Image source: Priscilla Bennett, 2015
This interview was conducted during Josh Reno’s visit to Washington University in St. Louis on March 23. The interviewer, Waseem-Ahmed Bin-Kasim, is a Mellon Sawyer graduate fellow.
Waseem-Ahmed Bin-Kasim: What is your current work?
Josh Reno: My current work, as you know, is about the U.S. military and the waste that is associated with it. And that really was inspired, specifically, by anthropologists who are doing research on the US military, namely Hugh Gusterson, Catherine Lutz, Joe Masco, Kenneth MacLeish, and others. I’ve been very interested in the ways in which they have done ethnography of the US through its military, and they've pointed out that this has been ignored by anthropologists for a very long time. As others have pointed out also, David Price, namely, this is partly because the US military and the security state funded anthropology for a very long time. The CIA, overtly and covertly, was funding a lot of anthropological projects. And I’ve always found it troubling that you would have, say, the US, this massive military machine, funding someone like Napoleon Chagnon to go to South America and then talk about how very violent this small indigenous group is. Meanwhile they are exploding nuclear weapons in the Pacific and preparing a war machine the likes of which we’ve never seen before. So who’s really the violent people? And that has always troubled me as an anthropologist, being aware of that dual side of anthropology. And then I thought, if I were to study this nation that’s permanently at war, how would I study it?
Because my interests are closer to environmental anthropology and political economy and STS I had to study this problem and these questions differently than these other anthropologists who I've been very inspired by. So what I do know, and what I have studied, is waste. And it just so happens that I discovered upon doing some preliminary research that waste is, of course, used all the time to talk about the US military by people in the military, by people in politics, and by regular people, ordinary folks. I was fascinated by this trope of waste, as it’s used in all these contexts, and then also about this problem of excess byproducts of the military industrial complex, of all the unconsumed, the enduring products that never got destroyed or used up in a way, and they are just lying in a desert, or they’re anchored in a river. The idea that we’ve built too big a military and now the evidence of that is starting to pile up around us I thought was an interesting problem, similar to some of the questions of my first book about how we are a society that’s accumulating a lot of stuff, and then trying to get rid of it, hide it, conceal it out of sight and creating these mountains of landfills all around us. There’s a similar problem that the military is engaged in, and so that was how it started. And it’s taken some directions I didn't expect, where I’ve also tried to explore ways in which the US military is also responsible for co-producing what some have called a “culture of militarism,” where a certain way of looking at violence as a solution to problems and military strength as an end to itself. I think that Mills in The Power Elite might have called this a military metaphysics. I thought that was an interesting idea in trying to see how the military has influenced ordinary life in different ways that we take for granted or don’t even realize. So that’s really the current book project.
“The idea that we’ve built too big a military and now the evidence of that is starting to pile up around us I thought was an interesting problem, similar to some of the questions of my first book about how we are a society that’s accumulating a lot of stuff, and then trying to get rid of it, hide it, conceal it out of sight and creating these mountains of landfills all around us.”
WB: This is fascinating. You just mentioned, this idea about how waste is created from your first work. And this dimension you bring to it, about form, and how terms are meant to change, but the fact that we try to prevent this change from happening. I was really fascinated by that when we read your work. Which brings me to the second question: What does the term ‘waste’ evoke for you?
JR: Because my background is more in environmental anthropology, and honestly my background is in environmentalism — that’s how I was raised, that was a big part growing up, I grew up in the woods — I sort of think of things ecologically. And so, when I think of waste, my first thought is not just industrial waste or industrial pollution or something, but also the fact that for living things waste is part of being alive. And I think some people in discard studies would prefer to have waste refer only to acts of slow violence, of toxic pollution, of industrial devastation. I think that’s certainly what waste evokes for me, but it also evokes things that have to happen, and would have to happen for living processes to continue on as they are. So I tend to see waste in a more holistic way as normal part of processes of life, and becoming, and I think that’s what it evokes for me. When I look at, say, the military industrial complex, I think about waste that would happen — and just to give you an example, one of the primary criticisms of the US military is the wars they do engage in and the devastation that is wrought by the US military. That needs to be critiqued and that needs to be discussed, but one of the points in my book is the implicit assumption that if the US military engaged in war the right way there wouldn’t be wasteful devastation; or if it picked the right wars, there wouldn’t be wasteful use of resources. My argument is slightly different: that even the military existing, without even engaging in violence and traumatizing soldiers and civilians and destroying environments, even them just preparing for wars they never fight is wasteful. When I think about waste, I try to look not only at the spectacular forms of waste that are the clearest examples of waste, but also more subtle forms of waste that we ignore and take for granted, the waste that is created regardless of how good or bad our wars are.
“When I think about waste, I try to look not only at the spectacular forms of waste that are the clearest examples of waste, but also more subtle forms of waste that we ignore and take for granted, the waste that is created regardless of how good or bad our wars are.”
WB: What are some of the practical and intellectual challenges of the field site in which you work?
JR: So the practical challenges included working in a multi-sited way that I haven't done before — not exactly. I’ve done a little, but not to this extent. We did some research in Binghamton where I work and live, but also in the Florida Keys, Tucson, Arizona, Wisconsin, and this kind of jumping around to different locations, following where the story is, where the people are, is hard to do by yourself. So for the first time I had a research assistant, Priscilla Bennett, who’s an excellent graduate student in our department, and she helped me with some of that research, working in different sites, and we’re co-authoring two of the chapters of the book, which I’ve also not done before. I’ve co-authored things, but not chapters of a book; that’s been really rewarding, and that is really a logistical challenge. I’m trying to, in a period of time, follow a certain number of leads, and do interviews and observation. So that was a new practical challenge for me.
As far as an intellectual challenge, when I was studying landfills, I had to read some sanitary engineering and I interviewed a couple people in sciences, but there just was very little written. I was seeking out material because there was so little written. I was reading archaeology to find people talking about dumps basically, but in anthropology, when I was doing my fieldwork and dissertation and my book, it still was less common. There’s more and more work like your own which is being written now, which is great. With the military it is the exact opposite, there is an endless amount of material written. And every time I think I’ve got a handle on some dimension of military history or military economics or military ecology, every turn somebody I come across — that’s why I dread going to talks like this sometimes, because I just know someone’s going to say, “Have you read this…?”, and I’ll add yet another thing to my list, which is fine, it’s wonderful really. But the intellectual challenge is, frankly, finding something new to say when so much has been written, and wonderful stuff has been written. And even, I thought, well my angle will be looking at military waste, and there’s an entire book I stumbled across by Peter Custers, Questioning Globalized Militarism (2007), who I mentioned in my talk, and I mention him every chance I get because I don’t think people are aware of his work. He basically takes Marx’s second volume of capital and the circuit of capital that Marx focuses on and then applies that to military industry in the US. It’s sort of a brilliant and bizarre analysis, but it’s absolutely taking the waste and the military and putting them together and seeing what you can do with that.
At first it was nerve-wracking but I’ve gotten used to this now, of being out of my depth and knowing that I’m contributing a tiny thing to a much larger discourse. I’m happy to make my tiny contribution, whatever value it has, but that was definitely an intellectual challenge. When doing work on landfills in anthropology, people would sort of cock their eyebrows and say, “How do you even combine those two?”, whereas if you say you’re doing a book on US military they think of it in association with several other great books that have already been written. So that’s a new intellectual challenge. The other thing I guess I’d say is that it’s always an intellectual challenge to study a different scientific or technical process that you have to learn. So for this I chose to learn about astronomy and about orbital space debris, I had to learn a bit about aeronautics and flight and I had to learn a bit about marine biology, so each research site and each chapter requires that I dive into, sometimes literally, a research topic, which I enjoy, but is also intellectually challenging because it’s somewhat wide-ranging.
WB: That reminds me, there is this historical aspect of your last book, Waste Away, which inspired me to think about the next project that I’m thinking about, about historicizing some wasteland in Accra or Nairobi, when I’m done with my current project. I know you briefly touched on this, but what are the practical and intellectual challenges associated with waste itself, the materials that you work with?
JR: So the challenge this time really has been to remind myself and try and remind other people that the things we are dealing with are waste. Because the strong desire on the part of a number of my informants, I would say most of them, has been to reclaim something. With orbital space debris, for example, when you activate a dead satellite—Oscar 7 is one I mention in the book is a communication satellite that was thought dead, it was thought to be space debris, it was successfully reactivated, well re-discovered, it was already active and people started communicating with it again. So basically something that was space debris, was waste, now is not. What we always thought was waste is not waste, it suddenly switches. And there’s a kind of an engineering ethos for a lot of the people that waste is something that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to and doesn’t do something for you, whereas if it’s serving its function, it’s of course not waste. Something is waste if it’s not serving its function. For a lot of the engineers and technicians I talk to, that is how they think about waste. Similarly, the chapter where I deal with mass shootings, I was surprised by how it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to make that seem like a kind of waste or excess that’s produced by a militarized culture. In some cases, that’s very direct, because there’s excess weaponry that is produced partly because of the military industrial complex. But also there are people who, since the beginning of school shootings of the ‘90s, have been talking about this massive military that’s always at war and the fact that we have also occasionally very violent eruptions in our public space. So that was similarly reminding myself to think of this as a kind of waste because there are so many narratives that will happily take you away from thinking of that connection — which is a loose connection, but is a connection I think is worth meditating on. And that’s why I’m putting it in a book, where some of the connections are more obvious, because I want to encourage people to imagine the connections they might not see. So the intellectual challenge there, and the intellectual challenge of waste for me, is about connections that might not be obvious or connections you might not see. In the talk yesterday Vasiliki [Touhouliotis] described it as the relationship between the invisible and the visible; I think that’s a great way of putting it. And what I like about waste is that is also a lever or a tool to flip the visible/invisible relationship and make some things evident that weren’t before. But that’s intellectually challenging when you’re writing; it’s also intellectually challenging when you’re doing the research.
“the intellectual challenge there, and the intellectual challenge of waste for me, is about connections that might not be obvious or connections you might not see.”
WB: What role, if any, has collaboration played in your research and writing?
JR: So I mentioned recently working with a graduate student, and in a way I was sort of alarmed that I hadn’t done this before, but I think this might be the tendency. I used to joke, psychologists tend to focus on the individual, they focus on the mind, they focus on the personality, they focus on individual, atomized people, but when they do research they collaborate in huge groups. They write papers with 10, 12, 6 people writing the project each time. Anthropologists, of course, we celebrate individuals and collectives and huge groups and one person writing the project is the tendency. There’s this perverse way in which we valorize the individual more than any other discipline, certainly any other discipline that calls itself a science, that collaboration is sometimes avoided because there’s this desire to be the sole author, the sole researcher, and have sole credit. It’s not just desire, it’s institutionally pressed upon you. As you know, if you’re a PhD student, that’s the expectation — that you will do the research, you will do the writing, you will come back and have your dissertation. That’s always sort of puzzled me because I started in psychology, so I never quite understood why; and there are subfields of anthropology, like archaeology, or biological anthropology, where they do a lot more collaboration. So typically when we, when you and I talk about collaboration, we mean collaborating in some kind of a larger project where we both have our own sides in it that we can control, like our mini-fiefdom. Or we mean we co-author something. And typically it’s no more than two people, sometimes more, that’s important. So I’ve done some co-authoring of things. I think because I had a positive graduate school experience at the University of Michigan, I made a lot of connections with scholars; we were sort of all young and passionate and foolish and we all sort of all had ambitions, and we haven’t lost those connections. So I’m surprised by how often I’m finding myself collaborating on panels, on papers, on different projects, that are at different stages of completion — it’s a really constantly enriching source of collaborative excitement going back to that well of people who I was in graduate school with. And I didn’t know that was part of the academic experience, maybe it’s just our graduate program. Maybe we just had an unusually close bond, maybe it was more like a cult, I don’t know. I don’t really think it was a cult, that was meant to be a joke, but in any case, that has been a source of collaboration for me really since graduate school. And then more recently I have tried to collaborate more with people who are, for lack of a better word, junior to me — PhD students or postdocs, or young scholars who could use another publication or we have a common interest that we wouldn’t be able to realize separately, but we can work together. It’s not that I’ve sought that out, it’s that it’s a kind of collaboration that hadn’t been available to me before because I was junior, and now that I have tenure, I’ve tried to look for productive forms of collaboration that are productive also pragmatically for the people I’m collaborating with.
Now, the collaboration I have not done, and have struggled to do, is collaborative ethnography in the actual field with the people I’ve worked with. I have tried to get people to co-author something with me or to help shape the project. People have shaped the project in various ways, in different moments. Usually I say this in my writing when it’s happened — I remember one Welsh farmer I was interviewing, who said, “Here’s a PDF you should look at that explains the whole market we’re talking about.” That was really helpful and I included it in the article, so that kind of collaboration usually happens, where people are guiding you. I don’t know if it’s the people I work with, because usually it’s people in engineering or science and technology backgrounds, maybe they don’t think of themselves as having a writerly voice. This I do know, a lot of the people I work with, they don’t have for themselves a goal of writing something. Not only is it something they’re not good at, it’s not something they desire. So I haven’t pushed too hard.
“Anthropologists, of course, we celebrate individuals and collectives and huge groups and one person writing the project is the tendency. There’s this perverse way in which we valorize the individual more than any other discipline, certainly any other discipline that calls itself a science, that collaboration is sometimes avoided because there’s this desire to be the sole author, the sole researcher, and have sole credit. It’s not just desire, it’s institutionally pressed upon you.”
WB: What role do you imagine for the interdisciplinary field of the environmental humanities today and in the future?
JR: My personal take is that—because my background is very much in environment and ecology—there are no humanities without the environment, by which I mean I think any humanities’ focus that claims to not be environmental is environmental but in a way that they’re ignoring or denying. So I think about, for example, a conversation I had recently with a PhD student who was talking about studying literary canons and what gets promoted and doesn’t, and we were talking about books that fail and how, the way we framed it together, was that the cultural products that are seen as transcendent or that are important, so that someone could say, “I’m a Shakespeare expert,” or “I’m a Don Delillo expert,” are only prominent because other traditions, other books, other literal material things have fallen by the wayside, and maybe have literally been thrown away. And this is easy for me to imagine in terms of waste because that’s my way of thinking about things, but this is just to say that every cultural product is a creation of environmental practices and interactions. The paper came from somewhere, the people that assembled the book or the machines that did, came from somewhere, have specific lives in particular places. The people who read them and are inspired by them are living in particular places in particular sites. And then the ones that aren't inspired or are ignored and neglected by everyone, it’s the same thing. So I think that any humanities operation studying any cultural product is relying on environmental practices and environmental assumptions. And then if they don’t call themselves the environmental humanities that doesn’t mean the environment isn’t involved, it’s just involved in a different way and in an unrecognized way, this is my bias. So I would challenge anyone who thinks they’re not doing environmental humanities to show how it’s not environmental, because I fail to see how anything is not in some way. And then I think the reverse to that as well, to say, similarly, environmental studies always involves the humanities. The two need each other.
“I would challenge anyone who thinks they’re not doing environmental humanities to show how it’s not environmental, because I fail to see how anything is not in some way. And then I think the reverse to that as well, to say, similarly, environmental studies always involves the humanities. The two need each other.”
I’ve spent quite a lot of time talking with people who do environmental forms of management, who deal with environmental policy or environmental planning, and they are, all of them, consuming meaningful cultural products, aware of histories and of poetic ways of thinking, they all have imaginations. All of them are engaging with what we think of as the humanities in the larger sense, and those are informing how they do environmental science, environmental management, and if they don't talk about it, it’s because they're concealing it or hiding it or ignoring it. So I think the two mutually imply one another, and it’s only recently that we’ve acknowledged their necessary connection. But I think it is a necessary connection, and I think, to use Latourian terms, it’s a sort of purification that says that “over here we do arts and letters,” and “over here is where we do real ecological management,” but that the two have always been involved with each other and the most successful environmental or ecological tropes of all time have drawn on poetic imagery. You think of Crutzen’s Anthropocene. The reason that Anthropocene has stuck around is because it’s evocative, because it has a poetry to it. It isn’t a purely an ecological concept, or a natural sciences concept. And similarly, any humanities that are worth anything are at least in part about setting and bodily movement, and various meaningful histories. I think that environmental historians have pointed out how you can’t have history that doesn't include the environment to a certain extent. I don't know if radical is the right word, but I know some people will call foul — but in the future, saying environmental humanities would sound like a redundancy, because the two would always imply each other. And I think that’s not only where we could go, I think that’s where we need to go.
“in the future, saying environmental humanities would sound like a redundancy, because the two would always imply each other. And I think that’s not only where we could go, I think that’s where we need to go.”