DUST by Joseph A. Amato


A History of the Small and the Invisible
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Never favored with a great press (except when made of gold or spices), dust finally gets the full social, scientific, and historical treatment. Cultural historian Amato (Southwest State Univ., Minnesota) chooses what lies at the limits of visibility to the naked eye as a cultural turning point. Before Leeuwenhoek, humans accepted dust as the ultimate smallness, an inevitable, sometimes potent, and often inimical presence. Noting distinctions between airborne dust and earthy, excremental dirt, Amato provides memorable descriptions of just how much of both formed the environment of the average medieval peasant, king, or queen. Meanwhile, scholars pondered what lay beyond the visible and speculated on the ultimate constituents of matter, be they Democritus’ atoms or the four humors. With the microscope came revelations of a hitherto invisible world. But it was not until the industrial revolution that society began “the great cleanup” and medicine discovered the germ theory of disease. Herein lies a paradox dear to Amato: The very inventions that brought light, heat, running water, and sanitation to society created new miasmas and particulate matter to darken and poison the earth. Today we live suspended between an ever-enlarging macrocosm and physicists— increasing focus on the smallest of the small. Yet we still fear viruses and prions, toxic waste and radioactive fallout. This fear has inspired an ecological quasi-religion Amato treats with some contempt, observing that believers have redefined contamination and pollution as inorganic, synthetic, and artificial, forgetting that nature is not intrinsically benign. Despite our enlightenment, Amato finds human beings still “mired” in bodies and belief systems that defy the new microcosmic reality in favor of myths and magic and the belief in ourselves as the measure of all things. Readers may not agree with Amato’s pessimism, but there’s no denying he has forcefully underscored just how much humankind has both suffered and feared, celebrated and revered, the visible world of dust.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-520-21875-2
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Univ. of California
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2000