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.

The senses of dust, ranging from the domestic to the cosmic, industrial to atmospheric, also accrue without any regard to the traditional distinctions between the products of nature and those of culture. Generally speaking, dust could be defined—if define it we must—in terms of the traces of matter, of what has been and is about to pass away, of what remains. But this definition would be utterly imprecise given that the traces of matter, mixed amongst themselves, are also habitats for microscopic creatures, spores, and the male gametes (the sperm cells of plants) colloquially known as pollen.

In other words, dust contains tangible reminders of the past, welcomes the living present, and breathes with the possibilities of future growth—even if this promise may quickly deteriorate into a threat in the cases of allergies and more serious ailments, such as valley fever. Dust’s gathering—and its dispersion—is the marker of time itself.

Poetically, Brazilian author Clarice Lispector dubs dust a filha das coisas, “the daughter of things.” She implies that things are productive (or, better, generative), since dust is their next generation, their manner of surviving, achieved at the cost of an identifiable form. Such family ties are everywhere: matter is the mother of dust-the-daughter, and the time of the world is that of filiation between the past of things and the future of their amorphous remains.

If we were more philosophically inclined, we would have concluded that dust is the evidence that there is something, rather than nothing—or, at least, that once upon a time there was something. And, if we were in the melancholy mood inspired by the book of Genesis, we would have said that our lives are nothing but detours from the dust of Creation’s past, through the dust of the present (which we also create and multiply), to the postmortem dust of the future.

Wikimedia Commons

Still, our reflections on dust need not be so somber or nihilistic. True: it can trigger various illnesses, but as soon as we peer behind its possible negative effects on our health, we discover a singular blueprint of a community—one which could actually be liberating. In the first place, should we accept the Shakespearian and Biblical thesis that we, humans, are the dust of the world, we would almost immediately drop our domineering and condescending attitude toward the environment. Like all the other organic and inorganic entities, we participate in the proliferation of dust, so that, in and as this trace of matter, we stand on the same footing with them.

The equalizing feature of dust is especially obvious if you have ever entered a house that has stayed locked for decades. In such a setting, dust levels down the differences among the things it covers: everything looks pale-gray and the edges of furniture are barely discernable. The uniqueness of whatever comprises this gray stuff is similarly dimmed down, as the divisions between living and dead cells, animal, plant, and human matter, organic and inorganic elements melt away, yet without forming a greater, overpowering whole.

The conjunction of objects that turn into dust is dynamic and unpredictable in how it decomposes and recomposes itself. It neither presupposes deep and essential belonging, nor requires a meticulous and hierarchical categorization of its members into classes. Persisting in memory of what has been, it is not devoid of a future. Compared to the suffocating and exclusionary groups based on ethnicity, race, or nationality, these characteristics are a breath of fresh air—paradoxically so, since what we are talking about here can provoke asthma attacks.

We are ready to embark on a positive revaluation of dust as the symbol of our finitude and of a more egalitarian relation to non-human beings. It awakens us from our millennia-long dreams of grandeur and literally brings us down to earth, as Hamlet suggests, when he mockingly calls the human “the beauty of the world” and “the paragon of animals” right before confessing that, for him, we are merely the “quintessence of dust”. That is a lesson in humility, which lies in the dust.

An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things