Accumulation, Dispossession, and Waste in Childhood and Children’s Everyday Lives

  • Cindi KatzEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Geographies of Children and Young People book series (GCYP, volume 1)


Neoliberal capitalism is in the throes of crisis – crises actually – associated with overaccumulation and several decades of privatization, commodification, and financialization, each sieved through the other. These crises have profound consequences for the present and future that can be seen in the shifting discourses and material social practices concerning children and childhood. This chapter reframes David Harvey’s analysis of accumulation crisis around questions of social reproduction to examine its relationship to contemporary childhood and selected configurations of the child. It pays particular attention to the configuration of the child as waste, not only as the constitutive outside to those of the child as accumulation strategy, commodity, and ornament but also as a means of managing the current political economic crisis discursively and materially. The chapter points to some key strategies of “waste management” around children and childhood, including such material social forms and practices as policing and the juvenile justice system, the military and militarization of children’s lives, and panics around youth and childhood focused variously on education, drugs, sex, and violence, teasing out some of their sociospatial implications. Connecting global north and south, the chapter traces a countertopography of childhood risk and waste from which current crises of accumulation might be reimagined and redressed.


Child as waste Accumulation crisis Social reproduction Childhood risk Play Countertopography 

1 Introduction

Insecurity riddles contemporary social life, often roosting in and around children and childhood. A welter of management strategies have been devised in a variety of quarters to mediate and manage these insecurities whether political economic, cultural, or political-ecological. This chapter grows out of my ongoing project, “Childhood as Spectacle,” and my enduring concern with social reproduction and what – as a theoretical formulation – it does for and to Marxist and other critical political economic analyses. After decades of Marxist-feminist interventions around these issues, symptomatic silences around social reproduction remain all too common in analyses of capitalism. Working through what is at stake in these issues and their occlusion, I offer what I hope is a useful and vibrant theoretical framework for examining geographies of children, youth, and families and demonstrating what is politically at stake and possible in doing so. Building this framework calls into play three overlapping issues: neoliberal capitalism in crisis and David Harvey’s notion of accumulation by dispossession, my evolving ideas around childhood as spectacle as a cultural formation associated with contemporary political economic crisis and its figuration of the child as waste, and imagining how this figuration might be turned around to find liberatory potential in and from the site of children’s play and time.

2 Social Reproduction and Accumulation Crisis

Global capitalism has been in serious crisis since late 2008. The experiential permutations of this crisis were shaped in the course of more than three decades of neoliberal policies and imperatives. Among them are the offloading of responsibility for social reproduction from the state and capital to individuals, households, and “civil society;” disinvestments in the social wage more generally; privatization of public and common goods, spaces, and services; the commodification of formerly free or shared goods and services; and a generalized marketization and financialization of everyday life and its customary material social practices. This much is well known, as perhaps is that these concerted policies and practices were accompanied by others that fostered and called forth an entrepreneurial and self-sufficient self. There were and continue to be fierce struggles over these changes and the variegated attempts on the part of those in power, whose interests they served, to naturalize them.

This political economic situation meshes with David Harvey’s notion of accumulation crisis (2003). Harvey argues that capital’s periodic crises are crises of overaccumulation. In other words, there is a chronic tendency in capitalism to produce surpluses of capital in various forms – money, commodities, and productive capacity – along with surpluses of labor, but for a variety of reasons no apparent means to bring them together profitably. The key for capitalists is to find profitable ways to absorb and set in motion capital surpluses or face the sorts of devaluations associated with the crises they face. These crises are varied and ongoing – capitalism’s survival is neither seamless nor guaranteed. In recent years, we have witnessed the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath, austerity crises that affect various European nations such as Greece and the UK in particular ways, and long-standing crises in the global south associated with the punitive measures associated with structural adjustment and debt. These crises and their proposed resolutions are interconnected globally and across scale. Harvey suggests three means to resolve such crises: spatial, which involves such strategies as opening new markets, developing new resources, or developing and deploying new pools of labor often through the practices associated with accumulation by dispossession; temporal, which might include long-term investments in infrastructure, public works, or the sorts of social investments, among them research, education, and support of the arts that take capital out of circulation for a long time; and spatiotemporal strategies, which combine the other two.

While Harvey is clear about how dispossession occurs through familiar strategies like privatizing common resources, the “new enclosures,” or displacing people from resources, he is less clear on how class is interwoven with racialized, sexist, imperial projects to foster, enable, and naturalize dispossession while at the same time diminishing the prospects for any sort of social investment. The costs of labor to capital are routinely cheapened through disinvestments in the social wage and reliance on privatized strategies of social reproduction, which are constantly made invisible through their willed naturalization. Investments in children and children’s lives are thus a “temporal fix” and yet almost never the weapon of choice in defusing crises of overaccumulation. Making such questions central to discussions of accumulation crises alters the political possibilities such crises call forth. What if surpluses were absorbed by investments in public education and health care or renovated public housing and new playgrounds, or well-stocked libraries and vibrant community programs rather than subprime mortgages and other predatory gimmicks of finance capital? The scale of dispossession is witnessed not just in uneven geographical developments like colonialism, gentrification, suburbanization, or “urban renewal” but also at the intimate scales of everyday life. Foreclosure takes place – quite literally – at the very heart of people’s existence. Disinvestment in social reproduction is a key means of accumulation by dispossession. Global expansion is riddled with and enabled by intimate dispossessions that cross national borders and extract value from individuals and households (cf., Pratt and Rosner 2006; Feldman et al. 2011; Meehan and Strauss 2015). Theories that fail to attend to this realm of contradiction only capture part of the picture and neglect an enormous reservoir of political possibilities. These concerns drive my interest in children as waste and are at the heart of the cultural politics and countertopographies I will trace in my conclusion.

Focusing on childhood is crucial to understanding the present conjuncture as crisis, a crisis more insidious and deep than one simply of overaccumulation or such things as the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. It is in the everyday practices around children and childhood and in the new commonsense around childhood that social differentiation – the panicky interface between waste and value – is advanced, managed, sedimented, and naturalized. Attending to these everyday practices enables us to understand the ways the contemporary crisis is experienced and intensified, often even amplified by the very strategies used to deal with it.

3 Childhood as Spectacle

The crises in neoliberal capitalism outlined above – along with other social, cultural, and environmental crises – have understandably produced all manner of insecurities about social reproduction and the future. The concentration of wealth and thus gaps between rich and poor people have grown dramatically in the past decade since the financial crisis of 2008, and these inequalities exacerbate the proliferating insecurities associated with contemporary social life in the USA. Many of these insecurities play out around children and families’ everyday lives and are felt, albeit differently, at all points along the spectrum of economic inequality. If the everyday practices of social reproduction are a critical arena for reimagining and remaking social life, for making a world in which all lives matter, then childhood as spectacle is a key way to understand the present moment as one of enduring crisis. Childhood as spectacle marks an arena of accumulation of capital to the point of collapse (Debord 1977). Thinking of childhood as spectacle is a means to see the commodification of social life and the flattening of potential political responses to contemporary crisis into anxiety and panic alleviated by consumption, bunkering, surveillance, and various modes of distraction, all the while generating intensified insecurity. Childhood as spectacle can be seen in the interconnected figures of the child as accumulation strategy, commodity, ornament, and waste (Katz 2008, 2018).

Following Debord, the writing collective Retort (2005) conceptualizes spectacle as a colonization of everyday life, provocatively suggesting that it is globalization turned inward. Along these lines we can think of childhood as a site of inward colonization connected directly to accumulation under neoliberal capitalism. As spectacle, childhood is simultaneously entwined in the production of what Retort calls “weak citizenry,” not only of children but among parents who succumb to “idiot fashions and panics” trying to make and live in what might thought of as a simulacra of community (Retort 2005, p. 21). These concerns have been addressed in greater depth elsewhere (e.g., Katz 2008, 2012, 2018); for present purposes, I note that childhood as spectacle calls forth four figurations of the child as accumulation strategy, commodity, ornament, and waste. These four figurations are analytically and experientially inseparable. While they inhabit particular bodies – classed, racialized, and gendered – quite distinctly, the lived resonance of these figurations varies across time, both in a biographical and historical sense, and space, in terms of both geographical location and specific site. They are experienced and embodied in overlapping ways that can be mutually reinforcing or contradictory in everyday life as much as over the life course (cf., Gill-Peterson 2015). These figurations haunt one another affectively, creating grounds for potential political engagement rather than the management of the insecurities they more typically call forth.

Examining the affective politics and organizing concerns of these figurations, I have looked at children as accumulation strategies and as ornaments, focusing particularly on the modes of hypervigilant and precious parenting associated with them (e.g., Katz 2005, 2006, 2008, 2012, 2018). This chapter addresses the constituent outside of these figurations, the child as waste, which rests in part on a myth of their disposability because in a variety of ways detailed below, they are essential to capital accumulation and the disciplinary practices associated with race, gender, sexuality, and class (cf., Wright 2006; Gidwani and Reddy 2011; Tadiar 2013). Children as waste represent dispossession on the hoof as it were. Excessed, marginalized, and excluded by various regimes of capital accumulation and the structures and strategies that make them possible, these young people have a value analogous to an industrial reserve army. At the same time, they are a social body that must be contained and managed, and waste management around people as around things is big business. The child as waste is simultaneously a specter that haunts the figure of the child as accumulation strategy, and its management though relations and practices of social reproduction enables, maintains, and propels particular modes of capital accumulation while, at the same time, propelling an intensification of childrearing practices that cross class, race, and gender in a scramble to secure children’s futures in deeply insecure times and places.

I will touch on three moments and means of managing children as waste, the “school to prison pipeline,” the militarization of childhood, and the super exploitation of child labor (here focused on the ship recycling industry). In these three realms, children are social actors and subjects of capital accumulation facing quite differentiated modes of power, but as I will note in the conclusion, there is a striking sameness to the discursive formations around them.

4 Children as Waste

The “school to prison pipeline” is shorthand for the material and discursive continuities between schools and prisons in the lives of poor children in the USA – particularly young men of color – who commonly attend poor and under-resourced schools, which limit the possibilities that their educational needs will be met and increase the chances that disciplinary infractions will be dealt with more harshly than is the case in more privileged environments. The combination of undereducating, stepped-up policing and surveillance, and often-unforgiving punishment in certain school environments works to streamline the way to prison rather than other futures for young people in poor neighborhoods (e.g., Nolan and Anyon 2004; Krueger 2009; Nolan 2011; Meiners 2016; Fasching-Varner et al. 2017; chapter “Theorizing Youth Participation”).

Michelle Fine and Jessica Ruglis (2009) convincingly analyze neoliberal education as a form of accumulation by dispossession. They demonstrate how students in poorer school districts – but others as well – are dispossessed from quality education and even a diploma as the funds for public education are siphoned into standardized testing, which includes the private businesses who produce, evaluate, and help prepare students for the barrage of tests they undergo through the course of their schooling, the days spent in testing, and things like security and policing measures in schools, even primary schools. Dispossession also takes place as responsibility for education devolves from the state to local authorities to the individual household and child. Under the Trump administration, the propensity for devolution has been stepped up with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s support for government funded vouchers to individuals to pay for private education and tax deductions for corporations that support private schools. Most of DeVos’s initiatives have fallen flat in Congress though the charter school movement continues a form of privatization in many school districts (cf., the hair-raisingly prescient, Wells 2017).

The rhetoric of “personal responsibility” around education is problematic in all sorts of ways. Poor children’s disposability is all too frequently conveyed by the state of their schools, the quality and array of available equipment, and the qualifications and experience of their teachers (e.g., Woodson 1933, cited in Fine and Ruglis 2009; Krueger-Henney 2014). Fine and Ruglis astutely refer to these all too common conditions as “soft dispossessions,” marking among them high rates of teacher turnover, dependence on uncredentialed teachers, and long-term substitute teachers who are not necessarily qualified to teach the subjects they teach. These practices are correlated directly with the percentage of students who qualify for free lunch (a US government marker of poverty) (Fine and Ruglis 2009), and yet still the blame for students’ lack of academic success is all too often placed squarely on their shoulders. Meanwhile, the scaffolding provided to more privileged children and young people is often naturalized and thus rendered invisible (e.g., Gillies 2005; Demerath 2009; Katz 2018).

Schools in poor neighborhoods may lack toilet paper or doors on restroom stalls, but they have metal detectors or sophisticated webcam surveillance systems. Some of them even have inserted RFID (radio frequency identification) chips in students’ school identification cards, which allow them to be tracked using GPS. Such schools may have disengaged or overwhelmed teachers but omnipresent security guards and even police (cf., Monahan and Torres 2010; Saltman and Gabbard 2011; Nguyen 2017). Such practices have become routine in many schools especially those in poor areas and criminalize youth, particularly youth of color, in ways that call to mind the ways “idle” members of the working class were disciplined during the early years of capital accumulation (cf., Linebaugh 1992; Thompson 1993; Federici 2004). After-school, arts, and sports programs – all of which are means of absorbing surplus capital – have been cut or eliminated entirely in schools across the USA, while vigorous expulsion and detention policies are on the rise. Children even increasingly face expulsion from preschools (Gilliam 2005; James 2008), which reveals a ratcheting up of demands for disciplined self-fashioning in educational environments of all kinds. Public universities such as my own, The City University of New York, are part of this process too. Where tuition had been free for all until New York’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s (associated not coincidentally with the rise of neoliberal policies and practices as well as growing numbers of nonwhite students), there are now tuition and fees, which increase routinely making higher education all the more inaccessible to poor people (Fabricant and Brier 2016; Brier 2017).

All of these practices around education and its disinvestments and dispossessions can be linked to increases in high school dropout rates and increased time to complete graduation requirements, decreasing young people’s chances of going to college, but increasing the likelihood of their detention and imprisonment, particularly in a bleak labor market. These sites become containers for managing young people dispossessed from future education and employment by these policies, and they are policies. The statistics are horrifying. According to the New York City Mayor’s Office of Statistics, the 2017 costs to keep one youth in detention was almost $615,000 a year. To educate one student in a New York City public high school was $21,362 (Mayor’s Management Report 2018, pp. 201, 224). In other words detaining a young person costs the government almost 29 times more than educating him or her! There is not “no money,” though there is a lot of dispossession and waste, both of which are costly in multiple ways. With a daily average of 119 young people in detention for an average of 24 days during 2017, more than $73 million was spent in New York City on youth detention. These policies and practices make clear to certain young people that they are disposable and that their futures – except as contained – are of little concern to the neoliberal social formations in which they come of age.

Another figure of waste is more explicitly violent and can be seen in the militarization of youthful lives, particularly in the lives and life spaces of child soldiers but also in everyday environments like schools (e.g., Saltman and Gabbard 2011; Cowen and Siciliano 2011; Nguyen 2017). In this realm the flattened construction of the child as innocent is not simply turned on its head as children are mourned and demonized as predatory and vicious, but children’s innocence is itself exploited by destructive practices that increase the blur between civilian and military life as much as by those strategies that prey upon children to recruit and retain them in military operations. Focusing on vulnerability, Peter Singer (2006) tracks the erosion of the boundary between civilian and soldier over the past century. Where 10% of the casualties of World War I were civilians, about 92% of those killed in the Balkan and African conflicts of the late twentieth century were civilian. He indicates that children – often quite young – figure centrally in those losses and not as “collateral damage” but as soldiers themselves. People younger than 18, and frequently as young as 6, are active combatants in about 75% of all conflicts these days (Singer 2006). Young people are commonly misled about the armed conflicts they are inveigled to join, but they are also abducted to serve in armies and militias or find their way in economic desperation as other means of employment are foreclosed. As a result, hundreds of thousands of children have fought or are currently fighting worldwide. Their disposability is clear, but so is the attraction of military service when all other paths to viable future employment are elusive. “Gang” membership often appeals to young people for similar reasons of belonging, purpose, camaraderie, and income all too often undercut with violence that can lead to incarceration, casualties, and death.

During my research in Sudan in the mid-1990s, I witnessed the contours of this hideous relationship in formation as rural boys were displaced from meaningful survivable futures in the local agricultural economy. The state drew young men and teens into the military by requiring enlistment in order to proceed on many of life’s paths, among them the receipt of a secondary school diploma, an exit visa to work abroad, or a university degree. The fundamentalist Islamic leaders with whom the state was intertwined picked up where the government left off, framing what was then a civil war as a jihad, which held out the promise of paradise to all who were martyred in service. Meanwhile in Darfur in western Sudan, the government-sponsored terrorizing thugs known as the Janjaweed were recruiting teens and unemployed young people largely from nomadic and transhumance communities with few options or resources for sustaining their livelihoods in the area thanks to environmental degradation, war, and government resettlement policies. Their destructive operations continue in 2018. Similar stories are repeated around the world, north and south. Many refract the global lure of ISIS and similar groups in these terms.

Young people are dispossessed from viable futures by their exclusion from education through various means including the school to prison pipeline discussed above, lack of land, lack of credit, lack of legal status, persistent unemployment, war, famine, routine violence, environmental disasters, and other of the uneven effects of globalization and the policies that propel accumulation by dispossession. Under the presidency of Donald Trump, for instance, undocumented young people who arrived in the USA as children and had been covered by the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program under President Obama have become increasingly vulnerable to criminalization and deportation as the policy’s revocation and reinstitution work their way through court. Without the protection of DACA, these young people can be excluded from higher education opportunities because they are ineligible for in-state tuition and denied legal forms of documentation such as driver’s licenses, which then limit their access to a variety of economic and social opportunities (cf., Wells 2017). These wretched circumstances – which cross national boundaries – leave many young people open to recruitment by state-sponsored military service but also non-state militias, terrorist groups, liberation and rebel armies, and street gangs. While military service often provides recruits with valuable training and opportunities for future employment, it remains the case that many military operations, formal and informal, waste children’s lives while they manage them as waste. It is important to note here that when children survive the often extended and revolving wars in which they are taken up, they are often wasted psychologically and emotionally, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at an age when there was little, if any, “pre-traumatic” time to build on.

The final figure of waste is the child involved in extreme and debilitating labor. There is much discussion in the literature and in labor and human rights activism around children recruited into various forms of indentured labor, including sweatshops, gang labor, sex work, domestic labor, and hazardous labor of various kinds. One of the most wasting forms of child labor, which has received some attention recently in the field of international law and labor regulations, is ship recycling. As the name suggests, ship recycling involves the dismantling of ships such as oil tankers and freighters and the recycling of their materials as scrap and mechanical parts for use in other industries. While in the past ships were dismantled mechanically in dry docks in the global north, they are now commonly beached in Southeast Asia where they rest in shallow water and are dismantled piece by piece into recyclable commodities – materials, machines, and spare parts – and scrap. In a poor economy the number of ships put out of commission for scrap rises as does the demand for recycled products, which are less costly than new. Much of the arduous and hazardous work of dismantling ships and tankers has fallen increasingly to children in Asia, most centrally in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but also China, Vietnam, and Turkey. I consider this work here for three key reasons: it is extremely dangerous; it is itself about waste; and it is tied directly to the ebbs, flows, and uneven developments of global capitalism (Sibilia 2018).

Shipbreaking is extraordinarily debilitating, hazardous, and toxic work scorned by all but the poorest of the poor who have no choice but to engage in it. Many shipbreakers are under 18 years old with an untold number essentially indentured because of household debt. The shipbreaking industry is built upon a viscerally embodied form of accumulation by dispossession, and many of the bodies involved are children’s. Characteristic of this industry, young people are recruited to shipbreaking with an advance paid to their parents, so that the youthful workers are essentially captive, toiling without wages under terrible conditions over which they have little control (FIDH 2008). The work itself involves dismantling heavy machinery, which can and does fall on workers – crushed and lost limbs are a routine occurrence – and working in blazing hot and humid environments filled with airborne toxic materials including heavy metals, asbestos, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), rust, and fumes from acetylene cutting torches (FIDH 2008). Young people who endure these brutal work conditions are especially vulnerable to noxious environmental conditions and potentially disabling injuries. In Bangladesh, where about 60% of all large ocean vessels are currently dismantled, estimates vary, but between 12% and 25% of the shipbreaking workforce of 30,000 is under 18 years old, with another 41% between 18 and 22 (YPSA 2005; FIDH 2008). The value of the waste of so many young bodies accrues to both transnational corporations and underdeveloped debtor states in reduced labor costs and savings in materials, while its long-term physical and psychic costs are borne individually in illness, injury, and premature death.

The work of shipbreaking is itself about waste being recycled and repurposed. The industry basically cannibalizes whole ships and tankers and recycles most of their materials, parts, and machinery. In some lights, ship recycling can be imagined as a “green” industry. According to Greenpeace (2005), for instance, about 80%, of the steel needed in Bangladesh is provided from shipbreaking. However, the hazardous labor conditions and environmental residues of the industry would make any claim to “green” designation laughable if the very thought were not so tragic. It is indeed cannibalizing, but not just of materials.

Finally, the demand for recycled products in the poorest countries is crucial given their often dire financial circumstances and the uneven terms of trade and debt servicing associated with global capitalism. While scrap metal and recycled machinery such as generators cost substantially less than new, the hidden cost of these savings is taken in children’s and other workers’ lives and well-being. There is no metric in which these costs and savings are comparable, but here again the alchemy between waste and value turns on occluding the intimate dispossessions of global practices of accumulation.

5 Disposability, Creativity, and the Mimetic Faculty

Waste management – of all different kinds – is a big business. It is a key site of social investment through the prison system, military, and other operations of organized violence, through debilitating and highly exploitative labor practices, and through more routine management strategies such as the everyday corrosive violence of neglect, disease, debt peonage, and poverty. These material social forms and practices are means of channeling and containing excessed populations whose labor may be of little use to capitalists in the present but might be profitably tapped at another time or place. These bodies must not only be managed and contained, but their visible containment serves to discipline those who are not waste (see Katz 2008, 2012). In other words, the debilitating effects of state or street violence, policing and detention, or chronic unemployment and school leaving are examples of the sorts of waste indicated here, but their palpable resonance in everyday life creates a realm of insecurity that can haunt and manage others coming of age.

Waste management is also a way of not seeing (and naturalizing) the production of waste and its thick bloody integument with the production of value. Jesse Goldstein (2009) argues compellingly that human waste management stages a “violence of erasure.” Wole Soyinka famously referred to his generation and their creative potential as “wasted” in the destructive political exigencies of post-independence Nigeria (Wilkinson 1992). In a lecture I was privileged to attend at Rutgers University, Soyinka (1999) spoke with passionate rage about the magnitude of the loss to the individual, the collective, the nation, and the world when young people’s creativity is derailed and wasted. This thought is haunting around these generational questions of lost opportunities and possibilities in Africa and beyond but also currently in the USA and elsewhere around the losses spurred by drug addiction, state violence, or the derailments associated with “stop and frisk” and zero tolerance policing, which criminalizes young people, particularly young men of color.

These thoughts on waste and the violence of erasure spur me to think about recuperation – and its political possibilities – in and from the site of waste, what we might think of as a mobilization of culture under the sign of erasure. The political question at stake, then, is how to recuperate and lay claim to all of the lost potential – flesh and mind – from the searing waste delineated here (cf., Goldstein 2009; Hawkins and Mueck 2003). I attend to these concerns via the mimetic faculty, drawing on the writings of Walter Benjamin and two of his contemporary interlocutors, Susan Buck-Morss and Michael Taussig. In a parallel to shipbreaking, which is wasting but has the recuperation of waste (to capital) as its object, the mimetic faculty is creative and has the potential to recuperate creativity wasted. Fittingly the mimetic faculty crops up in play, which some consider a “waste of time.”

The mimetic faculty is at the heart of much of children’s play. In my ethnographic research on children’s work and play in rural Sudan, for example, I documented the many ways that children played while they worked, engaged in playful work and “workful” play, and played at things that at other times they worked at. For example, they played vivid “geo-dramatic” games of “fields,” “store,” and “house,” wherein they created miniature landscapes which they animated by enacting the tasks and social relations associated with agriculture, commerce, and domestic life. In these activities, the children transformed local debris – domestic waste, agricultural detritus, scraps of fabric, shards of china, and piles of goat dung into amazing imaginary worlds of farming and economic and social exchange in which they had a place, even a future (Figs. 1, 2, and 3) They internalized, worked out, and expressed the social and economic relations they saw around them, but with an almost magical tweak – a gesture toward utopia – no one went broke, everyone had at least a few assets, and the exchanges were relatively equal, often riotous, and always exuberant. The mimetic faculty was everywhere (Katz 2004).
Fig. 1

Playing “store” using ‘china money’ (shards of broken china) to buy and sell

Fig. 2

Playing “house,” women visiting for tea

Fig. 3

Playing “fields.” The version pictured here is “subsistence fields”

The mimetic faculty, Walter Benjamin tells us, is not simply the ability to see resemblances and create similarities between things but is the flash of insight read off of or made in the process that impels a moment of invention. Playing at something has a fugitive or fleeting aspect that can spark a recognition that even the original is made up – a performance – and might be made different (Benjamin 1978, p. 333; cf., Taussig 1993; Buck-Morss 1989). Children play at all kinds of social roles but also pretend that they are trucks, trees, monsters, and animals. Each act is a “becoming other” and a way of coming to consciousness (cf., Deleuze and Guattari 1987). The fluidity of the “becomings” as much as the fictions, stagings, and restagings of play is vital to its pleasures and at the heart of the mimetic faculty. This kind of play is identity-making. It is also world-making. In play children learn about and toy with the meanings and practices of their social worlds, but as Benjamin reminds, it is also where received meanings and relations are refused or reworked. Benjamin is especially insightful in thinking about playing with debris and the ways it grasps the social and historical. It stages a sort of tactile knowing that is in all of us, and its “wild imagining” (Taussig 1993, p. 21) has revolutionary potential. Such fantasies and reveries are reservoirs for thinking and making new ways of living. The dialectic ricochet between debris and value is exact and potent here (cf., Gidwani 2008; Gidwani and Reddy 2011).

Play – children’s and others’– is intrinsic time, time lived as “disposable,” though not at all a “waste of time” as it is so often constructed. Marx saw “disposable time” as the basis of social wealth in the sense that it is time for creativity, for art, science, and invention, but also because it is consumption time, an arena where surpluses can be sopped up and desires quenched (Marx 1973, p. 398 cited in Goldstein 2009; cf., Lefebvre 1991). For Marx disposable time marked a social resource garnered in part from shortening the working day, whether through class struggle or created by workers’ strategies to make time for themselves rather than their bosses. Like any resource, time – disposable and otherwise – can be “wasted,” although what constitutes “wasted time” is an historical geographical, social, and political economic question. In pointing to its potential as a realm of creative practice, a reservoir of dreams and imagination, I mark again the dialectical relationship between waste and value.

Childhood is full of disposable time. “Doing nothing” is one of its great hallmarks; its pleasures and fluid openness to everything are perhaps the greatest joy (and potential) of childhood. Play and playtime can be understood as a non-instrumentalist states of being and openness to becoming. They are generative and full of possibilities (cf., Philo 2016). If, as Marx tells us, “the whole development of wealth rests on the creation of disposable time,” isn’t that time – children’s time, playtime, and thinking and imagination time – something not to be wasted? Something to be found and treasured in adulthood?

At one level Marx was being elemental. Without time that exceeds bare survival – that is, disposable time – there’s no potential for building surplus. Nonproductive time and time out of work are needed to expand and potentially make good on production time and its myriad surpluses through the material social practices of social reproduction, consumption, and leisure. A lot of the disciplining associated with capitalist production is focused on channeling that time and how it is “spent” by whom, so that idleness is reserved for some and punished in others (cf., Thompson 1967). At its core, then, disposable time is social time; it is both a source and outcome of the creation of wealth. Disposable time is best understood not as waste but as value, as wealth and potential wealth, as something to be shared, to be played with, and to be reimagined as the very fiber of what it means to be a person, to be social. Goldstein (2009) suggests that “fund” of time is also when art, science, and creativity happen. The best of work, we in academia are privileged to know, is like play, but beyond that “wild imagining,” why not think a politics that builds upon, expands, and shares disposable time? And while I recognize that time can be “spent” and stolen in all kinds of ways and that those rendered disposable in capitalist social formations may have a lot of “time on their hands” and may experience their disposability temporally as biding time – as waiting for something – it remains that time is a resource that can be mobilized in all kinds of ways to fulfill desires; produce and exchange knowledge; make and remake the necessities, pleasures, contours, and possibilities of everyday lives; create new things; and imagine possibilities to live otherwise and act on them.

It is possible, for example, to restructure work time and meaning so that their logic is no longer that some work to the bone – whether through excessive hours, protracted commutes, or intensified productivity demands, while others are idled and made into waste that must then be managed and contained. The children with whom I worked made whole beautiful vibrant worlds out of shit. If that is not an inspiring metaphor for politics now, what is? Taking a leaf from the sorts of utopian gestures and imagination of these children’s play, but well exceeding it; an imagination that would refashion debris to make toys of garbage and elaborate worlds of waste is somewhere in almost everyone. That imagination – a revolutionary imagination, if you will – is always ready to be released into making something else. That something else is something to think about – to “play with” – politically. It might be realized in making disposable time the social resource that it is through insisting on and making times and spaces for creativity, research, writing, playing, art, music, drama, thought, dance, and the like. This is not dream talk though its relationship to reimagining time – disposable time – as a social resource is dreamy. The current crises of uneven development at all scales, marked by some of the greatest disparities in wealth in the history of capitalism could be redressed at least in part by rethinking and restructuring the working day. Production time could be reallocated so that more people would work fewer hours for living wages, thereby expanding the “fund” of disposable time alongside security rather than precarity. More people working fewer hours would extend employment and rework leisure in ways that expanded wealth in the deepest sense of the term.

This sort of openness is perhaps the deepest lesson to learn from children’s play and also the promise and peril of understanding childhood time in tension with the deep injustices associated with constituting certain children as waste and hidden by the ruthless, global management of that waste. We are all in this together and the loss of anyone’s creativity or creative potential is a tragedy of the commons, a loss to our common future. No one is disposable, and disposable time is a collective and expanding resource that has all kinds of possibility for making change. Change that cannot happen when the privileges of some are built on the dispersed waste of so many others (cf. Wright 2006; Tadiar 2013).

6 Conclusion: Toward a Countertopography of Waste

Countertopography is a concept and methodology I developed to connect disparate places and social formations by virtue of their analytic relationship to a particular material social practice, social relation, and/or cultural form (Katz 2004). It is a way of making good on simultaneity, of making visible what is too easily ignored or hidden by space and distance (cf., Berger 1974). With countertopography I wanted to produce a geographical imagination for a more associative politics – one that was scale and place crossing with practical entailments that could work across and against received distinctions of “us” and “them,” of place-bounded notions about problems and their possible solutions.

My intent is to mobilize an abstraction for understanding the work done by dispossession and the making and managing of waste (human and not) around social reproduction. What sorts of countertopographies might be imagined, produced, and even traveled around the figure of the child as waste, children made excess, and social reproduction as an arena of accumulation by dispossession? What sorts of geographies and political possibilities would they bring into view?

In looking at children as waste, I was struck by the common language of disenfranchisement, of dispossession, and of children’s self-production and sober awareness of their own unfitness for productive futures. These material social practices create a field for exploitation and further dispossession – that is, for a willed wasting of lives constituted as wasted. These wastes and their “management” can be seen in the “recruitments” of young people into what is a surveillance apparatus at once global and intimate that includes the school to prison pipeline, the military and other structures of organized violence, the separation of young children from their families as a means of thwarting international migration and asylum seeking at the US-Mexico border, and deadly forms of labor. These strategies of waste management with common grounds are descriptively different and experientially varied, but in many key ways are analytically similar. Recognizing these similarities and the common grounds of these practices is a way to start working against the violence of erasure; both the children’s own and the constitutive role of waste in making capital accumulation and capitalist discipline work. Making that waste and the violence of its management everywhere visible, and making it impossible to hide the waste by naturalizing it or displacing it onto racialized, gendered, classed others or elsewheres, or occluding it behind the tenuous glitter of children as accumulation strategies, commodities, or ornaments is crucial. It marks important grounds of what it means to take seriously the historical geographies of children and young people and the cultural politics that calls forth. Such formations and politics around childhood – what I am calling “childhood as spectacle” – turn the possibility for rethinking waste and disposability as material social practices so that “disposable” time, playtime, becomes our time to change the world (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4

Making worlds out of scraps

As Marx (1973, p. 111) himself tells us:

“A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child’s naiveté, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm?”

That charm is something to organize around.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Earth and Environmental Sciences ProgramThe City University of New York, Graduate CenterNew YorkUSA

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