Purity and Danger: writing, waste and the UK riots

Purity and Danger: writing, waste and the UK riots
Published: Dec 10, 2012
Wasted youth, landfill site visits and failed clean up operations. Sarah Lester speculates on why waste haunts us.



Heather Taylor told Channel 4 News she is utterly disgusted by the riots. "This is my town, my home and I want to clear it up," she said.
Channel 4 News, 09.08.11

The gentry are coming...
with brooms!
Not to clean up the town
but to sweep us under the carpet.

-Tim Wells

At the time of the London riots I was in the final stages of writing a dissertation about waste. I’d spent the summer visiting landfill sites around the peripheries of the capital, going to symposiums with names like Unclean beings: the power, prejudice and politics of dirt or, simply, and more amusingly, Rubbish – A series of talks at Birkbeck College. The general consensus in the world of academia was that the modernist quest for purity and progress had inevitably left a considerable amount of detritus in its wake.

Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History was still being discussed with undying fervour in university faculties all over the world and everyone seemed to agree that dirt/waste/trash/rejectamenta was a multivalent and potentially powerful trope. I’d spent a whole week nestled in the north tower of Senate House library looking solely into the semantics of the verb ‘to deal’. When my findings were whittled down to a mere footnote in the finished product of my dissertation, I tried to console myself with the mantra “getting rid of things is fundamental to the ordering of the self”. But I wasn’t convinced.

My fieldwork was expansive and heterogenous. Perhaps overly so. I spoke to high-class hookers about their perceptions of filth and interviewed an experienced exhibition curator about our culture’s tendency to disavow waste. As I listened to a Dalit woman talk about her experience of being an ‘untouchable’ in India’s near-apartheid caste system whilst she struggled to hold back the tears, I wondered how I’d ever bridge the gap between dense anthropological theory and the filthy reality of everyday life.   

I began by citing the obligatory Mary Douglas text according to academic convention. My abstract began: “Waste’s indeterminacy is evident not only in terms of our relationship to it, but through its physical formlessness and its semantic instability”; whilst, off the record, I was cursing its slipperiness for sprawling messily over my life and for making it so difficult even to settle on a single, succinct word to describe it. Of course, the fact that all the words sounded derogatory was implicit to the subject matter, but ‘rubbish’ sounded so British and meek; ‘trash’ too connected to trailer parks and London nightclubs; and ‘garbage’ was impossible to say without affecting a transatlantic twang or rendering images of a heavily eyelined, faux angst-ridden Shirley Manson.

Rather than making a firm decision, I continued to use all the words for waste interchangeably, and explained that this was a conscious decision in a caveat which appeared in the introductory notes. This is exactly the kind of academic quagmire you risk getting embroiled in when you write grand declamatory statements about challenging normative orderings of the world.

For respite I looked at photographs of piles of ‘garbaged’ bodies at Auschwitz. I began to formulate a vague argument that waste has the potential to horrify us because it reminds us not only of our excesses and inefficiencies, but also of our mortality. It reminds us of what we’d rather forget. To my distress, I found out shortly afterwards that I wasn’t the first person to have had this thought.


But I remained undeterred and I had my second epiphany shortly after, as I traversed the capped and grassed-over rubbish mounds of Rainham landfill site accompanied by a man known simply as Elvis. I learned that the 21st century burial mounds that we were walking over were sinking, slowly and almost imperceptibly. I’d anticipated the putrid stench of rotting matter caused by the methane released from decomposing carbon, but as Elvis explained, pointing to the leachate tanks and surrounding pipes, a process of gas retrieval had been installed to produce energy for the surrounding network. Looking down on the Thames, with seagulls circling overhead, I rejoiced as I formed my new hypothesis. Mary Douglas may have immortalised the phrase “dirt is matter out of place”, but over half a century had since passed. What about, “dirt is matter out of time”? Waste demands not a spatial analysis, as previously thought, but a temporal one. I beamed over at Elvis, who was leaning on the side of his truck, a cavalcade of white chest hairs brimming out from under his high visibility vest.

If it hadn’t been for Brian Dillon and Michel Serres or other numerous cultural theorists that had already written extended essays on precisely that subject, then I would’ve been able to congratulate myself much longer. I realised, with a heavy heart, on my train journey home that my dissertation was doomed to be nothing more than unwitting pastiche. Everyone seemed to have had my thoughts already.

Then the riots came – around the time I’d just got into a routine of writing steadily each day. London was stultified and it disrupted my rhythm.

On the Monday after the first night of looting I’d arranged to meet a radio programmer from Resonance FM. I headed down to London Bridge to meet the man who’d conceived “Tunnel Vision”, a weekly series where a specialist or self-proclaimed flâneur would be taken to the sewers beneath London and interviewed as they walked through the warren-like subterranean passages. I’d been particularly impressed by one programme where an academic read out their paper on dirt, with footsteps echoing like crazy and words distorted almost beyond recognition. When I got to the studio, any discussion about my dissertation was soon co-opted by talk of the riots. My interviewee was wired from having spent the night documenting London’s streets in disarray. “That’s what you get for years of treating people like an underclass,” he said, red-eyed and manic, gripping on to his cup of strong black coffee.

The morning after the fourth and final day of rioting, when the chaos had been recreated in the JD Sports and Dixons of various other UK towns, I caught a glimpse of a failed ‘riot clean-up’ operation. Whilst certain clean-up missions (regardless of allusions to social hygiene) had been deemed heroic by those who felt unsettled by the previous night’s violent, pyromaniac behaviour, this group of volunteers standing in front of Hackney Town Hall with brooms held limply in their hands had turned up at least three hours too late. Street cleaners had already swept most of the damage away.

The circumstances were depressing, but it was also perfectly symptomatic of what I’d spent the previous weeks musing over. It was hard to suppress a smile. It had everything: the marginalisation of those who deal with waste; the condemnation of the perceived threat to order; and the need to keep categories clearly demarcated. “Modern society has almost perfected the means to forget that we produce waste”, I wrote, but during those few days, the veneer was in tatters. After spending the previous weeks studying the danger and power of transitional states, it was oddly gratifying, and unexpected, to see human behaviour mirror the theory so neatly. Of course, the intent was to restore order and show solidarity in the midst of chaos – but the act was unnervingly segregatory. The desecrated streets had already been swept by Hackney Council street-cleaners, yet the self-appointed volunteer cleaners stayed huddled in a circle of ineffective, self-righteous disapproval.

As my deadline approached, the number of arrests made by the Metropolitan Police rose to over 2,000; I tried to reduce my unwieldy word count down by about the same amount each day. Amidst the mixed and bemused responses to the first ostensibly ‘consumer culture’ riots, one particular headline jumped out: “Boy, 11, sentenced over Romford bin theft”. The youngest rioter to face prosecution was charged with an 18-month youth rehabilitation order. His loot: a waste bin that had been on display in Debenhams. Its recommended retail price may have been £50 – it must have been a fine-looking specimen – but, essentially, he was heavily punished for taking a receptacle in which to deposit waste. But, whose waste was he hoping to clear? And, did he ever get the chance to do it?

Image credits: EpSos.de (top) Liam Desroy (centre)

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