With the recent finding that ants’ social networks are similar to our online social networks, “insect media” sounds like less of a metaphor and more of a direct analogy, but Jussi Parikka’s Insect Media: An Archeology of Animals and Technology (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) is much more than either. He hedges from writing metaphorically preferring to show how the evolution of technology is a system of assemblages and flows, much like those found in the insect world. Conflating the two presents its own problems (see my own rather cavalier homology between dinosaurs and bicycles and how flight came about), but Parrika sidesteps them like so many ant legs.
Insects make me scream and shout
They don’t know what life’s about
They don’t have blood
They’ve got too many legs
They don’t have brains in their heads
They know they’ll rule the world some day
They bite and sting me anyway
— Oingo Boingo, “Insects”
At its core, Parikka’s is a systems view. Citing Georges Canguilhem (1992) against Marshall McLuhan (1964; as well as Ernst Kapp, Teilhard de Chardin, et al.), Parikka notes that when we compare media as the extensions of humans to media as the externalized world of insects, we run into severe problems when it comes to certain technologies, namely wheels and fire. He evokes Deleuze and Guattari, writing that we must stop thinking about bodies as closed systems and realize that they are open and constituted by their environment, what Maturana and Varela call “structural coupling” (1987; Maturana & Poerkson, 2004). Our skin is not a boundary; it is a periphery: permeable, vulnerable, and fallibly open to external flows and forces.
[W]e do not so much have media as we are media and of media; media are brains that contract forces of the cosmos, cast a plane over the chaos (p. xxvii).
Even though our own media technology is killing insects in droves, Parikka proves that they provide a fertile space for thinking about the ways that we currently communicate with each other and mediate the spaces between ourselves and our world. And if you’re really into the bugs (as I have gotten since reading Parikka’s book), Hugh Raffles’ Insectopedia (Vintage, 2010) is a brilliant survey of insect knowledge. Arranged alphabetically by subject (as any proper *pedia should be), Raffle’s book is a compendium of historical research, travel essays, sober meditations, brief vignettes, and in-depth stories about our diminutive planetary companions. It’s a crash education in entomology and a damn fun read.
Next time you’re visited or intruded upon by one of our tiny neighbors, take a second to contemplate what they can teach us about our own ways. We’re more like them they we think. They’ll probably rule the world someday, but in the meantime — as these two books illustrate — they can teach us something anyway.
Canguilhem, G. (1992). “Machine and Organism.” In J. Crary & S. Kwinter (eds.), Incorporations. New York: Zone Books.
Maturana, H. R. & Poerkson, B. (2004). From Being to Doing: The Origins of the Biology of Cognition. Heidelberg, Germany: Carl-Auer Verlag.
Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J. (1987). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Parikka, J. (2010). Insect Media: An Archeology of Animals and Technology. Cambridge, MA: University of Minnesota Press.
Raffles, H. (2010). Insectopedia. New York: Vintage.
Apologies to Ken Wark for stealing his title for this post and to Ash Crawford for stealing Ken’s title for this post.