The Dust Kaleidoscope
From the Series: Geological Anthropology
In April of 2001, years of drought, an unusually warm winter, and early spring Siberian jet winds coalesced in a massive dust storm over China’s interior. A decade of rapid desertification, in a sustained rage of wind, phased the exposed, grass-bare geology of the just-thawed dunescape into a weather event that would, over days and then weeks, pass over Beijing, the Koreas, and Japan, and eventually the southeastern United States. In the air, a dust storm is a landmass passing through phases, from desert to aerosol event. It is an airborne continent that obscures the one earthbound below, visible only at the fraying edges of the storm and through the intermittent skylights that fade open and closed nearer its eye.
Dust storms, a signal geo-atmospheric feature of China’s meteorological contemporary, are land turned weather. Or, more, they are a recurrent convergence of geology and meteorology into a continual disjunctive process of earthly transformation and change. A fifty-fold increase in major dust events across China since the founding of New China in 1949, associated with land degradation, multiple bouts of land reform, and disparate regimes of economic and ecological construction, and increasingly, climate change, has revealed dust as a substance that at once signals rapid land degradation and meteorological emergence. In dust, the forces that make deserts also shape weather systems that splay far beyond the edges of Chinese territory. In the days and then weeks after the storm passed over Beijing, it continued to scatter China as particulate fallout on seasonal winds “with almost no reduction in concentrations” (Jaffe, Snow, and Cooper 2011, 501): a hemisphere charted in the geo-meteorological flow of a country whose land exists in multiple simultaneous and possible permutations of matter, of which terra firma is only one.
Dust is a curious material. It takes shape in the geophysical confluences of history, geology, and meteorology, substantiating centuries of landscape transformation in China and recent land degradation as clouds of kicked-up continental matter. Its refiguration is at once remainder and emergence. Dust is what is shed (Marder 2016, 5), the unbearably light and dense physical manifestation of political formations that operate through ecological ruination; but, as it swirls into weather systems that trace out seasonal trajectories of international and intraplanetary relation, its rise and fall shapes ecologies, political formations, and geographies, the “aleatory possibilities that lie in encounters among forms” (Levine 2015, xii–xiii). If dust storms signal ecological disarray in inland regions revealed as headwaters of deranged weather systems, they also demand an accounting of worlds and planets that emerge with their flow and their passage between phases of matter. What shapes might a geological anthropology, an inquiry with this earth, take? One swept into a geology of transitions and flowing, falling landmasses? One that displaces itself with “stony maelstrom of the stony blast” (Raffles 2013), unsettled into analytic and disciplinary permutations that track with earth and sky as moments in a continuum of earthly transitions?
This is one way that dust configures geological anthropology as an ethnographic and conceptual orientation toward the profusion of shifting forms and phases of environmental matter and that worlds that entrain into a shapeshifting planet. This offers something more than to mark simply another arena of anthropological interest, ready for capture in the identification of geological excess to the smallness of an anthropocentric conceptual ambit. To fixate a geology in dust moves attention between its status as a physical remainder of environments that seem only to be posed in breakdown and in the formations that this apparent breakdown jolts into shape. Dust relays collapse and emergence as moments in a more mundane and spectacular process of “mere redistributions of matter” (Gladstone 2019, 394) for landscapes, weather systems, and Earths undergoing continuous dynamic reconfiguration. Dust, that is, configures an anthropology that attends to the dynamic configures of environmental matter, and, instead of standing as an excess, becomes a primary substance-process for posing anthropology and geology both as attunements to transformative potential. Following Mary Douglas (2013, 39), a dust storm is not only matter out of place, but matter across phase: “a cross-section in a process of change,” a permutation of geo-meteorological substances that reveals, again and again, a planet made not in fixed forms but the phase shifts between them.
Deserts become storms, particulate matter precipitates into silicate coatings, and land and air appear as shifting configurations in the turn of a dust kaleidoscope. The figure of a dust kaleidoscope centers permutation and rearrangement of environmental matter as a key formal and processual scaffold for anthropology entrained into the turbulent dynamics of a planet that continually reconfigures into novel formations. In this, emergence is not radical novelty, but the interminable rearrangement of the same set of elements into an ever-changing set of variable forms, in which any specific geological formation is marked not by its permanence but by its inexorable transition over a range of disparate timescales. In my work, I explore how centering earthly materiality as shape- and phase-shifting rather than fixating on fixed and contained forms sets both anthropological and governmental work alike into experimental modes. As François Jullien argues in his discussion of shi, or disposition, in classical Chinese thought, this is an attunement to any given arrangement not as smooth integration, but as dynamic tensions. It is a question of the experiments that take shape when “within the actualized static form, a dimension of perpetual soaring flight” (Jullien 1995, 78) is discerned—when land alludes to its other possible permutations.
As Andrea Ballestero argues in this series, “Attending to movement within movement, to avoid the ossification of value and responsibility, might allow us to chart new descriptive economies.” This allows a reimagination of fieldwork as a movement between kaleidoscopic rearrangements of elements. In the dust storm source areas where deserts are prone to becoming dust storms, the state institutions of China’s late socialism are reassembled as a more-than-human dust-control apparatus (Zee 2020), while in Beijing, urban life and space becomes uncanny as it is drawn into the play of geological densities in the atmosphere. Downwind, air quality monitoring becomes a geological forensics for reframing China’s rise as a meteorological fallout, as scientists learn to parse countries in trace particulate matter. Each of these orients us to a different configuration of political, ecological, and analytical elements, which, taken in aggregate, enact geology, politics, and anthropological inquiry as a topology of dust and power (Collier 2009). This geological anthropology coalesces around change: phase shifts, each of which is a contingent configuration that exists among others.
Collier, Stephen J. 2009. “Topologies of Power: Foucault’s Analysis of Political Government beyond ‘Governmentality.’” Theory, Culture, and Society 26, no. 6: 78–108.
Douglas, Mary. 2013. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge.
Gladstone, Jason. 2019. “Lines in the Dirt (c. 1969): Postwar Literalism and the Failure of Technology.” American Literature 91, no. 2: 385–416.
Jaffe, Dan, Julie Snow, and Owen Cooper. 2011. “The 2001 Asian Dust Events: Transport and Impacts on Surface Aerosol Concentrations in the U.S.” Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union 84, no. 46: 501–16.
Jullien, François. 1995. The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China. New York: Zone Books.
Levine, Caroline. 2015. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Marder, Michael. 2016. Dust. New York: Bloomsbury.
Raffles, Hugh. 2013. “6 Stones to Get Lost With.” Orion.
Zee, Jerry C. 2020. “Machine Sky: Social and Terrestrial Governance in a Chinese Weather System.” American Anthropologist 122, no. 1: 9–20.