Reading for Swarm

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    The narrative voice that closes Namwali Serpell’s 2019 novel, The Old Drift, poses a series of ontological questions: “Are we really a we? Or just a swarm in the swarm? Worse, is this me?! Was it the dread royal we all along?” The one or the many, the singular or the plural, the narrator(s) really can’t say. Stranger still, these questions come from a nanobiological swarm of “[h]alf insects, half drones; perhaps all drones or none; maybe something between will emerge.” Bookending the novel, and appearing at pivotal moments throughout it, mosquitos and microdrones model the distributed and centralized nature of swarming ontology. Guided by media studies and political philosophical accounts of swarming, this paper considers how Serpell’s novel tests the affordances and limitations of swarming as a useful analogue for human social organization.