top of page
pexels-picas-joe-11362667.jpg

on cities and cockroaches

an ethnographic reflection by Michael Burrill

 

Cities are often framed as a preeminent example of human’s ability to harness and overcome the natural world due to uniquely transcendent intellectual faculties (Houston et al 2018, p. 192). Moreover, cities are sometimes described as ‘concrete jungles’ in which ‘curling sinews of a green and tropical vitalism are replaced by a mire of unrelieved greys’ (Martinez 2020, p. 73).  Indeed, Forbes, a US colonial administrator of the Philippines in the early 20th century, positioned concrete domiciles as the most basic unit of this urban transcendence (Martinez 2020, p. 76). He argued that concrete provides protection from the various forms of degradation and destruction the natural world imposes upon the bamboo shelters built by Indigenous people in the Philippines (Martinez 2020, p. 76). Therefore, concrete shelters granted these ‘savages’, as Forbes considered them, the time to engage in the productive work and consumption that characterised civilised, urbanised societies (Martinez 2020, p. 76). Furthermore, concrete, combined with steel, was also central to the development of skyscrapers, which can be considered the most advanced representations of the urban’s ascendance of the natural (Martinez 2020, pp. 76-78). Therefore, as Green (2020, p. 33) asserts, ‘in cement, the geophilosophy of human exceptionalism is made concrete: the self-image of moderns is denatured, dematerialised, separated from the planet itself’. 

                                                                                                  My home is somewhere between a small shelter and

                                                                                                  a skyscraper. It is a two-bedroom flat in a

                                                                                                  predominantly concrete 4 apartment block in the

                                                                                                  inner Sydney suburb of Stanmore. However, my                                                                                                            quotidian experiences in the 4 or so years living here                                                                                                    offer endless repudiations of the ‘irrational belief’ in

                                                                                                  humanities’ ascendant separation from ‘ecological                                                                                                        and planetary systems’ (Green 2020, p. 63). The flat’s

                                                                                                 constitutive materials continue to degrade over time.                                                                                                   This is true of both those that were considered                                                                                                              organic at some point and those positioned                                                                                                                  miraculous human creations. 

Moisture rises through the floorboards and seeps through holes drilled to enable the haphazard integration of recent innovations in communication technology. This moisture slowly eats away at the wooden floorboards, doors, and window frames. The PVC floor coverings, ‘magical’ plastic (Davis 2015, pp. 232-233) presumably intended to protect from moisture, warp and lift at the edges due to this rising damp. Moreover, this UV and heat sensitive PVC (Stringer & Johnson 2001, p. 93) is marked by discolorations and tears caused by, based on the newspapers underneath, 6 decades of sunlight and inhabitants. Indeed, even the concrete walls sport cracks, with a particularly large, ominous looking one situation in the kitchen above the backdoor. This crack is, based on the mould and webs that regularly collect around it, a smirking rebuke of humanity’s supposed domination of the non-human world. Indeed, though wiped away with relative ease periodically, the aforementioned mould grows on almost all surfaces given enough time and moisture. As one former housemate stated, ‘it comes back every time, it lives inside the walls or something’. Moreover, even gaps and vents intentionally included to circulate air and cool down the flat are used as entry points for mould and various insects. Some of these insects also emerge from the various drains designed to separate humans from their excrement and waste water (Doron & Jeffrey 2018, p. 69).  

Moreover, neighbouring symbols of apparent human

transcendence only contribute to this process. The

vibrations from nearby Parramatta Road, and from a

commercial car workshop and two operational ware-

houses almost adjoining the apartment block, likely

contribute to the cracks. Additionally, these businesses

have large dumpsters containing food waste which

attracts various animals. Therefore, this most urban of

locales belies ‘the modernist dream of the imminent

calculability and knowability of the material world’

(Kirksey, p. 41). Moreover, it is clear that, contrary to

exceptionalist framing, ‘diverse organisms co-produce

our urban worlds’ (Houston et al. 2018, p. 193). 

                                                                                            Of all my encounters with the plethora of creatures co-                                                                                                producing the urban environment in and around my flat,                                                                                              the repeated rounds of Ibises fighting over dumpster                                                                                                  scraps are among the most spectacular. Nevertheless,                                                                                                  despite the significant size difference, cockroaches,                                                                                                      another enthusiastic visitor to the neighbouring                                                                                                            dumpster buffet. also hold a claim. For significant                                                                                                        periods of the first year and half I lived here, there was a                                                                                              serious cockroach infestation. There are around 40                                                                                                        species of cockroaches that reside in or close to urban                                                                                                homes (Tang et al. 2018, p. 695). Whether any more than                                                                                              a few of these species were in my house is unclear.

Nevertheless, in the multitude of cockroaches crawling over every kitchen surface I noticed a variety of sizes, body shapes, colours, and markings that I had never previously been exposed to. Regardless, so many cockroaches crawled into our microwave’s side air vent that occasionally a small one would walk across the digital display screen while you were entering your timing. Moreover, at least 2 microwaves short circuited as a result. Furthermore, once or twice, curled, dehydrated cooked roaches fell from the top of the oven onto the tray I was making food on. Finally, though mostly confined to the other side of the flat, a cockroach ended up crawling on me in bed on at least two occasions.

Therefore, my relationship with cockroaches is defined

by a series of mentally and/or physically stressful

experiences that fit Deleuze’s conception of ‘sad’

and/or ‘bad’ experiences (Houston et al. 2018, p. 198).

Moreover, it is fair to say that my attitude towards

cockroaches essentially reduces them to ‘bare life’

that I am justified in killing (Houston et al. 2018, p. 195).

However, in acknowledgement of ‘multispecies

entanglement’, it is perhaps necessary to give their

lives the opportunity to appear slightly less bare

(Houston et al. 2018, p. 195).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, it is impossible for me to conceptualise a cockroach’s experience without somewhat resorting to anthropomorphism. However, I will at least try to practise ‘animalcentric anthropomorphism’ extrapolated from an observation of cockroaches’ lifeworld (de Waal 1999, pp. 263-266). Moreover, I will employ ‘fingereyes’, a methodology that seeks to better understand non-human animals through the prism of touch and other sensory experience (Hayward 2010, pp. 580-581).

                                                                                             To begin, German cockroaches, which my packet of                                                                                                     cockroach baits suggests are a sizable part of my                                                                                                         problem (Mortein, n.d.), exhibit physical and                                                                                                                 behavioural deterioration when isolated (Tang et al.                                                                                                     2018, p. 701). Moreover, cockroaches have ‘positive                                                                                                     thigmotaxis’, a desire to be in close touching proximity,                                                                                               to household surfaces, other roaches, and evidently                                                                                                     sometimes humans (Biehler 2013, p. 84). Additionally,                                                                                                 the frequency of warm and/or humid plumbing and gas                                                                                               pipes, and electric appliances, the variety of hiding                                                                                                       places, and food provided by cities are particularly                                                                                                       amenable for cockroaches (Biehler 2013, pp. 83-86;  T                                                                                                 Tang et al. 2018, p. 700).

 

Therefore, in so far as I can imagine a cockroach’s perspective, cities generally, and my house specifically, provide wonderfully temperate environments with plentiful food. Moreover, these oases provide not only ample shelter from the elements, but also a number of stimulating venues in which to socialise and banish their separation anxiety through sensuous experiences. 

While this framing is certainly more sympathetic than norma-

tive depictions of cockroaches, it still doesn’t assuage my

feeling that the perspectives of the ones I’ve encountered

seem decidedly roachcentric. Critiques of anthropocentrism

that ignore the ability of insects and microorganisms to

exercise forms of domination over humans surely reproduce

human exceptionalism (Jackson 2020, p. 15). Indeed, the

cockroach parades, dead microwaves, and occasional

intrusions into my bed certainly felt like I was being unrea-

sonably dominated. To some extent, me and my then

housemates must take responsibility for not paying

enough attention to cleaning and/or covering our food

waste, and that of the mentally disabled cat living with us.

 

These issues have been largely rectified in the time and housemates since. Moreover, there has been a corresponding significant drop in the number of cockroaches. Indeed, I very rarely see them at all. However, due to the proximity of the car yard and warehouses’ dumpsters, and the horrifying nature of my past experiences, I feel the need to take further measures. This generally includes placing baits to, what my current pack describes as, ‘Kill Cockroaches in the Nest and the Eggs they carry’ (Mortein n.d). This process involves a kind of dark fingereyes in which I create what I occasionally ill-advisedly describe to others as a ‘maze of death’. I walk around identifying every gap where cockroaches might hide, placing them as close to walls and surfaces as possible in order to weaponise their positive thigmotaxis. The spread of the poison in these baits is aided by the cockroaches’ consumption of each other’s excrement, vomit, and sometimes bodies (Wang et al. 2021, pp. 221-223). 

While coprophagy and emetophagy are not my idea of good party, I see that as an issue of preference. However, I draw the line at cannibalism, particularly ‘predation on live, but vulnerable conspecifics’ (Wang et al. 2021, p. 222). Or at least that’s what I tell myself when I feel guilty about cockroaches painfully dying from poisoning, instead of a swift shoe. It is, like the roach baits, somewhat effective. However, I find the unease about what my current bait packet describes as ‘danger to aquatic life’ (Mortein n.d.) far more difficult. Particularly as it is advised to dispose of used baits in garbage that ends up in landfill. Furthermore, even if the roach baits reduced the number of cockroaches that I saw to zero, they’d probably still be mingling under the fridge feasting on desiccated frozen peas. Therefore, regardless of my animosity, the cockroaches in my house are, as with the other insects and mould, a useful reminder of humans’ imbrication with, and inability to transcend, the non-human world. 

Michael is a 33 year old student living in Inner Western Sydney. in 2023, he participated in Sophie Chao's third-year undergraduate unit, "The Anthropocene," at the University of Sydney. This essay is a revised version of his assessment, Ethnographic Reflection, for which he received a High Distinction.

REFERENCES

Biehler, DD 2013, Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats, University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA.

Davis, H 2015, ‘Toxic Progeny: The Plastisphere and Other Queer Futures’, philoSOPHIA, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 231-250.

de Waal, FBM 1999, ‘Anthropomorphism and Anthropodenial: Consistency in Our Thinking about Humans and Other Animals’, Zoological Philosophy, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 255-280.

Doron, A & Jeffrey, R 2018, Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 

Green, L 2020, Rock | Water | Life, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

Hayward, E 2010, ‘FINGEREYES: Impressions of Cup Corals’, Cultural Anthropology, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 577-599.

Houston, D, Hillier, J, MacCallum, D, Steele, W & Byrne, J 2018, ‘’Make kin, not cities! Multispecies entanglements and ‘becoming-world’ in planning theory’, Planning Theory, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 190-212.

Jackson, Z. I. 2020, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World, NYU Press, New York, NY, USA.

Kirksey, E 2020, ‘Chemosociality in Multispecies Worlds: Endangered Frogs and Toxic Possibilities’, Environmental Humanities, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 23-50

Martinez, D 2020, ‘The Concrete Jungle: A History of Global Urbanism’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 73-79.

Stringer, R & Johnson, P 2001, Chlorine and the Environment: An overview of the Chlorine Industry, Springer, Berlin.

Tang, Q, Bourguignon, T, Willenmse, L, De Coninck, E & Evans, T 2019, ‘Global spread of the German cockroach, Blattella germanica’, Biological Invasions, vol. 21, pp. 693-707.

Wang, C, Lee, C & Rust, MK 2021, Biology and Management of the german cockroach’, CSIRO Publishing, Canberra.

3.jpg
5.jpg
7.jpg
2.jpg
4.jpg
4.jpg

"the cockroaches in my house are, as with the other insects and mould, a useful remind of humans' imbrication with, and inability to transcend, the non-human world"

"in acknowledgement of multispecies entanglement, it is perhaps necessary to give cockroach lives the opportunity to appear slightly less bare"

bottom of page