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<nettime> The New Inquiry > Bugs


< http://thenewinquiry.com/features/the-new-inquiry-vol-54-bugs/ >

The New Inquiry Vol. 54: Bugs

By TNI

AS we write this, an ant is crawling on our forearm. More than any
other non-human lifeform, bugs of any size -- the term can refer to
a virus, bacterium, or arthropod -- challenge the serenity of life
under human command, which in the anthropocene means nearly all
life. We have taken the ant between our fingers and crushed it.
While the suppression of our animal-being defines us as a species,
proximity to larger beasts isn't as much of a threat to humanness
as contact with bugs. In fact, living intimately with wild or
domestic creatures of the proper size can make you an exemplary
human -- a hunter, herder, or farmer. Except for silkworms and bees
(we'll get to that), bugs mean you've lost your self-control.

If there is one ant around, there must be more. The thing about
self-control or mastery is that it's a fantasy: the bugs are
always there. They've always been there and they'll always be
there. They live in our skin, on our faces, in our guts. Bugs
exceed us. There is no human space they can't go. And recently,
it's become clear that the drive to exclude them from our society
has left us vulnerable. Less than a century of widespread
antibiotic use altered human immune systems for what seems to be
the worse, while allowing the surviving bugs to attain
superpowers. The CDC recently reported that one in 25 current
patients suffers from one of the many infectious hospital-acquired
superbugs, and new studies regularly claim farm air, with its dust
and manure, inoculates children against the epidemic of asthma in
sterile, immunologically destabilized suburbs. Bugs, it seems, are
a feature of human society.

The image of a bug-free home is nevertheless an enduring one,
writes Alicia Eler in her essay for this issue. No matter how much
we want to take refuge in the myth of the home as protection from
strange intruders, both insects and listening devices are most
likely to be brought in by intimate partners. "The bugs in your
home, whether part of wiretap or of the insect variety, represent
a vulnerability," Eler writes, and the so myth of cleanliness is
more about a psychological than domestic state.

Our response to that vulnerability is a political choice. Agnes
Sylvestre meditates on the problem of hospitality, prompted by
discovering a copy of Derrida's lectures on the subject in a train
compartment she was occupying for the night. Derrida distinguishes
between a "guest" and a "parasite," a distinction charged with
mortal weight in the Istanbul where she is currently living, where
refugees have travelled the semantic spectrum from invited guest
to disruptive intruder. Pressing on the Greek origins of
"parasite" as dining companion, she leaves us with a wish for a
world that understands guests as positively transformative -- like
hairworms, a parasite found in pig stomachs that has been shown to
treat chronic human disease.

Putting bugs (or guests) to work for us to justify their presence
in our midst says more about our societies than theirs. In
Khairani Barokka's "Colony Control," the division of ant labor
goes under the magnifying glass as she sketches an imaginary where
the hierarchical structure of anthills reveals more honest human
realities. "Biological determinism might not be official dogma in
management handbooks anymore, but it is the presumptive tenet in
the manifestation of economic systems," she writes.

The work of debugging itself rests on a stratification of labor:
only some bodies can be trusted to clean code. Grayson Clary
interviews Katie Moussouris, Chief Policy Officer of HackerOne,
about the Department of Defense's bug bounty program, where the
Pentagon pays hackers to find the vulnerabilities in their
systems. Unsurprisingly, the Pentagon is wary of letting people
who would otherwise be criminals -- it's a felony to even look for
a vulnerability on a site under anti-computer-hacking laws -- probe
their code, but Moussouris was able to convince them. Issues of
valuation, child labor, and outsourcing trouble the newly legal
market for bugs, but that only goes to show that the metaphorical
extension of bugs into the virtual brings with it all the baggage
of the real.

In "Virulence in the Virtual," Remina Greenfield writes about the
"first extensively printed account of virtual rape," which took
place in 1993 through a text-based online community called
LambdaMOO. The virtual worlds in which we escape the bug-filled
"real one" can't be so simply made separate. "Certain virulent
patterns are deeply ingrained in virtual communities," Greenfield
writes, and it's a mistake to claim the boundaries between virtual
and real are firm to begin with. To do so is to partake in the
fantasy of the bug-free world, which, as we have seen, leaves you
vulnerable to the survivors.

The thought of a world without one specific bug, however, is
attaining greater and greater reality. Lauren Duca brings us the
"darkest meme" of our age: "The bees are dying globally at an
alarming rate." This meme is the truth, and it is the truth about
our helplessness in the face of the truth, too, "poking at our
shared sense of existential doom in hopes explicit acknowledgement
will numb the pain of our inescapable inner darkness (haha)," Duca
writes.

The historical link between darkness and pain is not so easily
laughed off, though. In a moving account of her history of
treatment, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio addresses the "bugs" of
severe mental disorders, and the ways young people of color
experience these disorders with the added burden of diverging from
the face of these illnesses, the young white woman. The pain young
people of color suffer is met with overdiagnosis, because, as she
writes, "men and women in uniforms, whether white or blue, think
somehow that our blood's not red like theirs."

Bugs are the stumbling block that reveal the fatal flaws of our
fantasies of seamlessness and conformity. They carry within them
the image of a world that exceeds our control and therefore they
promise destruction. Taking bugs seriously means attending to what
we attempt to exclude, and seeing how this constitutes what we
wish to hold onto. Bugs may not not hold the answers, but they do
not pretend to. Instead, they swarm on, indifferent to the meaning
we want them to bear.

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