By Josh Lepawsky
Reblogged from Reassembling Rubbish

What happens to the narrative of modernity – what do we learn – when we make an inquiry into what centres of modernism (science, technology, law, urbanism, religion, politics) discard from themselves? Clearly, this question is nothing more than a restatement of Latour’s in this video. In asking this question I don’t necessarily want to just attach my interests to Latour’s work in general or to his project in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME) (Latour 2013) specifically. However, my hypothesis – very tentative – is that perhaps asking this question actually illuminates something(s) passed over or missed in the AIME project.My hypothesis is triggered by remembering Harman’s claim that Latour has an ‘industrial model of truth’:

Truth is best described not by the optical or pictorial metaphor of copying a true state of affairs in our mind, but by an ‘industrial’ metaphor. For ‘when […] a student of industry insists that there have been a multitude of transformations and mediations between the oil trapped deep in the geological seams of Saudi Arabia and the gas I put into the tank of my car from the old pump in the little village of Jaligny in France, the claim to reality of the gas is in no way decreased’ (PH, p. 137). For modern philosophy, all the problems of translation occur at the single critical point where human meets world. But for Latour, translation is ubiquitous: any relation is a mediation, never some pristine transmission of data across a noiseless vacuum (Harman, 2009, 77).

This industrial model of truth is very much like the model of truth implicit in global value chain (GVC)/global commodity chain (GCC) analyses and in commodity biographies. In effect, what I’m asking is what happens when we follow the ‘side-effects’ or discards of industry (in the literal and more metaphorical sense)? Do we bump into ‘collateral realities’ (Law, 2009) of Latour’s composed world? Do we arrive at the fractiverses of John Law (2011)? Or something else altogether? Or not at all?

To put it differently, waste or discards seem to bring us to a weird ontological moment, where one of the interesting things about them is that they are so undecidable, so indeterminate (see Myra Hird’s recent work); does that indeterminacy signal some fundamental aspect of the world when we are confronted with or encounter waste or discards? Does it add productively or change in productive ways Latour’s inquiry (AIME) by asking questions about what is discarded (literally, what’s in the garbage cans but also in a broader sense as in ‘we’ get rid of ideas, for example)? Is there anything in the questions of discards to be mobilized here? Or, alternatively, are questions like this in relation to AIME non-sensical, even vacuous?

A possible hint at why these questions are worthwhile to ask can be found in a consideration of Latour and Hermat’s (2006) Paris: Invisible City. In that work, nowhere does the infrastructure of waste or discards appear. Not once do the words “waste”, “trash”, or “garbage” appear in the book. In a city famous for its sewers (which are but one conduit of ridding, Gregson et al 2007), “sewer” is mentioned only five times:

  1. “[…] let’s move and then, suddenly, Paris will begin to be visible. [NP ]The initial point of view doesn’t count; all that counts is the movement of images. All the images are partial, of course; all the perspectives are equal: that of the baby in its pram is worth as much as that of the Mairie de Paris, of Mrs. Baysal, of the employee responsible for inspecting what he calls the regard, the man- or draught-hole for visits and repairs in a sewer, water mains, a cellar or furnace. Does that mean we should mistrust images, always too weak, and let our thoughts jump to that which always defies meaning; reach up heroically towards an absent Society in which all these partial perspectives are set, towards a divine point of view which is the perspective of no one in particular? No, the photos collected for this web site preclude such a diabolical jump (29, emphasis added).
  2. No bird’s eye view could, at a single glance, capture the multiplicity of these places which all add up to make the whole Paris. There are no more panopticons than panoramas; only richly coloured dioramas with multiple connections, criss-crossing wires under roads and pavements, along tunnels in the metro, on the roofs of sewers. Through the half-open windows of these control rooms we can see what anyone would see if they were limited to their own perspective: a glimpse of gardens and roofs (32, emphasis added).
  3. But as soon as we fold the different forms of reference back into their respective channels […] We note that they circulate side by side in narrow pipes, identified elsewhere on another map: that of the roads planning department on a scale of 200 to 1. Yet they don’t overlap, are not reduced to each other. Nothing sums them up; no camera will ever be able to zoom gradually from cable to sewer. Their forms of reference can coexist without ever being entangled (37, emphasis added).
  4. […] in order to survive, Parisians subscribe to many channels. They have gas, electricity, possibly the cable, certainly the telephone, and necessarily running water and sewerage. All these mediums pass through all the interactions, acting, silent, dangerous sometimes, closely watched, controlled, maintained, by hundreds of engineers, supervisors and accountants, workers and employees, politicians and scholars, prophets, essayists and journalists, all kneading the dough of greater Paris at the same time (91, emphasis added).
  5. In the series of transformations that we followed with myopic obsession, we would have liked to have kept each step, each notch, each stage, so that the final result could never abolish, absorb or replace the series of humble mediators that alone give it its meaning and scope. Economics, sociology, water, electricity, telephony, voters, geography, the climate, sewers, rumours, metros, police surveillance, standards, sums and summaries: all these circulate in Paris, through the narrow corridors that can never be used as frames nor infrastructures nor contexts for others. By preventing intermediaries from abolishing those who precede them and those who succeed them, we increase the series of coexistences. If the philosophers were right, we would generate more space than time through mediators’ movements. History, as some claim, has perhaps ended. If so, coexistence is starting. The end of modernization – and of its miserable and last avatar: conservation in museums – does not mean the end of Paris (101, emphasis added).

The sewer appears again in AIME:

No one would think of saying that a secret military base or the catacombs or sewers of Paris are “intimate” spaces on the pretext that the light of day is never seen in them. There is thus no reason, either, to confuse the practical nuance between above and below, public and private, free access and restricted access, with this radical break between the intimate and the extimate, interiority and exteriority, the subjective and the objective, the material and the nonmaterial, the personal and the instituted. As every urbanist well knows, both the visible city and its invisible infrastructure must always be taken into account (188, emphasis added).

Paris Underground. Photo: Hugo Clément.

Paris Underground. Photo: Hugo Clément.

Yet in all of these instances, the references to ‘sewer’ are largely in passing, part of a list of various things that illustrate a larger point Latour is making. In other words, Latour doesn’t follow the twists and turns of discards, waste,  trash, garbage, or ridding in either the narrower or broader senses of these terms or their various cognates. Hence my question: What happens to the narrative of modernity – what do we learn – when we make an inquiry into what centres of modernism (science, technology, law, urbanism, religion, politics) discard from themselves? In other words, is this apparent absence in Latour’s research telling of something that he has left out of his inquiry? Is it a coincidence that Latour didn’t go to the ‘infrastructures of waste management’ (both literal and more figurative)? As such infrastructures, especially urban ones – which in the Anthropocene, let’s recall, is one of the centres of modernism that Latour says AIME is directed – they are so obvious, yet (almost) completely absent from Latour’s itineraries. As yet, I have no positive response or answer to the question, what would one find if one did inquire into what centres of modernism discard from themselves? But searching for and articulating some positive responses is something I hope to do.

One place in the AIME text where asking questions of discards seems like it might make for a worthwhile inquiry is in Chapter 4 and the discussion of ‘form’ (Latour 2013, 109-111). In the chapter Latour distinguishes between three meanings of ‘form’ which are typically entangled:

  1. That which is maintained through a series of transformations (p. 107).
  2. An object (such as an instrument, a document, an image, an equation) that affords the shaping of something into something else and, in that transformation, moves that which is so shaped closer to being put into words or calculations (p. 107-108; think of the pedocomparator in Pandora’s Hope  (Latour 1999, 47-55) into which soil from the forest floor is packed into a literal box divided into X-Y coordinates allowing that ‘raw’ soil or the soil ‘itself’ to become transportable and comparable to a colour scheme worked out in a Muncell code and eventually translated into a paper map in a soil science journal article).
  3. That which is comprised of a number or mathematical signs (p. 109). This meaning of form erases all the actual work and equipment necessary to maintain the consistency of such signs.

What the third meaning of form does is create the formalist definition of formalism (p. 100) which imagines that numbers or mathematical signs exist independent of all the actual work and equipment necessary to give them consistency. Latour is arguing here that this formalist definition of formalism is one of the capital misunderstandings the Moderns have about themselves.

Latour is asking readers of AIME to consider an alternative understanding of form, one that dis-amalgamates the three definitions that have been mistakenly amalgamated by the Moderns:

We have seen earlier that a mountain, a cat, a yeast, in short any line of force or any lineage at all, necessarily had to pass through a series of discontinuities [rep] to achieve continuity. To obtain being, otherness is required. Sameness is purchased, as it were, at the price of alterations. These discontinuities are totally different from those of forms in the sense that I have just defined, but they compose the passes, the passage, the past thanks to which this particular type of insistence and persistence is achieved. This is what allows the mountain to remain the same, and the cat, even if it grows old, to prolong its meditation on its proverbial mat without being interrupted by the meditation of the no less proverbial philosopher drinking his white wine fermented by yeasts. All of these (mat, cat, mountain, yeasts, and even the philosopher) move along surprising trajectories, yes, networks, composed, as we have just seen, of their antecedents and their consequents separated by a slight gap, a little leap (Latour 2013, 110-111).

What I’m hypothesizing here is that a (perhaps the) reason waste/discards hold fascination (for myself and for those who might recognize themselves as participating in discard studies) is that waste/discards seem to expose the presence of chains of forms (in the sense Latour is discussing them). As a consequence, waste/discards have the attraction of seeming to bring us into contact with or to encounter something fundamental about the world (some essential ontologic-y stuff; for those who study them, questions about waste and discards often lead to the question ‘What is/are it/they?’). However, if Latour’s inquiry is broadly correct, then waste/discards aren’t some kind of fundamental ontological ‘juice’ of the world, but are instead one of those little gaps, those little discontinuities (Latour prefers the term ‘hiatuses’) that expose the possibility of something having to find a way to jump those gaps so as to persist – and in the process expose the fact that such a jump is risky in that it might fail. As such, we might see how and why, for example, issues as fundamental (and ‘big’) as rights to privacy, freedom from arbitrary search and seizure, private property rights – issues, in other words, central to modernist notions of freedom, the individual, and the state – are negotiated through other things, seemingly ‘small’, even epiphenomenal: trash, garbage, or discards and controversies associated with them settled by a nation’s highest courts (see Lepawsky 2012, 1197-1198). We could, so to speak, translate ‘discard studies’ as ‘discontinuity studies’. In doing so, we would come to realize that a deeply important, yet in some sense ethereal, value (such as freedom) has to pass through things altogether different from itself (the trashcan, the courtroom) so as to subsist, that is, to be.

But what else might we learn? And, in learning, also scope out limitations, problems, and the like with Latour’s AIME?

Photo: Klaus Pichler.

Photo: Klaus Pichler.