Notes on The Swarm

“The frantic, busy immobility of latency resonates again in [Rimbaud’s] ‘Chanson de la plus haute tour,’ where the prairie, a collective unit that does not consist of men but that is still ‘felt’ to be a swarm, has been consigned to oblivion, and thus freed or liberated for overgrowth, increase, uncultivated or uncontrolled expansion:

Ainsi la prairie
A l’oubli livrée,
Grandie, et fleurie
D’encens et d’ivraies
Au bourdon farouche
De cent sales mouches.

[So the green field
To oblivion freed
Overgrown, flowering
With incense and weeds
And the wild noise
Of a hundred dirty flies.]

The flies preside over a hypertrophic disorder; the words sales and farouche, which describe them, have connotations of savagery, barbarianism.  Linked as it is to a landscape of excessive growth and teeming unproductive life – weeds and incense are not precisely useful – the bourdon farouche suggests a unit of collective, virtual, and similarly disorderly action…The virtuality of the swarm can also be erotic in nature…”

—  Kristin Ross (1988:108-109) The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune

On a first superficial search for ‘insect swarm,’ this appears in my ‘personalized’ youtube-google search.  (I’ve retitled it slightly.)

“It’s very Hitchcock, Janet.”
(Unidentified person, “Insects Swarm Car”)

Try to look past the stodgy colonialisms Britishisms of the patriarch of this presumable family unit whose Mercedes is being overtaken.  The child panics; maybe a sort of pure and terrifying sense of awe.  At least sheer shock at the magnitude of movement, of kinetic energy; of life, but also a closely linked sense of [human] death that always arrives with untold numbers of insects.  The adults are, at first, ‘sensible,’ (in that they do not allow themselves to sense) but then they too are overtaken with awe.

Surely we imagine insects crawling from the ventilation in the car even weeks later.

Let’s take another look at swarms from the BBC – since we’re already within the realm of Anglo representation:

Here the apocalyptic tone is unvarnished.  But it is followed by a sort of mediatized imagination of something totally ‘dreamy.’  Club music [bad house] implies a space in which we lose ourselves; dancing, drugs, bodies, movement, glances, heat.  But we are watching surfeits of creatures.  Mass nouns.  Crawling, flying, winding, crystallizing themselves in constant movement.

A third precedent from an illuminating film, “Death by Design.”

Can we set aside the innuendo regarding cell communication and the market, a kind of biological determinism?  Also, for a moment, we will set aside the maleness and whiteness of our commentators.  Though neither fact is remotely irrelevant.

We are told here that death may not always mean ‘committing suicide,’ at least in the Durkheimian sense.  What does it mean to become aware of the fact that death is happening across and through our bodies even as we live?  La petite mort redux?  Death is not absolute in the swarm, it is what Kristin Ross (1988) might call a radicalization (20) as emancipation:

…emancipation (etymologically, “unhanding”) as the transformation of a servile identity into a free identity…This new “emancipated” subjectivity that takes as its point of departure the radical atomization or isolation of the worker, and proceeds by heightening or exaggerting that atomization rather than masking it in myths of workers’ community, runs the risk of being mistaken as a blueprint for individualist reform rather than for collective emancipation.  But emancipation in Rimbaud is only as collective and political as it is individual and cultural (118-119).

The death is not of the swarm, but in and through it.  The situation is out of hand.  Let’s not get caught in prepositions.  Here positions matter much more clearly.  They are figured relationally, constantly, with a shifting smoothness, but clearly not without incident.  We must know that individuals die; whether under the crushing weight of a car or through chaotic haptic miscommunication.  Some fall out of the sky.  Some are upturned and never righted.  Some are shot by hunters.  And, lest we be lulled into a crude utilitarianism, remember that the swarm is not truly a ‘unit’ for calculation but a ‘unity’ for both contemplation and, more critically, absorption.

I think of the videos as ‘form poems’ – to take a phrase from architect and friend Caleb Crawford ( – so I don’t intend them as a sort of deterministic naturalism.  If anything, they are interesting because they attempt to represent an embodied becoming for both the creatures (or the material) in the swarm and, if we are absorbed, “…a hypersensorial, more-than-human perception.  Grotesque, hyperbolic, extraordinary, superhuman perception…in opposition to what capitalist development is at the moment defining (in the sense of setting limits) as human, as ordinary perception” (102).

I’ll close with an extended quote from Ross, again reading Rimbaud in and through the Paris Commune:

Thus the importance of superlativces, of hyperbole and plurals…Rimbaud writes to Delahaye [we must feel more, experience more].  Or, in the poem of altered perception par excellence, “Matinée d’ivresse”: “rassemblons fervemment cetter promesse faite à notre corps et à notre âme créés: cette promesse, cette démence!” (“Let us re-create ourselves after that superhuman promise/ Made to our souls and our bodies at their creation / That promise, that madness!”)  The violently transformed body of “Matinée d’ivresse,” the more-than-human perception of the Drunken Boat, serve to indict the equally violent enforcement of existing limitations on human perception – and for Rimbaud those limitations are neither biological nor “ontological,” but social, governed first and foremost by a marketing mentality engendered in modern capitalism that violently transforms people and limits them to the role of the commodity…The disequilibrium of the boat, or the disfiguration of the Voyant (“But the problem is to make the soul into a monster…Think o f a man grafting warts onto his face and growing them there”) is only a dialectical response, a fun-house mirror reflection of an initial disfiguration or mutilation inflicted under capitalism: the closure of fields of socially available perception, the reduction not only of the environment of freedom but also of the very desire for and memory of that environment.  Familiarity with capitalist culture persuades us that this limitation – the specific way people, their bodies, and their physical perceptions are organized within capitalism – is not historical but natural and physical.  Yet the scope and manner of the mind’s attention, or of the body’s capacity for sensation, are social facts – and it is precisely the blindness and dullness peculiar to social relations in market society that enable us to deny the social and allow it to be subsumed in the biological.  To that blindness, that dullness that is the “human,” that debasement of the body of the worker into a thing on the market place, Rimbaud responds with more-than-human (“All the forms of love, of suffering, of madness”) the transformed utopian body of infinite sensation and libidinal possibility as figure for the perfected community, for associative or collective life (“For the first time, hurrah for the unheard-of-work, / For the marvelous body!”): the Drunken Boat, the Drunken Morning (120-121).


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