restricted access Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible (review)
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Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible. By Joseph A. Amato (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. xii plus 250pp. $22.50).

In this work Joseph A. Amato undertakes the Herculean task of tracing from the Middle Ages to the present Western Society’s evolving sensibility about all things small. The title character, dust, appears during the preindustrial period as the smallest and most lowly of all things. It is omnipresent both physically and metaphorically, reminding humans of their mortality and their inability to control the most fundamental matters in their world. Amato asserts that with the advent of the industrial revolution and our improved ability to detect and perceive on the microscopic level, dust was supplanted by atoms, germs and so on, in both its claim to smallness and its metaphoric power. Dust retains for counterculture “purists” a positive association with the natural order, but for the most part Amato claims our fascination with and loathing of dust has been superseded by awe of other small things—microwaves, viruses, prions, and quarks.

The text is a testimony to both Amato’s impressive command of a wide variety of literature and his deep commitment to interdisciplinary humanistic study. One of the most interesting challenges he poses to historians of the mundane is that we take into account the necessary preconditions for the subjects we study. He reminds us that without changes in the technologies of glass and light we could neither see nor perceive dust as an enemy of social order. Finally, he is careful to assert in his conclusion that though the process of our attending to increasingly smaller and more particular things occured in the culture at large, most ordinary people have not experienced a paradigm shift. Contemporary westerners accept both the dangers and benefits of our ability to control small things without much reflection. For example, we engage in rituals to ward against stray microwaves that resemble the mid-twentieth century housewives’ cleaning rites, but in both cases these rituals represent superstition more than a shifting worldview.

Amato’s vision that Western society is marked by a growing mindfulness of ever smaller and more particular things is appealing, as is his sense that our conception of dust and of all things small has both real and symbolic power. Nonetheless in his breadth of vision lies a fundamental weakness with his account. To cover the span of time he hopes to illuminate Amato must leave out a great deal. One of the most peculiar omissions in a book entitled dust is the absense of any attention to our increasing awareness of the dangers of the dust created by deteriorating lead paint in homes with small children. Perhaps this is because public attention to this phenomenon is at odds with Amato’s claim that ordinary household dust is no longer a source of fear.

Though I may be guilty of being caught in the same obsession with the small that Amato critques, it strikes me that his study could do with more careful attention to the particular. The text sweeps through time at a breakneck pace. His discussion of the preindustrial incorporates ideas from several centuries in several places as though all were one and the same. In the chapter on the great clean up he lists domestic amenities invented from 1790 through 1920 as though there were no distinctions in the reasons for, use of, or methods of their production. His discussion of contemporary scientific debate on nanotechnology [End Page 445] similarly blurs the evolution in the last half of the twentieth century of scientific understanding of the small and our ability to control it.

Amato also tries to make very small things speak volumes more than they are capable of supporting. For example, he asserts that in the industrial age working class “children knew their place and their parents by their distinct dusts.” (p 90) He bases this claim on a single fictionalized account of immigrant life on the shores of Lake Superior in the early twentieth century. He concludes the chapter on lighting up the microcosm with the amazing claim that our ability to control the minute “... more than...