Junk Anthropology

Rebecca Carlson



“It is currently held, not without certain uneasiness, that 90% of human DNA is ‘junk.’ The renowned Cambridge molecular biologist, Sydney Brenner, makes a helpful distinction between ‘junk’ and ‘garbage.’ Garbage is something used up and worthless which you throw away; junk is something you store for some unspecified future use. (Rabinow, 1992, 7-8)”

“How difficult it could actually be to get the materials, and even the researchers themselves, to do what they ought”

“Garbage experiments are routine in scientific practice after all. But as any scientist might tell you, failure can be its own kind of productive; in the least, as a way to learn the value of steady hands, and how to recognize water by smell, or its necessity as a control in genotyping—to become a “capable doer,” as one scientist told me”

“some scientists argue that failures of a particular kind can break open old ways of thinking and doing, although what that failure is, and can be, is variously classified”

“Just as Rabinow described Brenner’s description (1992), failure is like junk, those materials or states that are in-the-waiting—waiting to be actualized, reordered, and reclaimed as meaningful, valid and valuable, even if we don’t yet know how or why”

“If “[d]irt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (Mary Douglas, 1966, 36), then junk is garbage and failure and decay, and even breakdown, on the precipice of being made anew”

“Consider an example that seems categorically different from scientific experiments: inventory management in role-playing videogames. In Diablo 4 (2023), any item picked up from downed enemies or collected in the environment can be marked as “junk” and then salvaged by visiting an in-game merchant”

“In Fallout 4 (2015), the “Junk Jet” gun lets you repurpose your inventory instead as ammo, anything from wrenches to teddy bears, which can be shot back out into the world and at random adversaries, where you might later be able to pick them up again, if you want”

“For me then, junk is a way to look for when and where particular boundaries of the useful or valuable—and even the clean and functioning—are “breached” (Helmreich 2015, 187)”

“Junk merges failure, trash, and decay with the processual and everyday negotiation of culturally meaningful and policed categories: garbage, scraps and waste, but also “breakdown, dissolution, and change” (Jackson 2014, 225)”

“Junk can help us see connections criss-crossing symbolic and material breakage and disintegration”

“If infrastructures like computer networks, for example, become (more) visible when broken (Star 1999), it is not their brokenness or decay in an absolute sense that reveals them, but the way their state change defies our everyday and embodied expectations—the way they push against normativity”

“More importantly, perhaps, broken things can be used, as Brian Larkin argued in relation to Nigerian media and infrastructures, as a “conduit” to mount critiques of the social order (2008, 239)—to call attention to inconsistency and inequality, and to demand or remodulate for change”

“If we repurpose sites or moments of breakdown to resist configurations of power, then materials themselves are also always resisting what they ought to do or become”

“This is the draw of the things in which we are enmeshed, where we are always extending, observing, destroying and deleting”

“If junk is the possibility, under particular cultural expectations and desires, for things to be pushed or cycled across such thresholds, and also, of making and unmaking these, it also must contend with the things themselves—with what we see in a corroded mirror, looking, or not, back at us”

“My thinking about junk began years ago with Brian Larkin’s attention to breakdown (2008). More recently, I found DeSilvey (2006) by way of Pink et al. (2018); and Jackson (2014) from Sachs (2020); and Hayes (1998) from Seaver (2023). This lineage is important because I am not inventing, but building” *Note: I like this mode of citation. Will need to do more of this in the future. *

“These ideas are also bits and tears of conversations with Libuše Hannah Vepřek, Sarah Thanner and Emil Rieger, and very long ago, Juris Milestone. But everything gets filtered first through Jonathan Corliss”

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