- Technological Infestation—Human Becoming Insect: Parikka’s Insect Media
Insects have long comprised a minoritarian but important strand for thinking about the human condition and our perception of the world. It is said that one of Spinoza’s guilty pleasures was in capturing spiders and watching them fight, no doubt reinforcing his sense that struggle is our natural condition. Henri Bergson based his theory of instinct on the insect, situating the six-legged creature as an extra-linguistic, affective counterpoint to human intelligence. Jakob von Uexkull’s tick illustrated his theory that an organism’s perception of the world depended upon the recursive relations between its sensory capacities and its environment. Deleuze and Guattari, in part inspired by this, wrote enthusiastically of the wasp-orchid assemblage and of becoming insect. And Rosi Braidotti compounded their insight into a ‘becoming woman/animal/insect’, seeing queer affinities in the process of metamorphosis which, in turn, modeled an anti-essentialist feminist bodily materialism.
All of these strands, along with innumerable others, are deftly woven together by Jussi Parikka in his deeply scholarly book Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology. It joins the deluge of recent works exploring the animality of human life (cf. Vanessa Lemm’s Nietzsche’s Animal Philosophy) and is the 11th entry in the Posthumanities series edited by Cary Wolfe. Parikka’s book is remarkable for its uncommon taxonomic turn, as it seeks to transmutate our understanding of the human and its relation to technology by recasting media theory through the most alien and other-worldly realm of animality, that of the insect. It is no great insight that both organizational forms and discursive frames of the network society—i.e. the web or swarms—have been borrowed from the insect world. Parikka, however, makes a much more theoretically ambitious proposal: we can better understand our contemporary world of digital, distributed, mobile, ubiquitous connectivity by thinking about insects as media. Such a claim may be initially perplexing, but becomes less so if you have ever watched foraging ants following pheromone trails or a swarm of bees in search of a new hive and think of the complex, multi-directional and distributed flow of information unfolding. This is an expansive understanding of media as an ecology, as “the contracting of sensations into a field of consistency” (xxi). As such, Parikka constructs his insect media by spinning together an assemblage of non/human bodies, forces, and potentials, in conjunctions of becoming.
Insect Media can be situated in the broader movement of new materialism, insofar as it too embraces a more extensive interpretation of the material, and related configurations of agency. That is, it takes a deeply non-anthropomorphic approach to assemblages, to the forms of sociality, the kinds of agency, and communicative capacities engendered. Indeed, it contributes to the debate around a politics of the human and non-human engaged by Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. Both works hold a strongly non-anthropomorphic perspective, and make pertinent inquiries into the kinds of agency that are expressed in contemporary assemblages. Bennett constructs a political ecology of things to foster more democratic relations therein; Parikka, on the other hand, develops a media ecology of insects to foster a better understanding of the sensations, perceptions and ontologies of the nonhuman milieus we inhabit.
He does so evincing a broad and sure interdisciplinary grasp, proceeding primarily on two fronts. First, he sustains a doggedly historical focus, presenting a fascinating bestial media archaeology, particularly of the 19th century. This was a time of wonderment, when insect biology, architecture, movement and rhythm modeled emerging machinic technology. Second, through robust encounters with the aforementioned strand of ‘insect logic’, and a diverse group of media and cultural theorists, artists, scientists and cyberneticians, he explicates how we can consider an insect as a medium; specifically, that we can learn about our mediated condition through the arthropods’ strange world of sensation and perception, and their powers of affect, motion, and distributed agency. In short, the insect stands as Parikka’s conceptual persona...