In the final evening of an archival research trip across France last September, I was thrilled to see that a cinema in Quartier Latin was screening Atlantic City (1980), one of the few films by Louis Malle that I had never watched on the big screen and was likely never going to be able to in the UK, where real cinemas are becoming rapidly extinct. The theatre quickly filled with people, eager to enjoy the unique interaction of Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster with a Michel Piccoli sidekick on the silver screen. It was only upon returning to my hotel room in Montparnasse that I realised it was not only humans who had been enjoying the show. Upon seeing the unmistakable marks of bedbug bites on my arm, I suddenly recalled articles mentioning that cinemas in Paris had been found to be infested and were subsequently fumigated over the summer. Having recently spent a few years studying the history of fumigation, and all too aware of the limitations of the method on terra firma, I was both amused and vexed at being the victim of one of the key pests in Euroamerican imaginations, and of the technoscientific failure to control them. Needless to say, upon returning to Scotland, I washed all my clothes at a high temperature, ruining several forever, and took my suitcase out to the garden, sprayed it with a powerful insecticide, and allowed it to be exposed for a day to an obliging sun, which had finally made its appearance after three summer months of cloud and rain. The anxiety of having brought bedbugs back home lingered for a few days and was then quickly forgotten.
Then a couple of weeks later, another wave of bedbug news hit the screens, with experts and the general public in France apparently being polarised between those increasingly concerned about the infestation of homes, cinemas, trains and the metro, and those dismissing the crisis as a “panic.” The news rekindled my anxiety, fostered by the fact (?) that Cimex lectularius are said to be able to lie low and hide for long periods of time after having arrived at a new location before manifesting themselves as a household plague. Could they have survived my embarrassing killing spree and be multiplying under the mattress, in the wardrobe, or even in the suitcase wherein they had arrived?
France’s bedbug autumn had an unsettling effect at an analytical level too, however. On the one hand, I could not but marvel at and be perplexed by the explosion of social media debates, including the use of visuals (most of the times funny, but also occasionally offensive), around les punaises de lit, hashtag. Within a very short timeframe, bedbugs had become inexorably entangled with prevailing social, political, and economic questions, as well as with processes of ideological, aesthetic, and ethical formation and distinction. These were not limited to the usual range of political framings: extreme-right ravings about bedbugs being imported by immigrants, leftist attributions of the problem to globalisation, reborn-Gaullist lamentations of the infestation being the result of the decay of the state, and neoliberal patronising mantras of never-minding and learning to live with whatever makes your life a hell (that is, if you are not rich, of course). Approaches to the bedbug crisis also included more nuanced and complex takes, including, among other things, playfully setting rats against bedbugs in a competition over which pest will ruin the Paris Olympics, raising important questions about housing and transport infrastructures, discussing the impact of climate change on insect population dynamics, and reflecting on whether insect infestations that do not cause disease should be considered a public health problem.
On the other hand, the thought that there was something irritatingly akin to what structural functionalists would expect from a crisis became insufferable: a diffusion valve, or a way for a society deeply involved in a fundamental life-or-death crisis about its direction, identity, values and principles, to temporarily call a truce by fighting over something that was both ephemeral and concrete. A bug you could ultimately crush, and, perhaps, in the process of doing so, find ways to negotiate other, far more grave and complex questions, which had seen the streets of France burn time and again over the past six months: pensions, police violence, racial inequalities, and the ever-present debates over the remit and limits of laïcité.
Could both processes, one open-ended, messy and hard to confine into an analytical, let alone theoretical box, the other neat and teleological, fitting well into a theoretical ready-made, be occurring at the same time? Or did their contradiction point at the limits of both explanatory schemes? At the same time as the bedbug crisis makes me wonder if I am composed enough to go and watch a movie again in Paris without being smeared in skin-cancer inducing insect repellent, it points at an analytical conundrum which is as complex in essence as it is simple in form: why do bedbugs bug us so?
The dynamism of the bedbug crisis is in great part due to its ability to recombine micro- and macro- concerns and anxieties into work-in-progress mytho-entomological variants that dialogue and contend in the public sphere with no predetermined course or outcome: nineteenth century framings of insects as vermin, technoscientific fantasies of mastery over nature, anxieties over climate change, debates over race and class, conspiracy theories that have exploded into the mainstream since the Covid pandemic, questions over the responsibilities of the state, ideas about health and hygiene, as well as a range of smaller, more local or particular questions, ideologies and worldviews. On the one hand, underlining all these “bedbug crisis” variants is something clearly identifiable: multispecies anxiety. That is, the ontological, affective and sensorial discomfort experienced when encountering not just any non-human animal, but animals that since early modern times have been classified and configured as “vermin”; animals whose reproduction and movement is seen as excessive and as uncontrollable by humans, and which are experienced as a nuisance without necessarily being a source of diseases. Multispecies anxiety qua vermin fear and loathing, so much so that the reputable France Culture ran a podcast on the “totally delirious sexuality of bedbugs”. On the other hand, however, this multispecies anxiety is neither static nor overdetermining. While being the sine qua non of France’s bedbug crisis, it does not define the course or outcomes of its variants and their dialogue and contestation. It is, by contrast, itself constantly unsettled, troubled and reshaped by, admittedly always already mediatised, experiences of bedbugs in trains, cinemas, and bedrooms. New forms of multispecies anxieties arise and contend as a result, requiring their ethnographers.
As the plague of bedbugs comes to supplant, for a moment, the great social questions of the country, it should not be simply dismissed as yet another spectacle: something dissimulating reality or distracting attention from real problems. Bedbugs and their experience are, at this moment, being constantly reconfigured, and while nobody can doubt the power of hegemonic framings and narratives, some of which are three centuries old, we should equally not underestimate the instituting potential of this process of re-imagining with bedbugs, in Castoriadis’s sense of the term: as a “vis formandi” of new ways of bringing together multispecies existence, public health, infrastructural responsibility, the climate emergency, and social justice. In other words, the potential of these imaginaries to give rise to radically new ways of being and becoming, to new forms of the social and of the multispecies.
Acknowledgement and Funding ID: I would like to thank Frédéric Keck for his insightful comments to the draft of this article. Research leading to this article was funded by the Wellcome Trust for the project The Global War Against the Rat and the Epistemic Emergence of Zoonosis [grant ID 217988/Z/19/Z].