Pest Rationalism
04 Dec 2010

Pest Rationalism

Reza Negarestani


through the human pipe dream …

Roger Ebert, the movie critic whose name I can barely even stand, in his typically bankrupt mocking tone lashes out at the remake of the movie Willard with a simple objection which efficiently debunks Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical implications of becoming-rat in the movie Willard. Ebert objects to something obvious and trivial which Deleuze and Guattari refuse to acknowledge: Rats can’t be marshaled around, they are unpredictable, they are characterized by indiscriminate promiscuity and unbound contingency of the pest. Becoming-rat only happens in the fantasies of this Doctor Dolittle of pest control. You never know what a rat is going to do next, objects Ebert, not to mention a pack of rats. Rats’ ferocity in generating pestilential contingency is unsurpassable, it is as if nature has finally found a compact enforcer and representative who doesn’t mind being irreverent even to nature, betraying human’s desires and boring itself through the buttocks of God no matter how he positions himself. Rats are endowed with a militant verve for adaptability; they can adapt to any hierarchical order only to turn it to an apparatus of criminal complicity. If god evades all definitions and situates itself beyond all attributes of beings in the manner of the neo-Platonistic God, rats are still capable of sneaking behind him at night to penetrate him with painless efficiency. It is not the question of posture and sitting right, it is all a matter of surprise from behind. They can break into your air-conditioned bourgeoisie dreams by taking the pipes and romping around in the vents. If you build schizophrenic cities they adapt to the paranoid dimensions, if you secure a paranoid house they spread schizophrenically in every direction. They are only mobilized according to an absolute contingency which is marked by double betrayal; simultaneously working against the rectifying movement of social machines and betraying the fluid derangements of a formless nature by dwelling and adapting to hierarchical orders and dimensions when it is necessary. The question is how human desire can afford such treacherous contingency whose sole ambition whether in life or death is complicity or alliance through betrayal. The apex of this treachery to which human desire cannot latch unless within scenarios entailing the elimination of human — or in Willard’s case, ‘ripping human narcissism along with its economical desires and secret repressions into shreds’ – is the image of the sinking infested ship in the middle ages: After consuming the ship to its last morsel of food and the last sailor, rats leave the ship in a mass migration which always heralds the imminent sinking of the vessel. Sink your ship, burn your boats, eat your house, that’s the only way forward.


In the second volume of their magnum opus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari claim that becoming-animal is an alliance, a contagious alliance which always registers itself as a pack. Human beings can never undergo becoming-animal without a fascination or desire for pack and multiplicity. Yet rats don’t advocate any alliance with human or its desires. Complicity of rats with fleas, hierarchical orders, humans, grains, bamboo cycles and ships is too promiscuous to be captured by desire, the ground of such complicities is too transient to be successfully accessed or traversed by humans through experience, consciousness, desire or fascination. So if becoming-rat does not start with Willard’s fascination with rats, then what is he becoming? Willard’s becoming rat is a re-oedipalization under disguise. Willard is preserving the legacy of the Oedipus Rex under the guise of the Rattus Rex. All he can desire is an affordable pack of rats which can be marshaled around, what he desires is what he can afford, it is a utilizable or manageable contingency, a becoming already restrained by Willard’s own rat image projected to his Oedipal environment and then reflected back to him in the form of a complying rat pack. Roger Ebert has apparently his own speculation for this process of re-oedipalization: in the 2003 remake of Willard, the new Willard who is played by Crispin Glover lives in a similar house as the old Willard, a portrait of Willard’s father hangs in the family room which is in fact the portrait of Bruce Davidson who played the original Willard. Ebert asks does that mean that this Willard is the son of the elder Willard and that his nagging horrible mother is the original Willard’s girlfriend who now has become a shrew just like her mother-in-law.

Willard’s story continues the themes and illusions of medieval rat folklores and can indeed be traced back to such stories which were extremely popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Among these legends, there is one story which is more well-known than others perhaps by the virtue of its enigmatic quality and implicit socio-political critique of the church’s incompetence and self-indulgent depravity during the times of pestilence and famine. The story is rooted in Latin, Greek and ultimately Israelite legends. It tells the story of a wicked German bishop named Hatto who lives in his tower. He is a rat only by anthropomorphic identification of rats, which means he is only a rat by his greed and indulgence in hoarding. Bishop Hatto is an avaricious man who has amassed a wealth ten times bigger than his life time, his farms are fertile, his granaries are full and his dinner table is overwhelmed with food. Once the town is struck by famine, the peasants come to him and beg for help. Perhaps afraid by the imminent riot in the town, he plots for a solution to get rid of the peasants who pester him like rats. He invites them to one of his granaries, seals the doors and sets the granary on fire to solve the problems of these rats once and for all. He then returns to his tower to eat his lavish dinner and sleep. Sometime after midnight, he is awakened from his sleep by an uncomfortable sound, which despite its low pitched subtlety is quite audible. It is like a subdued commotion he cannot make anything out of it: a vague verminous rattle wetting all dreams of humanity. Hatto slowly leaves his bed and looks out of the window, the sky is calm, there is no sign of storm but he notices a strangest phenomenon about which he does not have a slightest clue. The ground is moving toward him with a macabre un-easing music. There are rats which are coming forth from the burned granary. The end of the story is reminiscent of Willard, after devouring all traces of life on the horizontal plane, they climb the tower to seize the bishop with their tireless teeth.

David Falconer, Vermin Death Star (2000-2002)

There have been at least three interpretations of this story, each has given rise to a particular strain of fiction or history constructed on a clandestine anthropomorphization of rats, each an anthropomorphic superstition about the surge of rats in this story — a covert solution to capture rats and ultimately solve their problem. These interpretations have in turn contributed to three political processes. The first one is the gothic story of the returning ghost supported by the monotheist belief in an immutable and indestructible soul in general and the vengeful return of these indestructible spirits to topple the tyrannical institution in particular. It is in conjunction with this interpretation that the increasing popularity of rat stories during the protestant riots against the church’s dominance makes sense. If the pestering ghost or poltergeist of gothic stories always appears with rats or at least accompanied by the sound of their claws within the walls, it is because such a gothic pact has been shaped by the belief that rats which devoured the bishop were indeed the ghosts of the unfortunate peasants burnt in the granary. Therefore, the first scenario is that of a religious or political reformation accompanied by a riot and hauntological insinuations. The animal is only a specter that reinscribes the vitality of human being in the form of an enduring spirit associated with the dead, or the pre-given and lingering trace of the living extended into the realm of the dead.

As a part of kitsch Marxism, the second interpretation does not suggest the return of the pestering peasant ghosts ironically appearing as angry rats determined to overthrow the tyrannical authority, instead it suggests a radical revolution by a faceless crowd of people. In other words, the second interpretation of Rat Tower story insists on a revolutionary dimension imbued with fierce class resistance and sweeping mass revolution. Here rats are again anthropomorphized by a type of resemblance, a link that associates the faceless revolting crowds with the ultimate vermin truth suggesting that vermin and especially rat packs are faceless. The second interpretation takes the rats in the story as the revolutionary mass rife with raw proletarian desire and armed with the collectivity of socio-political class struggle. The third interpretation is that of Deleuze and Guattari’s Willard which is that of becoming-rat: the faceless vermin pack swallows the human protagonist through a secret desire, a pact with the animal, a contamination by the multiplicity or the animal crowd which might be rats, the peasants or the numerous granaries which are the concrete manifestation of the bishop’s anthropomorphic animal desires. These three interpretations have sought to explain the reason for the surge of rats at night, link it to the death of peasants, the desires of the bishop, and his ultimate fate. In doing so, these three interpretations have shaped three anthropomorphic superstitions about rats which in turn have given rise to their respective socio-political processes. Human’s socio-political history, in this sense, is a collective superstition to misconstrue the contingent promiscuity of rats and their consistent rigor for complicity, that is to say, the ethics of the Pest. There is no doubt that like all other granaries of its time, the granary of bishop Hatto has had a thatched roof. Every true peasant and every diligent pest doctor knows that both black rats and brown rats reside in thatching of the roof, the cool temperature of the thatch satisfies the required temperature of rats. In addition, the thatch is a short-term nutrient resource for rats. It gives rats the opportunity to access the content of the granary and move from one granary to another. By inhibiting the thatch of the granary, they transform the verticality of the roof to an ultimate tactical vantage point from which they can dissipate the ferocity of the pack at night. The irony of humanity is that it only looks for rats either inside its food stock or at the bottom in the basement or the sewer, because it is convinced that the top has already been secured either by the sovereignty of god or the inferiority of the animal.

The only reason that fire in the granary did not exterminate rats was because they were somewhere between inside and outside, they had adapted to a vague verticality which demonstrated their complicity with the food hierarchy — a transient alliance ready to nullify itself in a favor of a new complicity with a new territory, a new alliance whose radical treachery is always ready to unfold. The difference between rats and humans sublimates in their ultimate relationship with their food resource: Whilst humans are burned alive inside their own food stock, the complicity of rats with the verticality of the roof gives them an opportunity to be signaled by the smoke and leave the food stock for good. Alerted by the smoke of the fire in the granary, rats break their alliance with the thatched roof of the food stock and migrate to a new zone of complicity. From here the fate of Bishop Hatto and Willard cannot be explained by those three socio-political rat superstitions anymore: rats which have migrated from the granary are moving to the closest territory, which this time happens to be occupied by humans. There is nothing personal in what happens to Bishop Hatto or Willard, the human protagonist is a temporary obstacle in the chain of complicities which rats undertake to unfold unheard-of epidemics. The human obstacle is as transient as promiscuous complicities of rats.

At the time of the great plague of London, rats had linked a major part of the city through the burrows they had dug in the connected thatched roofs through which they could disseminate plague and deliver it to every corner of the city with an inhuman efficiency. An accident caused by a fortunate negligence initiated a fire which soon spread across the city and ended the plague by making rats leave the food stocks and households of London. Only then the architects of the city found out the relationship between hoards of raging rats, the thatches, the fire and rare cases of mutilation by unstoppable hoards of rats. They redesigned the city with a new architecture in which structures had solid roofs and ceiling but they also had drains, sewers and secret ventilations. The frequently discussed rats’ bottom-up invasions, from sewer or basement to the surface which are reminiscent of libidinal surges against the ego only follow the initial vertical model of rats settlement as twists of the animal promiscuity in regard to architectural shifts. It seems that our socio-political and philosophical understanding of rats is still bound to the popular superstitions before the time of great plague of London; the animal is still a food for our mysticism. Because we still explain rats’ inherent contingency and impersonal complicities by such lame superstitions which are completely blind to the system of Pest’s causation: Rats inhabit the thatch of the granary as a result of their inherent multiplicity or packhood which is always pregnant with epidemic and mass-degenerating potentials. The next incident that happens is the fire inside the granary whose smoke alerts the roof inhabitants, rats reassemble the hoard for migration to the neighboring territory which in this case is that of human. Who even mentioned humans in the system of Pest’s causation as a primary or even a secondary cause?

There is an absurd mystical insistence to associate the epidemic ferocity of rats with the violent erosions of Bourgeoisie dimensions of society or even ridiculously going so far as to claim that rats represent the Asiatic Other or its specter which cannot be incorporated within the West other than by an inferiorization which sooner or later causes cataclysmic eruptions from the bottom. The problem with such observations is that they are incapable of grasping the Pest’s causation as a spontaneous model of complicity and radical promiscuity. The Orient has been ravaged by rats as much as the West; if the Orient maintains some sort of mastery over the West at the expense of rats, it is because it has always secretly expunged its body counts or has given rats attributes and powers reminiscent of pantheistic gods. Rats are as avid to gnaw at the foundations of Christianity as they are avid to brush their plague and urine soaked skin against Buddhism, pantheism or paganism. Rats eat everything including religion. All superstitions about rats have an anthropocentric tendency to explain rat’s pest causation by a human agency which is surreptitiously smuggled into the scenario, a greedy bishop, a crowd of peasants, a human settlement, an Oedipal bourgeois who is devoured by rats. But these are only contingently introduced to the story; they don’t have any intrinsic position with rats’ system of pest causation. There is nothing that guarantees their presence in the rats’ stories other than their contingent and ephemeral neighborhood with rats as well as rats’ plague-motivated promiscuity. Rats’ erratic mobility — understood as a precarious and contingent embracing of localities driven by the will of the open — dissipates differential intensities into the yawning extensity of space. Deleuze’s Willard conforms to human superstitions of the animal insofar as it imposes the necessity of human being — as a virtual or ideal determination or difference — on the katabatic opportunism of the animal-rats that goes beyond the power principle, but it is precisely the contingent promiscuity of rats which terminates the necessity of human beings and deprives the affect between the animal and human of its power to channel human desire as a participating determinant for becoming-rat.

For humans, reason is the ratio between the Intellect and Being; for rats, however, the reason is the plague-dissipating versatility between Being and the Outside which manifests as the ratio between the voracity of the jaw and the headless mobility of the tail. If rats are ideal carriers for dissipating epidemics through complicity, it is because for them the role of head is supplanted by that of the tail. Tail enables rats to acquire the power of sudden jumps which in turn mobilize the rats both vertically and horizontally, rats next to each other and rats atop each other. This spatial mobilization grants the pack an incredible contagious potency since rats are constantly contaminated by urine and defecation of those rats which jump on top of them. The line between the belly and the back or the inside and outside is dissolved with the diseased excretion of the animal. Rat tail in this sense is the warrant for the dissolution of the volumetric body into the gaseous plasticity of the epidemic. This type of reason between head and tail causes catastrophes of epic proportions when rats and xenopsylla cheopis enter into complicity with one another. Black rats which carry rat fleas both feed on and settle in grains, their burrowing movements in grains cause their hair to rub against grains and thoroughly contaminate them by the diseased urine and excrement. Feeding on the tainted grain acts as a catalyst since it increases the rate of infection among rats in a way that rats begin to die in massive numbers, a phenomenon known as rat die-off. The abrupt die-off results in migration of fleas to the surviving rats so that the number of fleas on each rat increases from about seven up to one hundred. This in turn causes a population explosion among fleas backed up by the failing immunity system of the animal which cannot tackle with the outsider any longer. The pest’s chain reaction culminates in the extinction of rats and the migration of fleas to the second favorable host which happens to be human. Rats unconditionally hold onto the ethics of complicity throughout their life and exercise the ascesis of Pest Rationalism in their death./November 2008