Dossier | Waste and Ontology

Waste and Ontology
By Brice Jubelin

"You are poor, lonely souls; failures; your role is played out. Go where you belong—into the dustbin of history."
– Léon Trotsky

Paradoxically, while waste would seem to be that which disappears, it is in fact that which remains, that which can be neither consumed nor assimilated. It is surplus, runoff, excess. As such, it also touches on luxury, of which it might be considered the counterpart or flip side of the coin. A paradox then, as it exists primarily under the aegis of insufficiency and loss—its indigenous trait. Essentially, it is that which comes undone. These preliminary observations afford us a glimpse of the strange dialectical object that underlies the term and its wealth of possibilities.

But can we so easily say and specify what the term covers before grasping what is expressed (or “takes action”) through it? After all, what is waste? Certainly that which has no use, or no longer has any. It is the imperfect, the failed, or the outdated. Imperfection, or defectiveness, is its mode of being, whether this be the result of wear and tear, of an accident, or of some intrinsic and qualitative deficiency. It is still an “object of time,” having passed or been passed by, a product of time itself, saturated by its dimension. Also at play within it, though at a peculiar level, is the dialectic of the visible and invisible. It haunts every sphere and level of culture.

As a category, waste suffers terribly of specific determinations: it’s a ragbag. If one had to sketch out its semantic “field,” a first circle would no doubt include ruin, rubble, debris, fragment, sediment, dross; and then relic, remainder, residue, remains; a third would include rag, tatters, cast-off, moulting, slough, shreds; and finally, in the most “infernal” of the four circles, cesspool, dregs, refuse, garbage, filth, secretions, evacuations, excrement. The list, though not exhaustive, hints at some preliminary directions, at a few of the “meanings” attached to the term like after-images. For even if it seems possible to organize these terms and to differentiate them into discrete spaces, and therefore into categories, such spaces are eminently porous, each element having ramifications that extend beyond its allotted space. By contagion, each term draws more terms into its register, each closely bound to the others under the aegis, as in the grips, of loss and destruction. Ruin and remains may apply as well to a corpse (“the mortal remains of man”), thus connecting with the intimate, “putrescent” aspect of waste, to which garbage, filth, faeces, excrement also gravitate; similarly, with the corpse, the same terms cannot denote the “non-putrescent” or irreducible elements of the body (the bones), as testified by the enduring vanitas skull, or Yorick’s, which prompts the question: “How long will a man lie i’ th’ earth ere he rot?” (1)

Human remains or debris—waste still, objects of time as much as of paradox and dialectics. But the remains are also the spoils (spolium), the trophy, loot taken from the enemy, like the wondrous armour from the warriors in the Iliad, sharing with “despoilment” the same ruinous origin in war and destruction (the ruins of a city, the remnants of an army). “Trophy,” “loot,” “victor’s spoils”—paradoxical objects, “cultural treasures” (2) that would seem to be obliterated by their origin in defeat or “disaster”; remains, debris, waste certainly testify to the disaster itself; in other words, again, the wastage of history, cultural residues, vestiges and detritus ostensibly elevated to the status of trophies. Waste is no longer merely the sign but the very locus of a catastrophe, as obscure as it may be.

In any event, it would seem to be that which is most naturally subject to the ambivalence and signifying mobility of the sacer. Nail clippings, hair, secretions, excretions (blood, saliva, sperm, urine, excrement, etc.), whether belonging to the realm of magic or to sexual psychopathologies, these “objects” always arrive at the same equation: objective data plus excess meaning equals magic (fantastical) object, in which the excess wholly disrupts or recasts the initial value. For it appears self-evident here that this notion lies at the very heart of the question of waste. A loss of value, then—a devaluation—that strikes objecthood [la chose] head on, not simply in terms of usage value. The specificity of the movement, this general debasement—“drawing down” the category of the useful into that of insufficiency or inadequacy—is that it actually issues less from a lack of utility than from an insufficiency that strikes at the very heart of the object. It is because of this loss of unity, this disintegration, that waste is no longer the thing, but its symptom, no longer the horizon of the thing, but its crisis point. Not just an inert, broken object, open to its own uselessness; waste, as Marx once said of commodities (and it is especially true now), “[abounds] in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties,” (3) and is precise enough to be reinvested with particular meanings.

Useless and fragmentary, then, and violently incomplete, waste gradually takes the form of a “partial object.” In this sphere, however, like the fetishist’s foot, the part stands for the whole, which isn’t the least of its characteristics, its irreducibility in a sense. For it cannot help being anything but what it is, though it belittles itself to the point of disappearing. Like Aminado’s eye, which, inserted into Simone’s woolly vulva, becomes an autonomous organ in its own right. No longer simply an organ, fragment of a body, but something marvellous, incomprehensible, and whole. (4)

Georges Bataille here, grappling with all that can be expressed of the low and the ignoble in waste. By what disaster does the most exquisite appearance become rags and tatters—a mop? By what catastrophe, by what dismemberment? The object’s loss of integrity, as mentioned earlier, is alteration more than uselessness—what is more useful, in fact, than a mop? The damage incurred to its integrity is, again, above all an offence to the dignity of the object—not just in its dimension as a “commodity”—, hence the undertow of revulsion. Loss of dignity, devaluation, downgrade, a belittlement toward the ground: for waste, in what can only be said with the obviousness of a tautology, is that which is ultimately diminished, which falls. Rubbish: that which is shunted aside (obscene), also that which repels, elicits disgust, bearing its own indignity like a mark. As the symptom of the object, it also bears the stigma of the commodity.

The four circles had already delineated this movement and concentric progression toward the bottom, or, rather, toward the base materialism dear to Bataille. In “Le bas matérialisme et la gnose” (“Base Materialism and Gnosticism”), an article published in Documents and dealing precisely with the classical material/form distinction (5) and its critique, he calls for “a materialism involving no ontology,” that is, the refusal to submit to “philosophical thraldom” (chiourme philosophique), or to dress up the universe in a “mathematical frock”—counterpart to what he elsewhere called “the insubordination of facts.”

“Base matter is external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, and it refuses to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations.” (6)

Irreducible, unreclaimable, like the Dadaists’ “studied degradation of their material” that Benjamin described: poems composed of “obscenities” and “every imaginable waste product of language,” paintings strewn with everyday trash (buttons, tickets). (7) With Bataille, however, it’s much more a question of altering, opening, or “tinkering” (of “irritating,” to borrow a term from Georges Didi-Huberman)(8) the form, the image, or any other determination, to reach beyond the material (the undetermined), to a state of greater indetermination, that is, to formlessness.

One could broaden the field of the “base materialism” of the four lower circles with such immaterial elements as miasma, emanation, smell, reminiscence, along with abstract and irreducible entities (numbers)—ratio, modulo, remainder—such that, with respect to alteration, one may say that waste traces the limit, the margin, as slim as it may be, between the essential and the inessential. It thus participates in the very essence of the thing, though in a negative form. Though it is also revelatory of cultural practices in which consumerism plays only a minor part. At that precise point, there is no “irreducible remainder,” any more than there is in “naked life.” (9) André Leroi-Gourhan concludes his remarks on the fermentation of salmon among the northern Inuit with: “Finally, the leftovers, completely unusable for humans, are given to the dogs, unless dire food shortage extends their culinary use.” (10)

Straddling the essential and inessential then: “For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole.”(11)

Categories again, though now guided by the philosopher (maestro di color che sanno) in the intricate and delicate architecture of the edifice, “veritable logical and ontological toolbox,” of which Saint Augustine could “[imagine] that whatever existed was comprehended within those ten categories.” (12) Storeyed architecture, too, for it isn’t merely a levelling of interchangeable predicates: the ten categories follow a hierarchy, with singular, primary, and discrete (ousia) essences that crown the work like an arrow. But, of all that is predicated on the primary essence, as of the other nine Aristotelian items, here we are only concerned with the tenth: paskhein (suffering).(13) To employ a metaphor, if the essence (ousia) is the mouth, paskhein is then the anus, each having with the other a peculiarly reversible relationship. To suffer, to be altered, to feel privation, or “the extinction of one of two contraries by the other.” (14) But alteration (alloiôsis) is not corruption (phthora)—another type of change (metabolè).

“For in that which underlies the change there is a factor corresponding to the definition and there is a material factor. When, then, the change is in these constitutive factors, there will be coming-to-be or passing-away: but when it is in the thing’s qualities, i.e. a change of the thing per accidents, there will be ‘alteration.” (15)

It follows nonetheless that the tenth category, paskhein, seems to consist of a potential capacity for undermining the nine others; and while alteration is not corruption, it is, in some sense, its privileged modality, its breeding ground. Bataille likely had this in mind when, in Dictionnaire critique, in his entry for informe, (16) he notes that the term serves to degrade or displace (déclasser), as much a belittlement as an impure mixture, a blurring; the paradoxical author of a morality of “The Summit and the Decline” would certainly have approved Flaubert’s statement: “When one muddles categories, morality falls by the wayside!” (17)

A catastrophe, as obscure as it may be, I said above. Waste is the locus of a major ontological crisis or disaster. Not only loss of being; its significance and its very essence are thoroughly disrupted. Integral to the essence, its negative as it were, waste is likely also participant in the entelechy, negatively again, and in some sense its reverse.

Historically, the introduction of waste in art at the dawn of the twentieth century creates the same movement. But one must distinguish the alteration of the work, as one of the essential conditions of its hic et nunc, (18) from this introduction itself. In contrast to the ontological catastrophe of the singular essence (substance) observed previously, here it is the universal essence (the Work of Art) that must concern us.

“Decay of the aura,” (19) Ninfa’s slumping toward the ground (20) : here I come to that precise point (and likely blind spot in my reasoning) that I must articulate nonetheless. The work is no longer that privileged object embodying the potentiality of art as one of its particular moments (as one might speak of a “Brancacci” moment, that sudden, colourful burst of frescoes); it now no longer appears as that thing of art (its receptacle), perpetually reactualized (more radiant, more resonant than ever, but whose condition is so difficult to define in what we call masterpieces); today it is but the tenuous, indexical sign, as “beautiful” as it may be, of that something of art.

L’art pleure avec moi.(21)

[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]

1. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, V.i.158 (London New York: Methuen, Arden Edition, 1981).
2. Walter Benjamin, “Thesis on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 256.
3. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1, Section 4: “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof” (1887; trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, ed. Frederick Engels, 1906), available online, at
4. Georges Bataille, “Histoire de l’œil,” in Œuvres Complètes, vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1970), 69.
5. This is the Aristotelian distinction between matter (indeterminate), as potentiality, and form (determination), as its actualization. “The characteristic of matter is first to be the latent potentiality (dunamis) of what it then becomes in actuality (energia) by way of form.” (Pierre-Marie Morel, Aristote. Une philosophie de l’activité (Paris: Flammarion [GF], 2003), 33). But, from the point of view of substance (ousia), Aristotle also establishes a hierarchy that puts form a notch above matter. (See ibid., 121)
6. Bataille, “Le bas matérialisme et la gnose,” in Documents, no. 1 (1930), vol. 2 (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1991), 6. For the English translation, see “Base Materialism and Gnosticism,” trans. Allan Stoekl, Visions of Excess, ed. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 45-52.
7. Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, op. cit., 237.
8. See Georges Didi-Huberman, La ressemblance informe ou le gai savoir visuel selon Georges Bataille (Paris: Macula, 1995).
9. See Maurice Blanchot, “L’Espèce humaine,” in L’Entretien infini (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), 191-200.
10. André Leroi-Gourhan, Milieu et technique (Paris: Albin Michel, 1945-1973), 168.
11. Aristotle, Poetics, Chap. 8, trans. by Ingram Bywater, in The Rhetoric and The Poetics of Aristotle (New York: Modern Library, 1954), 234.
12. Saint Augustine, The Confessions, Book IV, Chapter XV, 29, trans. Albert C. Outler (1955), (Christian Classics Ethereal Library,
13. Though one should point out that the ninth and tenth categories form a duo, Poiein (to act)/Paskhein (to suffer), and that the alteration relates to both: but “there are two kinds of alteration: the one is a change toward privative dispositions [paskhein], the other veers toward positive dispositions [poiein] and the nature of the subject.”
14. Aristotle, On the Soul, trans. J. A. Smith (The Internet Classics Archive, 1994-2000,
15. Aristotle, On Generation and Corruption, trans. H.H. Joachim [1922] (
16. Bataille, “Informe,” in Documents, no. 7, 1929, vol. 1, op. cit., 382.
17. [“Quand on embrouille les catégories, adieu la morale.”—Trans.] Gustave Flaubert, “Lettre à George Sand,” in Correspondance (Choix) (Paris: Gallimard [Folio], 1998), 493.
18. Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” op. cit., 220-222.
19. Ibid., 222.
20. Georges Didi-Huberman, Ninfa Moderna. Essai sur le drapé tombé (Paris: Gallimard [Art et Artistes], 2002).
21. Joachim Winckelmann, “Le torse du Belvédère,” in De la description (Paris: Macula, 2006), 149.

Tags artistes: 

Subscribe to the Newsletter

 Retrouvez nous sur Twitter !Retrouvez nous sur Facebook !Retrouvez nous sur Instagram !








esse arts + opinions

Postal address
C.P. 47549,
Comptoir Plateau Mont-Royal
Montréal (Québec) Canada
H2H 2S8

Office address
2025 rue Parthenais, bureau 321
Montréal (Québec)
Canada H2K 3T2

E. :
T. : 1 514-521-8597
F. : 1 514-521-8598