The Pest As Form

by Maru Pabón

In English, the collective name for pigs depends on the age of the group’s members. Young piglets are called a drift, a drove, or a litter. Adult pigs are referred to as a sounder of swine. The distinction comes in handy. A few months ago, I was attempting to explain to a friend that Vietnamese pigs had taken over the park in front of my father’s apartment building in San Juan. When she made a sound indicating that it must have been a cute sight to see, I clarified that no, in fact, the intruders were for the most part the heavy-set matriarch pigs, huge and aggressive. A sounder of swine: the name evoked the motion of their swollen udders swinging as they walked. The larger problem with their presence, however, remained unaddressed by the distinction in nomenclature: both mothers and babes posed a verified public health concern.

My father was worried then: here were vectors of rabies, HFMD, leptospirosis—who knows what else?—loitering in the area where he usually walked his dog. Stories spread on social media about the pigs’ territorial expansion and their rate of reproduction, both accelerating fast. Neighbors blamed each other for feeding the droves before they became swine. Some suggested that they be put to culinary use, as their meat could be an easy addition to the proudly carnivorous Puerto Rican diet. Then they tried to get in touch with authorities—community leaders, local representatives, mayors—all of whom shrugged off their concerns. Finally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture admitted that the pigs should be classified as pests, and thus fell under their jurisdiction. They rounded up around two hundred of them, put them in cages, and justified further inaction on the well-timed appearance of a moral quandary: should they kill the pigs, or sterilize them?

In pre-pandemic times, my father joked that as soon as the sounder made its way to the affluent gated communities in the city, morality concerns would no longer be at issue—the pigs would simply cease to be. Now, with the island on lockdown, I have to imagine they’re taking over. I run through the plot of a favorite Julio Cortázar story, “Casa Tomada,” in my head: a bourgeois household chiseled down to a pair of elderly siblings is troubled by a nameless presence. With quiet resignation, the couple surrenders increasing portions of their house to the intruders, whose identity they find so obvious they don’t bother telling the reader. Allegory is so generous, I think, as spacious as the house in the story. Over the years, “Casa Tomada” has been read as a parable about Peronism, fascism, all the-isms; now there’s room for my pigs. “This government always knows how to replace one pest with another,” I say to my dad on the phone as we both sit in stasis, quarantined.

A pest is an unwelcome presence. A pest disrupts human activity; a pest breeds disease. A dreadful web of associations for any animal to be caught up in. Though the concept precedes it, the word can be dated to the fifteenth century, to the Latin peste, or plague. Europeans grasped at the amorphous menace with God-fearing tales and superstitions, but the pest was earthly as much as allegorical, so representation posed a problem. Sometimes it appeared as an old woman dressed in black, other times as a decomposing skeleton. It wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that a stable signifier was affixed to the culprit. Rats, as the newly discovered vectors of the plague, were conflated with the disease and duly baptized. From a formal perspective, it was useful to have their guilt reified into the net of nomenclature and slung over animals of the past. Locusts? The Greeks used fire to chase them to the sea. The Sumerians used sulfur. God, famously, drove locusts into cities, where they consumed crops and inflicted famines upon the targets of his wrath. He was perhaps the first to recognize what truly makes a pest: the capacity to disrupt labor, to cause a snag in the reproduction of the world. 

As the maintenance of any given state of affairs depends largely on the ability to keep pests under control, animals are pulled into the category in relation to the processes of labor they disturb; the leaves they munch on, the shit they spread. If locusts troubled agrarian societies, it was because they devastated the production of goods around which the economy was centered. I imagine the appearance of swarms of giraffes or elephants in the Greece of 200 B.C. might have been shocking but less objectionable, unless they took to trampling the crops. Rats, too, didn’t seem to pose a problem for many centuries. But to be a vector of human disease is to threaten the cornerstone of all industry. Labor, Marx reminds us, is a process of productive consumption, and its continuity is predicated on the commodification of the worker’s ability to produce, what he calls their labor-power. By 1352, after the rat-borne peste had slashed the population of Europe by a third, labor was chief among the many commodities in short supply. 

Something happened, then, in the murky aftermath of the destruction: renewed attention to the arid landscape grew into a common language, and shuffled the workers’ understanding of their conditions. “The most important consequence of the plague,” writes Silvia Federici in Caliban and the Witch, “was the intensification of the labor crisis generated by the class conflict… the decimation of the work-force made labor extremely scarce, critically increased its cost, and stiffened people’s determination to break the shackles of feudal rule.” By the end of the fourteenth century, Federici goes on to explain, entire villages had jointly organized to stop paying fines, taxes, and rent, and to demand higher wages. Uprisings spread from region to region, and debt moratoriums and jubilees were declared.

Who is the poster child for the pestilence that is COVID-19? The bats that first harbored the virus? The pangolins that mediated its transmission? Despite the role they’ve played in the fracas, neither of them fits the bill. Modern science is able to employ complex taxonomies and genetic lineages to define diseases and has made it frighteningly easy to track the spread of microbes and germs, but humans have still managed to shirk the blame.

I suppose it’s not surprising; we read the death rites of elephants as sketches of our own, the flight patterns of bees as standardized grammars, and the hunger of other mammals as obstacles to our satisfaction. When it comes to our own patterns of destruction, however, we’re content with deploying tired apologias for the growth of vile industries. They float in the ether, an anodyne for popular anger while haywire capitalism claims livelihoods and lives, displacing and disenfranchising more people than it rewards with a wage. 

No wonder we make such shitty pests. We’ve closed off the form’s potential. We’ve snatched it away from history. If the pest swarms, it’s because it’s in its nature to do so. If the price of a cruise to the Caribbean is low enough, the sightseers will swarm. Why not get off in San Juan and walk around the picturesque cobbled streets, asymptomatic spread be damned? Why not buy, as Jamaica Kincaid portended, “all those awful things that tourists always buy, all those awful things they then take home, put in their attics, and their children have to throw out when the tourists, finally, die”?

But they’ll not die, they protest. Not them! And anyways, I’m sure the local government is dealing well with the crisis, it’s a small place, a safe place, but it’s getting terribly humid, so let’s return to our cabins, sail off, and have others replenish us. More $50 round-trip flights, more lavish vessels, even as the government imposes a strict curfew and outlaws the use of beaches, even after more residents are arrested than are given coronavirus tests. Petitions are created online to stop the arrival of the floating cities; local politicians demand it. The governor makes two consecutive requests to the Federal Aviation Administration to freeze all flights to the island. Both go unanswered. Pests continue to come and brag, on social media, about social distancing on empty beaches. Our still-saturated beaches and parks attest to our inability to stop a pestilence under rapaciously capitalist society, when private profit supersedes the greater good. Serving as the human host of a disease is terrifying—but an entire realm of action opens up when we consider the pest as a model for disruption.

Strikes, blockages, riots—they have come roaring back under the present conditions. We’re adapting them to our times, despite the maddening uncertainty that shrouds the better world to which we hope they will lead. I think of my pigs, in Puerto Rico, and remember a recent video I saw online: a masked woman approaches the barricade in front of the governor’s mansion in San Juan. She’s protesting the lack of testing on the island, the gross incompetence that has characterized the government’s pandemic response. Suddenly, she reaches into her bag and pulls out a severed pig head, then a second, then a third, lining them up on the barricade in front of a group of policemen. Sounder or swine? No matter. The pest, at last, is present. ♦

 

 


Maru Pabón is a Puerto Rican writer and translator. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Yale University. In addition to Protean Magazine, her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Momus, The Brooklyn Rail, ArabLit Quarterly, and Barricade: A Journal of Antifascism & Translation.