Emergent Socialities of Waste

“Life occupies all the available space.”

—Georges Bataille, The Accursed Shared, Volume I

Social, political, and economic orders inevitably value time, space, and life differentially. Even hierarchically. The (de)valorization and (dis)avowal of lives, spaces, and persons are not incidental, but mutually give rise to emergent socialities. The following collection of essays takes its cues from the work of George Bataille, who suggested that life itself cannot but multiply and expand into those spaces left abandoned, taking on novel forms in the process. What new sorts of life, value, and politics are enabled in these exceptional spaces? As the excesses, effluents, and excreta of larger social spheres are discarded, discounted, and possibly denigrated, what happens at those margins where they recirculate? What fissures in prevailing circulatory structures might we uncover, and how do people appropriate the myriad of social and material utility that persists therein? What unexpected material and social transformations might we find there, and what can they teach us about the way people reckon time and value? We explore the ways in which the materialities of waste, rubbish, refuse, debris, castoffs, and pollution enable new forms of sociality marked by generative practices of survival, adaptation, and critique.

The essays that follow investigate the implications of these questions for waste management, urban infrastructures, global moral economies, the revalorization of discarded labor and resources, and food production and consumption. Our four contributions address: the non-human times both constituted by and disruptive of the social and ecological regulatory ambitions of controlled landfill dumping; the generation of moral and economic value that emerge from the “redemption” of biomedical waste from U.S. hospitals into “charitable donations” that are circulated to under-resourced clinics in Madagascar through the aid networks of American Lutheran NGOs; the rehabilitation and revalorization of the discarded and the discounted salvaged from recycling bins, dumpsters, and renovation sites around Hong Kong for resale in semi-legal, second-hand markets that are both local and global in scope; and the abject forms of habitus and labor that emerge among globalized networks of Dumpster divers and squatters, creating non-market counterpublics wherein classed, racialized and gendered habituses are queered with respect to prevailing market-publics.

Collectively, we contemplate how the “materialization” of value is predicated on, yet can also creatively exceed, the life cycles or temporalities that adhere to prevailing market logics. A common thread across these diverse studies is thus a focus on the space-times, whether of microbial agents or selectively re-valued medical and commercial discards, that can be nurtured or coexist alongside prevailing temporalities of currency (versus obsolescence) and purity or safety (versus decay and corruption) that underwrite market value. Further, we explore the relationships—both symbiotic and antagonistic—between prevailing circulatory structures and the spaces constituted in their absence. Sometimes actors advance critiques of these prevailing logics through such spaces-times and their creative possibilities; sometimes these space-times operate almost imperceptibly within socialities of waste until they cannot be ignored; and still other times they create “friction” within the market’s circulatory structures. Each essay contributes new insights into the critical and varying importance of these time-spaces in emerging socialities of waste. The sum of these parts is refocused attention on the perhaps unexpected forms of life enabled in all the available space.

Discard Studies will publish the pieces in this special issue on Emergent Socialities of Waste over the next two weeks. Works include:
Dumpsters, difference, and illiberal embodiment by David Boarder Giles
The Value of Time and the  Temporality of Value in Socialities of Waste by Britt Halvorson
The Time of Landfills by Joshua Reno
Trading on Obsolescence on the Streets of Hong Kong by Trang X. Ta