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Rats! A Cautionary Tail
The secret history of Scabby, an infested coffee shop, interspecies politics, and more
April 6, 2023
Rats are, famously, a vector for disease. Less notoriously—although perhaps just as pervasively—rats act as a vector between perception and prejudice, imagination and behavior.
In this week’s issue of Public Seminar, contributors Anna Boswell, Curran Boyd, Caroline Bragdon, Cassandra Brey, Katy Einerson, Evangeline Graham, Marc Anthony Richardson, Radhika Subramaniam, and Rafi Youatt contemplate how we interact with rats—and what our interspecies relationship reveals about humans.
In putting together this special issue of Public Seminar issue, editor Evangeline Graham spoke with biologists, baristas, academics, gardeners, and artists. Everyone had a story to tell about rats. (April 5, 2023)
“Property owners need to invest in managing, storing, and moving waste. I think this is the lost realm of NYC infrastructure. For a long time we’ve said, ‘Just put it on the curb! Sanitation will come get it.’ That mentality has done a lot of damage.” In a conversation with Katy Einerson, public health professional Caroline Bragdon discusses the pandemic conditions that led to record-high rat populations in New York City—and what we can do about it. (April 3, 2023)
Rafi Youatt traces the history of humans’ “war” on rats and the biopolitical implications of our violent efforts. “The extermination context, in short, is a site for generating war—not geopolitical war, but war in the sense of interspecies government of life with violence as a mode of ordering conduct.” (April 3, 2023)
In her essay on the “stowaway memory” of New Zealand’s rats, Anna Boswell examines the country’s “ecological clean-up” campaign as part of a larger settler-colonial act of mis-remembering. “‘Infection’ describes the properties of settler knowledge and settler memory more than it does the properties of rats.” (April 4, 2023)
“In true rat form, Scabby multiplied, and is now a nationally recognized symbol of worker unrest, ranging from anywhere between six to 25 feet tall and costing anywhere between $2,000 to $10,000 for just a day’s rental.” Cassandra Brey charts a brief biography of the balloon rodent who defends picket lines across the United States. (April 4, 2023)
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Human New Yorkers learn about pest control in Rat Academy. Why should we assume local rodents are any less organized? Upending the literary tradition of rats as politicized bodies, Radhika Subramaniam offers a vision of rats as a body politic. (April 5, 2023)
“Coworkers understood when I was on special rat-disposal duty by the look: two masks, four gloves, wide-eyed, holding a hammer.” Curran Boyd shares the lessons of a long winter killing rats in an infested coffee shop. (April 4, 2023)
In a dizzying passage from Marc Anthony Richardson’s experimental novel Year of the Rat, the narrator sees himself as a rat in the walls of his dying mother’s Philadelphia home. “Now the room is rank. Yet the downstairs apartment will be available soon: the veteran neighbor is in a chrysalis and to this side of glory he is not expected to return—although the grandson will hold the lease for the two more weeks.” (April 5, 2023)