by Steven Shaviro

©1995-1997 Steven Shaviro

We all have our totem animals, our familiars, our spirit guides. They are usually other mammals, sometimes birds, occasionally even reptiles or amphibians; but they are almost always vertebrates of one sort or another. Our relationships with insects, on the other hand, tend to be stranger, more uncanny, more disturbing. Few of us--Spiderman aside--willingly accept intimacy with the arthropods. "Insect collecting is a hobby few can share," as Shonen Knife gently laments. Burroughs waxes lyrical about cats, about lemurs, about "sables, raccoons, minks, otters, skunks and sand foxes"; but he can only approach centipedes and insects with an obsessive, fascinated repulsion. Exceptions can perhaps be made for the beauty of butterflies, and the savoriness of certain non-insect arthropods, like crustaceans. But almost none of us enjoys our enforced proximity to bedbugs, cockroaches, and houseflies. Is our disgust simply the result of being confronted with a life form so utterly alien? Our lineage separated from theirs more than 600 million years ago, even before the Cambrian explosion. The insects' modes of feeding and fucking, those two most crucial biological functions, are irretrievably different from ours. Looking across the vast evolutionary gap, we are seized by vertiginous shudders of gastronomical nausea and sexual hysteria: "We have all seen nature films in which enormously magnified insects unfeelingly dismember their prey. Their glittering multifaceted eyes stare at the camera while their complex mouthparts work busily, munching through still-struggling victims. We can empathize with our closer relatives the lions, who at least seem to enjoy their bloody work. But when the female mantis bites the head off its mate in order to release its copulatory reflex, it does so at the behest of an instinct that seems to have nothing to do with love, hate, or anything else to which we can remotely relate" (Christopher Wills).

Such an enthralled disgust is crucial to the postmodern experience of limits. The narrator of Clarice Lispector's The Passion According to G. H. is captivated by the sight of a wounded cockroach, trapped in a doorjamb as a "whitish and thick and slow" paste oozes out of its ruptured body. After pages of obsessive contemplation and description, she ritually devours the cockroach, finding in it the impossible "embodiment of a prehistoric, pre-symbolic, ecstatic primal divine matter" (Camillo Penna). But this effort at communion necessarily fails. The flesh of the squashed bug is sacred, as Bataille might put it, because it is primordially ambivalent: it arouses both disgust and desire, at once demanding and repelling our intimate contact. We cannot touch, much less eat, this debased matter; yet we can't stop ourselves from touching and eating it. Insect life is an alien presence that we can neither assimilate nor expel. Professional exterminators know this well, and so do the best theologians and philosophers. Much ink has been spilled recently exploring Thomas Nagel's question, "what is it like to be a bat?"--or more accurately: is it possible for us to know what it's like to be a bat? But the whole discussion looks suspiciously like a replay of the old philosophical canard regarding the alleged unknowability of "other minds," only tricked out this time in postmodern drag. And in any case the bat is still a mammal, a fairly close relative of ours. That makes it all much too easy. Wouldn't it be more relevant and useful to pose the question of radical otherness in biological terms, instead of epistemological ones? It would then become a problem, not of metaphorically entering the mind of a bat, but of literally and physically entering--or metamorphosing into--the body of a housefly. And resolving such a problem would involve the transfer, not of minds, but of DNA. What's important is not to intuit what it might be like to be another species, but to discover experimentally how actually to become one. Such is the import of David Cronenberg's film The Fly.

Burroughs cites Rule One of basic biologic law, rigidly enforced by the Biologic Police: "Hybrids are permitted only between closely related species and then grudgingly, the hybrids produced being always sterile." To innovate means to violate this law, to introduce alien genetic material, to assume the risks of "biologic and social chaos." But then, viruses and bacteria are doing this all the time. There's nothing new about genetic engineering; as Lynn Margulis points out, humans are only now adopting techniques that prokaryotes have already been practicing for billions of years. As for viruses, they seem just to be transposable elements--such as can be found in any genome--which have revolted against the tyranny of the organism, or otherwise gotten out of hand. From meiosis to symbiotic merger, every genetic recombination is a new throw of the dice. No such process can be controlled or determined in advance. In Cronenberg's film, Homo sapiens meets Musca domestica only by the sheerest contingency. The transformation of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) into an insect--more precisely, into the monstrous hybrid Brundlefly--is a statistical aberration: an improbable accident, a fortuitous encounter, an irreproducible singular event. That's why Seth never quite comprehends what is happening to him, at least not at the moment that it happens. His scientific consciousness lags perpetually behind his ceaselessly mutating body. His theories about his condition are out of date by the time he utters them. Cronenberg's human-turned-fly is the postmodern realization of Nietzsche's prophecy of the Overman: "man is something that should be overcome." For the Ubermensch is not the "higher man," nor is he any sort of fixed entity. Rather he is a perpetual becoming, an ungrounded projection into unknowable futurity. The singular hybrid Brundlefly is just such a body, without stable identity, caught in the throes of transformation. Did Nietzsche ever suspect that his great metaphysical longing would be most compellingly realized in insect form? Any scientist can make observations about how flies (or bats, or humans) act in general; but even Seth Brundle never knows from the inside "what it's like" to be a fly. For "what it's like" necessarily involves the irreversible othering of the knower: the "going-under" of the Overman, the continual "becoming" of Brundlefly. The pursuit of knowledge, as Foucault puts it, should result not just in the "acquisition of things known," but above all in "the going-astray of the one who knows."

Insects are well ahead of humans in this regard. Radical becomings take place routinely in their own lives. This is especially so in groups that pass through pupal metamorphosis. Their bodies are broken down and completely rebuilt in the course of transmutation from the larval to the mature stage. Is the butterfly "at one" with the caterpillar? Is this housefly buzzing around my head "the same" as the maggot it used to be? One genome, one continuously replenished body, one discretely bounded organism; and yet a radical discontinuity both of lived experience and of physical form. The surplus value accumulation of larval feeding gives way to lavish expenditure: the extravagant coloration of the butterflies, the coprophilic copulation of houseflies and others. Insect life cycles continually affirm the possibilities of radical difference--even if ants and bees would co-opt this difference into the homogenizing mold of the State. Every insect is a "singularity without identity," in Giorgio Agamben's phrase. The fringe biologist Donald I. Williamson even goes so far as to argue that larval stages are remnants of symbiotic mergers between formerly independent organisms. But whether or not this be literally the case, Brundle's hybridization certainly opens the door to yet stranger metamorphoses. The body of an insect--far more radically than the mind of a dialectician--is perpetually "other than itself."

The high intelligence and adaptive flexibility of mammals is usually attributed to our premature birth, and consequent long period of growth outside the womb. Genetics is supplemented by empirical learning and parental guidance. We lay down numerous memory traces, and build up complex personalities. Learning doesn't play such a role in insect development: not only because they have too few neurons to store all that information, but more crucially because memory traces cannot survive intact through the vast physiological changes of pupal transmutation. We higher mammals like to congratulate ourselves on our supposed ability to alter our own behavior adaptively in the span of an single lifetime. But this complacency may well be exaggerated. Innovation is harder than it seems. Insects usually manage to adapt to changed environmental circumstances a lot faster than we do, thanks to their greater propensity to generate mutations, and their far higher rate of genetic recombination over the course of much shorter reproductive cycles. In humans and other mammals, once memory traces are forged and reinforced, it's nearly impossible to get rid of them. And as if that weren't enough, we've also instituted traditions and norms of critical reflection, the better to police our identities, and to prevent our minds and bodies from going astray. Education, after all, is just a subtler and more sadistically refined mode of operant conditioning than the one provided by direct genetic programming. As Elias Canetti remarks, no totalitarian despot can ever hope to dominate and control his subjects so utterly as human parents actually do control their children. We accept such discipline largely because we feel compensated for it by the prospect of imposing it in turn upon our own descendants. Our mammalian talents for memory and self-reflection serve largely to oppress us with the dead weight of the past. Morse Peckham is right to insist that only "cultural vandalism"--the aggressive undermining of established values through random, mindless acts of destruction--can free us from this weight, and stimulate social innovation. We humans need to push ourselves to such disruptive extremes; otherwise we have no hope of matching the insects' astonishing ability to adaptively alter their physiology and behavior in a relatively brief time. Unburdened by mammalian scruples, insects effortlessly practice the Nietzschean virtue of active forgetting: the adult fly doesn't remember anything the maggot once knew.

Postmodern biology is increasingly oriented towards what might be called an insect paradigm. In postmodern biotechnology, according to Donna Haraway, "no objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves; any component can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code, can be constructed for processing signals in a common language." The organicism of romantic and modernist thought--together with its political correlate, the disciplinary "biopolitics" described so powerfully by Foucault--has given way to a new model of life processes. Postmodern bodies are neither vitalistic nor mechanistic. They are structured through principles of modular interchangeability and serial repetition; they innovate, not on the basis of pregiven criteria, but experimentally, by continual trials of selection. Arthropod body plans are especially postmodern, built as they are on multiply repeated segments, that can be fused or altered to generate new, differentiated structures. (The organic metaphors of the nineteenth century, in contrast, are idealizations of vertebrate body plans). Genetic engineering, whether carried out in the laboratory or in "nature," requires just such a modular flexibility. Stephen Jay Gould, reflecting on the astonishing variety of arthropod forms discovered in the fossils of the Burgess shale, suggests that the initial diversification of multicellular life progressed precisely in this way. Cambrian evolution seems to have taken the form of a "grabbag," mixing and matching body segments in a process much like "constructing a meal from a gigantic old-style Chinese menu: one from column A, two from B, with many columns and long lists in every column." This kind of thing doesn't much happen in macroevolution any longer; but it's still crucial on the molecular-genetic level, as Christopher Wills argues. Certain mimetic butterflies, for instance, have linked "supergene complexes" that allow them alternatively to mimic any one of a number of vastly different model species. Segmented repetition with modular variation remains the basic organizing principle of all insect genomes: hence the frequency of homeotic mutations--multiplied wings and legs, antennae transformed into legs, added or subtracted segments--in irradiated laboratory strains of Drosophila. Melancholy old conservatives like Jean Baudrillard fear that postmodern modular coding leads to a preprogrammed "satellitization of the real," and finally to its total "extermination." But even the slightest acquaintance with insects will convince you that-- contrary to Baudrillard's claims--"the hyperrealism of simulation" allows for a far greater explosion of change, multiplicity, and sheer exuberant waste than traditional organic models of production and circulation ever did.

Haraway points out that recent developments in postmodern biology involve a radical problematization and "denaturalization" of all notions of the organism and the individual. Witness Lynn Margulis on the symbiotic basis of eukaryotic cells, Richard Dawkins on "selfish genes," parasitism, and the "extended phenotype," and Leo Buss on the multiple, variant cell lineages of mammalian immune systems. When we look at the molecular-genetic basis of life, all we can find are differences and singularities: multiple variations, competing alleles, aberrant particle distributions, unforeseeable sequence transpositions. These multiplicities never add up to anything like a distinct species identity. Postmodern biology deals not with fixed entities and types, but with recurring patterns and statistical changes in large populations--whether these be populations of genes or populations of organisms. It tends to emphasize anomalous phenomena like retroviral infections and horizontal gene transfers; in such encounters, alteration "ceases to be a hereditary filiative evolution, becoming communicative or contagious" (Deleuze and Guattari). Postmodern biology moves directly between singularities without identity and population multiplicities, without having recourse either to intervening, mediating terms, or to overarching structural orders. It rejects the "holism" formerly attributed both to the individual organism and to the larger ecosystem. Look at the mutations and transpositions haunting any genome, or observe the behavioral quirks of the cockroaches invading your apartment. You will find what Deleuze and Guattari call "molecular, intensive multiplicities, composed of particles that do not divide without changing their nature, and distances that do not vary without entering another multiplicity and that constantly construct and dismantle themselves in the course of their communications, as they cross over into each other at, beyond, or before a certain threshold."

The obsolescence of those old organicist and holistic myths opens the way to strange new social and political arrangements. In our postmodern world, the "disciplinary power" analyzed by Foucault is continually being displaced into more subtly insidious modes of oppression. The ubiquitous codes of an "informatics of domination" (Haraway) are initially deployed by government bureaucracies, and then "privatized" as the property of multinational corporations. Such flexible and universal codes, insinuating themselves within all situations by processes of continual modulation, are the hallmark of what Deleuze, taking a hint from Burroughs, calls the "society of control." Cybernetic regulation is the human equivalent of the pheromone systems that regulate all activity in an ant colony. But let's not assume that this new arrangement of power forecloses all possibilities of resistance and change. As Deleuze says, "there's no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons." Seth Brundle speaks of his paradoxical desire to become "the first insect politician," suggesting the possibility of an alternative insect politics, different from the totalitarianism of ants and bees. Consider that flies, like midges and mosquitoes, tend to swarm; and that locusts periodically change form, and launch forth into mass nomadic rampages. Such insects form immense crowds without adopting rigidly hierarchical structures. Their loose aggregations offer far more attractive prospects for postmodern sociality than do the State organizations of the Hymenoptera. Insect swarms are populations in continual flux, distributing themselves randomly across a vast territory. They are altered by the very processes that bring them together, so that they can neither be isolated into separate units, nor conjoined into a higher unity. "Their relations are distances; their movements are Brownian; their quantities are intensities, differences in intensity" (Deleuze and Guattari). If postmodern power is exemplified by the informational feedback mechanisms of the "insect societies," then maybe a postmodern practice of freedom can be discovered in the uncanny experience of the insect swarms. The next time you see flies swirling over a piece of dung, reflect upon what Agamben calls the "coming community," one not grounded in identity, and "not mediated by any condition of belonging"; or upon what Blanchot calls "the unavowable community" or "the negative community" or (via Bataille) "the community of those who do not have a community."

Postmodern politics, like postmodern biology, must in any case come to grips with natural selection. The romantics and the modernists alike misconceived evolution in melioristic or moralizing terms. Even today, New Age sentimentalists search frantically for any metaphysical solace that might palliate the harshness of neo-Darwinian struggle. We hear tales of beneficent feedback mechanisms (Gregory Bateson, James Lovelock), heartwarming cooperative endeavors (Francesco Varela, Stephen Jay Gould), synchronic species progression (Rupert Sheldrake), and strange attractors at the end of history (Terence McKenna). These are all visions of a world as it were without insects, one in which change would always conform to petty bourgeois standards of niceness and comfort. Burroughs and Cronenberg know better, as do biologists like Richard Dawkins. We live, as Burroughs reminds us, in a "war universe." If we want to survive, we must avoid the facile self-deceptions of teleological explanations. Let us rather construct our "war machines" according to pragmatic, immanent, selectionist principles. Mammalian immune systems in fact already work in this way: they 'learn' to recognize and destroy enemy proteins as a result of differential reproduction rates among widely varying T cells. Similar models for the adaptive growth of neurons in the human brain--"neural selectionism" and "neural Darwinism"--have been proposed by Gerald Edelman and others. And artificial intelligence research now explores the possibilities of allowing selectional processes to operate blindly, instead of imposing predetermined algorithms. All such selectional systems are what Deleuze and Guattari call desiring machines or bodies without organs: they are not closed structures, but relational networks that "work only when they break down, and by continually breaking down." Breakdowns are inevitable, since the process of adaptation is never rapid enough to keep up with the pace of continual change. And every breakdown brings to the fore an immense reservoir of new, untapped differences and mutations: material in random variation upon which selection can operate. These selectional processes, therefore, do not guarantee us anything in advance. They do not provide for a future that will comfortingly resemble the present or the past. They do not help us to imagine how things might be better--that old utopian fantasy, much beloved of 'progressive' social critics. Rather, their political efficacy lies in this: that they actually work to produce differences we could not ever have imagined. They provoke innovations far stranger and more radical than anything we can conceive on our own. "I love the uncertainty of the future," as Nietzsche so stirringly wrote.

So cultivate your inner housefly or cockroach, instead of your inner child. Let selectional processes do their work of hatching alien eggs within your body. And don't imagine for a second that these remarks are merely anthropomorphizing metaphors. We can kill individual insects, as spiders do; but we can't for all that extricate ourselves from the insect continuum that marks life on this planet. The selectional forces that modulate insect bodies and behaviors are also restlessly at work in our own brains, shaping our neurons and even our thoughts. Does such an idea revolt you? The problem might be that we can't read insect expressions: we don't know what they are thinking, or even if they are thinking. But this is nothing but an unwarranted vertebrate physiological prejudice; after all, "insects are naturally expressionless, since they wear their skeletons on the outside" (Christopher Wills). Watch for when the insect molts, and its inner vulnerability is exposed.

We should reject all distinctions of inner and outer, as of nature and culture. How could you ever hope to separate genetic influences from environmental ones, or biology from sociology? Those social critics who think "biological" means ahistorical and unchanging--and reject naturalistic explanations on that basis--clearly don't know what they are talking about. The bizarre, irreversible contingencies of natural history and cultural history alike stand out against all endeavors to endow life with meaning, goal, or permanence. Entomology is far less essentialistic, far more open to difference and change, far more attentive to the body, than is, say, cultural critique grounded in Frankfurt School post-Marxism or in Lacanian psychoanalysis. It's still common in well-meaning academic humanist circles to loathe and despise sociobiology. But this isn't just a matter of disputing some rather dubious claims about particular aspects of human behavior. What these critics really can't forgive is sociobiology's insistence upon biological embodiment itself. It's not a question of whether this or that gender trait is actually "written in our genes," so much as it is a case of the panicky denial of evolutionary contingency, or genetic limitation, altogether. Humanistic critics of biology merely perpetuate a massive, and quite traditional, idealization of human culture: one that has long fueled delusive fantasies of redemption and transcendence, and that has served as an alibi for all sorts of controls over people's lives, and moralistic manipulations of actual human behavior. Edward O. Wilson, to the contrary, made only one real mistake when he came to systematize the discipline of sociobiology: this was his choice of ants, rather than houseflies or cockroaches, as the implicit reference point for examining "human nature." Be that as it may, entomological intuitions remain more illuminating and provocative than narrowly humanistic ones. Maurice Maeterlinck well expressed the uncanny fascination of insect life nearly a century ago: "The insect brings with him something that does not seem to belong to the customs, the morale, the psychology of our globe. One would say that it comes from another planet, more monstrous, more dynamic, more insensate, more atrocious, more infernal than ours." What has changed in this picture in the last hundred years? Only one thing. We have come to understand that such alien splendor is precisely what defines the cruelty and beauty of our world.

Return to DOOM PATROLS Table of Contents

Go to my homepage

Read my new book in progress, Stranded in the Jungle.

email me: