The Ghosts of the Past, Present and Future: An exploration into dust as a medium, a medium and a medium
Fine, dry powder consisting of tiny particles of earth or waste matter lying on the ground or on surfaces or carried in the air.
(Collins Dictionary, 2016)
Dust is ubiquitous, it pervades everything, indiscriminately coating the surfaces of all that it encounters, leaving a grey, lighter than air film upon all. Dust has no agenda, it happily follows the contours of a marble desk belonging to the king of a long past society, as it does a humble library shelf; but to the majority of persons, it is a nuisance. It is something to be removed through the art of dusting, a vehicle of mischief for those with an aversion to dead skin and pollen, or a weapon of mass destruction when in double concentrated form, as industrial grade dust. For dust mites, it is a pleasant semi-detached in a nice neighbourhood. For all of its seemingly negative qualities within contemporary society, and our obsession with its removal from human lives, dust is the lifeblood of our planet. Top quality, natural dust, provides humans with the bluest sky, the most beautiful sunsets, the ability to see the world around us. Much like bottled water or compressed air for scuba diving, could we utilise dust as a medium? Moreover, with dust acting as a fluffy barrier between humans and the objects of our desire, could it equally be used as a medium to communicate on and through? As an artist uses paint to convey the beauty of the world, could humans employ the power of dust to turn a grey vista into full 4K resolution? Digging deeper, six feet under specifically; with ordinary house dust comprising of dead human skin, dead insects and dead plant matter, along with a myriad of other wondrous components, could dust be seen as medium to ‘talk’ to those who have long since shuffled off this mortal coil? Is dust the visible afterlife, surrounded by life, housing life and harbinging the components to end life? Exploring the writings and arguments of philosopher Michael Mader, scholar Joseph A. Amato and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, along with other dust aficionados, I aim to argue that dust is more than a monochrome collection of annoyances, it provides a tapestry of the past, a brighter, more beautiful present, and a window into the future.
Chapter One: Past
a person claiming to be in contact with the spirits of the dead and to communicate between the dead and the living.
(Collins Dictionary, 2016)
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house –
The walls, the wainscoat and the mouse,
The death of hope and despair,
This is the death of air.
S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’
(Cited in Marder, 2016, p51)
Dust is the one universal constant that binds the animate and inanimate together; a final resting place for any thing that has existed upon this earth. Left undisturbed, dust will continue to settle, building layer upon noiseless layer of grey particles, slowly building a tapestry of history within its greyscale community; each layer a visual indicator that life has existing here before. We humans do not like this dust. A house full of dust is perceived by the many as a house not maintained, not cared for. So we dust. Furiously, furtively, futility. As the philosopher Michael Marder states in his book, Dust, ‘Dust has the air of destructible indestructibility’ (Marder, 2016, p45). Like a squatter in your home, it can be moved on with excessive force – or a brush of a feather duster – but it merely floats towards a new destination, ready to settle down again. So why do humans continue to dust? Contained within this traditional, old school, household dust is death. Dead human skin, dead vegetation, dead insects; ‘mainly…the material traces of our own bodily existence’, (Marder, 2016, p6). Visit the home of the recently deceased and contained within the dust are the everlasting traces of Aunt Meryl. By the very act of dusting, humans are in fact becoming morticians to the ones they held so dear. A professional cleaner, unbeknownst to them, are running their fingers through a lifetime of death. Aunt Meryl’s husband will not be pleased.
‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’ Genesis 3:19 (Cited in Amato, 2000, p15)
As Marder argues, dust ‘is not the homogenous residue of decay, but an intimate trace, a spatial testimony to the singular journey of each being through time’, (Marder, 2016, p81). The dusty remains of someone lingers perennially within dust, long past their death. When someone dies, does this mean that they are still around? Remove all ‘known’ existence of the person from a home – leaving an ‘empty’ shell – does the person still remain? Dust yields the testimony of their existence, the grey remains of their skin, their life, their death. By the dictionary definition of a medium – ‘a person claiming to be in contact with the spirits of the dead and to communicate between the dead and the living’ (Collins Dictionary, 2016), dust has all the elements needed to be classed as a medium; as a way of communicating the past to the living. Scholar and author of Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible, Joseph A. Amato succinctly states that: ‘Bodily wastes – associated with dust as a part of the earth – were understood to embody a person’s essence’, (Amato, 2000, p18). If a person’s essence is held within dust, then to communicate with the dead – to use dust as a medium to the afterlife – humans simply need to pay attention to the small stuff. As Marder puts it: ‘…dust chronicles both the gradual break up of beings and how they get a second lease on life, the opportunity to lead a posthumous existence’, (Maren, 2016, p38).
‘…humans are nothing but dust looking through dust at dust’ (Marder, 2016, p16)
Chapter Two: Present
an agency or means of doing something.
(Collins Dictionary, 2016)
‘Dust as an element cannot claim the glory of light, the subtlety of air, the solidarity of earth, or the vitality of water, even though it envelops galaxies, circles planets, and hides in the bedrooms of kings and queens. Scattered throughout the atmosphere and the universe, its refracting power helps account for why and how humans see light itself. It explains blue skies and daylight, with the array of rich and diffuse colours we cherish. Dust’s refracting power also explains why so little light – visible radiation – reaches the earth in its long trek from the sun.’ (Amato, 2000, p5)
For all of the of the bad press dust receives in the human world, without it, humans would be trapped within monochrome monotony. As naturalist Alfred Wallace states: ‘Without dust the sky would appear absolutely black, and the stars would be visible even at noonday. The sky itself would therefore give us no light. We should have bright glaring sunlight or intensely dark shadows, with hardly any half-tones’, (Wallace, 1898). Like the dust mites that call dust home, we would effectively be blind to the beauty of nature; surrounded by fifty shades of grey. But why? What does dust do to make the world so vivid, so full of riches? As argued by Marder: ‘Think about the place of dust in the translucent media of perception – the air or light…if this invisible [air] is populated with dust, then it is no longer completely imperceptible. Dust flakes hovering in a ray of light (say under a lit lamp) reveal that ray, its extent and direction, along with our lived space, never as transparent as we believe’, (Marder, 2016, p20). Dust is the ubiquitous, omnipresent nomad, hiding in the shadows, yet without it, we all would be in shadow. These tiny fragments in the air can only be seen when light settles upon them, but if the dust were not present, there would be nothing for the light to interact with. We would never see the light until it settles on a hard surface. Dust provides light the canvas to construct ‘nature’s kaleidoscopic color-painting’ (Wallace, 1898). Without dust we would be held in a world of darkness or light.
‘A handful of dust is as wonderful as a solar system if we rightly interpret the evidence it presents of use, perfection of design, and the working out of the laws that are stupendous and eternal as those that brought forth a Sirius or a Pole Star’, (Ogden, 1911, 845).
If dust enables light to be seen and light brings us the ability to see dust and with it all the beauty of the world, then could we use dust as a way of propagating colour to a part of the world that is a deluge of grey- the literal dropping of a dust bomb? Could we take grey dust to a grey part of the world, where grey people sit and work in grey buildings dressed in grey suits discussing the greyness of the weather, and drop the bomb? It is argued that dust could become a medium for distributing colour. Amato states that: ‘Dust’s ambiguous metaphorical place as both the most ordinary and the finest of things derived from its role as a frontier between the seen and unseen’, (Amato, 2000, p20). With our Dust Bomb winging its way to John Major’s house, from the most ordinary – dust – the finest colours of the earth will erupt. From the transparency of the air, (the unseen), the addition of dust makes seeing worth believing.
When the lamp is shattered,
The light in the dust lies dead;
When the cloud is scattered,
The rainbow’s glory is shed.
(Cited in Wallace, 1898)
Chapter Three: Future
the intervening substance through which sensory impressions are conveyed or physical forces are transmitted.
(Collins Dictionary, 2016)
‘Dust is everything and nothing having received particles from all that exists, but not having bestowed upon these particles a new determinate form. Dust is the medium, through which everything communes with the nothing it is about to become’. (Marder, 2016, p78)
Within our exploration of the mysterious grey matter that is dust, we have argued – with supporting evidence from Amato, Marder and Wallace – that dust is the chameleon of the unseen world. It is the the visible afterlife; a spiritual medium to the life of a human held within a dusty layer cake of death. Poor Meryl. We have seen that when dust and air embrace in a slow dance to Bette Midler, You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings, all the natural beauty of the world finally can be seen by the human eye. Dust becomes the medium for ‘a display of gorgeous ever-changing tints…which are at once the delight of the beholder and the despair of the artist. And all this unsurpassable glory we owe to–dust!’, (Wallace, 1898).
We have explored the past and present, of dust, but what of the future? If humans were to collect dust from the rooms of professors, could it be sold as smart dust to budding students? Would the dust from a nursery – young dust – be best distributed in a hospital to help speed up the healing process? Could humans collect the dust from the home of an alzheimer’s sufferer and spread it around their new, warden controlled flat, to help them settle in? To feel at home? What would happen if humans used dust as a weapon of mass dustruction? As Amato explains: ‘In the earliest phases, the Industrial Revolution appeared to do nothing for human health or cleanliness. To the contrary…industry seemed to be creating a fouler and dustier world….In some of the dusty trades, the excessive amount of premature mortality is so great as to justify interference.’ (Amato, 2000, p71). As humans, we have turned common garden dust into a deadly source of grey, silent death. Sending people to an early grave; turning them into dust. Ironically, the very act of ‘producing more ways of controlling dust, has added enormously to the varieties and dangers of dust in such forms as radioactive particles, smog, and toxic materials.’ (Amato, 2000, pxii). Could dust become a medium ‘through which sensory impressions are conveyed or physical forces are transmitted’, (Collins Dictionary, 2016)? Only time will tell. One thing that is certain with dust, is that it is anything but medium. As the late, great, now dust, David Bowie said:
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do
Amato, J. (2000) Dust: A History of The Small and The Invisible: University of California Press
Bowie, D. (1969). Space Oddity. [MP3] London: Phillips.
Collinsdictionary.com, (2016). Collins. [online] Available at: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/ [Accessed 1/12/2016].
Marder, M. (2016) Dust (Object Lessons): Bloomsbury Academic
Ogden, J. (1911). The Kingdom of Dust. Popular Mechanics, pp. 845-850.
Wallace, A (1898). The Importance of Dust: A Source of Beauty and Essential to Life. Available at: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S547.htm [Accessed 30/11/2016].