Steven Connor

The text of a talk given at the Modernity and Waste conference, University of St. Andrews, June 16th 2006. It has been published as ‘Exhaust: On Aerial Rejectamenta’, in Aesthetic Fatigue: Modernity and the Language of Waste, ed. John Scanlan and John F.M. Clark (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), pp. 73-83.

The history of air pollution and efforts to combat it has been well-served. There are histories of the growth of different polluting influences, from industrialism to the automobile. There are also studies of the growth of environmentalist pressure groups and legal frameworks for the control of aerial effluents like smoke and exhaust fumes. The cultural phenomenology, or interior life of these developments has been attended to in much less detail. My aim in the talk that follows is to follow out some of the changes in sensibility brought about by the idea and experience of air pollution. How, I will wonder, has the idea of air changed as a result of the increased awareness of the sensitivity and the fragility of the atmosphere?

Most creatures deal with their waste products in two ways. First of all, they discharge, or put their wastes from them. More importantly, they themselves move away from their wastes. The nomad does not merely put waste aside – he puts it behind, in the past, which it then becomes. As human beings settle, cultivating rather than grazing the resources, two alternative movements are set up. On the one hand, there must be a concentration, an influx of resources – fields must be irrigated, workers brought together, food stocks built up. There must be synchronisation, not just of human affairs with natural, but also of human beings with themselves, in regular work patterns. At the same time, waste products that might previously have been left behind, must be mobilised. As human beings become sedentary, their goods and wastes must be got on the move. Nomadic peoples are themselves fluent, fluctuant; sedentary peoples must create and manage flow, the itineraries of input and output, around them. Hence the importance of rivers, by which many early settlements are formed: rivers bring resources in and take them away, creating a movement through and around spaces of human habitation. But rivers may gradually prove inadequate to cope with the volumes of waste that cities produce, as happened during the years of London’s expansion during the nineteenth century. The creation of a sewage system created the need for a new form of map, which had not previously existed, or been necessary – a detailed map of gradients which would ensure that sewage could flow out of the city, at the right speeds and in the right directions.

Previously, human temporality been formed by itinerary and circulation. Space was temporal (the hills in summer, the plains in winter). The establishment of settlements and cities spatialised time. Time had to be managed, in a series of flows inwards and outwards.

Waste of Space

This active concern with expulsion means that sedentary human beings are forced into more and more intimate relation to their wastes, in the very intensity of their efforts to drive them away. The fortunes of the word ‘waste’ itself may help to dramatise this. ‘Waste’ derives from Latin ‘vastus’, which means empty, wild, uninhabited, and perhaps uninhabitable. It referred to wilderness and desert and, as its afterlife in the word ‘vast’ suggests, its principal component is the idea of immeasurability or formlessness. The ‘vast’ is that which human beings cannot encompass or inhabit, in fact or imagination. Already in Latin, the word ‘vastare’ suggested the possibility that human beings could themselves lay waste, could ‘devastate’. Gradually, ‘waste land’ came to mean, not mere unoccupied vastness, but land that had been exhausted, used up, rendered unfit for human habitation.

For a mobile people, waste is the past. It no longer exists. A turd is exactly equivalent to an uttered word – no sooner has it risen to the lips than it is irretrievably gone. Once settlements and civilisations arise, and records begin to be kept, once peoples begin to keep time, litter and literature together ensure and require a continuing relation to one’s past. Perhaps this is the opposite of the situation endured by Benjamin’s Angel of History, blown irresistibly backwards into the future by the gale of time that blows from Paradise, watching the wreckage of history accumulating at his feet. Modernity must always confront the fear that the propelling gale will flag, or worse still, change its course, blowing backwards from the future, and stranding it in the midst of its own asphyxiating waste.

One may suppose that animals do not suffer from agoraphobia, from a sense of the pressing, exposing, terrifying emptiness of the world. To be sure, most animals have a strong instinct for the particular niches or environments in which they exist and on which they depend: mice, spiders, frogs, all depend on darkness and cover, and very few animals, not even the birds of the air, are able to make a living in the open. Animals do not have a conception of the world, do not have a way of including what excludes them. Human beings, by contrast, whose architecture and culture seem agoraphobic, designed to keep vastness at bay, nevertheless have a relation to vastness, have a conception of the inconceivable, the infinite. They can make of the vast a niche.

The hugeness of the mountain or the plain, stretching out beyond the eye, or the vastness of the ocean, have traditionally stood as synecdoches of the illimitable. But, more than earth or sea, both of which it has long been possible for human beings to traverse, it is the element of air that has stood for the vast. For most of human history, the air has been on the one hand intimately present to human beings and, in the form of the weather, actively influential in human affairs while yet being unknowable and unencompassable. This is because the air is more than a mere element. The air is a quality, a dimension, rather than a mere substance. Where the other elements occupy space, air has habitually been thought of as space itself, the space within which the other elements are disposed. As such, more than the earth or the sea, the air has been seen as the inexhaustible, a pure gratuity.

Luce Irigaray has attempted to reinstate this tradition of thinking in her anamnesis of air. For all its talk of opening and unconcealing, she urges, the philosophy of Heidegger, and the male philosophy he exemplifies, effects a claustration of the pure openness of the air, a hardening and appropriation of what otherwise might be apprehensible as pure excess:

Is not air the whole of our habitation as mortals? Is there a dwelling more vast, more spacious, or even more generally peaceful than that of air? Can man live elsewhere than in air? Neither in earth, nor in fire, nor in water is any habitation possible for him. No other element can for him take the place of place. No other element carries with it – or lets itself be passed through by – light and shadow, voice and silence. No other element is to this extent opening itself… Were there not air – and always more of it than its consumption by living beings requires, and always more than that air now surrounding them, in which everything appears to them – were there not an unlimited and always irritatingly excessive resource of air, the open expanse would not take place. (Irigaray 1999, 8, 40)

The air is vast, in both senses, then: it is immense, and it is waste, never fully inhabitable by man. The air is a nothing, an out of sight and out of mind. Air does not present itself – ‘Air never takes place in the mode of an “entry into presence” … in air [the philosopher] does not come up against a being or a thing’ (Irigaray 1999, 9). This enables air to be thought of as a universal solvent, the origin and destination of all things. The air thus can become an edgeless, bottomless receptacle for waste.

Time is of the essence of waste management. Aeroplanes and trains used to dribble their wastes unconsciously as they went along, in real time, like birds or cattle. All one had to remember was not to flush the toilet in a station, which was equivalent to fouling one’s own nest. But to excrete in transit or at speed was to return to the mode of the nomad, who risks no contamination from his wastes, because he leaves them behind him, in the sand, on the road, in the past. One used to be able to look down through the bottom of the lavatory pan and see the railway track whizzing along underneath. The ideal of shitting into air is to be found enacted early on in the location of privies in castles, which tended to be on the outside corners, in order to allow the wastes to drop straight into the moat below. Early writers on privies praised the ideal location of the privy between the earth and sky, and recommended it for that reason as an appropriate place for contemplation and prayer.

Nowadays, train and aeroplane toilets do not simply trail human waste behind them in clouds of glory. Rather, they gather and conserve wastes in sealed chemical cisterns for later disposal. The wastes are thereby taken out of time, just as the journey itself is an intermission in time. And yet the manner in which these wastes are removed intimates the survival of an earlier belief in the air’s infinite powers to consume and dissolve. There seems to be no water involved in the vacuum-driven flushing of a toilet on a plane. Rather , the excremental products are gulped by a sudden, violent spasm of air (strong enough to seize a wallet, we are assured), as though just for a moment a vent had been open to the freezing, howling, healing waste outside. We may know rationally that the human waste will form part of the aircraft’s cargo, rendering it a giant pooper-scooper, which must be sluiced out on arrival at its destination. We have all of us, after all, heard the stories of windshields being shattered by strange blue lumps of ice falling out of the sky underneath flight paths, but our fantasy is fed that our feeble stream has been plucked up by the jet stream.

The air has been the guarantee of the non-historical temporality of the earth – a temporality founded on fluctuations and recurrences without direction or purpose. The air has time only in one of the two senses in which the French word ‘temps’ can be used – weather rather than history. This sense of the ahistorical temporality of the elements provided the limitless resource on which human accumulation through history has been built. Now, that relation seems to be failing. As Michel Serres has said, not only has history entered nature, but nature has entered history. In a special application of that principle, the element of air, the bearer of the weather that has always embodied pure fluctuation and cyclicity as against the irreversible linearities of history, has crossed over: now, it seems, the air does have a history, and one in which we are implicated.

In fact, Irigaray’s female dream of infinitude is the metaphysics of air, not Heidegger’s alleged encrusting reduction of air. The metaphysics of air makes air bear the burden of the illimitable, the inexhaustible, Confronted with the illimitable and the inexhaustible, man will always see it as a toilet. Like the ocean, the atmosphere has functioned for centuries as a vast oubliette, into which noxious fumes and vapours could be discharged, in the certainty that they would dissipate. The problem, not to say the disaster, is not the ‘male’ finitising of the air, of which Irigaray accuses Heidegger and others, but the infinitising of the air, the belief in the air as a horn of plenty, a bottomless fund of vastness, emptiness, openness, which can never be overdrawn. The air is not so much a way of having your cake and eating it, as of making your waste and never having to see it again.

The loss of belief in the powers of air to vaporise and dissipate waste is part of that finitising of the air which has taken place from the late eighteenth century onwards – the loss of belief in the air as the abode of the endless. Air has come down to earth. It has become a quantity rather than a dimension. Rather than extending beyond sight, knowledge and belief, merging into the celestial ether of the upper air, the air has come to be seen as no more than a thin and increasingly patchy rind of breathable gas clinging wispily to the surface of the planet.

The word exhaust derives from exhaurire, to draw out or draw off. This was its primary meaning up until the beginning of the seventeenth century. Exhausting was the word used for medicinal drawing of blood, for example. The idea of giving or being drawn off could suggest abundance, as in a sermon preached by Lancelot Andrewes on Easter Day 1606, which refers to Christ’s blood ‘the vertue and vigor whereof, doth still continue as a fountaine in exhaust, never dry; but flowing still as fresh, as the very first day, His side was first opened’ (Andrewes 1629, 584). The exhaustion of Christ’s blood is the sign that ‘His goings out are everlasting‘ (Andrewes 1629, 584). Only by interpretation did exhaustion come to be extended from the idea of drawing off to that of emptying out, for example in Robert Boyle’s cylinder, exhausted of air. In a later sermon preached by Nathaniel Heywood, we are told that ‘ ’tis not enough to have Christ, unless you use him…so we must be always drawing, and drinking, and deriving good from Christ, as the branch makes the best of the root, and draws from it, as though it would exhaust all its life and vertue’ (Heywood 1679, 118).

Van Helmont saw in the universal and ceaseless process of exhaustion the secret of death itself:

unless the blood, yea the very sanies or purulent effluxions from Wounds and Ulcers, the Urine, and that subtle effluvium, which by insensible transpiration evaporates through the pores of the skin, did continually exhaust, and carry with them some part of the vital spirit; and unless these had also some participation of vitality, and conspiracy with the whole body, after their remove from the whole concretum: Undoubtedly the life of man could not be so short. For indeed this is the cause of our intestine calamity, and that principle of death we carry about us, ambuscadoed in the very principles of life. (Helmont 1650, 15)

Thus the object of exhausting came gradually to refer, not to that which was drawn off, but rather the receptacle from which it was drawn off – in Boyle’s case, for example the glass which was exhausted by his air-pump (Boyle 1676, 29), or the chamber in the famous experiment at Magdeburg (Boyle 1682, 17).

It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the nominal form of the word ‘exhaust’ started to refer, not to the action of drawing out or emptying, but to the product of the process. Despite the chimneys that sprouted up across Britain during the nineteenth century, it was not until the coming of the automobile that the gases vented from exhaust pipes came regularly to be known as ‘exhaust’.

Exhaust therefore becomes a kind of diffused negativity. Rather than drawing out the air, or the life-principle it embodied, the air itself was rendered exhausted.

The Ambivalence of Air

After nearly 70 years of debate and attempted legislation, from the first Act to try to mitigate the effects of urban smoke in 1821, through to the Alkali Acts of the 1870s, which attempted to regulate sulphurous and other less visible emissions, the 1890s saw a succession of intense fogs and smogs, probably caused by a mixture of environmental conditions and domestic and industrial emissions.

The late nineteenth century cultivated this ambivalence towards exhaust and aerial waste with a curious intensity and versatility. As Peter Brimblecombe has indicated, the smokes and fogs of London were seen as much as an enchantment as a curse. Even Dickens, who took fog as the image of a benighted condition of obfuscation and paralysis in public life, praised the fogs of London. Sara Jeannette Duncan, a Canadian novelist who visited London, even found something to admire in its smell:

There was the smell to begin with … always more pronounced in the heart of the City, than in Kensington for instance. It was no special odour or collection of odours that could be distinguished – it was a rather abstract smell – and yet it gave a kind of solidity and nutriment to the air, and made you feel as if your lungs digested it. There was comfort and support and satisfaction in that smell. (Duncan 1891, quoted Brimblecombe 1987, 85-6)

Fog is also bound up with a growing suspicion of transparency and attraction towards obscurity and blur among artists and writers of early modernism. In my essay Haze, I have suggested that a kind of nebular modernism arose during the late nineteenth century, a modernism focussing on the rich ambivalence of mist, fog and haze, rather than the burning clarity and transparency.

The ambivalence towards air pollution is registered in a number of apocalyptic fictions having as their subjects the devastation of the air. One of the earliest to appear was Robert Barr’s story ‘The Doom of London’ (1892).

The story is told by an old man, reflecting back on the 1890s in which Barr wrote his story from the mid twentieth century. Both gas and electricity have been rendered obsolete by the discovery of ‘vibratory ether’, which provides all the necessary power (the 1890s was the high point of the ether theory in nineteenth-century popular understanding, the ether being conceived as a kind of a higher, purer, more powerful air). The narrator tells the story of a lethal fog that gathers one day after London, formed from a combination of water vapour rising from the ground and smoke belched out from domestic chimneys; the latter pressing down upon the former, prevented both the light and the heat of the sun from getting through. The narrator is approached by an American trying to persuade him to adopt a portable oxygen-dispenser. He declines him, but is made a gift of the dispenser anyway. The fog comes, getting thicker and thicker: ‘We were, although we did not know it, under an air-proof canopy, and were slowly but surely exhausting the life-giving oxygen around us, and replacing it by poisonous carbonic acid gas.’ Once the oxygen in the air begins to fail, Londoners expire in their millions. Only the narrator survives, in the ‘oasis of oxygen’ furnished by his acclimatising machine. He eventually escapes London on a train, sharing the machine with its driver, though by now all the passengers on the train are dead. The fate of London is regarded by the inhabitants of the mid twentieth century as a purgation.

Barr’s story appears to be elaborated by Arthur Conan Doyle’s story of urban apocalypse, The Poison Belt, is not the build-up of industrial and domestic wastes that represents the danger, but a belt of poison gas in space through which the earth itself is passing. The story, narrated by a young journalist called Malone, describes the last day and night of life on earth, that he spends in the company of Professor Geoffrey Challenger, and the other members of the band of adventurers who first appeared in Doyle’s story The Lost World The very possibility of the story rests upon a central incoherence. The belt of instellar poison is said to consist of a disturbance in the ether, the almost infinitely tenuous substance extended throughout all space, and, in the undulatory forms of heat, light, electricity and so on, also passing through all matter. The four adventurers survive the passage through the poison belt when the rest of the planet is exterminated because they remember to bring with them to Geoffrey Challenger’s house in Sussex cylinders of oxygen. One of the band, the sceptical Summerlee, objects to the narrative donné which Doyle has devised to keep them alive and narratable: ‘ “But what can oxygen effect in the face of a poisoning of the ether? There is not a greater difference in quality between a brick-bat and a gas than there is between oxygen and ether. They are different planes of matter. They cannot impinge upon one another.” ‘

The other peculiarity of this poisonous ether is that it seems to behave much more like a flood of water than a cosmic gas. Those on high ground are affected much later than those in the plans, and women, children and inferior peoples succumb to the effects of the poison much more readily than sturdy, stiff-backed Englishmen like Challenger and his indomitable party. The first signs of the effects of the cosmic poison are felt among ‘the indigenous races of Sumatra’, who seem to respond more quickly to the cosmic conditions than ‘the more complex peoples of Europe’. Although death for all seems certain in the end – painless but inevitable–death for young and old, for weak and strong, for rich and poor, without hope or possibility of escape.- there is a differential topography of annihilation, partly because the preliminary effects of the poison involve disturbances of the rational faculties. The telephone in Challenger’s house brings news of the slow spread from south to north:

The great shadow was creeping up from the south like a rising tide of death. Egypt had gone through its delirium and was now comatose. Spain and Portugal, after a wild frenzy in which the Clericals and the Anarchists had fought most desperately, were now fallen silent. No cable messages were received any longer from South America. In North America the southern states, after some terrible racial rioting, had succumbed to the poison. North of Maryland the effect was not yet marked, and in Canada it was hardly perceptible. Belgium, Holland, and Denmark had each in turn been affected.

This is interesting despite, or in fact because of its implausibility. ‘Ether’, which for so many was imagined as a kind of idealisation of the air – air refined and attenuated to the ultimate degree, and thus spiritualised – here becomes an annihilating, asphyxiating agent. The poison belt of malignant ether, into which the earth passes purely by chance, provides an image of the air both desublimated and moralised. The uncertainty as to whether ether can be thought of as material or immaterial carries this ambivalence towards the air. Doyle is attempting to hold together the two dimensions of the air – the air as infinite space, maximal communicability, and the air as finitely subject to the laws of spatial distribution. Ether represents the infinite space that has been slowed and thickened into place.

In fact, it turns out that the great extermination is merely temporary – that the gas acts as an anaesthetic inducing catalepsy, rather than actually killing its victims. This means that the end of the world is followed by a great awakening, which is spiritual as well as physical, and has longer term effects, in the turn away from a culture of excess and consumption:

Surely we are agreed that the more sober and restrained pleasures of the present are deeper as well as wiser than the noisy, foolish hustle which passed so often for enjoyment in the days of old–days so recent and yet already so inconceivable. Those empty lives which were wasted in aimless visiting and being visited, in the worry of great and unnecessary households, in the arranging and eating of elaborate and tedious meals, have now found rest and health in the reading, the music, the gentle family communion which comes from a simpler and saner division of their time. With greater health and greater pleasure they are richer than before, even after they have paid those increased contributions to the common fund which have so raised the standard of life in these islands.

Thus, the poison turns out to be sanative and restorative. Doyle fantasies a world of proportion and limit, brought about by the accident of a cosmic encounter.

As we have come to draw the air into our sphere, even to come ourselves to occupy the mid-air in which our mass communications and movements take place, we have indeed, as Irigaray charges, forgotten the dream of the infinitude of the air. But that dream is fatally implicated in the history of man’s efforts to put waste definitively put of sight and out of mind in the all-encompassing and all-consuming invisibility of the air. The philosophical discussion of waste has, since Bataille, been tempted by the pull of the unaccountable, of pure gratuity or excess. The compromising of the idea of air that I have briefly followed through here suggests that we should suspect and resist the return of infinitude, the modernist yearning to escape place, limit and economy. By contrast, this narrowing, this claustration, this accounting for and economising on air may be the only way in which we can temper our dream of the air as a vastness that we can never lay waste.


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—————- (1682). New Experiments Physico-mechanical, Touching the Air. London: Miles Flesher for Richard Davis.

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