Porosity and Purity: Examining “Dust”

Levi Bryant discusses the idea of “porosity” in relation to black, ecology, stating: “This porosity is a central dimension of black objects and is of crucial concern to ecological thought, for often what ecological thinkers are most concerned with is how encounters with other substances changes the nature of things.” (292) In her collection, “The Book of the Dead,” Muriel Rukeyser examines the 1930s the Hawks Nest Tunnel tragedy brought about by silica mining. In this case, the very literal porosity of human lungs led to the eventual death of the miners. Lungs are particularly porous organs, with sponge-like tissue that absorbs whatever we breath in. Ironically enough, our bronchial tubes are lined with cilia, or very small hairs that move in waves to free debris, mucus, and dust from the lungs.  After becoming exposed to silica dust during the mining process, hundreds of workers became afflicted with silicosis. The silica dust these miners breathed causes scarring in the lungs, destroying the porous material that allows blood to oxygenate.

The silica mined proved incredibly valuable for production, as well as the eventual advancement of industry (silica assists steel production), even as it led to the death of living components of society. It is also fascinating to note that silica is also beautiful–a crystal-like rock, it shimmers in the light, refracting rainbow where the sun shines through. This substance, ground down to dust, remains breathtaking (literally), becoming a “deadly beauty.” (we never took the time to look at what this silica was actually doing to lungs)(it looks terrible)(like the craters left behind by bombs)

I also am curious how this idea would interact with Mary Douglas’s conception of “dirt” and impurity, which she explores in her essay, “Dirt: Purity and Danger.” Douglas discusses the idea that dirt goes against the idea of order, and “In chasing dirt, in papering, decorating, tidying we are not governed by anxiety to escape disease, but are positively re-ordering our environment, marking it conform to an idea.” (2) In attempting to create order (civilization through production), humans create dust (silica), which in turn destroys the “building blocks of civilization” (humans); instead of attempting to fix this issue (rid themselves of dust), the company chose to ignore the issue.

I’m not quite sure if I’m just reaching here?? I’m just really interested in the intersection between humans and dust/dirt in Rukeyser’s poetry.

X-rays and thoughts…

In X-ray, Timothy Morton returned to this appeal for an ecology without nature, reminding me of some thoughts I had when we read Ecological Thought. The request to take nature out of the ecological equation didn’t settle with me at first; I think this is because I’ve always had positive connotations with the term. But then Morton explained the capitalized term Nature and it began to make a lot more sense. Even just the capitalization of Nature brought the argument into perspective for me. Capitalizations, in general, are used for proper nouns, words that refer to designated things or beings and that reflect the intricacies of our languages. Just that we can take the word “nature” and use it to discuss our earthly surroundings intrinsically separates us from them, especially when one considers the context in which “nature” is often found in. We don’t use “nature” to talk about the wood that holds up our houses or the coal that generates our electricity but it’s there and it’s still a part of nature.

On the other hand, our common use of the word nature to talk about things like old growth forests and coral reefs reflects our desire for only the charismatic parts of the earth. Look at Nemo- with all the colorful fish living their highly humanized lives- or the ancient trees that come to life in Lord of the Rings. These concepts of nature are highly synthesized and tainted into becoming our own versions of them. The stuffed salmon from class is a perfect segway into the realization that humans have become so distant and estranged from the earth that they find nonhuman matter fascinating, especially when they’re aesthetically pleasing.  Morton’s claim that “nature is the reduction of nonhuman beings to their aesthetic appearance for humans” rings such a loud bell in my head and randomly makes me think of Outdoor World. At the store near my home, there is a gigantic tank of catfish and bass other huge fish swimming in circles. I think it is important to realize that those fish- like the ones in our own fish bowls- are there not to live life but to be looked at by humans as another, alien form of life.

The Dark Descent

This idea is still being worked out, so I apologize if some of my points are too obtuse.

In The Book of the Dead, the section entitled “Power” literally details a tour of a power-plant, but figuratively explores a descent into a both literary and personal Darkness. At the beginning of the poem, words like “brilliant”, “light-pointed”, and “skin-white” craft an image of Heaven, an idealistic zone of pure intention and good thought.

Below this lies “the road to take when you think of your country”, a power-plant of “grey-toned” stone but with light shining “from three-story windows”. This is the Earth, a gritty place dominated by man-made objects, no longer containing the immediate “brilliance” of Heaven, but with light still observable from a distance. Here resides the human experience and sense of identity within themselves and their environs, and it is no coincidence that a human provides a tour of this facility of self-reflection.

In case the stratification of the planes and the descent through them isn’t apparent, Rukeyser calls the next level the “world of inner shade”, the “second circle”, a reference to the circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. The second circle, Gluttony, is the dark center of the human, the cold heart of the power-plant. The planned tunnel is by humans for humans, but once veneers of quality of life improvements, providing jobs, and industrial progress are stripped away from the concept,  the plant is created and funded for one common purpose:to provide wealth to the elite who crave it, at the cost of others’ capital, labor, and lives.

The ultimate conclusion to this ravenous appetite for wealth is provided from the bottom level, the “after-night”: Death itself. Here is the unsalvagable, “all the light burns out”. You “cannot ascend”. Here the lies eternally echo on the pitch-black tunnel walls, a monologue of deceit and self-justification who’s only audience are the damned and the dead. This is the resultant of the subjugation of nature and the human, of the allowance of idle selfishness to ignore the plight of the silenced worker. “This”, as Rukeyser ominously prophisizes, “is the end”.