Insects Histories: Contested Boundaries in Human-Insect Interfaces, 1700s–1950s

AHA Session 167
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Calvert Room (Omni Shoreham, East Lobby)
Frederico Freitas, North Carolina State University
Nancy J. Jacobs, Brown University

Session Abstract

As human-animal interactions increasingly assume a more prominent place in diverse realms of historical scholarship, insects remain a neglected category in relation to charismatic megafauna. The proposed panel addresses this imbalance by covering a broad geographical scope during the transition from the early modern to the modern world in order to demonstrate that the Arthropoda phylum of the kingdom Animalia demand greater attention for their pervasive role in shaping human societies and determining the conditions of the possible. The proposed panel interrogates the disjunctures between human administrative categories and the habitat distribution of three categories of insects: locusts, leaf-cutter ants, and dragonflies. Cognizant of Brett Walker’s call to “treat insects as primary sources,” the presenters consider the cogeneration of insects and humans through prolonged interactions both amicable and hostile. We find that, as far as insects were concerned, contingent categories of state boundaries were ill suited to addressing the problems created by new land use patterns and shifting geo-political conceptualizations.

Due to the inescapable anthropocentrism of the written record, insect histories overwhelmingly fall in the category of either economic or medical entomology. This utilitarian dyad was surprisingly stable through the early modern and modern periods. Locusts and leaf-cutter ants fall solidly within the concerns of economic entomology: they demanded the attention of agriculturalists and the government officials who depended on rural surpluses for global urban markets. Yet these human communities remained obtuse as to the manner in which their practices of land-clearing and monocropping created the conditions of the insect calamities they decried.

The case of dragonflies shifts away from the adversarial relationship between farmer and interpellated “pest” to an insect that hovered in relative autonomy from direct human concerns over sustenance. Neither pollinators nor crop-devourers, dragonflies were aestheticized in European and East Asian poetry and visual arts, but even in this reified realm received persistently less attention than rapture inspiring butterflies. Unlike the extensive indigenous statecraft and agronomic literature on locusts, the most significant human-dragonfly interface in China has yet to be extrapolated from the available source-base: the impact of massive hydrological engineering over millennia on the distribution of species, as well as the role of dragonflies in consuming the mosquitoes that were an inadvertent byproduct of the still waters necessary for rice production.

The proposed panel pushes the boundaries of the theme of the Annual Meeting beyond race and ethnicity to inter-species interactions in early modern and modern national formations. Participants combine Area Studies expertise spanning Africa, East Asia, and Latin America with innovative Environmental History problématiques rigorously grounded in historical method. The panel will be of interest to a broad range of specialists, ranging from World History, China, and Latin America, to History of Science, Agriculture, and the early modern to modern transformation. The presenters include mid-career and junior scholars and involve a colleague from outside the American academy. All panel participants are experienced public speakers who take seriously AHA’s commitment to dynamic forms of public address and lively audience debate.

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