Moth to a Flame
I remember the time a giant moth appeared in the little room I use as both clothes closet and studio while I was photographing some small figurines—minikins. The moth was probably drawn there by the smell of fabrics to nibble on and by the heat of the copy stand lights. At first I thought of ushering it out of the room and my apartment, fearing I would find more holes in my sweaters. But it flew around so erratically I soon gave up and went back to arranging my minikin scenes. Shortly after that, I found the moth had settled on an arm of the copy stand. I got an idea: to incorporate it into the scene I was setting. Would it cooperate? That seemed unlikely. I fetched a pencil and coaxed it to creep on to the pencil. I placed the pencil directly beside a small pile of translucent marbles buoying up a minikin woman in a white dress holding a mysterious box. To my surprise, the moth crawled off the pencil and onto the pile of marbles, at first placing itself directly in front of the woman as if to gaze with her at the box in her hands.
Later, the moth crawled behind the woman and propped two of its front legs on her shoulders. The moth stayed like this for over twenty minutes during which time I took a series of photos of this strange encounter, the moth’s large eyes staring into the lens of my camera, its legs, and wings, and feathery, furry body starkly illuminated under the lights and against a black background. It was as if it knew—knew what? The secret of crossing the line between the animate and the inanimate, the living and the dead, the visible and the invisible, the calculably finite and incalculable possibilities.
The moth was behaving like one of Donna Haraway’s (2003) companion species, where humans and their others exist in co-constitutive relations. Anyone who has tried to understand the perspective of a domestic cat or dog (or other beast) with whom one shares a home might recognize the process of new ways of being emerging in relation to our “companion species.” Perhaps we only truly appreciate the meaning of significant otherness through life with these furry beings. Living with other humans does not provide the radical reorientation one needs to see the world genuinely differently. “Other people” offer their own perspectives. But the ways in which we are similar—in perceptual, “rational,” and linguistic capacities—make expectations of understanding how other people think, desire, or perceive the world part of our background set of assumptions. In attempting to understand the always and seemingly completely Other, one has to reorient oneself in a new way beyond that of dealing with other humans, even those with whom we share little. A queer potential for future modes of being emerges from being-with others to thrive rather than to dominate.
María DeGuzmán is Eugene H. Falk Professor of English & Comparative Literature and Founding Director of The Latina/o Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also a published and exhibited conceptual photographer and has published creative nonfiction, fiction, essays, and photography in numerous literary journals.
Carisa Showden is a Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at the University of Auckland. Her work fuses feminist, queer, phenomenological, and poststructuralist theories to interrogate issues of agency in relation to sex, violence, technology, and activism.