John Purfield, University of South Carolina
(Published March 15, 2021)
I try to be a good materialist. I like to think Bruno Latour would consider me a responsible terrestrial, and I hope Donna Haraway would find me staying with the trouble by collecting stories for accountability and invention. But it’s hard. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost explain that new materialism is necessarily concerned with biopolitics, environmental interconnectedness, and “potential sources of rupture immanent to the system and its reproduction” (31). These ruptures are challenging. I often have to force myself to confront the realities of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and biodiversity reports. I try to understand the damage as material and consequential—I try to dwell with it. But hopelessness haunts this materialist; I often have trouble rallying sincerity when trying to convince students that information literacy and rhetorical awareness are important for becoming conscientious citizens. What future, exactly, am I selling them? Existential threats to the planet become existential threats to my curricula as I try to stay honest in the classroom and find room for students to write on a damaged planet. I consider the composition process around unsettling questions: in a global ecology that presents as simultaneously impersonal and unsustainable, where does one compose? And why should one compose? There hardly appears to be time, space, or agency to make any sort of meaningful impact.
Andrei Guruianu and Natalia Andrievskikh address these questions in The Afterlife of Discarded Objects by providing an argument for a personal, emotional, and historical ontology concerning the value of objects after their common lifespan. Afterlife is a collaboration between two compositionists illuminating the relationships between the material world and hegemonic systems instantiated along cultural, economic, political, and social lines. The authors rehabilitate the subject-object orientations in the morass of the Anthropocene by unpacking the ways human subjects invest manufactured objects with value and memory, claiming that “much of the language used to describe the agency of things is anthropomorphic . . . we can accept it as a limitation that is almost necessarily dictated by language as a tool of human expression and perception” (31). Through examination of what happens to things after they’re thrown away, Guruianu and Andrievskikh suggest that the agency of discarded objects cannot be clearly revealed and grasped without appreciation for the humanity of subjects who curate and compose with them. I appreciate this humanity as a reprieve to the starkness of the Anthropocene’s material conditions.
As a project about composing during systemic crisis, Afterlife intersects with many current material rhetorics—feminist sciences, Black studies, object-oriented ontology, and vitalism are likewise concerned with the materiality of social justice and anthropogenic crises. Guruianu and Andrievskikh share wide-ranging academic territory with Jennifer Clary-Lemon, Kathryn Yusoff, Jane Bennett, Anna Tsing and, more foundationally, Martin Heidegger. Multimodal composition within and because of environmental damage is central to the Afterlife project, putting Guruianu and Andrievskikh academically adjacent to such scholars as Michelle Comstock, Mary E. Hocks, and Donna Haraway. Guruianu and Andrievskikh are less explicitly concerned with the environment than these scholars, but they share a method of interrogating an anthropogenically damaged world to find projects that create meaning with discarded objects. Criticism of this invention, for Guruianu and Andrievskikh, necessarily considers the personal dimensions of intent and biography.
Because Afterlife focuses on the distinctly human qualities of materialism, the discussion is often narrative. The book sometimes reads like an anthology of anecdotes: witness testimony and memory gospels inform arguments about objects and materiality. They resurrect the author in their pursuit of meaning, which is very much the point: Guruianu and Andrievskikh are arguing for the value of authorial intent. To them, objects are indivisible from human memory and all the emotions therein attached.
This attention to attachment makes Afterlife a salve to the calloused Anthropocene scholar. The book does not shy away from the bigger picture of the cultural and ecological landscape even as it zooms in on the minutia of material ecologies to examine the micropolitics between individuals and their possessions. For rhetoric and composition, I believe this interrogation of global effects on local ecologies dovetails nicely with such recent narrative trends as Laurie Gries’s new materialist Ontobiography (302) and Dustin Edwards’s “storying” of digital damage (62). The narrative and biographical elements of the book, many from Guruianu and Andrievskikh, similarly open possibilities for criticism and accountability. For instance, Chapter 5, “The Abject and Fear of Social Contamination,” begins with Guruianu’s account of visiting a dying family member in an impoverished Romanian hospital. His narration associates the tactility of the physical environment with death as he focuses upon a broken, rusted refrigerator in the hospital room. This object “was allowed to remain in a state of ongoing decay alongside the ill and the dying—just one, among many, symbols of neglect” (98). Guruianu identifies more than a metaphorical relationship here, as both refrigerator and human are subjected to an attitude toward old and broken things. The Roma as a people are systemically victimized by such an attitude, Guruianu notes; like discarded and reused objects, they are a threat to ongoing, regional gentrification and therefore marginalized to impoverished peripheries.
Other relationships between people and their repurposed possessions exceed the obvious metaphorical value presented by the broken refrigerator. Discarding and repurposing have rhetorical implications that make clear the privilege involved in throwing anything away. Guruianu and Andrievskikh argue that this privilege manifests differently across socially and economically diverse populations. Chapter 3, “Discarded Memory: History and Forgetting,” focuses on ruin photography, sometimes called “ruin porn,” which is photography of abandoned architecture that indulges aesthetics at the expense of history. Guruianu and Andrievskikh problematize this practice on the precept that ruins are abandoned things—they are an important component of collective memory. The consumer of ruin porn, however, sees “no sense of rupture or dislocation associated with the encounter—no explicit outpouring of nostalgia for an imagined past or a romanticized future ideal” (59). Guruianu calls ruin voyeurism a “subject-oriented ontology” because it privileges the act of beholding the thing over the thing itself (56). It is the act of looking-at that simultaneously frustrates, frightens, and fascinates the beholder.
I understand this subject-oriented ontology as a method for self-inspection. When I apply academic heuristics to anthropogenic crises, am I producing useful, critical work—or am I indulging in “ruin porn”? Left unchecked, I tend to privilege myself over the object of study. I don’t think Guruianu and Andrievskikh would hold this tendency against me, but they would want me to be aware of it as I trace my own ontobiographical connections with the world. A lesson I take from Afterlife is that I am necessarily imposing a constellation of my individual values that come from belief and memory onto the things that I “reuse” by studying. I am here, composing through my interactions with discarded things. The subject-oriented ontology is pervasive.
Of course, I also operate within global circumstances that dictate aspects of my relationship to objects. Afterlife accounts for the larger context by considering ideological identities of populations, countries, individuals. Guruianu and Andrievskikh link capitalism, recycling, and shame as they show how objects are preserved or repurposed. Chapter 6, “Recycling: Guilt, Fetish, or Necessity?” explores recycling as theory and then as a phenomenon linked to cultural identity. Recycling, Guruianu writes, complicates the life of an object as it is defined by its original purpose, demarcating its existence through transitions and repurpose. Recycled objects “[help] us shape our narratives and further [require] that we keep reusing them each time objects enter new stages of use” (131). Andrievskikh’s critique adds a distinctly capitalist dimension to recycling. She reads recycling programs as political constructs of government philosophies, citing Russia’s transition from a culture of reuse to one of fetishizing the new under the Putin regime (140). Cultural attitudes toward recycling are also linked to morality and guilt in individuals, often less a necessity than a rhetorical statement (144).
Guruianu and Andrievskikh elucidate a trend of coproduction between capitalist fetishization and increasing production of the digital. The ubiquity of technology and the digitalization of information that follows from it carries several threats to cultural and historical identities. First, because objects are repositories of memory, a decrease in personal objects (think toys, diaries, card collections) leads to a decrease in physical space for memory to occupy. Moreover, in the digital realm, everything exists in a perpetual present, threatening the value we derive from chronological orientation of objects (such as the order of a book). It begins to feel like Guruianu and Andrievskikh are adding to the potential for materialist anxiety. Here, as in the government reports that haunt my pedagogy, the individual seems diminished. But it is against these larger movements of capital-driven consumption and fetishization that the authors’ answer to an agentive form of composition begins to emerge. That answer is revision of the archive (216).
Public museums and government archives create hegemonic lines that both endorse and homogenize historical narratives. Personally curated collections, on the other hand, can disrupt such centers of power. In response to the loss of privacy, individuation, and the threat of destruction, Guruianu and Andrievskikh argue that we look inward, to the collections of material objects we gather around us and through which we understand something about ourselves. The items we choose to keep, often beyond their intended purpose, become our own museums. Andrievskikh relates this emphasis on personal identity to storytelling. I understand it as an open storying of ourselves—a place from which we might perform some sort of personal literature review or criticism of our relationships with our material nexus of objects. It is an opportunity not just to perform our identities, but to invent new interpretations of those identities as we do so.
This self-storying functions implicitly against the increased digitalization of the world, which Guruianu and Andrievskikh read as an ongoing act of violence against the private self. To them, the illusion of permanence (in the immortal digital) forces us to divest ourselves of the material components, which allow us to keep some things in a private realm. In the digital, all is public. Other arguments about this problem are ongoing in the work of Ashley Shew and William Odom et al. The topic also intersects with explorations of digital object value as in Daniel Orth et al. and Hyo Yoon Kang’s work on the implications of digitalization on the materiality of patent and invention. Guruianu and Andrievskikh add imminent catastrophe to this conversation, which they understand as a looming impermanence. Imminent catastrophe is a mentality; it is “[living] with the knowledge (and unfortunately the proof) that it could happen,” “it” being any number of existential threats (224). This individual conscientiousness of impending doom coalesces through proximity to objects in decay and strengthens our mortal identity. Because the individual as subject is now central to Afterlife’s argument, the authors address the destruction of the individual highlighted in new materialism studies. They differentiate their project most dramatically in their answer to the question of that destruction: yes, the world will kill us, probably with techno-capitalism, but this eventuality enriches our attachment to things. So indeed, the subject-oriented ontology that this book gives us might end up relieving the writer—and the act of composing—from cynicism.
As a compositionist and scholar of the Anthropocene, I am often a victim of hopelessness. I see both my words without a meaningful audience and my agency depleted in the shadow of impending cataclysm. I sometimes feel broken and hypocritical when I stand before a class of students and try to advocate for the importance of writing. Composition can seem trite and empty, and confronted with what may be a rightfully nihilistic generation, I feel like I have little to offer through my lessons on political agency or argumentation. Here, I think, is where The Afterlife of Discarded Objects helps me keep things in perspective. Imminent demise awaits us all, but it may also unite us all, and the act of composing under such circumstances is perhaps the most human thing we can do.
 In a project dealing with the materiality of memory and making direct reference to the losses of the Holocaust, the absence of reconciliation between the greater text and Heidegger’s politics is notable. His presence in Afterlife is limited to his materialist ontology and citation in other scholarly works.
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