‘Unproductive and Uninhabited’: Wastes of Place and Time

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.

Artists Announce They’ve Found All The Beauty They Can In Urban Decay

Phew, The Onion have put me out of my misery:

DETROIT—After spending more than a century exploiting urban decay to create deeply moving, socially conscious works of art, the art world announced Tuesday that it had captured all the beauty it was going to find in rusted-out cars, abandoned houses, and condemned industrial sites. “These modern ruins speak to the very heart of the human condition, but at this point every last inch of Detroit and Oakland has been documented in photographs, on film, or as part of a multimedia installation,” said artist Devon Gerhart, who told reporters that devoting so much time to contemplating the wounded grandeur of blighted cityscapes had led him to the point where he just wanted to see the places cleaned up. “I made my career portraying the plight of the homeless, but now I’m starting to wonder whether they’d prefer it if someone just helped them find a place to live.” The world’s artists later confirmed plans to spend at least another 50 years churning out heavy-handed depictions of the inherent soullessness of suburban sprawl

Basil Bunting – Ode 11

To a poet who advised me to preserve my numerous fragments and false starts

Narciss, my numerous cancellations prefer
slow limpness in the damp dustbins among the peel
tobacco-ash and ends spittoon lickings litter
of labels dry corks breakages and a great deal

of miscellaneous garbage picked over by
covetous dustmen and Salvation Army sneaks
to one review-rid month’s printed ignominy,
the public detection of your decay, that reeks.

From Basil Bunting, Complete Poems, ed. Richard Caddel (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 2000), 107.

The Event of Waste

Waste has often been associated with change of some sort, a change through which things seem to take on different meanings, values or relations over time. This change has been understood physically, relationally or even in the contingent terms of ‘value’. An important consequence of this association between waste and these various forms of change is the tendency to imagine waste as offering a special event through which to understand how objects achieve a change in meaning. In this regard, the change offers a plateau by which to assess not just the subject of waste itself but the ontological status of material things more generally. The transition between different times, between times of use and non-use, value and diminished value, functionality and non-functionality, makes waste a clear example of how things “constitute a key device in helping us recognize historical changes.”[1] Moreover, the event of waste gives witness to how discarded things are temporally and spatially dispersed, that attempts to narrate these events are simultaneously attempts to order, gather and collect things that end and remain.

By lingering beyond an end, by being both a material continuity and a temporal discontinuity, waste invites a quality of retrospection felt to be a function of waste and its cause. Waste becomes a bit like those tyre marks one sees on the surface of a road that tell us of an event that has past, a trace or residue of time to be forensically assessed. And, whether it is ‘commodities’, ‘texts’, ‘things’, ‘architectures’ or ‘environments’ that are under discussion, theorists and philosophers of these entities have frequently understood the advent of waste to provide some kind of event by which to contemplate the stuff these entities are and were. The opportunity to consider what an object does (or can no longer do) and how people use it to make sense of the world, transforms waste objects into polyvalent intermediaries of all manner of ideas, beliefs, stories, and accounts. This study makes the case that all the indices of ‘change’ one might wish to deploy through waste, as well as the narratives that attempt to describe and translate these deployments, must, at some point, be expressed in and through time. To be meaningful these indices must relate to, and therefore inhabit, a temporality of waste replete with affective ends. So, whilst architectural ruins are frequently described in aesthetic, environmental, financial, political or even molecular terms (depending on who or what is doing the describing), the importance of waste-time in announcing these developments remains a common denominator. In order for waste to mean all the things it can mean, a time is produced and the event of this temporal production can be described.

I. Interrupting Waste

There exists a tendency to situate an object of waste somewhere between two extremes: as ‘just a modest thing’ by which to measure some process or change, or more spectacularly, as a site from which to experience a full-blown revelation. The former sees waste as a mere outcome or product of time (its time has ‘run out’, it has ‘had its day’, ‘past it’). The latter elevates waste as the necessary condition for spiritual, artistic and political change – i.e. it helps to form and articulate time itself. The discarded shoes discussed in the last chapter had a denotative and connotative potential that comes to rely on the production of varying temporalities, characterised by an orientation or disorientation to a functioning future. Whenever we assess ideas about waste we should always try and understand how its relationship with time is being represented – is waste passive or active, the product or producer of time? These positions are rarely given such clear expression since they are regularly mixed and muddled, compounding the feeling that waste objects are untimely or without a proper time of their own. But somewhere between the ‘wastes of time’ (time producing waste) and the ‘times of waste’ (waste producing time) lies the notion that the advent of waste is rich with revelation, a thing of pedagogical potential that allows the everyday, the hidden or the unexpected to be suddenly unveiled. Recognising waste is to recognise the events and actions in which things are embroiled; the temporal separation felt between a discarded thing and the activity in which it no longer participates gives a position to assess, discern and narrate how the order of things always depends upon the order of time.

In his introduction to ‘Thing Theory’, Bill Brown suggests how waste objects might participate in a secular revelation of everyday things. The following quotation explains how an interruption to utility might provoke a reconsideration of an object’s meaning:

We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily. The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.[2]

Although Brown does not address the condition of waste as such, he does describe how things can suddenly cease to relate to the designs of “the human subject”. In a way that correlates with a movement out of use-time and into a time that no longer concerns our projects and aspirations, Brown suggests that we come to know an object in a new way when we can no longer put it to use. When an object ceases to feel complicit in our tasks, plans or futures, when we are shaken from one collective arrangement with that object and thrust into another, our relation with the thing moves beyond mere use to confront the subject-object relation that has passed. For Brown this permits a confrontation with what he calls “the thingness” of the object, disclosing our compulsion to master and manipulate things, asserting a material presence that is somehow outside our control. By paying attention to Brown’s language, which is replete with ‘flows’ and ‘arrested moments’, one understands that, for him, the advent of waste provokes an odd sort of event, a hesitancy or interruption before the temporal continuum of material things. Through this interruption the agency of objects is contingently revealed; waste exposes a certain state of affairs by casting a “subject-object” relation into the past, into the realm of the no longer. Time, of course, is inscribed within this movement; the object marks the passing of a projective time that has been structured by our use of an object. It shows time to have been within the employment of a project that evolved through an assembly of material actors, actors no longer caught up in that particular collective arrangement. Should we respect the temporality already at work in Brown’s text we might add a slight amendment to his observation, “the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation”, noting how this subject-object relation remains implicit without such interruptions; the event of waste creates retrospection and helps to expose our momentary relations with things, precluding a determined future and enclosing a past.

With a slightly different emphasis on the idea of the commodity, Julian Stallabrass’s discussion of trash leads us into similar territory. Having highlighted how, by manipulating desire, the commodity fetish motivates and intensifies our production of waste, Stallabrass describes how the obsolescence of the commodity endows waste with a peculiar power to disclose reality:

In becoming rubbish the object, stripped of this mystification, gains a doleful truthfulness, as though confessing: it becomes a reminder that commodities, despite all their tricks, are just stuff; little combinations of plastics or metal or paper […] We see them[, the objects,] for the first time with clarity, which is the same as that clearsighted ridicule with which we greet old adverts and the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of design in old commodities: their arbitrariness and alien nature are suddenly revealed.[3]

Although Brown and Stallabrass argue different points within different critical traditions, they provide the opposing sides of a common coin. For Brown, the snapping tool snaps us out of our phenomenological inattention, where the use of an object blinds us to how things ‘really are/were’. We are rocked out of our habitual relations with objects at the moment when they appear able to impose themselves as independent entities, when they no longer function according to our designs or expectations. For Stallabrass, on the other hand, when objects cease to function they shed their arbitrary, pantomime act as commodities. By becoming waste these objects are released from the straitjacket of the commodity fetish, driven by the predominance of exchange-value, in order to reveal how things ‘really are/were’. In both instances, waste is said to put an end to a time that is ordered by use and replaces it with a convolved, communicative inertia; objects no longer seem to do what they did and yet enjoy an increased propensity to convey this inactivity. No longer active in one kind of future waste seems to animate the time that has passed, punctuating continuity with a material, thingly shape. Yet, by doing so, the event of waste seems to reveal how our experience of time is underwritten by the things that we use, time materialises and is made material through our projects, plans and ambitions. Brown and Stallabrass show that when objects become waste they come to act in unusual ways. However, the meaning of things is not achieved within a temporal vacuum, if the event of waste reveals the peculiarity of objects, then time might be made peculiar too.

Although John Scanlan’s On Garbage provides a somewhat different perspective on the temporality of waste, it ultimately rehearses the conclusions that were drawn by Brown and Stallabrass. Scanlan argues that when something is considered waste it loses all value, it even loses the power to signify: “stripping it of any descriptive characteristics that allows us to individuate it”.[4] It is Scanlan’s emphatic belief that, in becoming a thing of waste, an object loses all distinction other than the distinction that makes it a waste object, “objects of refuse ha[ve] no meaning apart from the negative undifferentiated one that declare[s] their lack of worth ­– the total absence of distinction in the damaged or soiled object”.[5] The waste category behaves as if it were a monolithic eraser of signification or difference. A paradoxical category, Scanlan’s notion of waste makes it at once absolutely undifferentiated and yet profoundly different to everything found extrinsic to it. Regardless of whether we believe that such a notion is even possible, Scanlan’s emphasis on the process of becoming waste is as pronounced as it was in Brown and Stallabrass. Again, much of this is born out of how waste is considered a product of time. “Time”, writes Scanlan, “fundamentally conditions the creation of garbage in that it provides the framework within which things become corruptible and useless.”[6] Time, as a provider of ‘frameworks’, secures distinction for indistinct objects. Regrettably, Scanlan does not supply more in terms what this temporal framework might look like, how well it is constructed or how it might correspond to the objects he describes. Suffice to say, time offers Scanlan some kind of static and unchanging backdrop by which things become articulate.

Whilst waste can be taken to mark a change played out on a temporal stage, it cannot do so passively or without affecting the way this stage is experienced and reproduced. Although time creates waste by tracing and articulating a change in things, should we not ask how waste informs what is meant by time? Since the advent of waste occurs in and through time, it provides us with an event that marks, measures and transforms duration. So, just as it is hard to imagine the decline of Communism without the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Roman Empire without the sack of Rome, or even the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl without the ecological and architectural ruination and abandonment that followed, so it is hard to imagine how our experience of time went unchanged by these events. Whilst triumph and catastrophe frequently carry a waste content, it would be wrong to think that the catastrophe begins with an ‘idea’ of an event as an abstract presence or logical mystery. Instead, the catastrophe begins and is maintained by the motion of things through time.

My conception of ‘the event’ is rather different to the radical indeterminacy attributed to events in the writings of Jean-François Lyotard and Alain Badiou. For them, an event is that which lies beyond our comprehension. Lyotard claims that “to encounter an event is like bordering on nothingness” and Badiou similarly argues that the event has no objective existence but only by an “interpretative intervention”.[7] In its unfounded nature as neither reducible to an element nor comprehensible as a sum of its parts, the Badiouian event “departs from the laws of being.”[8] These versions of events have no material form; unrepresentable, ineffable, they cannot be made legible in a story. I maintain that the event requires description to be telling and intelligible, and, whilst Badiou is right to suggest that each event is a fragment of a story with respect to the infinite occurrences that can be associated with that event, processes of concurrent material fragmentation mean that the experience of waste, ruin and other expressions of material exhaust are not just the product of interpretative invention or intervention but are visible, physical traces. It is our intimate use, our knowledge, expectation and skill in dealing with things that makes the temporal separation of waste an event supported by material which persists and lingers, an evident and tangible remainder of past action. This makes what I have loosely called ‘the event of waste’ the observed or assumed transition where a thing falls into the mixed and disorientated time of waste. The articulation and fashioning of time occurs in occasions both routine and utterly unanticipated, things give us the mark and measure of time. If we could simply anesthetise an object in order to study the time it is said to inhabit (or vice versa) it would certainly help us come up with a general theory of waste objects. But to do so would reinforce a Cartesian division between ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ that tends to neglect how the creation of waste does not merely happen in time but is time’s co-creative element. It is clear at this stage that the relay between an object, its status as waste, and the event it is said to represent produces a complex web associations. In this respect, each actor in this triumvirate (object, event, time) should not be made to be a passive intermediary or homogenous substitute for another; each associates and transforms the other. Waste, among other things, transforms time to make the event knowable and available for narration.

Brown in particular, and Stallabrass and Scanlan to a lesser extent, share in a particular philosophical tradition, a philosophy which revels in how time is exposed through things. Martin Heidegger’s analysis of the broken tool – which, according to Graham Harman, provides us with “the greatest moment of twentieth-century philosophy”[9] – serves as an exemplary and influential example of how waste might reinforce an ontology of objects in time. The Heideggerian thesis on the failure of equipment is of great relevance to the idea of waste as an event of conspicuousness, an instant when something previously hidden comes to our attention.

For Heidegger, equipment (Zeug, stuff or paraphernalia[10]) is composed by its “equipmentality”, the contextual references to other things. A single piece of equipment always relates and belongs to a totality of useful things. Equipment, whilst contextually given within the totality of the world, is orientated to and by the workings of outcomes. It should be stressed that Heidegger’s understanding of ‘equipment’ can designate mountains, roller-skates and wild bears, not just the hammers, jugs, or other technologically ‘simple’ entities that he addresses directly. This is important because it takes us beyond Stallabrass’ interest in the ‘commodity’, which appears to limit the concept of waste to things that have entered a particular economic arrangement, and it also takes us beyond the somewhat domestic and familiar objects – which need to produced, distributed, consumed and exhibited ­– that Brown uses as his points of reference. Moreover, Heidegger’s conception of objects amount to a networked totality of equipment or things, and each equipmental entity is related to the world of equipment and applied to particular assignments at certain times. Objects take their definition not from what they are, in some static or ideal condition, but from the “various ways of the ‘in-order-to’, such as serviceability, conduciveness, usability, manipulability.”[11] The ontological status of a particular object depends upon how it is put into the service of our dealings, our concern and the broader totality that Heidegger calls equipment. This projective interaction with things, with its structure of the ‘towards-which’ and the ‘for-which’, enacts the peculiar condition Heidegger terms “readiness-to-hand [Zuhandenheit]”.[12] For Heidegger, this readiness-to-hand is a symptom of a kinetic, assigned and future-orientated manipulation of physical objects. By being caught up in the structure of unfolding work, the presence of the object is cast into the background. We are absorbed in the world of the thing and not the thing itself. As Harman explains, “the more efficiently the tool performs its function, the more it tends to recede from view.”[13] Importantly, objects as equipment are not permanent fixtures but frequently break or go missing. An object can become unusable and, by becoming so, makes conspicuous the contextual relations suspended:

We discover its unusability, however, not by looking at it and establishing its properties, but rather by circumspection of the dealings in which we use it. When its unusability is thus discovered, equipment becomes conspicuous. This conspicuousness presents the ready-to-hand equipment as in a certain un-readiness-to-hand. But this implies that what cannot be used just lies there; it shows itself as an equipmental Thing which looks so and so, and which, in its readiness-to-hand as looking that way, has constantly been present-at-hand too. Pure presence-at-hand announces itself in such equipment, but only to withdraw to the readiness-to-hand of something with which one concerns oneself—that is to say, of the sort of thing we find when we put it back into repair.[14]  

Heidegger is keen to stress that the loss of readiness-to-hand does not become replaced by a pure presence. Instead, presence is announced but restrained by our concern for the thing, through its repair and reassignment. But what if we do not concern ourselves with the broken equipment, what if we do not repair the object or return it into active service? In this regard Heidegger has little to say on the matter of waste, other than that discarded objects cease to become equipment and become ‘equipment’, and, despite this change, remain ready-to-hand. ‘Equipment’ becomes a kind of waste for Heidegger, “in the sense of something which one would like to shove out of the way. But in such a Tendency to shove things aside, the ready-to-hand shows itself as still ready-to-hand”.[15] Contrary to Scanlan, Heidegger believes that objects that no longer relate to our projects and plans maintain some association with their former role as useful things. They become ‘equipment’, conspicuous things thrown into inverted commas, momentarily wrenched from the referential structures that have hitherto secreted them within the service of a particular project. The advent of waste provides an opportunity to reassess these assignments, the event of waste enacts a specific kind of reversal where what was once retiring or implicit has suddenly become explicit. The presence of the object appears between the disappearance of one expression of readiness-to-hand and the appearance of another, and between each expression of readiness-to-hand a break occurs that lights up the thing in question.  This is not to say that the structure of reference had never been comprehended until this moment, but the disruption of the ready-to-hand serves to locate the object in a particular time and space. It caus

a break in those referential contexts which circumspection discovers. Our circumspection comes up against emptiness, and now sees for the first time what it was ready-to-hand for. The environment announces itself afresh. What is thus lit up is not itself just one thing ready-to-hand among others; still less is it something present-at-hand upon which equipment ready-to-hand is somehow founded: it is in the ‘there’ before anyone has observed or ascertained it.[16]

The event of waste is a time-creating phenomenon, announcing a present that was otherwise overwhelmed by the future. The seizure and subsequent revelation of a disrupted contexture denotes the ‘there’ of the object, its particular location in space and time. Bill Brown would have us believe that the failure of equipment merely discloses a particular subject-object relation. Heidegger’s thesis is far more ambitious. The failure of equipment discloses our relation with space, time, or our being-in-the-world. It does not simply reveal how we perceive things in the world: it reveals the projective nature of Da-sein. If equipmentality is embedded within the referential web of the world, then it follows that any interruption to this equipmentality, or attempt to thrust this equipment into inverted commas, must reveal both from what and how this referential web is composed. The advent of waste puts objects at a threshold by which pre-existing structures of meaning are called forth to expose their fragility. For Scanlan on the other hand, the disruption of pre-existing codes means that waste objects somehow fall from referential structures altogether. But in Heidegger’s philosophy of things, the temporality of the broken tool and the event it produces keeps waste from negating meaning. As Heidegger is careful to point out, the interruption to the ready-to-hand is precisely that, an interruption; the object does not simply disappear but it becomes ready-to-hand in a new way.

An undeniable tension has persisted so far in our investigation. Whilst these theories might point to the sensational occurrence where an object of use, function or serviceability is ‘suddenly’ and ‘momentarily’ lit up, what happens when this failure is expected? It might be convenient to speak of ruptures, seizures and so on, especially since these temporal metaphors help us to conceive the dramatic or arresting encounters we might have with waste things and the durations they are said to represent. Indeed, catastrophes and the waste they produce are frequently expressed through this kind of seismic temporal event. And on the occasions where our circumspection does in fact wheel around and focus on the thing that has, until that time, gone unnoticed, it might be useful to think with the terms that Heidegger et al suggests to us. Yet, when I finish reading my newspaper, I probably do not enjoy an encounter with the referential contexture of ‘the world’, and, for the majority of our meetings with waste, we rarely have this momentous sense of event or revelation. We must now consider the occasions when we know full well that waste will be the outcome of our actions; the formative importance of waste, time and their narrative description will remain a pressing concern.

 II. Continuities of Waste 

Until now we have considered a specific kind of waste event, where things suddenly divulge the assignments by which they took their meaning. Time is made by a break, an interruption or conclusion of use; waste creates an event by disrupting the continuity of use-time. But many things take their meaning from being assigned to being broken; their readiness-to-hand is felt through the inevitable sense that this readiness-to-hand is achieved not through the unexpected discontinuity of use but by an anticipated consummation of use-time. Things go to waste; moving, drifting or driving towards an inevitable end. In Heidegger’s writings we saw how using and employing things might cause a form of inattention to the time of things, which provides the conditions of our surprise when they fail. This may well be the case for a great many objects, particularly those things we consider most durable, or for those who like to do their DIY in a wild frenzy. Yet this sense of inattention certainly does not tally with some foreseeable or desirable expressions of waste, to which we will now turn.

Things give, make and take time. An object’s material qualities play a fundamental role in lending duration to our activities, to the perception that some things are more durable than others or are intrinsically transient. Heidegger’s hammering thought experiment supposes that all hammers hammer in the same way over time, until they suddenly break and light up their referential context. But a hammer made of steel can be expected to hammer nails for longer and with different effects than a hammer made of jelly. Hammers will break in different ways according to the nature of their design, the materials and techniques of their manufacture and the sort of hammering they are put to. The circumstances, durations and, of course, the actual nature of the thing being used will alter the ways that waste is felt to occur.

We expect waste to be an outcome and frequently the necessary outcome of a process; things of waste often signify closure, resolution or a termination. Consider the leftovers produced when eating or creating energy. The disposal of a banana skin might be seen as the necessary consequence of eating a banana, carbon dioxide might be said to be one consequence of burning fossil fuels for energy. In this regard, economists speak of ‘externalities’ (often prefixed with the words ‘positive’ or ‘negative’) to describe the expected by-products of a process. Whether for good or for ill, the externality of waste is frequently found at the scene of numerous activities, often playing an integral role in the successful consummation of those processes. The waste products of the human body merely serve as particularly proximate examples of this temporal relation; bodily excretions serve as daily reminders of how our bodies are getting on with things. There are countless other examples of how waste can be anticipated, intended or engineered that rarely bring about the ecstatic character of temporality expressed through Heidegger’s broken tool. Nevertheless, the “towards which” and “for which” that Heidegger argued is the hallmark of readiness-to-hand does not disappear when we anticipate waste; it simply becomes apprehended through its finitude, through the imminent generation of an occasion, an event felt to stand in the future. If an object is said to be ‘towards’ and ‘for’ a particular project, then this object must also participate in shaping how its failure or non-participation is experienced. The deployment of material things and the expectation of waste this deployment anticipates suggests the image of time that is being deployed. When objects are used, and an event of waste is said to mark the cessation of this use, then waste announces itself as an object of time.

We constantly harness the temporal measure that functioning things give us. Use-time is, as we saw in the previous chapter, a time distributed by calculated ends. Whether we drift towards these ends slowly and gently, like the protracted wearing of a door against its hinges, or experience the kind of rapid and visible end when burning wood for fuel, we can narrate the changing potential for a thing to do work and fulfil the projects designated to it. Although advertising slogans might try and convince us otherwise, manufacturers rarely produce or are capable of producing objects that ‘last forever’, we use many objects with their functional and temporal ends mutually supporting each another. Planned obsolescence is the notion that one designs and manufacturers equipment that has a finite use-time, it provides a useful example of how we expect things to waste.[17] The clothing, consumer electronics and motor vehicle industries are often singled out as being those that thrive on so-called ‘death-dating’.[18] But this attitude towards objects, which we expect to break over indeterminate but no less finite durations, mimics a more general relationship we have with the manipulation of things through time. When we acquire a hammer or a mobile phone (by gift or some other means) we expect that its functional life is limited and that it will eventually, despite our best attempts to ensure its long service, cease to operate within our aims and activities. Crucially, waste is not always a leftover of time, a preterite thing of subtle retrospection, but a thing with which to think through the future. We find the tardiness of waste transformed into an object of future memory, employed in what Derrida called the “future anterior” mode.[19] Waste-time operates as a powerful but insubordinate supplement to the time of use; the useful thing will become the waste that is the condition of our using. In this temporal respect, waste does not stand ‘outside’ or ‘external’ to our use of things, as orthodox economics tends to stress. Our care, the attention that we direct towards the thing is equally finite – we are concerned so long as the object operates within our projects and yet we retain understanding of use that makes immanent the time of waste. The rites and rituals of waste disposal, as varied and complex as our treatment of human remains, testify to how we measure the time expected in things according to their relation to the labour of the living.

Since the unexpected, surprising or arresting moment when objects fail to meet our expectations enjoys the drama of the unforeseen, and offers a chance to observe the suspended relations once implicated in an activity, it might be tempting to set this revelatory event against a more pragmatic, predetermined or anticipatory understanding of waste. But to anticipate waste has its own promise of revelation. Finding that one’s hopes or expectations have come to pass, that what once was useful can be made wasteful, can seem to verify all sorts of procedures, beliefs and durations. As we noted at the beginning of this chapter, the advent of waste has the potential to provoke lofty thoughts of the universe, God or the state of human nature, and the anticipation of waste plays an equally significant role in this provocation. Waste can be produced, both entirely unexpectedly and by our most fervent machinations, but the consequences of these events of or encounters with waste meet in how we understand waste objects to communicate what an object is, was and yet might be; their narrative potential. As was elaborated in Chapter 1, discarded objects, those things that no longer relate to our plans and projects, enter a polyvalent and suspended time; deferred, postponed and yet anticipating something else, something more, something yet to come. So although the condition of being waste can taint an object with a tardy sense of ‘already and not yet’, it does so by being available to participate in the fulfilment of time.

So far, I have suggested two rather generic modes by which waste emerges. The first saw the occurrence of waste as something that took us by surprise, revealing the discontinuous time we invest in an object as well as how objects give time to those that it acts with and upon. Time became ecstatic in this case, marking and measuring the transition of things from use into waste, from one collective relation to another, from inattention to concern. The second expression of waste, to be extended and developed in Chapter 7, acknowledges how this passing from use into disuse can also be wholly expected, engineered or observed over a period of time. In the former, the image of time is retrospectively realised; in the latter, the image of time is proleptically maintained. In both cases, the moment that waste is felt to have occurred, its power to articulate a new time or era, can herald the most momentous occasions – such as the arrival of a divine entity, the fall of an empire or the entropic decline of the universe. Of course, the unexpected or discontinuous and the anticipated or continuous effects of waste frequently mix with one another; what is anticipated has surprising effects, what is surprising becomes understood to have been inevitable. Acts of narration play a crucial role in legislating these mixtures, in organising how we articulate, trace and reproduce our judgements about these waste events, their composition, repercussions, and so on. The narrative interpretation of waste reaches across an implicit threshold that divides the time of use and the time of waste, as well as speculating what the object might become. The event – be it in the form of a Heideggerian interruption or a messianic anticipation of a temporal end – renders articulate the delicate division between the time of use and the time of waste. The polyvalent nature of waste’s temporality, harbouring past and future events and which occurs without notice or under the tension of our expectations, will be a recurrent problem throughout the thesis that follows. In chapters 4 and 5 we will see how this temporality of dispersal can displace writing, generating problems of material and semantic closure. In chapters 6 and 7 we will give greater attention to the consequences that the retrospective and anticipatory employment of waste-time has in our experience of architecture. Chapter 7 in particular will explore the future of waste in much greater detail. Throughout these chapters narrative, and the various kinds of scripts that it issues, proves crucial in disseminating the events of waste, shaping and explaining how it is made and how it relates to other times and places. It is narrative that accounts for and legislates between the continuities and discontinuities that we can recognise in waste, its rich mix of interruption and persistence.

[1] Bjørnar Olsen, In Defense of Things: Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects (Lanham, ML: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 162.

[2] Bill Brown, Critical Inquiry, 4.

[3] Julian Stallabrass, “Trash,” in The Object Reader, ed. Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins (London: Routledge, 2009), 416.

[4] John Scanlan, On Garbage, 43.

[5] Scanlan, On Garbage, 107.

[6] Ibid, 37.

[7] Jean-François Lyotard, Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event (New York: Columbia UP, 1988), 18; Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (London: Continuum, 2006), 181.

[8] Alain Badiou, Theoretical Writings, trans. Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano (London: Continuum, 2004), 100

[9] Graham Harman, Heidegger Explained: From Phenomenon to Thing (Chicago: Open Court, 2007), 63.

[10] Martin Heidegger, Being in Time, 97. n.1.

[11] Heidegger, Being in Time, 97.

[12] Heidegger, Being in Time, 98. An implicit version of this readiness-to-hand appeared earlier in Brown’s description of the object that functions, it describes the condition of a functioning thing prior to the revelation of its ‘thingliness’.

[13] Graham Harman, Tool-being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Chicago: Open Court, 2002), 21.

[14] Being in Time, 102–103.

[15] Ibid, 104.

[16] Ibid, 105.

[17] The term ‘planned obsolescence’ has a colourful history; see Bernard London, Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence (1932; Online, 2011), accessed 12th June 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org. Searching for a solution to the economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s, London was an early advocate of planned obsolescence as a policy for growth and economic recovery; Vance Packard, The Waste Makers (New York: Pocket Books, 1961), gives a staunch critique of London’s analysis and the phenomena of planned obsolescence more generally.

[18] See Giles Slade, Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2006).

[19] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1976; Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1997), 5.