Dust, the Ledger of Past Existence

From which we came and to which we shall return, an Object Lesson
Dust in beams (Alexis Madrigal)

Across the American Southwest, dust has become lethal.

Valley fever is transmitted by fungi-laced dust that blows from dumping and construction sites, as well as from the deserts of Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas. As Dana Goodyear recently described in The New Yorker, in the most severe cases, airborne fungi infect patients’ lungs, bone marrow, and brain. One breath can result in a lifetime of suffering, or even death.

Valley fever is a stark reminder about the nature of dust, which, seemingly innocuous and domesticated, is an always present potential danger pervading the atmosphere, well beyond the confines of the households it is usually associated with.

Dust is a ledger of past existence: dead skin cells and plant pollen, hair and paper fibers. Dust is also an ephemeral gathering place for dust mites and fungi. It is at once a random community of what has been and what is yet to be, and a figure of dispersion: a loose assemblage that barely holds together, always ready to catch a ride on the flows of air and relocate elsewhere…or to fall apart. It can be anywhere. Due to its high mobility and its smallness, it can penetrate our bodies. Dust does not limit itself to the surfaces of the things it covers; in fact, it knows no distinction between the inside and the outside.


Finally, dust is ineliminable. We cannot do away with it for good, since no matter how much we try to “clean” it, we only unsettle and move the unbearably light refuse from one place to another. Whatever threats or promises it harbors, we can rest assured that it will eternally return, not as dramatically as ghosts or specters but quietly and cumulatively, like the falling snow.

It is not an accident that two of the most thought-provoking recent books on the subject—Joseph Amato’s 2000 Dust: A History of the Small & the Invisible and Carolyn Steedman’s 2001 Dust: The Archive and Cultural History—dwell on the ways that this stuff can make us sick. Dust is a source of infections, industrial air pollution, and the all-too-literal archive fever that can lead a scholar, who has been exposed to the crumbling leather of book bindings, to develop migraine headaches or to break out in hives. The so-called Great Cleanup, initiated in the nineteenth century, was powerless when it came to stopping the onslaught of dust. “As dust and dirt are banished,” Amato admits, “waste and garbage multiply.”

Isn’t the war on dust, central to the rise of modern hygiene, analogous to the political hygiene of the war on terror? Doesn’t the fight against terrorism similarly dislocate the largely invisible and eminently mobile political phenomenon it combats from one hot spot to another, whilst multiplying the possibilities for destruction and hatred—the proverbial “waste and garbage” of globalization? Aren’t those who have initiated this war bound to lose it, just as one is certain to be defeated in the war on dust?

Friedrich Nietzsche, sufferer of migraine headaches
possibly caused by dust in the archives.

More than a simple analogy, the relation between physical and political regimes of hygiene is a hint that it will be virtually impossible to detain dust in the realm of conceptuality, with its clear differentiations between literal and metaphoric significations. Dust is so pervasive that it fills material space as much as the space of thought in literature and theology, philosophy and cultural anthropology. It nestles among the keys with which I type this essay. It envelops everything without exception, including ourselves. Indeed, it exists on, in, and even as us.

We contribute to the multiplication of dust through our large-scale industries and by merely living, shedding dead skin cells, hair, and other byproducts of our life process. But we also are it, as the Bible and Shakespeare tell us: the former directly and famously announces in the aftermath of Adam and Eve’s Fall in Genesis 3:19 that “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”; the latter uses Hamlet’s nihilistic soliloquy in Act II, Scene 2 of the play to rhetorically ask about the human, “What is this quintessence of dust?” To battle with dust is to fight against ourselves, albeit no longer recognizable as such.

Dust blurs the boundaries not only between literal and metaphorical meanings, but also between the living and the dead, plant and animal matter, the inside and the outside, you and the world. In it, supposed opposites are combined without any contradiction. Because of the connections dust creates, it draws everything and everyone into its boundless association.

Your eyelash and a few cotton threads from your t-shirt, pollen from a birch tree that grows outside the window, a number of tiny mites—all of these things mingle just because they all happened to be in the same place at the same time, becoming dust. With equal ease, dust may fall apart the moment you pass by, disturbing small amalgams spinning around on the floor with your very movement. But while they stick together, they are something other than what they were separately. As dust, the eyelash and cotton threads and pollen and the mites receive a new lease on life and, no doubt, a new meaning.

Presented by

Michael Marder is the Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country in Vitoria-Gasteiz. He is the author of Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life.

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