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.


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.


[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.


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

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


“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

Waste: A Philosophy of Things, Now Available on Amazon

Though it won’t be available for some months – provisionally scheduled for release in May 2014 – my first book, Waste: A Philosophy of Things, is now listed on Amazon for pre-order. The book will be published by Bloomsbury Academic at a price that will put it beyond the reach of most individuals but with the Waste-A Philosophy of Thingshope that institutions may buy enough copies for a paperback edition to be financially viable. Having worked in academic publishing, helping others to get their work published, I am delighted that I’ll be putting out something of my own. And, though my attention is now directed to other projects, my work on waste is still a source of interest to me and, I hope, not yet redundant by all that has been written and published on the subject since I concluded my research.

Things are changing in publishing and, though I am interested in open culture and, to an extent, the open source publishing models pioneered online, I am still convinced that traditional, hardcopy formats (alongside digital formats), established on flexible but globally structured editorial, publicity and marketing relations, along with the modest kinds of innovation that Bloomsbury are strong on, is a better option for me, at this stage, and for this particular project. If that sounds like I have ethical issues with the academic publishing industry as a whole, well, I do, but this is a book that requires all the support of an established and well-run press of which Bloomsbury is certainly an example.

The cover image is taken sometime in 1888, I think, during the Tower’s construction. I am particularly interested in monuments as waste or as immanent objects of waste, and the temporality of this is explored in the book’s final chapters. It is not the case that all monuments ruin in the same way nor do they always resemble ruins in their construction, but the sight and site of a building being made makes use as well as future ruin possible. It is the relationship between use and waste, use as waste, use making waste, that has captivated me and made this book project so unexpectedly relevant to my current research into the use of twins in contemporary science. More on that elsewhere, for now, I’m looking to topping off the almost-not-quite-yetness of Waste, with the index and final proofs not yet ready.

Waste Effects – Table of Contents

As a quick way of navigating this site I thought it might be helpful to upload my table contents and provide links. These are not verbatim extracts but versions or papers that have a close correspondence to the final text. And there are lots of other incidental posts on this site, which closely relate to the subject of waste, that have not made it into the final draft. Now that this project is almost complete, the work in progress found here will be left up as a record of the various iterations it went through before being handed in, together, as my PhD thesis.


Chapter 1. Introduction
– Use-time and the End of Ends
– Waste-time and the End of the End
– Epic Wastes: “Nothing will come of nothing”
Sovereign Wastes: Unproductive and Uninhabited
– For a Temporal Poetics of Waste
– The Beginning of the End


Chapter 2. Narrating the Event of Waste
Interrupting Waste
Continuities of Waste
Narrating The Event of Waste in the Work of Cornelia Parker

Chapter 3. Archaeologies of Waste
Gathering Waste
– The Contingencies of Narrating Waste
– Anthropologies of Waste: Collecting Culture, Collecting Time
– Archives and the Afterlife of Collections
– Waste Remains, Dust Dissolves


Chapter 4. The Poetic Economies of T. S. Eliot
Make it Waste
– Bringing the Waste Land to Order
– Allusion, Intertexuality and Manuscript Drafts

Chapter 5. Reading Joycean Disjecta
Waste Words and Throwaways
– A Language of Flotsam and Jetsam
– Narrating the Place of Textual Waste
– Waste in Progress
– Eliot and Joyce: Writing into Disappearance


Chapter 6. Ruins Past
– The Temporality of Use
The Temporality of Ruins
– Ruins and the Past

Chapter 7. Ruins of the Future
Apocalypse, Then
– The Ozymandias Complex
– Encountering Last Things
– Concluding with Ruins

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.

T. S. Eliot and the Writing of Waste

As the sculptural work of Cornelia Parker and Mark Dion has demonstrated, the inclusion or representation of waste reveals a key, self-reflexive quality of incorporating temporal redundancy within an artwork. The inclusion of waste in these works of art, and in the literary works considered below, foregrounds the positional nature of waste – striking distinct temporal relations between processes of deposition, composition and decomposition, motivating an engagement with the work that either acknowledges an explicit severance between times of use and non-use or plays upon their uncertain commingling. Arriving at this self-reflexive, propositional potential we might begin to comprehend the temporal positions at stake when identifying objects of waste in sculpture and literature.

Writing, as an object and a process that produces objects, can be said to give rise to various encounters with ‘textual waste’ and to an idea of waste as it is mediated by texts: on the one hand, a text can describe certain things, people and landscapes that have fallen from a temporally co-dependent relationship with human activity; on another, texts might suggest a compositional form of waste by alluding to or including the drafts, excisions or textual variants; and on a third, more ghostly limb, writing may also signify its status as an object, as a thing that might be discarded, a thing to be jettisoned. This chapter and the chapter that follows will approach these different yet intrinsically related stratum of textual waste to conclude that the significance of waste in literature cannot be reduced to one strata or another; all three play a fundamental role in how we evaluate objects within texts and how we take these things to function and perform within a literary work. For the reasons outlined in my introduction, waste plays an essential role in our attempts to apportion, organise and regulate the world of things; objects and events of waste help us to trace and retrace the passage of objects through time. Rather than focusing too much on the commonplace epithets ascribed to certain literary genres, which describe particular forms of writing as ‘trash’ or ‘pulp fiction’, the following chapters attend to the dynamic, propositional presence of redundant or exhausted things within canonical works of twentieth-century poetry and prose. Thus, the condition of waste is not considered an antithesis of ‘literature’, or writing more generally, but constitutes an essential aspect of textual formation.

Simply because a particular object has been singled out for examination, this should not exclude the formal, material or historical conditions by which that object entered a particular work of literature. The theoretical works that might guide us through this first level of textual waste, whereby objects of waste are described in a text, are relatively few in number. Francesco Orlando’s Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination attends to this dilemma by accumulating an extraordinary range of literary examples to construct a complex taxonomy of literary waste, a taxonomy that stabilises each example by comparison and normalisation. In doing so, Orlando provides a remarkable number of examples from European literature where particular kinds of objects come into view and, if it achieves nothing else, confirms the enduring presence of redundancy in literary works.

Orlando’s Taxonomy of Literary Waste, in Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination, 205.

In taking a rigorously structuralist approach to the idea of waste in literature, advancing through a taxonomy of things that “consist[s] only of binary oppositions” and “terminal contrar[ies]”, Orlando argues that literary works can confirm and conform to certain set a priori categories.[1] This matrix orders types of waste according to whether the objects described have been collectively or individually perceived, whether they appear within a natural or supernatural environment, whether they form a significant or peripheral role in the narrative, can be considered wrought or raw.[2] As a taxonomy that attempts to absorb every possible form of literary waste, the scheme assumes an air of infallibility; should Orlando’s terms be unable to account for a particular obsolete thing then the failure highlights a flaw in text concerned; where these categories cannot be satisfactorily applied, “the substance of the texts is insufficient”.[3] The images of waste that we might encounter in works of literature are to be resolved and categorised within a predetermined series of categorical bifurcations; if they cannot be categorised in this way then they cannot be considered objects of waste.

The peculiar permanence that Orlando gives the waste he reads relies almost exclusively upon the stasis and reliability of what he calls the “nonfunctional”, a term that we have already rendered problematic in various ways. In my view, concepts of waste do not simply stand in opposition to concepts of use but represent a specific relation to or augmentation of the time we make through things. So, when Orlando argues that “What is used, what is needed, what serves a purpose, what is useful: these are the contraries of those things whose images we are studying”[4], he seeks to separate his study from the categorical volatility that makes waste a fundamentally reversible condition. And Orlando overlooks one of the central paradoxes of waste: in works of literature, images of waste are frequently needed, purposeful and useful for communicating a whole range of meanings. We are left to wonder about the usefulness of including images of waste, the author’s intentions in mobilising the idea of waste in their work and the various impressions available that might not be easily termed ‘collective’ or ‘individual’, ‘pertinent’ or ‘impertinent’, ‘raw’ or ‘wrought’ but might, in fact, comprise combinations of some, none or all of those terms. Textual waste is neither absolutely terminal nor absolutely contrary to the useful time that renders it articulate. And objects of waste do not necessarily herald a time of absolute or unequivocal nonfunctionality – what is discarded by one group or individual might be instrumental to another, things might change their function over time by becoming discarded, reused or recycled. And, at a less pragmatic and more conceptual level, the temporal arrangement by which waste comes into being must reconcile the use that has passed and make the idea of use present at precisely the moment where it is said to have dissolved. In other words, we cannot take for granted a polarisation between use and waste, but must, instead, seek to understand the transient co-dependence and cross-contamination of these terms. This is as true when we confront works of sculpture and literature as it is when we confront cigarette ends found in the gutter or the refuse found at a landfill.

Whilst we have discovered some flaws with one of the few works of literary criticism that has focused on the subject of waste in literature, it provides a useful departure for what follows. In response to Orlando’s attempts, I would like to suggest that when approaching the subject of waste in literature it is a mistake to isolate the object of description from the objects that make that descriptive act possible, i.e. the inevitable waste that accompanies acts of inscription and reading. The making of texts involves the production of waste, as well as references to it – a waste in both form and in content. One of the more compelling effects of waste as it is transcribed into textual forms is its capacity “simultaneously to create a fiction and to make a statement about the creation of that fiction.”[5] This metafictional potential encourages a relay between the various methods of making things, whether decaying, dissolving or going to waste, and the innumerable things that appear before us, either on the page or screen. Just as waste facilitated an analysis of productive destruction, decay and recovery that were felt to be intrinsic to the artistic practice of Parker and Dion, so we should try to understand the relationship between the textual descriptions of waste and the qualitative act of producing a thing called a ‘text’; that is to say, we should look to how waste is not simply a passive and inactive species of object, innocently tucked into works of literature for the pleasure of those with a penchant for the redundant, but as an idea that informs the construction, consumption and deconstruction of literature more broadly. These are some of the principles and ambitions that motivate the criticism below, loosening some of the burden of literary variety for the sake of a more thoroughgoing theory of how waste and writing intersect. If one assumes that literature must make recourse to a material text, then the value of waste in literature resides in the relationship between its content and the textual medium.

The following chapters concentrate on the work of just two writers, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, in order to exemplify a number of pertinent areas where ideas of ‘waste’ and ‘literature’ intersect. In restricting myself to a narrow range of authors I hope to give greater room to the theoretical implications of the thesis as a whole and, in particular, to explore the ways in which we both compose and decompose meaning when assessing the effects of waste in and upon the literary. What might be lost in not highlighting the importance of discarded things in the work of Shakespeare, Swift, Sterne, Shelley, Keats and Dickens, as well as the modern and the contemporary writers with whom the concept of waste can be readily associated,[6] might be compensated by a more thorough-going and comprehensive analysis of how waste converses with the idea of the literary, the images that are created and the textual things that mediate their potential.

As a literature that contemplates the leftovers of literature, the poetry of T. S. Eliot has gained some of its distinction through the identification and mobilisation of waste, both as an object of writing and a critical concept used to interpret that writing. At an immediate level, Eliot’s poetry is composed of substances spent, discards of image and text that seem to at once achieve and to resist the condition of absolute redundancy; there seems no end “To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage” (CPP 186).[7] But it is not simply a literature dominated by images of discarded things, nor is it simply a literature about discarded things, but a literature that seems uncannily aware of what remains of its composition, a poetics that positions Eliot’s work among the residues of his texts and countless others. And, whilst this poetics of residua absorbs within it a whole range of modernist mantras – to ‘make it new’ and to ‘make it difficult’[8] – it keenly pursues one other, less observed imperative: to ‘make it waste.’ This final imperative, though rarely acknowledged and partially achieved, accounts for the difficulty of Eliot’s writing as a productive and reflexive effect of wasted words.

We will not begin where one might expect but, instead, with a notebook, a notebook of early poems and poetic fragments that was sold by Eliot to the patron and collector John Quinn in 1922, as replete with vacant spaces as The Waste Land and an important source for that work. For many years after Quinn’s death in 1924 it was thought that this notebook had been lost or destroyed. There were a number of instances when Eliot expressed his opinion of this work. The first occurs just a few months before the publication of The Waste Land, when Eliot sent Quinn the notebook: “You will find a great many sets of verse which have never been printed and which I am sure you will agree never ought to be printed, and in putting them in your hands, I beg you fervently to keep them to yourself and see they are never printed.”[9] In a letter dated 28th July 1963, Eliot refers to the contents of this missing notebook as “unpublished and unpublishable”[10] and, in another letter to Daniel Woodward a year later, “I cannot feel altogether sorry that this [typescript] and the notebook have disappeared. The unpublished poems in the notebook were not worth publishing.”[11] These poems were not lost, however, but tucked away in a box and later bought by the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library in 1958. Their acquisition was announced to the general public ten years later, on the 25th October 1968.[12] Access to these works was limited until in 1996, when they were published as the collection Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909–1917 and for the first time scholars interested in Eliot’s notebook were permitted to take direct quotations from it. This might seem an unremarkable case of emancipated juvenilia; work the author had hoped would remain a unique and private thing emerging into the light of public scrutiny. But the notebook’s contents and unpublished status, cancellation and subsequent publication, prove highly relevant to our consideration of textual, technical and material value. Its passage from manuscript draft to published work shows an alternative trajectory to The Waste Land, which was published in The Criterion, The Dial and as a book in 1922, but also as manuscript facsimiles in 1971. We will have time to consider what effect the publication of The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Typescript of the Original Drafts did for the understanding of that poem, but not before attending to the dynamic waste content of Inventions of the March Hare.

Discarded Inventions: Inscription on Eliot’s First Flyleaf

The notebook’s title represents a synecdoche for the changing fortunes of its contents. Inscribed “INVENTIONS OF THE MARCH HARE” on the first flyleaf, Eliot later cancelled out these words by replacing them on the front free endpaper with, “COMPLETE POEMS OF / T. S. Eliot” alongside a dedication to Jean Verdenal and an epigraph taken from Dante. Comparing Eliot’s habits in naming and dedicating his work, Christopher Ricks makes the case that Eliot probably changed the title when he knew that the contents of the notebook were to go unpublished, “between 1920 and 1925 […] when he sold it to Quinn in 1922.”[13] Double-named, no-named, one can only wonder whether Eliot deleted the former title and added the latter because he knew that ‘The Complete Poems’ was an unpublishable title for an undesirable publication. His notebook did not include the poem that had made him famous and the notebook’s fragmentary, protean correspondence to his later, published work would show it to be wholly incomplete; an embarrassing work in progress. No doubt conscious of how an act of naming can help legitimise a new publication, Ricks recovers and reinstates the cancelled title, cancelling Eliot’s cancellation. The title, ‘Inventions of the March Hare’, according to Ricks, is “likely to be less inappropriate than any other [title], as memorable, and as figuring in TSE’s correspondence.”[14] Such editorial interventions into the work of a dead writer are certainly not unusual and the cancellation of words, phrases and whole passages from a text are to be expected in a notebook to which time was given to “visions and revisions”. But what seems telling about the title and its sardonic ghost intimates the temporal relation between invention and completion, between the sketches discarded as “unpublishable” and the apparent closure of a ‘complete’ work, not to mention the figures of waste that Eliot so regularly employs to reflect how his work has been composed, what it describes and the material things it requires to make that process of composition and description possible.

During an interview in 1959 Eliot would observe, “As a rule, with me an unfinished thing is a thing that might as well be rubbed out. It’s better, if there’s something good in it that I might make use of it elsewhere, to leave it at the back of my mind than on paper in a drawer. If I leave it in a drawer it remains the same thing but if it’s in the memory it becomes transformed into something else.”[15] As a rule, things are rarely so simple. The poems in Inventions of the March Hare are works that have been rubbed out, placed in a drawer and transformed into something else; they reflect a number of possible material outcomes. But their presence in the wider body of Eliot’s writings, as both a source and another conclusion to the works published in his lifetime, means that being left at the back of drawer means that a work can still be available for reuse; those poems that were never published by Eliot became important sources for his published work. It would seem that, as time passes, the distinctions between rubbing out, remembering or discarding draft material prove far from absolute, especially when it comes to the detritus that Eliot employs in his early poems. ‘First Caprice in North Cambridge’ and ‘Second Caprice in North Cambridge’ are both manuscripts written in blue ink, composed in November 1909 and reproduced in typescript for Inventions of the March Hare:

‘First Caprice in North Cambridge’

A street-piano, garrulous and frail;
The yellow evening flung against the panes
Of dirty windows: and in distant strains
Of children’s voices, ended in a wail.

Bottles and broken glass,                                                  5
Trampled mud and grass;
A heap of broken barrows;
And a crowd of tattered sparrows
Delve in the gutter with sordid patience.
Oh, these minor considerations! . . . . .                            10

                                                                                         (IMH, 5)

Readers familiar with the work that was published during Eliot’s lifetime will recognise a number of tropes and images, many of which relate to images of waste. Compare “The yellow evening flung against the panes” (2) with the “yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes” found in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (CPP, 13), or “Bottles and broken glass, / Trampled mud and grass” (5–6) with the “Our dried voices […] As wind in dry grass / or rats’ feet over broken glass” found in The Hollow Men (CPP, 83). Finally, and most pertinent to this study, “A heap of broken barrows” resonates with and anticipates one of the most cited lines from The Waste Land: “A heap of broken images” (I.22).[16] Inventions of the March Hare is full of these whispers and sketches, migratory phrases that we can recognise as being put to use “elsewhere”. That it should be images of waste that brings this pattern of use, reuse and rubbing out to light only seems to intensify certain compositional processes of textual variation, revision and self-reference. Firstly, the appearance of “A heap of broken barrows” shows that, thirteen years prior to the publication of The Waste Land, Eliot was taking serious interest in the capacity of waste to figure semantic and visual fragmentation. Secondly, the “broken barrows” of ‘First Caprice’, which might signify animal, tumuli or tool, carries a productive uncertainty that feels at odds with the reparative promise of Eliot’s end-rhymes (glass/grass, barrows/sparrows), foretelling a tension between lyric enclosure and figurative multiplicity that can be readily traced into The Waste Land and the works that followed. And it is important to note how the catalogue of waste found in ‘First Caprice’, an inventory of muddy and discarded matter, presses against a sense of formal poetic containment. It is the specificity of waste that makes this not just a formal or semantic complexity but a lingering temporal one too – these frail, dirty, broken, trampled things remain to be considered, to be reworked, reused and open to renewed assessment. Bringing a deliberate and formal momentum to the gutter, the final lines are both a statement and summary of minor tone and reflect the temporal openness of waste, a reflexive declaration of provisional exhaustion. The final ellipsis marks both the failure to say more and the promise that these images will continue to reverberate and reappear, as they do so in Eliot’s next caprice:

‘Second Caprice in North Cambridge’

The charm of vacant lots!
The helpless fields that lie
Sinister, sterile and blind –
Entreat the eye and rack the mind,
Demand your pity.                                                     5
With ashes and tins in piles,
Shattered bricks and tiles
And the débris of the city.

Far from our definitionAnd our aesthetic laws    10
Let us pause.
With these fields that hold and rack the brain
(What: again?)
With an unexpected charm
And an unexpected repose                                         15
On an evening in December
Under a sunset yellow and rose.

                                                                                           (IMH, 15)

Whilst textual scholars such as Lyndall Gordon have argued that Eliot began writing the early fragments of The Waste Land in 1914, reading the detritus of Inventions of the March Hare reveals how Eliot’s interest in images of waste can be found scattered throughout his earlier work.[17] And it is the relentless and recurrent aspects of waste, the temporal disjunctures that makes it an actively redundant thing, which allows us to trace its passage through Eliot’s writing and expand the traditional, historical horizons given to the genesis of his later works. Waste is encountered as a strange and compelling object, with “unexpected charm” (14) these “vacant lots” (1), scattered with broken bricks and tiles, might demand pity but they also “entreat the eye and rack the mind” (4) and give pause to the conventions of philosophic discourse. Eliot produces this sense of surprise and enchantment through a canny circularity of phrase and a rhyming self-reproach, “With these fields that hold and rack the brain / (What: again?)” (12–13). Here is matter that persists in the mind in order to be taken up again in other circumstances, matter for which the future is open and without obvious closure. In the description of these vacant lots lies an involuntary aspect of Eliot’s theory of composition and memory that we noted earlier; the incomplete, vacant contents of his writing are used to signify the compulsion to write, the compulsion to respond to the salient intellectual and poetic ‘demands’ of waste. The “unfinished thing” causes a problem both materially and mentally for Eliot, prompting him to glean the unfinished object for anything that might be used again in another form. “It might as well be rubbed out”, if it is to be reused it must be left “at the back of my mind.” The failure of the draft, its incompletion makes it available for reuse, recollection and permutation; in this openness comes the force to hold and rack the mind.

The repetitions of waste in Eliot are twofold, especially when reading Inventions of the March Hare: these poems describe the outward performance of gleaning wastes for their poetic effects whilst giving an implicit, reflexive performance of drafting, discarding and retaining ideas for subsequent use. In what will be a key and revisited scene, the waste land will never be entirely “Sinister, sterile and blind” (3) but also the scene of contemplation, meditation and unforeseen light, a waste land that holds and racks the mind in a way that will secure its reprise in later works. Both with respect to the individual poem and within the context of Eliot’s wider oeuvre, ‘Second Caprice in North Cambridge’ displays a waste for repeated viewing and, typical of Eliot, one that cannot be easily understood as the ‘source’ for later work since it contains a passage written by another writer. It is, in this respect, at the intersection of a huge variety of textual wastes, both forwards and backwards in time. Note the tins, piles, vacant lots and rosiness found in Henry James’ The Bostonians:

the red sunsets of winter […] a collective impression of the meanness of boards and tin and frozen earth, sheds and rotting piles […] loose fences, vacant lots, mounds of refuse, yards bestrewn with iron pipes, telegraph poles, and bare wooden backs of places. Verena thought such a view lovely, and she was by no means without excuse when as the afternoon closed, the ugly picture was tinted with a clear, cold rosiness.[18]

These are images of animated desolation to which Eliot will again turn in when drafting ‘Preludes’ in his Inventions notebook; a poem first drafted eleven months after his first and second caprice and containing the mutated, discarded scraps, lots and images we found in those poems.[19] In section I of ‘Preludes’, gusts of wind wrap “grimy scraps / Of withered leaves about your feet / And newspapers from vacant lots” (IMH, I.5–8), section III speaks of “a thousand sordid images” (IMH III.27) and “the sparrows in the gutters” (IMH III.32), whilst section IV will conclude with the thought that “worlds revolve like ancient women / gathering fuel in vacant lots” (IMH IV.54–55). All these images of waste and redundancy we can find in earlier work, proving that Eliot’s deployment of waste occurs not by casual accident but by a discontinuous yet traceable migration from draft to draft, notebook to notebook to publication; by trial and repetition these images become animate, move, migrate and attain mutation in their multiplicity. It is in the publication of ‘Preludes’, first in Wyndham Lewis’ Blast (July 1915) and then as part of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), that all these images of waste become publicly distilled and consumed, meanwhile, the discarded caprices remain left in a drawer and, later, secreted in the collections of the New York Public Library until their publication by Harcourt in 1996. When Eliot argues that something kept in the mind is more likely to be reused elsewhere this does not detract from the fact that we can trace this process of reuse through the trail of discarded material left behind, the drawer can be reopened and patterns of use can be described through acts of disposal.

We must revisit, as Eliot did, the value of these vacant lots: the phrase alludes to spaces and objects to be bought, sold and resold, to the actual landscapes of Boston described by Henry James, to the poems that compose Inventions of the March Hare. It might be easy to dismiss Eliot’s vacant lots as minor stanzas within the Eliot estate. Jayme Stayer has been keen to keep these poems in the drawer that Eliot cast them into. Stayer argues that the poems of Inventions of the March Hare, and the ‘Caprice’ poems in particular, show an “insecurity on the poet’s part as to whether or not his new-found tools are working […] the images of sordidness cannot be trusted to do the work he intends.”[20] Finding that various rhetorical and technical aspects of these poems to be “unconvincing”, “forced” or “derivative”, Stayer concludes that the notebook prepared Eliot for “the public stage of poetry” but is full of inferior and unfinished works.[21] But Stayer seems to degrade the potential of juvenilia or manuscript notebooks, reinforcing the rarity and singularity of the published and ‘definitive’ work over and above all the fascinating insights that draft material can provide. Failing to account for the way in which Inventions of the March Hare has, indeed, found publication, Stayer emphasises the oppositional status between draft and publication and, by employing the uncertain images of sordidness that he found so unsatisfactory:

The chaff of the notebook – its rhetorical uncertainties, self–defeating gestures, and pornographic excrescences – Eliot will sweep away, and to the public he will present the wheat that is left over: the telling allusions, hallucinatory squalor, transcendent intimations, muted suffering, eclectic fear, bilious ennui, all of it spoken, sung, or growled in virtuosic registers of irony, obliquity, deadpan, and directness.[22]

As our brief analysis of waste in the early work of Eliot has shown, Inventions of the March Hare is a vacant lot from which critics might gather their fuel. If there is such a thing as ‘chaff’ then it cannot be swept away as easily as Stayer or, perhaps, Eliot would like us to believe. This is partly due to the images of waste that are retained, reworked, refashioned and made to reverberate in more popular or accessible poems, images that describe both the transitory contents of drafts and their base materiality. It is the provisional and temporary nature of writing waste and creating the waste of writing that allows this matter to spill into and inhabit a text assumed to be free of its effects.

Although modern manuscript studies frequently stresses the difference between published and unpublished versions of the text, to note changes in meaning, structure or effect, and often to reinforce a calculating and taxonomic separation between draft and publication, our brief analysis of Eliot’s wasted revisions issues certain textual and interpretative challenges that complicate this separation. Tracing Eliot’s preoccupation with waste from around the time that the ‘Caprice’ poems were written, through to, as is our aim, the publication and critical reception of The Waste Land, will lead us to question the exclusive and independent status of the ‘published’ or ‘complete’ work. When Eliot said that the “unpublished poems in the notebook were not worth publishing”, he might be said to overlook how his published poems frequently contained the poetic residues of those unpublished drafts and that publishing one version and not another must account for their process of validation. Such a view must lead us to confront the way in which unpublished and published materials penetrate and contaminate one another, especially when ‘unpublished’ drafts are then made available as published facsimiles or typescripts. Just as other chapters have been keen to stress that there can be no such thing as an absolute form of waste, just the contingent separation of use and waste in time, so it is that manuscript or draft material cannot be expected to remain inert when interpreting works of literature. Such a view of writing means that we can supplement some views about literary composition and the writing of The Waste Land. The first concerns the ‘scene of writing’ and the stories told regarding literary manufacture. For example, it is commonly held that Eliot struggled and struggled with The Waste Land until finally, and with a lot of help from Ezra Pound, the work came together in the miraculous summer of 1922. Some have suggested that Eliot conjured the poem from nothing; he “found himself” writes Louis Menard, “with nothing to construct a poem on”.[23] But by tracing the figure and figuration of waste, the discarded scraps and drafts that preceded The Waste Land and the phrases, images and atmospheres they conjure, we can show that the construction of the poem can be found in the deconstructed wastes of earlier works. In other words, we can challenge where the composition of The Waste Land is said to have begun, an important point for a poem which throws doubt over its functional ends and beginnings. The second commonly held belief that we can supplement is the idea that The Waste Land should be understood primarily as an exchange between the text and the intertexts it alludes to and transforms, as a competitive game between Eliot and the Western canon. Whilst this intertexuality is no doubt a fundamental and distinctive aspect of Eliot’s poetic method, it overlooks the intratextual aspect of his work. That is, the correspondences established between the various kinds of writing he has authored and the sedimentation and redundancy required to shore up his work. This proves an important compositional dynamic of hoarding, storage and reuse. As Richard Badenhausen observes, “[Eliot] often scribbled fragments of verse and then hoarded them for a later time when they might blossom into larger works or be inserted into another text.”[25] The compositional and interpretative importance of so-called ‘intratexuality’ will help us appreciate not just the scene of writing but the multiple scenes of writing and rewriting, unearthing an author’s compositional relation to the texts of others and their own, both published and unpublished.


[1] Francesco Orlando, Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places and Hidden Treasure, trans. Gabriel Philas, Daniel Seidel and Alessandra Grego (New Haven: Yale UP, 2006) 79, 102.

[2] For Orlando’s schematic in full, see Francesco Orlando, Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination 205.

[3] Francesco Orlando, Obsolete Objects 207.

[4] Orlando, Obsolete Objects 102.

[5] Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (1984; London: Routledge, 1996) 6.

[6] See Susan Cahill, Emma Hegarty and Emilie Morin, ed, SubStance 116, 37: 2, 2008.

[7] These and subsequent references are taken from T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot (1963; London: Faber, 1969). Brief quotations will be cited as CPP with page references, additional line numbers accompany more extensive quotation.

[8] These are the mantras suggested by Sean Latham, Joyce’s Modernism (Dublin: National Library of Ireland, 2004) 1–3.

[9] T.S. Eliot, The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume I 1898–1922, ed. John Haffenden (London: Faber, 2009) 749.

[10] Quoted in B. L. Reid, The Man from New York: John Quinn and His Friends ([…], 1968), 540.

[11] Daniel H. Woodward, Notes on the Publishing History and Text of The Waste Land (Papers of the Bibliographic Society of America, lviii, 1964) 268.

[12] See Christopher Ricks, “Preface”, in Inventions of the March Hare, ed. Christopher Ricks (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1996) xiii. [xi–xxxiii]

[13] Christopher Ricks, Inventions of the March Hare (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1996) 4.

[14] Ricks, Inventions 5.

[15] T. S. Eliot, “T. S. Eliot, The Art of Poetry No. 1” Interviewed by Donald Hall, 1959. Online: <http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4738/the-art-of-poetry-no-1-t-s-eliot&gt;. Accessed 2nd October 2010.

[16] Quotations from The Waste Land are from the 1922 edition, reprinted in T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Typescript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, ed. Valerie Eliot (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1971) 133–149.

[17] Lyndall Gordon, “The Waste Land Manuscript”, American Literature, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Jan., 1974), pp. 557-570. John T. Mayer is one of the few critics to have traced the relations between the Inventions notebook and The Waste Land but makes no mention of waste, see John T. Mayer, “The Waste Land and Eliot’s Poetry Notebook”, in T. S. Eliot: The Modernist in History, ed. Ronald Bush (Cambridge: CUP, 1991) 67–90, esp. 72 .

[18] Henry James, The Bostonians, ed. R. D. Gooder (1886; Oxford: OUP, 1984) 167, 168.

[19] See ‘[Preludes]’, Inventions of a March Hare, 334–337.

[20] Jayme Stayer, “In Search of the Early Eliot: Inventions of the March Hare” in David E. Chintz ed., A Companion to T. S. Eliot (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) 117. [107–119]

[21] Jayme Stayer, “In Search of the Early Eliot” 117, 188.

[22] Stayer, 188.

[23] Louis Menard, Discovering Modernism: T. S. Eliot and His Context, Second Edition (Oxford: OUP, 2007) 76.

[25] Richard Badenhausen, T. S. Eliot and the Art of Collaboration (Cambridge: CUP, 2004) 75.

On the Etymologies of Waste

It is worth recalling the etymology of the word ‘waste’ and its relationship to ideas of the divine, the human and the land. We take the word ‘waste’ from vastus, giving it the same Latin root as the word ‘vast’ and meaning a space that is void, immense or enormous. The vast etymology of waste takes in its vacant neighbours, vanus and vaccus, and includes the verb vasto, “to make empty or vacant, to leave unattended or uninhibited, to desert”.[1] Waste is both an a priori emptiness and a thing that has become empty: it is both a pre-exiting desert and a space that was once but is no longer inhabited. It is important to stress the landed nature of this conception of waste as well as its temporal and causal flexibility. The earliest uses of the word invariably denote an enormous and empty sense of a depopulated landscape, “uninhabited (or sparsely inhabited) and uncultivated country; a wild and desolate region, a desert, wilderness.”[2] The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the first recorded use of the word ‘waste’ can be found in the Trinity College Homilies, written in the first half of the twelfth century: “Ac se[ò]en hie henen wendend atlai pai lond unwend and bicam waste, and was roted oueral and swo bicam wildernesse.”[3] It appears that the earliest uses of ‘waste’ describe any large or uninhabited space, spaces where humans had either left uninhabited, literarily land that had “bicam waste” or land where humans could not inhabit such as deserts, seascapes or mountain ranges. Through words like ‘devastation’ we see one concept of waste, as destroyed or depleted material, conjoin with its vast etymological root, a space in which humans cannot or can no longer subsist, a space where their relation to the environment overwhelms utilitarian exchange. What is important is the relationship struck between land and the human capacity to cultivate and make that land a productive place in which to dwell. This landed notion of waste exceeds more modern associations with the commodity form, environmental depletion, financial excess or bodily excreta, carrying with it broader intimations of stewardship, scale, shelter and time. Moreover, imbued in the concept of waste that originates from these Latin and Medieval roots is a problem of waste’s relationship to time, a time codified by how, if and when humans might use something and the apparent emptiness, the ‘nothing’ that characterises all that falls beyond human control. These are spaces that gain definition from the productive time that they cannot perform. Put another way, waste is a condition that which does not coincide with the time of human activity.

Our etymological excursions have led to a somewhat Biblical cause. Waste is not only something created by humans but is something primeval, a condition that occurs prior and in distinction to the human, a condition that separates the sacred and the profane. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, waste forms the condition by which humanity can come to be and take ownership of its environment, it is the condition that precedes a “heaven[ly] benediction”. This is something to which King Lear appears all too aware when, in response to Cordelia’s refusal to accept the gift of his land, he expounds the classical maxim ex nihilo nihil fit, “Nothing will come of nothing” (F.1.1.88). In doing so, he recalls how God’s creation and redistribution of the earth’s resources was founded upon a formless void that is described in the Book of Genesis. Lear’s act of division parallels God’s intervention, both are done in distinction to and against a sense of ‘nothingness’. From what kind of ‘something’ does God create? Many Biblical scholars continue to translate the formless, primeval vacuum that precedes God’s division of earth from sea as a state of waste. Genesis 1:2 can and has been translated, “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.”[4] Variants suggest that the earth was “without form or void”[5] or was “formless and empty”[6] but, semantically and etymologically, all conclude the original state of the earth prior to God’s intervention was one dominated by the immense and uninhabitable conception of waste that medieval uses of the word upheld: “a wild and desolate region, a desert, wilderness.” This variation is born out of the peculiar and rather idiomatic Hebrew expression, ּובהוּ תהו tohû wābohû, which Judaic scripture describes the condition of the earth in this ambiguous and desolate condition. The expression tohû wābohû is of obscure providence, appearing at just two other occasions in Judaic scripture (the others are Jeremiah 4:23 and Isaiah 34:11, both of which effectively return the earth to Gen 1:2). There remains considerable debate about how to interpret and translate tohû wābohû but, following David Tsumura, we may make the following distinction: tohû means a “desert” or “waste land” and bohû meaning “empty” or “uninhabited place”. Comparing the twenty other occasions that tohû appears in the Old Testament, Tsumura concludes that tohû wābohû should be understood as “unproductive and uninhabited”.[7] For Albert Barnes this amounts to “an absence of all that can furnish or people the land” and Keil and Delitzsch gloss that, “The coming earth was at first waste and desolate, a formless, lifeless mass”.[8] The state of the earth prior to God’s intervention has been considered, therefore, to be one of mingled confusion, a noisy and desolate plane of water that can produce nothing.

[1] See Charles Lewis and Charles Short (eds.) A Latin Dictionary: Founded on Andrews’ Edition of Freund’s Latin Dictionary (1879; Oxford: Clarendon, 1945).

[2] The Oxford English Dictionary: Second Edition. 1989.

[3] Quoted in ibid.

[4] 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.

[5] Revised Standard Version

[6] New International Version

[7] David Toshio Tsumura, The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2: A Linguistic Investigation (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989) 31, 42.

[8] Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1866) vol. 1, 48.