Allison Turner

Society of Fellows in the Humanities
Columbia University

The Salvaging Disposition: Waste and the Novel Form

In my current book project, The Salvaging Disposition: Waste and the Novel Form, I locate the emergence of a modern sense of waste in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Baconian science and European colonialism began to conceive of the New World as an untapped spring of inexhaustible resources. Alongside this ideology of infinite growth, I argue that the period of early modernity also witnessed a surge of interest in the category of byproduct waste as a site of potential value. This new conception of waste—as salvageable byproduct—is at the heart of one of English literature’s earliest novels, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, whose central character famously sustains himself by fashioning an island habitation out of the wreckage that made him a castaway. My project follows this salvaging impulse in works that have long been associated with the rise of the novel. Rather than simply documenting the presence of waste materials in literary texts, I show that the novel itself emerged in this period as a form for managing the waste generated by a rapidly shifting economy. Across my chapters, I maintain that the rise of the novel is a series of experiments in waste management. I argue that salvaging, rather than property ownership, is the constitutive feature of modern identity.

Elaborating Waste

Multidisciplinary conversations have consistently animated my research and thinking. In 2017-18, I was the recipient (along with Hannah Eisler Burnett) of a Graduate Collaboration Grant from the Arts, Science, and Culture Initiative at the University of Chicago. Our project, “Elaborating Waste,” brought together literary and social-scientific analysis to explore obstacles to the fluid convertibility of waste. After a series of interviews and site visits, the project culminated in an installation that dramatized the epistemological and scalar challenges faced by Chicago’s wastewater treatment system.