Lying Like a Cuttlefish

In the New Inquiry:

1. The Deceitful Bodies of Cuttlefish

It is in the nature of cuttlefish to deceive. Like other cephalopods—the mimic octopus and bobtail squid, for example—cuttlefish are bosses of camouflage. The capacity for deceit is born of the relationship among their eyes, nervous system and three types of skin cell that scientists refer to as chromatophores, leucophores, and iridophores. The chromatophores expand or contract to create different colors and patterns. The iridophores and leucophores reflect light and iridescence. Cuttlefish turn a translucent white to blend in with a sandy seabed. Mottled shades of grey mimic a pebbly substrate. Reds, blues, and pinks blend in with coral in order to fool predators. Their skin not only changes color, but also texture. Smooth on the white sands. Rough, almost pitted for the pebbles. Scientists refer to this capacity for camouflage as background adaptation. It is a technique shared with chameleons, fish, and frogs. This protects cuttlefish from predators and enhances their ability to sneak up on prey.

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Post-Apocalypse Week at Installing (Social) Order & Bedbugs

The week of May 03, 2015, the blog Installing (Social) Order ran with a Post-Apocalypse theme. As Stefani Fishel wrote, exploring the theme of post-apocalypse responds to a “pressing need to engage on all levels with the losses that the Anthropocene will hand us. How do social scientists reflect upon these cascades of losses? What can we do to both grieve and fight back against capitalist extraction and evangelical forms of being that lack care for the world and its natural systems?” I was excited to be asked to contribute with a story of life in end times.

Fishel kicked off the week with a “DeLillo-esque” story of pre-tenure stress in a future Department of Extinction Studies. I followed with a fictional memoir of post-apocaplytic life told from the perspective of bedbugs – I’ve copied out the text below. Nicholas Rowland rounded up the week with a discussion on how post-apocalyptic fiction creates a future more seductive and plausible than a post-capitalist one.

Post-Apocalypse: A Memoir

By C. lectularius

It would have been unthinkable before, but I have a circle of companions. We even have a jokey motto: “life is change.” A feeding doesn’t pass without one of the group uttering it, eliciting knowing smiles, the occasional laugh. Our children and theirs share in our humor, but the joke lies in our generation’s history.

Our earliest memories of life are pregnant with change. From egg to adulthood, we pass through five stages of growth. Our first eight weeks consist only of feeding and molting. Back then, life was change. But for me and many of my kind, change consisted only of that, only of the molt and eventually that glorious passage into adulthood. After that, the days passed in a constant dance of mating and egg laying.

In those days, I experienced my day-to-day transformations alone. They were, after all, personal. There were plenty of opportunities for mating, of course. But these were always the product of random encounters—a sudden awareness of another, anticipation and that sharp pain I’d come to enjoy as males would probe and then pierce my abdomen. But these mating partners and all who shared my harborage were strangers. I took pleasure in the routine transformations that my body would undergo: the wound management, the egg laying. But no sense of togetherness was required to ensure that life’s “changes” could proceed unchanging. Life was change and we all experienced it alone.

I was particularly privileged. I had never left the nest I hatched into. I never had to. Back then, the conditions of my life were blissfully constant. My feedings so routine I took them for granted. My life played out in the sheltered confines of a third floor wing in what I would later come to know as 664 West 46th Street. Not all life for my kind back then was as comfortable. Others tell of nests made suddenly inhospitable by strange smells. Or illnesses that came on quickly, killing some, and requiring others to evacuate. Like our lives now, these stories tell of a collective resilience. But I dislike hearing them—I still cling to those halcyon days before everything changed.

I remember those first discordant notes of the change in vivid detail. On the surface, it seemed that nothing had changed: I was still residing in the same comforting harborage. I struck out each night into the same nest. But I’d find nothing there but an absence. So I waited. Waited for the blood source that had long sustained me to return. It was the only other body that I knew in any lasting way. As days turned into weeks, its absence awakened things in me that I had never felt before—not only hunger, but a sense of aloneness. I felt betrayed, abandoned. It would be several weeks more until I would finally face the truth and stumble through the floorboards to find another body. By then, I had changed, hardened. I vowed never to grow so attached to a single blood source. My resolve, in the end, made little difference: it wasn’t long before the experience repeated itself. And repeated itself again. Each time, I’d awaken to find my nest intact, but hollow. The heartbreak never returned. But my hunger grew. I fed sporadically. Mating encounters became rare. Egg layings even rarer. Eventually, I had to leave West 46th Street altogether.

It was then that I found others living the same precarious experience. We began to travel together, nomadic blood seekers in a land that was once so plentiful, so well-suited to our lives. We encountered other groups, just as recently formed. With some, we’d join together, moving apart when the groups grew too large to manage or we could no longer agree on a foraging strategy. Other groups were hostile, hardened by scarcity and protective of blood sources too precious to share.

For a brief period, my group joined another and we all experienced a respite from constant movement. We had stumbled on a nest that hosted a handful of blood sources and settled in quickly. It felt almost like old times. But, like us, the bodies we relied on had become unsettled, changed. They moved the location of their nests every couple of nights. Intentionally or not, they carried us with them and we were grateful. But like much of the blood we found in those days, theirs’ was not as satisfying as the blood we remembered. Something—a subtle smell and taste—was off. Because we saw ourselves in them, we couldn’t help but wonder: how much had we changed? Did the change only reconfigure our daily habits? Or had we also been transformed, inside as well as out? Would we too have tasted different? Were we the same bodies that we had been before? We woke one night to find the nests still occupied, but the blood undrinkable. Some of it had been poured outside of the bodies, hardened on the ground. We wondered what could be so wasteful, but quickly abandoned speculation for strategy. We had to keep moving, keep changing.

After that, we found only two more of our accustomed blood sources before we would find no more. Those delightfully plump, naked bodies had grown too few to rely on. Our feedings would have to take place on other bodies, would have to consist of other blood. That marked our biggest change yet. We had two choices: to move downward, into the sewers, or up into sky. It was an easy decision in the end, but not without consequences. Food was harder to access on our new blood bodies—they weren’t naked, but covered with what we’ve been told are “feathers.” The blood was foul. The nests, fouler still. And these clung to the edges of buildings, leaving us exposed to wind and rain. Occasionally, we would find ourselves mid-air, clinging to our blood source for dear life as it flapped across the sky.

Eventually—thankfully, in the end—their numbers diminished as well. It seemed that they too had lived on the excesses of our old blood source. So, when we could no longer regularly feed on feathered bodies, we climbed higher still. There, we found blood that nests inside during the day and takes flight at night. And, so, we changed again. Now, we feed in the light of the day and rest after sundown. We still risk finding ourselves in the air, clinging to fur, terrified. But the blood is delicious and the nests are warm. Of course, we worried at first that this source would also abandon us–that the only life left might be found deep in the sewers. But these bodies seem to be only growing in number. We are relieved, but remain wary.

Some of my companions lament that we’ve retrogressed as a species–that we once sucked life from the pinnacle of civilization, but now feed buried in the fur of creatures only twenty times our size. There is no doubt that now we live closer to death. And I still wake some mornings with dreams of that nest on West 46th Street still fresh in my mind. But amid the precarity, I cherish my circle of companions and our brood. We are often laughing. About the absurdities of life, its changes, and the occasional death-defying flight. In the evenings after feeding we gather to watch the sun set on this thing that they once called a city. The views from our nests are incredible.

After the Anthropocene Forum

Progress in Human Geography recently published the forum that Harlan Morehouse and I edited titled “After the Anthropocene: Politics and geographic inquiry for a new epoch”.  The participants are frequent contributors to our Geocritique blog and include Simon Dalby, Jessi Lehman, Sara Nelson, Rory Rowan, Stephanie Wakefield, and Kathryn Yusoff. You can access (with subscription) the forum here.


Crutzen and Stoermer’s (2000) naming of the ‘Anthropocene’ has provoked lively debate across the physical and social sciences, but, while the term is gradually gaining acceptance as the signifier of the current geological epoch, it remains little more than a roughly defined place-holder for an era characterized by environmental and social uncertainty. The term invites deeper considerations of its meaning, significance, and consequences for thought and politics. For this Forum, we invited five scholars to reflect on how the Anthropocene poses challenges to the structures and habits of geography, politics, and their guiding concepts. The resulting essays piece together an agenda for geographic thought – and political engagement – in this emerging epoch. Collectively, they suggest that geography, as a discipline, is particularly well suited to address the conceptual challenges presented by the Anthropocene.


Life, so-called.

My post-doctoral position at the University of Wisconsin was made possible (as they say) by a grant from the A.W. Mellon foundation to the school’s Center for the Humanities. The grant funds three post-doc positions each year around a theme relevant to the humanities. This year’s theme is “life.” Absurdly, this gives me and my fellow fellows license to claim that our work is collectively dedicated to understanding the meaning of “life” and to refer to ourselves as “lifers.” A month or so ago, the web editor of the University’s Public Humanities blog asked me to write a post about this theme, requiring me to take the matter much more seriously…


“What is the meaning of life?” As the Monty Python players suggested nearly three decades ago, the commonly posed question may be more suited to provoking absurdity rather than sincere scholarship or critical inquiry. And yet, if contemporary politics are any indication, there is much at stake in how we define and employ the concept of “life.” This, I imagine—and not a desire to invite absurdity—was behind the Center for Humanities’ decision to select “Life” as the theme of this year’s A.W. Mellon program.

While “life” as a concept often appears simple, it proves unwieldy under even superficial scrutiny. Consider one example from the world of science: “life” as a designation of the difference between biological beings and inert matter. While this seems the most basic and appropriate definition, the language of “life” also permeates our understanding of matter, as we often speak of the “lives” of stars, planets, volcanoes, mineral crystals, and atomic particles. And if it at first seems that these metaphors are the only source of confusion, identifying the characteristic differences between living and nonliving entities is far from straightforward. The liminal status of viruses—existing somewhere between “life” and “matter”—serve as just one example. Others include recent advances in reproductive technologies, stem cell research, cloning, genetic modification in agriculture, and various other interplays between techno-scientific creations and biological systems. If we were ever fully able to think “life” as exclusively natural, biological, or transhistorical, today such assertions seem, indeed, absurd.

As within science, the “life” of politics is far from universal, even as “life itself” seems to be increasingly at stake. As those presently engaged in occupations at Wall Street, State Street, and around the world have struggled to make clear, our contemporary political economy ascribes highly differential values to the productive and reproductive capacities of populations within and outside the boundaries of the state. All the while, debates surrounding the relationship between our quality of life in the present and the future of life on earth continue to rage in the context of global climate change and ecological degradation, to say nothing of the unevenly distributed burden of both across space. Far from being naturally defined, “life”—in all of its meanings and expressions—is cultural, historical, and political, not only a condition of our productive capacities, but also an artifact of them. As sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour would put it, “life” is a “matter of concern,” a topic open to question and subject to contestation.

As a geographer, I am interested in the particularities of lived experience across space and within place. Accordingly, “life” as an umbrella term for all forms of lived expression has long seemed curious and I am wary when the language of “life” seems to forestall political debate, rather than pry it open. My own research works to unravel one newly emergent trend that attempts to transform production and ameliorate tensions between economic growth and environmental degradation by redefining “life.”

Over the past twenty years, popular advocates of the emerging field of “biomimicry” have re-imagined the products of biological life as “mentors” for engineers and its evolutionary processes as a form of “research and development.” By viewing life as our instructor and harnessing its “knowledge,” they suggest, we will generate production processes and technological objects that might better create “conditions conducive to life” and, subsequently, to our own ecological salvation (see Janine Benyus’s 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature). In short, rather than opening up a series of questions, biomimicry poses a particular vision of “life” as an answer.

Many of biomimicry’s successes—from eco-friendly carpets and sneakers to more efficient solar panels and wind turbines—support claims that the field will facilitate a more ecologically sustainable future. A detailed look at the biomimicry movement, however, reveals a slightly different story: one more concerned with ensuring that ecological sustainability is made commensurate with economic success. While much has been made of this supposed convergence of environmental and economic interests, this move to value “life” in economic terms is not without certain risks, as the value of “life” becomes conditioned upon its ability to generate economically viable commodities. As the “conditions conducive to life” are made synonymous with “conditions conducive to profit-generation,” advocates of biomimicry (perhaps unintentionally) employ “life” in a way that naturalizes the logics of capitalist production. Accordingly, while biomimicry may increase efficiency, productivity, and ecological sustainability, it may simultaneously circumscribe debate over what forms of life ought to be valued in our society and why.

These concerns have prompted me to focus much of my research on contradictions surrounding “life” and its value in the context of biomimetic research. While the stories that the biomimicry movement tells about itself create a narrow language of “life,” biomimicry’s practice is much less coherent. Researchers working to mimic “life” in technology often employ divergent meanings of the term as they create materials and artifacts that do not always (or often) “come to life” as intended. This work adds to a growing body of literature from geography, anthropology, and elsewhere that attends to the social and political implications of the “life” sciences. In what way do changing conceptions and uses of “life” reify or transform existing forms of governance? How does our language of “life” influence how we interact with the things, animals, and humans around us? What kinds of social relations are produced through our narratives of and interactions with “life”? Finally—and without a trace of absurdity—what kinds of lives are we making and living? And are they the lives that we want?