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I spent an extremely enyoyable and stimulating day yesterday walking with a group from Critical Practice around the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich.  The Isle of Dogs section of the walk was led by environmental lawyer Rosie Oliver and took in bits of the regenerated (and gentrified) London Docks and Mudchute Park on the way down to the Thames and the Greenwich foot tunnel.  As we walked Rosie explored various aspects of ‘waste’ in relation to the history and enviornment of the Isle of Dogs, and very interesting and informative it was too.  I did not know, for example, that there is enough energy in the average dog poop to boil a kettle.  Not a statistic you hear often.  However, scaled up, there is enough such free ‘energy’ desposited in London each day to run the London Eye. A lovely image.  Rosie’s ‘Rubbish Walk’ (her name for it) ended on the beach of the Thames at Greenwich where we got to scavenge for bones from ancient slaughter houses, stamped oyster shells (possibly used to make buttons) and various bits of crockery of many different types and dates.  Could happliy have played there all day.

However, after a swift lunch in a Greenwich pub full of banker types (even when dressed ‘casual’ how are they so obvious?), I got to do my bit.  This consisted first of a rambling meditation on boundary lines, the meridian, the paradox of zero, cartography, the enclosure movement, the ‘fullness’ of the map, money, the significance of borders to value creation, all revolving around the concept of wastes (plural).  Waste in this sense refers not to discarded stuff but to ‘the wastes’, unclaimed, unoccupied (or not legally occupied) and abandoned land.  One of the things the process of land enclosure in Britain set out to do from the later middle ages onwards, was to draw all the waste land – of which there was a considerable amount – into the estates of the landed gentry.  The consequence of this was the gradual elimination of the wastes: legally ambiguous ‘exterior’ spaces – xenospaces indeed – that lay beyond any formal ownership.  As time progressed, wastes also came to be associated with socially marginal characters, particularly alleged witches.  As Sylvia Federici has argued in Caliban and the Witch, elderly women living alone may have been targeted as witches precisely because they often lived on the waste. Basically, they got in the way of the process of ‘primitive accumulation’ (i.e. theft) of the land by capital.

Sir William Petty 1696

The second part of my ramblings focused on Sir William Petty and particularly his repeated attempts during the 17th centiry to regulate and regularise the Irish countryside.  After an already colourful young life, the fiercely intelligent and ambitious Petty volunteered as a physician with Cromwell’s army in Ireland and used his influence both to become a serious landowner (19,000 acres no less) and a major political figure in the colony.  Petty used his cartographic survey of the island (The Down Survey) to launch his plans for the ‘rational’ political, economic and moral organisation of the unruly Irish.  As it developed, his concept of ‘political arithmetic’ sought to see ther landscape and its inhabitants in purely numerical terms – as economic objects rather than communities, families, religions, etc. One of Petty’s primary targets were the Irish wastes, land that was to be enclosed and parcelled out to Cromwell’s loyal troops as rewards. Although none of his schemes were particularly successful on the ground, Petty’s example did lay the intellectual groundwork for what would later become the modern ‘sciences’ of statistics, economics and public finance.

Thinking about all this in the shadow of Canary Wharf and the City made me realise the extent to which money has come to open up and occupy a new waste.  Prompted by Critical Practioner Neil Cummings to link all of the above to Georges Bataille’s notion of economic excess (in his very strange ‘political economy, ‘La Part Maudite’) I was forcefully reminded how the new wastes of global finance (legally ambiguous xenospaces beyond regulation and the reach of the state) exercise a level of economic destruction the scale of which Bataille could never have imagined.  And so, in my mind at least, the two notions of waste came together with unsettling neatness at the end.  The banks have opened up a new monetary wasteland in which they destroy surplus resources with wicked abandon.  Time we enclosed them, perhaps.

Neil Cummings version of events with links to other, related resources, here.

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