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A Small World: Smart Houses and the Dream of the Perfect Day (2008)

Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology

by Jussi Parikka
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2010
320 pp., illus. 11 b/w.  Trade, $75.00; paper, $25.00
ISBN: 978-0-8166-6739-0; ISBN: 978-0-8166-6740-6.

Reviewed by Anthony Enns
Department of English
Dalhousie University
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

anthony.enns@dal.ca

In his 2007 book Digital Contagions: A Media Archeology of Computer Viruses, Finnish media theorist Jussi Parikka argued that biological concepts can be applied to natural and technological systems—such as biological and computer viruses—because these systems are both based on interactions between bodies and environments that “resonate together” and “infect each other.”[1] Indeed, according to Spinozan-Deleuzian philosophy, there is no difference between nature and technology, as both of these terms refer to the same basic interaction between bodies and environments. The same premise also informs Parikka’s 2010 book Insect Media: An Archeology of Animals and Technology, which similarly argues that biological concepts can be applied to animals and technologies because both of these entities consist of forces that interact with their environment. In short, Insect Media outlines a posthuman media theory that blurs the boundaries between the natural and the technological, the human and the non-human, and the living and the non-living.

The notion that insects and media are similar is certainly not new. In his 1941 essay “On Popular Music,” for example, German sociologist Theodor Adorno famously employed insects as a metaphor to describe the passivity of popular music listeners who “are deprived of any residues of free will...and tend to produce passive reactions to what is given them and to become mere centers of socially conditioned reflexes.” Adorno was particularly interested in a popular dance known as the “jitterbug” because he believed that this entomological term referred to “an insect who has the jitters, who is attracted passively by some given stimulus,” and therefore “the comparison of men with insects betokens the recognition that they have been deprived of autonomous will.”[2] More recent critics, like Kevin Kelly (editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and Wired), have also used insects as a positive metaphor to describe the sense of connectedness provided by modern media networks: “Networked computers will be the main shaper of humans in the future.... Global opinion polling in real-time 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ubiquitous telephones, asynchronous e-mail, 500 TV channels, video on demand: all these add up to the matrix for a glorious network culture, a remarkable hivelike being.”[3] Media theorists have thus deployed insect metaphors in many different ways, yet Parikka explicitly rejects the notion of “insect media” as a metaphor. Instead, he is primarily concerned with how insects can be understood as technologies and how technologies can be understood as living, non-human entities.

The first half of the book focuses on the notion of insects as media by reexamining the discourses of entomology and ethology as histories of technology. Through close readings of works by William Kirby and William Spence, Etienne-Jules Marey, Jakob von Uexküll, and Roger Caillois, Parikka explores the concept of “insect technics” or “the becoming technical of the insect” (xxvi). In order to explain how insects can be considered technical, Parikka primarily focuses on three concepts: instinct, swarming, and metamorphosis. First, he employs Henri Bergson’s theory of instinct as a “non-reflexive, continuous folding with the world” (17) to show that a body is a “natural tool,” which blurs the distinction between an instrument and its user (20). Insects vividly illustrate this idea, as their bodies function as “instinctual machines” rather than prosthetic extensions of a controlling consciousness (24). Second, Parikka explores the concept of swarming as an assemblage of “affects” or “intensities” that “organize the multiple into a relational whole” (47). In other words, each unit in a swarm exists only in terms of its relations to the whole and it is thus “co-created at the same time as [its] environmental relations” (xiv). Third, Parikka examines the concept of metamorphosis or the temporality of insects, which are “continuously on the verge of becoming…but also dissolving” (59). By describing insects as assemblages of forces that exist in relation to the environment and that are constantly in the process of becoming, Parikka concludes that there is no difference between insects and machines.

The second half of the book examines media as insects or “the becoming animal of technology” (xxvi). In this section, Parikka also describes machines as assemblages of bodies and forces interacting with the environment, and he argues that insects serve as an ideal model for machines because these devices often exhibit complex behavior and reflect “an increasingly biological mode of organization and logic” (79). For example, the concept of swarming provides “an alternative way to understand the life of algorithms as objects in interaction” (147). Computer software is similarly defined by “its capacities, its affections, its relationality” (165), as it emerges through a “temporal unfolding in technological and other milieus that support (or afford) its existence” (166). Some examples of technologies that exhibit biological behavior include W. Grey Walter’s cybernetic tortoises, Ken Rinaldo’s robotic spiders, ant farm computer simulations, and the shift from classical Artificial Intelligence to Artificial Life, in which intelligence is seen “as a result of numerous simple parts’ interacting” (135). The development of self-replicating automatons thus represents the ultimate fusion of “animals and technologies of emergence” (165).

The book concludes on a somber note, as Parikka acknowledges that capitalism also seeks to contain and manipulate the affects and intensities of animals and technologies. This brings us back to Adorno’s argument that media deprive users of autonomy by facilitating swarming behavior. While Parikka explicitly rejects the notion of technology as an instrument or tool, he does admit that capitalism “is just as interested in the machinics and assemblages of the intensive materialism of potentiality” and descriptions of animals and technologies as realms of “potentiality” and “perpetual variation” reflect the same “logic of control” (204). The solution to this problem is to “keep a focused eye on the wider ecological and ethological connections of [these] discourses and practices as they move on to the same ground as the capitalist wish to tap into reformulations of desires, bodies, and politics of relationality” (205). This statement may seem vague, yet it clearly shows that posthuman media theory does not simply ignore the social and political impact of media technologies. Rather, it also seeks to understand how media technologies alter the way we understand ourselves as human beings: we do not simply use media, but rather “we are media and of media” (xxvii). In other words, posthuman media theory does not conceive of technology as a prosthetic extension of the self; rather, it suggests that our bodies can also be seen as technologies that are constantly interacting with the environment, and the result of this interaction is the formation of perception and cognition. While the political implications of this argument remain somewhat ambiguous, Parikka clearly suggests that the humanist separation of the individual as subject and the technological apparatus as object is fundamentally misguided.

References

[1] J. Parikka, Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), p. 270.
[2] T. Adorno, “On Popular Music,” Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), p. 465.
[3] K. Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1994), p. 28.


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