by guest writer Mark Dery
|Franco Folini/Creative Commons|
Yet, in the mass imagination, the Jerusalem cricket is more than merely evil; it is uncanny. The insect’s folk names—niña de la tierra and cara de niño (Spanish for “child of the earth” and “child’s face,” respectively), wó see ts’inii (Navajo for “skull insect”) and, more recently, “Satan’s fetus”—hint at the psychological roots of its effect on us. In his inexhaustible essay, “The Uncanny,” Freud cites Ernst Jentsch’s theory that what makes the uncanny so disquieting is that it destabilizes the either/or logic of our culture, perverts the philosophical binaries that structure the Western worldview: inanimate/animate, organic/mechanical, and so forth. Uncanny things are border-crossers.
As “Satan’s fetus” and other such names suggest, the bald, bulbous-headed insect’s uncanniness has much to do with its humanoid appearance, specifically its disconcerting resemblance to a human baby—a resemblance enhanced by the widespread belief that stenopelmatids can cry like babies. (Not true, although they can produce a squeaking, called stridulation, by rubbing their hind legs against their abdomens.) JCs stand at the uncanny intersection of cute and eeeeeyewwwww. They put a face, at once cuddly and repugnant, on Daniel Harris’s argument in Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism that
cuteness is not an aesthetic in the ordinary sense of the word and must be by no means mistaken for the physically appealing, the attractive. In fact, it is closely linked to the grotesque, the malformed. [...] The grotesque is cute because the grotesque is pitiable, and pity is the primary emotion of this seductive and manipulative aesthetic that arouses our sympathies by creating anatomical pariahs, like Cabbage Patch Dolls... Something becomes cute not necessarily because of a quality it has but because of a quality it lacks, a certain neediness and inability to stand alone, as if it were an indigent starveling, lonely and rejected because of a hideousness we find more touching than unsightly.
Speaking for the vocal minority on PotatoBugs.com who find Stenopelmatus cute, a user named Wyldbrry argues Harris’s point:
[T]wo months ago...I saw a potato bug for the first time. [...] When I saw him I stumbled back in fear. But my curiosity got the best of me and I came forward and stared into his beady eyes. He must have slapped some kind of mind control mojo on me ‘cause my next thought was, “aw poor little fella, he’s kinda cute in an ugly sort of way.”
Not only are JCs uncanny, but like all insects they’re irrevocably alien; maybe even more so than most members of class Insecta. Californians marvel, for example, at the bizarre sight of JCs marching lemminglike into ponds or pools. Inevitably, the insects drown, at which point a wriggling, whip-like thing—the parasitic horsehair worm (Gordius robustus or Paragordius varius)—bursts forth (out of the insect’s anus, if you must know), swimming off in search of a mate and leaving its host to die. According to Weissman, JCs ingest the worm when eating “dead material.” The worm takes up residence in the insect’s gut, where it hatches, after which it “cleans out the Jerusalem cricket, eats its internal organs.” All the while, the host animal behaves like any normal JC, blithely unconcerned that it’s being gnawed hollow. When the time is right, the worm releases hormones that inspire the insect’s irresistible compulsion to drown itself. This sort of parasitism is common enough among insects; from an anthropocentric perspective, though, it looks unspeakably alien.
The cricket’s alien nature—alien from a human’s-eye view, at least—trips the wires of our species-centric xenophobia. “There is nothing man fears more than the touch of the unknown,” said Elias Canetti, to which we might add: whether it’s nature or culture. Most Californians’ chain of unreasoning, upon encountering Stenopelmatus for the first time, goes something like:
A. What is it? I’ve never seen anything like it. B. It’s weird. And ugly. Disgustingly ugly. Evil ugly.
C. Must kill it, kill it dead before it contaminates my world.
“People write to me and say, ‘Gee, I saw this thing; I smashed it; I poured lighter fluid on it and lit it—would you like it?’” says Weissman. “People have this extreme reaction...” JCs arouse our fear of nature, a cultural neurosis that is, at its roots, a pathological fear of all that is Other. In the popular unconscious, stenopelmatids stand in not only for The Wild but for the illegal alien, who emerges at night to tunnel under la linea, the wall of steel.
We have always had, since the day we settled here, a gentle understanding with the creatures who live beyond our borders: we do not stray into their woods; they do not come into our village.- M. Night Shyamalan, The Village
On landuse and planning maps, of course, the division between “developed” and “undeveloped” areas is drawn as a straight-edged border. Spuriously precise boundaries likewise define parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, and official wilderness areas. In reality, there is an infinitely more intricate interpenetration of the wild and the urban. [...] Coyotes and cougars...are unwelcome heralds of a breakdown in the clear-cut, impermeable, but essentially imaginary boundary between the human and the wild.- Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster
In M. Night Shyamalan’s movie The Village, a group of middle-class whites, post-traumatically stressed by the Senseless Violence of Our Times, build their own private Idaho—actually, a cruelty-free Colonial Williamsburg, hidden from the modern world by a wild wood on loan from the Brothers Grimm.
The only downside to this Fantasy Island for Real Simple readers is the ever-present menace of Those We Do Not Speak Of, hulking, hairy creatures who patrol the borders of the dark and trackless wood. Of course, borders are made to be breached: the village idiot sneaks into the Forbidden Woods, and the monsters from the wrong side of the tracks—er, trees—go wilding through the all-white village, leaving mutilated house pets as their calling cards.
Sure, the movie is a big, fat tub of Jolly Time® Blast-O-Butter® Popcorn for the mind. Still, Shyamalan’s bogeymen have a message for us: the age of tidy dualisms is well and truly over; in the chaos and complexity of our times, sharp distinctions are a philosophical mirage. White-flight exurbanites may circle the wagons, in gated communities, against gangbangers and border-crossers, and nativist demagogues may demand a ring of steel around Fortress America—a levee against the flood of immigrants threatening, in the immortal words of Dr. Strangelove’s General Jack D. Ripper, “to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” But whatever we repress always comes back to bite us, whether it be the race-based inequities that breed Bloods and Crips or the economic dealmaking that turns a blind eye on illegal immigration or our centuries-old policy of eradicating whatever wild nature we can’t domesticate.
That’s why Shyamalan’s villagers are forever and always speaking of Those We Do Not Speak Of. And that’s why there’s a low-lying fear in California’s sprawl country, an anxiety that occasionally blossoms into collective panic attacks. Out where the McMansions meet California’s wild edge, white exurbanites’ worries assume mythic form. In the dark chaparral beyond the last street light, nebulous fears—of inner-city pathologies and the Browning of America and feral nature closing in—take palpable shape: pet-killing coyotes, cougars with a taste for birdwatchers and bikers, alien invaders from south of the border, Jerusalem crickets on the march.
To connoisseurs of California absurdism, the stealthy penetration of suburbia’s perimeter by small swarthy aliens on the prowl after dark sounds suspiciously familiar. In the cultural firefight over illegal immigration, defenders of our declining empire conjure visions of a Brown Peril, overrunning the border like some biblical plague. On the hairy-eyed nativist fringe, “cockroach” is a well-worn term of opprobrium, as in blog comments like: “Here in California, the Mexicans are breeding like cockroaches...it might sound racist, but its [sic] true. Their culture revolves around filth and corruption.”
In typical Trickster fashion, Chicanos have appropriated the slur and used it as a stick to beat the devil, as in The Revolt of the Cockroach People, Oscar Zeta Acosta’s novel about the Brown Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Or La Cucaracha, Lalo Alcaraz’s stingingly funny comic strip about pochos (Spanglish-speaking Mexican-Americans, caught in the double consciousness of their parents’ Mexican traditions and the Gringolandia in which they grew up). Or this ha-ha-only-serious post on the blog Corrente:
Principles of cockroach people:
1. Avoid the Man. If the light shines on you, scatter.
2. Survive. Some of you will be stomped and gassed. Make sure the rest survive.
3. Don’t believe what you hear or read. Promises are just words.
4. There are more of you than there are of them who would destroy you.
5. Very few people like cockroaches. Beware of those who claim they do.
6. Gather what you need to survive.
7. The cockroaches have survived every attempt to eradicate them; they will prevail.
8. When the chance comes, move in a mass to secure food and territory.
In a sense, we are all cockroach people, pests, vermin, the sworn enemies of the bugman and his exterminators.
At a time when camo-clad vigilantes patrol the US-Mexico border and cazamigrantes (migrant hunters) have declared open season on illegal aliens, tales of suburbanites terrorized by vermin resembling giant cucharachas can’t help but sound like social satire. For Californians living in the free-fire borderlands, stumbling on a big, brown insect creeping surreptitiously through their homes is just one more Close Encounter with the Darker Other.
(c) Mark Dery; all rights reserved. A shorter version of this essay first appeared in the (now out-of-print) spring 2007 issue of Cabinet magazine. Reprinted by permission of the author.