Bat Subjectivity, Viral Contagions, and Zoonotic Poiesis

This contribution is part of a series of guest blogs

By Alex Ventimilla

Consider the bat. Admittedly, to write or speak about them is challenging given the diversity of the group. Chiroptera, as the group is known, is an assemblage consisting of over 1,200 varieties worldwide, about 20% of all recognized mammal species. This makes them the second most numerous order in Mammalia, and the only one capable of powered flight. Their kinship and locomotion may be the only two well-known characteristics universal to all bat-kind, although I wager the implications and mechanics involved are seldom entertained. Instead, popular knowledge about bats centers around several factoids. Some have no semblance of truth, such as myths about them being blind and/or commonly getting caught in people’s hair. Others are partially correct, or not ubiquitous. For instance, representations of large chiropteran congregations fluttering in dark caves are informed by hundreds of nocturnal, gregarious species that roost in subterranean habitats. Humans profit from the literal and figurative breathtaking attributes of these species by employing their pungent guano as a crop fertilizer and occasionally consuming the astounding aesthetics of their swarms as entertainment. Yet, several species lead solitary lives while a few others are diurnal. Bats also inhabit a far wider array of habitats than those depicted in the media, from the underside of tropical foliage to damp copulas in European churches. Further, we benefit from their trophic relations in ways beyond the industrial harvesting and application of their droppings, as bat lineages occupying different ecosystemic niches play crucial roles in pollination, seed dispersal, and pest control.

It may be more productive to explore how poorly we understand bats, there is much we have yet to learn. Take their use of echolocation, another bat behavioral trait widely represented in human culture and widespread, though not universal, among Chiroptera. Unlike their flight, the mechanism involved in bats’ ability to navigate their environment through sound waves is roughly understood by large swaths of the human population, particularly children, but also those familiar with the technological devices that mimic it: sonars and radars. Yet, these are little more than militarized, commodified allegories. In “What is it Like to Be a Bat?”, Thomas Nagel eloquently illustrates how this form of perception “is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess” (438). For while we can achieve a schematic conception of what echolocation is like, ascribing general types of experience based on the animal’s structure and behavior, these experiences are also endowed with a specific subjective character “beyond our ability to conceive” (439). To imagine what it is like to be a bat is, therefore, an exercise that requires the visualization (echolocation?) of a wholly unfamiliar experience, a breaking with the known and knowable. 

Those who dedicate their efforts to the study and understanding of bats are used to working with the unknown. The evolutionary origin of their echolocation is, after all, one of several aspects of bat ontology buried beyond Western epistemological methods by the dunes of geological time. The lightweight skeleton required to achieve vertebrate flight reduces the likelihood of fossilization. To be sure, a few fossil prehistoric bats have been preserved, though these are fully-formed bats, already capable of flight and possibly even echolocation, meaning the details of how these traits arose in their ancestors remains little more than informed speculation. Historically, the same was true for another puzzling characteristic present in certain Chiropterans, namely, their being reservoirs for an inordinate diversity of pathogenic viruses. Zoonoses are common and contact with many kinds of animals may result in disease. But it has long been suspected that bat-to-human contagions are responsible for notably dangerous viral breakouts including rabies, Marburg, Ebola, and most recently, the novel strain of coronavirus responsible for the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic.

Much has been written about the origins of Covid-19, even excluding conspiracy theories. The current scientific consensus is that the responsible pathogen shows strong genetic affinities with coronavirus strains found in Horseshoe Bats of the genus Rhinolophous (Benvenuto et al 458). One of these viruses, the theory goes, must have mutated in a way that allowed it to jump species and infect human hosts, probably via an intermediate host, possibly the Sunda Pangolin, though there is no way to be sure (Liu et al 979). What is certain is that this contagion catalyzed a chain of unprecedented, unpredictable events. It is worth dwelling on that thought. A molecular mutation in the genome of a bat-borne coronavirus sparked a global affair currently affecting billions of human and nonhuman lives.

Contagions can certainly be detrimental to Human and Chiropteran communities. In recent years, a Eurasian fungal infection known as White-Nose Syndrome has decimated North American bat populations (Drees et al). WNS also alerted scientists to the threat posed by opportunistic pathogens capitalizing on global transportation networks to spread across otherwise insurmountable geographical barriers and infect new, vulnerable host species. Similarly, their potential to wreak havoc among human populations and their natural-cultural environments is documented in historical accounts of the Great Dying, the Black Death, and the Spanish Flu, disease outbreaks that played a critical role in the shaping of the world we know. Those seeking to contextualize and predict the human suffering Covid-19 could potentially unleash often look to these chronicles and their focus on spectacular catastrophe. But as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari write in A Thousand Plateaus, viral contagions can be thought of as aparallel evolution, interkingdoms that cause us to form a rhizome with other animals through traversal communications of genetic material and capable of potentializing new, unheard-of becomings (10). “We evolve and die more from our polymorphous and rhizomatic flus than from hereditary diseases”, they write (my emphasis 11).

Let us focus and expand on the former of the two processes. For while the human tragedy inherent to the latter must not be forgotten, neither should the natural and cultural permutations catalyzed by these pathogens. For example, Tom James associates the fall of feudalism to the worst pandemic in history (“Black Death”). This rhizome extends from European demands for East Asian species-commodities like tea (herbs) and silk (caterpillars) to reservoirs of the bacterium of Yersinia pestis in rat-riding fleas aboard seafaring rats and back to the ensuing shortfall of European peasant labor these caused. The plague’s environmental impact is less known, though it is possible the reforestation of abandoned areas triggered a global cooling trend (Ravilious). Viral contagions have made their mark too. Andrew Pierce-Smith argues that the Spanish flu “may have prevented a German victory” in World War I, as morbidity and mortality were higher in the Central Powers than among Allied combatants (78). Similarly, historian Nancy Bristow contends the contagion was an opportunity for the first generation of college-educated women, nurses in particular, many of whom later wrote about “the pride they felt in doing their duty” (122).

Pathogens’ potential to disrupt systems of power has not gone unnoticed by contemporary theorists. Anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli identifies the Virus as one of three prominent figures in her theorization of geontology, “a set of discourses, affects, and tactics used in late liberalism to maintain or shape the coming relationship of the distinction between Life and Nonlife” (4). Povinelli considers this distinction to be vital to Capital’s demand that not all modes of existence are the same from the viewpoint of value extraction (20). In her view, the figure of the Virus provides a glimpse of the persistent, errant potential radicalization of Capital’s subjects of extraction: a sign that stands for all that which seeks to disrupt the current arrangements of Life and Nonlife (18-9). As the anthropologist points out, viruses are neither defined nor contained by this life-nonlife division, for despite their genetic composition they cannot self-replicate. Thus, Povinelli includes bat-born Ebola and other zoonotic viruses within her geontological figure. But she also includes radical Environmentalists, Islamists extremists, and any “active antagonistic agent built out of the collective assemblage that is late liberal geontopower” and its capitalist extraction systems (19).

The intense abjection and attacks Virus figures are subjected to by geontological regimes lead Povinelli to doubt their viability to function as the radical exit from geontopower they appear to be at first glance. Further, she understands Capital as capable of creating profitable industries from these antagonistic agents “with the right innovative angle” (20). Certainly, capitalism has managed to turn a profit on literal batshit in the past, while the billion-dollar revenues posted by the pharmaceutical industry in countries like the United States are directly derived from the emergence of new pathogenic contagions. On a similar note, Andreas Malm delineates the recurrent waves of innovative fossil technologies through which geontological Capital has overcome prior crises (21). And while the Virus does not figure in Malm’s conceptualization of fossil development, he entertains the possibility that climate change, one of Povinelli’s antagonistic agents, may disrupt Capital’s wave pattern of innovation (34). As Leigh Johnson shows, however, the financialization of fossil fuels, via oil futures contracts, has allowed this industry to turn hurricanes into “quasi-commodities with tradable potential”, effectively allowing Capital to profit from climatological disarray (208).

This brings us back to Covid-19 and its original chiropteran host. For while it lacks the calamitous aesthetics of meteorological phenomena, this contagion can and must be understood as part of the viral assemblage of anthropogenic climate change, the product of the geontological practices of capitalist extraction. In its hierarchization of existence, between life/nonlife, valuable/invaluable, and profitable/unprofitable, geontological regimes perceive populations only in terms of their extractable worth. Thus, the harvesting of desirable (wild)life, as well as the destruction of habitats for resource extraction are inextricably tied. Both are driven by Capita value extraction, perceiving little else. The disregard for other ontologies was such that even the repeated warnings from virologists concerned with the growing number of precarious populations in zones of contact with exotic zoonotic were ignored. Then a coronavirus aboard a Horseshoe Bat jumps to a Sunda Pangolin whose scales, coveted by Chinese traditional medicine, saw it coaxed to a Wuhanese wet market. There it mutates again, and in a matter of weeks, Covid-19’s poiesis produces a pandemic that bleeds capitalist geontopowers’ oil.

What happens now remains to be seen. Already, an increasing number of voices call for a return to the ordinary. The industries and services erected and dependent upon geontological extraction, they say, are too large to fail, their Capital flow is vital to too many people, “the cure cannot be worse than the disease”. But must there be a cure? Let us consider the bat once more. Although rabies and a few other bat viromes do cause disease in their hosts, the vast majority do not. Calisher et al theorize this apparent immunity is symbiogenetic, a coevolutionary becoming galvanized by chiropteran characteristics that make them ideal viral hosts, namely, their unusually long lifespans, aerial travel, communal habits, and metabolic modulation (536). It strikes me that not only are the first three characteristics also present in humans but that the Covid-19 crisis has forced us to do the fourth. And for many, the preventive imposition of economic hibernation has been a welcome respite from highly regulated everyday routines that demand their perpetual production and consumption.

It is too early to tell if and when the global economy will return to pre-pandemic activity levels. We know too little about the virus and the damage it has done. But perhaps instead of searching for a cure, that is, mechanisms by which the regimes that elicited the infection through reckless extractive logic can continue to operate unchecked, we should search for ways to become symbiotic with the virus and evolve, like bats. I am not suggesting that everyone should contract Covid-19, nor that this will somehow overthrow geontological regimes and Capital’s industrial economies. And to be clear, activities must resume; bats that fail to wake from hibernation die. What I am suggesting is that the onset of this zoonotic pandemic is a kind of global poiesis, the processual emergence of something new and an unimaginable break from the steamrolling Anthropocene-Capitalocene. It is an opportunity if one that is also a tragedy that has resulted in the unnecessary death of hundreds of thousands of people.

We may never be able to echolocate and hibernate. But we are in a unique instant in which we may envision how things may be otherwise, dream of new ways to perceive and relate to other ontologies, and consider the assimilation of self-regulatory practices compelled by chiropteran contagions. But if we wish to truly transform nothing must be imposed. This evolution must be viral. It can only catch on.

Works Cited

Benvenuto D. et al. “The 2019 New Coronavirus Epidemic: Evidence for Virus Evolution.” Journal of Medical Virology, vol. 92, no. 4, 2020, pp. 455-459.

Bristow, Nancy K. American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Calisher C. et al. “Bats: Important Reservoir Hosts of Emerging Viruses.” Clinical Microbiology, vol. 19, no. 3, 2006, pp. 531-545.

Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Brian Massumi (translator), University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Drees, K. et al. “Phylogenetics of a Fungal Invasion: Origins and Widespread Dispersal of White-Nose Syndrome.” mBio, vol. 8, no. 6, 2017.

James, Tom. “Black Death: The Lasting Impact.” BBC, 17 Feb. 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/black_impact_01.shtml, accessed on 30 Apr. 2020.

Johnson, Leigh. “Near Futures and Perfect Hedges in the Gulf of Mexico.” Subterranean Estates: Life Worlds of Oil and Gas, Hannah Appel et al. (eds), Cornell University Press, 2015, pp. 193-210.

Liu P. et al. “Viral Metagenomics Revealed Sendai Virus and Coronavirus Infection of Malayan Pangolins.” Viruses, vol. 11, no. 11, 2019, pp. 979.

Malm, Andreas. “Long Waves of Fossil Development: Periodizing Energy and Capital.” Mediations, vol. 32, no.1, 2018, pp. 17-40.

Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review, vol. 83, no.4, 1974, pp. 435-450.

Pierce-Smith, Andrew. Contagion and Chaos. MIT Press, 2008.

Ravilious, Kate. “Europe’s Chill Linked to Disease.” BBC, 27 Feb. 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4755328.stm, accessed on 29 Apr. 2020.


Alex Ventimilla (he/him) is an English & Film MA student at the University of Alberta and a research assistant at SpokenWeb. His research interests include Human-Animal Studies, the Environmental Humanities, Science Fiction, and Indigenous Studies. He is currently working on his MA thesis, a habitat study comprised of Coyote Tales, and Indigenous storytelling form.

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