Insects as outlaws

I went to hear Hugh Raffles read from and talk about his new book, Insectopedia, yesterday. The book is about the entangled intersection between humans and insects, and the profound ambiguity of that intersection (from our perspective). I haven’t read it yet. But I was really struck by something he said. He mentioned an Elias Canetti quote, which I tracked down in Crowds and Power, in the pungently titled chapter “The Entrails of Power.” Insects, says Canetti, are outlaws. This is the original sense of the word, something completely outside the law and therefore a target for one and all, not the romantic notion of more recent times. By Norse and English common law, the “outlaw” was banished from the group, stripped of all rights, tossed to the wolves. Outlawed, they were, in essence, no longer people. They could thus be killed with impunity by anyone within the law, the community, the shared moral universe.

Canetti has it right, it is the same with insects. Look at vegetarians. The more militant of them gnash their omnivorous teeth over meat, but have no thought to the insects that are killed, by the billions, in farming for their food. Because, of course, bugs do not count. They are too alien. I smashed that mosquito the other day without the least moral concern or cost. This is why it is necessary to portray one’s (human) enemies as insects, all the easier to crush them… which is of course Canetti’s larger point.

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