It creeps into our homes. Seemingly out of nowhere.
It slips into quiet corners, steals under cozy beds, and slides into confidential drawers. It hails from nowhere, yet lands everywhere and partakes of everything, cataloguing the minuscule detritus of flesh and fabric, pollens and toxins, microbes and minerals.
In its mysterious and mundane reappearance, dust is the quintessential “matter out of place”—a substance we try to remove to maintain socially acceptable standards of household cleanliness and personal hygiene. And it is this view that tends to dominate our thinking about Victorian dust, which often gets read as a symbolic marker of purity and pollution, demarcating the fraught boundary between disease and disinfection, urban squalor and bourgeois cleanliness.
But even as Victorian sanitary reformers worried about the corrupting effects of dust, Victorian geologists studied the mineralogical processes that linked together erosion, sedimentation, and crystallization; chemists analyzed the molecular processes that joined decomposition and recombination; and biologists investigated the cellular processes that connected degeneration and growth. That is, even as the Victorians were cleaning up, they were casting out new definitions of “dust.” Dust was not only matter out of place. It was matter borne on the stream of time, ceaselessly recombining itself into new formations.
In “Ruskin’s Dust,” I pursue the formative potential of Victorian dust by taking up John Ruskin’s lifelong interest in rock formation. While considered the foremost art critic of his day, Ruskin was also an amateur geologist, who turned his prodigious powers of observation not only to the sculpted contours of the Alps but also to the mineralogical composition of rocks. In his study of mountain geology, Ruskin developed his own idiosyncratic system of rock classification, which distinguished the “compact crystallines” from the “slaty crystallines” and the “slaty coherents” from the “compact coherents” based upon the degree to which they were “more or less frangible or soluble” (133). For Ruskin, the adamantine rock was a delicate, semi-liquid solution that was made “to melt under the soft lambency of the streamlet [and] to shiver before the subtle wedge of the frost” (134). Continually subjected to aqueous erosion, Ruskin’s mountain rocks flowed into and out of existence as the temporary combination of particles of “dust.”
Because rocks existed as melting, shivering chemical compositions, Ruskin came to realize that their susceptibility to erosive forces ultimately constituted their ability to resolve themselves into new crystalline forms. Hence, Ruskin’s “dust” came to represent not only the chemical potentiality latent in the drift of oceanic sand and the slime of stagnant lakes, but also the aesthetic and ethical possibilities inherent to experiences of patient suffering and silent repose. Placing Ruskin’s The Ethics of the Dust (1865) in the context of his lifelong writing on the processes of geo-chemical dissolution, this essay explores the aesthetics and ethics of self-formation from the gendered perspective of dust, as its chemical potentiality manifested in the developing bodies of the girls of Winnington Hall. For Ruskin, girl-dust represented the power of inorganic matter to form itself anew.
Tracing the connection between Ruskin’s geo-chemical conception of “dust” and its broader social and historical contexts, this essay moves from The Ethics of the Dust to Victorian debates about inorganic matter’s vital forms. In the 1860s, contentious debates erupted over the status of the Foraminifera, an animal confused with a mineral, and the Eozooön Canadense, a mineral mistaken for an animal. The two cases reveal that Ruskin was not alone in locating formative power in minerals. From these discrete cases of inorganic matter’s self-formation, I turn to the mid-century revival of Lucretian monism as an index to Victorian fears and fantasies about the ceaseless rearrangements of atoms in a world of molecular flux.
While the Victorians’ chemical conception of dust revealed the radical instability of form as molecules briefly came together and drifted apart, dust’s infinite recombinations held out the promise of resource renewal for a rapidly expanding nation of consumers. Shifting from the oblique discussion of resource regeneration in The Ethics of the Dust to the pointed question of resource scarcity in Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865), the essay ends with a consideration of the gender politics of resource replenishment as they inhere in the geo-chemical transformations of that precious resource: coal.
Ruskin, John. Modern Painters. Vol. 6. The Works of John Ruskin. Eds. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. London: Allen, 1903-12.