Nothing Beside Remains

A version of this paper was read aboard a coach, while returning from a municipal landfill site in Dunbar. Global Shadow, Local Mist was organized by Laura Yiule and funded by Collective Gallery, Edinburgh. Thanks to them, to the other speakers, and to all those that made the journey.

I have been asked to say a few words on the idea of waste to pose some questions rather than provide some neat answers. Which is just as well, since I’d like to suggest to you that one of the peculiar characteristics of things that we call ‘waste’ is their strange suggestibility, their enigmatic power to pose questions whose attending answers, in the end, feel rather excessive, superfluous, or insufficient. Before I say how and why I think waste has that power, a poem:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said – ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … near them on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away’.– [1]

Starting a talk by reading Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ while returning from a municipal landfill might seem to you perversely and retroactively Romantic, a bit like your Uncle Fred bellowing out an operatic aria at a warehouse party; cranky, maybe a bit deluded, certainly out of touch with the expectations of these ‘modern’ times. Isn’t the imagined antique land described in Shelley’s poem and the ruinous fragments that emerge from its textual sands, just so far removed from the putridly modern reality of Dunbar’s wastes, that we can learn nothing from their comparison? Since, isn’t this literary romanticism exactly the opposite to the engaged, responsible, and sober critique that is inculcated by enlightened travellers in more contemporary lands, who urge us to face the wastes that usher in The Anthropocene and spell the immanence of our curious End Times? These rhetorical questions lead to and imply other injunctions –forget the waste of the past because we need to speak more urgently about the waste of the present – forget Ozymandias and his mighty works, what about the creative destruction of neoliberal capitalism and its ‘ruins of modernity’? Forget literary art and its ‘traditions’, we need to speak about the current wastes of melting polar ice caps, nuclear fall out, the Great Pacific garbage patch, and the many other toxic vortices of waste production and environmental depletion.

This obligation and desire to think about the ‘now’ of waste fascinates me. It fascinates me because it imagines that humans – and lets be specific, especially the kind of humans who ride about on buses on a Sunday afternoon, thinking about the meaning of waste – can gift time and, with it, meaning to the things that are abandoned, cast out, redundant, or without use, making waste the evidence of a much wider social, environmental, and historical ‘moment’. By this circular logic, it’s up to us – whoever we take ourselves to be – to decide how waste matters, what it signifies, and what it means for us. This, I think, is an ethics that habours an anthropocentric, overdetermined, and therefore deeply problematic understanding of how objects are felt and described – where ‘we’ must decide how ‘they’, non-human things, come to ‘mean’, and how ‘they’ relate to pasts, presents, and futures.

So, even as objects of waste suggest temporal end times and thus the immanent intractability of our interests and designs, the urgency to attend to waste as being especially present, modern, or contemporary, begs the question – present, modern, and contemporary to what and for whom? I want to probe how waste comes to be resonant with significance, where a cigarette end on the street can conjure thoughts of lips and lungs and the precarious employment contracts of road-sweepers, the fabled powers of the PR industry, your schoolyard smoking spot and the late-night pleasures of other events, fantasies, memories, in ways that a yet-to-be smoked cigarette cannot.

I take this resonant potential to appear not in what ‘exists’ – in the here and now of my encounters with the cigarette end – but in what is conspicuously absent. This, I believe, is not something I necessarily create or construct, but is an emergent property of the time made and taken from waste things. The way this thing that gets called ‘waste’ gains a rather magic, telling and evidential status, this power to both denote and connote a multitude of interpretations about the world, is not simply gained because it has entered into a municipal waste-management system, but because it has entered a peculiar form of time, one that emerges out of its status as a ‘has-been’, taken as a remainder or trace of action whose relation to the past is suspended in its presence, making its presence, its actual being or ‘reality’, shot through with an absence that animates it as a thing that has come to be by having been. Asking what waste is for me is, therefore, to ask how its relation to ‘someone’ has been done and undone over time.

If this sounds like nothing more than an entertaining riddle it may be because I want to wrestle the experience of making and encountering waste away from those who would make facts through things as if our relations with the material world was a mere matter of accurate description or methodological technique. And I want to come to terms with the unstable vitality of things which work upon, with and against our bodies, a universe of matter that swirls in and through us – composed as we are of molecular things and influenced by the microbial communities in our guts; co-dependent as we are on the wheels of this bus going round and round upon the road’s asphalt surface, the automatic traffic lights turning from red to green… ; hence, the many different objects collected and stored in a landfill site are, in my view, a fantastic assemblage of things where the projective time of human action has been placed in weird abeyance.

This is why it seems slightly ridiculous to me to speak of ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ wastes as a privileged place to think about ‘who we are’, since this seems to me to follow a logic that is somehow cut adrift not only from the material constitution of how that ‘we’ is composed, but also cut adrift from the combined and convolved tenses that constitute how an experience with waste necessarily implies what a thing did and was and is and does. This rather more complicated conception of waste skews and queers how we experience the world of things. Robert Smithson expressed this well when he wrote that “buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built. This anti-romantic mise-en-scene suggests the discredited idea of time and many other ‘out of date’ things”[2] Of course, Smithson is right that this is an anti-romantic mise-en-scene, it sees the temporal end of a relationship with the building before the first kiss of construction; but he is wrong in the suggestion that his concept of ruins-in-reverse is anti-Romantic, since the notion of waste acting across times and places and tenses is precisely how it reaches us as such, as waste, and especially in works typically associated with literary Romanticism like… ‘Ozymandias’.

And so we return to Shelley’s transcript and to ‘Ozymandias’ as a poem of distinct utility. It describes how objects of ruin and waste make strange monuments. Does the ruinous state of the Ozymandias statue remain a testimony to the king’s “Works” or a refutation of them? Do these ‘Works’ contain their destruction as ruins in reverse? Answers to these questions are not hard to come by. So much depends upon how we read the word “remains”. As both substantive and verb we can understand “remains” to describe the “lone and level sands” and the statue itself. Such duplicity is not really ‘understanding’ in the fixed and eternal sense of the term, but a speculation that produces other questions; what remains beside the remains? Does nothing, sheer absence, ‘exist’ next to the shattered, material remainders of Ozymandias? Does what remains of the statue represent an outpost of last resistance against the corrosive demands of time, or do the sands show the eroded future of those stones? This indicates to me some of the temporal enigmas of waste – a time of false endings that renders waste both a monument to consummation and transience, a utopic trace that demonstrates the transference of information across centuries, and the dystopic dissolution of all things into the condition of dust, sand, and other inchoate particles that tell of nothing, an absolute void.

If we find things in the landfill that ‘speak’ or ‘tell’ of the work of others, whether the sculpture’s art or the despot’s rule, then I’d only like to encourage you to use the opportunity to answer back to things with a set of questions: what kind of time is made and taken from things that are discarded? Do you feel novel or new? Does this thing emerge from the black hole of the past into the luminous clarity of the contemporary? Or are we witnessing something neither present nor absent, original nor ancient, but something that hovers in-between a set of questions and the many answers that can be made through things.

Further Reading

Chapman, John. “‘Rubbish Dumps’ or ‘Places of Deposition’? Neolithic and Copper Age Settlements in Central and Eastern Europe.” In Neolithic Orkney in its European Context. Edited by Anna Richie, 347–362. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2000.

Hell, Julia., and Andreas Schönle, ed. Ruins of Modernity. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.

Rathje, William. “The Archaeology of Us.” In Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Yearbook of Science and the Future: 1997. Edited by Charles Ciegelski, 158–177. New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1996.

—., and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Poems of Shelley Volume 2: 1817–19, ed. Kelvin Everest and Geoffrey Matthews. Harlow: Pearson, 2000.

Smithson, Robert. Complete Writings of Robert Smithson. Edited by Jack Flam. Berkeley: California UP, 1996.


[1] Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias,” in The Poems of Shelley Volume 2: 1817–19, ed. Kelvin Everest and Geoffrey Matthews (Harlow: Pearson, 2000), 2:310–311.

[2] Robert Smithson, ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey’, in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, p. 72

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