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“Out of culture: Society through its wastes”

Frédéric Joulian (EHESS), Agnès Jeanjean (Univ. de Nice)
Centre Norbert Elias
EHESS, Centre Vieille Charité,
2 rue de la Charité, Marseille
salle de réunion 3rd floor

If one considers the phenomenon of culture in all its acceptions, and indeed contradictions (a set of objects and practices versus the way to do things), what is then crucial is to attempt to grasp what escapes culture or is excluded from our normative and material sphere. Whether it be “non-human primates”, which today we regard as having objects and traditions, “pre-cultural” prehistoric humans, or forms of “nature” considered to be outside the anthropic sphere, numerous phenomenon, tackled genealogically or through comparison, can instruct us on topics that are “non-thinkable” or illegitimate in the human sciences.

The main focus of our seminar and conference is the question of wastes, excreta, surpluses, which in an inductive manner (archaeologically), allow us to understand behavioural, psychological and social determinants, and ultimately to propose broader explicative models of social dynamics and logics.

Wastes and their treatment are a useful heuristic within the social sciences—at least that’s the position we defend in the context of this seminar. Waste is envisaged here as the “flipside of production” but also as inexorably exercising symbolic and signifying functions. Wastes will be considered “good to think”, from a variety of angles and approaches. We will raise anthropological, psychoanalytic, and economic theories to understand the meaning of refuse in our societies, the questions it raises, and the ways in which it is thought about—or not.

Through the examination of practices observed by ethnologists in their respective fieldwork sites, we will examine what is at stake symbolically, socially, politically and economically in activities such as waste collection, bricolage, repair, rejection, destruction, the second-hand economy, memory and commemoration, etc. We will place particular emphasis on one possible destiny for “leftovers”: waste, and its corollary, impurity. Through different fieldwork examples we will examine the articulation between social position and impurity, work activities that place people in contact with waste, and the effects theses substances and objects can have on people.

13 May

F. Joulian, A. Jeanjean
10 – 10:30 – An introduction

Frédéric Joulian (Ehess)
10:30 – 11:30 – Could we get to a “non-culture” from our societies’ refuse?

In this short talk I will explore an alternative way to objectivate culture, which I would call a “negative” way, at a broad categorial level. While cultural variations are usually distinguished by their visible and positive aspects, absences are a manner to objectivate or to demonstrate them. I will analyze archaeological and ethnographic examples that focus on these “missing dimensions”, whether they are commented upon (within culture) or not (out of culture). What is a discarded, thrown away, or abandoned object? Are they all similarly “objects”, belonging in the same way to a “material culture”, be it that of an industrial, rural or hunter-gatherer society?

Other examples will be examined of uncontrolled wastes (carried by ocean currents, rivers or animals). Because such refuse escapes control and normative discourses, it can give access to the complexity of social dynamics and the meanings of objects and materials in our everyday environments. Wastes ultimately push us to consider the fate we are creating for the planet and organisms that live on it.

Olivier Gosselain  (Univ. Libre de Bruxelles)
11:30 – 12:30 – Ashes and cement: technical memory of indigo dying in North Benin.

Durant  la seconde moitié du 19e siècle et jusque dans les années 1970, la teinture à l’indigo a constitué une activité de première importance pour plusieurs localités de la rive droite du fleuve Niger, au Bénin. Il n’en subsiste aujourd’hui que quelques débris épars — amas de cendres et parois de cuves — dans les rares quartiers de teinturiers qui n’ont pas été réaffectés.

En 2011, lors d’une mission de recherches historiques et ethnographiques, je suis tombé par hasard sur un ancien site de teinturerie qu’un vieil habitant tentait de préserver pour « conserver le souvenir du travail des aïeux».  M’ayant mis en rapport avec un vieil homme qui y avait travaillé, ce dernier a fourni une description étonnement précise de la chaîne opératoire, accompagnée d’informations détaillées sur les dimensions sociales et économiques de l’activité. C’est ainsi qu’a émergé un projet hybride : tenter une technologie comparée sur base unique de témoignages oraux.

Dans cet exposé, je  présenterai les résultats de ce projet mené en 2012 et 2013 et montrerai comment l’évocation orale d’un univers disparu est à même de nous mener au cœur de la technique et d’éclairer une histoire sociale et culturelle particulièrement complexe.

Nathalie Ortar
14 – 15h – To keep, to give, to sell or how to deal with objects in the Silicon Valley (USA).

San Francisco bay area households’ everyday routines were investigated in 2010-2011. The aim was to investigate routines related to sustainability. The interest in objects was raised by three observations. The first was the sight of open garages full of objects. The second was the number of garage sales and of networks and services giving access to second hands objects, and the third the attention given to exchange networks. This expression of the profusion of objects and of the difficulty in getting rid of things as well as a desire to carry on their life is paradoxical in a society dedicated to consumption as a way of life and invites the researcher to further investigate the status of things and wastes.

Morie Kaneko (Kyoto Univ.)
15 – 16h – Non-waste in a non-Western society: the Aari of southwestern Ethiopia.

This presentation considers the concept of waste held by the Aari of southwestern Ethiopia by analyzing food production and consumption and the lifecycle of craftwork in their lives. The concept of waste is examined in the following three settings: 1) the production and consumption of ensete (Ensete ventricosum); 2) the lifecycle of pot use; and 3) students’ used notebooks. The discussion in this presentation is based on data on ensete production and consumption collected in July 2012, data on the lifecycle of pot use collected for about 1.5 years between 1999 and 2001, and on interviews with 47 students conducted in March 2013.

There were three main findings. First, there is almost no appropriate concept of waste with the meaning of unnecessary and useless in the Aari language. In the process of ensete food production and consumption, the Aari call rotten food dakari, which means spoiled food and inappropriate behavior. They regard the sheaths and leaves of ensete as resources that make the soil fertile and place them in their home gardens. Second, if pots crack or break, the Aari repair them and use them differently, perhaps for holding coffee beans or as a plate to transport fire from a cooking stove in another house. Ground up pot fragments are also used for laundry soap or toothpaste. Women potters also collect pot fragments to mix with clay and make new pots. The Aari do not treat the pots that have no function as pots as waste, but use them differently and use them completely. Finally, most high school students who were interviewed kept their used notebooks since junior high school in a wooden box to review for tests. Notebooks from elementary school had been lost or used as toilet paper.

Basically, ensete and pots circulate in their ecosystem with no leftovers. The Aari use them and return them to the system using their knowledge and techniques, which are embedded in their socio-ecological environment and not recorded anywhere. Their behavior regarding the used notebooks from elementary school is similar to their behavior regarding local knowledge and techniques. In comparison, junior and high school students start learning the behavior of modern knowledge, such as writing down knowledge, accumulating it on paper, and then memorizing it. One head of household kept his children’s notebooks in a 100-kg sack for coffee beans. The paper was considered useless to the children. The notebooks represented modern knowledge, but through local knowledge the household head was at a loss for what to do with the sack in the corner of his house because it had come to a dead end.

Pierre Lemonnier  (CREDO-AMU Marseille)
16 – 17h – Noise, traces or useful dross? Dead parts and living parts in action and in the imaginary ritual.

Be it in its very materiality or in the imaginary realm that goes with them, ritual actions are full of elements that the actors do not comment upon, that can be dismissed altogether or… that puzzle historians and anthropologists trying to document and understand their meaning and function. Are these ritual elements some kind of “dross” from a remote past, a necessary “background sound”, or auxiliary “ritemes” and “mythemes” put into play by a culture in the event of the loss or oblivion of some other ritual element? The paper will be based on two case studies: that of counter-intuitive actions in the imaginary world of European sorcery, and that of “useless” ritual actions during Anga male initiations.

14 May

Agnès Jeanjean (Univ. Nice)
9 – 10h  – No waste? Garbage and the market.

Les déchets sont dans l’air du temps. La société générale, tout au moins en occident, place les questions relatives à leur traitement sur le devant de la scène, y compris la scène artistique. Dans le même mouvement, les chercheurs sont de plus en plus nombreux à se pencher sur les restes, les déchets, les confins. La valorisation du « recyclage », l’intérêt du marché envers les déchets, nous disent des intérêts économiques, les contradiction d’une société qui fait le choix de la « croissance ». Se profile aussi une aspiration : celle d’être sans reste. Que fait on disparaître au travers des restes recyclés, déniés confiés à d’autres, repoussés plus loin… et quels sont les individus, les gestes, les objets et les pensées qui dans le même mouvement chutent et sont déclassés ? Nous interrogerons les dimensions anthropologiques et symboliques de ces transformations.

Jamie Furniss
  (Univ. of Edinburgh)
10 – 11h – The Centrality of marginality in the global economy of recycling: Cairo waste collectors during the 2008 crisis.

Cairo’s informal sector waste collectors and recyclers (Zabbaleen) sell the inorganic materials they collect, such as plastic, metal and paper, through Zabbaleen and non-Zabbaleen middle-men to formal businesses that use them for manufacturing processes. The ultimate acquirers of these materials are mainly in Egypt but increasingly around the world, especially China. Thus, ‘marginal’ actors of the ‘informal economy’ in fact have Egyptian business partners who speak Chinese, communicate regularly by fax and internet with Chinese buyers, know the fluctuations in the prices of plastic (in US dollars) on the market in Shanghai, and complain about export tariffs on PET plastic imposed by Egyptian customs authorities. The globalization of the waste economy was perhaps most strikingly demonstrated during the economic crisis of 2008, when the Zabbaleen were a canary in the coal mine of the national economy: they were among the first to be affected by collapsing oil prices, which translated into decreasing plastics prices worldwide. This paper examines the impact of the 2008 economic crisis on the Zabbaleen. In addition to a qualitative description based on discussions and participant observation at the time, some data on the drops of different materials’ prices will be provided. These are completed with recent price data concerning plastics, collected during fieldwork in 2013.

Valérie Guillard,
(CNRS-Paris Dauphine), Anne Monjaret, (CNRS-IIAC)
11 – 12h – Going astray: When our objects deviate from the path between wokplace and home.

Si nous nous intéressons plus généralement à la circulation quotidienne des objets entre le domicile et le bureau dans leur mouvement tant unilatéral que circulaire, ici nous avons choisi précisément de centrer notre attention sur leur sortie de piste, autrement dit, sur ces moments, ces circonstances qui viennent contrarier, voire interrompre leur trajectoire habituelle, qui les font dévier momentanément ou définitivement. Notre objectif est de questionner les tensions dans la circulation quotidienne d’objets : quelles sont les raisons (volontaires ou involontaires) qui provoquent les perturbations de la circulation, les bifurcations, les sorties définitives ? Quels sont les objets concernés ? Qu’est-ce qu’implique une sortie de piste ? Un changement de statut de l’objet s’opère-t-il ? Que deviennent les objets qui sortent ? Rentrent-ils de nouveau en piste ? Comment se réapproprie-t-on un objet qui a vécu une sortie de piste ? Quelle perte de sens de l’objet ou quelle requalification du sens ? En quoi cet état de fait nous révèle les relations que nous entretenons avec ces objets ordinaires, les manières de les extraire de nos vies ? Autant de questions que nous souhaiterions aborder dans le cadre de cette présentation et dont les résultats se fondent sur une enquête qualitative réalisée en tandem auprès d’hommes et femmes actifs, issus des couches socio-professionnelles moyennes et supérieures, travaillant dans le secteur tertiaire et habitant à Paris ou en Région parisienne.

Yann-Philippe Tastevin
(Post-Doctorant Labex – LISST-CAS – Université de Toulouse)
14 – 15h – Out of use: Lead, batteries, lead and rickshaws.

Ainsi, je reviens de Khulna, une agglomération millionnaire, où l’usage de la voiture demeure marginal. Le Bangladesh est en effet un véritable conservatoire de tout ce qui s’invente et roule à trois roues depuis maintenant un demi-siècle. On y trouve sur la route tous les modèles existants, des plus anciens au plus récent, des plus artisanaux au plus sophistiqués, un paradis mécanique du montage et du remodelage. Mais le plus étonnant est l’arrivée en grand nombre de rickshaw propulsé par de petits moteurs électriques de 1000 W alimentée par des batteries… au plomb. Alors même que son succès commercial reste inexistant, on continue à prédire au « Nord » la croissance imminente de la voiture électrique. Alors qu’au « Sud », de nouveaux constructeurs électrifient massivement les technologies de transport dérivées de la bicyclette, l’autorickshaw renoue avec les origines automobiles. La batterie, ce composant simple et robuste, que l’on fabrique à partir de plomb, matière première valorisée que l’on récupère dans d’autres batteries hors d’usage… Ainsi, la prolifération rustique et circulaire d’un ensemble d’accumulateurs rechargeables, inventé il y a 150 ans par le français Gustave Planté questionne l’éternelle émergence de la voiture électrique… Entre l’Inde et la Chine, deux modèles de conquête économique mais aussi de conception technique se jouent dans la diffusion globale de l’autorickshaw qui met au défi l’universalité des grands modèles industriels automobiles.

Lucie Smolderen
(Univ.Libre de Bruxelles)
15 – 16 h – The Remains of a Bygone Technical Activity: the Case of Spinning and Weaving in the Dendi (Benin).

My thesis project is devoted to the reconstitution and technical and historical analysis of the preindustrial textile activities of the Dendi (Benin), which disappeared approximately thirty years ago. From time to time, during the interviews I conducted with the ex-weavers and spinners of the region some « remains » of this phantom activity would emerge: an old crud-covered shuttle, a torn plastic bag containing a few spindles, an old piece of material that had been used for a scarecrow etc. These remains were not confined to the material world: the weaver’s dance and the whistling of the spinner also punctuated our discussions. These material, gestual and musical remains became good ways of linking up with techniques which have apparently ceased to exist. Firstly, they supply a concrete basis for the understanding of the techniques « as they were in the past ». Secondly, and more importantly, including these technical remains in our research encourages us not to limit ourselves to bygone techniques but to consider their disappearance as a process that still haunts the present.

Salvatore D’Onofrio 
(Univ de Palerme)
16 – 17h – Back to tools. What was at stake in the anthropology of techniques in Italy at the end of the seventies ?

Les expositions d’outils des années 1970 et le renouvellement muséographique qui en a suivi sont-ils à même de solliciter une réflexion au sujet des restes ? Que reste-t-il de nos outils du point de vue des avancées méthodologiques que leur traitement a imprimé à l’anthropologie ? Nous aborderons ces questions de manière non orthodoxe, en essayant de replacer les concepts que nous avions élaboré à l’époque (décomposition du processus de travail, schéma de l’agir technique ou tables paradigmatiques des outils) dans les contextes socio-émotionnels qui les ont générés. Un aperçu sur le traitement informatique des outils sera également proposé.

17 h – General debate with Suzanne de Cheveigné (directrice du Centre Norbert Elias)


Information : Frederic.Joulian [at] ; agnes.jeanjean [at]
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