Knocking Through

Bernard Williams

  • Rubbish Theory by Michael Thompson
    Oxford, 229 pp, £7.50, July 1979, ISBN 0 19 217658 7

The author of this book was once a builder, working particularly for the ‘knockers through’, as he calls them, who turn two rooms into one in terrace houses and make other well-known changes to convert a collapsing slum into a thing of pride and a joy for ever. Thompson’s sharp descriptions of these operations, and of the contrasts between the attitudes of those who own these gentrified residences and their working-class neighbours, who regard few of their possessions as things of pride or joy, and certainly not for ever, offer some of the few enjoyable passages in the book. They also contain one of the main ideas for it.

The idea is that what was originally regarded as a transient object – something which would last for a limited time, and then wear out – can make a transition into a durable object, regarded as lasting, theoretically, for ever; and that it makes this transition by passing through the category of rubbish, in which an object has no value at all. This category is at certain points said to be covert or invisible, which seems sometimes to mean that the category, or at least its operation in the system, is hidden from us, and sometimes (even less plausibly) that the objects in it are unnoticed. Slums are rubbish housing. Another example worked out to illustrate the idea is that of Stevengraphs, a kind of popular Victorian woven picture which sold for small sums in the 19th century and then disappeared from the market, until, by a familiar modern process, they were ‘discovered’, and now fetch large prices, have a written history, and so on. They are nearing the state in which they can fly out of the top of the exchange system altogether, and enter the ultimate reserve of durability – a museum.

The transition from transient to rubbish to durable is said to happen only in that direction. Nothing changes, for instance, from durable to rubbish, or gets from transience to durability without passing through rubbish. These results are protected against counter-examples largely by definition.

This structure, and the changes that occur within it, are then related to systems of social control. ‘Those people near the top have the power to make things durable and to make things transient, so they can ensure that their own objects are always durable and that those of others are always transient.’ Just as there was a doubt whether rubbish is invisible, or unthinkable, or both, it is not clear what it is, according to Thompson, that people near the top can determine: whether it is the actual pattern of ownership, or, rather, the way in which society thinks about the things that people happen to own. Having said that ‘slumminess is imposed by the social system,’ Thompson seems to be arguing with himself whether this means (or principally means) that the social system keeps itself going by creating what are indeed slums, or, alternatively, that ‘slum’ is a classification which the system allows the powerful to apply to whatever buildings it suits their interests to apply it to.

The theory next incorporates the notions of production and consumption. ‘Consumption’ is treated in a puzzling way; and certainly not as it is used in economics. Transient objects are ‘consumed’ when they are used up; rubbish is said to be ‘consumed’ when it is disposed of or processed, as in a sewage farm. Durables cannot be ‘consumed’. A certain amount of paradox flowing from the assumption that VAT is a tax on consumption – which, with ‘consumption’ used like this, it clearly is not – leads to reflections on art-objects, the resistance of artists to their works being treated as items of commerce, and so on. The structure of rubbish theory adds nothing to these ideas, and actually makes it harder for them to register their impact. The distinction between the transient and the durable is very poorly related to the distinction between what does and what does not have a market price, with the result that his vocabulary does not even help Thompson to make clearly a good point which, I think, he wants to make: that the attempted escape to auto-destructive or otherwise transient art-products will probably leave the artist still trapped within the commercial system.

At this stage of the book, rubbish theory, in its own name, steps back, and we turn to applications of catastrophe theory, a branch of mathematics developed by René. Thom which provides descriptions of sudden and discontinous changes. This is applied to a supposed cycle, suggested by Basil Bernstein, between a ‘collection curriculum’ in institutions of education, which consists of self-sufficient and separate subjects, and an ‘integrated curriculum’ which does not. The first of these is associated with authoritarian arrangements and Louis Dumont’s homo hierarchicus; the latter with democratic arrangements and homo aequalis. They are expressed, indeed, in different styles of architecture: ‘collection curriculum architecture emphasises the vertical; integrated curriculum architecture emphasises the horizontal.’ Even the undemanding reader who is nodding these assertions into his mind and out again may be held up by the next one: ‘the most complete and perfect example of the former is the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford: a Parthenon-in-the-round, presenting a perfect façade in all directions.’ The circle of the Radcliffe Camera, like the colour circle, one might have expected to serve rather well as an emblem of the opposite thing, curricular integration. I suspect that there must be something about its age or place that inhibits Thompson from working his trick the other way round.

Catastrophe theory provides a geometrical model for the sudden collapse of ‘boundary maintenance’ between subjects, so a collective curriculum under stress turns suddenly into an integrated curriculum – leaving, it seems, a mess, out of which people have to crawl back into a new collective curriculum. No evidence is mentioned that this cycle in curricula actually occurs, let alone that the particular set of psychological motivations invoked to explain it are relevant. We come out from Thompson’s wonder tunnel of three-dimensional graphs clutching no more than the recognition that if curricula developed, for any reason, in a cycle that involved sudden collapse, then catastrophe theory, the theory of sudden collapse, could be used to describe that cycle. Three minutes inside the Radcliffe Camera, or outside it, can give better rewards.

How the two main characters of this book, rubbish theory and catastrophe theory, are related to one another, is a question that is never discussed. The book ends with the modest claim that these theories will enable us to handle both persistence and change, both evolution and revolution, will substitute the ‘Heracleitean hypothesis’ for the ‘cartesian’, and, together, will ‘allow us to embrace a less repressive style in which problems give way to capabilities’.

There is, indeed, one substantial piece of theoretical work in the book: one chapter which offers what might be a contentful and interesting explanation of what is said to be a genuine social phenomenon. This is an explanation of a complex cyclical interchange of pigs and pork between tribes in New Guinea. However, this is done largely with some ideas from Keynesian economics: it uses catastrophe theory only in a marginal way, and it has nothing to do with rubbish theory at all. That section apart, this book contains virtually no serious intellectual work at all. There is no such thing as rubbish theory. There is just a bright perception, taken up from the surface of our culture, which might have made a jokey article. As a phenomenon, however, the book is striking: it combines in a very obvious and concentrated form all the most poisonous features of bad social science.

There is, first of all, a pervasive methodological mess: general statements which may or may not be tautologies; supposed paradoxes or ‘contradictions’ which are only the product of some unquestioned and idiotic assumption; vague assimilations of one thing to another, presented as theoretical discoveries of great abstractness and rigour. Mere rubbish, however, as Thompson himself insists, should not be saleable. What may give all this some popular appeal is something else: a pervasive knowingness, self-deprecating in tone, but suggesting at the same time a large and dangerous daring. Masks are being removed, threatening truths revealed, and a conspiracy of misdirection thwarted.

There is a particular trick which is used at several points to create this effect of risky revelation. It is one possible and appropriate aim of social science to provide a sociology of belief. From the starting-point that beliefs are to an important degree socially determined – something more widely recognised and more deeply discussed than Thompson seems to realise – he moves, usually in one sentence, to the suggestion that beliefs are politically determined, and serve some class or similar interest: with a flick of the wrist he manages to insinuate something hard-working Marxists are still struggling to define and establish.

The idea that beliefs are socially determined has well-known reflexive problems: what of the theory itself that reveals the determination? Much thought has been given to that question, from Hegel and Marx onwards. You would not gather that here. The witness to the problem, in Thompson’s text, is rather a characteristic tone: self-deprecatingly aware, at some points, of its environment, while vastly ambitious, at others, in transcending that environment; sometimes reflexively and tolerantly relativistic, elsewhere condescending, deflating and snide. It is the tone of much contemporary writing about society.

I have entertained the idea, and not utterly rejected it, that this book is a brilliant parody, a perceptive send-up of the most degraded kinds of social theorising. If so, it is too long, but marvellous. However, I fear that that is probably not so: if not, there must be some other explanation of how the book came to be so concentratedly what it is. It may have something to do with Thompson’s experiences as a renovating builder. Writing about those, he is noticeably uneasy, as well as condescending, towards his customers. He tends to fall back on the easy case where they can be despised for their taste, for putting in the wrong doors and fireplaces. But there must have been some, and he shows that there were, who made genuinely decent houses out of slums; at the same time, their relation to the neighbourhood, and to the social process in which they were all embedded, was much the same whatever their taste, and made him (and no doubt many of them) uneasy. He helped them to do these things, and was paid to do so; reflecting on the process, he was, very understandably, ambivalent about it.

Later, when he was lecturing in social science – probably, to infer from the book, to art students – he had new customers, keen to knock through the last distinctions in the decaying intellectual terrace. They must have multiplied his ambivalence in several dimensions at once. In this case, he was himself required to inhabit the terrace; moreover, he had no means of telling which was a load-bearing wall. His book is perhaps best heard as a cry, aggressive but still ambivalent, from under the rubble.