precisely this ambivalent category of ‘literature’ that persists, lingering beyond the act of reading or any other absolute or unequivocal end. Joyce’s material and linguistic ends are provisional, working through codas and reprises. Even though the short story is discarded along with Bloom’s faeces the language of literary narrative continues to structure how Bloom perceives his waste making. In ‘Wandering Rocks’ Bloom is reminded of the Beaufoy story when he meets Mrs Breen. “Did I pull the chain?” he asks himself, “Yes. The last act” (U 8.270; UP 200). We should not take Bloom’s assessment for granted; his shit, like the literature he reads and features in, has a necessary and significant afterlife.

Ideas of reusing and recycling seem particularly pertinent here, especially since Joyce himself wrote a short story for Titbits and a line from this unpublished story appears in the ‘Calypso’ episode, “Matcham often thinks of the masterstroke by which he won …” (U 4.513–14; UP 84).[3]  This autobiographical detail cannot be underestimated as it compounds the complexity of Joyce’s attitude towards his own literary product, as well as providing another intratextual example of how ‘expunged’ elements of his literary output become reinscribed in later works. Although the Titbits story might seem to display a common trajectory suffered by all kinds of writing, the reappearance of a work from Joyce’s adolescence affirms and confuses the reflexive gesture being made, prompting the question: precisely who’s story is being wiped? The scatological employment of this “old number of Titbits” (U 4.467; UP 82), which might be understood as an attempt on Joyce’s part to exorcise the detritus of his early writing career, a reading which openly contradicts Lawrence Rainey’s argument that the incident “epitomizes the modernist contempt for popular culture.”[4]  If contempt is being shown to Joyce/Beaufoy’s story it is contempt that implicates the broader narrative of the novel. It is not, in any case, a feeling shared by Bloom who “envie[s] kindly” the story’s author (U 4.516; UP 84). Moreover, one might argue the opposite is true; the incident proves how Ulysses could not exist without the countless stories that precede it, Bloom’s recycling is akin to the novel’s compositional methods of narrative cycling and recycling. These narrative intertexts, authored by Joyce and countless others, render the novel a silted, inter- and intratextual palimpsest that incessantly quotes, alludes and cites works from ‘elsewhere’. And as Cheryl Herr and R. Brandon Kershner have demonstrated, popular works play a fundamental role in this silting process.[5] The commingling of these intertexts sees them inserted within a textual economy that allows both popular and avant-garde works to be discarded. So ‘Calypso’ attempts to raise more interesting issues than whether or not items of popular culture are being unfairly rubbished. A more prescient series of questions surrounds what might be the use-time of literary language, how this use-time might be understood when the materiality of language is used for radically different purposes over than read, and how categories of ‘literature’ respond to a transition from use to reuse.

If Ulysses is a novel that represents waste it does so by making waste novel, by putting the idea of waste to work. All writing produces and relies upon the production of waste and, whilst some forms of writing are more susceptible to being physically thrown away than others, the condition of being a ‘throwaway’ has a dynamic immanence in the production of the literary. Steven Connor is right to suggest that in Ulysses “the letter […] is always being transformed into litter,”[6] but this is by no means the final transformation that Joyce’s objects undergo. To discard an object is to enact one of many potential transformations, and to do so heralds only the illusion of an end. If letters, newspapers, scribbled notes, envelopes and handbills all have a propensity to be discarded, and in a novel like Ulysses this propensity is frequently consummated, then Joyce does not allow this litter to simply ‘disappear’ from the text. Although things tend to gravitate towards the rubbish heap, the outhouse or the graveyard in Ulysses, Joyce does not allow these objects to remain there, disappear, or become inert. This sense of the functional multiplicity of things is underscored when Bloom visits the offices of the Freeman’s Journal and observes the machinery that manufactures the paper, “the obedient reels feeding in huge webs of paper. Clank it. Clank it. Miles of it unreeled” (U 7.136–137; UP 152). We glimpse the fantastic quantity of reading material being produced, generated in industrial measures. But the Freeman’s Journal as reading material is not its only use, “What becomes of it after?” wonders Bloom, “O, wrap up meat, parcels: various uses, thousand and one things” (U 7.137–138; U 152).[7] The production of commodities reproduces a temporal structure according to a function; the transience of this function is crucial for structuring the afterlife of things. The use-values of things are designated according to an ambivalent sense of an “after”, in this case a temporal break from the function of being read. The temporal structure that divides an object by use is integral to the invention of waste and the possibility of future uses. Bloom’s use of the prize short story accentuates how literary waste remains a functioning entity that persists beyond its function as reading material. The functionality of this non-functionality is a key condition for the articulation of ‘waste’ in literature. This is an important paradox, one that occurs at the level of objects narrated and at the level of the narrative itself. In ‘Calypso’ we read about an object that has exhausted its potential to be read. But this literary exhaust is an object that becomes reused by Bloom and is a narrative object that continually engages our readings and interpretations. Efforts to interpret the text thus centre upon objects that, by no longer having value as reading material for one of the narrative’s characters, intensify a problem of their legibility, readability and significance. In this way, and despite appearances, waste objects have a narrative afterlife that suspends their absolute disappearance from the novel’s surface. We might summarise the paradox of word-waste in the following way: representing the end of narrative objects only prolongs literature’s use-time; the narrative means that fabricates the meaning of literature obstructs its absolute end. The writing of waste, the writing that has become waste, is described, distorted, and made visible via the reflexive manipulation of yet more writing, yet more narrative.

It is therefore unsurprising that Joyce singles out “freshprinted rag paper” (U 5.58; UP 88) as a particular object of circulation, waste and subsequent narrative extension. Of course, the serialisation of Victorian novels in newspapers makes the historical and technical development of the modern novel intimately bound to the circulation and profitability of newsprint. Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray, and Hardy published in this serialised format. Despite these strong ties, the status of ‘literature’ has often been felt to stand in opposition to the lowly newspaper. This is partly due to the short-lived nature of newsprint’s use-time. One might argue that newspapers and handbills are especially sensitive to the temporalisation of use-values. The use-time of newspapers is integrated into their status as commodities and contained by the date-marked information they communicate.  The utility of this information becomes inextricably tied to the dates, events, and announcements that arise from their pages: their obsolescence is inbuilt. Expressions such as ‘yesterday’s news’ or ‘today’s news, tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper’ only serve to emphasise how we associate newspapers with this inbuilt obsolescence. As a means of figuring the disposability of information, newspapers foreshorten the temporality of writing – the use-time of words are partly dictated by their material form, newspapers and handbills manufacture and are manufactured by the passing of their use-time. For this reason, newspapers and fliers provide a convenient analogue to the transience of language and meaning, a transience to which ‘literature’ supposedly stands in opposition. For Connor, “the newspaper points in Ulysses to a mysterious textual economy whose purpose is to process detritus into meaning, and meaning into detritus. Seen in this way, the newspaper is not the textual adversary of the novel, but its secret model.”[8] This textual economy is one played out materially and linguistically; newspapers and other pieces of written ephemera provide a way of signifying the residues of language and the remnants that give it shape. This is an analogue the novel amplifies in two distinct ways. The first of these comes about through Joyce’s replication of the date-function that we have just used to characterise the temporality of newsprint. This date-function occurs in two principle forms. Firstly, the novel presents the events of a single day, an act of inscription made plain by Miss Dunne as she “clicked on the keyboard: ­— 16 June 1904” (U 10.376; UP 294). This novel is undeniably marked by a date, branded with signature that announces news that has already past. Secondly, and at a more general level, Ulysses closes its account of things by underlining the period of its production “Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921” (U 18.161–1611; UP 933). Together, these dates mark the time being represented and the period taken for this representation to be realised. For Karen R. Lawrence this date-function renders the novel “a souvenir of a time and place passing and gone. The city is arrested, dated, in its premodern phase. The spatial and temporal distance between the city and its novelistic image, between ‘home’ and Joyce, is captured in Joyce’s signature at the end of the novel”.[9] Ulysses represents a time apart, a time that is always ‘after’. Whilst newspapers are always falling or have already fallen into the informational obsolescence by which they take their meaning, Ulysses takes its meaning by already being obsolete, by being a souvenir of a time that can only be felt at a greater and greater distance. By dating his fiction in this way Joyce captures the dialectical movement between the writing of time and the time of writing; meaning is attributed to time through writing whilst time makes the process of writing meaningful. But these prominent dates, which appear to order our sense of time in Ulysses, are by no means fixed; they are subject to a kind of elastic tension. The action of the novel spills into 17th June 1904 and the progressive composition of Ulysses has continued long after 1921. Although the date-function of newspapers and handbills secures or even hastens their passage into a state of waste, the double dating of Ulysses places a disjunction between the times of use and the time by which that use can become obsolete.

The second reason that newspapers and handbills provide a model rather than an adversary for Ulysses is that the transience of newspapers and handbills, what we might call ‘disposable writing’, structures and participates within the composition and decomposition of the narrative. In ‘Lotus-eaters’ a famous misunderstanding occurs that rests upon the disposability of Bloom’s Freeman and the name of a horse called ‘Throwaway’ that would later win the Gold Cup. Bantam Lyons is eager to see Bloom’s copy of the Freeman to scan its form guide and Bloom tells him twice that he can keep the paper as he was “going to throw it away” (U 5.534; UP 106). Bantam takes this to be a betting tip and scurries off, leaving Bloom with his throwaway but without the knowledge with which to convert its financial reward.  It is a misunderstanding that we only come to realise has occurred in ‘Lestrygonians’ when Bantam Lyons announces that Bloom gave him a tip and that he intends to place five bob on it (U 8.1016; UP 228). Even at this stage we cannot be entirely sure what has gone on until, in ‘Cyclops’, Lenehan provides the missing information– Bloom gave Bantam Lyons the winner of the Gold Cup, Throwaway, the “rank outsider” (U 12.1219; UP 422).  As Tony Thwaites documents, the evolution of this textual puzzle occurs over hundreds of pages and to even begin the process of resolving the riddle one must read and reread the novel several times.[10] The reader’s work of reconstruction is not aided by the appearance of another ‘throwaway’, another textual puzzle that issues from a disposable form of writing. At the beginning of ‘Wandering Rocks’ Bloom meets a “sombre Y.M.C.A. young man” – described later as the “distributor of throwaways” (UP 17.1490; U 855) – who places “a throwaway in the hand of Mr Bloom” (U 8.6; UP 190).  The handbill announces, “Elijah is coming. Dr Alexander Dowie, restorer of the church in Zion, is coming” (UP 8.13–14; U 190). As he walks, Bloom reads the handbill in his typically elliptical, interrupted and tangential manner. When he comes to O’Connell Bridge he looks down to the Liffey below, observing barges and swooping gulls. Bloom cuts short his wandering thoughts to fulfil the inherent disposability of this handbill: “He threw down among them a crumpled paper ball. Elijah thirtytwo feet per sec is com. Not a bit. The ball bobbed unheeded on the wake of swells, floated under by the bridgepiers” (U 57–59; UP 192). In stark opposition to the two Banbury cakes that Bloom also throws down to the gulls, which are swiftly taken, “Every morsel” (U 8.77; UP 192), the paper ball bobs and drifts upon the water’s surface. The afterlife of this writing flows through the novel as a remainder, changing its appearance and its levels of signification with its geographical position, given according to the bridges, buildings and other landmarks it passes along its way:

A skiff, a crumpled throwaway, Elijah is coming, rode lightly down the Liffey, under Loopline bridge, shooting the rapids where water chafed around the bridgepiers, sailing eastwards past hulls and anchorchains, between the Customhouse old dock and George’s quay. (U 10.294–297; UP 291)

North wall and sir John Rogerson’s quay, with hulls and anchorchains, sailing wesward, sailed by a skiff, a crumpled throwaway, rocked on the ferrywash, Elijah is coming. (U 10.752–754; UP 308)

Elijah, skiff, light crumpled throwaway, sailed eastward by flanks of ships and trawlers, amid an archipelago of corks, beyond new Wapping street past Benson’s ferry, and by the threemasted schooner Rosevean from Bridgewater with bricks. (U 10.1096–1099; UP 321)

This is a kind of waste writing that is made to reverberate through the text. The throwaway takes on an ambiguous, intensely enigmatic role within the episode, replicating the passage of human bodies as they pass into Joyce’s textual labyrinth. Again, we meet with the paradox of writing that becomes waste, as an object to interpret its importance seems to become intensified because its original use, as reading material, has passed. We will soon see how the same is true of the manuscript drafts that record the composition of this usefulness, this legibility. For Maud Ellmann this ball of paper signals Joyce’s “throwaway economy of writing­ – Joyce wastes words.”[11] But the words that have become waste do not and cannot disappear from the text, they become puzzles and enigmas that the reader is invited to unravel. Richard Ellmann draws out a Homeric parallel, the skiff successfully passes through the labyrinth and “floats down like the Argo between the two Symplegadean banks, as between the North and South walls of the Liffey, and out to sea.”[12]  Between these observations lies an obvious tension; between annihilation and survival, disappearance and endurance, the throwaway seems to be an object of lowly value and an object of singular importance. The condition of written waste is the uneasy synthesis of these extremes. Jacques Derrida has given an elaborate discussion of the Elijah figure, suggesting that the prophet orders and mediates communication, overseeing rites of circumcision and, thus, the expansion and legitimation of community. But, Derrida writes, whatever he might represent, Elijah serves as “a synecdoche of Ulyssean narration, at once smaller and greater than the whole.”[13] Although Derrida does not say as much we might carry this observation into our discussion of waste, not least because Elijah’s arrival is announced on a throwaway handbill, a disposable form of writing. The throwaway, like the newspaper, has a direct material relationship to the condition of the novel; they are material manifestations of language that have entered the temporal structures of use and waste.  What Ulysses demonstrates by taking these objects and narrating their passage into the outhouse, onto the beach, or along the surface of the river, is that the category of waste is a category full of false endings and illusory disappearances. Moreover, the passage of writing into a category of waste does not mean that this writing loses or has lost meaning.  In Joyce at least, the opposite is true.

[1] Aside from the presence of manuscript material, readers of Joyce’s Ulysses must first decide which of the many editions of the book to consult. Believing it to be the most accurate version of the text currently available, all subsequent quotes are from Hans Walter Gabler’s Bodley Head edition of 1986, hereafter cited in the text as U with episode and line numbers. However, since many come to read Joyce inexpensive editions that are still in print, I include page references to the Penguin edition of 1992, cited alongside as UP.

[2] Maud Ellmann, ‘Ulysses: The Epic of the Human Body,’ in A Companion to James Joyce ed. Richard Brown (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008) 61.

[3] Don Gifford with Robert J. Seidman, Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses (Berkeley: California UP, 1988) 84.

[4] Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven: Yale UP, 1998) 2.

[5] Cheryl Herr, Joyce’s Anatomy of Culture (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986); R. Brandon Kershner, ‘Dialogical and Intertextual Joyce’ in James Joyce Studies, ed. Jean-Michel Rabaté (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) 183­­–202.

[6] Steven Connor, James Joyce (Plymouth: Northcote House, 1996) 54.

[7] Incidentally, Bloom has already used his copy of the Freeman’s Journal to kneel and pray at Dignam’s funeral (U 6.586–587; UP 130).

[8] Steven Connor, James Joyce 56.

[9] Karen R. Lawrence, ‘Bloom’s Circulation: Who’s He When He’s Not at Home?’ in Joyce on the Threshold, eds. Anne Fogarty and Timothy Martin (Gainesville, FL: U P of Florida, 2005) 23.

[10] Tony Thwaites does not consider the effect of his own criticism in speeding up this process of reading and rereading, see Thwaites, Joycean Temporalities 53–54.

[11] Maud Ellmann, ‘Ulysses: The Epic of the Human Body’ 63.

[12] Richard Ellman, Ulysses on the Liffey (London: Faber, 1972) 98.

[13] Jacques Derrida, ‘Ulysses’ Gramophone: Hear Say Yes In Joyce’ in Derek Attridge ed. Acts of Literature (London: Routledge, 1991) 286.

It didn’t look much like art to me

Interesting things can occur when waste enters the sanctity of a gallery space.  On 17th October 2001 a cleaner at London’s Eyestorm Gallery arrived at work to discover a terrible mess; piles of rubbish strewn across the gallery floor, a filthy mixture of packets and wrappers, rags and fags. Assuming this to be the remains of a raucous private party, Emmanuel Asare gets to work, clearing away the cigarette ends, newspapers and old coffee cups. Little did Mr Asare know that he had inadvertently cleared away an installation by Damien Hirst. “I didn’t think for a second that it was a work of art”, Mr Asare told journalists, “it didn’t look much like art to me. So I cleared it all into bin bags and dumped it.”  Familiar headlines followed, claiming that modern art was a load of rubbish and labelling Hirst a swindler of rich fools. Not wishing to lose their credibility with Hirst, who, incidentally, thought the episode “fantastic. Very funny”, Eyestorm recovered the bin bags and reconstructed the work from photographs.  The work was pieced back together and reintroduced to the exhibition space. The retrieval of the piece from the gallery’s bins merely compounds the enigmatic sequence that Untitled (2001) has passed through, repeatedly shuttled from the categories of ‘waste’ to ‘art’ and back again. Each transformation is by no means absolute; indeed, the easy movement between waste and art seems to highlight the arbitrariness of each category and the brittle divisions that separate them.