Big Ruins: The Aesthetics and Politics of Supersized Decay – Manchester, Wednesday, 14 May 2014

I’m excited to be involved in the ‘Big Ruins’ conference, to be held in Manchester later this year. Conference organiser, Paul Dobraszczyk, describes the event: “As global capitalism intensifies its hold on the planet, so its ruins are scaling up in size: from vast junkyards of jumbo-jets in Nevada to entire empty cities in China waiting to be inhabited. Meanwhile the urban ruins of the Cold War era continue to resist appropriation, whether because of their toxicity, ideological misplacedness, or as a consequence of intractable ethnic conflicts. Coupled with a recent plethora of (post)apocalyptic visions of ruined cities in cinema and computer games, the links between real and imagined ruination are becoming increasingly blurred. If we are to imagine large-scales sites of decay, how might their possible ruin be represented in a way that helps us adequately respond to that very possibility?

This conference will address that question by focusing on the wider significance of big ruins in an age of global capitalism. Drawing from a wide range of sites – both real and imagined – this conference aims to create a dialogue between big ruins and the culturally-prescient theme of the imagination of disaster and to open up an emancipatory space that, following Slavoj Žižek, accepts the universal inevitability of ruin in order to break its ideological grasp and thus to suggest liberating alternatives.”

The event is free and you can register here.

Confirmed speakers and paper titles are:


Tim Edensor: ‘Ruins are everywhere’

• Formations

Luke Bennett: ‘The ruins of ruins’

Michael Crang: ‘Mired but alive’: the aesthetic taming of toxicity

• Ideologies

Anca Pusca: ‘Postcommunist ruins: the fine line between decay vs. rebuilding’

Mark Sanderson: ‘Derelict utopias’

Matthew Philpotts: ‘Rocket-fuelled ruin: Re-territorialising the traces of German dictatorship’

• Explorations

Emma Fraser: ‘Reading the ruins of Detroit: poetic, dialectical and phenomenological approaches’

Clare O’Dowd: ‘Gregor Schneider and the ghost towns’

Paul Dobraszczyk: ‘40 years later: ruin gazing in Varosha’

Camilla Røstvik: ‘Like sleeping dragons: an exploration of the ruins of CERN’

• Futures

Carl Lavery & Lee Hassall: ‘Return to Battleship Island: Future of Ruins’

William Viney: ‘Futures in ruin’

Andrew Hardman: ‘Where is my apocalypse? Living in a ruined future’


‘Future Ruins’, Published in a New Collection, Edited by John Scanlan and J.F.M. Clark

9781443849128I have had the piece ‘Future Ruins’ published in the collection Aesthetic Fatigue: Modernity and the Language of Waste, ed. John Scanlan and J. F.M. Clark (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2013), pp. 138–158. Other contributors include Steven Connor, Timothy Cooper, and Harvie Ferguson, among many others. My contribution to this eclectic collection of writings expands upon a post available on this website. It works over the temporalities at stake when we project ruins into the future, revealing, I think, how we depend upon times of use and waste to call upon different kinds of future. Rereading some of this, especially in light of Mel Chen’s  work on the concept of ‘animacy’,  has led me rethink some of the ways we make our futures active or inactive, according to the objects we use to populate yet unrealised environments. In the end, there are some simple ideas contained here – on how waste carries and animates time; how waste is not simply a thing of retrospective contemplation (i.e. the nostalgic has-beens of a time past) but a concept which enlivens how we conceive our potential; and that thinking on the possibilities of wasted futures requires a mode of narrative thinking, one that is as much about the here and now as it is about the future.

Robin Nagle’s TED talk: What I Discovered in New York City Trash

Very interesting, morally and ethically-charged presentation by Robin Nagle. She has been the anthropologist-in-residence at the Department of Sanitation in New York City since 2006, and she is the author of Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, published in 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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.

Review: Catherine Alexander and Joshua Reno (eds), Economies of Recycling, Zed Books, 2012.

This review originally appeared in The British Journal of Sociology Volume 64, Issue 3, pp. 548–549, September 2013. The book can be bought directly from the publisher, Zed Books

The territorial etymologies of the word ‘waste’ – from vastus and its Latin root of ‘vast’, a time and space that is void, immense or enormous – absorbs its vacant neighbours, vanus and vaccus, and includes the verb vasto, “to make empty or vacant, to leave unattended or uninhabited, to desert” (Lewis and Short, ed., A Latin Dictionary). The earliest uses of the word ‘waste’ in the English language invariably denoted an enormous and empty sense of a depopulated landscape, “uninhabited (or sparsely inhabited) and uncultivated country; a wild and desolate region, a desert, wilderness” (OED, s.v. ‘waste’). Economies of Recycling: The Global Transformation of Materials, Values and Social Relations intellectually inhabits these spatial and temporal fields of study, uncultivated by traditional approaches the study of commodities and their chains of manufacture, and seeks to challenge the absolute qualities of desolation and emptiness associated with discarded matter. It provides a welcome and necessary contribution to our thinking about waste, a book that acknowledges the intricate relationship between worldmaking and waste making.

ImageAs a catalyst into wider anthropological and cultural geographic enquiries – into the influence that waste objects have on labour relations (chapters by Norris, Crang et al, Fredericks, Faulk), local responses to resource scarcity or excess (Tong and Wang, Halverson) and the uneven legal frameworks for waste’s national and international governance (Gracier, Reno) – this volume is unusually aware of the acts of use and recovery necessary to the practice of storytelling that underpins the multiple versions of ‘recycling’ that are traded on an increasingly complex and global scale. By being materially and semantically expansive in movement and meaning, waste can have transformative effects on how we understand the traffic and trade of materials across temporally and spatially distinct locations. Many chapters succeed in offering important insights into the globalised and globalising webs of use, reuse and disposal. The territorial nature of human-nonhuman entanglements that the authors trace illustrates the shadowy relations that can challenge “familiar economic relationships and understandings of how the global economy works” (ER 4). Both the practice of and critical engagement with recycling, the editors claim, “offers new ways of imagining and engaging with the world” (ER 15).

From the rag trade in India to the e-waste industries of China the chapters in Economies of Recycling engage us in the longstanding issue of scale, perspective and description that objects of waste seem to thrust upon us. The analysis of an object of waste, whether or not we choose to unravel its complex journey through time and space in full, must reckon with the suspension of use or its impossibility, a time or location in which the time of use ends. The collective response to this challenge, lucidly introduced and clearly organised into three sections, stresses that the complex entanglement of things, places and people means that the absolute suspension or eradication of use is rarely complete and the time of things is difficult to organise into discrete units. The more sophisticated accounts presented here, which are themselves conditioned by the sense of temporal excess that things of waste provide us, reflect upon the capacity for acts of description to accurately observe and participate in the cultivation and harvest of waste things. Interestingly, this is often best illustrated in chapters where economies of recycling appear to break down, go awry or produce ‘externalities’ of their own, not through a disparity between supply and demand but through the failure of the imagined ‘cycles’, ‘chains’ and ‘flows’ that things are thought to pass through. Romain Gracier’s fascinating analysis of how nuclear material and its movement through differing legal interpretations of ‘nuclearity’ shows how material can fall from the closed and idealised ‘nuclear fuel cycle’. Another example comes from Lucy Norris’s careful description of the ragtrade in the north Indian town of Panipat which is studded by processes which discard objects while selecting others for reuse and repurposing. Halverson’s chapter on medical aid describes the theology behind an international recycling project and exposes how some objects are repeatedly discarded because the of peculiarities of the an aid project’s aims and its asymmetric donor-recipient relations. The mantra ‘No Junk for Jesus’ motivates volunteers but also produces a rationale for recycling some objects and discarding others.

In their introduction Catherine Alexander and Joshua Reno argue that the book’s chapters “unpack the global flows of materials” to reveal the increased “fluidity of people and things” (p. 2, 9). One of the problems of using such lamina language to describe the dynamic movement, acts of narrative and negotiation with time, is that ‘flowing’ suggests continuity, predictability and uniformity for a set of circumstances and relationships that the book reveals to be so diverse, often contradictory and certainly unpredictable. The latent connection between the ideals of a closed cycle and the naturalised vocabularies of flows and streams, which so often supports these systems-led ideas of global recycling, is an interesting tension left unresolved by this collection. Nevertheless, waste is, as these ethnographically informed chapters repeatedly attest, a condition of things that arises from our storytelling traditions (academic or otherwise) and this work breaks new ground in representing the scale and diversity of our narrative responses. It is warmly recommended to undergraduates, postgraduates and researchers working across the social sciences and humanities.

This review originally appeared in The British Journal of Sociology Volume 64, Issue 3, pp. 548–549, September 2013. The book can be bought directly from the publisher, Zed Books

Review of Ian Hodder’s Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things

ImageI have reviewed Ian Hodder’s new book on humans and things in latest issue of Critical Quarterly. It’s a fascinating book that makes an interesting contribution to all this talk of things. I have wondered how archaeologists like Hodder respond to the sway towards new materialities in the humanities. Hodder is often associated with post-processional archaeology which makes him an excellent intermediary between the practice of archaeological analysis and European philosophical traditions which tend to underpin Speculative Realism, object-orientated philosophies and ontologies.

Hodder argues that things have shaped us and given us discipline over time, working our bodies and cohering our actions. Things govern our behaviour and ‘this dependence draws humans in, sometimes seems to lock them in, to specific forms of behavior – a human behavior adjusted to, even at times regulated by the behavior of things’ (p.69). It is this dependence on things and dependence of things upon humans that underlies what Hodder calls ‘entanglement’ and allows it to unfurl into the past and future, the small and the all encompassing.  Subscribers to Critical Quarterly can read the full review here.