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Understanding the Social and Cultural Significance of Vermin in Society

Celie Hanson

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Understanding the Social and Cultural Significance of Vermin in Society

About Prof. Lisa Sarasohn and this TKS episode:

In this episode of The Know Show Podcast, we meet Prof. Lisa Sarasohn, an Emeritus Professor at Oregon State University. She began her research career as a historian and has published books on Galileo Galilei, Thomas Hobbes and Margaret Cavendish. Prof. Sarasohn has also always been interested in the history of religion and in particular, the history of Christianity, which she discusses with Hussain. She explores the way her focus eventually shifted towards the history of science, and the social and cultural history of vermin. Find out about the way vermin have been used in discourse, and how this has changed over time.

 

A brief synopsis:

Hussain and Prof. Sarasohn begin by discussing the philosopher Pierre Gassendi, the first person to work extensively on the ethical implications of the mechanical philosophies. Lisa explains his key contribution to the philosophy of ethics–the idea that human beings are distinct from the rest of creations due to their rationality. Following her work on Gassendi, Lisa Sarasohn became interested in the work of Margaret Cavendish, the first woman to publish extensively on scientific topics. Lisa talks about the way Cavendish believed that every creature has its own form of knowledge, and that all creatures are equal.

 

Vermin and social status:

Prof. Sarasohn discusses her current work that features in her new book ‘Getting Under Our Skin: The Cultural and Social History of Vermin’. The book focuses on the term vermin in society and in particular looks at bedbugs, lice, fleas, and rats. Lisa shows us the ways that these terms have been used in a particular way to categorise ‘others’, used as a form of othering. An example she draws on is the ways in which the word vermin was used by the English to refer to the Scots and the Irish. She also delves into the way vermin are associated with feelings of fear. She makes an analogy with the way historically upper classes have feared lower classes in terms of the ways in which their social status could be threatened. Lisa tells Hussain that it was common to use vermin as a symbol of filth and that they came to represent a ‘second-class’ way of living.

 

How have vermin entered our lexicon:

Lisa explains that vermin have been utilised to divide and separate society for centuries. In her historical analysis of the way that vermin have entered our lexicon, she found this type of language to be prevalent in Spain as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries, while in Britain it became more explicit in the 18th century. She argues that to some extent, this leads us back to Darwin, his ideas of the survival of the fittest, and also feeds into the narratives developed from the stories and lived experiences of sailors.

You find it all over the place. And as I traced this, I found it really fascinating. By the 19th century, naturalists were starting to write extended books about the natural world, obviously, and many of those books are quite racist.

Prof. Lisa Sarasohn

 

The historical and emergent ways society understands vermin:

Lisa makes an interesting point, that one possible explanation for the way this kind of language has persisted is that human feelings of pain are more poignant than the feelings of joy. Through her research she explains how it became clear that by the 20th Century, the idea of cleanliness was used to further entrench pre-existing divides in society, and discourses of ‘othering’. During the 20th Century, cleanliness among young soldiers became a way to separate the upper classes from the lower classes.

Lisa maps these historical understandings of vermin onto the present day. She delves into the way vermin is used in far-right political terminology today to dehumanise refugees to try and justify policies that target them. Hussain and Prof. Sarasohn then go on to discuss the way that killing vermin is normalised, asking why we kill them, and the social and cultural significance of this.

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TKS take home points:

In this TKS episode, through Hussain’s discussion with Prof. Sarasohn, we are given a comprehensive history of the way vermin have been used in language in society, in metaphor and discourse to divide. We learn what historical and contemporary understandings of vermin tell us about society, and the way vermin have been used to try and justify, often harmful, political ideologies and policies.

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