The History of Waste Franziska Neumann is the new professor of early modern history
Waste is omnipresent, often causes disgust, and has an impact on our own well-being and the environment. But what is waste, actually? And how has the way we deal with it developed in cities? Franziska Neumann, a new assistant professor of early modern history with a focus on urban knowledge cultures in a comparative perspective since August 1, 2021, is conducting research on this topic. In this interview, she talks about what makes waste exciting from a historical perspective, what excites her about her research, and which lessons from history could prove useful for the city of the future.
Ms. Neumann, you are a professor of early modern history with a focus on urban knowledge cultures in a comparative perspective. What exactly do you deal with?
I am focusing on the period between 1500 and 1800, with a specific focus on urban history. I understand the concept of knowledge culture less as a fixed object than as a perspective on different forms of knowledge genesis, accumulation, transmission, and use in urban spaces. Focusing on the epistemological dimension of urban societies even beyond the narrow realm of academia (for example, in the social, political, religious, and economic fields) makes it possible to build a bridge between traditional research foci in urban history, like constitutional history, social history, or the history of political culture, and more recent topics and perspectives in the history of culture, media, and the senses. This is of particular interest in relation to my current research project on waste in 18th century London: The handling of waste is based on historically variable systems of order and classification that are closely linked to economic, administrative-legal, and medical knowledge as well as cultural ideas.
In this context, it is necessary to repeatedly take a comparative view of urbanity in a global perspective – from Edo in Japan to Lahore in Pakistan to London, Amsterdam or Annaberg: What does it actually mean to be a city in the early modern period, if one places the imperial and rural cities so prominent in German research in a global perspective and includes the dynamics of metropolis formation? Thereby, through the perspective of comparative urban history, the specific early modern dynamic – between pre-modernity and modernity, between strangeness and familiarity – can be brought into view in all its brokenness and diversity. That is to say, I am generally interested in the connection between city and knowledge, the specifics of which can only be examined in a comparative perspective.
What made you decide to do research in this area?
The selection of research topics is to a certain extent biographical coincidence. I like England very much and had a great desire to study the country, its history, and London in particular. If we are not talking about biographical coincidences, the relationship between resources, knowledge, and urbanity has been a constant in my research so far. My dissertation, for example, was written as part of a DFG project on the political culture of Erzgebirge mining towns in the 16th century, which I studied as points of crystallization of administrative and mining knowledge. My current research project on urban “waste regimes” also links questions of urban history with concepts of the history of knowledge, environmental history, and cultural history.
One of your main areas of research is the history of waste. What makes waste exciting from a historical perspective?
Waste is one of those topics where you seem to intuitively know what it actually is. Although every society has known some kind of residue, be it excrement, heating residue, or broken dishes, we still like to associate the topic with the present. Traditionally, the focus of the waste story has been modernity. The classic narrative goes something like this: demographic change, industrialization, the emergence of a consumer society, and also changing ideas of hygiene caused traditional, pre-modern ways of waste management to reach their limits in the 19th century.
In this narrative, pre-modernity is usually only accorded a prehistorical status. Depending on the perspective, it is either assumed that waste was the exception in the pre-modern era, while reuse was the rule. Or this epoch is imagined as a dirty, unhygienic and smelly epoch.
Isn’t this perception true?
If you take a closer look, this cherished image is too coarse: In the 18th century, London’s 750,000 inhabitants produced huge amounts of human excrement every day, which had to be disposed of somewhere, before the invention of the sewer system. In addition, there was a never-ending stream of heating waste. With the advent of new consumer goods and luxury items, habits of dealing with objects that had gone out of fashion also changed. Of course, the way we dealt with waste differed from modern times in terms of quality and quantity, but that’s what makes it exciting for me to take a closer look.
From this perspective, waste can, on the one hand, serve as a probe to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and consequences of urban coexistence and, more fundamentally, of the functioning of pre-modern urban societies, beyond established narratives. At the same time, the historical perspective can also provide impulses for our current discussions on waste, not least to show the historical diversity in dealing with waste materials.
What are the main research areas and projects you will be working on at the TU Braunschweig?
I have various projects that I would like to realize at the TU Braunschweig in the coming years. The main focus will be on the topic area of “waste”. In addition to my empirical research on urban waste regimes in the 18th century, I am particularly looking forward to inter-epochal and interdisciplinary exchange with various scholars. Currently, for example, I am planning an international workshop together with a colleague from York, where we will discuss different methodological and empirical approaches to the topic of “disgust” with colleagues from Europe, Hong Kong, India, and America.
Furthermore, there are numerous intersections with the research focus “City of the Future”. We are already in the process of discussing waste as a residue and resource in an interdisciplinary perspective in a small group of scientists from very different disciplines, from hydraulic engineering and aquatic morphology to English studies and historiography. I am curious to see how this discussion group will develop in the future.
In addition, I would also like to pursue other interests in the context of smaller research projects. Currently, I am deeply engaged in the potential of a theory-driven history of pre-modern organizations. Another research focus is on practices of script decipherment, using the example of cuneiform writing in the 18th century. This is another research strand that I would like to pursue in the future, especially with regard to the outstanding holdings of the Herzog-August Library in Wolfenbüttel.
You also do research on the city’s history. What can you learn from history for the city of the future?
The city of the future also has a past, of course! But the question of what exactly we can learn from a historical perspective on future issues is more complicated. Of course, one could say that we learn nothing directly from history. The concept of historia magistra vitae, of history as the teacher of life, has long been criticized with good arguments. As a historian, however, one can enrich debates relevant to the present and the future with a historical depth of focus. The historical perspective makes it possible to gain reflexive distance and can thus, in the best case, serve to historicize modern self-evident facts. Although cities are organized in very different ways and, to use a term from urban sociology, develop very different logics of their own, the challenges of dense coexistence can be seen as in a prism.
For example, the handling of waste?
With regard to the waste issue, it seems to me to be tremendously interesting to show, in view of the pressing present-day problem, that different societies have had a different awareness of the problem and have found different solutions to pressing problems. This is not simply a history of progress, in the sense of: In the past, everyone sat in their own feces, while now we have the very best hygiene. Rather, a look at the past reveals the historical and cultural variability and also relativity of how waste is handled in urban societies. At its best, this nuanced view can help provide a nuanced understanding of our current waste discussions.
What has been your most rewarding experience as a scientist? What excites you about your research?
There is a lot that excites me about my research. I am excited by the opportunity to follow my own interests and time rhythms. I consider it a great privilege to be able to think about intellectually exciting problems alone and in discussion with other scientists, without always necessarily having to consider their relevance and usability at the same time. In addition, the university and my research offer me the opportunity to do things whose value cannot be overestimated, such as spending three weeks in a lonely monastery in Switzerland, which is also a research library, studying early modern prints on mining, or living in London for six months, working in the archives and discussing with scholars from all over the world at the Institute for Advanced Studies at University College London. To put it a bit trite: I am very grateful to be able to broaden my horizons in this way again and again.
What role does science communication play in your work?
Science communication is increasingly playing a major role. Without wanting to overstate the present-day relevance of a topic from the pre-modern era, I do see in the discussion of my current topic that it is very easy to connect to current debates. And this does not only apply to the limited field of science. Therefore, I find science communication in different formats and forums interesting. For example, I recently developed a science comic with artist Simon Schwartz as part of the Young Fellow Program at the Academy of Sciences in Hamburg, which visualizes my topic. We are currently preparing a small virtual exhibition that will bridge the gap between the university and the public. Using these opportunities has become increasingly important to me.
What constitutes good teaching for you?
That’s a good question that seems very simple, but is actually complicated. Good teaching can come about through a number of things: On the one hand, through the role model function of the teacher in terms of interest, enthusiasm and excitement in dealing with a subject. Good teaching consists of tying the very specialized study of very small and pointed topics in seminars back to very basic questions about what the early modern period is, what history is, and why one should study history. But good teaching is also about the ability to recognize and accommodate different student needs. Some students need more input, some less; some need more pressure, others more freedom. One of the great challenges of teaching is to take students seriously and to recognize their different needs. This also means taking seriously the fact that many students complete their studies under challenging conditions.
What advice would you like to give to students?
Find something that excites you and do something with it! Don’t be put off by things you initially think are boring! Almost anything you study more deeply will eventually reveal a side that isn’t boring. Learn to work under pressure, such as accepting deadlines, and create spaces for yourself where you learn to organize yourself. Learn to read historical sources and texts very intensively, but also to absorb very large amounts of text very quickly. And overall: realize that what you can do here only makes sense if you develop some kind of interest or enthusiasm for topics. Certainly, university studies are not only a place to exclusively follow your own interests, but you do also have the freedom to explore your own ways of working, topics, and interests.