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Speculations on Material

The . . . garbage hills are alive. . . . there are billions of microscopic organisms thriving underground in dark, oxygen-free communities. . . . After having ingested the tiniest portion of leftover New Jersey or New York, these cells then exhale huge underground plumes of carbon dioxide and of warm moist methane, giant stillborn tropical winds that seep through the ground to feed the Meadlowlands’ fires, or creep up into the atmosphere, where they eat away at the . . . ozone. . . . One afternoon I . . . walked along the edge of a garbage hill, a forty-foot drumlin of compacted trash that owed its topography to the waste of the city of Newark. . . . There had been rain the night before, so it wasn’t long before I found a little leachate seep, a black ooze trickling down the slope of the hill, an espresso of refuse. In a few hours, this stream would find its way down into the . . . groundwater of the Meadowlands; it would mingle with toxic streams. . . . But in this moment, here at its birth, . . . this little seep was pure pollution, a pristine stew of oil and grease, of cyanide and arsenic, of cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, nickel, silver, mercury, and zinc. I touched this fluid—my fingertip was a bluish caramel color—and it was warm and fresh. A few yards away, where the stream collected into a benzene-scented pool, a mallard swam alone.

― Robert Sullivan, Meadowlands

What would happen if we began to assume that all matter, organic and inorganic, was animated by vital energy?  In Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett questions “what would happen to our thinking about nature if we experienced materialities as actants…a force to be reckoned with without being purposive in any strong sense.”[1] This force may not be a spiritual force per se, but a matter-energy that makes us and everything else “ontologically one… [and] formally diverse.”[2] What, then, could change in regard to our perception of waste?

Matter, full of such vibrant energy, does not lose its vitality when discarded. A reconsideration of what is considered waste and its associative value becomes necessary through this frame. Waste is not necessarily wasteful. Instead, it is productive. The methane and carbon dioxide produced by a waste heap are a testament to the vitality of the mix of constituents within that heap. What is considered waste may also be considered beautiful. For instance, is a white, sandy beach produced by millions of years of lapping waves the waste of an ocean? The ooze of rotting garbage and the soft sand of a beach both have affect. Both compel action and response. This notion of the force within material is an important one in the post-anthropocene because it not only adjusts our relationship with waste, but it also flattens the hierarchical relationship between human and nonhuman by equating them as forceful actants.

1 Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010, 13.
2 Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza. Trans. Martin Joughin. New York: Zone Books, 1992, 67.

Photo credit: Fysal Amirzada

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Earthly Reordering

A common way coal is extracted from the earth by opening up its outer layer. In one technique called surface strip mining, a coal seam is identified in the strata and the digging begins. Overburden, the name given to earth lying above the target elements, is removed and piled beside the mine and the long, exposed strip of raw coal is ready to be exploited. Mighty machines break up the coal and take it away to be processed. A new strip is excavated next to the first which becomes host to the overburden from that new strip. The first pile of overburden is eventually moved to fill in the last stip mine[1]. And in this pattern, a line of upheaval sweeps across landscapes, extracting what it will and leaving tilled earth in its wake.

These altered landscapes—waste landscapes—dot the surface of the earth. In his book, Reclaiming the American West, Alan Berger claims that there are “200,000 abandoned mines covering hundreds of thousands of acres in the western United States” alone [2]. What is common to all of these mines is that they require reclamation by law[3]. Given that these waste landscapes are often environmentally hazardous, they are reordered before they can be released from the responsibility of the miners. The considerations of reclamation include quantitative factors, such as the removal of contaminated materials and reaching target pH levels, but Berger stresses that qualitative factors, such as aesthetics and ethics, are just as pressing [4].

When we reorder the earth, the ground and human activity synthesize and form a hybrid. The act of reclamation is never a restoration and we cannot fit the pieces of waste from mining back together [5]. Suspending judgment of whether they are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, these landscapes have been fundamentally altered by human restructuring activity and we must question our next actions. Could they heal on their own? Do we reclaim out of necessity or guilt? As more and more land is exploited for resources, the historical distinction between nature and technology (that is, nature and humanity) spatially diminishes.  The ways in which we reclaim can say a lot about how we situate ourselves. Exploited surface mines can be left as scars of an industrial past, or they provide a place for the design liminal landscapes beyond aesthetic and practical function, and beyond the human-nature divide.


  1. Great Mining. “Strip Mining.” Accessed November 16, 2018.
  2. Berger, Alan. 2002. Reclaiming the American West. 1st ed. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.