Compost Epistemology

This was a child born for sympoiesis—for becoming-with and making-with a motley clutch of earth others. —Donna J. Haraway


“However monological the utterance may be (for example, a scientific or philosophical treatise), however much it may concentrate on its own object, it cannot but be, in some measure, a response to what has already been said about the given topic, on the given issue, even though this responsiveness may not have assumed a clear-cut external expression. It will be manifested in the overtones of the style, in the finest nuances of the composition. The utterance is filled with dialogic overtones, and they must be taken into account in order to understand fully the style of the utterance. After all, our thought itself—philosophical, scientific, and artistic—is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others’ thought, and this cannot but be reflected in the forms that verbally express our thought as well.”1

“Dialogic boundaries intersect the entire field of living human thought … dialogic relations are always present, even among profoundly monologic speech works.”2

“The exact sciences constitute a monologic form of knowledge: the intellect contemplates a thing and expounds upon it. There is only one subject here—cognizing (contemplating) and speaking (expounding). In opposition to the subject there is only a voiceless thing. Any object of knowledge (including man) can be perceived and cognized as a thing. But a subject as such cannot be perceived and studied as a thing, for as a subject it cannot, while remaining a subject, become voiceless, and, consequently, cognition of it can only be dialogic.”3

“The problem of the boundaries between text and context. Each word (each sign) of the text exceeds its boundaries. Any understanding is a correlation of a given text with other texts. Commentary. The dialogic nature of this correlation … Understanding as correlation with other texts and reinterpretation, in a new context (in my own context, in a contemporary context, and in a future one). The anticipated context of the future: a sense that I am taking a new step (have progressed). Stages in the dialogic movement of understanding: the point of departure, the given text; movement backward, past contexts; movement forward, anticipation (and the beginning) of a future context.”4

“If we transform dialogue into one continuous text, that is, erase the divisions between voices (changes of speaking subjects), which is possible at the extreme (Hegel’s monological dialectic), then the deep-seated (infinite) contextual meaning disappears (we hit the bottom, reach a standstill). Complete maximum reification would inevitably lead to the disappearance of the infinitude and bottomlessness of meaning (any meaning). A thought that, like a fish in an aquarium, knocks against the bottom and the sides and cannot swim farther or deeper. Dogmatic thoughts.”5

“Thought knows only conditional points; thought erodes all previously established points. The elucidation of a text not by means of other texts (contexts) but with extratextual thinglike (reified) reality. This usually takes place in biographical, vulgar sociological and causal explanations (in the spirit of the natural sciences) and also in depersonalized historicity (‘a history without names’).”6

“The process of gradual obliteration of authors as bearers of others’ words. Others’ words become anonymous and are assimilated (in reworked form, of course); consciousness is monologized. Primary dialogic relations to others’ words are also obliterated—they are, as it were, taken in, absorbed into assimilated others’ words (passing through the stage of ‘one’s own/others’ words’). Creative consciousness, when monologized, is supplemented by anonymous authors.”7

“Monologized creative consciousness frequently joins and personifies others’ words, others’ voices that have become anonymous, in special symbols: ‘the voice of life itself,’ ‘the voice of nature,’ ‘the voice of the people,’ ‘the voice of God,’ and so forth. The role of the authoritative word in this process, which usually does not lose its bearer, does not become anonymous.”8


“A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l’ordre du jour—and that day is Judgment Day.”9

“His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”10

“The ragpicker is the most provocative figure of human misery. ‘Ragtag’ <Lumpenproletarier> in a double sense: clothed in rags and occupied with rags. ‘Here we have a man whose job it is to pick up the day’s rubbish in the capital. He collects and catalogues everything that the great city has cast off, everything it has lost and discarded, and broken. He goes through the archives of debauchery, and the jumbled array of refuse. He makes a selection, an intelligent choice; like a miser hoarding treasure, he collects the garbage that will become objects of utility or pleasure when refurbished by industrial magic’ … As may be gathered from this prose description of 1851, Baudelaire recognizes himself in the figure of the ragman. The poem presents a further affinity with the poet, immediately noted as such: ‘a ragpicker stumbles past, wagging his head / and bumping into walls with a poet’s grace, / pouring out his heartfelt schemes to one / and all, including spies of the police.’”11

“Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse—these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.”12

“A model of Fourierist psychology in Toussenel’s chapter on the wild boar. ‘Now, surrounding the dwellings of humanity are great quantities of broken glass bottles, rusty nails, and candle ends, which would be completely lost to society if some careful and intelligent hand did not charge itself with the collection of all these valueless relics, to reconstruct out of them a mass susceptible of being reworked and made fit for consumption again. This important task evidently belongs among the attributes of the miser…. Here the character and mission of the miser perceptibly rise: the pinch-penny becomes a ragpicker, a salvage operator…. The hog is the great salvager of nature; he fattens at nobody’s expense.’”13

“Student and hunter. The text is a forest in which the reader is hunter. Rustling in the underbrush—the idea, skittish prey, the citation—another piece ‘in the bag’ (Not every reader encounters the idea.)”14

de Certeau

“It is true that the Expert is growing more common in this society, to the point of becoming its generalized figure, distended between the exigency of a growing specialization and that of a communication that has become all the more necessary. He blots out (and in a certain way replaces) the Philosopher, formerly the specialist of the universal. But his success is not so terribly spectacular. In him, the productivist law that requires a specific assignment (the condition of efficiency) and the social law that requires circulation (the form of exchange) enter into contradiction. To be sure, a specialist is more and more often driven to also be an Expert, that is, an interpreter and translator of his competence for other fields. That is obvious even within the laboratories themselves: as soon as decisions regarding objectives, promotions, or financing are to be made, the Experts intervene ‘in the name of’—but outside of—their particular experience. How do they succeed in moving from their technique—a language they have mastered and which regulates their discourse—to the more common language of another situation? They do it through a curious operation which ‘converts’ competence into authority.”15

“Authority is indissociable from an ‘abuse of knowledge’—and in this fact we ought perhaps to recognize the effect of the social law that divests the individual of his competence in order to establish (or re-establish) the capital of a collective competence, that is, of a common verisimilitude.”16

“Since he cannot limit himself to talking about what he knows, the Expert pronounces on the basis of the place that his specialty has won for him. In that way he inscribes himself and is inscribed in a common order where specialization, as the rule and hierarchically ordering practice of the productivist economy, has the value of initiation. Because he has successfully submitted himself to this initiatory practice, he can, on questions foreign to his technical competence but not to the power he has acquired through it, pronounce with authority a discourse which is no longer a function of knowledge, but rather a function of the socioeconomic order.”17

“The resurgence of ‘popular’ practices within industrial and scientific modernity indicates the paths that might be taken by a transformation of the object of our study and the place from which we study it.”18

“Take, for example, what in France is called la perruque, ‘the wig.’ La perruque is the worker’s own work disguised as work for his employer. It differs from pilfering in that nothing of material value is stolen. It differs from absenteeism in that the worker is officially on the job. La perruque may be as simple a matter as a secretary’s writing a love letter on ‘company time’ or as complex as a cabinetmaker’s ‘borrowing’ a lathe to make a piece of furniture for his living room. Under different names in different countries this phenomenon is becoming more and more general, even if managers penalize it or ‘turn a blind eye’ on it in order not to know about it. Accused of stealing or turning material to his own ends and using the machines for his own profit, the worker who indulges in la perruque actually diverts time (not goods, since he uses only scraps) from the factory for work that is free, creative, and precisely not directed toward profit. In the very place where the machine he must serve reigns supreme, he cunningly takes pleasure in finding a way to create gratuitous products whose sole purpose is to signify his own capabilities through his work and to confirm his solidarity with other workers or his family through spending his time in this way.”19

“Far from being a regression toward a mode of production organized around artisans or individuals, la perruque reintroduces ‘popular’ techniques of other times and other places into the industrial space (that is, into the Present order).”20

“The actual order of things is precisely what ‘popular’ tactics turn to their own ends, without any illusion that it will change any time soon. Though elsewhere it is exploited by a dominant power or simply denied by an ideological discourse, here order is tricked by an art. Into the institution to be served are thus insinuated styles of social exchange, technical invention, and moral resistance, that is, an economy of the ‘gift’ (generosities for which one expects a return), an esthetics of ‘tricks’ (artists’ operations) and an ethics of tenacity (countless ways of refusing to accord the established order the status of a law, a meaning, or a fatality). ‘Popular’ culture is precisely that; it is not a corpus considered as foreign, fragmented in order to be displayed, studied and ‘quoted’ by a system which does to objects what it does to living beings.”21

“In scholarly writing, it is nothing other than the return of the voices through which the social body ‘speaks’ in quotations, sentence fragments, the tonalities of ‘words,’ the sounds things make … Through the legends and phantoms whose audible citations continue to haunt everyday life, one can maintain a tradition of the body, which is heard but not seen. These are the reminiscences of bodies lodged in ordinary language and marking its path, like white pebbles dropped through the forest of signs. An amorous experience, ultimately. Incised into the prose of the passage from day to day, without any possible commentary or translation, the poetic sounds of quoted fragments remain.”22

“These quotations of voices mark themselves on an everyday prose that can only produce some of their effects—in the form of statements and practices.”23

“Far from being writers—founders of their own place, heirs of the peasants of earlier ages now working on the soil of language, diggers of wells and builders of houses—readers are travellers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write … Reading takes no measures against the erosion of time (one forgets oneself and also forgets), it does not keep what it acquires, or it does so poorly, and each of the places through which it passes is a repetition of the lost paradise.”24

“We should try to rediscover the movements of this reading within the body itself, which seems to stay docile and silent but mines the reading in its own way: from the nooks of all sorts of ‘reading rooms’ (including lavatories) emerge subconscious gestures, grumblings, tics, stretchings, rustlings, unexpected noises, in short a wild orchestration of the body.”25


“For, in truth, there is no ignoramus who does not already know a mass of things, who has not learnt them by herself, by listening and looking around her, by observation and repetition, by being mistaken and correcting her errors.”26

“The human animal learns everything in the same way as it initially learnt its mother tongue, as it learnt to venture into the forest of things and signs surrounding it, so as to take its place among human beings: by observing and comparing one thing with another, a sign with a fact, a sign with another sign.”27

“From this ignoramus, spelling out signs, to the scientist who constructs hypotheses, the same intelligence is always at work—an intelligence that translates signs into other signs and proceeds by comparisons and illustrations in order to communicate its intellectual adventures and understand what another intelligence is endeavouring to communicate to it.”28

“The distance the ignoramus has to cover is not the gulf between her ignorance and the schoolmaster’s knowledge. It is simply the path from what she already knows to what she does not yet know, but which she can learn just as she has learnt the rest; which she can learn not in order to occupy the position of the scholar, but so as better to practise the art of translating, of putting her experience into words and her words to the test; of translating her intellectual adventures for others and counter-translating the translations of their own adventures which they present to her.”29

“She observes, selects, compares, interprets. She links what she sees to a host of other things that she has seen on other stages, in other kinds of place. She composes her own poem with the elements of the poem before her. She participates in the performance by refashioning it in her own way.”30

“There is no more a privileged form than there is a privileged starting point. Everywhere there are starting points, intersections and junctions that enable us to learn something new if we refuse, firstly, radical distance, secondly the distribution of roles, and thirdly the boundaries between territories.”31

Harney and Moten

“Before there are grants, research, conferences, books, and journals there is the experience of being taught and of teaching. Before the research post with no teaching, before the graduate students to mark the exams, before the string of sabbaticals, before the permanent reduction in teaching load, the appointment to run the Center, the consignment of pedagogy to a discipline called education, before the course designed to be a new book, teaching happened.”32

“The moment of teaching for food is therefore often mistakenly taken to be a stage, as if eventually one should not teach for food. If the stage persists, there is a social pathology in the university. But if the teaching is successfully passed on, the stage is surpassed, and teaching is consigned to those who are known to remain in the stage, the sociopathological labor of the university. Kant interestingly calls such a stage ‘self-incurred minority.’ He tries to contrast it with having the ‘determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another.’ ‘Have the courage to use your own intelligence.’ But what would it mean if teaching or rather what we might call ‘the beyond of teaching’ is precisely what one is asked to get beyond, to stop taking sustenance? And what of those minorities who refuse, the tribe of moles who will not come back from beyond (that which is beyond ‘the beyond of teaching’), as if they will not be subjects, as if they want to think as objects, as minority? Certainly, the perfect subjects of communication, those successfully beyond teaching, will see them as waste.”33

“The waste lives for those moments beyond teaching when you give away the unexpected beautiful phrase—unexpected, no one has asked, beautiful, it will never come back.”34

“What the beyond of teaching is really about is not finishing oneself, not passing, not completing; it’s about allowing subjectivity to be unlawfully overcome by others, a radical passion and passivity such that one becomes unfit for subjection, because one does not possess the kind of agency that can hold the regulatory forces of subjecthood, and one cannot initiate the auto-interpellative torque that biopower subjection requires and rewards.”35

“They study in the university and the university forces them under, relegates them to the state of those without interests, without credit, without debt that bears interest, that earns credits. They never graduate. They just ain’t ready.”36

“Here they meet those others who dwell in a different compulsion, in the same debt, a distance, forgetting, remembered again but only after. These other ones carry bags of newspaper clippings, or sit at the end of the bar, or stand at the stove cooking, or sit on a box at the newsstand, or speak through bars, or speak in tongues. These other ones have a passion to tell you what they have found, and they are surprised you want to listen, even though they’ve been expecting you. Sometimes the story is not clear, or it starts in a whisper. It goes around again but listen, it is funny again, every time. This knowledge has been degraded, and the research rejected. They can’t get access to books, and no one will publish them. Policy has concluded they are conspiratorial, heretical, criminal, amateur. Policy says they can’t handle debt and will never get credit. But if you listen to them they will tell you: we will not handle credit, and we cannot handle debt, debt flows through us, and there’s no time to tell you everything, so much bad debt, so much to forget and remember again.”37


“Things and phenomena used to surround us. Today it seems they threaten us in ghostly form, as unruly scraps that refuse to go away or persist even after vanishing into the air.”38

“We have witnessed the realm of waste assume vast dimensions. Now it encompasses whatever resists assimilation—the banished, the unusable and the useless … Waste, according to the dictionary, refers to what is cast off when something is made.”39

“Social energy produces waste; it generates zones of exclusion where the proletariat, popular culture, the squalid and the immoral pile up in a jumble—the devalued ensemble of what one cannot bear to see.”40

“As the negation of experience—that is, of what has been acquired, and therefore bare of all waste—the lottery of our times excludes unprofitable accumulation a priori. A universe from which all waste has been definitively evacuated, relegated to an obscure underground, and made forever invisible and subsidiarized (filialisé): this is the repression underlying the phantasmagoria of the age. On the one hand, it amounts to a world without remainder—arranged as a factory for living, incessantly ‘cleaned’ by design. On the other, it is riddled with emissions, favelas and suburbs; obsessively, it pushes the nomadic, the migrant, the filthy and the obsolete outside the city gates.”41


“And then Camille came into our lives, rendering present the cross-stitched generations of the not-yet-born and not-yet-hatched of vulnerable, coevolving species … Gestated in SF writing practices, Camille is a keeper of memories in the flesh of worlds that may become habitable again. Camille is one of the children of compost who ripen in the earth to say no to the posthuman of every time.”42

“We were asked to fabulate a baby, and somehow to bring the infant through five human generations. In our times of surplus death of both individuals and of kinds, a mere five human generations can seem impossibly long to imagine flourishing with and for a renewed multispecies world. Over the week, the groups wrote many kinds of possible futures in a rambunctious play of literary forms. Versions abounded … The version I tell here is itself a speculative gesture, both a memory and a lure for a ‘we’ that came into being by fabulating a story together one summer in Normandy. I cannot tell exactly the same story that my cowriters would propose or remember. My story here is an ongoing speculative fabulation, not a conference report for the archives … All the versions are necessary to Camille.”43

“The Children of Compost insist that we need to write stories and live lives for flourishing and for abundance, especially in the teeth of rampaging destruction and impoverization. Anna Tsing urges us to cobble together the ‘arts of living on a damaged planet’; and among those arts are cultivating the capacity to reimagine wealth, learn practical healing rather than wholeness, and stitch together improbable collaborations without worrying overmuch about conventional ontological kinds.”44

“Readers of science fiction are accustomed to the lively and irreverent arts of fan fiction. Story arcs and worlds are fodder for mutant transformations or for loving but perverse extensions.”45

“The Communities of Compost worked and played hard to understand how to inherit the layers upon layers of living and dying that infuse every place and every corridor. Unlike inhabitants in many other utopian movements, stories, or literatures in the history of the earth, the Children of Compost knew they could not deceive themselves that they could start from scratch. Precisely the opposite insight moved them; they asked and responded to the question of how to live in the ruins that were still inhabited, with ghosts and with the living too.”46

“All new human members of the group who are born in the context of community decision making come into being as symbionts with critters of actively threatened species, and therefore with the whole patterned fabric of living and dying of those particular beings and all their associates, for whom the possibility of a future is very fragile.”47

“The animal symbionts are generally members of migratory species, which critically shapes the lines of visiting, working, and playing for all the partners of the symbiosis. The members of the symbioses of the Children of Compost, human and nonhuman, travel or depend on associates that travel; corridors are essential to their being. The restoration and care of corridors, of connection, is a central task of the communities; it is how they imagine and practice repair of ruined lands and waters and their critters, human and not.”48

“The Children of Compost came to see their shared kind as humus, rather than as human or nonhuman … The human and animal symbionts keep the relays of mortal life going, both inheriting and inventing practices of recuperation, survival, and flourishing.”48

“Because the animal partners in the symbiosis are migratory, each human child learns and lives in nodes and pathways, with other people and their symbionts, in the alliances and collaborations needed to make ongoingness possible. Literally and figurally, training the mind to go visiting is a lifelong pedagogical practice in these communities.”49

“For the child’s symbionts, Camille 1’s birthing parent chose monarch butterflies of North America … That meant that Camille of the first generation, and further Camilles for four more human generations at least, would grow in knowledge and know-how committed to the ongoingness of these gorgeous and threatened insects and their human and nonhuman communities all along the pathways and nodes of their migrations and residencies in these places and corridors, not all the time everywhere.”50

“The child-bearing parent who chose the monarch butterfly as Camille’s symbiont was a single person with the response-ability to exercise potent, noninnocent, generative freedom that was pregnant with consequences for ramifying worlds across five generations. That irreducible singularity, that particular exercise of reproductive choice, set in train a several-hundred-year effort, involving many actors, to keep alive practices of migration across and along continents for all the migrations’ critters.”51

“The Children of Compost would not cease the layered, curious practice of becoming-with others for a habitable, flourishing world.”52

I was moved to collect this bundle of clippings by CJ Eller’s “Garbage Heap,” May 3, 2022,, in a vagrant attempt to embrace the “heap,” to think-by-compost and so elaborate an epistemological model born of and for the earth.


  1. Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986), 92. 

  2. Bakhtin, Speech Genres, 120, 125. 

  3. Bakhtin, Speech Genres, 161. 

  4. Bakhtin, Speech Genres, 161-162. 

  5. Bakhtin, Speech Genres, 162. 

  6. Bakhtin, Speech Genres, 163. 

  7. Bakhtin, Speech Genres, 163. 

  8. Bakhtin, Speech Genres, 163. 

  9. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1940, in Illuminations, 253-264, trans. Harry Zohn (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1968), 254. 

  10. Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 257-258. 

  11. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 1982, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999), 349-350, J68,4. 

  12. Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 460, N1a,8. 

  13. Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 632-633, W7a,4. 

  14. Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 802, m2a,1. 

  15. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 1980, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984), 7. 

  16. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 8. 

  17. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 8. 

  18. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 25. 

  19. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 25. 

  20. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 26. 

  21. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 26. 

  22. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 163. 

  23. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 164. 

  24. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 174. 

  25. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 175. 

  26. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, 2008, trans. Gregory Elliott (London, UK: Verso, 2009), 8-9. 

  27. Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, 10. 

  28. Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, 10. 

  29. Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, 10-11. 

  30. Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, 13. 

  31. Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, 17. 

  32. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn, NY: Minor Compositions, 2013), 27. 

  33. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 27. 

  34. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 27. 

  35. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 28. 

  36. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 67. 

  37. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 68. 

  38. Nicolas Bourriaud, The Exform, 2015, trans. Erik Butler (London, UK: Verso, 2016), vii. 

  39. Bourriaud, The Exform, viii. 

  40. Bourriaud, The Exform, ix. 

  41. Bourriaud, The Exform, 95 

  42. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 134. 

  43. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 134-136. 

  44. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 136. 

  45. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 136. 

  46. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 138. 

  47. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 139-140. 

  48. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 140.  2

  49. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 140. 

  50. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 142-143. 

  51. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 143. 

  52. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 168. 

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