Lecture presented at
Department of Environmental Humanities, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, June 2018
on a panel titled "Invisible Invaders: Microplastics"
My contribution to this event is not directly related to microplastics. I don’t know much about microplastics aside from what is available in mainstream media. But microplastics are clearly a specific (micro) issue relating to the greater macro issues we currently face surrounding commodity production and waste management, which is a theme I’ve researched historically and theoretically and attempted to engage with in my art and writing.
In the case of the film we just watched, Outside, I was, among other things, interested in engaging the issue of waste on the scale of the human body, and on the liminal threshold that waste occupies between the human body, organic matter and waste infrastructures. It seems to me that the constantly shifting historical relations to human waste - which contain a range of oscillating and very strong emotional charges - can be used as a prism with which to approach the larger problems of industrial waste and the problems it poses for the future of the planet. The problem of waste is of course, incredibly material, but at the same time its movement, management or mismanagement is equally a problem of perception, language and visual representation. It is, in short, an onto-epistemological issue.
There are of course important differences between human waste and industrial waste and while they overlap in various material and theoretical ways, they are also distinct. The line of thought I’m developing here conflates this distinction to some extent and unfortunately I won’t be able to develop the important differences here but perhaps we can address this in questions afterwards.
[The video below was running throughout my lecture]
First I’ll just offer some brief thoughts on the title of this event: Invisible Invaders, composed of two relational words, which depend on the perceptual position of the person using them. Invisibility or visibility are matters of position, of scale, and of language. Certain things that are visible to others are invisible to me based on our respective positions. Certain processes are invisible to me due to their scale and the relation of my human body to that scale: climate change is invisible to me because it is too big to visualize. I know it is real because of the causal accumulation of various pieces of evidence that have been accumulated by others - but as a whole it remains invisible to me.
Or take something on the other end of the scale spectrum, such as the human microbiome, which is also invisible to me because my limited range of human perception is unable to see the scale of bacteria without mediation and interpretation. What is visible to me is extremely limited compared to what is knowable. Language is, in many ways, a tool that expands the threshold of the visible because it determines the parameters of the knowable, giving names for that which we know or think we know as a way to make things visible. Several people (let’s say microbiologists) have, through complex tools of mediation and knowledge infrastructures, seen and attempted to know the many elements which together compose something that has now been named the microbiome. The word microbiome takes on a concrete material nature and I can study it, attempt to understand it and apply it to my perception of the world through this name.
Invasion is likewise a word that denotes a relational position. Invasion comes from the outside, from the space that is not integrated or assimilated. It is a rupture in continuity. The notion of invasion betrays the (generally false) sense of unity towards what is presumed to be known, to that which is perceived as inside. Invasion is that which brings the unknown and uninvited from outside into the perceived stability of the known inside.
The reason I named this film ‘Outside’ was an attempt to problematize the theoretical boundaries that separate inside from outside in relation to the human body and to the waste produced by it. A series of historical developments such as urbanization and industrial agriculture pushed human waste to the periphery of human culture. I would argue that our understanding of waste as outside is a relatively recent development and one that is intertwined with capitalist production processes. Just a brief example that points to this historical shift, I recently came across a passage from Francis Bacon’s 1605 The Advancement of Learning in which he referred to the study of natural history as one of knowledge’s “unmanured plots” which he was in the process of radically revising. Knowledge, for Bacon, requires the cyclical incorporation of waste to produce fertility - both material and theoretical. Precapitalist waste was not peripheral or outside but rather a crucial component of production.
In the case of ocean plastics and their invisible invasion of our bodies, it seems like it’s worth dwelling momentarily on the relationship between language and perception and the construction of the relational positions inherent to this term. The invaders are invisible because the processes that led to their existence were obscured from view as they were from language. From the perspective of sea creatures, etc. the invasion would have been highly visible, accumulating as islands of plastic and transforming eco-systems.
This is all more or less clear to anyone following the news or clickbait on the theme. But I think it’s nevertheless important to reconsider the terminology that describes these particular materials as invisible and invaders, and how a term like invisible or invader reinforces and centralizes the human position, and perhaps even more the capitalist position, as the measure of all perceptual relations. Referring to the invader as invisible in some ways perpetuates the deliberate obscuring of visibility involved in the mismanagement of waste. As many thinkers operating within the environmental humanities have emphasized in recent decades, it’s precisely this centrality of the human perceptual position that needs to be radically reconsidered if we are going to face and overcome current and future ecological crises.
[It occurred to me that this term shares something with the approach to refugees washing up on the shores of Europe over the last years. The surprise at this point of contact sheds light on how the causes that led to these crises (invasion and war, the long-term effects of colonisation and theft of natural resources) have in many ways been obscured from the European public imagination. Suddenly we ask what they are doing here, when the question as to what we were doing there in the first place to cause these conditions remains in large part invisible.]
My practice as an artist and writer unfolds somewhere between the visual and linguistic, looking at how the conditions of perception are formed at this intersection. I’m always fascinated by moments where it becomes difficult to clearly distinguish language from sight. The footage we’re watching now, which I used a short section of in the film, struck me as a very charged conflation of the visual and linguistic.
I usually start my research and artworks with a certain question or intention, but generally end up somewhere I couldn’t have expected. In the case of this film, the more I’ve dwelt on it and the more conversations I’ve had with people as a result of it, the more ideas have come up. Based on some of these thoughts, I’d like to very briefly propose a kind of speculative approach to waste as a perceptual and semantic problem. This is not an attempt to obscure the materiality of waste but simply to shift focus as a thought experiment and highlight the entanglement of material with language and perception.
The middle section of ‘Outside’ uses footage taken from a police body cam. The footage shows the police chasing a man pulled over for a traffic violation. With nowhere to go, the man being chased jumps into a sewage treatment facility. A long standoff ensues as the man is able to postpone his capture by staying immersed in the sewage. While the police man keeps yelling at him, demanding that he state his name, the man is able to hide from the law in plain sight as long as he remains submerged in waste. Inside the realm of waste, definition, language and law disintegrate. The perspective from which we view, the police body cam, is the perspective of the law, which demands the precise definition of what we see. The law enforcing body and eye refuses to cross the threshold of waste; it must remain in the realm of precise definition in order to demand precise definition.
This footage documents a real occurrence that is simply what it is, and yet it also opens up as a metaphor for further exploration and my approach to this exploration is driven by a certain Marxist ecological framework.
We know that the history of law enforcement is the history of guarding the means of production. Law enforcement emerged as a means to and continues to protect products and property. But what about the end processes of production? What about the waste that inevitably results from any production process? Historically, this is a boundary that law enforcement doesn’t cross.
Let’s take a plastic bottle as a hypothetical example for this thought experiment: we can be sure that there are legal measures in place to protect the company that produces these bottles: from the physical protection of the machines and products on a physical site, to the patents owned by the company, to the means of transportation and sales that move these products from point A to B etc. etc.. To keep this brief, I’m just pointing to processes that are much more complex and which are specified in seemingly infinite detail. But the point is that these processes are granted visibility because they are active in the framework of commodity production and exchange based in language and law. As long as they store value they remain highly specified. But as soon as they are used, they lose their value and and the specificity of language through which they were made visible as commodities begins to disintegrate.
At the point that a product becomes waste, its material and semantic/representational trajectories split and begin to travel in opposite directions; the language so crucial for the objects’ production, distribution and sale rapidly disintegrates as the product almost instantaneously depreciates in value. Its semantic and representational integrity decreases at the same speed as its market value, while the material itself persists, but now in a space that is unaccounted for, somewhere outside the realm of definition and thus outside of law.
Oceans have always been a difficult territory for law, perception, and language. Still today, we have only explored 5 percent of this body that occupies 71 percent of this planet. It therefore comes as no surprise that oceans have always been and continue to be a receptacle for waste. Out of sight out of mind out of language out of law. But now, much like global warming or the human microbiome, we know much more than we can see and this knowledge makes abundantly clear that the ocean can no longer be treated as invisible because its status as a place to make waste imperceptible is actively destroying life on the planet.
My speculative thought experiment leads towards a question: could we imagine an infrastructure in which waste was given the same degree of representational specificity as commodities? In other words, if we were to make waste visible through the tools of definition that we grant commodities, would we be able to subvert or slow down the long term effects of waste mismanagement based on the processes through which they have been relegated to the periphery?
In many ways, these processes are underway. Huge containers of waste get shipped every day to China, or to developing countries where people are able to turn a profit from moving, recycling and hiding waste. It is not coincidental in the perceptual problem of waste management, that poor countries are left with the burden of making waste ‘invisible’. These issues are always heavily entangled in moral and political frameworks.
Likewise new advancements in microbiology are finding ways to extract value from human waste by harvesting certain bacteria that can be used in other processes. This too is an issue of perception and language. Without the tools necessary to understand the function of bacteria and to define them, we could not be able to find value in human waste. This is first and foremost a perceptual shift before it can be made material.
I think that in the coming decades, as natural resources dwindle and waste accumulates, we will see lots of innovations in the extraction of new value from old waste. At the same time, the problem with many of these innovations is that they tend to perpetuate the logic of capitalist production which sees all matter as a standing reserve of value and therefore perpetuates the same logic that is driving the causes of damage. The open question I’d like to finish with is - how might we imagine a space of definition that can account for waste in specified detail in such a way that it retains its visibility and therefore our responsibility towards it, without perpetuating the capitalist framework of value extraction? Is there a way, in the language being developed within the environmental humanities, as in the perceptual construction of the arts, to develop new modes of specification?