Insects and Technology


“Anything can be captured as an instrument and technology,” according to Jussi Parikka, who attempts in Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology to “deterritorialize” technology from its traditional material form and the human from its role as the creator and organizer of that material (77). In a series of case studies chronicling the influence of insect biological research on technology and media design and philosophy from the 19th century through to the present, Parikka (drawing on the theoretical constructs of Deleuze and Guattari) addresses “the immanent conditions of possibility” for “philosophical interventions into how we habitually think about media, technology, and the conjoining and differences of animal and nonorganic life” (xv). Nonhuman forces are thus incorporated into a modern media assemblage understood not as an aggregate of distinct human, animal, natural, and artificial parts, but as a milieu of potentiality that emerges only through the interaction and relations of its various nodes.

The phenomenology of becoming and emergence Parikka outlines challenges “the basic dualisms of determinism versus freedom, mechanism versus vitalism, and the many versus the one” which so thoroughly dominated discourse on animals and technology throughout the 20th century (51). It encourages the dual movement of reconceiving not just technology and media as insects, but insects as technology and media. The case studies he presents inform a media ecological perspective for which there is “no world beyond…relations” (66). In one illuminating example, a tick survived in a coma-like state without food for eighteen years, cut off from all relationships and therefore extracted from time and the realm of potential.

coverParikka correlates the late 19th and early 20th century fascination with the invisible machinations of insect life to the contemporary obsession with understanding the functions of digital networks and data. The human brain, the ant, and the Internet each implement modes of perception and communication determined by their positioning in a particular milieu, rather than their role in a traditional subject-object interaction. This channels postmodern inquiry into the structure of subjective consciousness, citing popular culture representations in the 1990s that attempted to reconcile the active, defined subject with the nebulous, nondiegetic world of digitality. The difficulty in such an undertaking is maintaining constructive theorizations of new forms of consciousness rather than slipping into mere metaphor (the insect world as a representation of or inspiration for modern technological design).

The diverging threads of scientific research, philosophical analysis, and design technique gain traction when synthesized in a posthuman conceptual model for reconsidering the potentials of contemporary digital technologies such as artificial intelligence. AI should “rely not on a purely disembodied notion of calculational intelligence but on a much more noncognitive sphere of intelligence of bodies related” (p. 181). Attempts to recreate the human mind in digital form are destined for failure, and so rethinking intelligence as the product of a relation of forces and emergent behavior in the physical world opens up new realms of sensation and response that the model of human intelligence would exclude or restrict. The physical world may still serve as inspiration for and be appropriated by future technological design, as with reproduction in the digital, where the biological methods of the past (bacterial and meiotic sex, heterosexual sex) and those of contemporary biodigitality (e.g., cloning) are combined in high-tech machines composed of a complex fusion of software and genetic coding.

Near the close of Insect Media, Parikka makes a welcome attempt to incorporate his research into the dialogue on global capitalism of the early 21st century in a compelling section that is woefully brief and worthy of further development. Through an analysis of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s 2002 film Teknolust, he identifies the “corporeal flows” that are “intensified by incorporeal events,” organic energies that are “tapped into by the deterritorializing machinations of capitalism and by biodigital techniques of power” (192). The cyborgs in Teknolust owe their existence in equal parts to human biology, digital innovation, and financial power, raising troubling concerns about the future of technological advance: Who owns your digitized genetic code? Who has access to the natural resources that provide valuable research material for the development of new medical procedures and treatments? What are the privacy implications of globally networked biogenetic databases?

In establishing an awareness of the nuanced “technics of nature,” Parikka focuses “less on what comes after the human than what constitutes the nonhuman forces inside and beyond the form of the human,” providing a theoretical foundation for situating humans in an environment of physical materials and digital inventions that “afford intelligence, not the other way round” (201). As metaphorical elucidation, that message is entertaining; as technological and media design strategy, it is essential.

Parikka, Jussi. Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print.

John Boles

John Boles is a former Master's candidate in the Communication, Culture & Technology program at Georgetown University and a blogger for gnovis. He double-majored in Communication and Music at Boston College, exploring the intersection of entertainment media including film, television, music, literature, and video games. At Georgetown he is expanding those studies with research on the economics of the cultural industries and the complex issues of narrative and identity intrinsic to the creative process. John is also a composer and guitarist, who most recently released a solo album under the name Align in Time.