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:“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:

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, 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: <;. 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.

Mark Dion and ‘Tate Thames Dig’ (1999) – An Extract

15th October 2010, update:  Mark Dion has done a brilliant lecture at CCA that you can see below. Dion starts to speak about Tate Thames Dig 33minutes into this video recording:

In one respect there is nothing especially odd, unique, or revolutionary about Mark Dion’s collections, they owe much to the long tradition of using ‘found’ objects in works of sculpture, the incidental, often inexpensive materials drawn together for public display.  Dion frequently adopts pseudo-archaeological methods to make his sculptures; works such as Flotsam and Jetsam (The End of the Game) (1994), History Trash Dig (1995), History Trash Scan (1996) and Raiding Neptune’s Vault (1997) show Dion drawing upon different and diverse archaeological methods, collections and collectors to organise his work. Tate Thames Dig (1999) has a lot in common with these works: it is a piece that collects, sorts and displays objects to enact both the history of museums and to criticise how this history has taken shape. The archaeological methods that Dion adopts to assemble this work are distinctive. The artist spent two weeks with a team of invited archaeological experts and volunteers beachcombing on two sites on either bank of the river Thames.  These sites, both of them close to London’s city centre, were chosen in order to gather any material that tide or wind might make available. The results are remarkable for their variety: bottles, shards of glass, plastic and iron, buttons, teeth, bones, identification and credit cards, clay pipes, toys and pottery. Tate’s internal reports, circulated prior to the formal acquisition of the piece, stress the work’s strong connection to human activity, “The two sites yielded a wide variety of artefacts and remnants, tokens of life as it has frequented Millbank and Southwark.” (Williams, 1999: 79)  Objects were cleaned, catalogued and ordered according to type, weight and colour, and arranged within a large, doubled-sided cabinet of curiosities – a container with strong allusions to Renaissance and Victorian traditions of excavation, collection and display. Below is the work in situ, on the third floor of the Tate Modern where it stood from April 2003 to October 2005.

Mark Dion, Tate Thames Dig (1999)


Much of what Shanks et al (2004) claim for archaeology depends upon a particular relay between use and waste, deposition and recovery, on an object being used and deposited by one person and that same object being collected at a later date by an archaeologist. For Shanks et al the biography ascribed to things is a relatively simple and inevitable one. Objects are used and then used no longer; they become waste and are then available for archaeological assessment. Although the utility of a thing can be various, the trajectory towards a condition of waste is common to all. This universal, unilinear narrative stabilises objects and gives a measure to the time distributed to them. This coordinating function of waste, which gathers diverse yet distinct things towards a common end, is most clearly seen when the authors discuss the spatial and temporal effects of junkyards, these “compress space and time into a single point— artifacts from different times and places are brought into one location, to be (re)discovered” (2004: 79–79). Such is the organisational potential of the junkyard that, despite gathering objects that are associated to various times and places, the common condition of waste compresses these differences within a “single point”. Implicit in this account of waste and archaeology is the sense of narrative compression already at work. For Shanks et al, waste seems reducible to these sites of spatial and temporal termini. The biography of things mimics a common structure, with a beginning (manufacture), middle (use) and end (waste). The causes, the durations and the methods of narration might remain variable but waste is the familiar fate of all things.

Dion’s work militates against a simple correspondence between spatial and temporal sites, turning loose the narrative sureties that might give absolute coherence to collected objects. As Milne, Bates and Webber describe (1997), river sites, especially those on tidal rivers, provide a changeable and unpredictable relationship between various sites, those that discard and those that collect: “a river system and its associated settlement structure is part of a dynamic equation, with no constants.”  (1997: 131) Corroborating this dynamicism, Robert Williams argues that Dion’s tidal beaches “confounds and challenges archaeological method, in that it is impossible to recognise a true stratigraphy. Even if the foreshore is considered to be an horizon, this co-existence of objects defies easy categorisation.” (1999: 75). Whilst Shanks et al’s theory of waste might seem appropriate when applied to the excavation of an ideal, stable and long-established site of deposition – such as those studied by the Garbage Project – their claim that, “99 percent or more of what most archaeologists dig up, record, and analyze in obsessive detail is what past peoples threw away as worthless” (2004: 65), appears inappropriate when applied to the heterogeneous assembly of organic and inorganic matter found in Dion’s collection. To draw an example from the Tate Thames Dig to illustrate this point, the ‘message in a bottle’, found in the upper left-hand drawer of the Bank Side (Site II), is certainly an object that has been cast aside. But a part of its worth issues from the fact that it has been thrown into the river. The message in a bottle’s communicative function is achieved through its recovery rather than in spite of it. The places and times that it associates do not cohere to particular point, whether construed as the site of excavation or the cabinet itself, instead, the bottle’s movement through space and time provides a continuity of meaning.

Defining precisely what has and has not been deposited can be a complicated and uncertain process, since deposition can be practised for an enormous range of different and combined reasons. The sheer range of reasons that an object becomes available for collection allows John Chapman to label the equivalence that is commonly made between waste and archaeology, “one of the key foundation-myths of archaeology”  (2000: 349). Chapman takes against the idea that archaeology is a formalised collection of waste for the simple reason that people, past and present, do not discard every object that makes up their lived environment. Dion’s cabinet attests to this variation, even those things that seem most likely to have been discarded items – such as fragments of pottery, plastics, glass or animal bone – were not necessarily deliberately thrown away as worthless. These fragments  speak of the medial events and processes that affect the condition of objects and their elliptical ability to communicate those medial occurrences. Erosion by salt water, abrasion against other objects or rust by oxidation, all suggest the non-human actions that affect how an object appears. This should not detract from the basis by which all these interpretative judgements are made; objects are dominated by and made intelligible through a series of retrogressive narratives that aim to attach times of use and times of non-use. Shanks and his co-authors make all of these narratives follow a familiar and orderly pattern, a unilinear movement from use to waste. They therefore overlook how times of use and non-use combine to make both meaningful. Dion’s work demonstrates that the narrative permutations that objects undergo are far more complex. There is no simple correspondence between the status of what is collected and the category of waste but, rather painstaking and conditional acts of narration. The difference, then, so keenly felt with a work like Tate Thames Dig, is a sense of narrative risk, of provisional tales told by things that are open to assessment from a variety of perspectives. Shanks et al, through their unidirectional understanding of how useful objects become waste objects overlook how things take meaning by oscillating between times of use and waste or, in a sense closer to Dion’s work, by making risky the narratives told by things and thus confusing the distinction between use and waste.

Oddly enough, even though Shanks et al state that “99 percent” of archaeological practice represents the collection of “society’s material dregs”, they also concede that not all the things that archaeologists collect are things that have been systematically or accidentally discarded: “the pits that litter Iron Age sites in the United Kingdom and seem to contain   garbage are far from what they seem—[these sites] are carefully organized depositions rather than random accumulations of family garbage. Here, of course, we need to recognize that concepts of waste are culturally specific, as are notions of purity and dirt” (2004: 66, italics mine). Acknowledging their indebtedness to the traditions of behavioural anthropology, Shanks et al understand waste to be something that is culturally specific to certain times, places and peoples. The authors temper their more general claims with an idea of waste where acts of disposal rely upon how these waste objects are “culturally” perceived. For them, the archaeological site is “a record of behavioral patterns, structured activities to be revealed through close analysis of contextual associations in the material remains” (2004: 68). By collecting objects, particularly objects of waste, they hope to be able to collect the “behaviour” and “structured activities” revealed by scrutinising things. Objects stand as intermediaries for human behaviour, as portals into the past. As William Rathje has written elsewhere, “what people have owned¬—and thrown away—can speak more eloquently, informatively, and truthfully about the lives they lead than they themselves ever may” (1992: 54). The information that objects might communicate is assumed to be a more authentic and reliable than verbal or written accounts. Crucially, the focus remains anthropocentric, interaction between objects and humans are instrumentalised to illuminate the lives of humans. What underlies and reinforces this anthropological conception of objects are the “changing notions of the artifact in relation to the human groups or cultures that produce it, the temporality of culture change/process, and the loci of both” (2004: 68).  In the later parts of this chapter we will consider how and why it is that “notions of the artifact” might change through time. For now, it is important to explore how and why Shanks et al mix their cultural relativism with their more polemical claims towards the centrality of waste in archaeological practice.

There is an obvious tension between Shanks et al’s “culturally specific” notion of waste and their more encompassing view that “99 percent or more of what most archaeologists dig up, record, and analyze in obsessive detail is what past peoples threw away as worthless”. One might assume that the crucial part of this statement is what might constitute ‘worthlessness’ but the authors leave this issue unresolved – “our predecessors simply dropped items on the ground when they became unwanted” (2004: 65). The cultural specificity of waste comes to the fore. Worth or value relates and depends upon an idea of the ‘cultural’ and this conception of culture changes according to time and place; conceptions of waste, therefore, depend upon and are subservient to these cultural changes. The authors themselves have complicated their first statement (“99 per cent”, etc.) by suggesting various acts that prevent deposition being simply equated with a valueless discard (votive deposits, burial hoards and so on).

Dion’s Tate Thames Dig exemplifies the problematic provenance of found objects as well as the doubt cast upon their future; indeed, as I will argue later in this chapter, the indeterminacy of an object’s origin helps to explain the narrative potential of Dion’s collection. For now, it is time to turn our attention to Shanks et al’s second claim, that “concepts of waste are culturally specific”. However conflicted the positions expressed in “The Perfume of Garbage” may seem, it is important to acknowledge the privilege this article gives to ‘culture’ or ‘society’ as the temporal unit by which waste is understood.  By doing so Shanks et al return us to the themes of the previous chapter. There we saw how objects both give and receive time according to the use to which they have been put.  The event of waste distributes use-time to an object or collection of objects. Dion’s work provides an interesting parallel to their theoretical reflections because it lays bare how, without specific objects relating to specific times and places, notions of the cultural dismiss the way materials, uses, and geography can determine how objects are collected.

By arguing that ‘culture’ somehow provides a conduit for our comprehension of waste things, the authors of “The Perfume of Garbage” entertain a cultural relativism that obscures the fractious narratives that describe what objects were and are and are yet to become. For them, the objects that archaeologists collect represent the collision of two temporally distinct zones, a collision that takes place between those who deposit and those who collect: the waste-maker of the past and the waste-collectors of the present. Shanks et al qualify their more inflated claims about waste with a “culturally specific” notion of value that separates the ‘then’ of deposition from the ‘now’ of archaeological enquiry. Objects of waste, by issuing through events in ‘the past’ become immediately historical, quintessential to the manufacturing a now: “every single day a new batch of materials methodically emerges from the black hole of modern times into the light of archaeological research” (2004: 66). Each culture is differentiated through its relationship to the object under scrutiny; this is a crude division that separates the culture that deposits from the culture that collects. The importance and convenience of waste thus becomes clear.  Waste objects (which seem to carry a tardy, used up, or ‘past it’ atmosphere) serve to reinforce a temporal difference that some archaeologists can rally round. Objects appear structured by time, marking the beginning of a narrative and the conclusion to that narrative. For Shanks et al waste objects provide a bridge between two cultures, divided by time and action. The bifurcation of time that waste seems to affect, severing the time of ‘then’ from the time of the ‘now’, has powerful repercussions for those who claim to collect, analyse and describe the past through these things. The present becomes distinguished by objects that appear intrinsically non-present, showing how archaeology takes a position relative to that which it collects. We begin to see how a description of archaeology that takes waste into account must also account for the time that gives archaeology an analytical grounding. Clearly, the conception of archaeology that Shanks et al articulate depends upon a rather specific view of temporal succession, one that supports the analytical position of archaeologists more generally. For them, the objects that archaeologists collect can only be understood in the temporal present, since objects can only come to mean something by being from the ‘non-present’. The time of archaeological analysis is thus formulated by the kind of object that it approaches, indeed, the work of analysis demands that an object be made temporally distinct. Shanks and his co-authors express something of this, stating that contemporary ‘culture’ apportions time through the practice of collecting, analysing and reflecting upon the objects that come to enter “the black hole of modern times”. The temporality of waste becomes intimately connected to the time of its collection and analysis, making “the black hole of modern times” knowable through the action of archaeology upon things. Yet, if ‘culture’ is given the responsibility of designating the time of objects, determining whether they are useful or non-useful, the comprehension of waste becomes the privileged and solipsistic exercise of contemporary collectors and by others that stand in present times. But as I tried to show in the previous chapter, waste is neither our hostage nor do we fall entirely under its spell – the projective time of use can cease in a variety of ways, few objects fall under our unequivocal control.

By ‘reading’ these objects, that connect two sides of a familiar story, archaeologists that focus on objects of waste hope to give a sense of closure and resolution to an object, thereby underwriting and stablising both its provenance and narrative coordinates, thus giving safe passage between states of use, waste and artefact. To summarise some of the arguments put forward here, we might say that the category of waste, as it is instrumentalised by some theorists of archaeology, compartmentalises those that use and those that collect the passing of that use. However, objects said to be waste might be made to give order and control between differing cultures; indeed, they seem to mark a cultural and temporal difference that help to make secure the simple transition between the past that stands on one side of an object and the waste that designates its present. This conception of waste only serves to extend the rather general narrative properties with which these objects are being endowed.

Obscured (if not entirely ignored) in the ‘cultural’ conception of waste – that attempts to reduce a thing to the “past behavior” that an object approximates – is the ongoing and continuous status of the object itself. Dion’s cabinet, by refusing to be readily cohered within one or a number of periods, raises the additional question surrounding the changing status of waste within an art object. In this respect, and in a way that seems to provide an important counterargument to “The Perfume of Garbage”, Dion’s work seems to turn loose the narrative anchors that Shanks et al impose upon objects of waste. The cabinet seems less interested in displaying narrative conclusions than suggesting that the idea of narrating things radically depends upon the way objects are being conceived and the kind of objects being analysed.



Mark Dion, Tate Thames Dig (1999) – Detail


Dion’s collection dramatises the disjuncture between the appearance of an object and the time inscribed within it. The cabinet, with its drawers, doors and glass, helps make strange the quotidian things that Dion has assembled.  Objects that were once active participants in a wide range of activities are now made to form a tableau that is animated by the carefully staged techniques of display. With the minimum amount of textual guidance the gallery visitor is asked to judge, identify and make associations between each object. But this mixture of things, and the inevitable difficultly in making sense every object in the cabinet, means that opportunities open for individual conjecture, speculation and indifference. Viewers cannot hope to identify every object, nor can they be expected to attach the same level of significance to each thing.  The salient impression made by the work is one of mixture – assembled of objects both recognizable and obscure, complete and in fragments. Presented together, there can be no surety about where the “black hole of modern times” begins or ends, nor can there be any certainty about what “the light of archaeological research” might take as its starting point. This is partly due to how Dion’s cabinet contains within it objects that many gallery visitors might carry with them (e.g. cards, pens, keys and cosmetics) and, whilst some have deteriorated beyond use, many others seem free of signs of wear. The difference between those that discard, collect and observe is made indiscernible – these things by no means make clear temporal distinctions between ‘cultures’ and seem to willfully confuse the boundaries that Shanks and his co-authors propose. In a previous post, Heidegger’s hammer gave us occasion to assess how matter, time, and narrative, as well as a notion of ‘events of waste’, cannot be made reducible to the idea of ‘culture’ or ‘society’ but relate to the specific combination of use and material that an object has or might be put to. Moreover, notions of ‘culture’ or ‘society’ expressed in “The Perfume of Garbage” devolve the identity of things upon the consensus of a group. Lost in this is how the time of an object, particularly things of waste, might make exigent particular narratives of use and inertia.

Rarely does every member of a ‘culture’ waste or narrate waste together – a point particularly relevant to the hushed, gallery-based encounter that Dion gives us. Objects become the site of competing and mutually exclusive narrative acts that attest to the variety of times to which an object can bear witness. Objects share common properties, uses, and temporalities that can just as easily transgress group consensus as articulate common interest.  Important here is the question of how and why these narratives are being expressed and not to assume that waste objects are recognisable to everyone that comes into contact with them.

Until now, our working hypothesis has been governed by the observation that for objects to be recognised as waste they require a narrative of use, a description of time that is no longer felt to be evident. Waste puts the use of things in temporal suspension or parenthesis. We make waste by removing a thing from use or removing use from a thing but in both cases the time of that object becomes divided into time of use and a time of waste. Whilst it might be true that different objects are used in different ways and at different times, the act of narrating these things according to periods of use and waste lends consistency to this narrative practice that cannot be made reducible to any agreed cultural/social division between peoples. This capacity to make sense of things by narrating the non-coincidence between conditions of use and waste might not simply happen nor does it necessarily occur communally, but for waste to occur, a narrative that legislates between the two times must also be in action. The difficulties that we might encounter in this emphasis upon the narrative effects of waste were precisely those Shanks et al express. In making the transition from use to waste an inevitable and, by extension, irreversible development, we might fail to acknowledge an object’s propensity to change, develop and reverse this movement. This renders the position of those that narrate the end of things far less permanent or secure, and might return a measure of agency to the object or thing being described. More important is the way that the contingencies of things – the contingent relationship to both use and waste – means that instrumentalising objects of waste to define a notion of the contemporary becomes a rather problematic project.    In their view, archaeologists contribute to the construction of a present by shining torches of analysis upon past things as they enter the contemporary. Objects of the past are made meaningful through their apprehension in this present, the meaning of waste is a meaning apprehended in a ‘now’ that was, somehow, being defined in distinction to the ‘pastness’ (of ‘culture’, ‘society’ or ‘behaviour’) that to which waste was being attributed. The concluding section of this chapter will attempt to suggest the continuities and permutations in narrative encountered in Dion’s work. Doing so will force us to consider not just the ongoing status of Dion’s collection but its necessary changes, replacements and states of redundancy.

Waste might be said to pertain to a kind of untimeliness, a convolved temporality that seems to invite narrative engagement. The invitation to narrate objects according to actions they no longer perform is not easily met, not least because the category of waste is a provisional category, a category of transition; waste is matter that comes and goes. As a poor advocate or analogue for any neat division between pasts, presents, or futures, waste can be understood as the figuration of an incomplete and a reversible end. As an ‘already-and-not-yet’, a residue, a remainder, waste is without a dominant tense because it suggests a redundant present; it conjures a time that remains, as retrospectively obsolete as it is proleptically abundant. Objects, as we have noted in earlier chapters, can fall in and out of use and might do so over and over again. Waste does not spell death for an object but announces the potential for variable afterlives it might enter into.

The objects that Mark Dion collected on the banks of the Thames have now been in Tate Collections for more than ten years. The transformation that the cabinet and its contents have undergone since their initial display at Tate Gallery’s Art Now exhibition, between 25th November 1999 and 27th January 2000, testifies to the work’s discontinuous relationship between display, narrative, use and waste. Commissioned by Tate and acquired soon after its first public viewing at Tate Gallery, it takes on an important role in Tate’s collections:

The content and conception of Tate Thames Dig 1999 are very much specific to the Tate. It was conceived as a Tate Modern project and was displayed as part of the Art Now programme at Millbank. It has been offered to the Tate at a reduced price that takes account of the considerable Tate contribution to the fabrication costs of the work. A number of pressing reasons would make this a tremendously significant acquisition. It records the relaunch of the Tate in London as two sites while emphasising its nature as a single entity in one cabinet. It highlights their shared characteristic of a river frontage ant [sic] the fact that this important artery is a fundamental link between them. Secondly, it links each institution to its local community and to the history of its environment. In combining art, science, history, in an interpenetrating way it questions the very presentation of history and the Tate’s part in that presentation. It is a self-conscious piece which reflects the processes of categorisation and modes of display that the Tate itself employs. (Tate Archive).

Tate’s rationale for collecting the work relies upon the stability of the object, reflected in a language of ‘recording’, ‘linking’ and ‘combining’ that somehow aims to coalesce the various self-reflexive tasks that Tate sets for itself. But as an assemblage of things, that requires a complex process of assembly and disassembly for each public viewing, Tate Thames Dig shows itself to be a rather unstable entity. The extensive conservation notes held in the Tate Archives relate the problems that the conservation department have encountered with this work, demonstrating the expenditure required to safeguard the stability of the work: “[Tate Thames Dig] Contains materials (plastic finds, pickled specimens) which are liable to degrade. Most of the finds were cleaned as part of the dig process and will be stable. Corroded iron is main exception, will require special storage (less than 18% RH) and checking as a vulnerable item.”  (Tate Archive). The cabinet, far from instituting a solid, permanent or reliable enclosure, is a temporary unit that contains objects that change in form and function. Not only must Tate decide when and how to assemble the work but it must, to a certain extent, decide what to assemble. Take, for instance, the iron objects displayed in drawer G on the Millbank side of the cabinet. As Tate employee, Sasa Kosinova, reports, “Overall condition of the iron artefacts is very poor; all the pieces are heavily corroded, crumbly and/or disintegrated. A thorough treatment is required. As an emergency treatment 5 loose and broken pieces were re-adhered. This draw was not vacuumed. Damaged sliders” (Tate Archive).. Albeit seen through the microcosm of a particular part of the collection, questions surround these objects and an ongoing negotiation of materials, efficacy and performance demand reconciliation.  These iron objects have not simply passed into a state of waste that remains finite or conclusive but, through processes of disintegration, their potential to move into and out of use and waste is made exigent. Moreover, they show the multiple occasions that an object can be discarded; the movement between use and waste is neither complete nor unidirectional. So, after more than two years on the third floor of the Tate Modern (April 2003 – October 2005), the cabinet begins to exhibit both a collection of things and the marks of this exhibition:

The drawers had been handled by the public for the duration of three years [sic]. Various types of damage had resulted: pieces have detached and dislodged within the drawers; corrosion of iron artefacts had carried on, sometimes to the point of disintegration; larger artefacts are jamming the glass scratching it on the side [sic]; handles have become loose; the inside of the drawers got rusty and the covering glass dirty. (Tate Archive).

It is the particularly kinetic form of display that Dion’s cabinet performs which provides the work’s propensity not just to present waste but to generate it. This is an artwork that is partly composed of objects that have been discarded and whose display carries with it externalities, influencing the nature and composition of the collection. The cabinet evolves continuously, an evolution to which it frames and gives measure. For its most recent exhibition six new drawer runners were required, whilst some drawers needed new fabrics to compensate for the damage done to them by eroding objects.  Oddly enough, although the old runners were discarded the old fabric has been kept in the Tate Archives, a curious souvenir of a conservation process that must continually chose what to keep, preserve or discard. When displayed at Tate Britain in July 2009 drawer G had been cleaned, the fragments removed and the more depleted yet salvageable items treated for further decay. The cabinet and the collection it stores is an entity caught in slow mutation, refusing to represent the conclusion of a particular narrative trajectory. A small polythene bag remains in the Conservation File, “SAMPLE LOOSE FRAGS / FROM CONSERVED DRAWER 6/2009” (Tate Archive), a representative sample of what was removed from the drawer can be found inside – small pieces of rusted iron, anonymously jumbled together. These are residues from a larger collection of residua; they suggest the silting process of stuff that comes under the influence of a ‘correct’ or ‘orderly’ performance. In these iron fragments we have a rather complicated example of when waste fails to perform an ideal role set for it. Although Tate Thames Dig provides an interesting example of waste being put to work, for it to do so it must provide the conditions for waste to fail and become discarded once more.

Although waste might be seen to mark the end of an object – we frequently speak of things as having come the end of their ‘useful life’ – Dion’s work is one that harnesses and confounds this sense of ending, not just by being an object within a larger collection but through the nature of the objects it gathers. If Shanks and his co-authors suppose that an object must ‘die’ in order to enter the archaeological record, Dion displays the countless and mutating afterlives in which things might participate. Tate Thames Dig is a work not of recycling as such, since recycling suggests the capacity for a thing to decycle, to lose relation to functionality altogether. Instead, the objects in the cabinet are carried by a more complex, continuous and fluid process of cycling in and out of the times of use and waste, attended by and expressed through assembly and disassembly, preservation and disposal. Although Alex Coles has argued, employing the language of Brechtian theatre, that the cabinet represents the “final act” of Dion’s show, (1999: 30) we cannot say that the curtain has gone down. The cabinet serves as a reservoir that stores objects, both to slow them down and to resist the dissolution of matter. It does this with only partial success, unable to remove these things from the processes of decay and decomposition. Nor, indeed, is the cabinet itself immune from these processes, as its glass, wood and metal components become eroded by the curiosity of gallery visitors. There exists a continuity of correspondences between the status of the things collected and the effects of their presentation. The cabinet serves to both frame the collection and actively influence the changing condition of this assemblage; the collection does not go unaffected by the performance that the cabinet distributes, objects remain relative to the means of their display. This twofold function of the cabinet, ordering and reordering the objects contained within it, serves to both heighten the narrative exigency of the work and render problematic the material basis by which these narratives are achieved. A central paradox of Tate Thames Dig, then, lies in how untimely objects seem to point to a redundant time of use – an identifiable incision in their past – whilst simultaneously refusing the finality of this redundancy. Waste shows itself to be a false end, a ruse that masks the continuity of things, their development and decay.

Full references on request – willviney[at]