Review of Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology
by Jussi Parikka, 2010; University of Minnesota Press
Jeremy Cushman, Purdue University
(Published: October 10, 2012)
In a recent blog post, Jussi Parikka wrote that he had “not meant to poke at anyone just to irritate” (Oops par. 2). And irritate he did. Parikka, as Graham Harmon put it, finally weighed in with a few questions for what often gets called object-oriented ontology (OOO). Parikka asks whether there was a problem with the notion of ‘object’ given that it paradoxically still implies “quite a correlationist, or let’s say, human-centred view to the world” (OOQ par. 2). Paradoxical because pushing past a human-centered view or correlationism, where the human has access to objects only in so far as we can think about them, is what OOO is supposed to oppose. Or, as Quentin Meillassoux put it in After Finitude, many of the thinkers working in OOO challenge the idea that “all we ever engage with is what is given-to-thought, never an entity subsisting by itself” (36).
Object-oriented ontology, to various degrees, holds that all objects, including humans, are much more than their correlates, and it works to conceptualize objects as independent of human thought. Such speculation is important because, as Levi Bryant says in response to Parikka’s post, research for many scholars in the humanities, and certainly those of us in rhetoric and composition, continue to investigate “how humans name things, perceive things, cognize things, etc.; in short, how humans construct things” (par. 7). For much of the humanities, these things are simply nonhuman carriers of human meaning and intention. Bryant says, they continue to be approached as nothing but mirrors. And just how are we to think about, say, climate change and its real, material impact if we approach it as a mere carrier of human meaning, a signifier? What OOO allows us to do, says Bryant, is actually consult the structures of the world and its objects without being accused of falling prey to the illusion that those structures are separate from those we have already imposed on the world. For OOO, objects relate to one another and do not always require human subjects in which to find significance. In this way, it can offer us a philosophical/speculative way of attributing the agency and equality objects have in the construction of our world (Bryant, Onticology, 2010).
Still, Parikka worries that holding onto the notion of ‘object’ maintains the normal (human) mode of perception. What’s more, he worries that the non-human objects OOO want to “rescue” might not always need to be approached as objects. Treating everything as an object does bring a certain flatness or equality to the world and so challenges the hierarchies within humanism and the prejudices of human-centered research programs. That’s a challenge Parikka shares. But he wonders if it also leads to an “imagined concreteness,” where something like electromagnetism, or maybe even rhetoric, are hard to account for in that they are not concrete objects (par. 5). For example, the concept of process in rhetoric and composition is not necessarily an object. When we treat it as such we do get something we can explain and so teach, but we tend not to be talking about process. Instead we offer a retrospective account of what happened when one was writing: an imagined concreteness. It’s important to note that there is far more to objects (like, for one, the idea that they’re shifting assemblages of irreducible objects) than Parikka seems willing to grant OOO. But his questions for OOO are indicative of his insistence that we continue to need careful vocabularies for the non-object nature of our communication practices, technology, and media (OOQ Par. 4).
Parikka’s Insect Media is centered on that concern. More specifically, Insect Media is about transporting the characteristics of insects (and by extension other non-humans) to the heart of how we understand communication, technical media, and ourselves. Here, media are not approached as objects (or tools or machines or even processes) that are used by humans and are ontologically different from living systems. Media, for Parikka, are not really objects at all; they’re of no particular substance. Instead they become “an issue of affects, relations, and transformations,” (xxx) which are divergent concepts and so cannot be captured in terms of theory or technique. A central tenant of the book is that like insects and other animals, media “deal with forces imperceptible to human understanding but glimpsed through their effects only—the logic of algorithms, calculations, and voltages unreachable in itself, yet continuously mediated and affecting the bodies of humans” (119). What Parikka does is trace a long and, as he understands it, connected history between an enthusiasm for insects and technology to argue that like bees, ticks, ants, and other aliens in our lives, media “can be approached as intensive capabilities [not mere objects] that are constitutive of worlds” (xxvi-xxvii). Worlds that exceed our own, and worlds that are also constitutive of our practices of communication. It’s a framework that will challenge rhetoric and composition scholars, particularly those with an affinity for computers and writing, to recognize we think with non-human media technologies rather than about them, and that our rhetorical practices may involve more than the interaction among a collection of relatively stable objects (e.g. audience, text, technology, etc.).
The book really is a strange animal. Unlike the more popular move of positing insects as models for media (such as swarms or hives or little ant-colonies), Parikka’s central move is to bracket questions concerning the difference between the natural and the artificial—questions that allow for such popular moves to be posited in the first place. That is, insects are not approached only as efficient models for the distributed intelligence of our digital media. This book is something different than the swarm logic analyzed by thinkers such as Eugene Thacker and Alexander Galloway in their The Exploit. It’s also about something other than the swarm logic made seemingly ubiquitous by writers like Steven Johnson, the kind of logic that we increasingly see heralded on the covers of new management books like Emergence and Here Comes Everybody…. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The swarm logic of insects, for Parikka, is not only a natural model of how artificial media could and should operate. Insects are also, and more importantly, approached as media themselves. Parikka’s project, then, is the establishment of an ‘insect technics,’ where the delineation between insects and media is not so clear. He challenges the more customary model of ‘media as insects,’ giving us the reverse formulation: ‘insects as media.’ This odd formulation, and it is at times terribly odd, requires something other than a humanist approach to media. That is, rather than approaching media as an intellectual puzzle that we can step back from and take account of, his formulation understands our media environments as constructed through our intensified practical involvement (sensing, movement, and memory) with our surroundings. So, we do not have media through which to communicate the material world, which would include insects themselves, we are media and of media” (117).
The formulation helps us understand technologies as more than an extension of the human, more than a kind of prosthesis that only increases our physical and mental reach into the world. The (artificial) technologies that support a communicative network becoming an insect swarm are not mere imitations of the (natural) insect world. The action of bugs are not merely a model for understanding media. Insects as media rather than the other way around means that media “can be approached as intensive capabilities that are constitutive of worlds”(xxvi-xxvi). To emphasize the point, media are not approached as assemblages of preexisting objects. That kind of approach is how we get a view of insects as mere models for communication technology. Parikka approaches media as a mode of flows that consists of “speeds and slowness, affects (potentials to connect) and qualities—a mode more akin to becoming than expressing a solid being (the becoming animal of technology, the becoming technical of the insect)” (xxvi). One does not represent the other because one is becoming the other. That’s a challenging bit of metaphorical speculation, and one that I find rather useful for thinking through our pervasive relationship to media.
The book traces this approach through a kind of archeology. Each chapter works as a historical case study, excavating various levels of knowledge production that give shape to the present context of network or digital culture and media (xxiv). The chapters “move from science (entomology and biology) to technical media, from popular culture to avant-garde arts, and touch various media from cinema to music, software, and literature” (xxx). Likewise, the theoretical influences in the book are varied. As you might expect, Parikka draws heavily on the themes of assemblages and intensities from Deleuze and Guattari, but also from feminist theorists Elizabeth Grosz and Rosi Braidotti. Most interesting, for this reader, is his consideration of 19th century naturalists and entomologists alongside the work of lesser referenced, but widely influential, figures such as Henri Bergson, Gilbert Simondon and Jakob von Uexküll. It’s a combination of disciplines, texts, events, bugs, technologies, and thinkers that illuminate a small (and arguably ignored) history of non-Cartesian thinking. It’s also a combination that helps those of us working in rhetoric and composition to approach rhetorical practices and communication technologies as a shifting part of who we are.
The first half of the book serves as an intimate look at how media cannot and has not been reducible to the way we normally understand technology, that is, as ontologically different from living organisms. The living organisms or insects under this historical lens consist of “industrious workers and factories, weird capacities and potentials, complex systems”(xxx). They are, on the one hand, understood as little machines that construct geometrical forms through inner repetition—much like our common view of technology. On the other hand, Parikka posits metamorphosis as the primary characteristic of insect life, and then moves that characteristic into his analysis of media technology. Historically, metamorphoses in entomology, biology, and art became less about linear, naturalized growth and more about the intimate, affective relationship between bodies and their environments. Some technological media environments, which involve the participant, the media, and the space of interaction, are engines of metamorphosis (107). Non-linear change not only defines this action, it is this action. Stable objects, substances, or machinic algorithms don’t capture the immanent nature of technology for Parikka. Technological media is a metamorphosis.
This becomes particularly clear in the second half of the book, where he covers the more recent (and maybe more familiar) history of cybernetics. Here, Parikka works to articulate how insects were directly addressed within technological contexts. He connects what was a new approach to biological and technological information (cybernetics) through an interest in simulating insect movement, perception, swarming, an even evolutions. Bugs that make us slap the back of our own neck in summer and ‘bugs’ that crawl around in our technology are both seen as powerful modes of distributed intelligence or technological media. And importantly, both insects and technics are never given in advance, but are produced through a continuing process of interaction (xxii-xxiv).
One good example of such interaction, and an example I think should continue to impact rhetoric and composition, is Parikka’s use of Henri Bergson’s distinction between instinct and intelligence. Parikka writes, “Bergson’s idea of instinct was that of a mechanism whose relations are felt rather than thought in abstraction” (22). Felt relations, for him, are not understood as automatic or mechanized behavior, which is the more common understanding of instinct, particularly when it comes to bugs. It’s more useful to understand instinct as a prelinguistic mode of linking the body to its surrounding. Bergson saw the instinct of insects as bodily adaptations, albeit intensely repeated adaptations, to an environment that allowed (or afforded) those adaptions rather than an automated, predetermined reflex. Instinct becomes a process and a temporality. Consequently, Parikka’s history helps us think about technics as more than machines of blind predetermination and instead “as packages of affects and storehouses of invention” (24).
Invention, as a rhetorical concept, is quickly put into question by Parikka’s approach to metamorphosis, instinct, and media. Invention, here, can be understood not as a transferable mechanism or strategy for idea generation, but instead as ongoing embodied reactions to environments. Invention is not step-one in the writing process (which, again, concretizes the writing process as object), but a ubiquitous part of the writer’s environment, and so already underlying a writer’s necessary adaptations. Invention, then, can help teachers and scholars of rhetoric and composition highlight the often more prevalent practices of writing: instability, discontinuity, and surprise. With Parikka, we can approach invention as energy with the capacity to change as it repeatedly engages in different environments.
George Kennedy already has many of us thinking about rhetoric as energy. Kennedy writes, “Rhetoric in the most general sense may perhaps be identified with the energy inherent in communication” (2). What rhetoric becomes, produces, or allows for, then, is not given in advance but will depend on the inventive capacity of bodies, technologies, and environments. Rhetoric starts to sound ontological or natural just as much as epistemological or artificial. Similarly, Debra Hawhee understands rhetorical education as “the development of rhetoric as a bodily art: an art learned, practiced, and performed by and with the body as well as the mind” (144). The body is where Parikka puts storehouses of invention and says, via Bergson, that for animals, invention happens mainly through the body as it engages its surrounding (22). So rhetorical education, like the operation of insect technics, is not always about the “material learned [abstract intelligence], but rather inheres in a learned manner, a kind of habit-production [or instinct] based on movement [or energy]” (24). Insect Media helps us get a hold of a rhetoric that is neither abstracted from our natural world nor from ourselves. It can help us incorporate a kind of instinctual, energetic rhetoric consisting of Hawhee’s three R’s: “rhythm, repetition, and response” (142). Rhythm, repetition, and response, I can say with Parikka, are not objects nor are they tools of communication. And yet, as Hawhee has argued, they are constitutive of our (perhaps instinctual) practices of communication. What that may mean is that underlying the field of composition is an argument that our knowing is in our action.
The actions, bodies, technologies, environments, and communities we’re hooked into are constitutive of our practices of communication. Most of us working in rhetoric and composition already accept this. Still, by bracketing differences between the natural and the artificial, Insect Media can get us to keep questioning what it is we make and how we make it. In other words, the book lets us ask relatively new questions about our practices. Rhetorical practices do entail some kind of composition: messages, sentences, thoughts, sounds, gestures, data, etc (Alex Reid par 3). Parikka would say these compositions are a “dynamic notion that functions to situate the subject in the world. [Composition] and information informs and guides us in an intensive ongoing process, not as a stable form” (141). This is a focus on the composition itself rather than a focus on the subjects talking about and making compositions, and the composition or information makes (individuates) the living being. Parikka writes, “The body of the living being is thus an intensive carrier of change, which resonates with its environment” (142). Rhetoric is thus drawn into the body as instinct, as energy, and works not as a set of principles employed by the rhetor, but rather, and better, draws “solutions to problems from the process itself” (143).
One contemporary (and important) example of approaching rhetorical practices as open, undetermined, and affective systems is Jenny Edbauer's reworking of the rhetorical situation. She has asked us to imagine rhetoric as an ecological practice. She wants a doing rather than a situation: “We might also say that rhetorical situation is better conceptualized as a mixture of processes and encounters; it should become a verb, rather than a fixed noun or situs” (5). Her ecological focus takes rhetoric away from the more static ‘situational’ model which entails a fairly stable (human) sender, receiver, and text, viewing it as “amalgam of processes, or as a circulation of encounters and actions” (12). Rhetoric, much like we learn from Parikka’s approach to media, is a becoming that is not always (if ever) a result or formation of a human’s engagement with their environment. As I’ve said, Parikka’s point is that bodies of media such as swarms and other collaborative forms of production (or compositions) are radically nonhuman (204). That is, rather than a more conventional, and arguably teachable, view of rhetoric, Insect Media can ask us to view rhetorical practices and the compositions they entail as more than effective, internal representations of the world we wish to communicate. This world, with all its multiplicities and possibilities, what Parikka calls the transversal, continues to talk back. And insects, for Parikka, can begin to give us ears, or maybe antennas, to better interact with rather than capture the non-human, intensive capabilities—the processes, circulation of encounters, and actions—writers like Edbauer and others find in our rhetorical practices.
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