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Waste Matters Symposium

Waste Matters

A one-day symposium dedicated to interdisciplinary approaches to the material, aesthetic, political, economic, and philosophic dimensions of waste
April 11, 2019—8 am to 6:45 pm
Presented by the Environmental Humanities Workshop of the Kaplan Humanities Institute

Waste is a capacious concept, at once a byproduct of manufacture and a product of extravagant consumption; a useless thing and a purposeless gesture. Understood alongside some of its synonyms—trash, rubbish, garbage, refuse, litter—it suggests the unavoidable material effects of everyday life. As a term for excrement, it offers a polite screen for the byproducts of our bodies, which process not only food and drink, but also pharmaceuticals, recreational drugs, and all manner of toxic substances. A landscape marred by waste becomes a wasted landscape; a diseased body wastes away. Food goes to waste, but so do lives.

Sometimes waste accumulates into a grand display or a public scandal, as with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’s plastic flotilla or Canada’s long-smoldering “dumpcano” garbage fire in Iqaluit. More often, though, it refers to discarded, misused, and forgotten things that have their own complex life cycles of disposal and processing, containment and leakage, contamination and decontamination, recycling, upcycling, and reuse. What the Waste Matters symposium sets out to explore is not only what happens to objects, people, and places when they become “wasted,” but also how we might begin to reconceptualize waste, not as byproduct or excess, but as perhaps the defining product of capitalism and as a possible foundation for more just and ecologically sound ways of being in the world.

What strategies—narrative, political, aesthetic, scholarly—might we draw on to reconceptualize waste as product rather than byproduct, a potentially valuable resource rather than a form of junk?

How might we trace the historical contingencies that shape what gets categorized as waste and what does not?

How can we make waste central to the concept of the Anthropocene (or the Capitalocene or the Plantationocene)?

Having wasted so many lives, ecosystems, and chances, we are now faced with building a future out of and on top of waste. We need to get used to thinking dirty.

Symposium Overview

“Waste Matters” brings together scholars from throughout the country, though one of its primary goals is to create a space for faculty and graduate students from Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and other Chicago area institutions to begin an ongoing conversation about humanistic approaches to environmental problems that are local, regional, national, and planetary in scope. The symposium will combine a range of formats, including experimental workshops, a poetry reading, a field trip to Northwestern’s “lakefill,” a “keyword panel” on waste and related terms, and a keynote lecture by a leading scholar of radioactive waste in postcolonial Africa.

The symposium is made possible by the generous support of Northwestern’s Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, the Departments of Asian Languages and Cultures, English, and History; the Asian Studies Graduate Cluster; the Chabraja Center for Historical Studies; and the Science in Human Culture Program as well as the the University of Chicago's Department of English and Franke Institute for the Humanities.


Organizing Committee

Corey Byrnes (Northwestern)

Michelle N. Huang (Northwestern)

Zachary Samalin (University of Chicago)

Sarah Dimick (Northwestern)

Keith Woodhouse (Northwestern)


Invited speakers

Keynote speaker Gabrielle Hecht is the Frank Stanton Foundation Professor of Nuclear Security, Professor of History, and a Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute. Hecht is currently writing a series of essays on radioactive and other forms of waste, tentatively titled Toxic Tales from the African Anthropocene. Hecht’s most recent monograph, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (MIT Press, 2012) offers new perspectives on the global nuclear order by focusing on African uranium mines and miners.

Amy Zhang is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at New York University. Her research focuses on the politics of environmental management and urbanization in contemporary China. Her current book project explores how waste infrastructures, materials, and their technical interventions ground and condition the forms, possibilities, and limits of China’s emerging urban environmental politics. Articles based on this research are published in China Perspectives (2014) and the edited volume Fueling Culture (2017).

Benjamin Morgan is Associate Professor of English at the University of Chicago and author of The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2017). His research and teaching focus on literature, science, and aesthetics in the Victorian period and early twentieth century and he also writes about topics in the environmental humanities including extinction, energy cultures, and the literary history of climate change. His current book project, In Human Scale: The Aesthetics of Climate Change, asks how art and literature try to bring long and vast processes of ecological devastation into human frames of reference.


Schedule of Events

All events except the keynote will take place at the Kaplan Institute (Kresge Hall #2350).
The 5pm Keynote with Gabrielle Hecht will take place at Harris Hall #108.

8:30-8:50            Light breakfast and coffee

8:50-9:00            Welcome and Introductions

9:00-10:30           "The Guano Years" Workshop (led by Zach Samalin)

10:30-10:40        Coffee Break

10:40-12:10        Enzymatic Disposal and the Microbial Turn Workshop (led by Amy Zhang)

12:10-1:10           Vegetarian Lunch from Mt. Everest

1:10-2:40            Chicago/Northwestern “Lake Fill” workshop and excursion (led by Fred Schmalz)

2:40-2:50            Coffee and pastry break      

2:50-4:50            Keywords Roundtable moderated by Harris Feinsod, featuring Jayme Collins (“Mold”), Allison Turner ("Salvage"), Bonnie Etherington (“Contamination”), Adam Syvertsen ("Decay"), and Erica Weitzman ("Reclamation")

4:50-5:00            Break

5:00-6:45            Public Keynote Lecture (Gabrielle Hecht with Benjamin Morgan as discussant)


If you are interested in attending the symposium, please register by contacting or

Image at top: Detail from Shed Bird Stomach Contents (Susan Middleton)

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