22 June 2021

Review: Dust by Michael Marder

Dust by Michael Marder book cover

* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia *

Dust by Michael Marder is the fifth title in my series of book reviews drawn from the Object Lessons series by Bloomsbury Academic. The series aims to take average items from our everyday lives and explore them in brief for the reader's enjoyment and I was very much looking forward to Dust.

I thought Marder was going to give us the science on what dust is, what it is made of, how it varies in different locations, how it travels and settles and our constant efforts to remove it. I hoped he was going to touch on cool topics like: space dust, coal dust, 911 dust, dust storms, asbestos and cosmic dust, but alas, you'll find none of that here. Marder makes it clear early on that he is going to be examining dust through the eyes of a philosopher.
"To take the correlation between the dust that we are and the dust outside us at face value is to jump into a thicket of metaphysical issues." Page 8
I tried to keep up, but the more philosophers he quoted from (Jean Paul-Sartre, Husserl, Leibniz, Plato, Nietzsche, Kant and Aristotle to name drop a few) and the more philosophical his writing became, the more my eyes rolled back into my skull.
"What I like about the allegory of dusting is that it elucidates how critique, reduction, or deconstruction cannot achieve their objectives once and for all. Just as dust will continue accumulating after every attempt to get rid of it, so prejudices and preconceptions will keep accruing after analysis (no matter how radical) shakes received ideas to the core." Page 15
While it was fun to go and look up words from the book I didn't know, (e.g. fugacious refers to something that is quick to disappear, fleeting or not lasting very long), the novelty quickly wore off and I began to slowly drown in this pretentious waffle.

Those with allergies won't be happy to read that after several pages of philosophical argument, allergies have been reduced to:
"... the misplaced reactions of spirit out of place to matter out of place." Page 58-59
Marder's thoughts on dusting had me wondering whether his place is covered in sheets of dust and the corners of his abode populated by dust bunnies.
"The daily fight against dust on the invisible domestic front is fated to displace and redistribute rather than eliminate it. But to displace 'matter out of place' is to obey its own anarchic directive! We labor under the misconception that, in the course of cleaning or dusting, we expel the undesirable from the dwelling and, with this sweepingly decisive gesture, reassert the law of the house, its economy. We work to prevent the 'foreign work' of allergic reaction. Yet, foreign to itself, dust has already challenged and enervated our designs from the get-go." Page 59-60
And then we get to Chapter 5, A Community of Remnants which reads like a scrapbook of ideas and quotes from authors with the word 'dust' in them, that had no relation to each other. It's almost as if the author had too much content for the Object Lessons format and had to leave these random thought bubbles and idea dumps on the page. Remnants is the perfect description for this chapter, and I'm not exaggerating. Each entry was encapsulated in curly brackets, here's an example:
"{{Let's be crystal clear: Dust is not a symbol of anarchic communities. It is their all-too-real apotheosis.}}" Page 73
These random snippets were just that, random and nonsensical and seemed to be copied straight from the author's clipboard. But the author really lost me when he wondered on Page 76:
"What would an eyelash say, wordlessly, to minuscule bits of a sofa's faux leather, with which it mingles in the dust?"
Earlier in the book, Marder had been arguing that dust is essentially part of us, it is made up of us, and when we try and clear it away, we're clearing away ourselves or rendering ourselves anonymous. I thought this was ridiculous, and this reverence for dust struck me as odd. We leave evidence of our bodies behind all the time on our clothes, on our dishes and in our bathrooms but we don't second guess our desire to clean them away do we? The idea that dust particles might talk to each other? Sorry, you've lost me there.

When the author was addressing his 'imaginary interlocutors' on page 82, I'm almost certain he wasn't imagining me. I'm definitely not his target audience. I'm not an aspiring philosopher, armchair philosopher, a student of philosophy or an academic who enjoys a deep dive into the metaphysical nature of things. I'm just not. I'm a reader with a wide range of interests who enjoys non-fiction, and I've got to say, I have never seen such pomposity on the page.

I will say there were one or two sparks of interest, such as this one from page 22:
"...extensive glaciers on Mars would have evaporated long ago, were it not for thick layers of dust protecting the ice." Page 22 
Fascinating! As was the mention of the use of dust in art towards the end of the book. Sadly, there were very few moments like these, with the content being largely inaccessible to the average reader. Dust by Michael Marder has been written for a select and elite group of readers and doesn't have a wide appeal.

Next in the series is Silence by John Biguenet, and I have much higher hopes for that one.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. Pretentious waffle is definitely not my thing :)

    1. Mine either Shelleyrae! I wonder if this can be classified as an essay collection for your non fiction reading challenge. An essay collection usually covers a range of topics though, and this covers just one. Perhaps not.


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