When Alison and Rosie got in touch about revisiting this text, I had only recently re-read it myself while clearing out my Granny’s house. A Maggot (part of the wider publication Self-Service) was part of an inventory of items that included her recipe for clootie dumpling, stockpiled multipacks of polo mints, and a can of pilchards from the turn of the millennium.
Since 2018, when the following text, A Maggot, was first published, my Granny had further stays in hospital. Each visit meant passing the mirror fixed to the corridors of Ninewells Hospital adorned with the cautionary tale—'This is the person responsible in Tayside for YOUR health.’
Perhaps now, in light of everything that the past few days, weeks, months has brought, we can agree that true responsibility ≠ ‘I’ll be fine’ rhetoric of self-sufficiency.
My Granny was admitted to hospital in December to have her leg amputated from just below her knee but it was coming into contact with the common cold that ultimately ended her life—she passed away in January this year. Contact and contagion are closely linked—both transgress boundaries—the flimsy layer that separates one body from another.
Two years ago I wrote; the bug in itself is not a fault, but an indication that relationships within a particular system require renegotiation. Perhaps we might rewrite that sign to reflect our newly reconfigured relationships:
This is person responsible for the health of others, in the same way as they are responsible for yours
- The soft-bodied legless larva of a fly found in decaying matter
- A whimsical or strange idea, an odd fancy, an obsession with a theme
The nurse told my sister that the maggots came from Germany. She explained that it was cheaper to import them than it was to use creatures from the UK. They were administered to the wounds on my Granny’s foot in gauze packages (my Granny later described these to me as teabags filled with maggots). These caged dressings allowed the maggots complete access to the wound while simultaneously preventing escape. The larvae found nourishment in the cavities of her foot, recently hollowed out by surgical procedure. The creatures were more precise than a surgeon's knife. They nimbly removed the necrotic tissue from healthy flesh through a process of extracorporeal digestion—secreting enzymes that break down the dead tissue, reconstituting the flimsy layer that separates one body from another.
Maggots have been used for wound treatment since antiquity but have recently made a return to mainstream medical practices due to the rise of drug resistant bacteria. Maggots are being used as micropredators to combat the MRSA superbug. Such biological threat requires a ‘natural’ solution, a deferral to the laws of nature to return things to how it ought to be: one bug kills another. In a global epidemic exacerbated by biochemical engineering, natural remedies accrue a particular oppositional value. Consistent with the global north’s approach to ecological resources, in which the ecosystem is valued only by its service to humans, there is a cost benefit too—maggots are much cheaper than doctors and can be put to work 24 hours a day.
In the time spent on my Granny’s foot, the larvae molted twice, growing in length and girth. It didn’t even cross my mind until writing this to think what happened to them afterwards. Did they ever become pupa, then eventually flies? Or were they exterminated and discarded once they had served their purpose? Perhaps my thoughtlessness is unsurprising. There is an entire industry dedicated to the extermination of insects—inconsequential pests that we kill without remorse. Maggots in particular are held in low cultural esteem; they solicit expressions of disgust indicating the invasion of formerly living matter now contaminated by disease and decay. Highlighting the vulnerability of flesh, they embody our inevitable perishability.
It is thought that disgust is evolutionary. Our revulsion towards maggots is not directed at their material presence but at what they have come to represent: maggots are an ecological red flag, a warning of imperceptible threats and dangers to life. As harbingers of decay, they mark the meeting point of biological revulsion and moral disgust and we conflate the warning with the danger. Their associations are somehow felt to be contagious, a notion that preys on our most base anxieties. Encounters with parasites and diseases are thought to shape our social values in which the body must be able to distinguish itself from intruders.
Bugs are often used to describe anomaly—a breakdown or rupture in the proper functioning of things. Bugs themselves are indeterminate, only perceptible through the disruption they produce, unspecified and ambiguous errors. Bugs operate across software, hardware and wetware as the causes of technical failings, mechanical breakdowns and sickness. Within technology, ‘bugs’ (and therefore debugging) have been apocryphally attributed to the moth found in Harvard's Mark II Aiken Relay computer by Grace Hopper, who taped the body of the insect into her logbook with the caption ‘first actual case of bug being found’. Hopper’s use of ‘actual’ suggests that the term had been in usage prior to this particular moth’s trespasses. Applied within the context of another system—the body—we use ‘bug’ as a synonym for bacteria and germs—an infectious but unspecified illness of ambiguous origin, contracted through chance encounter with an unknown contagion.
‘Bug’ derives from the Middle English bugge meaning something frightening. It shares roots with personifications of amorphous fear and threat such as the Scots bogill (kin to Welsh bwgwl & Irish bocanách) defined by the Dictionary of Scots language as a supernatural being of an ugly or terrifying aspect, a bugbear. In the same sense that we use the term to refer to a vague (because vast) classification of insect, as a form of prognosis, a ‘bug’ performs this same vaguery—it satisfies predilections for attributing cause to effect while simultaneously lacking precision, specificity or acuteness. In this ambiguity bug performs as both a noun and verb—an agent that is both irritant and irritating, symptom and diagnosis. It would seem that bugs are always unclassified and un-welcomed intruders, malicious spirits that threaten to disorder the seemingly orderly.
If bugs are understood as intruders, invaders, infiltrators, then the threat they present is to our notion of property, territory, borders and boundaries. The tiny insects used to treat my Granny’s wounds both highlight and challenge our reliance on territorialising the body and militarising illness and sickness: infections invade, cancerous cells infiltrate organs, virus penetrates host, the immune system defends the body against foreign or dangerous invaders. As the ‘rational’ logic of military defence is employed to resolve the mystery of the body, it simultaneously compounds the othering of ‘mysterious’ interior bodily functions, implying the body’s ‘natural’ cooperation within these systems. In the case of my Granny, recuperation would not come from bolstering defences but in abolishing borders—a change in policy in which foreign bodies are understood as guests and not intruders, affirming a complex ecology. Might we begin to understand the bug-to-system dynamic as symbiotic, rather than oppositional?
In Ivan Illich’s Limits to Medicine, he writes that ‘health’ is just an adjective used to qualify how well an individual is able to cope with their environments—both internal and external. Illness, then, is the symptom of not coping with the impossibility of reconciling ourselves with amoral environments that are unforgiving and unremitting. Treatment is administered to correct the individual, to render them compatible with the system, restoring pathology to function. Like the bug, problems with our health are perceived to be deviations from the norm located within individual, singular bodies. Illness is somehow presented as abnormal—the results of poor choices and bad living, or more generously, sheer misfortune. Illness is subject to the logic of exclusion and containment rather than being understood as a co-constituent of a wider concern. Eradicating the bug therefore does not solve a problem, it changes the problem, and this should not be mistaken for healing. To protect the theory that health is a reward of good moral character afforded as a result of our ‘natural’ disposition, illness becomes a question of individual fault and not collective responsibility. Morality begins with microbes.
The bug in itself is not a fault, but an indication that relationships within a particular system require renegotiation. Rather than a destructive force, their presence should be understood as a restorative practice.
Maggots have wormed their way out of this text and into my dreams. According to google, dreaming of maggots represents the effects of the universe trying to heal and cleanse the dreamer, they represent the difficulties, anxieties, and negative emotions festering inside of me. Perhaps we might come to appreciate ‘the bug’ not so much as a warning but a welcomed tale—a reminder that ideological systems live in my body as they do in yours. External pressures manifest in the body which needn’t be carried as personal misgivings or individuated disorder. Rather than understanding bugs as erroneous trespassers, might we reframe the problem by asking what makes our systems such inhospitable hosts? Who or what is intended to survive in these conditions?
Endnote About Self-Service
Self-Service was first published in the context of a collaborative project between Kirsty Hendry and Ilona Sagar for Glasgow International 2018, supported by CCA, Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow.
Taking the form of a publication and event series, the project was developed in response to the archives of The Peckham Experiment—a radical vision for encouraging health, local empowerment and self-organisation in the first half of the 20th century.
The project included contributions from Emma Balkind, Clara Crivellaro & Alex Taylor, Anna Clover, Dr Lisa Curtice, Luke Frost, Kirsty Hendry, Liz Magic Laser, Julien Prévieux, Maeve Redmond, Dr Elsa Richardson, Ilona Sagar, Alberta Whittle, The Leeds Animation Workshop, and Gary Zhexi Zhang.
Kirsty Hendry is an artist living in Glasgow who develops projects exploring labour, work, and the body.
Selected projects include: Self-Service - publication and events programme in collaboration with Ilona Sagar at Centre for Contemporary Art and GoMA for Glasgow International 2018; So You See Me at Cooper Gallery, Dundee (2017); Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously (curated by Kati Kärki, with Jude Browning, Jake Watts and Magda Buczek), Figure 4 at Baltic 39, Newcastle, UK (2017) and Tenderpixel: Futures, ICA, London, UK (2015).
Kirsty is currently making a new moving-image work 'Navel Gazing', as part of Collective Gallery’s Satellites 2020 Programme.