On The Question, What is Lint?

When you run your finger along the top of your entertainment center, you will find it coated by a thin, grey film of indeterminate matter. This will be part dust and part fluff and part who know what else, and will rise behind your moving finger in a plume that settles back hurriedly at a new place on the shelf, like a pack of vultures run out by jackals from the carcass they were feeding on, taking a quick hop away to a safe distance from where they wait their chance to re-alight on their dinner. You have just encountered lint.

If you stop to contemplate what just happened, instead of rushing away to the rest of your day or bringing a wipe with a mixture of shame, guilt and good intentions to thoroughly clean out your entertainment center, you will be surprised by a rich matrix of questions. Do we even know what lint is, to begin with? It defies a structural definition, for it is too small or too fragile for us figure it out by pulling it apart

Can it be defined functionally? No, because we have no idea what lint does, in the general context. It pretty much appears out of nowhere mysteriously, and then just sits there. It is hard to remove, even though it appears very slight, and delicate. It holds on with the tenacity of a leech.

Is lint defined via reduction ad absurdum? Is it what everything else is not? If it isn’t a crumb or a dead bug part or dandruff that sticks to our coats and to our cushion covers and to our drapes, then perhaps we know that it is lint. I think we shouldn’t really concern ourselves with understanding what lint is, but just on what to do once it has been discovered, much like pornography and beauty. Our inability to define these things precisely hasn’t impaired us from confronting them in our world, and ruling about their rightful place. Lint asks from us the same mode that we employ with beauty, say, or pornography.

Lint definitely occurs in some places more than others. Preliminarily, we might jump to a conclusion that it prefers the grainy or rough or furry surfaces and textures, like the back of a cat or the outside of a cupcake. Lint, however, is more ubiquitous, and altogether more versatile than that. Steel surfaces that gleam with the shiny seduction of modern technology bear lint on them. Lint will sit with nonchalance on the most forbiddingly impenetrable of Teflon surfaces, where all other substances slink away ashamedly. Lint is, depending on your point of view, incalculably friendly or irremediably optimistic about its chances. It is the ultimate nomad, the consummate hustler, frequenting every nook and corner of the hospitable universe.

Lint marks the presence of humanity, and of intelligent life. When the roving eyes and ears of astronomy locate lint surviving in some other part of this harsh and inhospitable universe, we will know that there lies a specie that has invented bureaucracy and marketing spin. Lint is the detritus of thought, manifesting consciousness and self-referential power. I am because I can think about myself, and lint announces this understanding of the ontological link between Essence and Existence. It is our cry to the universe that we have found our place in it. Like celebratory confetti, it is strewn all over the pathways of our civilizational parades.

Where there is confetti, inevitably there is the conundrum of cleanliness: who’s going to pick it all up, and how? The removal of lint is as much a mystery as its existence. We have catalogued and circumscribed more the mechanics and rituals of extinguishing and absenting ourselves than we have the science of lint removal. Never has there been a greater endeavor for which so many have been so ill-equipped. When we are visited by alien life, they will laugh not so much at our lack of inter-stellar transportation as at how utterly risible our lint removers are.

As lint spreads with inchoate insidiousness, we stand in a comically defensive posture, gripping our lint removers, picturing in our fertile imaginations a Saladin’s sword or one emblazoned with the word “Excelsior.” In fact, we look like nothing more than a baby shaking its rattle petulantly. Our lint removers are no more than pacifiers, only slightly more effective than our thumbs are in removing lint and immeasurably less useful to boot, for the sticky substance on it won’t even let us suck on it.

The only significant advance we have made in tracking the spread of lint is in recognizing that the washing machine exerts on lint the same power that it has on socks and underpants. The grasping, muddling, abilities of the washing machine stupefy, of course, the human desire for control and coordinated hosiery, but even more astonishing is how the washing machine commands vast armies of lint into flinging themselves suicidally against the lint filter, coagulating into a tightly knit and harmless mass that we can easily scrape away and dispose of. Each piece of lint, by losing its individual identity and independence, also surrenders its maddening power to float perennially beyond our reach. There is mass hysteria. As if in a cult, each particle of lint attempts deliverance into whatever it is that lies beyond the lint filte; instead it lands, balled up, in the trash can, on its way to the landfills and the incinerators.

Of course, we cannot know if lint has indeed been conquered. Perhaps it lies dormant inside the lint ball, mutated into a more powerful form. It anticipates an escape from the landfill, along with lint from other such balls, to terrorize us in greater numbers. Perhaps the lint we experience today is merely recreated through many generations of lint, tracing a lineage all the way back to medieval lint that heads falling from the guillotine blew into the air; further back, to the ancient lint that, from the togas of Ceasar’s killers, watched his death and the fall of Rome; even further back, to the proto-lint that coated the clubs and stone-cutting tools of our not-yet-human ancestors. There might even have been lint gods in those deluded times, when something so powerful was worshipped in fear, rather than mercilessly, even if fruitlessly, pursued by the pincers and vortexes of ever-improving technology.

Such a pervasive and many-layered presence leaves behind deep impressions that haunt their hosts as specters. The lint has left, but in its wake, in spite of the exhaustion that cleaning it up has entailed, we engage in fierce teleogical debates and heated recriminations. We ask, Why was the lint there in the first place, and charge, Was it someone’s fault? Some insist that lint is battled with eternal vigil and in this lint-infested world, we should all walk as if we had brooms sticking out behinds. Others counsel restraint, and say we only take action when the lint threatens to obscure the very colors and textures of your shelves and table tops and cakes into the cracks in the grout.

Indeed, so pervasive is this effect that even the lint filter is not spared. This one place we might imagine, where lint lies humbled, there would be cause for rejoicing and that mutual love that springs amongst us when we see the end of a mutual foe. Instead, the filter is can be sometimes the site of the greatest battles. When a new load of laundry is to be dried, the lint filter is never satisfyingly clean. Should someone have done it right after they used the machine? Or can we pay it forward, and clean someone else’s lint before one’s own round, knowing that the reward for touching someone else’s lint, cleansed though it may be, is to be allowed to shave a few moments off when picking up one’s own laundry on the way to work, to pick up the kids or a hot date?

Lint has touched us and left us wondering, fuming, questioning and negotiating, and in this might lie its final redemption, that by remaining so elusive and evanescent, it keeps out thirst for answers, and thereby us, alive.


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2 Responses to “On The Question, What is Lint?”

  1. Cupcake Topology « Metaquibbler’s Weblog Says:

    […] us. There are too many holes inside the cupcake where its insides can hide. This clearly allows more parts of the cupcake to contain lint than on any other […]

  2. Envier Says:

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Envier

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