Thursday, 6 January 2011

Kevin Lynch on waste

Just a few remarks on Kevin Lynch's Wasting Away (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books 1990).

”Complete chaos is never pleasurable” – perhaps this sentence (which occurs in the same author's The Image of the City) is true. To be sure, I know many people who like getting lost, and anyone who’s ever run madly around the city while intoxicated knows how wonderful chaos can feel. Chaos is, I think, closely related to waste – to the decay of conceived order, the slipping of things into incomprehensibility and meaninglessness. Yet, despite the earlier sentence, this is a book - posthumously published almost three decades later - by a man who now clearly appreciates waste, who feels comforted by it, and even loves it.

Let me get to the point. This book is interesting to me for two reasons. Firstly, it contributes to articulating the idea of a freedom very different from the freedom which we usually associate with the public sphere (the freedom of citizens acting in concert in order to influence their polity) and it does so with the help of the notion of waste. Secondly, it is explicit in locating this freedom in relation to space. Freedom and space come together in the discussion of places related to waste. Waste offers a kind of relief or freedom, but this relief or freedom can only be found in certain places or in relation to certain objects. 

What kind of freedom is it? Let me offer a few quotes (accompanied by a few commentaries):
[L]iving among ruins has its delights... It can be a wilderness more wild than any natural one, an alluring mix of freedom and danger. (p23f)

Many waste places have these ruinous attractions: release from control, free play for action and fantasy, rich and varied sensations. Thus children are attracted to vacant lots, scrub woods, back alleys, and unused hillsides. (p25)
For instance, in a tale by Anais Nin, children play in an abandoned subway, ”a city beneath the city”, a thrilling and dangerous space forbidden to them by the parents, where they bring mats and candles and lead a secret life (p25).
Shabby, ordinary places escape the weight of power, the intent to impress; they are liberated zones. (p27)
Fire is such beautiful decay! (p27)
We are fascinated to see a building torn down. (p2)
’Trashing’ is an undeniable joy. It is a process of making things submit to us... Vandalism... is driven by this same pleasure. It is show of power by the powerless. (p32)
Here I recall what the Situationists wrote on the Watts Riots in Los Angeles 1965: "People who destroy commodities show their human superiority over commodities".
Yet graveyards were once the parks of the city, places of quiet escape and social recreation. In a few cases, they remain so today. The vast cemeteries surrounding Cairo were used on holidays by everyone. Now they are squatter settlements. Our own park-building movement began with such landscaped burial grounds as the Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachussets, and the Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati. (p112)
Here I recall what the artists and activists in Miyashita Park told me about the origin of many Japanese parks in religious grounds, places that often functioned as shelters for the destitute, the sick and the discriminated.

Wilderness will develop in almost any untended land. The site of an old railroad station in the heart of West Berlin, once the largest passenger station in Europe, is now a rich landscape of ruined walls, tracks, and bridges, overgrown by thickets and wildflower meadows. The site, bombed out in World War II, contains examples of one-third of all the flora of the region, including rare and endangered species. (p112)
We are freed from control in waste places. We let down our guard, give up, relax in shabby comfort, do as we please. (p154)

An ugly, polluted, yet tolerant place...these urban remnants are also freer places, where one is momentarily relieved of the pressures of status, power, explicit purpose, and strict control. (p113f)

Wastes are traditionally dumped at the edges of settlement – in areas where the powerless live, where land claims are weak, and where controls are soft. (p115)
Examples of the latter included islands off the city harbor or in rivers. City lands where the poor and marginal lived also often became places where one located dumps, almshouses, lunatic asylums, jails and concentration camps. The moats of medieval cities were used for dumping garbage and today Las Vegas is surrounded by a ring of debris (p114f).
Wastelands are the havens of rebellious, marginal, illegal people. Swamps were the hideouts of the southern slaves and the refuge of the Cajuns. Mountains harbored the Cuban guerrillas, and the displaced intellectuals of China. The cold, wet, northern margins of European Russia were people by Old Believers, in flight from the Tatars and religious heresy. Wastelands are places of despair, but they also shield relicts, and the first weak forms of some new thing, a new religion, a new politics. They are places for dreams, for antisocial acts, for exploration and growth. (p153)
Wastelands, then, are seldom empty. They are the grounds of homeless, playing children, child runaways, junkmen, gypsies, rag pickers, criminals and many others. ”The labeling of something as waste must always ask: waste for whom?” (p148). Waste can be useful - what it's lacking is not necessarily use-value, but exchange value on the capitalist market. Dereliction, Lynch points out, is always in relation to the market.”If it pays, it isn’t derelict. If it doesn’t pay, due to some human devilment, and once did pay, then it is derelict” (p98). The use of waste is often inofficial. Waste moves in shady areas, ambiguous in relation to law and property rights. Abandonment is usually "a gradual process, a slow relinquishment of concern and rights. But the law wants clarity: either you own something, or you don’t” (p149).

Throughout the book, Lynch empahsizes the use-value of waste and waste places and their importance for children’s play, for the survival of other species, or for adaptability to future uses. They are places where children, but also grown-ups can find adventure and freedom from control (these are aspects that have also been emphasized by Tim Edensor and Martin Roth in their discussions on industrial and other ruins) and where many grousp in society find shelter and material support (for a recent and informative report on the life of squatters and scavengers in London, see Katherine Hibbert's book Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society). The taste of freedom in these places is quite distinct from the freedom offered by public space or the public sphere, and more akin to that of no-man’s-land, the dead zones, terrain vague or the akichi.

But has this freedom any political significance? It is easy to let oneself be deceived. There is a proximity to the ideological in Lynch’s book – to the aesthetics of ruins and of waste, to the delight in labyrinthine bazaars and endless Oriental cities, to the phantasmagoric intoxication – which attracted Walter Benjamin so much and which he tried to salvage by a tactile getting used to the debris, rags, commodities and novelties of the Parisian passageways – of the capitalist emporias. But there is also a soberness and carefulness in his formulations which prevents excesses and lets the reader make his or her own judgments. There is also, I feel, an underlying intact sense of care for the city as a human habitat, which strikes me as very different from the rather detached and cold-hearted aesthetic enjoyment of waste which I find in some literary works. I’m thinking, for example, of the aesthetization of waste in Don Delillo’s Underworld, were waste and the processes that surround it take on an almost religious aura. 
Three thousand acres of mountained garbage, contoured and road-graded, with bulldozers pushing waves of refuse onto the active face. Brian felt invigorated, looking at this scene. Barges unloading, sweeper boats poking through the kills to pick up stray waste. He saw a maintenance crew working on drainpipes high on the angled setbacks that were designed to control the runoff of rainwater. Other figures in masks and butylene suits were gathered at the base of the structure to inspect isolated material for toxic content. It was science fiction and prehistory, garbage arriving twenty-four hours a day, hundreds of workers, vehicles with metal rollers compacting the trash, bucket augers digging vents for methane gas, the gulls diving and crying, a line of snouted brycks sucking in loose litter.
    He imagined he was watching the construction of the Greate Pyramid at Giza - only this was twenty-five times bigger...” (Delillo 1997:184)
Here waste has turned into an alienated second nature, a world that has lost its humanity, in the face of which human beings can do nothing but resign or stare in dazed, shell-shocked fascination. Something similar can be said about much of the waste in cyberpunk fiction.

To Lynch, waste and waste places are natural in a quite different sense. Georg Simmel - in a manner that foreshadows Benjamin's idea of "natural history" - points to the peculiar balance between nature and history in ruins, pointing out that ruins are places where things grow, where nature takes over from man and turns what was once historical or man-made into part of nature again. Or, as Michael Roth puts it with reference to Simmel: “As things fall apart, out of their remains emerge new forms of growth. These are signs both of human decay and of reintegration into the natural world” (Roth 1997:2). Such a nature isn’t a reified, cold ”second nature” so much as first nature itself, albeit it returns in the guise of manmade products. It is natural, yet still a comparatively hospitable home to human beings - to squatters, homeless, children, artists and many others. It is not wholly historical and under the control of enlightened citizens, like the ideal public sphere, but neither is it an oppressive monolith. It is a nature in which history – the capability of people to act and change things – can grow.

The political significance of places like these resides in the fact that it is linked to an attitude of living with waste, without rejection. In a precarious world in which each one of us risks turning into the next piece of discarded, unwanted junk, this vision feels like paradise. That junk is not the other, but we ourselves.


DeLillo, Don (1997) Underworld, New York: Scribner.   

Edensor, Tim (2007) “Social Practices, Sensual Excess and Aesthetic Transgression”, pp 234-252, in Karen A. Franck & Quentin Stevens (eds) Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life, London & New York: Routledge.

Hibbert, Katherine (2010) Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society, Ebury Press.

Lynch, Kevin (1990) Wasting Away, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Roth, Michael S. (1997) “Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed”, pp 1-23, in Michael S. Roth et al. Irresistible Decay, Los Angeles: the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities.

Simmel, Georg (1959 [1911]) ”The Ruin”, pp 259-266, in Kurt H. Wolff (ed) Georg Simmel, 1858-1918: A Collection of Essays, Columbus: The Ohilo State University Press.  

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