On Giving a Shit: Excremental Values in the Human and Life Sciences

This paper was given at Aarhus University on 21st April 2017. I am grateful to Thomas Erslev and Casper Andersen for the opportunity to develop this work.

Shit. Feces, scat, droppings, crap, poo, turd, cloaca, cack, manure, soil and muck: human excrement has an odd relationship to language. Like other obscene things, what shit lacks in public acceptability it gains in linguistic variation, swagger and glee; enjoying a  kind of semantic disobedience reserved for things that are not permitted to simply remain. There’s a lot that could be said about the effluviant passages between shit, its languages and meanings, but the main thing I want to say is that the business of going about one’s business is not simply or exclusively linguistic. The slipperiness of shit as a concept has also solidified into a cache of scholarly dogmas about what human shit truly means. It might be better to say that scholarly dogma is not immune from the wider uses and non-uses of waste categories. And, like so much dogma, the dogma of human waste is riddled with contradiction.

When put among Northern European and North American theorists, historians, and philosophers, shit cannot be simply a negative substance, with a terminal or absolute value. It is hard to encounter a real piece of shit when wading through the minor canon of writings on human waste but, instead, the apparent lowliness of human waste is availed to different metaphors of matter and materialisation. Curiously metamorphic, human waste is frequently deployed as a sign, one that provides insight into the human condition. I want to give you just a few examples of this dynamic, hesitant between the negativity of human waste and its superabundant tellability, before exploring its histories and consequences.

The tendency to use excrement in order to affect acts of self-fashioning – defining the human condition, giving pause by which that condition is reconditioned – is to be found in work that spans the human and social sciences. It can also be found in works of literature, and I’ll begin there – with a brief passage from the American novelist Don DeLillo and an early novel of his called End Zone (1972):

a terminal act, nullity in the very word, shit, […] excrement, as of final matter voided, the chemical stink of self discontinued; offal, as of butchered animals’ intestines slick with shit and blood; shit everywhere, shit in life cycle, shit as earth as food as shit, wise men sitting impassively in shit, armies retreating in that stench, shit as history, holy men praying to shit, scientists tasting it, volumes to be compiled on color and texture and scent, shit’s infinite treachery, everywhere this whisper of inexistence.[1]

Base matter, characterised as terminal, null, final, void, brings this narrative into strange possibility. Shit’s low (if not minimal) powers of tellability permits DeLillo to detect the whisper of grand narratives that include geopolitical, historical, religious and scientific practices. Aside from what this suggests about DeLillo’s own sense of creative self worth, what interests me is how social scientists have also been keen to prey upon shit as the bit of nothing that can speak not just a truth, our truth, the rank negative that stands as testimony and witness to what ‘we’ truly are. One such terminal philosophy of being can be found in the writings of Julia Kristeva. For her, shit, like death itself, marks an existential border zone of being. Its indetermination forms a sense of oneself through another:

If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything.[2]

Human waste’s abjecting powers are subject forming. It has the capacity to induce disgust and horror, a power to disclose forms of subjective interiority and autonomy. Though human waste is often understood as matter of the most limited, limiting, and base kind – stinking, rotten, inchoate – it is a substance that threatens to slip through the lattice of signification into the dangerously undifferentiated condition of nonhuman superfluity. What is important to recognise is how this indeterminate conception of waste propels what Dominque Laporte and Giorgio Agamden have called, at different times, ‘militant anthropocentrism’ or the ‘anthropological machine.’[3] This is the referential manoeuvre by which matter, particularly matter deemed inanimate or nonhuman, scaffolds a reflexive regard for the sentience of humans and its exceptional agency. Shit, we might add, is an ideal object in this regard: the inaminacy of shit, viscerally produced,  is an emergent property of animacy that defines human self-knowledge.

With regard to what underpins structures of being and feeling such as these, I use Peter Sloterdijk’s term ‘anthropotechnics’ to describe that acrobatic regard for human shit; the upward effort towards human self-refinement, self-experimentation, and psycho-somatic augmentation that courses through waste matter.[4] Nowhere has this anthropotechnical practice sought greater ethnographic legitimacy than in Purity and Danger (1966) by Mary Douglas. This book is as close as we come to a canonical text in the field of waste studies and I suspect will be well known to most students and researchers of the social sciences. The central claim is that dirt is ‘matter out of place’ – a dirty object is an object caught in a system. The desire for order produces waste. ‘Dirt’, writes Douglas, ‘is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements’.[5] This intuition has led to a large body of work that has defined discarded things in similar terms – according to notions of disorder, abjection and disgust, according to common capacity to distribute things and their associated symbols in space. In such writings, metaphysics coincides with an ideal of spatial command, one that I’d like to argue both triggers and perpetuates the anthropological machinery I noted earlier. It is a definition of dirt that places cognitive integrity and agentive intention with those that discard. Flipped into the negative this becomes clearer. Douglas argues that those who either can’t or won’t make waste are people who lack a prior system of classification. Still further, Douglas’ theory of the dirty and clean emphasises the human body as a corporeal command centre or letting agent. So without the body, no classification; without classification, no waste.

DeLillo, Kristeva, and Douglas were writing in relatively affluent, socially divided cities of New York, Paris and London, where municipal waste still flows via core-to-periphery systems (though the peripheries are now more global in scale). Aside from these immediate contexts, where does the anthropotechnical tendency towards human excrement emerge? What makes the management of human waste an object by which to achieve a version of the human and, more importantly, what have been the long-term consequences of such a view? There is certainty a long and complex history to how shit has been valued across history and human activity – economy, taxation, agriculture, religion, and the senses and so on – a history that long precedes the urban sensibilities of 20th century academics and novelists, a history that precedes the temporal organisation of written history. But I want to suggest that the tendency to produce territory through waste, to know the shit-producing self that territorialises and individualises the body by virtue of its waste-making powers, this expresses a more recent marriage of biology, philosophy, and social theory. To each, excrement is a divided and divisive object, an object that passes the threshold of the human into the nonhuman, and each field regards and seeks to dispose of bodily wastes in ways that divide ‘me’ from the ‘it’, self and other, and whose measure of achievement is largely spatial. The following history of sanitation and biomedical research will be familiar to you. But a few key events need to be noted for sake of my all-too-brief cultural history of shit, which, though it also makes an outward journey towards the over-thereness of what we excrete, it compulsively returns to the me and mineness of the self. Recent findings in biomedicine should, I want to argue, force us to reconsider this compulsion.

Four devastating outbreaks of cholera in Europe and North American (1831-2, 1848-9, 1853-4, 1866-7) exposed the weakness of Victorian medicine and hastened the scientific refutation of miasmatic theories of disease transmission. Before the pathologisation of bacteria, it was common to believe that foul air transmitted pestilence. Prince Albert died from ‘bowel fever’ (typhoid) but this was thought connected to an updraft of vapours from the drains at Windsor Castle. The infamous ‘Great Stinks’ of London and Paris were thought dangerous, not because people were drinking water containing raw sewage, but because of the smell. This was how it was thought diseases like typhoid and cholera spread.

L0063431 Map showing deaths from Cholera in Broad Street...
John Snow’s map of Soho, from On the Mode of Communication of Cholera (London: John Churchill, 1855), plate op. p. 45. Image: Wellcome Library.

John Snow discovered that households in neighbouring streets were either surviving or falling victim to cholera because the sick were drinking contaminated water while survivors were not. Snow proved that cholera travelled through contaminated waterways (not, I should add, without resistance from those outraged at the idea that London was a city of shit drinkers). As Snow’s science gained traction, protecting communities from infection shifted away from using perfumes or creating huge municipal parks, and started to focus instead on biochemical content of sewage. These investigations led to what was then a minor science, medical bacteriology, which was initiated in 17th century and revived in and beyond the laboratories of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in the mid to late 19th century. Their investigations transformed how disease was thought to enter the body through the discovery of bacterial pathogens.

In the well-known narrative I am telling a subtext emerges that may be less well observed. Human waste undergoes a process of imaginative recalibration. No longer simply a foul smelling threat to Victorian sensibility, or the outward sign of poverty and moral decay (though it would continue to signify these, too), it also becomes a direct and existential danger. It is made contagious, a substance laden with pathogenic agents of death. Germ theories – the name given to idea that bacteria and viruses flourished within waste and contact with bacteria-laden wastes could expose the human body – drove a fear of filth, high anxiety about constipation, and established a causal linkage between pathogenic bacteria and disease. The new message was this: kill or eliminate bacteria; wash, bathe, clean your house and the objects within it, protect and make sanitary your utilities. Above all else, above all this: avoid shit. Its presence threatens the touch of death.

Wars on Microbes.jpeg

Pathogenic danger maintained an existential, epistemic, and numeric gap between the body-subject and its excremental antagonist: purity of one and the danger of many. Little wonder, then, that the language of early immunology, the science dedicated to understanding bacterial pathogens, adopted the language of the most popular political form of organisation: military colonialism (bodies repel invaders, major defences against subversive agents, or cells who simple remain on sentry duty).[6] We still imagine the body as a sovereign state in need of defence against alien intruders. Now clinicians and patients talk of immunological control and communication, recognition, tolerance, and surveillance – proof, were it needed, that the focus of laboratory science on security and securitisation continues to graft the territories of the nation state onto its citizen’s bodies. I have digressed a little from the subject of waste. Easily done. Dominique Laporte argues that the history of shit is nothing less than the history of subjectivity and subject formation:

To touch, even lightly, on the relationship of a subject to his shit, is to modify not only that subject’s relationship to the totality of his body, but his very relationship to the world and to those representations that he constructs of his situation in society.[7]

But proprietorial expressions of self that we can detect in 20th century theories of waste, including Laporte’s, align immunology and philosophy to a common problem whose solution is violent and exclusionary. The emergence of immunology as a science in relation to bacteria at the fin de siècle emboldened a search for ‘healthy’ national as well as racial identities; we cannot think of eugenics campaigns and racial hygiene outside of the colonial circumstances by which these immunological and intellectual dramas unfolded.

L0030380 Advert for Pears' Soap
An Advertisement for Pears’ Soap, c. 1880. Image: Wellcome Library.

Alfred I. Tauber goes so far as to argue that, ‘to define the self has become immunology’s primary mission, the ultimate puzzle for the science that is attempting to identify the organism.’[8] Which is fine but the self has, all too frequently, been defined according to its capacity to subjugate other selves or dispose them as inanimate. I would argue that the primary legacy of immunology is to extend the quest for biological selfhood into every facet of life, with lasting consequences for how we make temporary relations with things, how we view the fluids that our bodies emit as negative and dangerous wastes; the social sciences have, as we saw, played willing allies to this quest for discriminatory systems of self and other – being and matter, place or placelessness – and the grail quest for what separates the living and the dead. Human waste has served as oil in an anthropological machine; the ground for a broader project of hygienic self-elevation and anthropotechnic self-improvement.

The matter of life has been interrogated from many perspectives over recent decades, with biological matter – genomes, brains, diseases or viruses – revealed to be simultaneously and irremediably social. Meanwhile, the material content and form of sociality has always been enabled, mediated and modulated by somatic substrates, whether genetic or epigenetic, nutritional, metabolic, hormonal, behavioural, or toxicological. In the early twentieth-first century, biological and the social are in one another.[9] As a consequence, human waste is being looked at from a very different perspective. The stress is no longer on matter being out of place but the substances being biosemiotic, elements in processes of cross-species communication; a sign of life.[10] Rather than being a threat to public health, human excrement is under scrutiny on an industrial scales. It is a substance being remade with novel values. In brief, analysing human wastes can disclose the symbiotic assemblages of human and non-human life that entangle the biological within the cultural. Far from being the dirty or abject substance described by Douglas and Kristeva, human waste has an informational content, one that exceeds current scientific capacities to say what it is or what it contains.

It is at this point where my collaborative position with biomedical research should be made clear. I am a participant in a UK biobank called TwinsUK. This lab is dedicated to tracing the long-term effects of a very wide range of behaviours and experiences and how these interact with human genetics. After years focussing on health genomics, the laboratory has turned its attention to the microbiome; the collection of microorganisms that live within and upon the human body, and happen to be especially abundant in the human gut.

easy_sampler_fc

The laboratory made a special request: would I, they asked, send them my excrement for analysis? They even gave me a special kit. Just send your ‘fecal sample’ back, they said, wrapped in ice and by express delivery. Sending your shit in the post, to a biomedical laboratory, is not as easy as you might think, and it involves all sorts of specialist medical equipment. First, you have to unpack and understand the elaborate combination of plastic, paper, and rubber technologies. To divert my waste from its usual fate I had to deploy a kind of paper basket between the basin top and the water. When the time comes, one has to construct this paper pouch to catch the spoils. It’s much more pleasing than it sounds. Once you’ve hauled your catch, you need to use these small plastic vials to extract some samples, scooping up with a small spatula that is contained in your kit. Next, labeling; packing in dry ice; stuffing all this into a neatly designed and easily sealed biohazard container before the much more curious process of stepping outside and taking it to the Post Office. ‘Anything of value?’ asks the man at the counter. ‘Oh, not so much’, I say.

What else could I have told him? What value has my scat to promise to its recipients? What kind of change has it undergone now what it has entered the postal system, desired, handled with care, signed for by hospital orderly, and delivered up to the lab for sequencing? Tim Spector and colleagues at TwinsUK have collected thousands of stool samples from people like me, to develop a microbial research project called The Flora Study. The majority of bacteria alive in the human gut cannot be cultured in a lab; they have to be taken from samples like mine. Without trying to summarise 10-15 years of microbial research in the easy-to-digest narrative that belies its gaps and doubts, claims and counter claims, I simply want to highlight some of the important findings as they affect my interests, with the hope that I can reach some of the wider questions raised by microbial research. I have arranged these into five general areas of observation and discussion:

  1. Bacteria are alive, active, and constantly adapting. A huge number of microbiota alive in our gut and known through fecal analysis are integral to human development, health and happiness. We are prenatally sterile, yet the moment the amniotic sac is breached, bacteria move in. These bacteria are not necessarily ‘matter out of place’ – simply to be eliminated as an encroachment of living beings upon our own – but they exist as a consequence of millions of years of co-evolution. Their presence in and around our bodies suggests an example of evolutionary symbiosis and, for this reason, bacteria offer evidence of an oft-repeated mantra of late twentieth century philosophy that was suspicious of the history of humans – there exists no prior human nature upon which culture is writ, only a nature whose culture absorbs many different natures.[11]
  2. For centuries microbiologists have known that there are many, many bacteria in the human body. It is often said that the bacteria in our gut weigh up to 2 kg. But then, in the mid 1990s, it became possible sequence 16S rRNA molecules and researchers realised there are an incredible variety of different kinds of bacteria. The microbiome has a special, inflationary relationship to number. It is often said that humans have approximately 30 trillion human cells in their bodies and 39 trillion microbial cells, though this approximation has been challenged.[12] With the conclusion of the Human Genome Project, we know that there are approximately 20,000 known genes in the human genome. Secreted within the many kinds of single-cell microbiota are 2-20 million genes, so microbial researchers look to another series of calculations seek to emphasise the grand scale of the human microbiome: are 99% of the genes active in our bodies extrinsic to the human genome and largely unknown, yet to be fully understood?[13] We still do not know what many of these kinds are, what they do, or why they do what they do. The popular books available on the microbiome contain as much hypothesis as they do scientific evidence. We know that there is an extraordinary quantity and variety of life being supported by each of us, but we do not know what kind of life it is, or what kind of life we excrete.
  3. The established focus on pathogens – ‘bad’ bacteria, the scientific basis for developing both antibiotic drugs as well as the growth bacterial resistance to those drugs – has given way to a wonder-struck confusion about what the human is in an age of microbiomic analysis. Microbial communities are changed among those with obesity, asthma, colon cancer, diabetes, and autism – whether microbial change causes or is caused by these conditions is hotly contested.[14] It transpires that the interaction between microbes and immune cells is one constant cooperation rather than rejection – microbes fine-tune immune systems throughout the life course, which is why new bacteria resistant to antibiotics can be so catastrophic (immune systems depend on familiar bacteria).[15] The binary patterns of recognition, acceptance or rejection that underpin immunological distinctions of self/non-self, as well as derivative theories of waste that divide organic and nonorganic, placed and misplaced matter, must now contend with the central, developmental role played by nonhuman organisms in forming basic metabolic and immunological functions.
  4. All this encourages a quite different way of conceiving human-environment interactions, going beyond the immunological definition of the self against a multitude of nonhuman antagonists. ‘When we look at beetles and elephants, sea urchins and earthworms, parents and friends,’ argues science writer Ed Yong, ‘we see individuals, working their way through life as a bunch of cells in a single body, driven by a single brain, and operating with a single genome. This is a pleasant fiction.’[16] The individualist unit of anthropotechnical refinement – discrete selfhood – can be troubled without simply criticising its ethics or its environmental consequences (as agreeable as those critiques may be, they have little grounding in the biosocial matter imagined in bacterial life). Once we accept that powers to think, feel, choose, and shit depend upon teeming multitudes of bacterial bodies that surround, live within, and pass between human and nonhuman animals, organic and nonorganic, vegetable and mineral matter, a spanner can be cast into in the anthropological machinery with a little post-Kantian certainty. This would also make a welcome intervention in ‘animal studies’ and posthumanism, fields in the humanities and social sciences that have already embraced notions of sociality supported by distributed networks of human and nonhuman actors. Yet the problem with these writings is that they seem rather stuck with animal familiars – mice, pigeons, cats, dogs, and other small and medium-sized mammals. Since the focus on species and companions can neglect the molecular life that constantly and necessarily passes between all living beings.[17]

The ecological consequences of thinking about microbial ecologies is that evolutionary time converges more meaningfully with the temporal disruption wrought by habitat disturbance and destruction.[18] Though the world’s media has become effective in highlighting the visible damage done to the environment by human resource exploitation: changes in climate and sea levels, or species depletion and extinction are made explicit. But much less media attention is paid to the environmental quality and quantity of ubiquitous organisms. It deserves restating that the best information we have about what bacteria do to us is achieved through sequencing human wastes. But this extractive method, taking a once reviled substance and treating it as an information resource, encourages many to turn back to the human for answers, to enclose the world of bacteria into individualist pockets, despite the fact that ‘the human microbiome’ is a contradictory, rather meaningless idea. I am sorry to report that this is something that clever scientists, journalists, and corporations are exploiting. Giulia Ender’s popular book Gut claims that ‘each of us is an entire ecosystem […] our gut is their [the bacteria’s] world.’[19] Such ‘worlding’ of bacteria fails to tally with the ecological or planetary behaviour that is their world and ours. Even more damaging, in my view, is when Enders characterizes bacteria as colonizers and the body as one that is colonized. For Enders the first bacteria that enter us are ‘the founding fathers of our first microbial colonies.’[20] Such masculinized, imperial misrepresents the processes of symbiosis and the contingencies of mutualism, returns to territorialised self/non-self distinctions, and proposes a ‘virgin’ body that is prior to bacterial symbiont. Equally, when Tim Spector, now in possession of an exquisite example of my shit, thinks it is ‘useful to think of your microbial community as your own garden that you are responsible for,’[21] we return to the false and proprietorial idea of interior life versus exterior life. If my gut is a garden then it is public, never closed, its flora and fauna beyond any sensible census.

At this stage of my research, I sense that we urgently need a language, a fresh set of narrative forms, and renewed attempts to visualize the networks of ‘being–with’ and ‘evolved-thanks-to’ that can account for the spatial absorbency and temporal co-emergence that has cultivated human life as we know it, with the beings that bring us into being.

Notes

[1] Don DeLillo, End Zone (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1972), p. 88–89. For a discussion of this and other works by Don DeLillo in connection to waste, see Rachele Dini, Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction. Legacies of the Avant-Garde (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 154–175.

[2] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Colombia University Press, 1982), p. 2.

[3] Dominique Laporte, History of Shit, trans. Rodolphe el-Khoury and Nadia Benabid (1978; Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002), p. 34; Giorgio Agamben, The Open Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), p. 37.

[4] For a broader explanation of Sloterdijk’s thesis on human self-creation, see You Must Change Your Life (Cambridge: Polity, 2012).

[5] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966; Abingdon: Routledge, 2002), p. 44.

[6] I draw these insights and the effects on philosophy from Andrew Goffey, ‘Homo Immunologicus: On the Limits of Critique,’ BMJ: Medical Humaninties 41 (2015): 8–13.

[7] Laporte, History of Shit, p. 29

[8] Alfred I. Tauber, The Immune Self: Theory or Metaphor: A Philosophical Inquiry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 295.

[9] I paraphrase Maurizio Meloni, John Cromby, Des Fitzgerald, and Stephanie Lloyd, ‘Introduction,’ in Handbook of Biology and Society, ed., Maurizio Meloni, John Cromby, Des Fitzgerald, and Stephanie Lloyd (London: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2017).

[10] See Joshua Ozias Reno, ‘Toward a New Theory of Waste: From ‘Matter out of Place’ to Signs of Life,’ Theory Culture Society 31, 6 (2014): 6–27.

[11] See, among many others, Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.

[12] Ron Sender, Shai Fuchs, Ron Milo, ‘Revised Estimates for the Number of Human and Bacteria Cells in the Body,’ PLoS Biol 14, 8 (2016): e1002533. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1002533

[13] Rob Knight, ‘Breaking the Wall to Our Microbial Self’, at Falling Walls Conference, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-QaEnO1bcY Accessed 25 April 2017.

[14] The literature is too extensive and grows too rapidly to detail in full, take the following as indicative: Andrew B. Shreiner, John Y. Kao, and Vincent B. Young, ‘The Gut Microbiome in Health and in Disease,’ Current opinion in gastroenterology 31, 1 (2015): 69–75. PMC. Web. 25 Apr. 2017; K. Aagaard, J. Petrosino, W. Keitel, M. Watson, J. Katancik, and N. Garcia, ‘The Human Microbiome Project Strategy for Comprehensive Sampling of the Human Microbiome and Why It Matters,’ FASEB J 27 (2013): doi:10.1096/fj.12-220806; D. Huttenhower, D. Gevers, R. Knight, S. Abubucker, J. H. Badger, and A. T. Chinwalla, ‘Structure, Function and Diversity of the Healthy Human Microbiome,’ Nature 486 (2012): doi:10.1038/nature11234.

[15] The metaphor of tuning and ‘fine-tuning’ immunological response can be found in Giulia Enders, Gut: The Inside Stpry of Our Body’s Most Under-rated Organ, trans. David Shaw (2014; London: Scribe, 2016), p. 143.

[16] Ed Yong, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbobes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (London: Bodley Head, 2016), p. 5.

[17] For an example of this tendency towards handheld animal companions or ‘critters’, see Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), pp. 9–29; 104–116.

[18] Anna Tsing’s work is of such enormous value, for it imagines time and existence in capitalism’s ruins, see The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[19] Giulia Enders, Gut, p. 138, p. 140.

[20] Enders, Gut, p. 149.

[21] Tim Spector, The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What we Eat (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2015), p. 19.

‘Performing Wastes’ – Ecology & the Arts Research Group Seminar, 28th October 2015

I’ll be leading a seminar at Durham University on 28th October 2015. The seminar is hosted by the School of Modern Languages and Cultures and their interdisciplinary Ecology & the Arts Research Group. Here are the details in full:

When: 12pm-1pm, 28th October 2015
Where: A56, Elvet Riverside I, Durham University
The seminar is free and all are welcome
For more details please contact the group’s convenor, Dr. Kirsten Oloff

As much as possible the talk will be a summary of my Waste book. I’ve copied the abstract below:

Any theory of waste must account for why waste remains tangibly and capaciously significant, why it can mean so many different things, to so many different people, and across many different times. The broad scales at which waste can operate – from the isolated foreclosure or suspension of utility in a single object to the cataclysmic end of an entire ecosystem – reflects how an emphasis on physical or semantic finitude neglects an excessive quality to what waste is, does, and yet might do. At its most basic, the purpose of this paper is to explore who or what makes discarded things such polymorphic instruments with which to fashion arguments about the world and its inhabitants. This paper will also outline how waste performs and enters into states of performance, how it operates through structures of contradiction that make it such an abundantly meaningful thing to think with. Using examples drawn from works of sculpture, architecture and literature, I explain how we often make and take time according to our engagement with discarded things, and how this chronographic potential shapes an important means by which to consider the form and extent of an artwork’s effects. The paper concludes on the telling and vital influence of waste; far from the degraded, lifeless, abject, or disorderly, the concept and experience of waste is shown to be an integral part of environments as they are built and unbuilt over time.

New Books in Critical Theory: a Conversation with Dave O’Brien

About this time last year I had the pleasure of meeting and being interviewed by Dave O’Brien at Goldsmiths for the New Books in Critical Theory site. In the interview I discuss Waste and how it come into being. It’s the only audio interview I’ve done about the book and, together, Dave and I discuss a wide range of theoretical, historical, political, and environmental concerns that intersect with the concept of waste. Below I’ve quoted Dave’s description of the podcast and you can hear it here.

What is waste? William Viney‘s Waste: A Philosophy of Things (Bloomsbury, 2014; 2015) explores the meaning of waste across a variety of contexts, including literature, sculpture and architecture. The text begins by stressing the importance of time to our understanding of waste, as opposed to more traditional conceptions that are grounded in spatial distinctions. Rather than looking at waste through the dualities of useful or not useful, dirty or clean, William Viney asks us to be attentive to our relationship to objects in time, understanding how they are understood by the many narratives that they may contain, which they may have been party to, and which they may require for us to be able to understand them. The book draws on an emerging but established tradition of work that draws attention to the role of materiality and objects in our understanding of the world. By offering an alternative to the view that waste is the garbage of consumer capitalism, we can see the value of things as their potential, as it is realised in time. The importance of time to understanding objects, as well as understanding waste, is seen through diverse examples, from Cornelia Parker’s sculptures, one created from an exploded shed, through the material objects of the manuscripts of James Joyce, to the representation of future ruins in The Planet of The Apes. These diverse and eclectic sites to exploring waste sit alongside the readings of more traditional subjects for literary theory, such as Elliot’s The Waste Land, meaning the book will appeal to a range of scholars working across the humanities and in the social sciences.

Please Show You’re Working

This is an unedited version of my review for The Times Literary Supplement. The typos are, for that reason, entirely my own.

Cover: The Work of Revision, from Harvard University Press

James Joyce would often write to his patron and unofficial archivist Harriet Shaw Weaver, adding “a little waste paper to get it out of the way.” He was sending her preparatory material, work in progress, which would later become part of the British Library collection. Of the estimated 25,000 pages of drafts and sketches, less than half of these words would be printed in his ‘final’ text, Finnegans Wake. Clearly, the presence of discarded drafts and proofs, and the economies they support, provide a range of opportunities for authors, literary executors, archivists, libraries and scholars. For the latter, establishing points of provenance, compositional order, and textual transmission of these wasted notebook drafts, ‘scripts, and page proofs, along with demonstrating a technical competence necessary to marshal difficult material, can bring professional esteem, employment, promotion, publication, and many an air-conditioned holiday to an archive or research library. Studying discarded and unpublished versions creates ‘grey canons’, altered or alternative bibliographies, ever more responsive to the individuals, communities and institutions that invest in the collection, conservation, dissemination and analysis of their contents. ‘Genetic criticism’, developed by French scholars in the 1970s, has been particularly influential in the attempt to critically assess these abandoned pages, or avant-textes, for the special kind of compositional afterglow that they offer a published work and the process of its creation. And it is this effort to “make texts speak” that makes the spirit and practise of genetic criticism so intriguing – it takes muted documents to describe and thus draw us closer to the thinking that accompanied their making.

The idea of readers peering behind the curtain to gawp at textual detritus gives some authors cause for anxiety. Basil Bunting, for example, preferred that his drafts pipe down and enjoy “the damp dustbins among the peel / tobacco-ash and ends spittoon lickings” instead of the “printed ignominy” offered by their preservation. In The Work of Revision, Hannah Sullivan shows herself to be a critic who is, so to speak, willing to go through the bins. In exploring the processes of composition and decomposition, as well as providing an excellent introduction to the practical and conceptual ideas integral to comparative textual genetics, she shows how the “fossilized historical intentions” and the “traces of the action” can emerge between revised texts. Fated experiments, she argues, produce invaluable castoffs. Readers glimpse an author’s wider ambitions and, significantly, the changing shape of a work as it moves from shop floor to shop window.

What is attractive about The Work of Revision is the way Sullivan’s precise and carefully organised case histories unsettle the simple, unidirectional, and ideal passage from draft to bound copy. In her descriptions of “post-compositional revision” in particular, she reminds us of the laborious transformations that can occur prior to and after the publication of a volume. Revised texts, she argues, elicit a different kind of review, and the work, to quote Michel Contat, Denis Hollier, and Jacques Neefs, “now stands out against a background, and a series, of potentialities. Genetic criticism is contemporaneous with an esthetic of the possible.” It is with an expanded sense of possibility that Sullivan traces the labour of writing. From the failure of Henry James’s New York Edition to the posthumous publication of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land typescripts (“years of waste time, exacerbating to its author”, according to Ezra Pound), this book reflects the mixed fortunes of those that choose to revise and revise again.

The Work of Revision is organised around writings by Henry James, Pound, Hemingway, Eliot, Joyce and Woolf, along with some others. Across these case studies swirl a wider set of historical, sociological, and economic ideas, particularly about the influence that writing technologies and print histories have had in forming specific, aesthetic effects (such as ambiguity, parataxis, or autobiographical closure). Contrary, perhaps, to the intuitive idea that ‘bad’ witting needs more revision than ‘good’ writing, Sullivan argues that the history of “revising is influenced by writing technology and medium more than initial composition”. Though some writers of the early-twentieth century entertained a minimalist, Imagist aesthetic, others took to a kind of textual maximalism, exemplified by Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and the accretive method by which Joyce developed later episodes of Ulysses. Both literary minimalism and maximalism, suggests Sullivan, are best understood in terms of the technologies that permitted experiments in revision.

The typewriter brought home the clarity of blacks on blanks and, since many of Sullivan’s modernist revisionaries wrote first in freehand and then employed a typist to produce their typescripts, they benefited from an important transition between the provisional nature of manuscript and the fixity of type (“Much as I loathe the typewriter”, wrote Auden, “I must admit that it is a help in self-criticism”). Another innovation that made the period between 1890 and 1940 something of a golden era for Sullivan, were advances in automatic typesetting. In the 1880s print became faster and cheaper, publishers could afford to send their authors proofs and, in doing so, they created another opportunity to make changes to the text. The proliferation of little magazines in this period gave authors yet another opportunity to test their work against a reading public before revising for subsequent publication. Form, as well as content, emerges from these relaying acts of modification: the Pound-Eliot co-editorship of The Waste Land created a paper trail that reveals poem and “a poem that merely could have been”; Joyce’s proof-stage additions to Ulysses thicken the interior depth of his characters. More than through some totalising set of ideals that were universally shared, the significance of the period’s experimentalism returns us to the economies of print, the systems of patronage, and the matter and materialities of composition.

A revisionary history of revision, based on the distribution of writing technologies, is an important contribution to the scholarship of twentieth-century literature, and it follows a wealth of other recent studies that have focused on the historical circumstances that encouraged artistic experiment in this period. It has been presented in a book that keeps the hand busy in the margin, to mark and then return to its frequent moments of insight but also in order to take a second look at the arguments once composed and then set aside. Sullivan says Keats, Shelley, Browning and other Romantic writers did not tend to revise and could not afford to, and they scorned attempts to reignite the fading coals of the imagination and turn back time on a creative act whose authenticity was held to be unilinear in nature. Wordsworth’s Preludes marks a telling exception. The moderns had a remorseless passion for revision that reached a “perverse” state – a “fetish” for some – as they became possessed by a “psychological compulsion” to transform their texts. Wordsworth, despite conducting a project of revision that lasted decades, is described as a “penitent” reviser and is therefore categorically pre-modernist. One wonders whether Sullivan’s desire to use the history of revision to solidify rather than complicate the relations between literary epochs – Romantic, modern, postmodern, or whatever we might call them – means that these moral and quasi-medical judgements about the practise of revision must appear like the tips to some unseen mass, untethered to her arguments about writing technologies and unsupported beyond a few familiar quotes from the works of Sigmund Freud.

Encompassing statements that seem to decry the “wasteful textual attitudes” of modernist writers and their “aesthetic of textual recklessness” are contrasted to our digital present. Sullivan shows how M.F.A. programmes, which make literary revision an important and explicit part of their curricula, are as familiar as authors at literary festivals discussing the ways that they turn and return to a phrase. So long as “revising a lot turns out to be something that famous authors do” the craftiness of writing will remain the pedagogical and performative norm. But the means by which we can document textual change, and therefore the kinds of individual text histories that Sullivan creates, has radically changed in the last two decades. Accelerating the pace of publication with the almost ubiquitous use of word processing software, many writers have lost the passage from manuscript to typescript that was so influential to previous generations: electronic documents are written and edited on screen, saving over previous versions; typescript changes are approved on screen; proofs are sent by email. This makes genetic criticism, especially object-orientated, archived, and institutionalised criticism, rather more difficult to undertake. In contrast to the modernist period, Sullivan declares that revision is now “effectively free”; “there is no real danger of a work becoming fixed in a single, imperfect form.” It is a shame that these claims of digital freedom are not supported with the same kind of rigorous detail provided elsewhere. Indeed, when Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was published in the UK using first-pass galley proofs – Franzen discovered the mistake while recording a reading for the BBC’s The Review Show and a subsequent public reading commenced with the author urging his audience not to but buy the book – the costs and dangers of electronic transfer resurfaced with particular force.

In a simple sense, publishing and the process of literary composition, like other aspects of craft and commerce, are not yet fully paperless. Contemporary writers also use notebooks, send hardcopy of their unrevised typescripts (some agents and presses only accept paper submissions), and uncorrected proofs are put in circulation for book fairs; the paper evidence has not entirely disappeared. Which brings us back to decisions of individuals and collectives, back to a wider set of positions – political, social, economic, ecological, and technological – that affect compositional practise. For instance, technological obsolescence may well prevent textual geneticists from accessing the working drafts of some contemporary writers, yet the primary issue, as it was with Joyce when he dispersed “waste paper” around Europe, is whether or not avant-textes, in whatever format, are kept, stored, backed up or emailed in the first place. So, while Joyce sent his working drafts to Weaver and agonised about the notebooks that he lost during his movements across Europe, Eliot was glad to see the back of his early notebook: “I cannot feel altogether sorry that this [typescript] and the notebook have disappeared” (it was hidden in a drawer and later published in 1996 as Inventions of a March Hare). As Hannah Sullivan so skilfully shows, textual waste does have a habit of returning to texts that once required its absence, but the rate of return is not yet so rapid as to be non-existent or untraceable. The Work of Revision reflects a variety of writerly attitudes to revision as well as the decisions left open to readers regarding the value of lines crossed-out and stanza redecorated. Provocative and direct, it goes to great lengths to show just how difficult it can be to elucidate the social life of texts whose use and meaning remain a work in progress.

– 1807

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

The ‘Introduction’ of *Waste: A Philosophy of Things* Available Here

WasteWith the official UK release of Waste: A Philosophy of Things on 22nd May 2014, Bloomsbury have supplied a preview to give you an idea of the book’s ambitions. You can read the Introduction here.

***

About Why are people so interested in what they and others throw away? This book shows how this interest in what we discard is far from new — it is integral to how we make, build and describe our lived environment. As this wide-ranging new study reveals, waste has been a polarizing topic for millennia and has been treated as a rich resource by artists, writers, philosophers and architects. Drawing on the works of Giorgio Agamben, T.S. Eliot, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, James Joyce, Bruno Latour and many others, Waste: A Philosophy of Things investigates the complexities of waste in sculpture, literature and architecture. It traces a new philosophy of things from the ancient to the modern and will be of interest to those working in cultural and literary studies, archaeology, architecture and continental philosophy.

***

“This book will convince you that our most complex contemporary ideas about time are at work in the concept of waste. It draws its temporal concepts from many places, from art and literature, philosophy and cultural theory, narrative and the theory of narrative to think about the time of things – things we discard, things we used to use, things we collect, things that fall into ruin, and things that hold the future within them. It animates the theory of things and makes something beautiful out of waste.” –  Mark Currie, Professor of Contemporary Literature, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, UK

“If the primary achievement of recent civilization is to produce unprecedented heaps of garbage, what does this tell us about that civilization? In his pleasantly lucid prose style, Will Viney answers this question by providing an ontology, a sociology, and even an art criticism of waste, with special attention to the writings of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce and the visual art of Cornelia Parker and Mark Dion.” –  Graham Harman, Distinguished University Professor, American University in Cairo

– See more at: http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/waste-9781472527578#sthash.FbBc2Y1X.dpuf“This book will convince you that our most complex contemporary ideas about time are at work in the concept of waste. It draws its temporal concepts from many places, from art and literature, philosophy and cultural theory, narrative and the theory of narrative to think about the time of things – things we discard, things we used to use, things we collect, things that fall into ruin, and things that hold the future within them. It animates the theory of things and makes something beautiful out of waste.” –  Mark Currie, Professor of Contemporary Literature, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, UK

Reviews “This book will convince you that our most complex contemporary ideas about time are at work in the concept of waste. It draws its temporal concepts from many places, from art and literature, philosophy and cultural theory, narrative and the theory of narrative to think about the time of things – things we discard, things we used to use, things we collect, things that fall into ruin, and things that hold the future within them. It animates the theory of things and makes something beautiful out of waste.” –  Mark Currie, Professor of Contemporary Literature, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, UK

“If the primary achievement of recent civilization is to produce unprecedented heaps of garbage, what does this tell us about that civilization? In his pleasantly lucid prose style, Will Viney answers this question by providing an ontology, a sociology, and even an art criticism of waste, with special attention to the writings of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce and the visual art of Cornelia Parker and Mark Dion.” –  Graham Harman, Distinguished University Professor, American University in Cairo

Why are people so interested in what they and others throw away? This book shows how this interest in what we discard is far from new — it is integral to how we make, build and describe our lived environment. As this wide-ranging new study reveals, waste has been a polarizing topic for millennia and has been treated as a rich resource by artists, writers, philosophers and architects. Drawing on the works of Giorgio Agamben, T.S. Eliot, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, James Joyce, Bruno Latour and many others, Waste: A Philosophy of Things investigates the complexities of waste in sculpture, literature and architecture. It traces a new philosophy of things from the ancient to the modern and will be of interest to those working in cultural and literary studies, archaeology, architecture and continental philosophy.

Table Of Contents

Acknowledgements
List of Illustrations
1. Introduction
Part I: Collecting Waste
2. Narrating the Event of Waste
3. Archaeologies of Waste
Part II: Reading Waste
4. The Poetic Economies of T. S. Eliot
5. Reading Joycean Disjecta
Part III: Building Ruins
6. Ruins Past
7. Ruins of the Future
8. Conclusion
Notes
Bibliography
Index

Reviews

“This book will convince you that our most complex contemporary ideas about time are at work in the concept of waste. It draws its temporal concepts from many places, from art and literature, philosophy and cultural theory, narrative and the theory of narrative to think about the time of things – things we discard, things we used to use, things we collect, things that fall into ruin, and things that hold the future within them. It animates the theory of things and makes something beautiful out of waste.” –  Mark Currie, Professor of Contemporary Literature, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, UK“If the primary achievement of recent civilization is to produce unprecedented heaps of garbage, what does this tell us about that civilization? In his pleasantly lucid prose style, Will Viney answers this question by providing an ontology, a sociology, and even an art criticism of waste, with special attention to the writings of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce and the visual art of Cornelia Parker and Mark Dion.” –  Graham Harman, Distinguished University Professor, American University in Cairo

– See more at: http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/waste-9781472527578#sthash.Sndli2r2.dpuf

Advance Praise for Waste: A Philosophy of Things

I’m honoured to have some extremely generous endorsements for my book, Waste: A Philosophy of Things, from two scholars whose work has been an inspiration to me:

“If the primary achievement of recent civilization is to produce unprecedented heaps of garbage, what does this tell us about that civilization? In his pleasantly lucid prose style, Will Viney answers this question by providing an ontology, a sociology, and even an art criticism of waste, with special attention to the writings of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce and the visual art of Cornelia Parker and Mark Dion.” – Graham Harman, Distinguished University Professor, American University in Cairo

“This book will convince you that our most complex contemporary ideas about time are at work in the concept of waste. It draws its temporal concepts from many places, from art and literature, philosophy and cultural theory, narrative and the theory of narrative to think about the time of things – things we discard, things we used to use, things we collect, things that fall into ruin, and things that hold the future within them. It animates the theory of things and makes something beautiful out of waste.” – Mark Currie, Professor of Contemporary Literature, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, UK

Graham Harman’s work on object-oriented philosophy and speculative realism led me to the subject of things, to Heidegger’s analysis of the broken tool, and to Latour; all became influential as I got through the book. Mark Currie is a leading narratologist and has written some fantastic books on the relationship between time, storytelling, and fiction.

Parts of the book can now be seen using Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ function. And there may be something available on Google Books after the book is published on 22nd May.