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Poetics of Dust

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Organizer: Jocelyn Holland

Co-Organizer: Christine Lehleiter

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The pervasiveness of dust in the key areas of modern thought -- and in particular: religion, literature, and science -- can scarcely be overstated. The Christian idea of a cyclical departure from and return to dust, most poignantly articulated in the refrain ashes to ashes, dust to dust in the Book of Common Prayer, expands in modernity and transforms into a metaphor for rise and fall of civilizations. For Walter Benjamin, dust is “privileged […] as both an active force in the production of history and as a container for it” (Kessler 2005, 25). Even if any emergence of a new civilization is likely to coincide with the ruin and debris of another, Benjamin bases his project in late 19th-century Paris which -- under Haussmann’s ‘reign’ -- is demolished and rebuilt with the promise that a cleaner and healthier city will rise up from dust saturated with disease. Anxiety about dust, which feeds into modern fears of contamination, is associated with urban centers and population growth. Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain is just one novel whose characters embark on an ill-fated search for pure air, free of dust and pollution.
Other scientific contexts beyond the history of medicine also prove fertile ground for investigations into dust. The idea of Brownian motion, connected to the seemingly chaotic movement of dust particles, originates in Brown’s botanical studies from the 1820s. A few decades later, John Aitken’s experiments with dust particles and their “free surfaces” leads to advances in scientific understanding of sunset colors and other weather phenomena. Dust also offers a logical connection to detective fiction. Ian Burney writes that the French criminalist Edmond Locard “admits to borrowing ‘from the adventures of Sherlock the initial idea of studying clothing dust and dirt stains.’” (Burney 2013, 33).
This seminar is grounded conceptually in the 19th century, but the organizers are interested in modernity’s engagement with dust in general terms. We welcome a range of contributions that either focus on literary representations of dust or place literary thinking in conjunction with one of the other discourses where dust is thematized. Possible approaches could include (but are not limited to):
--The role of dust in specific genres (the 19th century realist novel, detective fiction, etc.)
--Dust’s symbolism in the domestic sphere (one classic example: the dust which piles up around Kafka’s Gregor Samsa as a sign of neglect but also a welcome refuge for the protagonist who finds a home in the debris of civilization).
--How dust figures into political narratives of creation and destruction
--A focus on the problem of dust as a particulate form (also in comparison with other ‘small forms’ from literary and scientific discourses, such as fragments and elements)
--The ways in which dust-related phenomena such as fog, smog, and sunsets are valued aesthetically and within narratives of modern anxieties about pollution.

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