Jane Bennett and Alex Livingston on Philosophy in the Wild

“Philosophy in the Wild: Listening to Things in Baltimore,” Jane Bennett and Alex Livingston, in Scapegoat: Landscape/Architecture/PoliticalEconomy , January 2012

This was a very interesting piece. I recognize the sensation of ‘materialist wonder’ over things like wild trash in Baltimore. I also sometimes get this sense of awe when I’m walking or biking around Baltimore, especially the dirtier or more decayed parts. I agree with these authors that this sensation of wonder arises from a direct confrontation with the agency of history/materiality, even when it pertains to human creations.

At the same time, I think we have to be careful not to sensationalize poor urban conditions–to remember that there are humans living with these conditions. While reading this article, I sometimes got the sense that things like meth addicts in Hampden or the ‘highway to nowhere’ become fetishized through this philosophy of materialist wonder, if that makes any sense.

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Douwe, I had the same reaction to some of the statements/phrases used in this piece (link here); I was uncomfortable initially with the potentially flippant manner in which these issues were alluded to by way of the materials left behind.

In at least one instance, the authors alleviated my concern - in addressing the failed I-170 project:

By the time we visited it, the city had begun tearing out the highway’s dead end in order to replace it with a park. We get no good photos. The park will change things a little, but it can’t erase the violence of this two-mile concrete scar. (Bennett & Livingston, p. 12)

I read this as recognition of the gravity with which one should approach the material reality of the city. Maybe it doesn’t show explicitly in the scenes depicted of, like you mention, meth addicts in Hampden, but I find it difficult to believe that authors capable of the quote I reference are similarly capable of shrugging at other scenes. Especially having read Bennett’s From Nature to Matter, it’s apparent the material is approached keeping in mind the interplay between “it” and “us” (and why we draw that line, I suppose), but I can definitely see reason for the inclination that this perspective is more heavily philosophical than empathetic.

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Like Douwe, I empathize with this piece’s almost perverse awe at seeing wild trash and abandoned infrastructure. There’s something deeply unsettling and profound about seeing the impact we have on the world around us.

That said, I also agree with Douwe that this piece seemed like a romanticization of poor urban conditions. This piece was fundamentally about “outsiders” exploring different Baltimore neighborhoods in somewhat of a scavenger hunt for trash and decrepit conditions. While this is a valid perspective, I feel like the piece glossed over the fact that the neighborhoods they were exploring were the everyday communities of other people. This piece provides a very academic, somewhat distanced, view of these communities, but I think it could be strengthened by incorporating interviews or even just the thoughts of native residents.

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Audrey, I like your suggestion to incorporate interviews with people. Perhaps if they integrated the perspectives and reflections of those from the neighborhood, living in the space on a daily basis, it would ground the work and really connect it to lived experience.
Douwe, I like the words you put to this! It was something I was feeling too, and having a hard time pinpointing. What you mention about how some things “become fetishized” I think really hits the mark.
One line that jumped out to me in this piece was, “No materiality is ever really
available to us as something utterly divorced from its cultural effects.” It made me think, “How do we individually see somethings as trash, really?” What’s going on in our brains that we see something in one context with meaning and purpose, a certain vital materialism, but in another context we see it as trash. The saying, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure” came to mind as I reflected on the fact that not everyone will perceive objects in space --whatever the context-- in the same way. This doesn’t necessarily explain what we classify as “litter”, how this could be different from the concept of “trash” and what the impact of these are physically and psychologically. However, I think it’s interesting to think more about how and why people are interacting and reacting to their environments in a certain way and how we perceive entities around us. I was unfamiliar with the concept of vital materialism before reading the piece, so that was a point of reflection as well!

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Veronica, I had a similar thought on your point about “one person’s trash is another’s treasure”. It reminded me of how trash (or solid waste) is defined in America. Waste is defined as anything “discarded”, meaning that an object only enters the solid waste management stream the second someone decides that the object no longer has value.

The way this article tries to find meaning in objects for their intrinsic value rather than their perceived value (ignoring the fetishization) makes me wonder how much better our waste management systems could be. In our current mindset, once something is discarded, the solid waste management hierarchy states that we should first attempt to reuse it, then recycle it, then incinerate, and finally landfill it.

If we were to instead view objects as being discarded once we have attempted to reuse and recycle them, I believe it would cause us to see more value and ‘vitality’ in the objects around us, and instead of defaulting to thoughts like “this has no value to me, I will discard it, and maybe someone else will reclaim its material value”, we might think more along the lines of “this does not achieve its original goal, can I find a new use for it? If not, then I will discard it”.

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