Collapse

Oh Y, the weight of insects.

Or N, the weighing of insects.

What kinds, where they appear or don’t, and how they speak to rhetoricians might be learned in part from entomologists, Y? Scientists who take their weight and ponder its slipping away.

From 1989 to 2016, the Entomological Society Krefeld deployed so-called Malaise traps in 63 nature protection areas in Germany, looking to capture a diverse range of local entomofauna and ascertain overall flying insect biomass.

In other words, they wanted to weigh bugs. In sunshine, sleet, and frost. For 27 years.

What the study discovered was a worrying decline in the mass of insects collected, regardless of habitat type: a seasonal decline of 76% and a mid-summer decline of 82%. [1] This decrease cannot be explained by changes in weather, land use, or habitat characteristics, according to authors, who further expound upon the negative effects it is certain to have on the ecosystem, as insects play a central role in a number of processes that largely go unnoticed—so long as they’re working—including pollination, herbivory and detrivory, nutrient cycling, and providing a food source for higher-order avian, mammalian, and amphibian animals. [2]

So Y, these results underscore other, more widely publicized collapses in populations of butterflies and bees, but are especially alarming because they imply that the prettier, rarer, or more visible insects are not the only species in crisis. Rather, “the flying insect community as a whole...has been decimated over the last few decades.” [3]

Michelle Trautwein, Assistant Curator of Entomology and Schlinger Chair of Diptera at the California Academy of Sciences, notes how difficult it is to suss population deterioration (even on what might be a global scale, which one might imagine would be hard to miss) when it involves such minute creatures: “[the Krefeld study] ...Our mistreatment of the planet has been recognizably bad for elephants and coral reefs, but it seems likely that it has also been just as bad for flies, moths, beetles.” [4] Or, as Peter Brannen puts it, “when mass extinctions hit, they don’t just take out big charismatic megafauna, like elephants...They take out hardy and ubiquitous organisms as well.” [5]

For those of us sitting comfortably in hermetic offices, conducting research and teaching in departments of rhetoric or communication, the Krefeld study might be momentarily disquieting...but if entomologists have little clue how to solve this problem (or even what, precisely, is causing it) what possible assistance could we offer? It’s not as if a greater appreciation for Aristotle or Burke will revive flagging bug populations, so why should we spend any more time considering their plight than it takes to scan our carefully curated news feeds?

Honestly, I don’t know. But I’d like to take a stab. In the conclusion of my dissertation. Or a chapter? Another case study? Just a bloody footnote? Idk. I just know I need to start thinking seriously about population collapse.

I suppose I raise this scientific experiment here for two reasons. First, as scholars in technical and professional communication and the rhetoric of science have stressed for decades, the impulse within humanities to draw a strict qualitative/quantitative dichotomy is all too often founded upon false equivalences made between empirical methods and ostensibly corresponding ideologies, or easy associations between science with objectivism, on the one hand, and humanities with subjectivism, on the other. Continued, perfidious abstention from empirical methods and from engaging with the scientists who carry them out does our disc. no favors within an increasingly networked, transdisciplinary academy (which is to say nothing of the broader ecological crises we [all] have on our hands). [6]

Such persistent myopia leads me to the second reason I invoke the Krefeld experiment: I want to go back to the beginning in my diss. conclusion. I want to start over. Or just now, I want to be getting (it) on (with). That's my whole project, really. De Bug: getting on/with insects.

  • On/with the emergence of critical animal studies and the broader philosophical attunement to being-with and thinking-through non-human animals that I open with—
  • On/with the effective and affective stirrings of things, on/with attempting to overturn centuries of anthropocentric presumption that forms the basis of Western epistemology, ontology, and phenomenology—
  • On/with computer gears, faulty relays, lady-programmers, new languages, dead moths, software bugs, and professional testers—

Scholars in rhetoric and writing have, indeed, been collecting droves of non-human bodies...a pursuit meant to destabilize conceptions of the human self as fixed, autonomous, and coherent. The posthuman subject is hopefully (maybe dumbly) being wrought as fluid and contingent (i.e., local, non-universal), as tearing into the clean binaries of nature/culture, self/other, male/female, human/non-human. I cut my teeth and sharpen my claws on this lit.

However, as with the problematic invisibility of bugs that Trautwein pointed up, or the all-too-human tendency to pay attention to the biggest, most charismatic creatures first and foremost that Brannen gestured to, rhetoric scholars have tended to reach for the more cuddly, warm-blooded beasts in the animal kingdom (or, in the case of vegetal rhetoric, organisms that appeal to the humanistic obsession with cultivation and control). Rather than representing a fundamental dislocation of the human being, then, this conversation over animals and the language relation is still situated securely in Aristotle’s wheelhouse, still very much interested in slef(ish) coherence and humanistic modes of analysis. More troubling: I wonder, too, if all we've been doing is collecting like

bugs-on-pins.jpg

I'm reminded of the bug collection I procured a couple years ago: ten different insects, each one encased in a small acrylic cube. I got them as a birthday present for Maxwell (obv. there's an inside joke here), and when I gave him the first I said, "there are nine more, so the gift/curse here is that I promise you at least ten good years." Serial killeds, then.

We were in Mexico celebrating. I had written an occasional poem titled "Year One: Trigonophorus Beetle." He carries that beetle everywhere he goes in the pocket of his jeans or sport coat (note: he leaves the wasp I gave him for our second year at home, saying "wasps are home-makers"). Every time I happen to graze the beveled edges of that beetle cube in his pants or jacket, I wonder if what I'm doing (what I've done) is wrong.

N, I didn't kill that specific beetle...or the wasp...or any of their as-yet-ungifted kin. But I benefit off their deaths—their corpses, even—with each frisson, each little thrill of feeling them or seeing them and thinking, "gosh darn it, yes, we [Maxwell and I] are truly grasping and maintaining a successful relationship." My discomfort with that kinda self-satisfied feeling is, after all, why I try to stay away from big shows of bourgeois, hetero affection. Why play up the fact that I'm with him and not Jenna? Nobody needs to see more of that being broadcast on Instagram or whatever. But to be fair, I get the same elated/uneasy feeling from other symbols. Obv. I do engage in some of it. I'm not immune.

My engagement ring, for example. That hard (black, even—rose gold and diamond and onyx like something necrotic) σύμβολον. How lucky that Maxwell can ask me to marry him in two dead language and bunches of programming tongues, else I wouldn't be in this predicament and I wouldn't be thinking about bugs as problematic beloveds at all.

Y/N went the question—

"Hosanna"/"Hallelujah" went the scientists—

I have no response save for please/thanks—

I promise I'll trap and weigh more disappearing—

 

 

[1] Hallmann et al. 

[2] Ibid., 1

[3] Ibid., 14

[4] "Insects Are In Serious Trouble," The Atlantic, Oct. 19, 2017.

[5] "Earth Is Not in the Midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction," The Atlantic, Jun. 13, 2017.

[6] e.g., Davida Charney has noted how the very qualities that scholars within rhetoric and composition lionize in their subjectivist methods simultaneously inhibit their ability to achieve the cooperative inquiry needed to define and solve disciplinary problems: “by disparaging objective methods and advocating increasingly subjectivist methods, we may also be impairing our ability to improve our own work and use it to promote social justice."

“Empiricism Is Not a Four-Letter Word,” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 47, No.4 (Dec., 1996): 569).

The same might be said today—some twenty years later—for our ability to promote eco (οἶκος) justice.

E.R. Emison