Waste: A Philosophy of Things

  • Waste: The Philosophy of Things
  • Author: William Viney
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury
  • Price £65

It is possible to philosophise about anything, if we care to. And no doubt those involved in daily questions about what to do with waste, to reduce it, et cetera, will be prone to the odd moment of musing.

This article was taken from Issue 79

Yet, for most of us, the decision to call something ‘waste’ is a relatively uncomplicated process. Not so in this book. In philosophising about the concept of waste, Viney builds a supporting cast of conceptual tools such as ‘use-time’ and ‘narrative’ to describe an object’s journey in becoming waste. As a result, I found myself wondering whether this approach improved my understanding of the idea of waste. For instance, Viney writes: ‘Waste will be found to be standing between something and nothing; the remains of waste, its time, its place and its enigma, will be found caught between the significance lent by narrative engagement and the moments when waste fails to register, where the temporality of waste quite literally dissolves to dust.’

No doubt this is lyrical, but offers us little more. Indeed, much of the book explores how waste is interpreted in literature and art. In particular, the work of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce and Shakespeare are closely examined, but the approach is more of a review of how these writers each present and interpret ideas of waste. 

There is a passing intersection with sociological or psychological analysis, but to those working in the real-world business of waste management, it’s these fields that have a use when thinking about waste. After all, what surely counts is how to change the type or quantity of waste that is produced.

Sadly when it comes to the musings on waste, when Viney gets it right, it is nothing more than a fancy way of stating the obvious. I’m afraid outside of fields of academic philosophy and critical theory, this book offers little value. Perhaps the most illuminating thing I learnt from reading this is that the archaeological field of excavating landfills is called ‘garbology’. That says it all. 

Charles Newman