Eric Boyd | 16 June 2022
Dust is the material articulation of the entanglement of broken-down bodily substances and an ambient marker of the temporality of domestic life. In Kiruna, a mining town located approximately 100km north of the Arctic Circle in Northern Sweden that is currently undergoing resettlement, comminute particles sluiced from body and home are mixed with the remnants of pulverised bedrock from which the mine extracts its iron ore and matter pared from the decaying facades of evacuated buildings within the area being resettled, known as the deformation zone.
As the philosopher Michael Marder (2016) clarifies in his object lesson on dust, it is an intrinsic material component of both life and death. Dust is the particulate veneer through which the external world is encountered, its presence around us the amalgamation of the constant decomposition of self and the environment, and therefore irreducible. Dust is material evidence of time as macerator, “as a sign for the destruction of the past and for the surviving remnants of the present” (ibid;42); it is the past made spatial, on a minute yet ubiquitous scale. As amalgamated residual materials of multiple decaying bodies and objects, dust is also a material in its own right. As such, I would be remiss not to dwell on dust’s ubiquitous presence and how that presence can inform a discussion on deeper entanglements between ruination and the inhabitants of Kiruna’s deformation zone.
Dwelling on dust as residual constituent matter born of the decay of materials both human and not, lends itself to exploring a broader question: why focus on the normative, ubiquitous nature of decay? As anthropologist Ghassan Hage writes: “Given that everything is decaying all the time, with the exception of ethico-religious or philosophical reason […] making a point of spelling out that “things are decaying” seems banal […] Thus, the question arises: what kind of experience of decay makes “decay” into our consciousness?” (2019;3). Decay, of course, is built into entropy, the second law of thermodynamics; that everything necessarily tends from a point of cohesion towards accumulating disorder and chaos, signified by erosion and collapse, is the principle state of being in the universe.
Degradation of the physical works in step with the degradation of the social (Schubert, 2019), and recognising the entanglement between physicality and sociality of dereliction broadens the scope of what systems dust and decay can be used to interrogate, alluding to an ecology of ruination in and of the landscape. By this, I mean that ruination, dereliction, the processes of decay that give rise to the ubiquity of dust upon a world, can be registered as fluid, shifting between and amalgamating organic and inorganic networks in decline, between internal systems enmeshed with their externalities. Returning to Hage (2019), he furthers the notion of entwining decay as an external phenomenon with the internalisation of its logic by framing decay as two co-productive processes: “endo-decay, where things decompose from the inside, and processes of exo-decay, where disintegration is caused by external environmental factors.” (ibid;6) Although Hage goes on to warn that division of decay into two sub-categories does not contain each classification neatly, given that “the two processes can often be entangled in the making and unmaking of social processes” (ibid). Instead, what highlighting this false dichotomy between internal and external allows is a focus on how decay is conceptualised and encountered, and what this can tell us about the dynamics that are productive of decay.
In short, what an inquiry into the presence of dust begets is questions on the role of maintenance and the power dynamics bound up by an environment in pronounced states of decay. Namely: who is responsible for this decay? What is the underlying premise that facilitates and furthers the multiple banal yet integral processes of decay? What is the maintenance being performed to aid those that live within the disfigurement and ruin of their surrounding environment?
In Kiruna, what dust can tell us in relation to maintenance and the deformation zone is what buildings, and as such, whose lives within, are worthy of being maintained, and whose are left to decay and ruin. Dust can tell us whether there are systems and measures in place to protect those lives and livelihoods from their decaying with and within their surroundings. Dust can primarily tell us about the absence of maintenance or care in Kiruna.
Beyond all this, what focusing on dust asks of me, as a supposed social scientist, is this: how do I make what at first may seem so ubiquitous, or minute, or both, as to be insignificant at first encounter, significant? Was it always significant? Had I only noticed what was right in front of me the whole time? Has the rigour horse bolted the brain barn?
Eric is a third-year PhD student studying social anthropology through the Durham Arctic Interdisciplinary Research Group and is a Visiting Researcher at SGS.
Hage, G., (2021) States of Decay, Decay, Durham and London, Duke University Press.
Marder, M., (2016) Dust, London, Bloomsbury Publishing.
Schubert, V., (2021) Forever “Falling Apart” Semiotics and Rhetorics of Decay, Decay, Durham and London, Duke University Press.