The thrown away

Towards a manifesto of dispossession

Dr Jayne Raisborough
University of Brighton
Dr Matthew Adams
University of Brighton
RESIDENTIAL RESEARCH PROJECT: JULY 2016

Abstract

Despite the increasing accumulation of plastic in our oceans and food chains, ‘throwing stuff away’ is so tied to notions of order and cleanliness that any deviation is pathologised as ‘hoarding’ and as such provides a ready spectacle to a reality television programming devoted to the ‘ill-managed’ lives of those who hoard or clutter. Outside of the DSM and beyond the small screen, the issue of waste and the practices and processes of dispossession are less visible. As researchers in ethical consumption, we, the Principal Investigators of this bid, are critically aware that scholarly attention to the cycles of consumption overwhelmingly privileges chains of production and the behaviours and practices of acquisition. We contend that the politics of waste and dispossession are less well attended to but absolutely vital to understanding the rhythms and logics of consumption itself. This understanding is necessary if production and consumption are to be reimagined in more sustainable ways. In this intensive research period, we wish to extend the concerns of sustainability and social justice, which underpin the politics of ethical consumption, to those of waste and dispossession. We believe that an ethics of disposal can be fully formed by bringing disparate developments in a number of academic Nields into critical dialogue with activists and grassroots organisations. Leading scholars in waste and related issues have already expressed an interest in principle (please see the Appendix). More speciNically, our proposal is to bring some of these voices into the critical production of a manifesto of ethical dispossession. The manifesto will include principles for a research agenda, for theory making, political engagement and for the processes of production. The manifesto will be disseminated across social network sites in PDF and Nilm mediums.

The Research Idea

Our innovation rests in exploiting the residential nature of this grant to bring together academics of different disciplines into an intensive collaboration with activists, charities and eco-enterprise projects. Our novel thesis is that, Nirstly, the multifaceted nature of the ‘thrown away’ can only be apprehended via targeted cross- fertilisation of interdisciplinary working. Our project will include a core team (see Appendix) representing the biological sciences (environmental harms), anthropology and geography (living with waste, working on dumps), criminology (environmental crime), cultural studies (materiality), sociology (mediatisation and informal economy), and psychology (eco-behaviour and subjecthood). Secondly, we argue that academia must also reach across its own borders: we seek a cross fertilisation of academia with grass-root enterprises, charitable foundations, art initiatives and social movements (for example, The Plastic Bank, Metis Arts and The Ellen MacArthur Foundation). The energies of simultaneous cross-fertilisation demand different outputs from those usually expected by academic convention. Our intention is match our output to our workings and political motivations. To that end we will produce a public document – a manifesto on the complex dynamics of waste and dispossession. The etymology of manifesto stresses the ‘making conspicuous’ in the form of a public bold statement. A manifesto then, becomes a perfect means to make conspicuous the matter of waste/dispossession and produce an accessible statement of principles and ambitions, which can work across borders and divisional silos to help guide and motivate those researching, agitating, campaigning and working in, on and around the ecologically destructive nature of the ‘thrown away’.

Background

Psychology, the biological sciences, the social sciences and the humanities have not ignored the complex intersections of ecological crisis, sustainable development and consumer culture. Yet, there is unease, growing since the 1970s that our understanding of these intersections is hampered by a predominant focus on the relationship between production and acquisition. This focus privileges the ‘chains’ imagined as binding production processes and environments to consumer choice-making. This privileging is largely expressed in terms of academic, political and industry interest in consumer behaviour. Despite the political saliency of behavioural interventions (they chime with neoliberal endorsement of consumer sovereignty), they over-simplify the complexity of consumer choice-making and they erase the wider socio-political contexts and affective circuits in which acquisition (and dispossession) are necessarily lodged. Furthermore, while the issues of possession, waste and obsolescence, the remaining movements in the consumer ‘cycle’, have received academic interest, these have emerged in disciplinary silos. There is important work such as the state and corporate practices of waste dispersal ; the geography of globally dispersed chains that make up waste regimes and that exploring how the fetishism of capitalist consumer culture obfuscates not just the origins, purchase and usage of consumer goods, but their resting places. We argue that these are issues that should cross countless disciplines, and are in need of conceptual coherence and elaboration, integral as they are to the material and cultural and psychological legitimation of an ecologically destructive consumer culture.

The Focus

An ethics of disposability/waste is necessary for two reasons. The Nirst is better comprehend the cycle of consumption (production, acquisition, use, disposal), more particularly the movement of goods through affective attachments, space and time. This comprehension is necessary for consumption, indeed the ownership of ‘stuff’, to be reimagined and practised in more sustainable ways. The second is to disrupt the hegemonic sway that a predominant focus on acquisition has over popular and political responses to the ecological harms of consumerism. We contend that while a focus on acquisition may well engage our environmental imagination on issues of sustainability and social justice, it does, nonetheless, individualise and depoliticise a wider politics of production and consumption by foregrounding the consumer as a site of agency (‘choicemaking’) and intervention. The recent plastic bag tax is an example of the policies that fall from such a privileging of consumer sovereignty. These reduce the complexity of dispossession and variety of waste matter to a single object; produce a reductionist logics whereby the consumer is placed as problem and solution and, furthermore, imagine that the harms of waste can be alleviated though taxation. Indeed, as concern is raised about the packaging (the plastic bag) wider consumption practices (and the object being bagged) are gently but Nirmly lifted out of critical and popular view. The real life issue here is the current limitation placed on our ecological consciousness. A way forward is to draw disparate academic and grassroots agencies into a coherent and programmatic, accessible iteration to kick start a wider, more radical ecological consciousness.

Theoretical Novelty

If we imagine possession-dispossession as two sides of a mutually constitutive binary at the heart of capitalist consumer culture, academic and activist emphasis has tended to be on the side of possession – materialism, acquisitiveness, consumerism etc. Our novel approach will Nlesh out the dispossession side of the binary. There is still, to date, nothing approaching a coherent and programmatic iteration. Our proposal is based on the belief that an iteration not only has value in its own right, but can also substantiate existing critical agendas of sustainable development. What concerns us most is that the ethics of consumption, and more speciNically its concern with social justice and environmental protection, is undermined unless we can also treat ‘the thrown away’ to ethical appraisal. To do so we must develop a fully interdisciplinary approach. Conceptual innovation will emerge from the cross-disciplinary dialogue the project is designed to engender. The starting point for a broader consciousness of the centrality of waste and dispossession to the mechanisms of consumer culture is the attempt to forge a shared imagination out of intense collaboration; a collaboration that explicitly starts from different points of reference and political engagement. The manifesto will be an innovative transdisciplinary outcome that reNlects the novel nature of this collaboration.

Methodology

For the duration of the intensive research period we will invite 4-7 representatives of a number of disciplines interested in disposal (anthropology, biology, geography, humanities, psychology, sociology, visual arts) to form the core group that will produce the manifesto through critical dialogue. To this end we engage a novel means of intellectual stimulus and co-production – the use of testimony of ‘expert witnesses’, – those working in the ‘applied’ aspects of disposal (e.g. waste industry, NGO representatives; artists, activists). The importance of expert witnesses lies in their ability to provide a different kind of testimony. Our experts are not ‘being researched’ in the traditional way social scientists might approach, say the study of social movement activists. Instead they are being invited to provoke, inspire and participate. To not have the lived experience, passion and situated perspective in the production of a manifesto, would signiNicantly undermine a reimagining of the ethics of waste and dispossession. We will make use of readily available mobile technology (thus cutting down on our acquisition) and Nilm proceedings using mobile phones (the success of the Nilm Tangerine –a full length feature Nilm shot on the Iphone6, indicates the potential of this technology).

Work Plan

The research time will consist of two phases. In the Nirst phase each of the core team will keep a reNlective diary, directed towards affective and intellectual responses to discussions with each other and ‘expert witnesses’. Initial group discussion of the diaries will be followed by a period of private study, before the group return to write the Ninal draft of the manifesto. Dedicated time will be spent addressing the methodological, theoretical and political dimensions of the manifesto for our understanding of the thrown away. In the Nirst phase the core group will hear and discuss the testimony of the expert witnesses. Our intention here is to liberate participants from disciplinary silos through a critical exchange with the expert testimony. The experts will not merely ‘present’ but actively engage in discussion and the co-production of a ‘Nirst draft’ of the manifesto. Depending on their background the experts may show Nilm, display artwork, or use performative methods as triggers for dialogue. On each day, expert witnesses present their work, alongside rationale, motivations and key issues in relation to project’s themes in the morning. In the afternoon there will be a facilitated discussion, Nlexible enough to reNlect the nature of the witnesses’ contribution, yet structured towards the production of the manifesto as Ninal outcome. The Ninal draft of the manifesto will be produced in the second phase of the project (also 3-4 days), involving intensive work between members of the core group. Planning for this stage has to be more open, to allow the organic development of discussion.

Outcome

We will form a website and blog (wordpress) to document dialogue and, as a core outcome, to publish and publicise the manifesto. Subsequent outcomes may include an academic paper addressing interdisciplinary workings with particular focus on the academic/ activitist exchange and working outside of usual academic conventions (residential and the production of a manifesto). By the very nature of the project, the future outcomes will emerge from the dialogue of the participants and the networks established. It is also hoped that this intensive research period will resonate in future work as participants return to their disciplinary homes.