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The Hyperemotional Complainer (The Parasite and Its Double)

Nothing but a lone earwig on the floor. Its antennae wiggling with clueless fervour. There could have been more, hidden somewhere in the cracks of the wooden flooring. Their tiny black and brownish abdomens slithering over each other, enthralled by the pheromonal intimacy. It is said that if the conditions are right, the earwig can swarm in masses, spilling out of crevices in multitudes as to literally cover entire household floors.[1] Autonomous movement can give way to that of a liquefied corporeal deluge, rendering the beings powerless, entangled by the material consequences of their social drives. It is also said that, contrary to common belief, the earwig cannot lay eggs in one’s ear canal and does not feed on the human brain.[2] For the idea that they do or could to be refuted in such a decisive manner speaks of the curious pervasiveness of the idea. Even though the name (ear-wig, from Anglo-Saxon eare, the ear, and wigga, a worm, in French, perce-oreille, and in German, Ohrwurm), according to some, comes from the appearance of the being’s membranous hind-wings that, when unfolded, resemble the human ear (hence, its scientific name Dermaptera, derma, meaning skin, and pteron (plural ptera), wing), it is the threatening appearance of its rear pincers and the notion of them burrowing into the human ear that has, for the most part, solidified the critter’s presence in the collective subconscious. The earwig rarely takes flight. Its delicate membranous wings are folded and carefully tucked under its leathery forewings. When it does, though, it often uses its hind pincers to help fold back the origami-like wings. The sharp tips caress the thin, ear-shaped membrane and position it into place as if the creature was threateningly boasting. The action does not need to be experienced or demonstrated to be effective. The piercing of the eardrum, the nibbling on the brain, it is all rather coincidental, inconsequential, their symbolic weight measured in the centuries that the fear of the earwig has remained a presence in the human consciousness.

Then again, there might have been two, one on the floor, the other crawling under the sole of father’s old shoe. The dimly lit room made it difficult to discern. Shadows merging with objects, cracks of the floor zigzagging before the straining eyes. At dusk the house became quiet. There used to be an owl, sheltered in the attic, that took its flight when the shades of night were just about to gather,[3] but father shot it down some years before. From then on, there was only silence until the night brought about its soundscape. I remember how empty the air can seem when there are hardly any speckles of dust hovering around the lightbulb. With the owl gone, not much moved in the house. Just an earwig or two. Still, I’ve never seen one spread its wings. Flight might have been exchanged for ease at manoeuvring tight spaces, exchanging the vacuousness of the sky for the viscosity of soil and damp wood, making them better at slipping through crevices, sliding into our nightmares. The earwig is no (mere) parasite. It occupies the collective mind instead of a particular body, petrifying it into submission. It appears tactical. Frozen still it springs into movement until abruptly halting into rest again. That is before coming across its psyops tactics. Mimicry is present among various species, yet if the resemblance that the wings have to the human ear could indeed constitute a case of mimicry, it has to be mimicry through some speculated function. A trait that, at best, anticipates the emergence of inter-species tension, even if there’s little evidence of such tension ever emerging: addressing a predator that hasn’t and probably won’t become one, while imitating means of predation that haven’t (so far) posed a probable threat to said predator. How else would it have worked?

By targeting the ear and brain they first come for your hearing, then your cognition, silencing the part that tends to become the loudest when darkness begins to settle in the room. At times I could hear them hissing back at it, doing their best to disrupt the repetitive thoughts, voices and tunes that loop outwards into the shadows as echoes of surroundings long lost. High pitches, rhythmic oscillations only made them more vicious. My hearing hasn’t been as reliable ever since father took that shot. Yet I sensed them tensing around me. I saw their shivering antennae, determined stances. Maybe they found my thoughts threatening. Maybe they perceived them as occupying a space they considered their own. An earworm settles deep within the white matter of the brain. Lesions cause inflammation in the auditory association cortex, producing musical hallucinations.[4] Adorno could have been right about the dangers of popular music. Few have been able to escape its pull. Its repetitions make for a dizzying centrifuge, spewing out emotions left and right. Perhaps that’s what made him such a hyperemotional complainer – as Wiggershaus would have put it – monotonously prejudiced in his views, irresponsibly protean in his thought, and unable to formulate testable hypotheses.[5] Just like father.

He never could accept the waning of his senses. The oscillations bouncing off the shades of night taking over. He could not accept the state of his new home, riddled with critters spilling out of the cracking wooden floor. He knew not how to befriend them. How to speak into the dark of cognition, accepting the lesions of ageing flesh. Maybe that’s what led him to burn all his books. Driven from their hiding place, the critters had no other choice but to run for the cracks. Go underground, where their numbers are but a vague potentiality. Perhaps a lone mother earwig, caring for its baby earwormlets. Not all would make it. Some would have to resort to cannibalism if mother would fail to supply sufficient nutrition. Or there could be swarms, an exodus or mass spillage ready to take over the entire floor. In his last days, he would find solace in his chair. I used to think it helped him remain grounded. Staring into the nicotine-stained walls, he would practice his last attempts at concentration. A deluge is easier to contain if the senses are centred – the amount of stimuli reduced to a minimum; lesions given the time needed to heal. Only to later realise that he was barely the same man at all. That despite his best efforts, the shadows eventually overcame his tired will. The earwigs burrowed into his flesh, the earworms into his ideas, meeting halfway and merging into what would become the spastic expression of his cold corpse.

First the owl, then father, after that it was pure stillness. Underground is where the critters hold on to power. Light does not interest them. No point in spilling over surfaces if there is no host to take as their own. My presence has been a strange exception. I never wondered too much about it. The earwigs intrigued me, entertained me with their fussy demeanour. The battered copy of Schelling’s Weltalter was one of the few things I managed to salvage from father’s fits of confusion. The notion of the splitting of god helped shape the final days of the disappearance of what I couldn’t help but consider a central figure in this story, whereas the emergence of time, its elusive causation, made for a fitting prelude to what followed. Time becomes prickly when one stares into the dark for too long. The past and the future pinch the present like the forceps of an agitated earwig. Drawing blood. Splitting it open. Giving way to the plenitude of temporal pathogens, parasitic temporalities, nomads of Aiôn. Earwigs, earworms and all critters that favour the damp caverns of the underground, the cracks of flooring, the shades of dusk, burst forth. There is no floor to spill over, no overground to the underground. With Minerva’s missing flutter, the long-dispersed ashes of father’s books, his spastic remorse instilled forever on his cold remains, space began to lose meaning. And with meaning gone, one began to see things from a different point of view.

No distance, no scale, just damp darkness – this is what the earwig calls home. A parasite enters the body of its host and makes it its world. All worlds have a timeline, a beginning and an end. Only the parasite cycles through them and escapes its inescapable finitude. It is eternal, even if by consequence always merely potential. Living in the dark. In the innards that it calls home. An earwig is no (mere) parasite, it exchanges the fleshy innards of a body for the noetic innards of collective minds. By that, it is far more successful than any ordinary parasite. Traversing intelligence and binding it to its will; like a pop star’s tune resonating through the brain matter of generations past her civilisation’s end. This is what earwigs hiss at when they sense an earworm in their midst. A host already taken, already lost. With their tactical movement, they threaten, if need be expand their origami-like membranous hindwings and slowly fold them back in with their pincers. The fold is complex, yet the push of the pincers ever so simple and delicate, one might even say beautiful.

Father often told me that beauty is rarely in the eye of the beholder. Instead, it more often than not occupies the tip of their tightly gripped knife. A bounty of and for the victors. It is why it always becomes kitsch in times of peace and ruin in times of war – beauty can be beauty only when the dagger can still be held drawn. Father is now dead, his body crawling with earwigs and his grip never firmer, yet beauty still refuses to show. So much for his lectures. But despite such a disappointing outcome, there is still something about the earwig’s demonstration that shows promise when dusk settles, yet again. Beauty might not be its intent, and threats have always been more successful when there’s less show at play. What the fold of its wings achieves is no mere boasting, but rather a concession. A coming to terms with and acknowledgment of the fact that it will eventually surpass its imposed finitude only vicariously, through its spectral double. The threatening tip of its pincers burrowing not just into any flesh, but brain matter, into the lesions that eventually cause the musical hallucinations. Could there be any other reason why the earwigs have spared my being for so long, if not for the fact that I have already accepted them into my own?

Nothing but a lone earwig on the floor, then again it might have been two. One coming to terms with the burden of corporeal existence, the other already piloting the rhythmic soundscapes of my drifting thoughts. If or when the control should cease, the other would eagerly take its place. Until then, I keep count.

  • 1

    COWAN, Frank, Curious Facts in the History of Insects; Including Spiders and Scorpions, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1865, p. 76.

  • 2


  • 3

    HEGEL, G. W. F., Philosophy of Right, Kitchener: Batoche Books, 2001, p. 20.

  • 4

    HUSAIN, Farhat, LEVIN, Jeremy et al., “Recurrent refrains in a patient with multiple sclerosis: Earworm or Musical Hallucinations?”, in: Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders, 3, 2014, pp. 276–278.

  • 5

    HULLOT-KENTOR, Robert, “Translator’s Introduction”, in: ADORNO, Theodor W., Aesthetic Theory, London & New York: Continuum, 2004, p. xx.

Domen Ograjenšek

Domen Ograjenšek is a writer, critic and curator of contemporary art. He holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Ljubljana and is currently based in Vienna.