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, tracing the plane of immanence on which our increasingly distributed intelligence and affects interrelate in the nonhuman assemblages of our digitally networked world. The suggestion is that we share this world in uncanny ways. How might you be like that swarm of bees when you, say, walk into a crowded square, send TwitPics of the scene, and update your Facebook page with information about the movements of the police and security forces? Both instances comprise a sensory, perceptual and communicative realm, and a kind of distributed agency that exceed the bounds of the ‘human’ at least as it is traditionally defined. Parikka’s challenge is to demonstrate how the artifice, or techne, that make up the mobile technology corresponds with the particular animality of insects. For the remainder, I will outline how Insect Media addresses such questions and considering how ‘insect media theory’ might be supplemented by ‘insect political theory.’
As noted, in the 19th century, while insects were avidly studied because of their amazing biology, they were seen as machine-like, automated organisms, and hence apposite for thinking about technology. Parikka’s insect media archaeology, however, uncovers the key roles played by both William James and Bergson in shifting perceptions of insect life toward the more dynamic model of emergence and swarms that predominates today. In 1887, James penned ‘What Is an Instinct?’ wherein he brought a more nuanced understanding of reflexivity as it relates to instincts. For both humans and non-humans, argued James, instincts are “functional correlates of a structure (23)” as opposed to simple, automated feedback loops. So we can see how the Jamesian instinct, which is a potentiality immanently actualized in its environment resonates deeply with Uexkull when decades later he outlined the speed and slowness with which the tick intertwined with its environment. This is conceptually germane as it complicates instinct as a kind of immanent response not categorically different from intelligence, but simply lacking the kind of reflection memory would provide.
Bergson further nuanced this model of instinct in a manner foundational to Parikka’s idea of insect media. He too posited an insect body as relational, and more importantly, one wherein no distinction can be made between its ‘tools’ and its body. Bergson famously cites the example of a parasitoid wasp that strategically sting a caterpillar into submission, turning it into a living larder for its larval offspring. Parikka brings Bergson’s insight to a fine point: “the way insects solve the problems of life is intimately tied to the technics of their bodies immanent to their surroundings” (128). In short, insect tools are the sensory capacities of its body parts, and its technics are only ever immanently expressed. Thus it is a matter of instinct and immanence; respectively the organism’s response to its environment, and the profoundly recursive correlates between sensory capacity, bodily form, and agency. In short, instinct is the relational body’s pre-intelligent response to its environment, a model equally applicable to ants and wired humans.
This manifests the benefits of giving media a nonhuman orientation. The deeper awareness it provides of our animality, particularly the strange and often unsettling realm of the insect, makes long-standing debates over the precious particularity of the human, for example, the natural-artificial binary, far less pressing. Instead, Parikka’s insect media archaeology provides more enriching connections between insects and machines, biology and technology, and the mechanical and environmental. Such new coordinates are opportune for rethinking our relationship to technology, especially as Parikka positions insect media as a project in support of what Deleuze called ‘technics of nature’. This entails a Spinozist approach wherein the plane of immanence is set by the arrangement of affects and motion, and any difference between the parasitoid wasps fabricating caterpillars and cockroaches into living larders, and humans which seem determined to use the whole of nature for fabrication is down to affective capacities—that is, what related bodies can do. Nonetheless, a stubborn sense persists that unbreachable categorical differences separate our ‘natural’ selves from technology.
Here, Parikka misses an opportunity to even more thoroughly imbricate the human into the technics of nature. Further, he could more clearly position his insect media as nonhuman, as opposed to posthuman theory. The value in such a distinction is that his entymological turn is not to show that the human is ‘becoming insect’ after having been a stable, unified, rational being, but that we never were that. The French paleoanthropologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan supports this view that we never emerged naked, as it were, from a primeval forest, our body in natural state of purity, free of the contaminates of technology, technics and media. Instead, using the parlance of Parikka, even our most primeval nature was always already crawling with insects. To clarify, Leroi-Gourhan, whose worked has strongly marked that of other media theorists like Bernard Stiegler, and Mark B.N. Hansen, argues that proto-humans were virtually no different than insects insofar as the most prehistoric tool use was, again using Parikka’s terms, a matter of instinct and immanence. Leroi-Gourhan propounds that our ancestral bipedal turn set off a cascade of events, mostly morphological, which created conditions for the emergence of technics for the human. Its earliest instantiations, however, were more insect-like than human, as some 2.5 MYA, proto-humans began using sharp-edged stones as an extension of the hand “as if their brains and bodies had gradually exuded them (106).” Leroi-Gourhan evokes insect media when he calls early technicity “a zoological fact” as opposed to a product of the intellect. A case can be made, then, that the proto-human was as much of a relational body as the insect, and, one whose technics were equally inseparable from their bodies. Space precludes further discussion here, but rich opportunities remain regarding the roles of instinct and intelligence vis-à-vis technics, especially contrasting the Bergsonian key of spatializing forms of knowledge to Leroi-Gourhan’s claim for technical exteriorization, that is, the tool as inorganic repository of memory.
Regardless, the originary technicity of Leroi-Gourhan remains highly symmetric with the rather catholic spandrels supporting Parikka’s project, ranging from Uexkull to Samuel Butler to Luciana Parisi to Keith Ansell Pearson. It is in an appropriately oblique manner that Gilbert Simondon supports a heavy conceptual load in these pages. While Simondon is known for individuation and transduction, the bulk of his work remains outside the ken of most English-language readers. Parikka helps to remedy this by deftly deploying not only his concept of individuation, but by emphasizing the plasticity of the space in which it unfolds. He could have made his kinship even clearer had he cited the Introduction to Simondon’s doctoral dissertation: “Culture has become a system of defense designed to safeguard man from technics. This is the result of the assumption that technical objects contain no human reality…. The opposition established between the cultural and the technical and between man and machine is wrong and has no foundation. What underlies it is mere ignorance or resentment. It uses a mask of facile humanism to blind us to a reality that is full of human striving and rich in natural forces. This reality is the world of technical objects, the mediators between man and nature” (11).
Simondon, then, emphasizes the transformative and correlative nature of technical objects. Indeed, this takes us to the core of Parikka’s project: “A primary characteristic of insects, metamorphosis, is transported to the heart of technics, and technics becomes an issue of affects, relations, and transformations, not a particular substance” (xxx). Here we see the overt political potential in Parikka’s project. The becoming, constitutive of any metamorphosis, is not only definitive of many insect life cycles, but constitutive to the process of individuation, and to myriad politics. Furthermore, technics is equally constitutive to this process. This space, which Parikka calls “unfolding individuation” (201) is an insect medium, in that it is a pre-intelligent realm of instinct. So it is not just that the human is not natural, in its purportedly unified and natural state, but that the ground from which it emerges is beset by insect media.
Parikka’s book, then, is also a work of media ethology, and he necessarily deploys diagrammatics for understanding ‘insect media’ affectivity, that is, for mapping what nonhuman assemblages can do. Given that insect media is a nonrepresentational theory, intensities are key, and on the level of instinct, as discussed above, they are critical as they set thresholds for action. So if you consider that our networked, distributed, mobile, digital world does, on a quotidian basis, what the conceptual persona of insect media does, namely “challenging the Kantian apperception of man as the historically constant basis of knowledge and perception” (9), then the political importance of mapping and unpacking those assemblages becomes clear.
Radical empiricism, so richly developed by Brian Massumi, is one way to do this. While this approach deeply informs Parikka’s project, it does not figure in practical detail. Adrian Mackenzie’s recent book Wirelessness, however, stands as a benchmark in how this might be applied to such nonhuman assemblages. One small example might be that of the FNF Freedom Tower in Zuccotti Park, constructed and used by the Occupy Wall Street movement. This specific instantiation of what Guattari once quipped was ‘how machines talk to machines before they talk to humans’ opens important perspectives on nonhuman actors, especially in distributed organization. In turn, it gives us insight into how the coordinates of such assemblages create thresholds of readiness for action.
One final political dimension to insect media theory is biopower, which Parikka stresses as a key theme of his book. Indeed, one of its singular achievements is the unique perspective it offers for rethinking just how the intensive creation of life transpires on levels of technical media. His inclusion, for example, of surrealist Roger Callois in his discussion of biopower is indicative of the wide-ranging and impressively inclusive theoretical swathe the book cuts. However, the conceptual breadth and depth is not always matched in applied detail. For example, there could have been greater clarity that life as an object of power, and as processes of creative becoming were always a part of the biopower-biopolitical distinction made by Foucault and the latter extensively expanded upon as the key political dimension by theorists such as Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato. As well, it is regrettable that there was not greater application of insect media to particular nonhuman assemblages and their immersion in the distributed networks of contemporary capitalism. Nonetheless, Parikka rightly concludes by emphasizing that what is at stake is not merely the merciless capture by capital but the creative and intensive potentialities of becoming.
I will conclude by recalling a lament expressed by Bennett over the lack of robust debate over “how materiality matters to politics” (xvi). At first glance, one would not necessarily expect that Parikka’s conceptual insectariums would comprise such a vital response to that lack. But indeed, it does, and the theoretical topology it reveals is robust enough to sustain a veritable infestation of future political inquiry and application.