Why do we only notice metal when it hurts? – Some sideways thoughts on metal theft

This is a copy of my recent guest post at www.metaltheft.net : the best (and only!) academic forum for metal theft researchers…

Metal theft fascinates me as an academic because it raises some odd questions about how we think and act towards our built environments and – frankly – why this form of theft isn’t even more commonplace.

There has been surprisingly little academic engagement with the practical and policy based attempts to eradicate the latest upturn in metal theft. This comment piece sketches out a handful of themes that might prove fertile ground for engaging the social sciences and humanities beyond criminology.

Let me state clearly at the outset: I find metal theft to be abhorrent (as well as strangely rational if viewed from a resources perspective). I would like it to stop, and regard it as a particularly anti-social crime. Elsewhere I have tried to explain what I mean by ‘rationality’ and I will not re-run those points here[1].

Metal theft as materiality

In Being and Time[2], the German philosopher Martin Heidegger provides a story to illustrate his argument that much of human existence takes place at the level of the un-noticed. He describes a workman using a hammer. He uses it every day and never thinks about his tool. He uses it with skill and produces goods with it that are noticed and appreciated, but the hammer is largely invisible to him. But the day he bangs his thumb with the hammer he is violently and painfully reminded of its existence, and of the embodied danger and power that that device, as a composite lump of metal and wood comprises. I see a parallel with metal theft here. The things that are being stolen – the infrastructure – of the built environment, are vital to our health, comfort and social functioning. Yet we only notice them (and perhaps only fully appreciate them) when they are snatched away from us by metal thieves. The valuable contribution of copper to our transit systems is only revealed when that copper cabling is ripped out and thousands of commuters face hours of travel delay.   If we listen to these effects and how people make sense of them we will see how infrastructure temporarily irrupts into consciousness. Perhaps through doing so we will reconnect to the material basis of contemporary world. We characterise pre-history by its material technology (stone, bronze and iron ages) but generally don’t follow that through into the present: the steel age. We seem to like to think of ourselves, and our worlds, as oddly mass-less.

There is something of a ‘material-turn’ at work in social theory at present. The domination of textual and discourse based studies is subsiding, with a renewed focus upon ‘things’ and their social and cultural lives. A good entry point to this area is Daniel Miller’s Stuff[3]. Here and elsewhere Miller presents a theory of consumption and commodification that stresses the circulation of both ideas and physical things-in-themselves. Metal theft, as a warped subscription to the (ethically positive) notion of recycling could be profitably investigated through Miller’s lense.

Metal theft and bereavement

I first investigated metal theft here in the UK in the Spring of 2008. At that time there was no interest from the politicians and little public discourse about it. Insurers, church owners and infrastructure owners were calling for action, but with little acknowledgment in policy circles that the issue calls for a national, strategic response (with the exception of the British Transport Police perhaps). However, the terrain has now changed dramatically. Proposals for reform of our existing laws regulating scrap metal dealers are now being developed by the Government, and on a daily basis the media is permeated with outraged depictions of metal theft. This heightened level of public ‘noticing’ of metal theft is relatively new, and seems to have coincided with  thefts of metal plaques from war memorials around the date of our national wartime remembrance day (11th November). Many media  debates on the topic are framed by reference to the ‘desecration of war graves’ trope. This powerful cultural totem has given metal theft the ‘push’ it needed to lodge in public consciousness and become a ‘national’ rather than a ‘local’ issue.

This mix of patriotism and the protective urges of the bereaved makes for a powerful counter-force, and one which seems to have an enduring resonance. In short, the metal theft debate now has something to latch on to. In a separate study of the power of the bereaved [4] I found grave owners to be a particularly powerful counter-force to the tightening of cemetery health and safety rules. It seems that community may have an important role to play now in countering metal theft.

Metal theft and pillage studies

Metal thieves are often likened to Vandals. This invokes the imagery of the Barbarian hordes sacking Rome and bringing on the Dark Ages. Yet the comparison is unfair to the Vandals – for the sacking of Rome (and there were various) was an orderly affair, with the Barbarian chieftains negotiating with the Vatican what buildings could (or could not) be stripped of their elements.

But it would be helpful to see metal theft as part of a wider study of pillage practices, rather than regarding it as wholly without precedent or analogue. In this regard I think there is much to be gained by looking at ways in which previous episodes of material extraction from the built environment have been organised (something now called – where done with permission – ‘urban mining’). I have in mind here tomb raiding (for treasure), grave robbing (for bodies) and wartime scrap drives.

As I wander around my home city I am reminded at each house frontage of a prior wave of urban mining that took place during the Second World War. Each house I pass shows the stump remnants of the former iron fencing removed and sent for conversion into armaments (a reversal of the more commonly referenced ‘swords into ploughshares’ metaphor). This wave of part-voluntary, part-mandated surrender of a nation’s railings reminds us of the scale to which metal is embedded within our built environment, and the power of the state to requisition it in extremis.

I have commented briefly elsewhere on the links to tomb raiding, so let me here focus on body snatching. The theft of cadavers from fresh graves became a pressing policy and public-outrage issue in early Victorian Britain. The growth of medical schools and the shortage of lawfully available bodies for dissection provoked a (very) black market in grave robbing by the (so called) ‘Resurrection Men”, such as the famous Burke & Hare (who took the ‘rational’ next step of not troubling to exhume bodies from graves, but adopted the more direct body-supplying method of murder). At the height of the body snatching crime wave citizens fearing for the fate of their mortal remains devised a variety of technological and locational solutions to thwart would-be grave robbers. After much parliamentary debate, the Anatomy Act 1832 increased the lawful supply of corpses for dissection and the lure of the illegal trade faded away[5].

To see a human body as a pillgable commodity is an extreme (but familiar) logic that we see in metal theft, as is the public outcry now attendant to it, and the groping towards legislative and market-changing solutions.

What we see in metal theft is an inversion of normal regard of ‘things in use’. To return to our example of earlier, a hammer is normally regarded as tool (if it is thought of at all). It is a single ‘thing’ and it exists to be used on occasion as a device. It has value derived from its functional utility that is greater than its component value. Only when it falls out of use – i.e. when it becomes worn out or broken – should any attention turn to its other value, its commodity (i.e. exchange) value. Karl Marx[6] saw the tension between use-value and exchange-value as a fundamental problem within Capitalism. In short, Capitalism’s tendency to focus upon the saleable (i.e. exchange) value potential of a commodity may lead to the under appreciation of its use-value. If we apply this to metal theft, at times of high metal prices, the hammer’s parts might become sufficiently attractive for it to be viewed as an assemblage of valuable commodities – some steel, some wood, rather than as a tool.

In metal theft we see the raw ascendancy of an exchange value mentality – and in the public backlash (and glimmer of an enhanced appreciation of use of metallic elements in infrastructure) we see (hopefully) a re-assertion of use-value.


[1] Bennett, L (2008) ‘Assets under attack: metal theft, the built environment and the dark side of the global recycling market’ Environmental Law & Management 20, 4: 176-186 and Bennett, L. (2008) Metal Theft: anatomy of a resource crime (unpublished – draft available at http://shura.shu.ac.uk/4125)

[2] Heidegger, M. (1927; 1978) Being and Time, Wiley-Blackwell, London

[3] Miller, D. (2009) Stuff, Polity, Bristol.

[4] Bennett, L. & Gibbeson, C. (2010) ‘Perceptions of Occupiers’ Liability risk by estate managers: a case study of memorial safety in English cemeteries’, International Journal of Law in the Built Environment 2, 1: 76-93.

[5] For a fascinating study of body snatching and the rise of the 1832 Act see: Richardson, R (1989) Death, Dissection and the Destitute, Penguin, London.

[6] Marx, K. (1867; 1990) Capital: Critique of Political Economy Volume 1, Penguin, London. (See chapter one ‘commodities’).


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

One Response to Why do we only notice metal when it hurts? – Some sideways thoughts on metal theft

  1. Pingback: Metal theft & memory theft – valuing sentiment in punishing war memorial attacks « lukebennett13

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