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.


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