Estranged companions: Bed bugs, biologies, and affective histories

In recent decades, bed bugs have swept across wealthy industrialized nations. After near extirpation in North America and Northern Europe, the return of these insects has led to a significant level of public anxiety and cultural notoriety. Here, we undertake an analysis of human-bed bug relations in order to both better understand this contemporary resurgence and critically examine the concept of “companion species.” We argue for conceiving of bed bugs as “estranged companions,” and foreground the need to understand contemporary encounters between humans and the insects through distinct histories that have been shaped by the opening and closing of spaces between classed and racialized bodies and that have been dependent upon the development and deployment of particular technologies such as Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). Further, we argue that “estrangement” has wider conceptual purchase and contributes to a body of research that has countered a strain of scientism in theory that decenters “the human” by interrogating the relations between companion species, (bio)political interventions, and colonial histories. Estrangement contributes to this task by, first, foregrounding that relationships with all companion species are imbricated in situated histories and biopolitical regimes and, second, drawing attention to the differential ethico-political implications of these regimes.

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