The Vibrational Ontology Of Insects

The inspiration for this post is indebted to my reading about Jussi Parikka’s new book Insect Media, but to be honest it really goes off in a different direction altogether from the thrust of his argument (insofar as it can be gleaned from the summary of the book, I’ve not had the chance to read it yet). What I can say is that the book is now on my wishlist, as it seems to be doing something for media systems along the lines of what Deleuze alluded to in his lecture on Spinoza. He stated that

“as long as you haven’t made the list of affects of which someone is capable, in the strongest sense of the word “capable,” comprising the maladies of which s/he is capable as well”

What you can say about “s/he” you can say about any body (including a media assemblage) under Deleuzean Spinozism, so I look forward to seeing the lines traced between insects and networked media in Parikka’s latest offering.

Parikka’s latest book also reminded me of Matthew Fuller’s ‘Art For Animals‘ piece, a text which recently revisited at STRP festival’s ‘Cloud Consciousness’ conference (alas I wasn’t lucky enough to see it). I recall reading Fuller’s piece as inspiration for the MAIM 2009 data jam, wherein I was going to alter the signal ecology of a public park by laying down hunting dog scents across the paths and grass to disrupt the usual walking methods of dog and owner. A little like psychogeography for dogs (though if we follow Harraway’s Companion Species Manifesto it would be trite to bracket it as only canine psychogeography)

Anyway, another book at the top of my wish list is Wirelessness by Adrian MacKenzie. And that provides the bridge between these two topics. Hertzian space is a persistently favoured topic of mine. Two videos recently came to my attention, the former of which speculatively maps what the EM field around us looks like and another which is developing novel and attention grabbing ways to do just that.

These videos are fine and dandy for imagining a spectrum that our sensory apparatus cannot apprehend. Indeed there is a certain irony in anyone who happens to watch these videos via a wifi connection. And not to take a pop at the tin foil hat brigade but accepted scientific opinion is that the electromagnetic frequency doesn’t have an effect on us. There are movements which deny this and to be honest I am sympathetic to cases which argue against the impact of high doses of radiation as I don’t hold that such a thing is beyond the realm of possibility. What is of greater interest for me here is looking into something which Julian Henrique developed in the Affect special issue of Body & Society.

In it he developed a notion of a rhythm analysis based vibrational ontology, one in which society is governed by frequency cycles. He develops the notion of patterns occuring in the audible range of sounds of affecting us, but he goes further to analyse repeating frequencies of calendar time, of movements within 24 hour cycles and so on. His critique provides a really interesting framework to understand, amongst other things, the transmission of affect. Rather than try and do it justice here (I’d wholeheartedly recommend you read the original article) I’ll try and mention what is relevant to the concerns of this post. What stuck out for me within Henriques analysis is a line which may have been throwaway for him (I haven’t yet had a chance to discuss with him) but which for me was massively inspirational (it was part of the conceptual bedrock of Contemplative Computing).

The key distinction begins with transverse waves and longitudinal waves. The former is more typical of the light spectrum whereas the latter are what booms out of a soundsystem. Longitudinal waves require a medium to propagate within (whether that be air, water, or as important to Henrique’s [and indeed Steve Goodman’s similarly oriented analysis in Sonic Warfare] case the human body).  I’ll quote Henrique’s discussion on the matter at length here:

“Riding these sound waves, as it were, we can imagine entering the set of equipment itself, via the trembling surface of the speaker cone, as the dancer describe above. We thereby leave the corporeal wavebands of bodily kinetics and mechanics of sound waves, for the material waveband of electromagnetic and electromechanical milieux. Here the frequency of the vibrations is considerably faster and their amplitude correspondingly reduced. The vibrations of the electromagnetic spectrum are tranverse waves, as distinct from the longitudinal sound waves discussed so far. Besides an occasional electrical voltage shock from the equipment, these are not frequencies to which the human body has sensitivity.”

own emphasis added: Henrique, J Body Society 16, no. 1 (March 1, 2010) pp55 – 79

Thus as far as I can gather most of what Henriques methodology for rhythmanalytically considering an affective sound ecology could be extended to other creatures who might have sensitivity to these waves.

Which just about brings us full circle to what I started this ramble about. Having read about insect media I was told by my father that cockroaches were attracted to the low voltage given off by a computer. I think I need an expert entomologist to educate me one way or another as while there appears to be lots of anecdotal evidence of cockroach (and ant) infestastions within computers opinion seems to be divided upon whether its food, warmth or the electrical hum that attracts them. That electrical hum would indeed emit a frequency of vibrations to which no part of our anatomy would be sensitive to. For an idea of what it MIGHT be akin to have a look/listen at Condemned Bulbs.

For now I want to proceed in the assumption that the cockroaches are anatomically drawn to the particular frequency vibrations emitted by a computer. Because there is certainly evidence of pest control using similar strategies to deter them. And the point made about hertzian radiation contributing to colony collapse disorder (CCD) amongst bees and possibly even impacting upon trees (although this study is now somewhat contentious). All of this reminds me of the wonderful Truce project which used computers to bring mosquito frequencies in line with human song.

And what is the point? Well that Henriques frequency spectrogram for understanding affect via cyclic and patterned rhythms could be equally (and interestingly) applicable beyond the hertzian range to which our auditory and corporeal apparatus are sensitive (I stress corporeal because of high and low frequencies which affect us but which we don’t necessarily here: i.e. Gamelan music for the high end, Dubstep for the low end, and if neither make sense then just use the hypothetical Brown Note to illuminate the concept). And I find this especially interesting in destabilising an anthropocentric conception of frequency politics. It sticks out in my memory that when I went to the Natural History museum that there is an exhibit that stated “Humans exhibit no sensitivity to RF(radio frequency) waves” as if that were the end of it. The harnessing of the radio frequency (aka electromagnetic) spectrum is fascinating in terms of an invisible resource harnessed to augment or expand human intellect, but it has resulted in new and unknown patterns of vibration entering the Earths ecology. And the only way that we currently apprehend these patterns? See below

The above chart always staggers me in terms of how much values is wrung from the RF spectrum by conventional electronics. Digital Terrestrial Television and DAB2 will extract even more bang for buck from it in coming years. So for me any thinking about different ways to sense through and appreciate this facet of earthly existence is enlightening, especially one that doesn’t unduly privilege the human perspective


~ by Stephen Fortune on December 23, 2010.

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