'The 50/50 marriage: is this what women want?' - part of the 'Charlotte Brooks for Look Magazine and Brooks Archive'

Dust and Dusting

A Woman’s Work is Never Done

What is dust? 

Dust is the thing you see accumulate in surfaces and hidden corners at home, the small clouds that form under your bed, an almost magical presence. It can be put away, if you are successful, but not eliminated, never eliminated, only replaced by new, fresh dust that will quickly take its place in the surfaces you have just cleaned. Dust is many things; dust is the universe’s laughter, laughing at your sense of accomplishment, at your pathetic attempt to halt decay. Dust is everything else, too; it is everywhere because it is produced by nearly everything. Minerals and seeds and pollen and insects and moulds and lichens and bacteria and bone and hair and hide and feather and skin and blood and excrement! It is anything humans have ever fabricated! It is as old as the Big Bang! It is collapsing stars!1 It is also me, you and everyone else (we all equally shed two hundred million skin cells every hour (Smith)). It is both becoming and dissolution, it is “matter on its way to and from being” (Amato 5). It is both life and death; Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Can this make you hate it less? 

You have never been able to decide what you hate the most: dust or dusting. You often jokingly say that your hatred of housework is a protest against what has been demanded of women since the industrial revolution: that we keep our houses in good order. The fight against dust seems to have started then too. Before it was something natural, to be found in nature.2 But, as Joseph A. Amato traces in his cultural history of dust, dust started multiplying as humans began to manipulate an increasing amount of natural resources. Industry3 produced new industrial dusts, which resulted in the need to control them (Amato 9). Amato calls this obsession with cleanliness that started with the industrial revolution The Great Cleanup (69). Cleanliness also became attached to social status, as dirt and disease were associated with the working classes, who became “dirty” and diseased from working in factories (Amato 76).

Is dust associated with the lowliest? 

Until the invention of the microscope, dust was the barrier between the visible and the invisible (Amato 3). It was the smallest thing perceptible to the eye and its low visibility is something it shares with the labour associated with the cleaning of it. Before the industrial revolution, work was done cooperatively by the family unit. Women and men had worked together until factories started tempting “individual family members away from family industry with the lure of higher, individualised wages” (Timm and Sanborn 98-99). The more common it became for individual members to “find work in factories, the more separate the daily experiences of men and women became” (Timm and Sanborn 109). At around the same time, sewer and water systems became widespread in cities, and the essentials of life, such as food and clothing, stopped being produced by the household and were replaced by market-purchased goods (Hester and Srnicek 18, 19, 21). Besides, the adoption of domestic technologies not only reduced the work of men, who would do the heavy lifting, but also “facilitated the individualisation of housework and activities which once required coordinated collective efforts [and that] could now be undertaken by a single unwaged worker:” the housewife (Hester and Srnicek 24, 26). Whenever women joined the workforce, they were faced with a double burden, meaning that they took on “paid work outside the home while continuing to do much of the unpaid work within it” (Timm and Sanborn 393). Unlike work performed outside the home, which was paid in cash (and in that manner tracked in statistics and recognised as part of the national economy), domestic chores were not quantified. They were also unending: unlike those who laboured outside the home, those who laboured at home saw no real end to their working days (Hester and Srnicek 94). This reproductive work, which includes “forms of unwaged work through which individuals met their daily need for food, shelter, and care and raised a new generation to take their place” (Weeks 28), became “invisible as a form of economic production” (Timm and Sanborn 106).

An invisible labour. But invisible to whom?

In Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), Chantal Akerman forces the viewer to bear witness to that labour, making its invisibility visible. After all, Jeanne lives at the quai du Commerce; her house is a place of commerce, of an economic production that is hidden, forgotten and devalued, but that in this film is given time and space. With a running time of three hours and twenty-two minutes, the film is excruciatingly slow and boring. Akerman’s camera is static, never getting in too close, letting scenes run on.4 5 Through it we watch Jeanne Dielman over a period of three days as she slowly prepares food, goes shopping, runs errands, sets the table, serves food, washes dishes, minds the neighbour's baby, showers, does her hair, brews coffee and receives clients as a sex worker. For Carol Mavor, the film is a “peculiar political production of a twofold desire:” “a desire to valorize the beauty of women’s labour and a desire to pinpoint how tedious it is” (414). The film is so tedious that it is almost easy to miss the moment when things start to go awry; Jeanne’s methodic routine disrupted. 

Was it all really because of the potatoes, the fact that she boiled them for too long? What could it mean, that it would take so little for her world to turn upside down?

By the third day, Jeanne looks utterly defeated. At one point, after brewing coffee, she sits on an armchair in the living room, clutching a dust cloth.

Did she forget where she was going? 

It is not clear, only that she looks tired, confused, breathing into space. Suddenly she gets up, opens a vitrine cabinet, dusts off a serving plate, then some porcelain dolls, closes the cabinet, dusts the outer shelf, before leaving the house to check the mail. Then she is back. Goes into the bedroom to check the clock, the first time she does so in the three day period encompassed by the film. 

Did she lose track of time, with her perfect routine upended? 

She appears with the dust cloth again, only now she seems to have lost the strength for dusting. Instead she sits back on an armchair, with the cloth between her hand and the chair’s arm. For three minutes we watch her sit still, breathing, until the doorbell finally rings. She could have dozed off, but we can’t see that. The camera does not get close enough. 

Was she defeated, did she have enough?

In the chapter “The Married Woman” in The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir discusses the tortuosity of housework. She says:

Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. The housewife wears herself out marking time: she makes nothing, simply perpetuates the present. She never senses conquest of a positive Good, but rather indefinite struggle against negative Evil. … Eating, sleeping, cleaning – the years no longer rise up towards heaven, they lie spread out ahead, grey and identical. The battle against dust and dirt is never won. (438) 

For Beauvoir, housework “has a negative basis,” under which no satisfaction is possible (438). It is “an endless struggle without victory” (438), reminiscent of the tragic saying a woman’s work is never done. For Jeanne, too, work seems to be relentless, producing even more, unending, work.

But is anyone’s work ever really done? 

In A Frozen Woman (1981), Annie Ernaux demonstrates commitment to the refusal of cleaning dust. The book begins with a description of the women around whom she grew up. These women did not fit in with the lessons she later learnt at school; lessons about the importance of keeping the house immaculate, of upholding a vision of godliness.6 They were no domestics, “they had no idea that dust was supposed to be removed on a daily basis” (5). In the working class area where Ernaux grew up, there were other things for them to do (11). For Ernaux’s mother dust didn’t exist, or rather, it was “something natural, not a problem” (19). It is only when a friend visits Annie’s room and points out she is supposed to dust it that Annie realises there were people who deemed dust abnormal (19-20). Dust, she is ashamed to find out, is ugly and dirty. The dustiness of their home becomes another signifier for their lower class; they are unlike the middle classes who know to keep their houses clean. Later, against her will, she will end up stepping into this picture of the godly middle class housewife, which, she says from the future, is “killing [her]” (65).

Will she survive? 

Annie falls pregnant and is unable to become a teacher immediately after finishing her studies like she had planned. Instead, she invertedly embodies the image of the housewife she always wanted to reject; she gets married and spends her days taking care of her child and of the house. But Ernaux had read Beauvoir and vouches to do “the bare minimum, and nothing more” (166). She refuses to sweep and dust, which for her constituted “the last vestige, perhaps, of [her] reading of The Second Sex, the story of an inept and hopeless battle against dust” (166). For Annie, housework is as heavy as Sisyphus’ rock, only less dramatic: 

Sisyphus and that rock he rolls endlessly back up the hill—at least it’s dramatic, a man on a mountain outlined against the horizon, whereas a woman in her kitchen tossing some butter into a frypan three hundred and sixty-five times a year, that’s neither heroic nor absurd, that’s just life. (172)

Isn’t dust just life? Isn’t life dramatic?

Beauvoir recounts the story of a young student, who like a young Ernaux, wanted to reject “house-cleaning day,” until she realises, upon watching her mother wash the dishes, that they will both “be bound to such rites until death” (438). The future of a young woman, she discovers, is not “constant progress towards some unknown summit” (438). On the contrary, housework, Beauvoir claims, is a “halting of decay [that] is also the denial of life; for time simultaneously creates and destroys” (438). 

Isn’t that a good way of accepting something at the core of living? 

You often frustratingly watch the dust accumulate in your house, promising to clean it later. Now is never a good time. You don’t have the energy to fight against decay. Like the young woman Beauvoir quotes, you too wanted to see the future as progress towards something. But progress implies the passage of time, which in itself implies decay. This is something the accumulation of dust has come to exemplify. In marking the passage of time, it also marks creation and decreation, of matter, of life. Regardless of whether one chooses to fight it or not. Accepting the negativity of housework seems to you, contra Beauvoir, to be an acceptance of life, not its denial. To reject it completely would be to reject the maintenance and care of the spaces, things and people around you. 

The acceptance of dust and decay and maintenance and care and housework are one thing, but who is encumbered with the dealing of it? And under what conditions? 

We think, then, of our mothers. We think, then, of Jeanne Dielman and Annie Ernaux and the young girl Beauvoir describes, the one who saw her future ahead of herself, predictable and limited. We think, then, of domestic workers and carers, many migrants, mostly women. We think, then, of our friends. We think, then, perhaps, even of ourselves. We think, then, of what is currently the best case scenario in the world: in Sweden, over the course of their lifetimes, a woman will do, on average, an extra 1.6 years of domestic work when compared to a man (Hester and Srnicek 84). We think, then, that on average across the world, women have thirty-minutes less leisure time than men (Hester and Srnicek 85). We think, then, about time, about everything we would do with it, if we owned our time, if the market didn’t have its claws around it. We think, then, of the pressure of having to make that something Beauvoir claimed women were denied the opportunity to. We think, then, of avenging our ancestors, but not like that. We think, then, of wanting to reject productivity. We think, then, about wanting to valorise care and maintenance. 

And then what? And how?

Much of feminist analysis from the nineteen seventies anticipated and provided tools for later understandings of post-Fordist labour (del Re, qto. in Weeks 244). It served to inform the autonomous Marxist tradition which offers “a more expansive model of critique that seeks to interrogate at once capitalist production and capitalist (as well as socialist) productivism,” whilst attending to the overvaluation of work overlooked by other Marxist traditions (Weeks 13). To shift the focus away from productivity as a positivist value is to make way for other ways of being, for valorising what has no straightforward economic value. 

But how? 

We can start, for example, by looking at dust and see in it that “all creatures, as embodied beings, are intermeshed with the dynamic, material world, which crosses through them, transforms them, and is transformed by them” (Alaimo 435). We can, for example, look at dust and see in it the inner precariousness - the inescapable vulnerability - of existence; “the fact that one’s life is always in some sense in the hands of the other” (Butler 14). We can, for example, take a break to scream into a dusty pillow, because metaphor is never enough. We can, for example, continue by considering how vulnerability makes clear the impossibility of living an autonomous life, hence underscoring the magnitude of reproductive work. We can, for example, consider that if “life is precarious, it is crucially dependent on care and reproduction” (Lorey 19). We can, for example, run our index finger through a dusty surface and in it find pieces of the world, of the people around us. We can, for example, then consider how social interdependence makes clear how bodies depend “on others, on institu­tions and on sustained and sustainable environments” (Butler 4). We can, for example, begin to conclude what we already knew: that without protection, security and care no one can survive (Lorey 20). 

What to conclude from all this? 

In the end, Jeanne Dielman finds a way out through the murder of one of her clients. The film ends with her awaiting her own destiny, sitting in the dark of her living room. Others depended on her, but she was alone and alienated in caring for her son and for the house. She couldn’t make it on her own. 

Who could she depend on?

The fragility of her existence, of her routine, is made visible by the film; all it seemed to take was overboiled potatoes for her life to be radically disrupted. As for Ernaux, she doesn’t seem to find a way out (not yet, not in this book). Bored from her work as a teacher, as a mother and as a housewife, she decides, without understanding why herself, to have another child as a way of jumping into a new adventure (196-197). No matter these endings, life will go on and work will never be done; not at home, not in prison. That may be the destiny that awaits Jeanne, but both these stories make visible how the two can be conflated - for these women the home is a painful prison. 

Is that the conclusion, that home is a prison? 

No, only that it can be. It was the work of Akerman, Ernaux, Beauvoir, among many other feminists in the twentieth century, that, by pointing out the problems of reproductive labour, opened up new possibilities for the rethinking of work as we know it - both productive and reproductive. Their dust is still somewhere in this world.

[1] See Joseph A. Amato’s Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible, (4).

[2] Amato states, quoting Ogden in the Kingdom of Dust, that “even in the cleanest conditions, it has been estimated, ‘there are over a thousand motes of dust in every cubic inch of air’" (4). 

[3] There is no etymological connection between dust and industry. But there is a connection between the two: “industrial societies created more, and more varied, dusts than had any previous society” (Amato 7).

[4] For Carol Mavor, the boredom achieved by the film is a result of its still ‘shallow-boxed framing.’ The camera always stays at a distance, with no reverse shots (403).

[5] Speaking about the film in an interview for Camera Obscura, Akerman states she avoids “cutting the woman into a hundred pieces, to avoid cutting the action in a hundred places, to look carefully and to be respectful. The framing was meant to respect the space, her, and her gestures within it”(Akerman 119). Letting her live her life “in the middle of the frame,” was to give her “a look of love and respect” (Akerman 119).

[6] “Cleanliness is next to godliness, mademoiselle,” one of the nuns at school tells Ernaux (60).

Works Cited

Akerman, Chantal, director. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Criterion, Janus Films, 1975.

Akerman, Chantal. “Chantal Akerman on Jeanne Dielman: Excerpts from an Interview  with  Camera Obscura,  November  1976,” Camera Obscura, vol. 2, fall 1977, pp 115-121.

Alaimo, Stacy. “Trans-corporeality.” The Posthuman Glossary, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, London and New York, pp. 435-437.

Amato, Joseph A. Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible. University of California Press, 2000, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London. 

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. 1949. Translated by H. M. Parshley, Jonathan Cape, 1956, London.

Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? Verso, 2009, London and New York.

Ernaux, Annie. A Frozen Woman. 1981. Translated by Linda Coverdale, Seven Stories Press, 1995, New York.

Hester, Helen & Nick Srnicek. After Work: A History of the Home and the Fight for Free Time. Verso, 2023, London and New York. 

Lorey, Isabell. State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious. Translated by Aileen Derieg, Verso, 2015, London and New York. 

Mavor, Carol. “Beautiful, Boring and Blue: The Fullness of Proust’s Search and Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman.” Reading Boyishly: Roland Barthes, J. M. Barrie, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Marcel Proust, and D. W. Winnicott, Duke University Press, 2007, Durham and London, pp. 397-432.

Smith, Colin. “New insights into skin cells could explain why our skin doesn’t leak.” Imperial News, 29 Nov. 2016, https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/176229/new-insights-into-skin-cells-could/#:~:text=Humans%20lose%20200%2C000%2C000%20skin%20cells,break%20in%20the%20skin%20barrier. Accessed 8 December 2023.  

Timm, Annette F. & Joshua A. Sanborn. Gender, Sex and the Shaping of Modern Europe. Bloomsbury, 2022, London. 

Weeks, Kathi. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries. Duke University Press, 2011, Durham and London.


Marta Lopes Santos is a writer and researcher based in Amsterdam. She is currently finishing a Research Masters in Literary Studies at the University of Amsterdam. martalopessantos.com

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