Modeling Industrial Thresholds:
Waste at the Confluence of Social and Ecological Turbulence
Structures may disappear, but also they may appear.
Prigogine & Stengers, Order Out of Chaos
Etymology and crisis: waste at both ends of productionThe word waste has come to signify a lot of things. As a verb, one can waste one's time, money and energy if one does not heed the old adage: "waste not want not." Not enough nutrients and you waste away; too much drugs or alcohol and you become wasted. According to the OED, as a noun the earliest meaning of waste was land that was uninhabited or uncultivated: a wilderness. Waste was that which existed prior to the process of production; waste was that which had yet to be incorporated into the production process and into the realm of value. One would be inclined to call an unproductive place a wasteland or to comment that a once productive place had been laid waste by an enemy. Today this use of the word is rarely heard and the situation is quite different; one would not dream of calling a wilderness area a waste, as was done in the 13th century. In their rarity, those areas constructed as outside and beyond the social have increased in value so that the valuelessness of the term waste is no longer appropriate. These days the only wastelands are those like Love Canal or the area around Chernobyl, places too polluted for habitation. And these places are becoming more dangerous and more numerous.
With modernity and industrialization, the meaning of waste has moved across the production process to its other end: the waste product. The idea of waste and the valuelessness, the otherness (as in wilderness) and the danger which it signifies has shifted from those things that exist in the realm of pre-production to those which are post-production. Thus, we find ourselves faced with a double bind: as the value of pre-production wastelands rises so too does the demand for their protection from the dangers of industrial intrusion. At the same time, as the danger and threat of post-production waste also rises, so does the demand that it be gotten rid of, either by containment or disposal. The imperialist nature of industrial capitalism, coupled with its particular capacity for expansion and growth, has succeeded in colonizing the entire globe. There are virtually no places left which have not been incorporated into its production process. There is no wilderness left (what is called wilderness today if it is not stripped of its of material resources has become incorporated as spectacle; e.g. Yellowstone National Park.) At the other end this expansion of the production process has come to produce more and more commodities which are consumed faster and faster. This, of course, entails the production of more and more by-products which become increasing difficult to contain. The problem is compounded because if the entire world becomes colonized then there is no outside, no geographical other, no place left to put wastes. Waste is still a wilderness, an other, but it no longer lurks just outside the edges of the social world. It now exists within capitalist society and so must be managed from within rather than discarded and banished to the outside. This is becoming the meta-crisis of late modernity: there is no valueless space of wilderness, no wastelands into which we can cast off industrial waste and destroy its materiality and its danger through disposal, dissipation, dispersion, disintegration, desubstantiation.
In North America this double bind is perhaps most acutely felt at the municipal level. By the mid-1990s, one half of the 6,500 municipal landfills in the United States are expected to reach capacity; 1,400 landfills have closed since 1978 (Royte 55). Meanwhile, as the amount and danger of municipal, consumer wastes continue to rise, so do the regulations and costs of constructing new sites. Large cities are faced with mountains of trash and overflowing landfills; smaller municipalities are faced with the financial burdens of constructing elaborate and costly landfills to meet EPA standards. The trend, according to Elizabeth Royte, is the construction of huge landfill sites in poor isolated, communities who are desperate for income. Waste management firms scour the countryside with lucrative deals to offer communities: "host fees," jobs, scholarships and a cost-free solution to their own waste problems. Huge profits can be made by those who participate in the $30 billion-a-year industry: in the construction of huge waste containers and the transport of waste over long distances. But even in the poorest, most desperate communities, not-in-my-backyard struggles continue to leave waste in highly contested political terrain. The profit-driven solutions to the crisis of an ever-increasing waste stream provide only relatively short-term solutions that come only at great social and environmental costs.
As a discursive construct, as a concrete entity, as a political, economic and health issue, waste is overdetermined. And in the grand scheme of things, the dumping problems of a small-town or even big-city mayor pale in comparison to those of the Department of Energy with thousands of tons of high-level radioactive waste on its hands. And the future political struggles to which interstate waste disposal portend will be small next to those now emerging from numerous communities of "downwinders" who suffer the devastating health effects of chemical and nuclear pollution. The moral, economic and political panics that circle the landfills, chemical and nuclear dumps (like so many seagulls) are by no means unwarranted. The mountains of trash outside every city and town begin to signify the historical limits of industrialization. Waste appears as the historical horizon of late, consumer capitalism, it is a central component of an ecological threshold that implies, perhaps even demands, socio-historical transition. To begin to model this threshold and locate its singular crises, we need to fully engage that which is repressed, set aside and disposed of--and yet at the same time imposes itself on the social body, leaks back and will not go away. In his concise interpretation of Benjamin's contribution to dialectics, Theodor Adorno offers theoretical justification for such a project:
knowledge ... should also address itself to those things which were not embraced by this dynamic, which fell by the wayside--what might be called the waste products and blind spots that have escaped the dialectic... What transcends the ruling society is not only the potentiality it develops but also all that which did not fit properly into the laws of historical movement. Theory must needs deal with cross-grained, opaque, unassimilated material, which as such admittedly has from the start an anachronistic quality, but is not wholly obsolete since it has outwitted the historical dynamic. (151)So the point is to bring waste, along with its containment and disposal, back into the dialectic: to posit waste as a theoretical/philosophical category through which to (re)define the process of capitalist, industrial production. Waste is that which is severed from the social body--but it can be folded it back into discursive and material economies to displace and mobilize their terms of demarcation, offering a re-vision of their limits and crises. This has been the strategic contribution of green politics in which I locate this work: to figure waste into the rational economy, to count the costs of disposal in the economy of industrial production, to posit waste within the overdetermined, master or meta-crisis of late modernity.
To return to the polysemy of waste: if it comes from an industrial process it is referred to as industrial waste, or more specifically: chemical waste or nuclear waste, these also go by the term hazardous waste. When these get out of control we introduce systems of waste management. Thus, the production of waste is not only an industrial process but a discursive one. The production of waste is in essence a production of boundaries, the foundations of which are formed on that meta-dichotomy of inside/outside. Waste is precisely that which poses a threat to the social body and must be placed outside it. But as the social body expands, the membranes between it and the outside are constantly ruptured, as when suburban development encroaches upon waste disposal sites. If, then, waste cannot be gotten rid of altogether, it must be contained. Lewis Mumford begins his book Technics and Human Development with an attempt to shift the defining characteristics of human development away from tool making--'man the tool-maker'--toward the development of container technologies: fire pits, baskets, canals, prisons, cities. Here is a useful starting point for understanding waste. The "management" of waste (in a discursive and material sense) involves either one of two things: containment or disposal. These are the two modes by which disengagement from the social body is achieved: separation by a membrane of concrete or steel (chemical ponds or barrels) or by disposal in a space outside the social where it dissipates (into the dump on the edge of town or into the sea).
Yet it appears that these two modes are mutually exclusive and exist according to a boundary or threshold between them. Crisis seems to follow quickly behind any crossing of this boundary, that is, when that which is supposed to be contained disperses (out of Love Canal) or when that which is supposed to be dispersed gets accumulated (in bodies, e.g. DDT in birds or women's breasts, plastic washed up and accumulated on the coast). Material can move from one mode to another but cannot be subject to both at once:
Profit can be realized in the movement of material from one process to the other: to contain and accumulate that which is dispersed (cleaning up after the Exxon Valdez) or dispersing that which has been accumulated (toxic incineration)--but such movement must be done without any leakage between the two modes. But of course there is leakage and this is where we can locate crisis.
Waste may be subject to decay; decay may produce waste, but these categories are of separate orders. As the above diagram suggests, Waste is a spatial category; it is produced in place; it is realized only in its materiality. Decay is a temporal category, it is produced over time, as duration, it is the process of desubstantiation. Waste which successfully enters the process of decay is transformed into energy and is dissipated, lost, expended. Decay can only become waste if its processes come to a halt, and it stabilizes long enough to take form. These two strategies of waste management can perhaps best be grasped with reference to two paradigms: classical mechanics and thermodynamics. The containment of wastes involves the construction of closed systems of equilibrium and reversible time while disposal utilizes--consciously or not--open systems of dissipative, nonequilibrium states and irreversible time. Equilibrium and reversible time governs classical Newtonian physics of a frictionless pendulums or the orbital motion of celestial bodies. These bodies "do not know any privileged direction of time" (Prigogine & Stengers xxvi). Classical physics describes a universe of clock-like machines, simple isolatable systems governed by deterministic, universal and eternal laws of motion--a universe that has been privileged for 300 years. The conceptual model for nonequilibrium systems of irreversibility is the heat engine. Thermodynamics describes a universe subject to the laws of entropy and the dissipation of energy--and thus is subject to the 'arrow of time'. This is the open-ended universe of chemistry and biology, a universe which chaos theory has only recently begun to construct in all its complexity.
Waste containment strategies are an attempt, then, to create equilibrium states with the stabilization of substances. But as Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers point out, "in the world that we are familiar with, equilibrium is a rare and precarious state.... In order to produce equilibrium, a system must be 'protected' from the fluxes that compose nature. It must be 'canned' so to speak" (128). This would require that we modify our previous diagram, modeling containment/disposal as we would a simple, membraned cell:
Assemblages of waste containment are attempts to create, spatially (to place, on site) static stabilities of reversible time. The stabilities of place are formed out of space ('Nature') where unstable, uncontrollable chaos is the norm. The art of containment is the art of producing boundaries between a stable substance and the disequilibrium that always surrounds and threatens that stability. But these boundaries are never complete, however; they are membranes which will always, at some point allow some leakage.
Waste containment is not simply the containment of its materiality; the management of waste is above all a social production, waste management is at the same time social management. Hence, containment systems fall under Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's category of machinic assemblage, which Manuel De Landa, refers to as an "overall set of self-organizing processes" (6), a phylum which can include chemical, political, organic, historical, linguistic/semiotic, and so on. But what is important is not so much the specific content or even the specific forms of organizational structure, rather it is the shifting relations, the movement and energy flows between and through them, the ways singular organized elements coalesce to produce larger, abstract machines. Out of these relations there can emerge spontaneous self-organization, order out of chaos in the form of chemical clocks, cities, insect colonies, social institutions. As an assemblage, waste containment needs to be considered as a rhizomatic collection of multiplicities in motion: "An assemblage, in its multiplicity, necessarily act on semiotic flows, material flows, and social flows simultaneously" (22). It is not surprising, then, that the containment of waste may also entail the containment of information. For example, information about the release of radioactive waste into the environment around the Hanford nuclear complex in the state of Washington in the 1940s and 50s was not released until 1986, and then only after the Department of Energy which is responsible for the plant was forced through the Freedom of Information Act. (Epperson 89) It seems that social engineering machines for discursive containment intermesh with matter containment machines. The discursive universe is as unstable as that of matter and so meaning must be contained by representation machines that are constructed and maintained by a variety of social institutions. Our model still holds:
The production of conditions of stability and equilibrium for waste involves chemical, engineering, environmental, economic, political and semiotic integrants. The waste-stream is also a sign-stream. To contain waste is to simultaneously contain its significance, its semiotic power.
The production of a rational social and material world is essentially the production of states of equilibrium out of the chaos of 'nature' and social life. But, whether material or discursive, strategies of containment continually fail; they fail because they depend on simplistic, mechanistic understandings of the world. As Prigogine and Stengers point out, "simple, integrable systems can indeed be reduced into noninteracting units, but in general, interactions cannot be eliminated" (73). The ongoing failure of these strategies points us to another conception of the world, that of an evolving, interactive multiplicities that cannot be reduced to timeless universals (73)--dynamic systems of thermodynamics, for instance. The crisis of waste is, at its most essential, a crisis of system, or more specifically: rational systemicity. Crisis seeps out of stainless steel canister of rationality.
It is not that states of equilibrium and far-from-equilibrium are incommensurable. Indeed, life itself is only possible in those latitudes where order and chaos can coexist: life is not found in the chaotic disintegration of the sun, nor is found upon the frozen stability of the moon. But a rational universe of socially constructed order cannot tolerate states of uncontrolled, unchanneled and ever-increasing disorder. This is why a rational society so often sets itself against uncontrolled living matter as expressed most succinctly in the practice of sterilization: of body surfaces, of homes and lawns, the soil, monoculture crops, rainforests, even some cities. Waste disposal is an attempt to harness nonequilibrium either in a highly controlled system (anaerobic, in-vessel composting or incineration) or in a relatively uncontrolled system (dumping onto the ground or into the sea) that is outside the social. "Sacrifice zones," as an example of the latter practice, are an attempt to make an outside wilderness area from within the social body--they are akin prisons or to First Nation reserves 1 in North America or the South African townships--the other/outside area is surrounded by and contained within the social space. These zones are indeed wilderness areas--perhaps the only wilderness areas left in America. The Jefferson Proving Grounds of Madison Indiana, a 100 square mile sacrifice zone, is littered with millions of unexploded bombs, mines and artillery shells, some buried thirty feet or more under the ground. The clean-up costs are estimated at 31 billion it is likely that "the vast instillation may well be the first to be fenced off in perpetuity, permanently isolated from human contact, like a quarantined victim with a contagious and terminal disease" ( Shulman 4) The area has already become a nature preserve of sorts which supports an abundance wildlife--with some endangered species of reptiles--which find a save refuge from human contact--aside from the occasional casualty (Shulman 4-9). In these zones the meaning of the word waste comes full circle, and again signifies an unproductive, wild and dangerous territory.
To dispose is to dispossess. A complete and successful disposal of material--and its signification--must partake of decay. Dispersion as movement is not enough to offer protection from the return of waste (the return of the repressed); waste must be desubstantialized, disembodied, made insubstantial. Economies of decay and entropy, as flows of irreversible time, 2 provide the transformative work of immaterialization. A saprophytic economy can be mobilized against organic waste, transforming it within dissipative assemblages (the metabolization of substance into energy which is then expended by the movement and growth of maggots and worms or in the generation of heat by the smaller saprophytes); entropy and the second law of thermodynamics can carry the inorganic along irreversible energy flows (oxygenation, incineration, the production of movement and/or heat). In the real world, however, complete decay is often difficult to achieve, especially with inorganic waste: incineration, for instance, is often accused of merely dispersing and displacing toxins rather than achieving their immaterialization. Given their economies of function, the compost pile and the incinerator; the gut of the saprophyte and the nuclear reactor are of the same machinic phylum. The attempt to produce a biological agent that can metabolize oil spills or the incineration of sewage sludge for power generation demonstrates a kinship between the two types of disposal machines.
Assemblages of disposal attempt to harness entropic irreversible time. Although they may begin on a particular site, they nevertheless depend on matter/energy exchanges that are subject to time and dispersal over space. One cannot "map" decay because it is a process of dispersion (of energy and material) and is a temporal process. Decay can be localized or channeled but exchanging matter and energy creates compounds that are readily mobilized, absorbed and re-exchanged in larger chemical or biological systems (botanical or animal assemblages). Yet there is always the potential for material to restabilize in unexpected places (in the body, on the beach, settling in the ground water), that is, spontaneous equilibrium can emerge, like eddies in the chemical fluctuations of nature, beyond rational control. In these situations the usual response is a re-containment, sometimes followed by re-disposal (to dig up contaminated soil and incinerate it). Even if there are no localized stabilities, the mobilization of far-from-equilibrium conditions must involve the risks of indeterminacy. Our models of the world, based as they are on classical mechanics, cannot account for or predict the kinds of changes that may arise from the potential of nonequilibrium states. In these conditions small fluctuations can be amplified, pushing the system toward thresholds of change, to "bifurcation points" where it is impossible to predict which way the system will flow, what orders may or may not emerge, what levels of intensities may be reached, to what level and distance dissipation will be carried: "the 'negative' property of dissipation shows that, unlike dynamic objects, thermodynamic objects can only be partially controlled. Occasionally they 'break loose' into spontaneous change" (P & S 120). When incinerating hazardous wastes it is often impossible to guess what kinds of compounds might be produced, where they may go or settle and how they might find there way into the biological environment or food chain. Thus, like the containment of waste, the control of decay can only be partial; it is localized deterritorialization and channeled dissipation--a difficult and always uncertain game.
Thresholds of transitions: social and ecological abstract assemblagesContainment and disposal machines tend to enmesh closely with one another in the interchange of energy, material and meaning. As such elements oscillate between these machines they set up waves of turbulent flows of matter, energy, capital, semiotics and politics. But these assemblages operate within larger social and ecological systems. In other words, They pass through abstract machines, social and ecological abstract machines, abstract machines which are themselves enmeshed and in friction with one another. I want to posit waste, its management and unmanageability as the circulation of intensities and interacting singularities which push these two interacting abstract systems toward threshold, rupture and change.
As we have seen, the membranes of containment and disposal prove to be permeable and subject to breakdown. Waste is a product of the construction of discursive and material boundaries, its production falls under the sign of crisis when it occurs in a world where such boundaries are impossible to maintain. The leaking toxic barrel and toxic fish have become prevalent signs of crisis for our times. These represent scenes of crisis that exist where social boundaries of inside/outside are exceeded and dissolved. It is important to stress that these boundaries are discursive and material; social and concrete. As any engineer knows, in the construction of containment or disposal machines, the properties of the material and its own self-organization must be taken into account. As waste crosses the boundaries of inside/outside, substance/desubstantiation set up by containment and disposal assemblages, it is in the end, its materiality that exceeds theses discursive and social attempts to contain it. Waste may be a discursive and social construct but its material excess imposes itself on the social in its ability to kill. The limit case here is nuclear waste.
In "The last Cold-War Monument" Alan Burdick reports on the project to design a permanent marker--a "keep out" sign--for America's first permanent nuclear waste disposal site, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The project is to come up with a signifier that will last 10,000 years and keep future generations out of the underground vault. But of course, as Burdick points out, the marker is not addressed to future generations but to the present one, its message: "to demonstrate the safe disposal of radioactive waste," as the 1979 congressional mandate so clearly puts it (qtd. in Burdick 65). Nevertheless, the facility is an attempt to contain time within space. The linguistic and engineering task is enormous and most likely impossible. How can a signifier and a container be built to contain the 10,000 years that the regulations require--let alone the 240,000 years the waste will actuallybe radioactive? There is considerable debate as to whether this or any other proposed permanent storage facility, will actual be able to contain radioactivity for the time required. The facility is built along rational, instrumental engineering principals but its object, 10 (or 240) millennia, is not instrumental rational time; "as the EPA regulations concede, when the time frame in question involves millennia, 'proof of future performance... is not to be had in the ordinary sense of the word'" (Burdick 65). The materiality of the nuclear waste exceeds both the semiotic and concrete (in its figurative and literal senses) strategies to contain it. How can we begin to account for this excess? To begin with: waste is, by definition, always excess--but only in relation to the social.
George Bataille's distinction between rational and general economies in The Accursed Share offers a useful conceptual framework from which to come to terms with the excess of waste 3. The distinction is between an economy that is social in origin (industrial capitalism, specifically) and that of the biosphere and "the movement of energy on the earth" (10). The former channels the energy and biomass flows of the latter. The source of energy in the general economy is the sun which gives without receiving (21) and through the work of plant life, a superabundance of energy is produced. That which is in excess of what is required to maintain life must be expended; it must be wasted. Excess is expended through the "effervescence of life," (10) or the biological exuberance of growth, sexual activity, etc., and for humans, social expenditure in the squander of wealth rather than production and accumulation. These latter two are the province of the rational economy. For Bataille, the general economy and its demand for the expenditure of excess energy represents the (natural) limits of the rational economy and its demand for production and accumulation. When these limits are approached and excess growth must be expended, we are given the choice between how that energy is to be spent, either gloriously (festival, art, feasts) or catastrophically (war) (21).
While Bataille's work here is on economics and energy in general, it nonetheless can be applied to the energy flows of waste specifically. We can make sense of waste only in terms of Bataille's general economy; by definition, waste as waste cannot figure into the rational economy unless it can be transformed into something else: a resource, a commodity, value. The consumer waste stream, like war, could be thought of as a (often catastrophic) expenditure growing out of the tensions between the general and rational economies: the waste crisis is an emergent counter-threat to industrial rationalization and development, an expression of its limits. The disposal of waste, (where this is still possible) is pure expenditure without return (or, as in the case of incineration, diminishing returns) and would seem to imply participation in the general economy, to make concessions to it by moving matter from the rational to the general economy. Containment, as we have seen, is a rational practice, an attempt to maintain a socially constructed order and stability in an unstable universe ruled by thermodynamics. Here lies the latest contradiction of late modernity: the accumulation of waste, that is, the accumulation of that which falls under the sign of non-value. Recycling too is an attempt to create a rational economy of waste--to create a new system of circulation within the capitalist order that brings waste back into the production process. The recovery program for consumption as addiction and its ecological decadence is the development of a rational economy of waste. But Bataille warns us against the study of the economy "as if it were a matter of an isolatable system of operation" (19). We can begin to make sense of waste with the placement of systems of human production and consumption into the larger framework of what Bataille presents as the movement of energy on the globe (20). He writes: "I confined myself to relating the problem that is posed in economic crises to the general problem of nature" (13). Thus, the materiality of waste which lies outside social control and yet still imposes itself upon it can be thought of as the general economy imposing itself, as limits, upon the rational economy. To shift our terminology and perspective slightly: Bataille's general economy is nothing less than an ecological abstract assemblage; the rational economy is nothing less than a social abstract assemblage.
For Deleuze and Guattari the abstract machine or abstract assemblage is an aggregate multiple relations in motion. It is the
"abstract machine that connects a language to the semantic and pragmatic contents of statements, to collective assemblages of enunciation, to a whole micropolitics of the social field. A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles" (7)Abstract assemblages give us no objects, (objects are only momentary and illusory) but rather movement, flow, multiplicities, liquifications and crystallizations, multiple bifurcations and attractors, fields of intensities and potential; "an assemblage is a field of connections between multiplicities of various orders" (23). Flat, static maps are almost worthless, three or four dimension modeling are barely adequate to come to terms with higher-level systems of organized and self-organizing synergistic systems in constant movement and perpetual becoming. Discrete objects are of no interest, (such as waste as a static category) only the discursive and material spaces through which they move, are constituted, transformed, dispersed or expended and the turbulent flows that are produced as they travel--only the momentary relations within and between the pulsations and oscillations between order and chaos.
Abstract assemblages are also theoretical tools, thinking machines, conceptual, modeling machines, paradigm generators, expression machines. I offer two for consideration here: social and ecological; these are what Manuel De Landa would call "machinic paradigms" (62). A social abstract assemblage as a machinic paradigm and constituted by the political, cultural, economic, institutional (military, educational, architectural, etc.), machinic assemblages has become a fairly well elaborated system as it has emerged in such fields as the social sciences, political economy and Marxism 4 --which are assemblages in their own right. Over the last twenty years or so another social abstract assemblage as a machinic paradigm has emerged. Ecosystem, an extraordinarily rich and complex thinking assemblage is a multiplicity of organisms connected rhizomatically by matter, energy, and semiotic flows 5 . As machinic paradigms the clock incorporates reversible time, the engine irreversible time with the ecosystem, the most complex of the three, incorporating both. In the ecological abstract assemblage we can discern at least three levels or strata: that of organism/body, ecosystem/forest and biosphere/Gaia. The ecosystem as a cultural conceptual model appears at this moment to be the most common; the body is perhaps too close and the biosphere to large and too distant. The forest (or desert or ocean--it doesn't really matter) has the advantage of being able to mediate between the organism and the biosphere; it can channel energy and semiotic flows between the two. Already the rainforest canopy has become the Gaian Church that mediates between us and the biosphere-as-goddess, between earth and sky. The ecological high priest--who appears regularly on the Discovery Channel--is the "tribal" subject who is able to extract monkeys from the canopy as if by magic, without the aid of technology, with only a few sticks. And when an angry Gaia puts cancer in our bodies or in our environment we know there is secret cure to be found somewhere in that rainforest canopy. 6 Ecology--whether expressed at the level of the organism, ecosystem or biosphere--has become in the last 20 years or so the abstract assemblage through which all machinic phylum must pass.
Here is how we model a crisis: we have two abstract assemblages, the social and ecological which pass through one another creating material, political, economic, cultural, botanical turbulence. Clear-cuts, landfills and nuclear waste dumps are expressions of this turbulence; so is Green politics as the formation of its institutions, as are its various political struggles, and so on. Assemblages of waste containment disposal pass through these two enmeshed abstract assemblages. That is, the turbulences between waste and decay must pass through the turbulences generated between the abstract assemblages as they enmesh. The conditions of material and social disequilibrium in the phase space between the social and ecological have the potential to amplify very small fluctuations into powerful energy flows capable of shattering existing structures. Thus, the encounter of the two abstract assemblages creates far-from-equilibrium conditions inside of which the turbulence of waste can be amplified and intensified creating feed-back loops that carry the entire collection of systems across critical thresholds and toward bifurcation and transformation potential:
Waste creates turbulence in the phase space of industrialization, as part of its ongoing historical development. Under specific historical conditions waste can express not so much a limit to industrial development (as suggest above) but an historical threshold. As Deleuze and Guattari point out, "The history of ideas should never be continuous; it should be wary of resemblances, but also of descendants or filiations; it should be content to mark the thresholds through which an idea passes, the journeys it takes that change the nature of the object" (235). The barrel of toxins or the effluent pond can reach a critical threshold where its material can no longer be contained and bursts forth or slowly seeps outward, into the crevices of social life. There are other thresholds: a cancer threshold when toxins accumulated in the cell cause its mutations, its mutinous growth; economic thresholds where the costs of landfilling become higher than that of recycling. There are political thresholds too: when the callous poisoning of the environment and the people who live there engenders political organization and political action the demands legal redress and for social change. We should not, then, separate out the leakage of toxins from barrels, the leakage of hegemonic legitimacy and (corporate) power and the leakage of social change. The turbulence, instability, disequilibrium described here can bring us to a threshold of social change, a bifurcation of historical possibility.
Addendum: from machine to ecosystemStengers and Prigogine recount that "for classical mechanics the symbol of nature was the clock; for the Industrial Age, it became a reservoir of energy that is always threatened with exhaustion;"(111) and we could add that today the symbol of nature has become the complex ecosystem--on a global scale, it is Gaia. De Landa defines the "machinic phylum as a set of all the singularities at the onset of processes of self-organization--the critical points in the flow of matter and energy, points at which these flows spontaneously acquire a new form or pattern" (132). But in this context the machine, it seems to me, is woefully inadequate as a metaphor. The machine, at least in its traditional usage, is not self-organizing, self-replicating, or capable of spontaneous order. And the most complex, futuristic cybernetic systems do not even approach the rhizomatic richness of a single square meter of forest, or a cubic millimeter of an animal's brain. We have nothing to fear from organic metaphors (like rhizome, for instance); they need not necessarily imply a search for universals or origins, on the contrary, they necessitate a search for the perpetual movement of becoming. It is rather the machine, based as it is on the idea of simple, deterministic, universal and eternal laws of reversible motion, that implies a search for origins. I have used Deleuze and Guattari's machinic metaphors throughout this paper but after all I have tried to demonstrate here, it should be clear that the machine needs to be jettisoned in favor of those of an emergent ecology. The body, a microorganism, the ocean, a compost heap--these, not machines, represent the phase spaces through which history now must pass.
That is the only way Nature operates--against itself.
Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus
Jody Baker is a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh.