Swarm

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by Eben Kirksey (University of New South Wales), Craig Schuetze (University of California, Santa Cruz) and Nick Shapiro (University of Oxford)

Swarming, a form of collective action modeled after honeybees, has been celebrated (by the likes of Hardt and Negri) as a form of radical politics: “In the swarm model suggested by animal societies… we see emerging new networks of political organizations… composed of a multitude of different creative agents.”

As Eugene Thacker notes, the figure of the swarm has generated mutations in the body politic that are “structurally innovative but politically ambivalent.”  Lately, Pentagon strategists have appropriated the tactics of swarming. Jake Kosek, an ethnographer whose work was offered up for poaching at the Multispecies Salon, studied the ambivalent nature of the swarm by following honeybees  from his own backyard hive in northern California, to military laboratories, and to the hinterlands of Afghanistan.  As U.S. military strategists replaced their AirLand Battle tactics with strategies of swarm warfare, Kosek began to study the zoological consequences of war. “Military understandings of the swarm are not solely metaphoric,” according to Kosek, “but make possible new assemblages of people and animals, new forms of social relations, and new technologies.”

Honey Bee swarm
Honey Bee swarm

A new generation of swarming drones, unmanned aircraft flown by the U.S. government, has been developed to respond to all sorts of sensory input from ground sensors, cameras, intelligence, satellite information, and data from other drones. Drones now can communicate information to each other directly and react to received information in real time without mediation by humans. One controller can manage a central drone and the other drones follow – adapting, reacting, and coordinating. The first coordinated swarm drone attacks took place in December 2009, in which five drones attacked alleged Taliban fighters with ten closely coordinated hellfire missiles, killing fifteen people.

Perhaps these flying machines embody the nightmares of Hugh Raffles: “There is the nightmare of fecundity and the nightmare of the multitude… There is the nightmare of knowing and the nightmare of non-recognition… Nightmare begets nightmare. Swarm begets swarm. Dreams beget dreams. Terror begets terror.”

Swarming became a tactic, rather than a theme, of The Multispecies Salon.  A curatorial swarm – a team of six intellectuals – staged The Multispecies Salon exhibit alongside the 2010 meetings of the AAA in New Orleans.

Artists and other interlopers poached ideas about swarming from Hugh Raffles and Jake Kosek at the Multispecies Salon. Even as the figure of the swarm was flourishing within the modern militarized state, a multitude of creative agents reappropriated the tactics and technologies of war.  The Swarm Orbs, a group of knee-high spherical robots, were just one artwork that embodied the tactics of swarming. These kinetic sculptures were built “to explore the aesthetic possibilities and the emergent behavior of artificial systems” by a collective of self-proclaimed “tinkerers” – biologists, physicists, psychologists, computer scientists and artists – with a $50,000 grant from the Black Rock Foundation.


See also: Swarming

Further Reading

Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004)
by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

Networks, Swarms, Multitudes (2004): Part 1 and Part 2
by Eugene Thacker

Ecologies of Empire: On the New Uses of the Honeybee in Cultural Anthropology 25(4):650-678, (2010)
by Jake Kosek

The Illustrated Insectopedia: Insect Love From A-Z (2010)
by Hugh Raffles

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a companion to the book