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Modeling Industrial Thresholds: 
Waste at the confluence of social and ecological turbulence

Structures may disappear, but also they may appear. Prigogine & Stengers, Order
Out of Chaos

Etymology and crisis: waste at both ends of production

The word waste has come to signify a lot of things. As a verb, one can waste
one's time, money and energy if one does not heed the old adage: "waste not want
not." Not enough nutrients and you waste away; too much drugs or alcohol and you
become wasted. According to the OED, as a noun the earliest meaning of waste was
land that was uninhabited or uncultivated: a wilderness. Waste was that which
existed prior to the process of production; waste was that which had yet to be
incorporated into the production process and into the realm of value. One would
be inclined to call an unproductive place a wasteland or to comment that a once
productive place had been laid waste by an enemy. Today this use of the word is
rarely heard and the situation is quite different; one would not dream of
calling a wilderness area a waste, as was done in the 13th century. In their
rarity, those areas constructed as outside and beyond the social have increased
in value so that the valuelessness of the term waste is no longer appropriate.
These days the only wastelands are those like Love Canal or the area around
Chernobyl, places too polluted for habitation. And these places are becoming
more dangerous and more numerous.

With modernity and industrialization, the meaning of waste has moved across the
production process to its other end: the waste product. The idea of waste and
the valuelessness, the otherness (as in wilderness) and the danger which it
signifies has shifted from those things that exist in the realm of pre-
production to those which are post-production. Thus, we find ourselves faced
with a double bind: as the value of pre-production wastelands rises so too does
the demand for their protection from the dangers of industrial intrusion. At the
same time, as the danger and threat of post-production waste also rises, so does
the demand that it be gotten rid of, either by containment or disposal. The
imperialist nature of industrial capitalism, coupled with its particular
capacity for expansion and growth, has succeeded in colonizing the entire globe.
There are virtually no places left which have not been incorporated into its
production process. There is no wilderness left (what is called wilderness today
if it is not stripped of its of material resources has become incorporated as
spectacle; e.g. Yellowstone National Park.) At the other end this expansion of
the production process has come to produce more and more commodities which are
consumed faster and faster. This, of course, entails the production of more and
more by-products which become increasing difficult to contain. The problem is
compounded because if the entire world becomes colonized then there is no
outside, no geographical other, no place left to put wastes. Waste is still a
wilderness, an other, but it no longer lurks just outside the edges of the
social world. It now exists within capitalist society and so must be managed
from within rather than discarded and banished to the outside. This is becoming
the meta-crisis of late modernity: there is no valueless space of wilderness, no
wastelands into which we can cast off industrial waste and destroy its
materiality and its danger through disposal, dissipation, dispersion,
disintegration, desubstantiation.

In North America this double bind is perhaps most acutely felt at the municipal
level. By the mid-1990s, one half of the 6,500 municipal landfills in the United
States are expected to reach capacity; 1,400 landfills have closed since 1978
(Royte 55). Meanwhile, as the amount and danger of municipal, consumer wastes
continue to rise, so do the regulations and costs of constructing new sites.
Large cities are faced with mountains of trash and overflowing landfills;
smaller municipalities are faced with the financial burdens of constructing
elaborate and costly landfills to meet EPA standards. The trend, according to
Elizabeth Royte, is the construction of huge landfill sites in poor isolated,
communities who are desperate for income. Waste management firms scour the
countryside with lucrative deals to offer communities: "host fees," jobs,
scholarships and a cost-free solution to their own waste problems. Huge profits
can be made by those who participate in the $30 billion-a-year industry: in the
construction of huge waste containers and the transport of waste over long
distances. But even in the poorest, most desperate communities, not-in-my-
backyard struggles continue to leave waste in highly contested political
terrain. The profit-driven solutions to the crisis of an ever-increasing waste
stream provide only relatively short-term solutions that come only at great
social and environmental costs.

As a discursive construct, as a concrete entity, as a political, economic and
health issue, waste is overdetermined. And in the grand scheme of things, the
dumping problems of a small-town or even big-city mayor pale in comparison to
those of the Department of Energy with thousands of tons of high-level
radioactive waste on its hands. And the future political struggles to which
interstate waste disposal portend will be small next to those now emerging from
numerous communities of "downwinders" who suffer the devastating health effects
of chemical and nuclear pollution. The moral, economic and political panics that
circle the landfills, chemical and nuclear dumps (like so many seagulls) are by
no means unwarranted. The mountains of trash outside every city and town begin
to signify the historical limits of industrialization. Waste appears as the
historical horizon of late, consumer capitalism, it is a central component of an
ecological threshold that implies, perhaps even demands, socio-historical
transition. To begin to model this threshold and locate its singular crises, we
need to fully engage that which is repressed, set aside and disposed of--and yet
at the same time imposes itself on the social body, leaks back and will not go
away. In his concise interpretation of Benjamin's contribution to dialectics,
Theodor Adorno offers theoretical justification for such a project:

knowledge ... should also address itself to those things which were not embraced
by this dynamic, which fell by the wayside--what might be called the waste
products and blind spots that have escaped the dialectic... What transcends the
ruling society is not only the potentiality it develops but also all that which
did not fit properly into the laws of historical movement. Theory must needs
deal with cross-grained, opaque, unassimilated material, which as such
admittedly has from the start an anachronistic quality, but is not wholly
obsolete since it has outwitted the historical dynamic. (151)

So the point is to bring waste, along with its containment and disposal, back
into the dialectic: to posit waste as a theoretical/philosophical category
through which to (re)define the process of capitalist, industrial production.
Waste is that which is severed from the social body--but it can be folded it
back into discursive and material economies to displace and mobilize their terms
of demarcation, offering a re-vision of their limits and crises. This has been
the strategic contribution of green politics in which I locate this work: to
figure waste into the rational economy, to count the costs of disposal in the
economy of industrial production, to posit waste within the overdetermined,
master or meta-crisis of late modernity.


waste/space/containment decay/time/disposal

To return to the polysemy of waste: if it comes from an industrial process it is
referred to as industrial waste, or more specifically: chemical waste or nuclear
waste, these also go by the term hazardous waste. When these get out of control
we introduce systems of waste management. Thus, the production of waste is not
only an industrial process but a discursive one. The production of waste is in
essence a production of boundaries, the foundations of which are formed on that
meta-dichotomy of inside/outside. Waste is precisely that which poses a threat
to the social body and must be placed outside it. But as the social body
expands, the membranes between it and the outside are constantly ruptured, as
when suburban development encroaches upon waste disposal sites. If, then, waste
cannot be gotten rid of altogether, it must be contained. Lewis Mumford begins
his book Technics and Human Development with an attempt to shift the defining
characteristics of human development away from tool making--'man the tool-
maker'--toward the development of container technologies: fire pits, baskets,
canals, prisons, cities. Here is a useful starting point for understanding
waste. The "management" of waste (in a discursive and material sense) involves
either one of two things: containment or disposal. These are the two modes by
which disengagement from the social body is achieved: separation by a membrane
of concrete or steel (chemical ponds or barrels) or by disposal in a space
outside the social where it dissipates (into the dump on the edge of town or
into the sea).

Yet it appears that these two modes are mutually exclusive and exist according
to a boundary or threshold between them. Crisis seems to follow quickly behind
any crossing of this boundary, that is, when that which is supposed to be
contained disperses (out of Love Canal) or when that which is supposed to be
dispersed gets accumulated (in bodies, e.g. DDT in birds or women's breasts,
plastic washed up and accumulated on the coast). Material can move from one mode
to another but cannot be subject to both at once:

Profit can be realized in the movement of material from one process to the
other: to contain and accumulate that which is dispersed (cleaning up after the
Exxon Valdez) or dispersing that which has been accumulated (toxic
incineration)--but such movement must be done without any leakage between the
two modes. But of course there is leakage and this is where we can locate

Waste may be subject to decay; decay may produce waste, but these categories are
of separate orders. As the above diagram suggests, Waste is a spatial category;
it is produced in place; it is realized only in its materiality. Decay is a
temporal category, it is produced over time, as duration, it is the process of
desubstantiation. Waste which successfully enters the process of decay is
transformed into energy and is dissipated, lost, expended. Decay can only become
waste if its processes come to a halt, and it stabilizes long enough to take
form. These two strategies of waste management can perhaps best be grasped with
reference to two paradigms: classical mechanics and thermodynamics. The
containment of wastes involves the construction of closed systems of equilibrium
and reversible time while disposal utilizes--consciously or not--open systems of
dissipative, nonequilibrium states and irreversible time. Equilibrium and
reversible time governs classical Newtonian physics of a frictionless pendulums
or the orbital motion of celestial bodies. These bodies "do not know any
privileged direction of time" (Prigogine & Stengers xxvi). Classical physics
describes a universe of clock-like machines, simple isolatable systems governed
by deterministic, universal and eternal laws of motion--a universe that has been
privileged for 300 years. The conceptual model for nonequilibrium systems of
irreversibility is the heat engine. Thermodynamics describes a universe subject
to the laws of entropy and the dissipation of energy--and thus is subject to the
'arrow of time'. This is the open-ended universe of chemistry and biology, a
universe which chaos theory has only recently begun to construct in all its

Waste containment strategies are an attempt, then, to create equilibrium states
with the stabilization of substances. But as Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle
Stengers point out, "in the world that we are familiar with, equilibrium is a
rare and precarious state.... In order to produce equilibrium, a system must be
'protected' from the fluxes that compose nature. It must be 'canned' so to
speak" (128). This would require that we modify our previous diagram, modeling
containment/disposal as we would a simple, membraned cell:

Assemblages of waste containment are attempts to create, spatially (to place, on
site) static stabilities of reversible time. The stabilities of place are formed
out of space ('Nature') where unstable, uncontrollable chaos is the norm. The
art of containment is the art of producing boundaries between a stable substance
and the disequilibrium that always surrounds and threatens that stability. But
these boundaries are never complete, however; they are membranes which will
always, at some point allow some leakage.

Waste containment is not simply the containment of its materiality; the
management of waste is above all a social production, waste management is at the
same time social management. Hence, containment systems fall under Gilles
Deleuze and Félix Guattari's category of machinic assemblage, which Manuel De
Landa, refers to as an "overall set of self-organizing processes" (6), a phylum
which can include chemical, political, organic, historical, linguistic/semiotic,
and so on. But what is important is not so much the specific content or even the
specific forms of organizational structure, rather it is the shifting relations,
the movement and energy flows between and through them, the ways singular
organized elements coalesce to produce larger, abstract machines. Out of these
relations there can emerge spontaneous self-organization, order out of chaos in
the form of chemical clocks, cities, insect colonies, social institutions. As an
assemblage, waste containment needs to be considered as a rhizomatic collection
of multiplicities in motion: "An assemblage, in its multiplicity, necessarily
act on semiotic flows, material flows, and social flows simultaneously" (22). It
is not surprising, then, that the containment of waste may also entail the
containment of information. For example, information about the release of
radioactive waste into the environment around the Hanford nuclear complex in the
state of Washington in the 1940s and 50s was not released until 1986, and then
only after the Department of Energy which is responsible for the plant was
forced through the Freedom of Information Act. (Epperson 89) It seems that
social engineering machines for discursive containment intermesh with matter
containment machines. The discursive universe is as unstable as that of matter
and so meaning must be contained by representation machines that are constructed
and maintained by a variety of social institutions. Our model still holds:

The production of conditions of stability and equilibrium for waste involves
chemical, engineering, environmental, economic, political and semiotic
integrants. The waste-stream is also a sign-stream. To contain waste is to
simultaneously contain its significance, its semiotic power.

The production of a rational social and material world is essentially the
production of states of equilibrium out of the chaos of 'nature' and social
life. But, whether material or discursive, strategies of containment continually
fail; they fail because they depend on simplistic, mechanistic understandings of
the world. As Prigogine and Stengers point out, "simple, integrable systems can
indeed be reduced into noninteracting units, but in general, interactions cannot
be eliminated" (73). The ongoing failure of these strategies points us to
another conception of the world, that of an evolving, interactive multiplicities
that cannot be reduced to timeless universals (73)--dynamic systems of
thermodynamics, for instance. The crisis of waste is, at its most essential, a
crisis of system, or more specifically: rational systemicity. Crisis seeps out
of stainless steel canister of rationality.

It is not that states of equilibrium and far-from-equilibrium are
incommensurable. Indeed, life itself is only possible in those latitudes where
order and chaos can coexist: life is not found in the chaotic disintegration of
the sun, nor is found upon the frozen stability of the moon. But a rational
universe of socially constructed order cannot tolerate states of uncontrolled,
unchanneled and ever-increasing disorder. This is why a rational society so
often sets itself against uncontrolled living matter as expressed most
succinctly in the practice of sterilization: of body surfaces, of homes and
lawns, the soil, monoculture crops, rainforests, even some cities. Waste
disposal is an attempt to harness nonequilibrium either in a highly controlled
system (anaerobic, in-vessel composting or incineration) or in a relatively
uncontrolled system (dumping onto the ground or into the sea) that is outside
the social. "Sacrifice zones," as an example of the latter practice, are an
attempt to make an outside wilderness area from within the social body--they are
akin prisons or to First Nation reserves 1 in North America or the South African
townships--the other/outside area is surrounded by and contained within the
social space. These zones are indeed wilderness areas--perhaps the only
wilderness areas left in America. The Jefferson Proving Grounds of Madison
Indiana, a 100 square mile sacrifice zone, is littered with millions of
unexploded bombs, mines and artillery shells, some buried thirty feet or more
under the ground. The clean-up costs are estimated at 31 billion it is likely
that "the vast instillation may well be the first to be fenced off in
perpetuity, permanently isolated from human contact, like a quarantined victim
with a contagious and terminal disease" ( Shulman 4) The area has already become
a nature preserve of sorts which supports an abundance wildlife--with some
endangered species of reptiles--which find a save refuge from human contact--
aside from the occasional casualty (Shulman 4-9). In these zones the meaning of
the word waste comes full circle, and again signifies an unproductive, wild and
dangerous territory.

To dispose is to dispossess. A complete and successful disposal of material--and
its signification--must partake of decay. Dispersion as movement is not enough
to offer protection from the return of waste (the return of the repressed);
waste must be desubstantialized, disembodied, made insubstantial. Economies of
decay and entropy, as flows of irreversible time, 2 provide the transformative
work of immaterialization. A saprophytic economy can be mobilized against
organic waste, transforming it within dissipative assemblages (the
metabolization of substance into energy which is then expended by the movement
and growth of maggots and worms or in the generation of heat by the smaller
saprophytes); entropy and the second law of thermodynamics can carry the
inorganic along irreversible energy flows (oxygenation, incineration, the
production of movement and/or heat). In the real world, however, complete decay
is often difficult to achieve, especially with inorganic waste: incineration,
for instance, is often accused of merely dispersing and displacing toxins rather
than achieving their immaterialization. Given their economies of function, the
compost pile and the incinerator; the gut of the saprophyte and the nuclear
reactor are of the same machinic phylum. The attempt to produce a biological
agent that can metabolize oil spills or the incineration of sewage sludge for
power generation demonstrates a kinship between the two types of disposal

Assemblages of disposal attempt to harness entropic irreversible time. Although
they may begin on a particular site, they nevertheless depend on matter/energy
exchanges that are subject to time and dispersal over space. One cannot "map"
decay because it is a process of dispersion (of energy and material) and is a
temporal process. Decay can be localized or channeled but exchanging matter and
energy creates compounds that are readily mobilized, absorbed and re-exchanged
in larger chemical or biological systems (botanical or animal assemblages). Yet
there is always the potential for material to restabilize in unexpected places
(in the body, on the beach, settling in the ground water), that is, spontaneous
equilibrium can emerge, like eddies in the chemical fluctuations of nature,
beyond rational control. In these situations the usual response is a re-
containment, sometimes followed by re-disposal (to dig up contaminated soil and
incinerate it). Even if there are no localized stabilities, the mobilization of
far-from-equilibrium conditions must involve the risks of indeterminacy. Our
models of the world, based as they are on classical mechanics, cannot account
for or predict the kinds of changes that may arise from the potential of
nonequilibrium states. In these conditions small fluctuations can be amplified,
pushing the system toward thresholds of change, to "bifurcation points" where it
is impossible to predict which way the system will flow, what orders may or may
not emerge, what levels of intensities may be reached, to what level and
distance dissipation will be carried: "the 'negative' property of dissipation
shows that, unlike dynamic objects, thermodynamic objects can only be partially
controlled. Occasionally they 'break loose' into spontaneous change" (P & S
120). When incinerating hazardous wastes it is often impossible to guess what
kinds of compounds might be produced, where they may go or settle and how they
might find there way into the biological environment or food chain. Thus, like
the containment of waste, the control of decay can only be partial; it is
localized deterritorialization and channeled dissipation--a difficult and always
uncertain game.


Thresholds of transitions: social and ecological abstract assemblages

Containment and disposal machines tend to enmesh closely with one another in the
interchange of energy, material and meaning. As such elements oscillate between
these machines they set up waves of turbulent flows of matter, energy, capital,
semiotics and politics. But these assemblages operate within larger social and
ecological systems. In other words, They pass through abstract machines, social
and ecological abstract machines, abstract machines which are themselves
enmeshed and in friction with one another. I want to posit waste, its management
and unmanageability as the circulation of intensities and interacting
singularities which push these two interacting abstract systems toward
threshold, rupture and change.

As we have seen, the membranes of containment and disposal prove to be permeable
and subject to breakdown. Waste is a product of the construction of discursive
and material boundaries, its production falls under the sign of crisis when it
occurs in a world where such boundaries are impossible to maintain. The leaking
toxic barrel and toxic fish have become prevalent signs of crisis for our times.
These represent scenes of crisis that exist where social boundaries of
inside/outside are exceeded and dissolved. It is important to stress that these
boundaries are discursive and material; social and concrete. As any engineer
knows, in the construction of containment or disposal machines, the properties
of the material and its own self-organization must be taken into account. As
waste crosses the boundaries of inside/outside, substance/desubstantiation set
up by containment and disposal assemblages, it is in the end, its materiality
that exceeds theses discursive and social attempts to contain it. Waste may be a
discursive and social construct but its material excess imposes itself on the
social in its ability to kill. The limit case here is nuclear waste.

In "The last Cold-War Monument" Alan Burdick reports on the project to design a
permanent marker--a "keep out" sign--for America's first permanent nuclear waste
disposal site, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The
project is to come up with a signifier that will last 10,000 years and keep
future generations out of the underground vault. But of course, as Burdick
points out, the marker is not addressed to future generations but to the present
one, its message: "to demonstrate the safe disposal of radioactive waste," as
the 1979 congressional mandate so clearly puts it (qtd. in Burdick 65).
Nevertheless, the facility is an attempt to contain time within space. The
linguistic and engineering task is enormous and most likely impossible. How can
a signifier and a container be built to contain the 10,000 years that the
regulations require--let alone the 240,000 years the waste will actuallybe
radioactive? There is considerable debate as to whether this or any other
proposed permanent storage facility, will actual be able to contain
radioactivity for the time required. The facility is built along rational,
instrumental engineering principals but its object, 10 (or 240) millennia, is
not instrumental rational time; "as the EPA regulations concede, when the time
frame in question involves millennia, 'proof of future performance... is not to
be had in the ordinary sense of the word'" (Burdick 65). The materiality of the
nuclear waste exceeds both the semiotic and concrete (in its figurative and
literal senses) strategies to contain it. How can we begin to account for this
excess? To begin with: waste is, by definition, always excess--but only in
relation to the social.

George Bataille's distinction between rational and general economies in The
Accursed Share offers a useful conceptual framework from which to come to terms
with the excess of waste 3. The distinction is between an economy that is social
in origin (industrial capitalism, specifically) and that of the biosphere and
"the movement of energy on the earth" (10). The former channels the energy and
biomass flows of the latter. The source of energy in the general economy is the
sun which gives without receiving (21) and through the work of plant life, a
superabundance of energy is produced. That which is in excess of what is
required to maintain life must be expended; it must be wasted. Excess is
expended through the "effervescence of life," (10) or the biological exuberance
of growth, sexual activity, etc., and for humans, social expenditure in the
squander of wealth rather than production and accumulation. These latter two are
the province of the rational economy. For Bataille, the general economy and its
demand for the expenditure of excess energy represents the (natural) limits of
the rational economy and its demand for production and accumulation. When these
limits are approached and excess growth must be expended, we are given the
choice between how that energy is to be spent, either gloriously (festival, art,
feasts) or catastrophically (war) (21).

While Bataille's work here is on economics and energy in general, it nonetheless
can be applied to the energy flows of waste specifically. We can make sense of
waste only in terms of Bataille's general economy; by definition, waste as waste
cannot figure into the rational economy unless it can be transformed into
something else: a resource, a commodity, value. The consumer waste stream, like
war, could be thought of as a (often catastrophic) expenditure growing out of
the tensions between the general and rational economies: the waste crisis is an
emergent counter-threat to industrial rationalization and development, an
expression of its limits. The disposal of waste, (where this is still possible)
is pure expenditure without return (or, as in the case of incineration,
diminishing returns) and would seem to imply participation in the general
economy, to make concessions to it by moving matter from the rational to the
general economy. Containment, as we have seen, is a rational practice, an
attempt to maintain a socially constructed order and stability in an unstable
universe ruled by thermodynamics. Here lies the latest contradiction of late
modernity: the accumulation of waste, that is, the accumulation of that which
falls under the sign of non-value. Recycling too is an attempt to create a
rational economy of waste--to create a new system of circulation within the
capitalist order that brings waste back into the production process. The
recovery program for consumption as addiction and its ecological decadence is
the development of a rational economy of waste. But Bataille warns us against
the study of the economy "as if it were a matter of an isolatable system of
operation" (19). We can begin to make sense of waste with the placement of
systems of human production and consumption into the larger framework of what
Bataille presents as the movement of energy on the globe (20). He writes: "I
confined myself to relating the problem that is posed in economic crises to the
general problem of nature" (13). Thus, the materiality of waste which lies
outside social control and yet still imposes itself upon it can be thought of as
the general economy imposing itself, as limits, upon the rational economy. To
shift our terminology and perspective slightly: Bataille's general economy is
nothing less than an ecological abstract assemblage; the rational economy is
nothing less than a social abstract assemblage.

For Deleuze and Guattari the abstract machine or abstract assemblage is an
aggregate multiple relations in motion. It is the

"abstract machine that connects a language to the semantic and pragmatic
contents of statements, to collective assemblages of enunciation, to a whole
micropolitics of the social field. A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections
between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to
the arts, sciences, and social struggles" (7)

Abstract assemblages give us no objects, (objects are only momentary and
illusory) but rather movement, flow, multiplicities, liquifications and
crystallizations, multiple bifurcations and attractors, fields of intensities
and potential; "an assemblage is a field of connections between multiplicities
of various orders" (23). Flat, static maps are almost worthless, three or four
dimension modeling are barely adequate to come to terms with higher-level
systems of organized and self-organizing synergistic systems in constant
movement and perpetual becoming. Discrete objects are of no interest, (such as
waste as a static category) only the discursive and material spaces through
which they move, are constituted, transformed, dispersed or expended and the
turbulent flows that are produced as they travel--only the momentary relations
within and between the pulsations and oscillations between order and chaos.

Abstract assemblages are also theoretical tools, thinking machines, conceptual,
modeling machines, paradigm generators, expression machines. I offer two for
consideration here: social and ecological; these are what Manuel De Landa would
call "machinic paradigms" (62). A social abstract assemblage as a machinic
paradigm and constituted by the political, cultural, economic, institutional
(military, educational, architectural, etc.), machinic assemblages has become a
fairly well elaborated system as it has emerged in such fields as the social
sciences, political economy and Marxism 4 --which are assemblages in their own
right. Over the last twenty years or so another social abstract assemblage as a
machinic paradigm has emerged. Ecosystem, an extraordinarily rich and complex
thinking assemblage is a multiplicity of organisms connected rhizomatically by
matter, energy, and semiotic flows 5 . As machinic paradigms the clock
incorporates reversible time, the engine irreversible time with the ecosystem,
the most complex of the three, incorporating both. In the ecological abstract
assemblage we can discern at least three levels or strata: that of
organism/body, ecosystem/forest and biosphere/Gaia. The ecosystem as a cultural
conceptual model appears at this moment to be the most common; the body is
perhaps too close and the biosphere to large and too distant. The forest (or
desert or ocean--it doesn't really matter) has the advantage of being able to
mediate between the organism and the biosphere; it can channel energy and
semiotic flows between the two. Already the rainforest canopy has become the
Gaian Church that mediates between us and the biosphere-as-goddess, between
earth and sky. The ecological high priest--who appears regularly on the
Discovery Channel--is the "tribal" subject who is able to extract monkeys from
the canopy as if by magic, without the aid of technology, with only a few
sticks. And when an angry Gaia puts cancer in our bodies or in our environment
we know there is secret cure to be found somewhere in that rainforest canopy. 6
Ecology--whether expressed at the level of the organism, ecosystem or biosphere-
-has become in the last 20 years or so the abstract assemblage through which all
machinic phylum must pass.

Here is how we model a crisis: we have two abstract assemblages, the social and
ecological which pass through one another creating material, political,
economic, cultural, botanical turbulence. Clear-cuts, landfills and nuclear
waste dumps are expressions of this turbulence; so is Green politics as the
formation of its institutions, as are its various political struggles, and so
on. Assemblages of waste containment disposal pass through these two enmeshed
abstract assemblages. That is, the turbulences between waste and decay must pass
through the turbulences generated between the abstract assemblages as they
enmesh. The conditions of material and social disequilibrium in the phase space
between the social and ecological have the potential to amplify very small
fluctuations into powerful energy flows capable of shattering existing
structures. Thus, the encounter of the two abstract assemblages creates far-
from-equilibrium conditions inside of which the turbulence of waste can be
amplified and intensified creating feed-back loops that carry the entire
collection of systems across critical thresholds and toward bifurcation and
transformation potential:

Waste creates turbulence in the phase space of industrialization, as part of its
ongoing historical development. Under specific historical conditions waste can
express not so much a limit to industrial development (as suggest above) but an
historical threshold. As Deleuze and Guattari point out, "The history of ideas
should never be continuous; it should be wary of resemblances, but also of
descendants or filiations; it should be content to mark the thresholds through
which an idea passes, the journeys it takes that change the nature of the
object" (235). The barrel of toxins or the effluent pond can reach a critical
threshold where its material can no longer be contained and bursts forth or
slowly seeps outward, into the crevices of social life. There are other
thresholds: a cancer threshold when toxins accumulated in the cell cause its
mutations, its mutinous growth; economic thresholds where the costs of
landfilling become higher than that of recycling. There are political thresholds
too: when the callous poisoning of the environment and the people who live there
engenders political organization and political action the demands legal redress
and for social change. We should not, then, separate out the leakage of toxins
from barrels, the leakage of hegemonic legitimacy and (corporate) power and the
leakage of social change. The turbulence, instability, disequilibrium described
here can bring us to a threshold of social change, a bifurcation of historical

***** Addendum: from machine to ecosystem

Stengers and Prigogine recount that "for classical mechanics the symbol of
nature was the clock; for the Industrial Age, it became a reservoir of energy
that is always threatened with exhaustion;"(111) and we could add that today the
symbol of nature has become the complex ecosystem--on a global scale, it is
Gaia. De Landa defines the "machinic phylum as a set of all the singularities at
the onset of processes of self-organization--the critical points in the flow of
matter and energy, points at which these flows spontaneously acquire a new form
or pattern" (132). But in this context the machine, it seems to me, is woefully
inadequate as a metaphor. The machine, at least in its traditional usage, is not
self-organizing, self-replicating, or capable of spontaneous order. And the most
complex, futuristic cybernetic systems do not even approach the rhizomatic
richness of a single square meter of forest, or a cubic millimeter of an
animal's brain. We have nothing to fear from organic metaphors (like rhizome,
for instance); they need not necessarily imply a search for universals or
origins, on the contrary, they necessitate a search for the perpetual movement
of becoming. It is rather the machine, based as it is on the idea of simple,
deterministic, universal and eternal laws of reversible motion, that implies a
search for origins. I have used Deleuze and Guattari's machinic metaphors
throughout this paper but after all I have tried to demonstrate here, it should
be clear that the machine needs to be jettisoned in favor of those of an
emergent ecology. The body, a microorganism, the ocean, a compost heap--these,
not machines, represent the phase spaces through which history now must pass.
That is the only way Nature operates--against itself. Deleuze and Guattari, A
Thousand Plateaus

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