(Re)Imagining the Insect

54 million years before humans appeared on earth, there was once upon a time an insect that died, its cadaver is still visible and intact, the cadaver of someone who was surprised by death at the instant it was sucking the blood of another!

Jacques Derrida, Typewriter Ribbon, 1998


It is all very well announcing that the time has come for the relationship between humans and animals to be rethought. Rewild the countryside, bring back the wolves. End the mechanised slaughter that feeds our billions. Animals are not automata. We know this now. But insects? Dirty, unhygienic, blood-sucking insects? If the gap between theory and practice is real and unavoidable, then in few places is this more obvious than in the relationship between humans and insects. What could be a more primal, instinctive, “natural” response than disgust? What could be more, ahem, “unnatural”?

On 7th March 2015 a conference is taking place at the University of Warwick entitled (Re)Imagining the Insect, which professes to explore these and other issues from a historical perspective. Subtitled “Natures and Cultures of Invertebrates, 1700-1900” the conference takes an interdisciplinary approach – across literature, history and science – in order to “challeng[e] conventional ways of thinking about human history and culture”. Featuring keynote addresses from Dr Charlotte Sleigh and Dr Kate Tunstall, questions under discussion include “what can these seemingly insignificant creatures tell us about man’s place in ‘nature’?” and “What does it mean that the only species more successful than humans in colonising the planet are also those considered the most disgusting?”

There is more information in the call for papers, and abstracts should be sent to insectconference2015@gmail.com by 19th December 2014. The conference has been organised by PhD students Emilie Taylor-Brown and Elisabeth Wallmann. We caught up with the pair to find out a little more.

The Learned Pig

The Learned Pig: How did the idea for the conference first come about and what are you hoping that it will achieve?

Emilie Taylor-Brown and Elisabeth Wallmann: The idea quite simply grew out of our common research interests. [Emilie works on parasites in Victorian literature and science writing, while Elisabeth researches insects in the French Enlightenment period]. Fate drew us together, when we were randomly allocated to the same flat by Warwick accommodation’s computer system two years ago. We quickly realised that a joint research project needed to happen.

Although we explore different historical periods and geographical areas, our projects follow a similar aim in that we are both interested in how insects – creatures that we try to avoid in our daily lives – can have an impact on grand human issues, from the constitution of scientific disciplines, such as natural history or parasitology, to the ways in which they help us conceptualise our relationship to “nature” and the “environment”.

There has been growing interest in issues related to human-insect interactions, but researchers in this area often work in isolation. Our conference is thus designed to provide a forum for these discussions and hopes to bring researchers from different disciplines together to facilitate cross-disciplinary exchanges.

TLP: Why have you decided to focus on the period 1700-1900?

ET-B & EW: The simple answer would be that this is the period we both work on. However, the reason we’ve chosen these periods in the first place (the French eighteenth century and the Victorian era) is because we believe that each in its own way functions as a foundational époque for our modern understanding of the relationship between the human and the non-human. In the eighteenth century, for example, we witness the emergence of our modern standards for empirical science and also very new ideas about the role of nature in human lives. Then, in the nineteenth century, the proliferation of disciplines, such as protozoology, medical entomology, and parasitology highlighted the significant symbiotic relationships that such creatures have with human culture.

A lot of this work has a strong ethical agenda: animals deserve to be taken seriously.

TLP: Why do you think animal studies is such a growing area of interest today?

ET-B & EW: This is obviously a very complex question, but we would say that a lot of this interest comes from our realisation that there is something fundamentally wrong with our relationship to what we now call the environment, and animals are, of course, a big part of that. A lot of this work has a strong ethical agenda: to argue that humans and animals rely on each other is also to argue that animals deserve to be taken seriously.

TLP: How ought we to reconsider human-insect relationships?

ET-B & EW: The recent UN report that suggested Western humans should begin to eat insects if they want their planet to survive, we think, serves to show just how culturally determined our relationship to insects is. Normally in Western agriculture the insect is considered a pest, rather than a desirable commodity. Recent suggestions for farming insects and also for introducing insects as biological control agents challenge this view. History can teach us that our attitudes to, and uses of, insects have varied over the course of the centuries. In the eighteenth century, members of polite, noble circles were obsessed with collectible insects, and in the nineteenth century they made dresses out of beetle shells, as well as insect jewellery.

We think that it is crucial to reconsider insects as organisms in their own right and dispense with the hierarchical view of man as the ruler of nature, in favour of a more lateral and inclusive understanding of the natural world and our place within it.

Insects are the only animal that we cannot successfully exclude from our domestic space.

TLP: In the conference’s call for papers you ask: “What does it mean that the only species more successful than humans in colonising the planet are also those considered the most disgusting?” Why do you think disgust is such a powerful response to insects? Is it, as your question seems to imply, related to the idea of insects as some kind of threat or competitor to humanity?

ET-B & EW: Insects are so problematic because they remind us that we cannot fully control the “natural world”, which we post-Cartesians still do not consider ourselves fully part of. We panic when we realise we have brought home bedbugs from our last holiday, and modern agriculture has still not found a viable solution for keeping insect pests away. Insects are the only animal that we cannot successfully exclude from our domestic space.

This anxiety about insects is certainly historically conditioned and is linked to so many aspects of modern life. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century, for example, that houseflies began to be considered “unhygienic”. This, in conjunction with an increase in knowledge of parasitic diseases and their vectors engendered a visceral anxiety about insects that did not exist, at least not to the same extent, in earlier centuries. Darwin discovered how well-adapted insects are to their environment, often more so than humans, highlighting their complexity and evolutionary success. This had inevitable consequences for the ways in which we envisaged insects and the “threat” that they might pose to humans as a species. Insects cross the boundary between nature and culture, which the Enlightenment seemed to have established so firmly and the Victorians sought to retain.


The organisers hope to publish a collection of essays produced from research presented at the conference. They will also be live-tweeting the conference with the hashtag #insectconf, so keep an eye out on 7th March 2015 for more insect discussions!


Image credit: Tessa Farmer, installation at The Crypt Gallery, London, 2011. Photograph by Pelle Crepin.



The Learned Pig

The Learned Pig

Launched in November 2013, The Learned Pig is an online arts magazine with a love for plants and animals. Our thinking has grown out of our engagement with landscape aesthetics and environmental ethics and these days we try to bring together multiple perspectives on bodies and places, interspecies interactions, and alternative conceptions of that which has rather too frequently been defined as “nature” or “the animal”.