What is the hidden connection between work and waste? In this essay we trace the logics of waste management and human disposability in the Anthropocene. The manufacture of death is glossed with promises of life, but only for a select few. These logics, co-emergent with the Anthropocene, constitute a “necropolitics,” to borrow a term from philosopher Achille Mbembé. Necropolitics involves the state’s authority to take life and also the power to determine the conditions under which death occurs. In our analysis, we broaden Mbembé’s definition, exploring how necropolitics relates human work (thermodynamic uses of matter and energy) to the production, management, and disposal of waste via technologies of control. It is important to grasp the connection between ecological necropolitics and the “slow violence” of the Anthropocene on peoples and places around the world. The privileged live off inherited means and wealth, while abandoning or cordoning off the unemployable surplus produced by competitive capitalism.
In Chicago, this logic is operative in nuclear policy, meatpacking techniques, city planning, and mass incarceration. Nuclear waste is buried rather than recycled for fear of plutonium escaping the process and producing terrorism from below. Animal bodies are cut, graded, and valued only in relation to human use; the “choice” meats are the most aesthetically pleasing. Rooted in eugenics, city planning reveals environmental racism and segregation. Amidst these schematics, thousands of bodies disappear into prisons for non-violent crimes. Whose lives are let live and whose deaths are made?
It can be overwhelming for writers, artists, and scientists to formalize and name something from within its own historical unfolding. In working to symbolically order the necropolitical, writers are faced with multiple timescales and a slew of enclaves to analyze for consistency. Geological attempts to define the natural history of the Anthropocene are similarly troubled by variations in rock deposits. A stratigraphic marker must be planetary in nature and meet the criteria of material and age consistency. Markers that transgress time are deemed too “diachronous” to indicate an official change in epoch. Conversely, to carry geological validity a marker must be “isochronous,” that is, have the same age sediment existing simultaneously in many locations across the Earth. In biological and social ecology, indications or “markers” of changing form and function over time are also important, and they reveal natural landscapes as well as urban and industrial landscapes that are “surfaces of violence,” in that they have been shaped, reshaped, and scarred by the violence of human technology, injustice, and desire.
In scientific and social understanding, we often seek more precision than the reality under investigation permits. But perhaps a messy reality in formation calls for broader modes of thought. Perhaps we must no longer dismiss diachronous thinking. Instead, we must learn to take disparate markers into deep and relational consideration to understand and reshape surfaces of violence. As students of the Anthropocene and visuality in Chicago, we identify necropolitics from the city outward. This research takes form as a list of diachronous markers. The logics of various management systems are interwoven below in order to acknowledge linkages across disparate material and temporal scales. Within the markers, we include poems and imperatives, action responses for the reader. These counter-markers trace a response to violence, an opening in thinking, alongside markers of violence itself. Our aim is to carry the remainder, not by redeeming it to economy and quotients but through poetry’s excesses and active remembering.
1851: A Physicist Observes the Steam Engine
Lord Kelvin formulates the second law of thermodynamics. Not all heat from industry can be recycled back into production. In a closed system, 100 percent efficiency is deemed impossible. Herein emerges the dichotomy between work and waste. As Pinto observes: “Although William Thomson did not develop the analogy between the degraded state of the laboring poor and the deterioration of energy under the actions of a mechanical engine, the second law of thermodynamics is an apt social metaphor: ‘Production of work rides on the back of wasting the sources of work, the workers.’”
This marks the engine logic of capitalist management systems, be they social or industrial. The expropriation of value from human labor and nature is the essence of this logic and drives toward an orientation toward work, or production categorically produces Lord Kelvin’s waste. Waste is that which cannot be redeemed back into production or reproduction; defining waste amounts to designating bodies and materialities for strategic disappearance. Lord Kelvin’s logic is ubiquitous, littered across many bodies and processes, like nuclear fallout, which stratigraphers have proposed as one of many possible markers for an emergent geological epoch, the “Anthropocene.”
1927: Chicago Real Estate Board (CREB)
Leader of the CREB and co-founder of Northwestern’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Nathan William MacChesney wrote tracts about eugenics. He found an ally in Richard T. Ely of the so-called Progressive movement, who advocated tactics of management for what he called a “sad human rubbish-heap.” Ely overtly demanded immigrant assimilation and used the phrase “negro problem” to express his fears of racial unrest. In the name of protecting property value, MacChesney created the standard restrictive covenant that allowed for racial exclusion in buying and selling property to encourage racially exclusive subdivisions. The Hyde Park Herald likened the lobbying to “a marvelous delicately woven chain of armor.” In 1918, Ely said, “We have our census of farm animals, we have our soils surveys. Is it not of the highest importance that we should have constantly going on a survey of our human resources?”
August 5, 2016: Lead Contamination in Calumet
Residents in the West Calumet housing complex located on the East Side of Chicago were not told that their water and soil were contaminated with lead and arsenic from the factories that once surrounded the area. Although first tested in 2009, many residents did not find out about the lead until 2016, when the complex was ordered to be shut down. In 2013 the Calumet neighborhood was composed of 3,361 people: 71 percent African-American and 30 percent Latinx. The exact amount of the 101 percent of people who lived in public housing is unspecified, with it being determined that it was “most.” The occupancy of West Calumet was between 1,000 and 1,200, with about 680 children living in the housing complex at the time of the initial reports. Multiple generations have been exposed to high levels of lead, and the current health status of prior residents has not been publicly reported.
I know of people who can turn themselves
into spindles, hide, combines,
dirt and even another person.
They say it is like a birth coming.
Not the womb, no baby on a breast,
their old body seizing into a new one:
shining skin pulled back to bone white bone
spine parallel to the mouth,
back arched as a question mark.
It hurts to be shaped new,
They say, unspooled, winnowed
and after! when there is a new stillness,
a silence moving into them.
you’re unfolding, they say.
But Mama looks dusted and tired.
A toothpick hangs from under her tongue.
The white roots of her hair shine and say
more troubled than human.
October 19, 1897: The Death of Pullman
George Pullman’s whites-only factory town has vanished, and the workingman’s paradise has relocated to a WeWork on Monroe and State.
The cushions are as nice as a Pullman sleeper car,
so nice you could almost… stay the night,
stay every night.
Over by the river, in black glistening offices, a UX app designer
wonders whether or not she should send an email or just lean
over and ask.
The etiquette is fuzzy, but there’s beer on tap.
Workers happy and morale high.
George Pullman, railroad tycoon, died of a heart attack shortly after the famous strike of his workers. Fearing that labor activists would dig up his grave, his family had him buried in a lead-lined mahogany coffin.
Bill H.R.3053: Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2018
Republican representative of Illinois’ 15th District John Shimkus has been selecting a tomb for the 81,000 metric tons of nuclear waste in North America. Storage is to commence at Yucca Mountain, a seismically unverified, locally opposed site in Nevada, a state with no nuclear power plants. Across the country, Illinois produces one tenth of all North American nuclear energy.
Hide your body completely out of sight.
Calculate the exact volume of your body.
Calculate an exact volume of waste.
Think about Jodorowsky teaching the thief how to turn excrement into gold.
Work until your body cannot physically continue.
August 29, 2018: fox32chicago.com
A burial is now an interview with murderer and Chicago Police Department officer Jason Van Dyke who shot seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald sixteen times in 2014. Pre-trial, off the record, over oath. The interviewer shovels soil atop the dead. Shovel 1: “What do you think the public misunderstands about being a police officer?” Shovel 2: “Do you think this trial has anything to do with the upcoming political elections?” Shovel 3: “Is there anything you’d like the jury to know?” Shovel 4: “You don’t wear the Kevlar vest out in public generally, it’s only when you’re going to court?”
1984: Antibiotics for Growth
Pigs are routinely fed various antibiotics that potentially increase their total weight and the rate of their overall growth. Studies indicate that such extensive use of these antibiotics risks the development of bacteria, which affects the resistance to antibiotics in humans and causes infections that might lead to adverse health consequences. Other traditional antibiotics, such as penicillin and tetracycline, would eventually become ineffective.
2010: Timothy Morton Coins the Term “Hyperobject”
“Hyperobjects” could be things like climate change or economics. They are things that defy thingness, “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” Climate change is in your shoes, in the fiber optic cables that make the Internet work, perhaps in your anxiety. Morton suggests, “A hyperobject could be a black hole. A hyperobject could be the Lago Agrio oil field in Ecuador, or the Florida Everglades. A hyperobject could be the biosphere, or the solar system. A hyperobject could be the sum total of all the nuclear materials on Earth; or just the plutonium, or the uranium.” A hyperobject could be a half-life, the required time for a radioactive isotope to decay to half of its original mass. Radioactive material is a doubled hyperobject—doubled because it refuses human scale directly through its lifespan and indirectly through its radiating product, dangerous to organic life. The temporal scale of radioactive material is hard to comprehend on human time. Its exponential rate of decay exists in the thousands, millions, or billions of years. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years. Uranium-235 has a half-life of 703.8 million years.
You can draw an asymptote of invisible violence.
Downey and Hawkins’ Race, Income, and Environmental Inequality
There is a disproportionate presence of toxic substances in areas with majority people of color that have incomes of $60,000 and below, as compared to areas with majority white people with the same income. It would be presumed that, as income increases, hazard risk decreases, but depending on the racial composition of a neighborhood this does not necessarily ring true. Regardless of income, people of color experience an increased risk for disease, reduced quality of life, and shorter life expectancy.
April 28, 2010–2018: Munster, Indiana
Plans were put forward to build Centennial Park, which first involved converting the old garbage dump into a grass hill. The park has since expanded and now includes a banquet hall, golf course, dog park, and an entertainment stage. From Calumet Avenue to 45th Street there are now several restaurants, a hospital, a hotel, and hopes to expand into a “Walkable Lifestyle Community.”
1935: Opening of Rikers Island
The famous Rikers Island jail complex is built on top of a landfill for horse manure and garbage. For a time, pigs were raised on Rikers for slaughter.
Paul Wright, Former Prisoner and Executive Director of the Human Rights Defense Center
“When everything has been exhausted, when trees have been cut down, every last grain of ore has been ripped from the soil, and everything has been contaminated and poisoned in the process, the final solution is, okay, now we’re going to build a prison here.”
2014: Mass Incarceration
Illinois’ prisons are at 150 percent capacity.
Then, there, the Metropolitan Correctional Center Chicago stands abandoned
Wind whipping through its windowed slats
broken and whistling. Birds.
Classical music still warbles out from the 7/11 on State Street,
undesirables keep out.
Everyone has burrowed
and the city is beneath itself.
Is it a monument? To what?
Before the practices of modern waste management, the Union Stock Yards’ animal waste was continuously dumped in the creek. Located at the Southern branch of the Chicago River, the creek was called ‘Bubbly’ due to the gas released from animal carcasses and other organic material still present in the water. The Environmental Protection Agency is still in the process of determining the level of the contamination. In 2015, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a $2.6 million ecosystem restoration project for the creek. No status updates available since.
2018: Mass Meat Production
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the meat industry will produce a record of 102.7 billion pounds of meat this year. Consumer appetite for meat is growing, but not enough to keep up with the current production record. Expanding the amount of overseas exports is critical for balancing out the growing supply.
July 4, 1998: Proposed and Constructed Waste Incinerators in the Chicagoland Area
Harvey, Robbins, Forest View, Ford Heights, Summit, Stickney, and the Southeast Side, all low-income communities of color.
1877: Gustavus Swift’s Winter Ride
Gustavus Swift, founder of the midwestern meatpacking industry, experimented with the distribution of meat from Chicago’s Union Stock Yards out across the nation. Dressed beef was shipped in boxcars with the doors left open during winters. Swift’s plan was to efficiently use the cold air to keep the meat fresh for the length of a shipping trip. This required no extra energy use for further refrigeration.
1975: Criminologist Steven Spitzer Coins the Phrases “Social Junk” and “Social Dynamite”
Marxist theory explains how capitalism’s reserve or surplus population, the unemployed and underemployed, grow with every efficiency achieved through labor. Those who are deemed indispensable hold the explosive potential of revolution, while those who are deemed dispensable become candidates for deviance processing. Here, deviance is identified wherever disruption occurs in the exploitation of labor (i.e., theft), the social relations of production (i.e., refusal to work), patterns of consumption and distribution (i.e., drugs as transcendence), or processes of socialization (i.e., rejecting “family values”).
1977: Nuclear Power Policy Statement on Decisions Reached Following a Review
Jimmy Carter rejects the redemption of plutonium to the heat-making process of transuranic recycling. He “defers indefinitely the commercial reprocessing and recycling of the plutonium produced in the U.S. nuclear power programs.” Twenty days later, he expounds that “if our policy is too weak, we could find ourselves powerless to restrain a deadly worldwide expansion of nuclear explosive capability. I believe the legislation now submitted to you strikes the necessary balance.”
1987: U.S. Government Creates Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator
Created in accordance with amendments to legislation from 1982, the Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator has headquarters stationed in Boise, Idaho, and a liaison office in Washington, DC. “The negotiator is charged with the responsibility of attempting to find a state or Indian tribe willing to host a repository or monitored retrievable storage (MRS) facility at a technically qualified site on reasonable terms. The negotiator is instructed to negotiate with any state or Indian tribe that expresses an interest in hosting a repository or MRS facility.”
Radiation Risks on Indigenous Lands
Throughout the early 1990s, David Leroy, the first sitting Nuclear Waste Negotiator, began to devote most of his efforts towards approaching Native American tribes regarding above-ground storage options. Despite resistance by the majority of tribal members, talks continued with the Mescalero Apache Tribe, as well as the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes, whose land is “already tucked between a military test site, a chemical weapons depot and a toxic magnesium production facility.”
USS Lead Superfund Site
Zone 1: West Calumet Housing Complex, Goodman Park, and Carrie Gosch Elementary. Zone 2: Privately owned residential homes. Zone 3: Riley Park, more homes.
Next door, Ms. Jennings lights
the eye of the stove with a match.
Her nieces tap forks against their plates.
1! 2! Dinner’s at three!
Upstairs, Hawkin’s music plays
slow into the evening,
inviting a stranger into his home.
Across the street,
there’s a knock at the door.
Million Dollar Blocks
In the 2000s, over a period of five years, for each of 121 Chicago city blocks clustered in West and South Side lower-income neighborhoods, the Illinois Department of Corrections had over $1 million in spending committed to prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses.
2010: Michelle Alexander Writes about Social Death Imposed on the Formerly Incarcerated
Ban the Box campaigns advocate banning check boxes for former felons on many applications for work or welfare. Alexander notes that while these reforms promise ex-offenders an opportunity to be re-incorporated into working sociality, structural and pervasive racism actually makes employers more inclined to discriminate in the absence of a check box. When assuming criminality based on race, employers can lean on the absence of a verified criminal record to exclude under the guise of meritocratic choice.
Mama and Daddy say there is the named
and the will not be named.
1902: Market Classes and Grades of Cattle with Suggestions for Interpreting Market Quotations
Herbert Mumford from the University of Illinois came up with a series of bulletins that included naming seven market grades of cattle (Prime, Choice, Good, Medium, Common, Cutter, and Canner). Further developed by the United States Department of Agriculture, these different grades of meat then began to correspond with the social economy, generating accessibility to different grades of meat depending on individual income.
October 10, 2018: Activist Protest against McDonald’s and Whole Foods
In response to the report, “Scoring America’s Food Companies on Sustainable Meat,” activists came together in downtown Chicago to protest against McDonald’s and Whole Foods, the two biggest polluters in the food industry. The companies’ meat supply chains are largely destroying water supplies and ecosystems, and neither has any policies against environmental damage.
Order a McDouble with filet mignon.
Order filet mignon McDouble sliders for your children.
Throw the receipt away or toss it in the cupholder of your Subaru Outback.
1979: Hormone Violations
Various hormones previously used widely in pork stock to increase growth rate, including diethylstilbestrol, were banned from use, as they were found to cause sterility and other reproductive disorders in children. Violations of the hormone ban continue to occur extensively.
2015: Petcoke Fallout
The United States Environmental Protection Agency notified the KCBX Terminals Company in Hegewisch, Chicago, of their second (alleged) violation of the Clean Air Act, which calls for the company to reduce petcoke dust fallout. The petcoke, a solid byproduct of petroleum refining, is accumulated in enormous heaps that require containment by continuous hosing down.
Take a deep breath of absolutely clean air, try to hold your
breath for as long as you can.
Remember that doctors recommend drinking eight glasses of
water each day.
Think about things that could be in hiding.
Rip up your floorboards, inspect your pipes.
February 21, 2017: Manganese Replaces Petcoke
After the petcoke heaps were removed from the Southeast Side, a new contaminate was found in the air. The neurotoxin manganese was likely dispensed by the S.H. Bell warehouse locations in Lake Calumet and along the Calumet River.
2011: Rob Nixon, Slow Violence, and the Environmentalism of the Poor
“By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales.”
Seal a one-hundred-dollar bill within a box. Don’t open the box for the rest of your life.
Make sure nobody else ever opens the box.
Count every second of every minute of every hour for one day.
Show up one year late for an appointment.
Try to think about the sun.
Try to think about one million years.
Try to think about one million years.