Dust (Object Lessons) by Michael Marder

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Dust (Object Lessons) by Michael Marder

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: A philosopher carries out an interdisciplinary study of dust: what it's made of, what it means, and how it informs our metaphors.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 114 Date: March 2016
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781628925586

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Dust is among the latest volumes in Bloomsbury's fascinating new 'Object Lessons' series. With titles ranging from Cigarette Lighter to Shipping Container, the books aim to explore the hidden histories of commonplace items. Here Marder approaches dust not as a scientist but as a philosopher: he is a professor at the University of the Basque Country, Spain. Nevertheless, he reminds readers that dust is largely composed of skin cells and hair, the detritus of our human bodies. Thus dusting – the verb form – is a kind of guilty attempt to clean up after ourselves, ultimately a futile and 'self-defeating occupation'.

In itself, Marder points out, dust is neither positive nor negative, but we give it various cultural meanings. In the Bible, it is the very substance of mortality: 'The first humans are fashioned out of dust, whence in the aftermath of the original sin they are bound to return. Dust is the womb of the sixth day of Creation and the tomb of fallen humanity.' Contrast this with its derogatory connotations through history: in the Victorian period 'dust' was used to refer to rubbish; today it's the sign of a poor housekeeper and a substance that obscures our vision.

Yet 'it bothers me that dust tends to be portrayed in the role of a villain', Marder writes. 'The war on dust, a hallmark of modern hygiene, reverberates with the political hygiene of the war on terror' – when the enemy is that nebulous it's hard to see how the conflict could ever be won. The contemporary profusion of allergies may, in fact, be an unintended consequence of our crusade against dust and other household allergens.

It is impossible to forget that Marder is a philosopher: his points of reference are Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Sartre and so on. His discussion is pleasingly wide-ranging, with some unexpected diversions – such as the metaphorical association between 'stardust' and celebrity, as with the Woody Allen film Stardust Memories and David Bowie's 'Ziggy Stardust' persona – but also some impenetrable jargon. Here are a few of the more puzzling passages I marked out:

'Dusting takes the metaphor of clarity, which uncomfortably endures in the midst of a discourse committed to nonmetaphoric veracity, back to unmitigated literalness.'

'Allergies to dust are meta-allergies to foreignness as foreignness, to a loose grouping that is aleatory (accidental) and is not bound by any inner connections.'

'Injustice, for its part, is the extraneous addition of stratum upon stratum of meaning to the spatiotemporal existence of things. Contesting these superimpositions, phenomenological reduction (epoché) is the yearning for basic justice.'

Not surprisingly, I had trouble following Marder's arguments at a few of these points. Nonetheless, at just over 100 pages this is a short and enjoyable read. I liked how the author characterised dust as an artefact left behind by ruined people and things: 'Allied to eternity, dust reigns over being and time, and gives the lie to the human presumption of power and culture.' I'd be interested to try certain other titles from the series, especially Bookshelf (Object Lessons) by Lydia Pyne and the forthcoming Shopping Mall.

Further reading suggestion: Other recent popular science titles we can recommend are Birth of a Theorem by Cedric Villani and Originals: How Non-conformists Change the World by Adam Grant.

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Buy Dust (Object Lessons) by Michael Marder at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dust (Object Lessons) by Michael Marder at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Dust (Object Lessons) by Michael Marder at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dust (Object Lessons) by Michael Marder at Amazon.com.


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