Dust and the Ecology of Activism

Sohrab Mahdavi

On Friday, 20 February 2018, I learned of the death of my friend, Kavous Seyyed Emami, in prison in Tehran. To me, his death marks the end of an era when grief and outrage can no longer culminate in action, but need to be maintained and supported, if only to arrive at a clear view of the conditions we find ourselves in. Kavous was a gentle, kind, seasoned, 64-year-old environmentalist. I had been with him on many trips around the country and consider him a great mentor. He believed in pragmatic action, balanced against consequences, seasoned by ethics, taken with full care and consideration, for all agents and stakeholders. He headed the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, a successful organization founded in 2003 by three other individuals, one of whom was arrested in the fall of 2016 (and remains so) by the national security branch of the IRGC, which then proceeded to build a case against the organization, confiscating its logs and annals, and arresting Kavous on the 4th of February, two weeks prior to his death, which was officially announced as a suicide. Twelve other environmentalists from the organization remain in custody at the time of this writing.1


It is a characteristic of living systems, when they reach complexity, to spin into disorder. Margaret Wheatley identifies six ages, spanning ten generations, in the decline of civilizations.2 A civilization comes into being on the back of a new value system that centers on altruism and service. Its first stage, the Age of Pioneers, exudes fearlessness, honor, and courage in the face of threats from the old guards. Then, living systems go through the consecutive stages of Conquest (more sophisticated strategic planning picked up from the previous civilization), Commerce (wealth creation, opening markets, communication networks), Affluence (doing away with honor and service to focus on self-interest), Intellect (flourishing of arts and knowledge, mental cleverness, advance in natural sciences, and critical thinking), and Decadence (narcissism, consumerism, fanaticism). Glubb studied 15 ancient civilizations to arrive at these findings and Wheatley believes we are in the final stage of this civilizational cycle, which of course includes all the others.


I am writing this to offer my reflections on "dust," the subject matter of an exhibit, which also solicited works of visual arts and keyed out the larger issue of human communication with its environment.3 The tight conceptual framework was powerful enough that three years into the event Obieg magazine is dedicating an issue to it. The exhibit offered a below-the-radar “object for contemplation; a household “subject to organize an exhibition around. It called us to see dust as a “process in its infinite diversity, grazing and breezing over every aspect of our lives, going beyond the global/local, visible/invisible, substantial/insubstantial, wave/particle dualities to assert its presence in places least expected and marking the limits of our conceptual, object-oriented understanding of life.4


The mere act of paying attention to a “phenomenon is bound to change the nature of our relationship to it. We may maintain our view of it as an object, but we start to see how that object exhibits traits of a subjective nature, how it acts as an agent. The question of “agency is one that has preoccupied the environmental movement with increasing intensity. The division of agents into human and non-human shows a latent feeling of self-reproach vis-à-vis the impact of human activity on non-humans.5


To see phenomena as agents is to see the world as dynamic. We may argue that the fickle nature of the object is but a manifestation of our own projections as subject. There is a singular truth to that argument and it is perhaps the reason we like to collect and surround ourselves with objects.6 Our intentionality changes the meaning of objects around us. The language that we pick to communicate with a phenomenon like “dust is syntaxed by the tools we use to interact with it dustpan, vacuum cleaner, and filter. Now and again, however, we are forced to acknowledge dust as agent, using it to put out fire, for example, or its presence as the link that made our existence on the planet possible and the one that has spawned new species and large-scale changes (greenhouse). All systems, whether animate or inanimate, are self-organizing around an identity: “They exchange information with their environment and use information to adapt to changed conditions.7

Whether as production or collection, which point to an intermediary “is-ness, dust suggests an unsettling “isnt-ness.8


Every morning in the summer of 2014 an array of specialists would line up, well into the hallway outside, inside my late wifes hospital room. They were each there to evaluate and address the effects of the others “medical procedure the day before. When a body is technically in a state of acute imbalance, as in late-stage cancer, every action has irreversible consequences that further the imbalance. There seems to be a general consensus among environmentalists today that we have arrived at a crossroads in the Earth's natural history. Calling it Anthropocene, this has lead “naturally to self-referential anxiety about our future on this planet and a sense of urgency apropos steps that we should take to address our apocalyptic prospect. As we continue to watch the evolving state of affairs, some of us may realize that it is the outcome of hundreds of years of evolving and intricate mechanical patters that cannot be undone simply by changing the way we do business. In his 1959 audio lecture Bang or Whimper, Alan Watts questions the mainspring of both these approaches to our ecological predicaments: on the one hand, calling for immediate action (even in the form of ceasing action) to “save the planet or to advocate a Taoist laissez faire attitude of non-interference to reverse the damages done. Watts sees the problem as one of “going on becoming the main value of life, in whose name (survival, the future) atrocities can be committed and, more importantly, the present be sacrificed.


“Neither from itself nor from another, nor from both, nor without cause, does anything whatever, anywhere arise, is a tetra-lemma that seems best to describe the “dependent origination of dust.9 From dust we came and to dust we shall return is an attempt at reducing our anxiety about origination, but it does so by maintaining the identity of “dust and “we as separate entities intact. It presents us with a di-lemma by positing a self (we) and places it within the ecology of life on this planet (dust). In Nagarjuna's formula, however, dust is a nexus with no independent existence. “Dust is a word, a lexical entity pointing to an abstraction.


Subject-hood is ridden with anxiety. Having developed a view of agency centered around the only intelligent self on this planet, our modern outlook has brought us a great many fears. Through technical prowess we have gained the illusion of control over “blind forces of nature, which has in turn led to the appearance of non-humans as agents outside our control. Often, instead of acknowledging everything in life as intelligent, we see destructive forces at work, which we have to protect ourselves from, ignore, or engage in a battle with. We scurry for control by increasing the speed and frequency of our actions. And it is increasingly becoming clear that what we do and our view of our own agency is bringing fear of annihilation and extinction closer to us. This is a fear that we cannot run away from. Fear of death is a constant companion of every individual in his or her lifespan. As such, we are familiar with it on an individual level. This fear is precious, because it can point to the intelligence of life around us. Perhaps we can extend the study of fear to understand the mystery of life even with a seemingly insignificant phenomenon as dust, and Dust is an excuse to ponder the ecological value of life in an age when the evolutionary arc of change is beyond our capacity to control, contain, redirect, or reset. Perhaps we should now consider “the ecology of action within a system that has reached a stage of complexity wherein every action is bound to rebound and perhaps then we can arrive at a new understanding of agency in infinite (inter-) dependency.



Sohrab Mahdavi is an Iranian translator and writer. He came to Poland in the summer of 2015 to offer his take on a particular kind of Dust, e.g. pollution. To see pollution not as an enemy but as an indication of human activity is for him a sagacious way of living with the consequences of our activities. He is a member of a small environmental organization struggling to bring sanity to our living conditions. He lives and works in Tehran. 

* Coverphoto: Bakhtegan Lake, Fars Province, Iran. The lake has gone completely dry in the past decade and turned into a salt flat. Photo: Kavous Seyyed Emami, 2012.

[1] IRGC is Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corp. The Corp was created after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 to safeguard the revolution against outside meddling. Over the years, it has acquired power and runs parallel economic as well as intelligence operations outside the purview of the government.

[2] In her book Who Do We Choose to Be? [Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017], 35.

[3] Kurz (Dust) an exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, 5 September 2015 15 November 2015, Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski, ul. Jazdów

[4] A number of works focused on dust as production. Wojtek Pustolas Cut, commissioned as a set of sculpture/performances, laid bare the relationship between the kinesthetic and dust. Putting an angle grinder to a white marble cube, the artist didn't set out to “extract form from matter but to release the formless inside the Ujazdowski Castle. A “change in scale, Pustola says, from the cube to the powder, letting the fickle nature of matter do its own dance, albeit through an assertive agency. In Jurgen Ots Fiat Lux, matter is transformed through an act of violation. In Calin Aouns Dissipation 3, “meaning appears in the “material realities of production. The traces left on vinyl as a near-empty inkjet printer runs its course. Mehraneh Atashis Entropy Pump is significantly a production arrived at through transformation.

[5] Pustola's angle grinder is at once abrasive, intrusive, and dispersive. It takes creative expression to a grinding production, a fatal conclusion, if only as a reminder of the “brutal agency accorded to objects through human agency.

[6] Neda Razavipours Traveling Pieces found agency in interdependent identity. Designed as a set of six performances at various times during the exhibit, her work relied on various pieces shipped to the Ujazdowski Castle from her home country of Iran and which carried the label “Polish chair, crystal, mirror, and plate. These objects had maintained an identity through a historical trajectory. The artists performances highlighted the interplay of these identities in the on-going “European refugee crisis that started in 2015, significantly with the opening of Dust, finding an echo in the plight of Polish refugees at the onset of World War II, many of whom landed in Iran and found a home until the end of that war. Nasser Bakhshi's collections are filled with memories of detachment, longing to belong, collecting their identity through found-object, dust-settled nostalgia, and finding boxes for shelter. Their names My Mind Is in Turmoil, Touching the Regrets, How Far Can We Go, Birth and Death in an Inaccessible Memory suggest charged emotional fields, self-energizing and relying on objects for subjective presence. Vartan Avakians two Collapsing Clouds of Gas and Dust take the art of collection to their pinnacle by creating monuments from traces of matter in liquid form. It is enough to collect (pollen, fiber, shed skin, tears, hair, and sweat) and let the collection crystallize, and arrive at structures of immense complexity. In a sense, with Avakians work, we can see how collection itself is a form of production, blurring the line separating them.

[7] Margaret Wheatley, Who Do We Choose to Be?, 142.

[8] Some of the works in the exhibition were about the imaginary impossibility of isn't-ness. Nowhere was this more revealing than in the works of Charbel-Joseph H. Boutros. In his 1cm3 of infinite darkness we face the ethereal existence of absence within presence. Barbad Golshiris Untittled Tomb gave ritual presence to absence, bringing visibility to the invisible, and reminding us that nothingness, as Sartre would have it, “haunts being. Monira Al Qadiris Behind the Sun video traced the origin of apocalyptic nihilation in our desire to establish fullness for being. Nazgol Ansarinias Living Room video and Fabrications “constructed absence.

[9] Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, trans. Jay L. Garfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 1.