When Berliners first saw the new WZB campus designed by James Stirling, they dubbed it “die Geburtstagstorte” (the birthday cake)–inspired by the timing (the 750th anniversary of the city) and the pink and blue stripes around several parts of the building that are reminiscent of thick layers of icing on a cake. When I went to the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart to speak at the 3rd Forum on “CSR und Kultur” this week, I felt like I was visiting an older sibling of the WZB, because I was surrounded by familiar Stirling forms and colours. However, although we used many images during the presentations and discussions about the relationships between CSR and culture, “icing on the cake” was definitely not among them!
After I wrote my post about this year’s theme of Nichtwissen at the Kulturwissenschaftliches Kolleg, my WZB colleague Michael Hutter brought to my attention that the February issue of Economy and Society is dedicated to the topic of “strategic unknowing.” It turned out to be the beginning of a multisensory process of engagement with the topic for a few days. My fingers immediately reached out to the keyboard to download the introductory article (accessible free of charge from the journal website), then, pencil gliding across the page, I read it. My ears joined into the process of engaging with the topic that night, when I tuned into a recent edition of the BBC discussion program The Forum dedicated to the subject of ignorance with a neuroscientist, a novelist, and a microfinancier. A day later, a BBC interview with a Greek novelist unexpectedly helped me see into the heart of the matter.
My first intellectual introduction to the topic of valuing waste was when the anthropologist Mike Thompson was a visiting fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Society of the WZB in the late-1970s. He was working on his Rubbish Theory at the time (in between his treks in the Himalayas, a passion he shared with our WZB colleague Rob Coppock, who was working on chaos theory). If I don’t count learning about the garbage can theory of decision making, my next intellectual engagement with the subject came many years later when my colleagues at the research unit Cultural Sources of Newness chose texts by Boris Groys for our internal seminar. We discussed how things that society no longer values become sources of new value at later points in time and we explored the potential usefulness of the concept of re-valorization for our research program at the WZB.
The concept intrigued me, but it was not until André Sobczak introduced me to the French artist Serge Crampon in 2009, that it really made sense to me. Serge’s art emerges from materials that nature and humans abandon, items he discovers during his walks and brings back to his studio, where he reveals their essence in a new creation.