You are on page 1of 18

Social Epistemology

A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy

ISSN: 0269-1728 (Print) 1464-5297 (Online) Journal homepage:

Knowing Waste: Towards an Inhuman

Myra J. Hird
To cite this article: Myra J. Hird (2012) Knowing Waste: Towards an Inhuman Epistemology,
Social Epistemology, 26:3-4, 453-469, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2012.727195
To link to this article:

Published online: 14 Dec 2012.

Submit your article to this journal

Article views: 1296

View related articles

Citing articles: 1 View citing articles

Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at
Download by: []

Date: 01 October 2016, At: 08:11

Social Epistemology
Vol. 26, Nos. 34, October 2012, pp. 453469

Knowing Waste: Towards an

Inhuman Epistemology
Myra J. Hird

Ten years after the publication of the special issue of Social Epistemology on feminist
epistemology, this paper explores recent feminist interest in the inhuman. Feminist
science studies, cultural studies, philosophy and environmental studies all build on the
important work feminist epistemology has done to bring to the fore questions of
feminist empiricism, situated knowledges and knowing as an intersubjective activity.
Current research in feminist theory is expanding this epistemological horizon to consider the possibility of an inhuman epistemology. This paper explores these developments through the subject of waste. Waste, as both an epistemological and material
phenomenon, invites timely questions about possibilities for acknowledging an
inhuman epistemology. These questions appear to be particularly urgent from an
environmental perspective.
Keywords: Feminist Epistemology; Environment; Waste; Inhuman
Garbage is all that anonymous stuff falling between valued objects and simple dust.
(Kennedy 2007, 7)

My claim to knowing waste, or needing to know about waste, is a matter of

national identity.1 After all, Canada is the worlds highest per capita municipal
solid waste producer. By 2000, we were producing more waste per capita than
Americans, and by 2005 nearly twice as much garbage as Japanese people

Myra J. Hird is Professor and Queens National Scholar in Environmental Studies at Queens University,
Kingston. She is the author of Sociology of science (2011, Oxford University Press), The origins of sociable life
(2009, Palgrave), Sex, gender and science (2004, Palgrave), Engendering violence (2002, Ashgate), co-editor of
Queering the nonhuman (2008, Ashgate), Questioning sociology (2nd edition, 2011, Oxford University Press)
and Sociology for the asking (2002, Oxford University Press), as well as some 50 articles and book chapters
on topics related to science studies. She is currently conducting interdisciplinary research on the topic of
waste. For further information see Correspondence to: Myra J. Hird,
Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada K7L 3N6. Email:
ISSN 0269-1728 (print)/ISSN 1464-5297 (online) 2012 Taylor & Francis


M. J. Hird

(Statistics Canada 2008b). By 2006, we produced over 1000 kg of waste per person;
35 million tonnes of waste in a single calendar year (Statistics Canada 2008a). The
bulk of this waste is landfilled (Statistics Canada 2008a). In 2010, 30% of existing
Canadian landfills reached or surpassed capacity. To make matters worse, 30% of
Canadas landfills are operational for less than 10 years; and these landfills make
up half the total volume of landfilled waste per annum (Statistics Canada 2005, 7).
To compound the issue, over one million tonnes of waste were exported out of
Canada in 2002, much of it headed from southern Ontario to rural regions of
Canada, the USA or further afield to countries such as China, where landfills are
often open, unlined and contain an indiscriminate mix of hazardous and non-hazardous waste (Statistics Canada 2005). Some Canadian cities have settled on new
local landfill locations, and in some cases invested in construction, only to discover
both significant public opposition and problems in risk and impact assessment.
Waste may be analysed in terms of the politics and economics of consumption;
intergovernmental and industry-government relations; urban-rural divides; health;
labour relations; gender and waste economies; science-public relations; risk; governance and so on (Maclaren and Nguyen 2003). Certainly, the increasing mountains
of waste humans produce are made possible through mass production, global
transportation and communication, and cheap mechanised labour. Current waste
management legislation, policies and practice speak to capitalisms production of
excess, and coping with excess is what passes in late-modern society for individual
freedom (Bauman 2001, 90). Further, waste management practices such as recycling further shift attention from industry and production to households and
consumption (Hawkins 2006, 104; Kollikkathara, Feng, and Stern 2009).
Waste provides appreciable epistemological insights into how humans determine the existence and status of objects (Kennedy 2007). This paper focuses on
how we know waste, particularly in the global north. In other words, this paper
seeks to analyse how we attempt to determine waste. Knowing waste, I will argue,
consists largely in its determination as such. Knowing waste is, in other words,
about rendering indeterminate entities determinate. I will draw on feminist science
studies (FSS) theory concerned with the problem of indeterminacy to argue landfill
engineering and science necessarily details the failure to determine waste itself. As
such, knowing waste is rendering the indeterminate determinate.
Waste Identities
Despite its ubiquity, waste exist[s] in the twilight zone where no clear, natural definition of [it] can be given, within wide margins of uncertainty and variation
(Wynne 1987, 1). This is true in both cultural symbolic and material senses. Waste
is an inherently ambiguous linguistic signifier: anything and everything can become
waste, and things can simultaneously be and not be waste, depending on the perceiver.2 For instance, Judd Alexander, former Executive Vice President of the American Can Company, defines waste as any areas of land not being used for landfilling:

Social Epistemology


The public perceives that the garbage crisis is caused by the runaway growth of disposables, packaging and discards in general. The real problem, of course, is not the growth of
garbage or the quantity of garbage; it is the closing of landfills and the failure to provide
replacement sites or alternate ways to handle the discards of towns and cities. The production of garbage responds to growth in population, household formations, affluence and
commercial activity, but the capacity for the disposal of waste depends more on the availability of landspacethan any other factor. (Alexander 2005, 21, my emphasis)

We waste things tangible and intangible including love, time, youth and energy.
Supermodels and actresses become so emaciated that they waste away. Within
capitalist societies, waste is often associated with resources out of place that span
the gamut of lost work time and incomplete production to the failure to maximise
profit through the non-use of potentially usable objects such as land, as the
Alexander quote illustrates (Gille 2010).
This latter understanding introduces one of wastes many ambiguities because
we encounter an increasing number of objects as only a fleeting presence (Kennedy 2007, x). Single-serving objects such as coffee cups, sugar packets, stir sticks
and so on are determinate: we use them once, toss them in the garbage and forget
about them. We even have single-serving friends, according to Edward Nortons
character in the movie Fight Club. Our single-serving practices are relentless, as
Baudrillard (1998, 43) notes, as the gloomy, bureaucratic caricature in our societies, where wasteful consumption has become a daily obligation, a forced and often
unconscious institution like indirect taxation, a cool participation in the constraints of the economic order.
We encounter objects, Kennedy (2007, 158) observes, as essentially evanescent, instantaneous. Yet while most disposables appear the same before and after
their use, their ontology has fundamentally changed. Before use, the object is a
desirable commodity; afterwards it is garbage (Kennedy 2007). What makes things
garbage is their unusability or worthlessness to human purposes (Kennedy 2007).
As such, no entity is in its essence waste, and all entities are potentially waste.
In Combing through Trash: Philosophy goes Rummaging, Elizabeth Spelman
points out that despite our relative silence on the subject, waste nevertheless says a
great deal about who we are (Spelman 2011, 31325). Firstly, making garbage is
something we do every day yet rarely talk about. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, waste is an ironic testimonial to a desire to forget (Hird 2012). Diligent
middle-class western practices of placing garbage on sidewalks to be taken to
dumping stations, landfills, incinerators and the like ritualises this forgetting. It is
made possible by legislative decision, regulative enforcement, risk models, community accession and engineering practice. As such, landfills make their appearance
on and in the landscape as a material enactment of forgetting.
A society preoccupied with concealing its wastes must have, Kennedy
(2007, 4) observes, something important to hide from itself. The desire to disgorge our selves of waste and remove it from sight has psycho-social, evolutionary,
cultural and structural explanations. Douglas (2007) provided a well-known theory
of community development, stratification and maintenance defined by waste


M. J. Hird

purification practices. Sigmund Freud detailed the anal stage as one of mastering
bladder and bowel control; mastering in other words, our first waste.3 Early life
observations show children learn from their caregivers to eschew their excrement
by defining it as waste, and practicing acceptable toilet habits rather than playing
with or otherwise remaining intimate with their excrement. In a sense, we continue this practice throughout life. Landfills swell with things we once wanted and
now do not want, once valued and no longer value. What remains after our disgorgement is what we (want to) consider our real self.
Yet, as Rathje and Murphy argue, who we are is to be found in what we abject
(Rathje and Murphy 2001; see also Douglas 2007). Skeptical of archaeologys ability to uncover in tombs, temples and palaces anything other than what past peoples wanted to remember and be remembered for, Rathje and Murphy suggest
excavating rubbish sets the record straight. Rummaging through garbageas any
Hollywood stalker will attestreveals intimate details of sexual practices, health
(what we really eat vs. what we report eating), personal hygiene, finances, personal
relationships, private thoughts, political affiliations and so on. Indeed, the Oxford
English Dictionary defines garbology as the study of human refuse in an attempt
to divine ill-begotten truths (Spelman 2011, 315). As such, (Spelman 2011, 323
4) argues trash provides an epistemologically privileged resource for understanding
what individuals and communities are all about. In other words, we know our
selves through waste.
Determining Waste
The term waste is derived from the Latin vastus, meaning unoccupied or desolate
and close to the Latin vanus, meaning empty or vain. Landfills, of course, are anything but unoccupied, empty and desolate. Forgotten and out of sight, waste does
not really go away. Returning to Wynnes characterisation of waste as defying easy
definition without wide margins of variability and uncertainty, this is also the case
in a material sense. Waste, as Gregson and Crang (2010, 1028) remind us, is a
long ways from stuff that just is rather it becomes. Apart from the odd
antique, most things spend little time within the realm of human production and
consumption. Indeed, in biogeological deep time, consumables are but one
moment in the wider life of a thing (Parsons 2008, 392).
Landfilling is, globally, the most common way we dispose of waste. Landfills
contain all sorts of thingsdiapers, dead pets, plastics, food, fabric, furniture,
wrapping paper, batteries and appliancesmixing so-called hazardous with nonhazardous waste. While hazardous industrial waste is typically differentiated from
municipal solid waste on the basis that it is generated from different sources,
Wynne (1987, 46) argues:
Hazardous waste should strictly include municipal, household waste, because the
toxicity of many domestic wastesbatteries, cleaning and polishing fluids, cosmetics,
medicines higher than that of some industrial wastes. The toxicity of some
leachates from municipal landfills is at least as high as that from controlled, hazard-

Social Epistemology


ous waste landfills. The greatest source of environmental cadmium is thought to be

from batteries thrown out in domestic waste. Municipal waste incinerators are also
known to emit dioxins with their aerial discharges, possibly to worse levels than toxic
waste incinerators. Yet municipal waste is excluded, not for technical risk, but pragmatic reasons.

Once in the ground, these materials become part of bacterias production and
consumption economy. In other words, myriad heterogeneous materials enter an
inhuman domain. Landfills proliferate with leachate composed of putrescible viscous material created through bacterial metabolism. Initially, acetogenic biodegration under aerobic conditions produces material that is highly acidic and toxic to
surface water. Anaerobic bacteria do the bulk of the metabolising work deeper in
the landfill. Leachate is a heterogeneous mix of heavy metals, endocrine disrupting
chemicals, plthalates, herbicides, pesticides and various gases including methane,
carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen sulphide. There are over 7 million known chemicals, 80,000 of which are in commercial circulation and with about 1000 new chemicals entering into commercial use
each year (Wynne 1987, 48). Add to this the approximately 14,000 food additives
and contaminants added to landfills from discarded food. Major concerns include
soil and groundwater contamination, gas emissions and myriad adverse health
effects for flora and fauna. Ninety per cent of green house gas emissions from the
waste sector consist of methane emitted from landfills and wastewater, accounting
for about 3%of total greenhouse gas emissions (Chertow 2009).
Factors affecting leachate production rate and composition include the:
characteristics of the waste (initial composition, particle size, density and so on), the
interaction between the percolating landfill moisture and the waste, the hydrology and
climate of the site, the landfill design and the operational variables, microbial processes
taking place during the stabilization of the waste and the stage of the landfill stabilization. Most of these factors change during the operational period of the landfill as the
landfill is developed causing significant changes in leachate quality and quantity. (Yildiz and Rowe 2004, 78)

Landfills are particularly vigorous: bacteria relentlessly metabolise discarded

objects into leachate, which in turn percolates into soil and groundwater, where it
moves into and through plants, trees, animals, fungi, insects and the atmosphere.
Leachate assembles geo-bio networks: it travels vertically and horizontally within
landfills, and continues to travel when it leaks beyond landfill cells. Recalling Baudrillards argument that community feasts celebrate a feeling of aliveness and of
thriving beyond survival, (Kennedy 2007, 10, my emphasis) writes, waste can
equally symbolize the life process, the abundance and exuberance of nature. Exuberance, in other words, is fully inhuman. As Ingold (2007, 13) reminds us,
wherever life is going on, they are relentlessly on the moveflowing, scraping, mixing
and mutating. The existence of all living organisms is caught up in this ceaseless respiratory
and metabolic interchange between their bodily substances and the fluxes of the medium.

Via leachate, bacteria create well known, little known and new social forms.


M. J. Hird

Indeed, landfills are a site within which multitudes of bacteria collaborate

with human debris and geological forces in creating entities, some of which we
know to have consequences for (human) animal and plant health, and other
entitiescontaminants of emerging concernthat have yet to be identified,
and whose management is therefore virtual. The science and engineering of
landfills is concerned with making sure waste does not leak. Leakage, van Wyck
(2005) reminds us, happens when material moves between containment (spatial)
and disposal (temporal). Leachate does just this: it leaks. Leachate moves
between geological strata, containment and disposal, and between space and
Landfilling appears as a story of relational materiality, with human and nonhuman actants in shifting assemblages (Latour 1992). In what follows, I argue
landfills suggest the limits of an analytic focused on co-enactment whereby humans
ultimately manage or determine processes and outcomes. Landfills bring into focus
what Clark (2011, 48) refers to as the radical asymmetry between geo-bacterial
liveliness and humans. Rather than provide an actor network theory (ANT)
account of landfilling then, I turn to FSS as a fruitful analytic for conceptualising
differential power relations between and within entities that has most recently
turned its attention to the specificities of humananimal relations, and further to
the inhuman, and how the indeterminate is rendered knowable.
Feminist Science Studies, the Inhuman and Indeterminacy
As Grasswick and Webb (2002) point out in their 2002 contribution to Social
Epistemology, feminist social epistemology encompasses a broad range of
problematics, analytics and methods. What grounds these diverse feminist epistemologies are a concern to better understand how gender (or sex, depending
on the analysis) makes a difference to knowing. Much of this research focuses
on human social, economic, political and cultural domains, where analyses suggest women have been excluded from male-defined and dominated systems of
knowledge production and circulation. Against these epistemological frameworks
assumed to be based on either individual belief or generalised rationality, feminist epistemology has thoroughly argued that the identity, social location and
context of the knower make a difference in what is known, and what can be
known (Code 1991). To give one familiar example amongst many, Emily
Martin analysed medical textbook descriptions of human gonads. She found
sperm are attributed with ideal masculine characteristics, including strength,
tenacity and advanced reasoning, while eggs are ascribed ideal feminine characteristics that emphasise womens passivity. These descriptions run counter to
research on sperm and eggs, which show eggs are much larger than sperm,
sperm movement is fairly haphazard, and sperms attempts to escape from the
egg are thwarted by the eggs ability to force sperm to attach to the eggs
surface and then to dissolve the sperms outer layers. As Fausto-Sterling (1997,
54, 57) suggests, behind these descriptions

Social Epistemology


lurk some heavy-duty social questions about sex, gender, power, and the social structure of European culture . In the work of the established evolutionary biologists,
past and present, talking about eggs and sperm gives us permission to prescribe appropriate gender behaviours.

In short, what we know about physiology, morphology and development

depends upon the context of the knower, the production of knowledge and its
assimilation within structures of power such as bio-politics.
Given science and technologys dominance within western styles of thinking,
feminist social epistemology invests significant attention in critiquing the ways in
which gender makes a difference in accounts of evolution, development, reproduction, health, physiology, immunology, genetics and even death. Extending research
demonstrating womens exclusion from processes of scientific production, some
feminist epistemological research argues women view and engage with the world
differently than men, which opens the possibility to approach scientific questions
from a less male/mainstream perspective. For instance, Fox Keller (1983, 163) suggests Barbara McClintocks Nobel prize winning research on genetic transposons
was produced by her greater openness to alternative accounts of genetics because
she escaped some of the psychosocial indoctrination received by her male peers.
A number of feminist scholars have explored the possibilities and limits of standpoint epistemology and scientific knowledge (Hankinson-Nelson and Nelson 1996;
Hubbard 1989; Longino 1990; Schiebinger 1989, 1993; Stengers 1997, 2000).
Though varied in their approaches, these analyses tend to be circumscribed to
human knowing. Commenting on Gaile Phlhauss critique of standpoint epistemology, Grasswick and Webb note that it emphasises knowing as an intersubjective activity realised through building relations with others. These relations will
involve fostering connections with those who do not share similar social locations
(Grasswick and Webb 2002, 193). As political attentions shift, note Grasswick
and Webb (2002, 195), new issues will emerge for feminist epistemologies, and
new avenues of research will emerge. The authors are referring to relations with
other humans, but feminist epistemology has for some years turned its attention
to the possibilities and limits of developing relations of knowing with non-human
entities, or what Haraway (2007, 4) characterises as companion species. By considering female or feminine ways of knowing as (potentially) distinct from male or
masculine ways of knowing, feminist standpoint epistemology effectively opened
up ways of knowing beyond gender, and beyond the human.
FSS has for some time turned its gaze towards animal studies as a rich site to
explore how humans relate to other animals, what is being related and the limits
and possibilities for different degrees and kinds of relating. Diverse analyses consider bat, dog, dolphin, primate, sheep and other more familiar animals, as well as
decidedly less familiar living phenomena such as slime moulds, fungi and bacteria
(Haraway 1989, 1991, 1997, 2007; Rowell 1991, 1993; Smuts 1985; see also Mitchell
2002; Nagel 1974).4 These diverse feminist analyses tend to emphasise relationality
rather than human beings ultimate autonomy from animals found in Kant (2003),


M. J. Hird

Wittgenstein (1994), Lyotard (1989, 1991), Heidegger (1991), Levinas (1988, 1990,
2004) or Derrida (1991, 2004). (See also Kendall 2008; Llewelyn 1991; Wilson
2004; Wolfe 2003.)5
FSS, sometimes engaging with ANTs emphasis on a parliament of things
assembled with human and non-human entities, focuses on the material relations
within and between humans and other forms of life (Latour 1993, 142). For
instance, Haraways theory of species meeting provides a superb analysis of
humannon-human relating in its complex diversity. In conversation with Agambens work, Haraway proceeds with the recognition of an always already incalculable enmeshing of species, and an urgent need to reach beyond the kinds of
speaking for species licensed through persistent claims of human exceptionalism:
Disarmed of the fantasy of climbing into heads, ones own or others, to get the full
story from the inside, we can make some multispecies semiotic progress. To claim not
to be able to communicate with and to know one another and other critters, however
imperfectly, is a denial of mortal entanglement (the open) for which we are responsible
and in which we respond Response is comprehending that subject-making connection is real. Response is face-to-face in the contact zone of an entangled relationship.
Response is in the open. Companion species know this. (Haraway 2007, 226; see also
Agamben 2003)

These FSS analyses are centrally concerned with how we know non-human animals, and living entities more generally, and equally importantly, how living entities know us, and other life forms. In this effort, FSS increasingly engages with
scientific research that observes and interacts with animals and other organisms.
What is of particular interest to FSS are studies that consider inhuman knowing
from perspectives that challenge human exceptionalism. For example, cognitive
ethologist Ristau describes her reason for studying the plover species of bird is precisely the apparent unfamiliarity of plover epistemologyhow plovers know and
respond to their changing environment:
I particularly chose to study birds not because a purposive interpretation of their
behavior is clear-cut or because we are easily able to empathize with their possible
communications and mental states (as we seem to with apes and our pet dogs), but
because it is difficult to do either. (1991, 93)

What interests Ristau is plovers unfamiliarity, and the difficulties in accounting

for plover behaviours from a human exceptionalist standpoint. In Knowledge in
Humans and Other Animals, Kornblith makes a philosophical case for knowledge
as a natural kind rather than human construct. The debate between these two theories is beyond the scope of this paper. What is relevant here is Kornbliths concern with human exceptionalism and the inhuman. She asks
why should it matter whether knowledge is a natural kind, a phenomenon in the
world whose contours are independent of parochial human concerns, or rather,
instead, a human construct, imposed by us upon the world in ways which answer only
to our concerns and interests? (Kornblith 1999, 342).

Social Epistemology


Kornbliths motivation in asking this question, and arguing for knowledge as a

natural kind, is the growing attunement to the limitations of human exceptionalism, as well as the broader recognition of an inhuman epistemology.
The possibilityor imperative and responsibility as Haraway and others
would have itof knowing the inhuman extends to the inorganic and non-living
as well, in analyses such as Roberts (2007) study of hormones, Waldby and Mitchell (2006) examination of cell lines, Pickerings (1995) study of machines, and
Woolgars (1991) inquiry into computers and the configuration of users. In this
latter analysis, as Shapiro notes, Woolgar recognised a need to redress the imbalance by focusing on ways to speak on behalf of machines (Woolgar 1991, 90; see
also Shapiro 1997). Knowing others is, of course, as Shapiro (1997, 108) points
out, to take a moral stand. It does not absolve FSS of the problem of the knower
establishing the boundaries of her analysis. Nor does it guarantee exemption from
a persistent criticism of deep ecology, which exercises a different form of human
exceptionalism by treating nature as a dimension of the self such that differences within and between forms of life and non-life collapse in claims that humans
are, rather than of, nature (Plumwood 1993, 174).6
Drawing upon Haraways path-breaking work, Barads intensive study of quantum mechanics, and more recently quantum field theory brings what Barad terms
an inhuman onto-epistemology to the forefront of FSS (Barad 2007, 2012a). Barads interest is in the smallest of the small: electrons, photons and most recently
the ghostly non- and existences of the quantum void. Barads considerable opus is
complexly detailed, and its exegesis is beyond the scope of this paper. For our purposes here, what Barads work brings to FSSs discussions of knowing is a focus on
the inhuman, the inseparability of epistemology from ontology and the implications of indeterminacy for knowing waste.
Working through a detailed study of the long-standing debate between Heisenberg, Einstein, Rosen, Bohr and other physicists during the 1930s and 1940s, Barad
identifies the debate as a fundamental disagreement about uncertainty vs. indeterminacy. For Heisenberg, Einstein and others, quantum mechanics reveals an epistemological issue, insofar as the observation of any experiment impacts the
outcome of that experiment. According to Heisenbergs uncertainty principle, if
the experimental system could be controlled such that it is either not disturbed by
the observation, or its total disturbance can be measured and accounted for, we
can retain a notion of causality defined by classical physics, and the reality humans
experience in terms of time irreversibility, cause and effect. Put another way,
according to the uncertainty side of this debate, quantum mechanics presents an
epistemological issue that could, theoretically, be overcome by the technological
innovation of measuring instruments. Bohr disagreed, arguing quantum mechanics
suggests the indeterminacy of all matter and meaning. Barad describes this as the
intra-action of measurement whereby the agencies of observation are inseparable
from what is being observed (2012b, 5). That is, according to Barad, all matter
and meaning is entangled beyond an epistemological approach that retains a
notion of individual entities (whether defined as material objects or cultural


M. J. Hird

artifacts such as conversations, normative conventions and so on) whose interaction cannot be determined through measurement (Barad 2012a, 14).
From this onto-epistemological perspective, matter and meaning are measuring
effects (Barad 2012a, 14). They do not pre-exist as individual entities, nor are
they inherently static in time or space (to make them so is to exact an agential
determination or cut, as Barad puts it. See Barad 2012a, 14). The world is not
composed of entities that we may or may not come to know; it is composed of
phenomena produced through measuring. Measuring, or knowing, is worldmaking. Measuring entangles; as Barad (2012a, 14) put it, measuring cuts
together-apart. Indeterminacy is the condition of measuring: how strange, writes
Barad, (2012b, 16) that indeterminacy, in its infinite openness, is the condition for
the possibility of all structures in their dynamically reconfiguring in/stabilities.
Schrader describes traces articulated when the indeterminate is rendered determinate phenomena through measuring:
There is no measurement without memory, no intra-action that wouldnt leave a trace.
But the trace by itself is not. Memories have to be read in order to be. That is, they
require work that involves material determinations. (2012, 43, my emphasis)

The work Schrader refers to is determining phenomenathe work that comprises knowing. Moreover, we cannot, writes Schrader, both be part of nature and
examine nature from an external position. It is not that we are part of a system of
which particular parts are currently inaccessible but accessible in some
futureHeisenbergs uncertainty positionbut rather because the scientists
work helps to enact the system boundaries she will have become part of (Schrader
2012, 44). Knowing, then, is about determining the indeterminate. We make determinations of the indeterminate. This is a limitless process; so long as there are
phenomena (including the ghostly virtual matter described in quantum field theory), there is indeterminacy rendered determinate:
Matter is never a settled matter. It is always already radically open. Closure cant be
secured when the conditions of im/possibilities and lived indeterminacies are integral,
not supplementary, to what matter is. (Barad 2012b, 16)

What makes Barads theory so fascinating is that it forefronts the inhuman in

measuring/knowing. Barads work reminds us that world-making is not effected
through human measuring/knowing alone; myriad unfathomable inhuman phenomena including quarks, photons and those not/there virtualities within the quantum field, measure. Inhuman measurements render the world determinate as much,
if not more, than human measurements. The world, Barad (2012a, 2) reminds us,
theorises as well as experiments with itself. Writing about Aldo Leopolds ecological writings, Shapiro invokes this sense of world-making in deep time. Leopold,
Shapiro (1997, 106) notes, suggested that one could in fact think like a mountain
[but] was careful to differentiate between the earth and humans, arguing that
the earth was considerably less alive in degree, but considerably more alive in time
and space.

Social Epistemology


Turning human exceptionalism on its head, Barad (2012a, 13) argues, If we

thought the serious challenge, the really hard work, was taking account of constitutive exclusions, perhaps this awakening to the infinity of constitutive inclusions,
the in/determinacy that manifests as virtuality calls us to a new sensibility. Referring to ANT, Shapiro invokes a similar sense of the relentless, timelessness, unending quality of measuring. Network analysis writes Shapiro, is never finished,
merely abandoned (1997, 107).
Un/Knowing In/determinate Waste
Gregson and Crang (2010) point out that most social scientific work on waste
focuses on its managementits determinationthat quickly segues to discussions of treatment technologies. Wastes liveliness is largely circumscribed, in other
words, within the parameters of domestication. More broadly, a political, economic
and cultural society dependent upon consumerism, and a stewardship approach to
environmental issues ensures that landfilling, and waste generally, continues to be
framed largely in terms of technological innovation, jurisdictions and diversion
practices produced through education, surveillance, sanction and censure.
As such, landfills either capitalise on or are victim to (depending on ones politics) what the Frankfurt School called technological rationality, in which the
instrumental logic of rationalisation through technology colonises every last
aspect of modern life, including and especially thinking itself (Grajeda 2005, 316).
Explicating the link between technology, and determining waste through agential
cutting together-apart, Kennedy (2007, 10) remarks technology dissolves the
problem of waste by fixating and absolutising its inherent ambiguity. As such, in
the inaugural issue of Social Epistemology, Fuller (1987, 1) is right to have characterised the more energetic members of the sciences [to] have taken knowledge to
be whatever allows us to control more of the world more reliably.
Describing the principle of renormalisation in physics, Barad writes, If it turns
out to be possible to get finite results by subtracting infinities via a process that
cuts out the domain of unknown physics, then the theory is said to be renormalisable. The cut-off method of renormalisation is a mathematical way of bracketing
out what you dont know (Barad 2012a, 11). This is what the engineering and science of waste management does: it makes certain facts about landfills, bioreactors
and the like known through a process of bracketing out or minusing, indeterminacy. This is necessary to the acquisition of knowledge. It explicitly builds ignorance into theory, as Barad puts it. What must occur simultaneously is an outline
of the known and unknown consequences of this, to use Barads term, cutting
Disasterologies, as Grajeda (2005, 316) outlines in his contribution to Social
Epistemology, focuses on those moments when either simple or complex technological systems break downfrom temporary interruptions to inconceivable
catastrophes. In so doing, disasterologies disturbs Enlightenment logic of the
modern subject mastering his world: it recasts questions of agency, intentionality


M. J. Hird

and ultimately subjectivity itself in light of the social construction of technology,

even and especially when things go wrong and things fall apart (Grajeda 2005,
317). When things fall apart, disaster research tends to define natural disasters as
largely, if not entirely, the result of human action structured by over-development
and modernisation (Grajeda 2005, 316). Most, if not all, disasters have a human
origin, claims sociologist Henry Fischer (cited in Grajeda 2005, 316). Other analyses suggest this characterisation, however, itself depends upon the very enlightenment attenuation of nature as an agentic force in its own right. This makes
technological failure more than an issue of human error. As both Pickering and
Petroski have pointed out, in different ways, technological failure is a fact of life
(Petroski 2001; Pickering 1995). Alluding to other-than human agentic entities
involved in complex systems, Grajeda draws on Charles Perrows research to caution engineers have designed overly-complex technological systems that, once set
in motion, exceed their capacity to control them (Grajeda 2005, 316). Or, as
Code (1999, 65) puts it:
Ethical self-mastery, political mastery over unruly and aberrant. Others, and epistemic
mastery over the external world pose as the still-attainable goals of the Enlightenment legacy. These discourses of mastery underwrite a reductive picture of epistemic
and moral agents as isolated units on an indifferent landscape, to which their relation
is one of disengaged indifference.

Trash, as Kennedy (2007, 162) observes, dissembles the truth of its being
by presenting itself as immaterial, innocuous substance divorced from the relations to physicality that weave all beings into the interdependent context of the
manifest world. The problem is that leachate, groundwater, and landfill soil
that corrodes, moves and sometimes explodes, slides or collapses is anything
but indifferent. It is entangled, as Barads inhumanist philosophy details.
Elsewhere I have argued that centring geo-bacterial relations in formulations of
the human-other does more than expand the universe of things we must take
account of (Hird 2009). It asks us to consider ourselves as vulnerable to, and
with, our environment as latecomers to lifes already long-established flourishing
and failing within a volatile landscape. Nature relentlessly flows, but not in
ways that are necessarily compatible with human flourishing. Reflecting on the
engineering involved in asbestos disposal, Gregson, Watkins and Calestani
(2010, 1069) point to the difficulties certain materials pose for thinking
enchantment and generosity some materials are just not nice for humans to
know corporeally, at lest when they are in certain states. Clark (2011, 27)
similarly observes there are pressing issues in which what is most alarming is
lifes very exuberance; its unregenerate capacity to multiply, transform and
mobilise itself, its proclivity to turn up in forms we didnt anticipate, at sites
we dont want it, in numbers we cant deal with. This inhuman exuberance
incites Clark to ask, Are there people, places, plants, animals that should not
flourish? Or that should not flourish here, now, or in this way? (Code 1999,
67). Flourishing turns out to be an indeterminate route to travel.

Social Epistemology


The problem with landfills is that their containment is always temporal;

eventually they spill and leak. Engineers design, model and text complex technologies for leachate containment, and then describe the consequences of landfill
corruption and failure. Successful landfill design and aftercare, in engineering
terms, extends to perhaps one hundred years, a mere moment in geological and
bacterial time.
As such, landfilling and waste management generally, introduces a resilient tension between determinacy and indeterminacy. The indeterminacythe heterogeneous, unique mix of each landfill material intra-acting with seasons, weather,
precipitation, the varying angles of the suns rays bombarding landfill material and
so onmeans the management of waste ultimately fails. Fails to be contained,
fails to be predictable, fails to be calculable, fails to be a technological problem
(that can be eliminated), fails to be determinate. As Wynne reminds us, landfills
are a site where natural processes and human interactions are jumbled
together in complex and widely variable ways, making a badly structured and,
indeed, indeterminate behavioural-technical risk-generating system (1987, 1).
Just as engineers endeavour to determine landfill containment, so too do societies attempt to effect forms of ideological, symbolic and social containment by rendering waste determinate. Waste is materially contained through human disposal
practices of household waste sorting, curbside pick-up, recycling, landfilling, incineration and the like. It is ideologically, symbolically and culturally contained
through these material practices, as well as legislation, surveillance, public education, health discourse, nation-building rhetoric and so on. As Clark (2012, 154,
151) notes, focusing on human norms, institutions, and decisions appears to
offer containment, and political demands for action come with an enhanced sense
of determination and purpose. Yet, containment is always materially, if not symbolically, temporal. Current environmental and health concerns with exhuming
landfills for once discarded and now valued material, are a reminder of wastes
ephemerality as waste, of knowing waste. By conceptualising waste as a problem of
inhuman knowing, this paper has engaged FSS in order to bring to the fore the
inherent indeterminacy of the world rendered determinate, by human and inhuman alike. As such, waste is a generative topic for social epistemological analysis.
I thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for
generously supporting this research.
[1] This paper refers to the terms waste, trash and garbage interchangeably. I recognise
some authors distinguish the terms, for instance as absolute (garbage) and relative (waste)
terms (see Kennedy 2007).
[2] Defining waste is also be an exercise in irony. In western cultures, for instance, human placentas are defined as waste (indeed, of the biohazardous kind), which allows them to be





M. J. Hird
collected for scientific research. As soon as this biohazardous waste enters the placentologists laboratory, it is an object of study. By contrast, Maori people in New Zealand define
placentas as a highly symbolic material representation of kinship and spirit. Ironically, this
determination leads some cultures to bury placentas in the ground, albeit apart from landfills and with a different meaning. (See Scott 2012.)
We might argue the placenta is waste prior to urine and feces. In western cultures, placentas are often considered bio-hazardous waste and are either incinerated or used for scientific experimentation. In nonwestern cultures, placentas are highly symbolic material
spiritual entities, gifts to the earth and so on. (See Scott 2012.)
For research on slime moulds, fungi and bacteria see,
Hird (2009);, Tsing (2005).
Kennedy highlights the link between waste and human exceptionalism when he observes,
[human] bodily wastes symbolize the obstinacy of our lower animal nature and the
latters pitiable inability to live up to the directives and imperatives of pure reason (Kennedy 2007, 9).
For a discussion of humans being of nature, see Barad (2012a).

Agamben, G. 2003. The open: Man and animal. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Alexander, J. 2005. In defense of garbage. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Barad, K. 2007. Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter
and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
. 2012a. On touching: The inhuman that therefore I am. differences 23 (3): 121.
. 2012b. What is the measure of nothingness? Infinity, virtuality, justicez. dOCUMENTA 100 Notes100 Thoughts (13): 417.
Baudrillard, J. 1998. The consumer society. London: Sage.
Bauman, Z. 2001. Excess: An obituary. Parallax 7 (1): 8591.
Chertow, M. 2009. The ecology of recycling. UN Chronicle, 3&4: 5660.
Clark, N. 2011. Inhuman nature: Sociable life on a volatile planet. London: Sage.
Clark, T. 2012. Scale derangements of scale. In Telemorphosis: Theory in the era of climate change,
edited by T. Cohen, vol. 1, pp. 14866. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press.
Code, L. 1991. What can she know? Feminist theory and the construction of knowledge. Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press.
. 1999. Flourishing. Ethics and the Environment 4 (1): 6372.
Derrida, J. 1991. Eating well or the calculation of the subject. In Who comes after the subject?,
edited by E. Cadava, P. Connor, and J. L. Nancy, pp. 25587. New York: Routledge.
. 2004/1997. The animal that therefore I am (more to follow). In Animal philosophy:
Essential readings in continental thought, edited by M. Calarco and P. Atterton, pp. 11328.
New York: Continuum.
Douglas, M. 2007. Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. London:
Fausto-Sterling, A. 1997. Feminism and behavioral evolution: A taxonomy. In Feminism and evolutionary biology, edited by P. Gowaty, pp. 4260. New York: Chapman and Hall.
Fox Keller, E. 1983. A feeling for the organism: The life and work of Barbara McClintock. San
Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman.
Fuller, S. 1987. Social epistemology: A statement of purpose. Social Epistemology 1 (1): 14.
Gille, Z. 2010. Actor networks modes of production, and waste regimes: Reassembling the
macro-social. Environment and Planning A 42: 104964.
Grajeda, T. 2005. Disasterologies. Social Epistemology 19 (4): 31519.

Social Epistemology


Grasswick, H. E., and M. O. Webb. 2002. Feminist epistemology as social epistemology. Social
epistemology 16 (3): 18596.
Gregson, N., and M. Crang. 2010. Guest editorial materiality and waste: Inorganic vitality in a
networked world. Environment and Planning A 42: 102632.
Gregson, N., H. Watkins, and M. Calestani. 2010. Inextinguishable fibres: Demolition and the
vital materialisms of asbestos. Environment and Planning A 42: 106583.
Hankinson-Nelson, L., and J. Nelson. 1996. Feminism, science, and the philosophy of science.
Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Haraway, D. 1989. Primate visions: Gender, race, and nature in the world of modern science. New
York: Routledge.
. 1991. Simians, cyborgs, and women: The reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge.
. 1997. Modest_witness@second_millennium. Femaleman_meets_oncomouse. New York:
. 2007. When species meet. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Hawkins, G. 2006. The ethics of waste: How we relate to rubbish. London: Rowman and Littlefield.
Heidegger, M. 1991. Nietzsche: Volumes three and four. Edited by David Farrel Krell. San Francisco, CA: Harperone.
Hird, M. J. 2009. The origins of sociable life. Houndmills: Palgrave Press.
. 2012. Wasteflow, care, and an ethic of vulnerability. Unpublished paper.
Hubbard, R. 1989. Science, facts, and feminism. In Feminism and science, edited by N. Tuana,
pp. 11931. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Ingold, T. 2007. Materials against materiality. Archaeological Dialogues 14 (1): 116.
John Llewelyn, J. 1991. Am I obsessed by bobby? (Humanism of the other animal). In Re-reading levinas, edited by R. Bernasconi and S. Critchley, pp. 23446. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Kant, I. 2003. Observations on the feeling of the beautiful and sublime. Translated by John T.
Goldwaite. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
Kendall, K. 2008. The face of a dog: Levinasian ethics and human-dog co-evolution. In Queering
the non/human, edited by N. Giffney and M. J. Hird, pp. 185204. Aldershot: Ashgate
Kennedy, G. 2007. An ontology of trash: The disposable and its problematic nature. New York:
Suny Press.
Kollikkathara, N., H. Feng, and E. Stern. 2009. A purview of waste management evolution: Special emphasis on USA. Waste Management 29: 97485.
Kornblith, H. 1999. Knowledge in humans and other animals philosophical perspectives. Epistemology 13: 32746.
Latour, B. 1992. Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts. In
Shaping technology/building society: Studies in sociotechnical change, edited by W. Biker and
J. Law, pp. 22558. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
. 1993. We have never been modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Levinas, E. 1988. Report of The Paradox of Morality: An interview with Emmanuel Levinas. In
The provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the other, edited by R. Bernasconi and D. Wood,
pp. 16880. London: Routledge.
. 1990/1975. The name of a dog, or natural rights. In Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, translated by S. Hand. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
. 2004. The name of the dog, or natural rights. In Animal philosophy: Essential readings in continental thought, edited by M. Calarco and P. Atterton, pp. 4750. New York:
Longino, H. E. 1990. Science as social knowledge: values and objectivity in scientific theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


M. J. Hird

Lyotard, J. F. 1989. The differend: Phrases in dispute. Translated by G. Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
. 1991. The inhuman. Translated by G. Bennington and R. Bowlby. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Maclaren, V. W., and Nguyen Anh Thi Thu, eds. 2003. Gender and waste management: Vietnamese and international experiences. Hanoi: National Political Publishing House.
Mitchell, T. 2002. Can the mosquito speak? In Rule of experts: Egypt, techno-power, modernity,
pp. 1953. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Nagel, T. 1974. What is it like to be a bat? Philosophical Review, LXXXIII 4: 43550.
Parsons, L. 2008. Thompsons rubish theory: Exploring the practices of value creation. European
Advances in Consumer Research 8: 3903.
Petroski, H. 2001. The success of failure. Technology and Culture 42 (2): 3218.
Pickering, A. 1995. The mangle of practice. Time, agency, and science. Chicago, IL: The University
of Chicago Press.
Plumwood, V. 1993. Feminism and the mastery of nature. London: Routledge.
Rathje, W., and C. Murphy. 2001. Rubbish! An archaeology of garbage. Tucscon: University of
Arizona Press.
Ristau, C. 1991. Aspects of the cognitive ethology of an injury-feigning bird, the piping plover.
In Cognitive ethology: The minds of other animals, edited by C. Ristau, pp. 91126. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Roberts, C. 2007. Messengers of sex: Hormones, biomedicine and feminism. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Rowell, T. 1991. Till death do us part: Long-lasting bonds between Ewes and their daughters.
Animal Behavior 42: 6812.
. 1993. Reification of social systems. Evolutionary Anthropology 2 (4): 1357.
Schiebinger, L. 1989. The mind has no sex? Women in the origins of modern science. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.
. 1993. Natures body: Gender in the making of modern science. Boston, MA: Beacon
Schrader, A. 2012. Haunted measurements: Demonic work and time in experimentation. differences 23 (3): 151.
Scott, R. 2012. Public perspectives on the utilization of human placentas in scientific research
and medicine. Unpublished paper.
Shapiro, S. 1997. Caught in a web: The implications of ecology for radical symmetry in STS.
Social Epistemology 11 (1): 97110.
Smuts, B. 1985. Sex and friendship in baboons. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transaction.
Spelman, E. V. 2011. Combing Through Trash: Philosophy Goes Rummaging. The Massachusetts
Review 52 (2): 31325.
Statistics Canada. 2005. Solid waste in Canada. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.
. 2008a. Human Activity and the Environment: Solid Waste in Canada. Catalogue no.
16201-XIE. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.
. 2008b. Waste management industry survey: Business and government sectors. 2006 Catalogue no. 16F0023X. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.
Stengers, I. 1997. Power and invention: Situating science. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
. 2000. Another look: Relearning to laugh. Hypatia 15 (4): 4154.
Tsing, A. 2005. Friction: An ethnography of global connection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
van Wyck, P. 2005. Signs of danger: Waste, trauma and nuclear threat. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Social Epistemology


Waldby, C., and R. Mitchell. 2006. Tissue economies: Blood, organs, and cell lines in late capitalism.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Wilson, C. 2004. Moral animals: Ideals and constraints in moral theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Wittgenstein, L. 1994. The Wittgenstein Reader. Edited by A. Kenny. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wolfe, C. 2003. In the shadow of Wittgensteins lion. In Zoontologies: The question of the animal,
edited by C. Wolfe, pp. 158. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Woolgar, S. 1991. Configuring the user. In A sociology of monsters: Essays on power, technology
and domination, edited by J. Law, pp. 57102. London: Routledge.
Wynne, B. 1987. Risk management and hazardous waste: Implementation and dialectics of credibility.
Berlin: Springer Press.
Yildiz, E., and R. K. Rowe. 2004. Modeling leachate quality and quantity in municipal solid
waste landfills. Waste Management and Research 22 (2): 7892.