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Innovation, Vol. 16, No.

4, 2003

Times Square: Deriving Cultural Theory from

Rubbish Theory1

Starting with the hypothesis that duration (the standard idea of time that we associate
with the steady tick-tock of a clock) can only exist if it is framed by something that is not
durationeternity or oblivionit is possible to make sense of the fusing of time and space that is going
on, both in acephalous societies in West Africa and in the more familiar dynamic categorizations of
modern Western societies: secondhand, rubbish and antique, for instance. The same hypothesis also sheds
some helpful light on problems over space and time in comtemporary physics. Forgetting, we now see, is
a prerequisite for remembering, and worthlessness a prerequisite for value: insights that suggest we take
a closer look at what is involved in the deceptively simple three-category dynamical system in which
objects, once produced, have only two possible destinationsthe museum or the rubbish dump. Such a
dynamical system, it turns out, can give rise to shifts within the social totality across two fundamental
dimensionsstatus and powerthereby generating many of the grand types that have been discerned by
social scientists: class and caste, for instance. But, if it is to do this, there must be at least four contending
ways of organizing and justifying within that totality. Cultural Theory (the four ways of organizing and
justifying) is thus revealed to be inherent in the seemingly much simpler rubbish theory the three-category
dynamical system): a surprising outcome that has some intriguing implications.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream, the popular Church of England hymn tells us, Bears
all its sons away. This is a robust and straightforward way of thinking about the lives
of each of us, and about how they relate to all the other lives there are, have been and
will be. The Anglo-Saxons also had a robust and straightforward view of it all, likening
a mans life to a moth that ies into the warmth and light of the feasting hall, utters
about for a while, and then disappears back into the cold, black emptiness. On the face
of it, these two views are pretty much the same: a linear, non-reversible backdrop, with
the life of each of us plotted in on a small section of it. Admittedly, the hymn-writers
stream is dynamic while the Anglo-Saxons feasting hall is static, but, once we know the
rate of ow of the stream (relative to its static banks, that is), there is really no difference.
Each backdrop, we can see, provides us with a scale along which things can move in
only one direction, and that movement is measurable: durationthe standard idea of
time that we associate with the steady tick-tock of a clockand the whole broad picture
can be captured in the sort of history Churchill famously characterized as just one
damned thing after another.
But it is not quite that simple, because a scale is always qualitatively different from that
which it enable us to measure; if it wasnt it wouldnt work. Each life, as it is carried
along, is nite: it has a beginning and an end and covers a precisely plottable distance
that then determines its relations to all the other liveswhich damned things it comes
after, as it were, and which damned things come after it. And the same is true for all
those moths itting through the feasting hall. And, again, the scalein this case, the
ISSN 1351-1610 print/ISSN 1469-8412 online/03/040319-12
2003 Interdisciplinary Centre for Comparative Research in the Social Sciences
DOI: 10.1080/1351161032000163557


Michael Thompson

hallis qualitatively different from that which it enables us to measure: the moths
progress within it. But, while the ever-rolling stream is eternal (owing through time but,
unlike the lives it provides the measures of, having neither a beginning nor an end),
everything beyond the warm and brightly lit hall is oblivion (a owless and timeless
nothingness, in which neither beginnings nor endings are conceivable). Where the stream
involves two qualitatively different issour nite lives within it and its unending (and
unbeginning) ever-rollingnessthe feasting hall involves an is and an isntthe moths
all doing their itting about, and then the cold, dark outside where there simply isnt any
of that, or anything else.
So duration can exist only if it is framed by something that is not duration: either
eternity or oblivion. At any rate, that will be my hypothesis. Of course, there may be
more than these threeduration, oblivion and eternity (nirvana is a possible candidate)
and it may be that oblivion and eternity need one another too. But, for now, let me take
this simple hypothesis and test it against the lives of an anthropologically renowned
people in West Africa: the Tiv, all of whom (there are something like four million of
them) see themselves as the descendants of one person: Tiv, the father of them all. Does
the ever-rolling stream we sang about in school chapel bear all the sons of Tiv away, or
just some of them? The answer, we will see, is Just some of them. It is an answer that
has some far-reaching consequences, and not just for the Tiv.

Compression, rearrangement and the fusing of time and space

The Tiv have what is called a segmentary lineage system.2 They are organized in terms
of a vast family tree that is traced through the male line, and they are distributed in
spacein Tivland, as it is calledaccording to that genealogical scheme. That is, the
segments that are descended from two brothers, x generations back, will be next to one
another on the ground, and if there is a dispute between two Tiv each will mobilize his
segmentrst generation, then second and so onuntil they reach the point where they
have mobilized the segments of two brothers. So the Tiv have no need of leaders (indeed,
designated or elected leaders would mess up this mobilization process); they are what is
called an acephalous society: a tribe without rulers.3 But it will be objected that,
especially in a pre-literate society like the Tiv, a genealogical scheme that encompasses
four million people will be hopelessly unwieldy. And, on top of that, the requirement that
it make sense of all the Tiv, not just in time but in space as well, will surely make it
unworkable in just a few generations.
Well, neither of these debilitating consequences has arrived. Though new generations
are being added all the time, the genealogy remains at just 16 or so generations and, for
all the inevitable territorial upheavals and demographic uctuations, the Tiv still manage
to live next to their closest kin, and their segments still remain numerically balanced. So
two things must be going on. First, there must be some compression: some generations,
somewhere, must be being lost from the genealogy as new ones are being added. Second,
some ancestors, somewhere, must be being rearranged, so as to keep the spatial
distribution of the Tiv in line with their temporal distribution. Both these essential
adjustments involve amnesia: some ancestors have to be forgotten completely, and the
relationships of others (two brothers, say) have to become blurred enough for people to
be convinced that they are related in a different way (father and son, for instance).
At the two extremes of the genealogy, however, such compression and rearrangement
simply are not possible. Tiv, and his sons, and their sons, are xed in myth (and in the
major regional divisions of Tivland) and, at the other end, people know who their fathers
and grandfathers and great-grandfathers are or were (indeed, the Tiv themselves say

Times Square


Every man has three fathers). So duration reaches back at least three or four
generations from the present, and eternity reaches forward at least three or four
generations from the mythical father of them all. This means that the forgettingthe
black hole of oblivionmust be somewhere in between: somewhere in the eight or so
middle generations. Only in that range are compression and rearrangement possible and,
even then, only with the exercise of impressive political skills. Politics, among the Tiv,
it is said by their ethnographers, is conducted in the idiom of kinship. Some ancestors
are forgotten as they become overshadowed by the enhanced importance that is focused
on others, and some brothers become father and son through a combination of the
persuasive powers of political actors and the enhanced spatial sense that accompanies
such a temporal rearrangement.
Being a Tiv, and staying a Tiv, you could say, simply would not be possible without
this amnesia, and that amnesia, in its turn, requires a three-fold structuring: eternity (to
keep the founding mythical fathers anchored just 16 generations back), duration (to cope
with not being able to pull the wool over peoples eyes about their immediate ancestors),
and oblivion (to achieve the degree of compression and rearrangement sufcient to keep
the whole segmentary lineage show on the road).
In some societies, the curtain of amnesia is brought forward, much closer to the
present. The Sherpas of Nepal, for instance, go to considerable lengths not to mention
the names of the dead, and this means that lineage structures (such as that of the Tiv)
are nipped in the bud, thereby making it pretty well impossible for the Sherpas to anchor
claims to land and property in the weight of history. And in Bali, for instance, the
institution of teknonymy (in which people, once their children are born, are called father
of so-and-so and mother of so-and-so) pulls the curtain of amnesia even closer to the
present. In other instances, and especially with the advent of writing (and the absence of
institutions such as teknonymy), the curtain can be pushed further and further back,
thereby strengthening ancestral claims but making it more difcult to realign temporal
and spatial distributions.
As the curtain of amnesia is pushed back so duration is expanded and both eternity
and oblivion retrenched. As the curtain is pulled forward so duration is truncated and
oblivion expanded, even to the point where (as in the Anglo-Saxons hall) eternity is
overwhelmed. But, whichever arrangement a society is relying on, there will have to be
some structuring. Duration, in other words, has always to be framed by something that
is not itself duration. And, if that is the general rule, then it is most unlikely that we
moderns are exempt.
Transience, rubbish and durability

Though kinship and genealogy are by no means irrelevant in modern societies, it is the
social life of thingspaintings, furniture, houses and, indeed, everything that comes
under the rubrics of material culture and natural resourcesthat is most revealing of
the time/space structures by which we struggle to maintain and transform our lives with
one another.
Thats a nice car you have there someone may say to us, and we reply modestly Yes,
but its second-hand, you know. But we could not give that modest reply if someone said
Thats a nice Rembrandt you have there, nor could we give it if the car in question was
a vintage car: a Bugatti, say. The explanation, of course, is that possessable objects can
fall into one or other of two cultural categories: the Transient (in which items steadily
decline in value and have nite expected life-spans) and the Durable (in which items
steadily increase in value and have innite expected life-spans). But most objectsthe


Michael Thompson

Figure 1.

Cultural categories of objects and the possible transfers between them (from
Thompson, 1979, p. 10).

Bugatti, for instancestart off in the Transient category and are only later transferred
to Durability.4 This then raises the question of how this transfer is possible, given the
mutual incompatibility of the criteria that dene the two categories. The answer is that
the direct transfer is not possible, but that there is a third, covert, categoryRubbish
and that this provides the crucial pathway. A Transient object, decreasing in value with
time and use, eventually sinks into Rubbisha timeless and valueless limbo.5 In an ideal
world it would then disappear in a small cloud of dust but often this does not happen,
and it lingers on, unnoticed and unloved, until perhaps one day it is discovered by some
creative and upwardly mobile individual and successfully transferred to the Durable
category. This is how something second-hand becomes an antique and how, as has
happened with many a run-down inner-city district, a rat-infested slum becomes part of
Our Glorious Heritage (see Fig. 1).
There is, clearly, a structure here that exactly matches the structure that enables the
Tiv and their segmentary lineage system to keep on going. Durability (A thing of beauty
is a joy forever) equates to eternity, Transience (Here today, gone tomorrow) is
measured out in duration, and Rubbish (Out of sight, out of mind) matches oblivion.
But, though these transfers relate to the social life of things, they are also intricately
connected to the social life of people: creativity and upward mobility going with the
transition from Rubbish to Durability and, in the other direction, social marginality and
fatalistic resignation going with the decline from Transience into Rubbish. Those who
ride the downward ow, therefore, are not at all the same as those who ride the upward
one! And it is by these sorts of transfers, together with these sorts of changes of riders,
that our class-based societies are able to continually realign status and power, and
thereby perpetuate themselves.
I will look more closely at what is involved in these complex social dynamicsdynamics that lead to both class formation and class transformationin just a moment, but,
rst, I want to draw a very general conclusion, which is that, if the Tiv are to go on being
the Tiv, and if we are to go on with our modern societies, then they and we are going
to have to structure time (and space) in this three-fold way. So, rather than asking
ourselves the supposedly Big QuestionWhat is time?we should be asking what sort
of structure does there have to be before we can ask that question. Bizarreperverse,
eventhough this may sound, it is, to judge from a recent high-powered gathering of

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physicists, historians and philosophers, quite likely the way forward: the only way
Physics big puzzle

In June 2001 a four-day meetingthe Seven Pines Symposiumat the aptly named
Stillwater, Minnesota, confronted this last big questionWhat is time?head-on, only
to nd the discussion quickly degenerating to the blind-men-and-the-elephant level.
Worse still, as Robert Wald, a physicist at the University of Chicago, conceded, I dont
see any evidence that theyre talking about different parts of the same elephant.6 Time
and (to a lesser extent) space, they agreed, may not even be the same actors in unied
theories based primarily on relativity as in those based on quantum mechanics. Time, it
turns out, looks very different depending on whether scientists try to construct a nal
theory by starting with quantum mechanics and adding gravity, or vice versa.
Theories based on quantum mechanics and particle physics, for all their strangeness,
assume that somewhere the regular tick-tock of ordinary time is being measured by
something like a Swiss watch or a planet whirling about a star. But, add in gravity,
and the absence of a reliable background means that there is no Swiss watch, even
in theory. This is duration, in our terms, but with the curtain of amnesia pushed so
far back that there is no longer any structure: no eternity and no oblivion.
Superstring advocates, and relativity theorists, fare no better. Jeffrey Harvey (also of
the University of Chicago) confessed that if you asked a bunch of string theorists to
formulate their theory in a way that doesnt involve any choice at all of a background
space-time they would throw up their hands and say We dont know how to do that.
Relativity theorists face much the same difculties. For them, time and space begin to
mix together in incomprehensible ways and, when quantum effects are added, they
often cannot even nd time as an entity distinguishable from space in the mathematical mishmash that results. Again, in our terms, we are back to duration, with no
background against which it can acquire structure.
John Earmana philosopher at the University of Pittsburgthen suggested that perhaps
time was a psychological illusion: something that was important only to humans, not to
physics. The physicists, however, found that pretty radical; chilling even. But just
substitute social imperative for psychological illusion and you have a plausible (and not
too radical or chilling) resolution of the physicists problem: essentially that they have
been asking the wrong question. Instead of asking What is time?, they should have been
asking what structure there has to be before we can ask that question. Time and space,
after all, are a fair old mishmash in those middle eight generations of Tiv: the region of
the genealogy where all the compression and rearrangement that is so vital for them and
their segmentary lineage system are going on. Nor would a tidy world, in which there
was no rubbish and no durabilityno oblivion and no eternitybe a world we could
make our modern selves at home in!
So, if we are right about this social imperative then we are going to have to be careful
not to be too tidy minded. If forgetting is a prerequisite for remembering, and if value
(whether Durable or Transient) is impossible without Rubbish, then we will have to
ensure that we do not become oblivious to oblivion, or dismissive of the value of the
worthless. This is what I will try to do in the remainder of this paper.
Economics is the prime example of over-tidiness. Having set out by restricting itself to
the realm of value, it can see the Transient and Durable categories clearly enough, but
not the Rubbish category. The result, to quote the mathematician Ian Stewart (1979,


Michael Thompson

p. 605), is blinkered self-delusion because, as he rightly observes, Rubbish provides the

channel between Transient and Durable. Stewarts area of expertise is dynamical
systems, and he is understandably horried to see an entire discipline tidying up the
world to the point where it can no longer see the system of transfers that actually keeps
that world up and running! Economics, in other words, has made itself oblivious to
oblivion, and insisted that all there is is eternity and duration. The remedy, of course,
is to start not with the realm of the valuable but with the whole three-component system,
and then to explore its dynamical possibilities: the full range of transformations that are
inherent in the oblivion/eternity/duration structure.

Our untidy world and its transformational possibilities

The transfers from Transient to Durable do not happen of their own accord. As is
evident from the fact that those who ride the downward ow into Rubbish are different
from those who ride the upward ow into Durability, these transfers require a variety of
social actors. Nor is it safe to assume that these social actors always impinge on one
another in such a way as to maintain the status quo: keeping the category system abreast
of the whole ever-evolving technological process by which objects are produced,
consumed and conserved and, at the same time, ensuring that power (loads of money,
for instance) and social status (feeling at ease with Durables, for instance) are continually
realigned. Of course, those crucial adjustments are happening all the time; if they werent
we wouldnt be able to exclaim Oh, we used to have one of those but we threw it away
every time we see some item of now-obsolete technology in an antique shop window. Nor
would we be able to observe (or actually engage in) that socially fraught process by which
new money is transformed into old money. But each of these adjustment processes can
go too fast or too slow, in the sense that they can easily diverge from the specic rates
that would ensure that the social order exactly reasserted itself through all these changes
in the material markers by which that social order is achieved.
So, if we can pin down the different kinds of social actors, and then tease out all the
different things that can occur when their interactions happen not to be generating these
two status-quo-maintaining rates, we will have done something rather interesting. From
these very minimal dynamical considerations we will have mapped the full range of social
possibilities, together with the full range of structurings in terms of oblivion, eternity and
duration that are the essential supports for those social possibilities. Daunting though this
challenge may appeardoing that much with that little is scarcely the everyday
expectation in social scienceits resolution is surprisingly straightforward. Indeed, it
involves just two steps, both of which are already implicit in our Transient/Rubbish/
Durable diagram:

First, we should note that the overall systemthree linked cisterns (the Transient,
Rubbish and Durable categories) and two taps that together make possible the
unendingly contested controls on the rates of transfer between those cisternshas the
potential to generate shifts across two fundamental dimensions: status and power.
Second, we can see that, to fully realize that potential, there will have to be sufcient
plurality of purpose among the individual actors for all the dynamic permutations
(opening this tap, closing that one, etc.) to be possible. An analogy would be that
spooky game where people (and there have to be enough of them) sit around a table,
each placing a nger on an upturned glass, and the glass then seems to take on a life
of its own, sliding rst one way then another across the at surface.

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What this means is that if people were all the same, or all completely different, it would
not work. If people were all the same (all rational utility-maximizers, for instance) the
glass would slide off in one particular direction and then, when it had gone as far as it
could go, stop: the End of History, as it is sometimes pretentiously called. Conversely, if
people were all completely different (as postmodernists insist they are) then their
individual efforts would cancel one another out, and the glass would not go anywhere:
history as a non-starter, you might say, as, for instance, in the PoMo mantra There are
no meta-narratives (Lyotard, 1979). So the plurality has to be sufcient: one is too little;
innity far too much. Nor is two enough, since just two sets of handsone trying to turn
the taps this way, the other the other, would, at best, generate only a back-and-forth
oscillation, leaving the other dimension of variation unexploited.
So it looks as though three, or four, or ve is the number we are looking for, and
rubbish theory itself suggests it is four, in that, when we consider the three-cistern
diagram together with the awareness that there is always a change of riders as we go
from the downward ow to the upward ow, it prompts us to raise four crucial questions:
What sorts of people effect the transfers through Rubbish?
What sorts of people try to prevent them?
What sorts of people are able to prot from them?
What sorts of people lose out?
Summarizing this requisite variety in just one sentence, we can call these social actors the
crashers-through (those creative and upwardly mobile characters who effect the transfers to Durability), the high priests (those, like those literary critics who strive to dene
what shall be admitted to the canon, who try to prevent them), the levellers (those
who, by ooding the Durable category, are able to diminish both status and power, and
thereby prot in the sense of getting more of what they are after: equality) and the
losers-out (those, like ourselves when we see in an antique shop window something we
recently threw away, who, despite all their efforts, keep nding themselves at the bottom
of the pile).
There is, I should now mention, a quite well-worked-out theory of all this7a theory
of socio-cultural viability (though it is usually called Cultural Theorythat puts this
intuitively appealing four-fold variety onto a pretty solid and rigorously argued foundation. That foundation consists of four forms of social solidarity: four different and socially
viable arrangements for the promotion of transactions. Four ways of organizing, in other
words, each of which, at the same time, is a way of disorganizing the other three. Two
of these are the familiar hierarchies and marketsthe rst instituting status differences
(asymmetrical transactions) and setting all sorts of limits on competition (accountability,
as in noblesse oblige, or We dont do that sort of thing in this regiment/family), the second
instituting equality of opportunity (symmetrical transactions) and actively promoting
competition (unaccountability, as in If I dont do it somebody else will)while the other
two are less familiar and are arrived at by completing the typology that is inherent in the
conventional hierarchies and markets distinction: egalitarianism, which institutes equality of
result (symmetrical transactions) and sets all sorts of limits on competition (accountability), and fatalism, which institutes status differences (asymmetrical transactions) and lets
competition rip (unaccountability). The crashers-through, clearly, are the social beings
that characterize the market (the individualist solidarity, as it is called), the high priests
t the hierarchical solidarity, the levellers the egalitarian, and the losers-out the fatalist.
I mention all this because the theory goes on from here to what is rather grandly called
its impossibility theorem, which states that there are these four, and only these four,
solidarities.8 It also has its requisite variety condition, which holds that if one solidarity is there


Michael Thompson

they will all be there, and if one solidarity disappears they will all disappear. The idea,
with the requisite variety condition, is that each solidarity is only viable in an environment that contains all the others. Put another way, it is saying that, despite the rivalry
of the four solidarities (each of which can be seen as all the time trying to extend itself
at the expense of the others), each ultimately needs the others to do something vital that
it cannot do itself. Markets, for instance, need some extra-market authoritythe
hierarchyto enforce the law of contract, egalitarianism needs the inegalitarian excesses
of the market and the hierarchy if it is to mobilize the outrage and moral commitment
that holds it together, and even fatalists would not be able to be fatalistic if there were
no markets, hierarchies and egalitarian groups to exclude them from the decisions that
govern their lives!
In the absence of the impossibility theorem there would be so many ngers on the
glass, each pushing in its desired direction, that it would be unable to move anywhere.
And, in the absence of the requisite variety condition, some of the different sorts of actors
could become extinct and one or more of the crucial sets of tap-turning hands would
then be lost. If that happened then the totality would shift away to one or other of the
extremities of its possible range and then stay there. Historythe ceaseless and never
exactly repeated sequences of shiftswould then come to an end, democracy (which
requires that all four voices are able to make themselves heard, and to enter into
constructive argumentation with one another)9 would be snuffed out, and humanity
would be nothing more than a bunch of thinking animals. Or, rather, this is what would
happen if what we were dealing with was the exact analogy of the upturned glass with
the ngers on it. In fact, the system we are dealing with is a little bit more complicated
than this. The ngers (or rather, the hands, because they have to twist) are on the two
taps, and they do not move anywhere. What moves is the whole regime (in terms of status
and power) in response to changes in the contents of the three cisterns, those changes
deriving from the struggle to turn the taps this way or that.
So (and this is where things become even more counter-intuitive) it is not a simple
matter of the solidarity with the strongest wrists causing the totality to move towards the
goal it is striving for. The tables edge is not bounded by four pure and extreme states,
each coterminous with the goal of one of the solidarities. All sorts of what are called
curvilinear relationshipsactions carrying you towards your goal to begin with and then,
when, unknown to you, you start eroding one or more of the solidarities on which yours
is ultimately dependent, moving you in the opposite directionprevent a simple
four-to-four mapping from the solidarities to the bounds of the regime space (the tables
edge) that the interactions of those solidarities create. Just like in post-Newtonian physics,
you might say!This means that, if we want to get some sort of a handle on that space,
we are going to have to look at what can happen to the contents of the three cisterns
as the solidarities battle over the taps, and then relate those changes to changes in status
and power.

At the class apexwhere the controls happen to result in the two status-quo-maintaining ratesthere is lots of stratication and lots of competition, and the transfers from
Transient to Rubbish to Durable are such that the inevitable changes in power are
quickly reected in matching changes in status.
If the controls become rather more restrictive then status and power will no longer be
able to fully realign themselves and, as they diverge, we will nd ourselves being
transformed into a caste-based society (as in the classical Indian system, where the
meat-eating Rajah sits rmly at the head of the power structure but defers to the
vegetarian Brahmin within the hierarchy of castesee Dumont, 1970). Whether any

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social system ever makes it all the way to this apex is highly doubtful. McKim Marriott
(1967) has shown that, even when caste appears dominant, there is more than a touch
of class around, and in nineteenth-century Nepal (whose ruler proclaimed it to be the
true Hindustan) it is doubtful whether the caste-based penal codethe Muluki
Ainever functioned as intended. Indeed, it is doubtful whether any of the apices are
stably reachable. But it is certainly possible to move towards and away from each of
them and, in that sense, these apices do dene the regime space.
If things are too permissive the Durable category will collapse under its own weight,
the status currency will be debauched, and the totality will move away at right angles
to the classcaste axis. As status differences disappear transactions become symmetrical
and we move onto the increasingly levelled playing-eld beloved by those who abhor
restrictive practices, on the one hand, and an unwillingness among those who cannot
discern any opportunities in their immediate neighbourhood to get on their bikes, on
the other. Margaret Thatchers enterprise culture would be located here, and some
ferociously individualistic societiesthose in the New Guinea highlands, for instance,
that engage in competitive pig-givingactually get themselves to this apex (though
they are not then able to stabilize themselves in that position).
Back in the 1970s, when I was writing Rubbish Theory I thought that that was it, and
spoke of these three apices as constituting a rubbish triangle. But since then I have
worked among societies that are on the Tibetan fringe of Nepal and realized that there
is a fourth possibility: the one corresponding to the remaining permutationlow on
status differences and low on competitionwhich I had discounted on the grounds
that economies of scale would always move a de-stratifying totality in the competitive
direction. But Sherpa villagers who rely on a mixture of subsistence farming and
trans-Himalayan trading are simply not able to increase their returns by taking one
another over. There are, in their geographical location and with the technology
available to them, no opportunities for economies of scale, and this means that
competition is dampened down to the point where the enterprise culture, like the
class and caste apices, becomes a repeller, not an attractor. The resultand it can
happen in non-Buddhist settings (Wordsworths pure Commonwealthhis beloved
Lake District, as it was in the early nineteenth centuryis one example)10is a sort
of easy-going and convivial yet unbeholden self-sufciency that is particularly beguiling
to those who espouse small is beautiful and are so opposed to globalisation. Yet, for
all that, it is not the egalitarian goal. It is not nearly communal enough, and it is far
too tolerant of the major disparities in wealth that can result from activities like
trans-Himalayan trading.
So our tableour regime spaceis square, not triangular, and with none of its four
corners (because of curvilinearity) mapping exactly onto the goal of any one of the
solidarities, even though it is thanks to variations in the relative strengths of those
solidarities that we nd ourselves carried towards and away from those corners. So I have
now done what I set out to do a few pages back: I have derived all the possible
transformations of the overall social system from a consideration of the dynamic
possibilities of this three-cisterns-and-two-taps scheme. Along the way I have been able
to give a new answer to that old question What is time? and also to show that Cultural
Theory, far from being a free-standing set of hypotheses, is inherent in a seemingly much
simpler theory: rubbish theory.11 But what is the signicance of all this?

That something a little unconventional has been achieved here is, I think, evident in its


Michael Thompson

having taken me more than 30 years to realize that Cultural Theory can be derived from
rubbish theory (even, I hasten to add, allowing for my stupidity). I can think of three
reasons for that out-of-the-ordinariness: deceptive simplicity, materiality as the dynamizer of seemingly static categorizations, and distinctions that apply at both macro
and micro extremes.

The unied theoryCultural Theory derived from rubbish theoryis remarkably

simple, in that it all comes from one little diagram: the three cisterns and the two taps
by which they are connected. Since simple yet unobvious theories are much appreciated (and much sought after) in the physical and natural sciences, it is gratifying to nd
that they can also be formulated in the social sciences. But perhaps that should be
social science in the singular, since this simple yet unobvious theory undermines the
over-tidy foundations that economics and political science have raised themselves up
on. Value (Durability and Transience), as we have seen, is crucially dependent on the
valueless (Rubbish). And if there were no unpolitical xed ancestors (eternity) and no
unpolitical and unalterable recent forebears (duration) then Tiv politics (the compressions and rearrangements that are enabled by oblivion) would not exist. So bracketing
away the valueless (which is what economics does) is equivalent to a psychologist
cutting off the oxygen supply to the rats he is running through his maze. The same
holds for political science when it draws its dening line between the political and the
If the Tiv were not themselves a material owone esh-and-blood generation
succeeding another, on and onthen they would not have to resort to all that
compression and rearrangement. And, if there was no ever-evolving technological
process by which objects are produced, consumed and conserved then we moderns
would not have to bother ourselves with all those anxiety-ridden adjustments: Do I
throw this useless item away or treasure it?, Do I struggle to make my new money
old (like Donald Trump, say) or just lie back and enjoy it the way it is (like Miss Piggy,
say)? In other words, the materialthe objects that are being consigned to the
cultural categories or transferred between themare the way they are because of that
which is not material: the cultural categories. Whether we must understand the world
in order to understand it is really neither here nor there, since we cannot not change
it (whether we understand it or not).
The theory is everywhere dynamic. Yes, there is structureeternity, duration and
oblivion, and Durability, Transcience and Rubbishthat stays in the same place, as
it were. But that structure emerges from our efforts to make sense of an unstoppable
ow. The analogy would be the eddies that stay in the same place in a fast-owing
stream; it is only because of all the movement that they are there!12 Interestingly, this
is precisely the sort of process that neuroscientists currently grapple with: the human
brain, if it is to do what it does, has somehow to distil universality out of all the
particularities that it registers. Neuroscientists call this process abstraction (Zeki,
2000) and it seems to be doing, within each individuals brain, exactly the same thing
as our fusing of time and space is doing on a social and cultural level that involves
millions of brains.13 But physical scientists might not be too surprised; those proponents of relativity and of superstring theory who were gathered at the Stillwater
Symposium regularly leap back and forth between the smallest things we know
(sub-atomic particles) and the largest (the universe).

Just what the implications of these rather speculative conclusions are, I readily concede,
are none too clear, but they do suggest one thing: that social scientists should get out

Times Square


more. They should cut back a bit on all those disciplinary conferences and start
hobnobbing with dynamical systems theorists, physicists, brain scientists: people like that.


Bohannan, L. (1952), A genealogical charter, Africa, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 301315.
Douglas, M. (1966), Purity and Danger: an Analysis of Concepts of Population and Taboo,
London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Douglas, M. (1978), Cultural Bias, Royal Anthropological Institute, Occasional Paper
No. 35. Reprinted in Douglas, In the Active Voice, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul
(1982), pp. 183254.
Douglas, M., Thompson, M. and Verweij, M. (2003), Is time running out? The case of
global warming, Daedalus, Spring, pp. 98107.
Dumont, L. (1970), Homo Hierarchicius, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Evans-Pritchard, E. (1940), The Nuer: a Description of the Models of Livelihood and Political
Institutions of a Nilotic People, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1979), La condition postmodernerapport sur la savoir, Paris, Les
Editions de Minuit.
Marriott, McK. (1967), Hindu transactions: diversity without dualism, in Kapferer, B.
(ed.), Transaction and Meaning, Philadelphia, Institute for the Study of Human Issues.
Ney, S. and Mollenaers, N. (1999), Cultural theory as a theory of democracy, Innovation,
Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 489509.
Schmutzer, M. E. A. (1994), Ingenuium und Individuum: Eine Sozialwissenschaftliche Theorie von
Wissenschaft und Technik, Vienna and New York, Springer.
Stewart, I. (1979), Review of rubbish theory, New Scientist, 23 August, p. 605.
Thompson, M. (1979), Rubbish Theory: the Creation and Destruction of Value, Oxford, Oxford
University Press.
Thompson, M. (1994), Blood, sweat and tears, Waste Management and Research, Vol. 12,
pp. 199205.
Thompson, M. (2002), Dont let it put you off your dinner, Journal of Comparative Policy
Analysis, Vol. 4, pp. 347363.
Thompson, M., Ellis, R. and Wildavsky, A. (1990), Cultural Theory, Boulder, Westview.
Thompson, M., Grenstad, G. and Selle, P. (eds) (1999), Cultural Theory as Political Science,
London, Routledge.
Wordsworth, W. (1810), Guide to the Lakes, 5th edn, which was republished (edited by
Ernest de Selincourt, 1906) in paperback in 1977, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Zeki, S (2000), Abstraction and idealism, Nature, 404 (6Aps), p. 547.


1. An early version of the rst half of this paper appeared in Lab: The Jahrbuch (2001/02) of the
Kunsthochschule fur Medien Koln (eds Thomas Hensel, Hans Ulrich Reck and Siegfried Zielinski,
Cologne, Walther Konig). I am indebted to Siegfried Zielinski for pointing out to me that
rubbish theory is saying something interesting about time.
2. The Tiv are explained in more detail (and with the supporting references to their ethnographers, see especially Bohannan, 1952) and related to the more general framework of cultural
categories of objects and their possible transformations, in Thompson (1979).
3. The most famous of which is the Nuer of the Southern Sudan, who were rst described by
Evans-Pritchard (1940). Their lineage system functions in much the same way as the Tivs but
has only 11 or so generations in all.
4. The vast majority, of course, never make the transfer; they are thrown away, scrapped,
recycled or whatever around the time their value has declined to more or less zero.


Michael Thompson

5. Properly speaking, a cultural category cannot be covert, and it is when disregarded objects
for some reason or other force their attention upon us (when we step in them, perhaps) that
we rid ourselves of delement by consigning them to the cultural category Rubbish (see
Thompson, 1994).
6. This and subsequent quotes are from James Glanz, Physics big puzzle has big question:
what is time?, The New York Times, 19 June 2001. I do not pretend to understand these
various theories within physics, but it is sufcient for my purposedemonstrating the
problems that arise when attempts are made to de-structure timethat those who attended
the symposium understand those theories.
7. The common point of departure for this theory (see Thompson et al. 1990) and rubbish
theory is Douglas (1966). Her grid:group analysis, based on the four-fold typology of social
solidarities, was rst set out in Douglas (1978).
8. There is, in fact, a fth and socially withdrawn solidarityautonomythat is characterized by
the hermit. However, since hermits are intent on steering well clear of any tap-turning, we
need not consider this solidarity here. For an explanation of the hermits solidarity see
Thompson et al. (1990) and Schmutzer (1994). For a justication for ignoring autonomy in
certain situations see the introductory chapter in Thompson et al. (1999).
9. For a discussion of this idea of democracy as an essentially contested notion, together with
a fairly extensive set of references, see Ney and Molenaers (1999) and Thompson (2002).
10. Towards the head of those Dales, Wordsworth (1810, pp. 6768) tells us, was found a
perfect Republic of Shepherds and Agriculturalists, amongst whom the plough of each man
was conned to the maintenance of his own family, or to the occasional accommodation of
his neighbour. Two or three cows furnished each family with milk and cheese. The chapel
was the only edice that presided over these dwellings, the supreme head of this pure
11. Something I have not done is explain how time is shaped for each set of tap-turners (for the
upholders of each form of solidarity, that is, by the manner of their involvement with this
system of which they are such vital components. This is done in Douglas et al. (2003).
12. So the message, contra postmodernism, is that structure and process, far from being options
we must choose between, are each entailed in the other: no structure, no process, and vice
versa. Postmodernists, of course, opt for process and reject structure (which is like saying Ill
have the stream but not the eddies).
13. There are two closely linked and automatic processesabstraction and the formulation of
idealswhich underlie our ability to acquire all knowledge because they are the characteristic
features of any efcient knowledge-acquiring system. The former is both selective and
eliminative; it allows the brain to determine some property or relation which is common to
many particulars, thus making it independent of the particular. Abstraction is also imposed
on the brain by the limitations of its memory system, since it does away with the need to
recall every detail. Abstraction leads naturally to the formation of ideals. Plato used the
term ideal to mean a universalderived from the intellect aloneas opposed to the
particular, derived from sensory experience. Because memory of the particular fades, the
ideal built by the brain from many particulars becomes the only real thing about which we
can have knowledge (Zeki, 2000, p. 547).