Univ Of Minnesota Press, English, 320 pages, 2010, ISBN: 978-0816667406
For networked societies, emergent intelligence and swarms have taken on important explanatory power in terms of highly distributed modes of behavior, ranging over contexts and discussions as wide as military theory, economics, the development of software algorithms, political organisation and user-led content generation. Indeed, as new media theorists Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker have argued, the recurring power of this bestial figuration today demands historical clarification beyond being simply a naïve metaphor applied to digital and networked technologies.
Jussi Parikka’s Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology can be read as taking up precisely this invitation by excavating a critical past for the weird intersections between insects and (late) modern technologies. For the record, one great advantage of this curious text is the command Parikka has over contemporary media theory: expect an excellent crash course not only in entomology, but debates occurring in software studies, network theory, new materialism and (of course) media archaeology. There is a specific slant to the work worth pointing out, however, in that historical approaches from German media theory are ‘twisted’ with a particular strain of vitalist Deleuzian (and at times Guattarian) ontology. While this is comparable to his earlier text Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (2007), be prepared for a conceptual vocabulary of affects, intensities and assemblages.
Indeed, ‘diagrammatics’, for Parikka, is the main approach to historical changes over time, though this variation on the concept falls closer to the realist ontology of Manuel DeLanda, than discussions around the modulating power of control societies or Foucauldian readings of sovereignty, discipline and security. Of course, aspects of biopolitics, informationalism and capitalism are touched on, but this is not the main focus of the text. Rather, Parikka is more concerned with a lineage of virtualities and actualizations across human and nonhuman milieus that gradually elaborate an ecosophic perspective on ‘the not yet existing in the sphere of bodies, sensations, and ethological relationality’ (194).
The book is split into two major sections, initially following the rise of 19th century entomology and then moving to connections with more recent histories of cybernetics, programmable media and software. True to form, Parikka takes on the task of constructing this genealogy against major figures in the Deleuzian pantheon: entomologists William Kirby and William Spence are read in terms of Henri Bergson; a central chapter is (quite rightly) dedicated to the important philosophic approach to insect life by Jakob von Uexküll (whose work, incidentally, has also recently been republished in this same ‘Posthumanities’ series by University of Minnesota Press); Gilbert Simondon is used to both illuminate and differentiate the cybernetic paradigm of Norbert Weiner, along with short discussions of intriguing researchers like Karl von Frisch and W. Grey Walter; the last chapter, perhaps strangely, offers film analysis through an extended reading of Lynn Hershman-Leeson’s Teknolust (2002) by drawing heavily on the work of Elizabeth Grosz, Rosi Braidotti and Luciana Parisi.
Despite the interdisciplinary variation throughout all these discussions, the figure of the insect mediates historical concepts, fictional imaginings and scientific practices, continually driving Parikka’s main argument for an understanding of media beyond an anthropocentricism of cognitive pre-planning or human intelligence. The strong claim is made that while certain strains of entomology historically allowed for the temporal and spatial externalization of ‘primitive animal life’ into the technological apparatus, this equally unleashed strange potentialities, disruptive formations and metamorphoses (i.e. becomings) beyond the scale of instrumental rationalization. It is by emphasizing the latter, in the final epilogue, that the political stakes of Parikka’s work become apparent. Here, the enmeshed individuations of human and nonhuman life are posed as fundamentally complicating the ideals of capitalist projects driving new media and biotechnologies. The final question would then be one of experimentation with these transversal connections by tapping into not only the bestiality of this organisation of life, but also (using the appropriate Deleuzian terminology) its potential lines of flight.