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Monday, July 27, 2009

Variations on Waste

Achille Mbembe and Eric Worby

Achille Mbembe has argued that there is a distinct social category of waste people. He cites successive social managements of supernumerary people to support his claim that this category is ubiquitous: the great confinement and siftings in the period of primitive accumulation, the Napoleonic conscription of the petite bourgeoisie to staff the state, the redefining of the lumpenproletariat in 1848 and later with fascism, the use of criminalization, immiseration and regal incentives to eject people into colonies and the exemplary modern waste populations of refugeeism and displacement in Palestine, Africa and eastern Europe serving as bartering chips of international policy and fund positioning.

In counterpoint to Mbembe’s category is the military logic of eliminating class enemies, construable at certain times as supernumerary populations - in the Terror, in 1917 and 1930, in the European and Japanese genocides after 1939 and the innumerable colonial exterminations. These are modalities of civil war in the sense of a state attacking those in its jurisdiction and are as transient, exceptional and cyclical as the violence that this requires.

Mbembe’s waste people are not the object of a direct or indirect genocide, are not peripatetic groups unanchored in a jurisdiction or entirely void of rights, they are not synonymous with the extremes of immiserisation nor with the famed reserve army of labour. They are not the leftovers of a social, economic and developmental recuperation of surplus populations - the residual hard core anomalies in a disciplinary society. What is sinister about Mbembe’s category is that it maps so inexactly onto the three great systems that create and recover surpluses - surplus value extraction, territorial expansion and social defense - are only the backdrops to the tragedies and farces around superfluous people.

Mbembe himself registers this difficult mapping in his searches, his erudite variations -his frottage - across the places where he thinks new waste populations are. It is in homage to his search , that so captured his audience and vanished in their questions, that a minor variation on the theme of Mbembian surplus is offered here.

Waste, what is or is laid fallow, is not an intuitively explicit concept or experience. Its nearest analogue in experience is pollution, which, as Mary Douglas showed, is intuited as contagion and only then against a set of relationships and categories harboring logical anomaly. It would be interesting to see the extent to which waste is an historicized version of pollution and contagion and carries over its sources of the sacred and the defiled and their bodily models. This might become clear from a comparison of the juridical and philosophic registers Agamben’s thought straddles with similar mixtures of precept and concept found in Douglas’ Purity and Danger.

But this is not the time to explore the anthropological provenance of Mbembian waste. A more immediate parallel exists in the history of science. In the era of Newtonian dynamics there was no conception of waste. Wind, animal and water power had all the renewability our contemporaries see in solar energy. All that was required was the machinery exactly elaborated by Galileo and Newton to harness - sails, levers, gears, wheels, weights .Eighteenth Century technologies seamlessly reflected the universe - as Leibniz’ monadic clocks testify - and if ever motion ran down, you could reverse it or couple it to wider vectors of cosmic movement in its neighborhood.

Carnot shattered this world with his reflections on the motive power of heat. Faced with the steam engine, it was not sufficient to explain motion by the extant motions it coupled to: it had to be derived from energy, as one particular – kinetic phase of its conversions.

In a Newtonian system forces could all be harvested and accounted for, hence the drive to greater and greater precision in the levers and gears of clocks: in a steam engine the final reckoning of forces always shows a deficit, a nonrecuperable loss of energy each time it changes form. From the pressure of the boiler to the motion of the piston, energy leaked from the machine. This profligacy could not be offset by greater precision, by making the steam engine in the 18th century image of the perpetuum mobile or the frictionless plane - waste was inherent as a principle despite all conscientiousness of design and execution - and waste always took the form of heat.

Heat is the first totally exact - because entirely deducible - model of waste. Once each energy conversion was known to create irrecoverable surplus energy it was a short step to generalizing the steam engine, through Carnot’s abstractions, to the universe and finding in its daily workings the symptoms of its eventual demise. The cost of the universe is changing energy and each transaction leaves a cosmic residue to lessen the difference between energy potentials until all work is choked and the cosmos dies in its own tepid waste.

This history of ]wasted heat and the natural or historical motors that make it thinkable has been traced for decades by Michel Serres and he finds its steam-engine reservoirs, heat sources, potential differences and lossy circulations in figures as seemingly remote as Marx, Freud, Bergson, Derrida, Turner Zola and Monod.

Its would be interesting to read in Serres perspective the great passages in The Order of Things on hominisation in the dissipative motors of life, labour and language, restoring the minor axis of ‘deductive demonstrative sciences’ in the famous trihedron of the human sciences.

Albert Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests shows early capitalist thought from Mandeville to Smith fully awake to the drastic metamorphoses Carnot would trace in the fate of energy - which political economy expressed as transubstantiating social devices efficiently able to recuperate all warring interests to the greater good: the literal motors of history.

From the Invisible Hand to Hegel’s Aufhebung an automaton formalized by the steam engine framed capitalisms ability to harness the disparate and implement ways of overcoming its own limits.

This vision of pliant circulations and efficient transductions had its critics, preeminently Marx, who emphasized the residual human losses and civic waste caused while extracting surplus value from the reservoir of labor power .Das Kapital culminates in a Carnotian scene of overheated flows circulating in a single channel, causing it to lose potential difference and void future movement - the changing organic composition of capital is reinvestment’s version of a universe swamped by inutile energy - or a piston hotter than its steam.

Mbembe crosses this bizarre current of motors and social automata when he invokes Baitaille’s Veblenian fantasy in La Parte maudite of waste becoming the momentary objective of production. Bataille confronts Hegel, the model bourgeois recuperative thinker ,with his General Economy of heat and noise in place of value - celebrated as l’informe - irrecoverable to circulation, experience and thought.

Baitaille’s economy of potlatch is a Smithian nightmare: inverting the poles of heat and work in the motor of political economy while leaving the rest of its apparatus intact. It is completely at home in the energetics matrix of the theory and shows that even for such an eclectic thinker, political economy remains the best means to develop his concepts of waste, superfluity and excess because it is the automaton least disguised by hominisation.

Foucault would famously use the Bataillian measure of absence of works in contrast to the recuperative frame of production to define madness in the modern era. Foucault wrote of madness becoming superfluous, stripped of its roles and imagery and sifted by confinement from the sick, the indigent, the criminal and the morally dissolute until it became a pure, mute surplus.

Yet from this vanishing point it was at once turned into a powerful support to elaborate a new kind of reason, to medicalise deviance and with Freud, to implant desire in people as a liability. Simulated by drugs it gave critical power to art and counterculture and replaced death as the touchstone of authenticity .When Deleuze and Guattari returned the mad stroller to the heart of capitalism they broke perhaps the most productive silence in history.

It is conceivable, thanks to Foucault, that waste populations and supernumerary individuals are maintained to make elbow room for new institutions and contracts, for social innovations possible only in reaction to breaks in sense and utility. The managed void replaces eternal vigilance as the price of liberty.

This vision of ingeniously applying waste and loss pervades Foucault and more so Deleuze and Guattari, who pry worlds apart into major and minor powers with their own tempos and spaces, intensive and extensive qualities in order to make work and waste, information and noise circulate more intimately.

Perhaps a showdown is looming over the Deleuzian machine - between de Landa- committed to its thermodynamic metaphysics and Negri and Hardt who draw on its credit of social vitalism. The continuum of schizophrenic noise and capitalist waste might split into a new automaton for mapping minor histories and a non- philosophy for those seeking the permanent informality of flight.

The difficult reduction of political categories to their implicit models and metaphysics accepted and ingenuously balanced by Deleuze is also the subtext for scientists when they write and make expositions for more than just one another.Vaulting out of culture by means of one of its products, their explications of evolution, machine cognition, neurobiology, cosmology and exotic physics update the atlas of common thermodynamic reason, lending their work its strange and unexpected political effect - neither natural nor social nor physical nor informational - making Dawkins, Dennett and Haraway the Hegels, Humes and Mary Shelleys of the present…

Mbembe uses the suspended social machines and the hiatus in their imagery to suggest a condition of social waste exceeding economic, educational and fiscal recuperation. Such waste is invisible to the eighteenth century model of the contract, to the institution of the market (this much Marx made clear) and is considered a mere performative error by the State in its role as administrator of utility and welfare. Waste people exist in an intimate beyond - outside recontractualisation and reinstitutionalisation to agents, citizens and populations and below resubjectivisation to pupils, workers, or offenders.

The split between the reach of capital and the nation state central to Negri and Hardt’s arguments has made many of the waste processes of capitalism into everybody and nobodies problem: displacing state and economy into units with discontinuous boundaries, different times and incommensurate worlds in between.

Perhaps the waste people are only the facts of power and exploitation no longer automatically overlaid by the inertia of the nation or the ameliorative services of education, training, credit and health so vital to capitalism? Waste is the point where capitalism can find no social organization commensurate with itself: for two hundred years thermodynamics has made this point both inevitable and unthinkable,

Achille Mbembe has leapt into the hiatus-society of waste which is a concept’s width away from us all. Like the priest in L ‘Age d’Or he has a vast social, epistemological and today metaphysical load harnessed to his back. His questions light the thin membrane separating capitalist rationality from itself - the blur it can somehow never focus: the dynamics of waste that unites its furthest reach with its imaginable core. There is every indication that this engaged, passionate, polymathic wanderer is leaping over capitalism’s shadow.

Jean Pierre La Porte

Africa Bauhaus Workshop

2 comments:

Thomas Blaser said...

Thanks for an illuminating summary. For the treatment of waste in western civilization see Michel Tournier's novel 'Gemini' which touches on many issues mentioned here.

fractalontology said...

A breathtaking notion... Thanks for this, Jean Pierre.

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