Rennesson, Grimaud, and Césard: Insect Magnetism

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Stéphane Rennesson, Emmanuel Grimaud, and Nicolas Césard. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online)

Insect Magnetism:

The communication circuits of Rhinoceros beetle fighting in Thailand

Stéphane Rennesson, Emmanuel Grimaud, Nicolas Césard, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

The Rhinoceros beetle fighting scene in northern Thailand exposes a puzzling technique of bringing together human and animal action. We intend to show through the study of this game that some cases invite us to specify our understanding of the notion of communication. What can the breeder-players share with their beetles? The answer to this question is far from being self-evident because the partners of the game do not share at all the same perceptive and cognitive abilities. Amateurs agree on the fact that the beetles cannot be really tamed, but since they are sensitive to vibration one can, however, try to enhance their fighting potentialities and to guide them by tactile means during the fight. Drawing on radical questionings of the notions of signal and noise, we shall try to determine to what extent beetle fighting can help us to reconsider the debate on the possibility of presignaletic forms of communication.

Keywords: Human-animal communication, vibration, signal and noise, beetle, Thailand

All that is not information, not redundancy, not form and not restraints—is noise, the only possible source of new patterns.

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an ecology of mind, 1972

Among the many popular games in Thailand whose principal actors are animals (insects, fish, birds, cattle), “Rhinoceros Beetle” fighting (Xylotrupes mniszechi tonkinensis, locally called kwaang) involves an unusual form of partnership between man and animal that will enable the notion of communication to be considered under a new light. Elsewhere we have shown that what is interesting about kwaang fighting is the difficulty for humans to control their beetles during fights in a purely mechanical way (Rennesson, Grimaud, and Césard 2011).1 The beetles are said by the amateurs to be capricious and unstable, at least considering their fighting mood. The players and the bettors know that their animals can at any moment exit the structure to which they are trying to confine them. One can even wonder if the entire playing device is not primarily devoted to fostering the ambiguity of the relation of control.2

As we shall later examine in more detail, one challenge for the player is to succeed in establishing and maintaining contact with his insect. It is by means of vibration—by creating with the insect the conditions for a “tactile and vibratory” form of communication—that this interaction acquires all of its substance. By so doing, the players follow a well-documented ability for vibratory communication among arthropods (see figure 1). Beetles, notably, can produce various kinds of stridulation depending on the different species (for example, by scraping their protothorax against their mesothorax as with the Rhinoceros Beetle). At the beginning of the twentieth century, Slovenian biologist Ivan Regen—who studied field crickets’ behavior—was the first to recognize that stridulation was a means of communication between insects.3 On this account, kwaang fighting deserves its place in an alternative history of communication systems that is not based on an overly strict definition of communication, but instead draws from more diverse cases, including interspecific ones. In the long history of man-animal communication, the feats performed by the well-known “Clever Hans”—the horse that knew how to count—have become a kind of turn-of-the-twentieth-century case study.4 Although it was proven that Hans was neither telepathically guided, nor gifted with conceptual intelligence, he was still able to give correct answers by means of visual clues that his questioners unwittingly provided as they performed micromovements, to which horses are particularly responsive. On the basis of a kind of analogic communication,5 the importance of which among mammals has been highlighted by Gregory Bateson (1972), the questioners were in fact suggesting the solutions to Hans without knowing it, as the variation of their muscular tension signaled to the horse that his counting was approaching the correct answer.

Figure 1
Figure 1: One of the two players meditates on the effects of the vibration he produces on the beetles by way of rolling his notched stylus on the log.

Among other things, the “Clever Hans” case teaches us to recognize the complexity of communication, in both its conscious and unconscious aspects. While it is true that experts were at first victims of deceit and self-deception while developing the experimental apparatus, we are more interested in Vinciane Despret’s view (2004) that the horse had taught its breeder how to ask questions at least as much as the latter had trained the former to answer. Moreover, it is probably no coincidence that the collection of essays edited by Thomas A. Sebeok and Robert Rosenthal (1981)—on the subject of communication between humans and animals, specifically what this enables us to understand about interaction between humans—depends on case studies that only involve mammals (big apes, cetaceans, and horses). Needless to say, this is the part of the phylogenetic tree where we find animals that share the greatest propinquity with human beings in terms of their “subjective universe,” or Umwelt (Jakob von Uexküll [1934] 2010). It is there that we have the opportunity to observe the workings of logical continuities and discontinuities in the handling of symbols, clues, and icons.6

We would like to shift the question by examining a case that is even more puzzling, where the kind of analogic communication highlighted by Gregory Bateson (1972) among mammals seems impossible.7 In beetle fights, obviously, the cooperating partners do not share the same perceptional and cognitive abilities at all. Here the possibility of analogic communication is less spontaneously conceivable than it is between mammals, and it cannot be taken for granted that a shared framework of action exists between a human being and an insect. The game presupposes the participation of two species—beetles and men—whose perceptual worlds are very remote from one another. How can they communicate?

With both humans and animals in mind, Bateson advocates a position opposite to Claude Shannon’s (1948) telegraphic and linear view of communication. Steps to an ecology of mind can be read as a reaction to Shannon’s reduction of interhuman communication to an exchange of messages between a pole transmitter and a pole receiver (Bateson 1972). Conversely, Bateson describes rather complex cybernetic circuits composed of numerous feedback loops in which signals circulate endlessly. But, as we shall see later, beetles make it quite tricky to decide exactly what constitutes a signal and whether or not there is any communication of that sort.

Is there a communication before any signal is produced or is signal production a condition needed to establish a communication? “All that is not information, not redundancy, not form and not restraints—is noise, the only possible source of new patterns,” writes Bateson in “Cybernetic explanation” (1972). We know that a living creature, be it a man or an amoeba, does not need to be conscious to emit and receive a signal, to modulate physical magnitudes, and to interpret it. But Gilbert Simondon suggests another idea about the ontogeny of signal that enables us to go beyond the rather cryptic concluding sentence of Bateson’s article.8 As Simondon says, it would be restrictive not to see any communication in the simplest organized life forms responding to their environment and modifying it by doing so, even if there is apparently no exchange of signals as such. Organisms endowed with a central nervous system like human beings (and beetles, too, actually!) can combine this “ecologic communication” with a more elaborated mode, that Simondon calls “ethologic communication” (2010: 92–93). Considering acoustic and vibratory communication, Simondon argues that signals involved with ethologic communication do not constitute in themselves a mere conquest of intelligence over the basic needs dealt with at the ecological level. These signals are not merely selected by a more complex organism in its surroundings amid the background noise made up of a myriad of stimuli.9 As Simondon argues, one can observe a real continuity from one mode of communication to the other. Instead of being an obstacle to “ethologic communication,” the background noise can prepare individuals to receive signals (ibid.: 91). Simondon thus defines the “vibratory field” as a kind of primitive support for communication (ibid.: 93-96). Background noise functions as a sustaining energy whose modulations carry “motivation germs” and patterns of action. Contrary to what happens in communication through technical channels, Simondon suggests that background noise can be regarded as a potential source of stimulation and synchronization.

Indebted to Bateson and Simondon for their radical questioning of the notions of signal and noise, we will see here to what extent beetle fighting can help us to reconsider the debate on the possibility of presignaletic forms of communication. The kwaang fight set-up can appear rudimentary at first glance. Two male beetles are placed on a wooden log that serves as the combat area. This log has two small holes that contain females and their pheromone is expected to excite the two males. The two players position themselves at either end of the log. They can then influence the behavior of their insects in three ways: (a) Through direct contact (players can touch their beetles with their fingers), (b) by means of a notched stylus that can be operated in two different ways (players can stimulate the beetle by touching it directly with the stylus or press the stylus against the log and nimbly roll it between their thumb and middle finger so as to produce vibration—see video 1 and video 2), and (c) by turning the log around its longitudinal axis (the player’s goal is to help his beetle find the best position in which to grab its opponent or escape its opponent’s grip).

Video 1
Video 1: Rhinoceros beetles are quite responsive to direct contact.11
Video 2
Video 2: The log as a communication medium.

We could limit ourselves to this simple technical description, but it is not without disadvantages. It confines the humans and insects to roles that poorly convey the subtlety of their interaction. Looking at the situation from the beetles’ perspective, we could say that they force humans to submit to the requirements of their Umwelt (Von Uexküll [1934] 2010). Beetles are sensitive to vibrations, so it is through vibrations that players communicate with their insects. Here we will show how the vibratory processes to which men are forced to conform can be seen as a communication test that takes the player to the limits of the possibility of pooling communication resources.10

The mechanistic temptation

Let us first take a look at the direct contacts players establish with their insects. To grip a kwaang, one applies downward pressure with the finger on the posterior edge of the abdomen. This process enables the very efficient claws to be unhooked from the legs at the front and then from those in the middle and back if the gesture is prolonged. By lightly pinching the two upper legs with the thumb and forefinger, one can make the coleopteron let go completely. This technique is used to withdraw one’s beetle from the log between combat rounds. Among the forms of control available to the player, this action is certainly one of the most directive. The control relationship here is similar to that which one can have with an electric device by means of a switch. It is thus possible to place the beetle in a “hook/unhook” position. Yet, it would be a mistake to think that beetles can be controlled so mechanically while active, during a fight. This is only done outside of the action of the fight itself (see figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2: In order to untangle the two beetles, one of the two players passes its stylus between his animal’s legs. By doing so, he intends to anesthetize the insect’s nervous system.

Another kind of contact, perhaps even more authoritarian than the preceding one, is established when players grab their beetles during fights to give their insect a second chance in a fight that has started badly. The player catches the beetle by the upper horn—a continuation of its thorax and therefore linked to the animal’s body—between the thumb and forefinger and shakes it vigorously. Players say that this has the advantage of erasing its short-term memory. This gesture is used when one of the beetles runs away or exits the game and the player needs to bring it back into play. Released from the inhibiting burden of past traumas, the kwaang that got off to a bad start is now able to launch a fresh attack against its opponent.

Even if it is difficult to evaluate the shake’s true impact on the beetle’s nervous system, this local theory on coleopteran “psychology” suggests an interesting avenue: to some extent, a kwaang could be reset just as one can press the reset button on a computer to unfreeze the system, which is then available for a new task (see video 3). With this action, one moves away from a stop/start control relationship and enters into another type of relationship. The beetle could be influenced by this way of reprogramming (that is, by refreshing its conditions of perception). Usually, after briefly shaking his kwaang, the player almost immediately repositions it on the log and makes it turn around two or three times directly above one of the two females inserted in the log. Then he stimulates it with the tip of the stylus, guiding it toward its opponent. The player is conscious that he is dealing with a complex, sensitive nervous structure that he can influence through something of a human short-circuit when the beetle is inhibited by the power relationship with its opponent. The shake extricates the beetle from the narrow circuit in which it has been inserted, to draw it into more specifically human kinetics. In the player’s hands, it experiences an agitation to which its nervous system must seldom be subjected in the wild.

Video 3
Video 3:Resetting one’s beetle.

These moments of manipulation, which suggest that beetles can be influenced mechanically, nevertheless appear very sporadically. It is a matter of withdrawing one’s coleopteron from the game at moments of weakness, either between two rounds within a fight or between two fights. The rest of the time, the interactions that players develop with their insects are much more ambiguous in terms of control, and in the course of these, they clearly have no need for theories or a firm grasp of the beetles’ ability to process information and interpret the signals they receive. At no point can kwaang fighting be reduced to a mechanical system, to a remote control or string-puppet apparatus (see figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3: The player starts to establish a connection with his kwaang by rolling his notched stylus on the sugar cane stick the beetle is tied to.

Establishing a connection

The following scene will enable a very close examination of how contact is established between a player and a beetle, as well as a better understanding of what is unique about their relationship in terms of control. We are in the home of a player who is preparing to train one of his beetles. The insects have been placed on sugar cane sticks on which they can feed. The player looks around, searching for a beetle that would be worth testing. After momentarily hesitating, he lifts one of the sugar cane sticks from the floor. He raises the gleaming, brown coleopteron to eye level and observes its silhouette closely. The animal does not react. Now its master rotates it in all directions, allowing it to be seen from several angles. With its head riveted to its support, the beetle continues patiently chewing the cane that the player peeled for this purpose. The player lightly taps the end of the insect’s lower horn, which drops almost immediately. He once again lifts the beetle to his eyes and sees that the horns have already closed again. The man has to make two attempts before his coleopteron is prepared to keep its horns apart.

This position allows the player to assess the gap between its horns, on which much of his gripping ability depends. From its upper horn, he unties the cotton string that keeps it on its sugar cane stick. Although freed, the animal returns to its meal. At the moment, it seems oblivious to the vibrations in the sugar cane stick produced by the notched stylus, which the player is rolling between his thumb and forefinger. After half a minute, the man decides to tap the cane several times with the stylus as if to rouse his insect before once again rolling the instrument on the skin of the sugar cane. The contact between the cane and the stylus produces a soft, continuous hum. The player stops for a few minutes to observe the beetle’s behavior more attentively. It has stopped eating and has lifted its head but is still not moving. It has lost interest in the sugar cane, but the player is losing patience with the indifference that has greeted his attempts at remote stimulation. So he decides to touch the coleopteron directly with the stylus. He gives some sharp taps to both sides of the base of the upper horn that extends the animal’s thorax; it immediately leans to one side, then the other. Its movements are abrupt and look like reflexes more than anything.

The beetle does not seem particularly inclined to cooperate. And yet the player, undeterred by his insect’s resistance, says it is reacting well. He moves the stylus away from the kwaang to vibrate it against the cane a few centimeters away. After a few seconds, the coleopteron finally starts moving its front legs, and then the legs in the middle and back follow that movement. It advances a few millimeters. It stops again and then timidly resumes its crawl. It takes a few forward steps. The player stops rolling the stylus, just long enough for the beetle to calmly arrive at the end of the sugar cane stick. The player rolls his stylus on the animal’s left legs and the animal starts turning to the left. He makes the beetle do a complete rotation before doing the same thing on the right legs, making it perform a half-turn.

Now he places the stylus between the horns. With a tap on its head, the insect vigorously pushes away the stylus, and then quickly makes its way to the other end of the cane stick. The player withdraws the stylus in order to roll it again. The animal quickly reaches the other end of the cane. Clearly intrigued by the source of the vibrations, the kwaang attempts to move toward it but its front legs slip on the hard skin of the cane. It explores the surrounding area with its front claws for a few seconds then changes its mind and makes a half-turn. It advances a few centimeters and then stops again. Although the player redoubles his efforts—amplifying the rhythm of the vibrations by rolling the stylus against the fingernail on his thumb—the coleopteron is no longer reacting.

The man therefore decides to resort to direct contact again. He makes the insect turn around a few times in each direction before placing his stylus between the horns to make it move forward, with success. When the kwaang starts to move, the player places the stylus back under its lower horn, resting the tip against the cane to block the insect’s path. The beetle tries to force its way through, backs up a little, then braces itself on its six legs and tries to get under the stylus in order to lift it. But the player cleverly follows the animal’s movements, keeping the stylus under the lower horn. By repeating the process six times, the man succeeds in making the beetle reverse a few centimeters and then he withdraws his stylus abruptly. The insect has been launched. The player follows its forward movement by rolling the stylus delicately between its horns. The coleopteron speeds up while giving taps of the head to an opponent that he fails to grab.

The insect now appears to be obeying fully; now the player’s stylus almost never leaves it. The man makes it walk along the cane from end to end. He seems to be able to make it turn around, and to open and close its horns at will (see figure 4).

Figure 4
Figure 4: The player now tries a direct contact to stimulate his kwaang by giving some sharp taps to both sides of the base of the upper horn that extends the animal’s thorax.

It has taken the player several minutes to warm up his kwaang. Now he considers it sufficiently receptive to stimulation to test it against several opponents. These will not be real fights, but training situations in which he will attempt to gauge the specimen’s fighting potential and martial qualities. The player decides to lower it onto the wooden log that serves as the ring. He does this by tilting the cane stick, placing the end just above the female beetle that has been inserted in the log. Upside down, not far from the female, the beautiful brown beetle does not budge, utterly ignoring her. The player once again rolls the stylus against the cane hoping to get the insect moving again. It does not hesitate long. Once it arrives at the end of the stick it reaches out its front legs and ends up securing itself to the softwood log in order to land above the female. It goes no farther. While its antennae beat furiously above the captive, the player carefully sets the cane stick down behind him to find an opponent (see video 4). He quickly sets his sights on a beetle that is darker, slightly larger, and sturdier, but has a shorter posterior horn. Without showing any concern for the brown beetle whose full attention seems to have been captured by the female, the player now tries to awaken the fighting spirit in the future opponent.

Video 4
Video 4: Having one’s beetle get down on the log above a captive female.

Left to fend for itself, the brown beetle abandons the female after a few minutes and moves several centimeters away from her. It stops momentarily before turning right. It then passes under the log and reappears on the other side before making a half-turn and disappearing again, only to end up returning directly above the female. Its antennae flutter for a few seconds and then it moves away two centimeters and freezes. The player is in the process of warming up its opponent but he notices the first beetle’s inactivity. So he tickles it with the stylus between its horns to get it moving again. After bringing it back to its position over the female, he leaves it again to concentrate on its opponent, which he lowers onto the log above the other female. Once both beetles are on the log, the player places his hand between the two insects to keep them from seeing one another. He makes one of them turn around and the other move forward, successively leading them to the females and then making them back away. As long as he is unsuccessful in making them simultaneously active, he keeps switching from one to the other, dealing with each of them for a few seconds at a time. When they show signs activity simultaneously, when they are walking or waving their antennae above a female, the player vibrates his stylus against the log. After two minutes of this, he decides to withdraw his hand, allowing the beetles to enter into conflict (see figure 5).

Figure 5
Figure 5: Once the beetles are on the log, the players go on stimulating separately their beetle ahead of the fight. They alternate direct touches on the body with vibrations obtained by rolling their stylus on the log. By doing so, they try to give opportunity to their insect to smell the pheromones of the two captive females.

Vibration as a medium

This somewhat long description was necessary in order to show that players do not leave stimulation up to the presence of females and a rival male. We cannot limit ourselves to an etho-naturalistic understanding of the process, according to which males fight each other only for the right to cover the females. If this were the case, kwaang enthusiasts could bank solely on the insect’s ability to stimulate itself. But we know that in the wild, most meetings between two male beetles end in either avoidance or a relatively quick fight; in any case, the fight does not last long enough to produce a spectacle that kwaang players would consider worthy of that name. A monospecific setup that involved simply releasing two males onto a log would not provide the same quality of spectacle as an interspecific setup in which players pit their skills against one another, as is the present case, stimulating their protégés and sustaining their combativeness. Kwaang enthusiasts have instead chosen to move away from the configuration found in the wild through a clever cooperative system that allows them to prolong the fight, which can last as long as twenty minutes.

The very subtle methods by which contact with the beetle is established, lost, and restored is the other significant point that is deducible from the preceding description. The challenge, of course, is to do everything possible not to lose it. It is through a set of very precise “microactions” that contact is established, even if the connection is by no means automatic. The player gets his coleopteron moving—not without difficulty—solely by producing vibrations with the stylus before the beetle is even placed in the presence of its opponent within a triangular configuration (two males + one female = a fight). He achieves this either through direct contact with the animal’s body or by relying on the conductive properties of the wood, which propagates the waves produced remotely through the rubbing of the stylus. The player infiltrates the animal triangle through the method of vibration, but this vibration is not reducible to that which another beetle would produce. One might think that it is only by imitating the presence of another male that a player could succeed in awakening his insect’s warrior instinct. But this ignores the beetle’s ability to distinguish between vibrations emitted by a stylus and those produced by another male. It would certainly be a mistake to bank on the presence of mental pictures, of representations of the male in the kwaang brain. A beetle’s cerebral structure is not sufficiently evolved. On the other hand, watching the preceding interaction, we notice that a vibration is not in itself perceived as a sign of the presence of another male. This vibration must accumulate and resonate with the actual presence of a male and females in order to produce its full effect. It is highly probable that the beetle never mistakes the rubbing of the stylus against the wood for an opponent’s imminent arrival on his path. Just as the fight configuration cannot be reduced to a mechanical control model, it would be overly simplistic to think that man’s role in the beetle’s world is that of a lure. Players know that kwaang respond to a call to action that does not necessarily have a stable motivation or meaning. If the meeting of two males either causes one or more of them to retreat or leads to a confrontation—quick though it may be—the player must persist for a long time before rousing the coleopteron’s interest, maintaining its activity, and keeping it from dwindling again.

At this point in the demonstration, the image that probably best conveys what is at play is that of electricity, even if this will need some qualification. The beetle acts as something of a vibration accumulator. An intensity is produced between the player and the insect. But this intensity is not comparable to energy. Beetles do not stock energy like an electric accumulator. The player cannot bank on this energy the way he can count on the energy stored in the compressed spring of a watch. Keeping a beetle active cannot be likened to managing energy that has been transformed into mechanical energy. It is more a question of charging the animal with an intensity that it circulates by struggling against its opponent. And yet, in order to circulate intensity, what is needed is not just a generator but also a circuit composed of conductive materials. The conductivity of the wooden support is relatively weak, enough to cause signal loss. The player is never sure that the signals he sends are not losing intensity. When he enters into direct contact with the animal, either with his hands or through the stylus, he shortens the circuit and maximizes the opportunities for the intensity to circulate again. It is advisable to periodically “restart” the kwaang by touching it directly, reestablishing a circulation of intensity that can be remotely interrupted at any time. This explains the alternation between directly manipulating the animals and taking a step back from the action. The intensity can be maintained by vibrating the stylus against the log once the beetle has been sufficiently charged or until it discharges following a capture or a defeat during the fight itself.

Signal and modulation

It is quite clear that the player cannot control his beetle as one controls a puppet. The stylus does not produce a transmission of mechanical energy between them. Also, despite the precision this tool offers, the player is not in a relationship of the kind one can have with a remote-controlled robot or a programmed object requiring mastery of some form of coding (such that “under this condition, do this or that”). By establishing contact, a reflex arc is solicited from the insect, which carries out a quite precise operation, at least one that is more particularized than the mere forward walk produced by rolling the stylus against the wood. Next, through direct contact the player resets a smaller circuit with the animal that ensures minimal signal loss. But this resumption of contact between the player and his beetle only has value because the overall conductivity of the circuit must be reestablished at any price. To be persuaded of this, one need only take a closer look at how players release their beetles for the fight after the warming-up process or after restimulating them during the match. Knowing how to warm up one’s beetle is not enough; one should also know how to release it (that is, leave it to its own devices), or at least leave it to its opponent. The two opponents should be brought to this stage as directly as possible, in order to preserve the equity of the fight. If one of the animals presented the side of its body to the other, it would be getting off to a bad start. But this is not all. Players also make sure to break off contact with the animal at the right moment, sufficiently close to the opponent to give their insects as much speed as possible before they enter into conflict (see figure 6).

Figure 6
Figure 6: The art of breaking off contact with one’s kwaang.

Once the beetles have been released, the players are no longer allowed to touch their champions directly, except when the game has been stopped because at least one of the opponents is no longer in a combat position (having either backed away or left the combat area). When the two coleopterons confront each other, we enter into another phase of intensity production without necessarily abandoning the realm of contact. However, the nature of the contact changes. It is no longer interspecific contact between a stylus and a beetle or between a human hand and an insect, but monospecific contact between two animals that can no longer be considered simply accumulators (see video 5). But when the accumulation phase is successful, the conflict between the two produces spectacular reactions, with figures resembling karate holds. In these figures, it is not always easy to decipher which one has the advantage, and reversals of fortune are frequent. This is what makes the game interesting. At this stage, the players do not hesitate to vibrate their styli continuously. However, it would be simplistic to think that they do it only to support their own beetle. Of course, a player may vibrate the tip of his stylus a few centimeters from the ends of his insect’s legs to support its movements.

Video 5
Video 5: Releasing the beetles is a matter of switching kinesthetic contacts.

But what is significant here is that players are never really sure which beetle benefits from the vibrations. The goal of the maneuver is to keep the circuit alive; it matters little whether or not one knows how connections are made. The beetles bathe in a single vibratory field, of which the players constitute the two poles. The log must be vibrated in order to sustain the circulation of a minimal intensity. The player can keep his stylus away from his insect or move it closer according to the situation. Many players choose to move their stylus closer when they get the impression that nothing is happening or, on the contrary, when something is happening. Modulating vibrations is necessary to this circuit, which is lengthened or shortened. It is by narrowing or extending the distance between one’s stylus and the two beetles that the insects are kept up and running (see figure 7).

Figure 7
Figure 7: The two players sustain jointly the vibratory field.

Having the vibratory upper hand

Does the manner in which a player interrupts the hum of his stylus to tap the log stem from a different rationale? One is certainly changing frequency and producing a characteristic acoustic thump (“clack”) that breaks with all rubbing and humming. It would be easy to believe that this clack has the power to reset the beetle, similar to when the beetle is shaken in order to erase a traumatizing experience from its memory. But interviews conducted contradict this idea. One may wonder whether this thump is aimed principally at the beetles, at the players as a means of stimulating themselves, or even at the audience. In any case, one senses that this loud acoustic signal is not of the same nature as the pure vibration to which only beetles would be sensitive. It is not unusual to see small bells on the players’ styli, adding a pleasant rhythm to the spectacle. But no one can really say whether or not these have influence; they are more for appearances (see video 6).

Video 6
Video 6: Rolling one’s notched stylus with its bells on the log.

On the other hand, the clack marks the upper limit of a vibratory spectrum, that which causes the beetles to perceive signals and to act. Everything seems to take place below the threshold of human aural perception. Beyond this frequency, no one can tell whether or not the beetles are receptive—to the audience’s shouts of encouragement for example. For players and spectators alike it is difficult not to participate in this game without imagining “mechanistic” responses. An immediate reaction is expected from the clack. From the player’s point of view, it gives the insect an incentive to strengthen its hold, to grip its opponent more forcefully between its horns. The fact that there is a link between the clack and the closing of pinchers does not necessarily make it a mere mechanistic action, from the point of view of its implications for the shared management of game intensity. As long as the pinchers have not closed—as the player has either anticipated or simply hoped—he will keep repeating his gesture until he obtains the desired result. Striking the log with the stylus brings the players into a different relationship with the action in terms of cooperation. The possibility of doing so at this point in the fight, of supporting the actions of one’s beetle and responding to them through a signal that will reinforce its impulse, opens a door to a whole set of strategic behaviors depending on whether the beetle is in an offensive or defensive situation. A player’s personality is very much linked to how he alternates rolling, striking, and clacking. It also very much depends on how he manipulates the log. In fact, players can directly act upon the log by turning it around its axis. Log manipulation is subject to a balance of power between the two players that merits closer examination (see figure 8, figure 9, and video 7).

Figure 8
Figure 8: The players not only can use their styli to motivate their beetles; they can also help them in a more kinetic way by turning the log around its axis.
Figure 9
Figure 9: When no advantage is recognized, manipulation of the log is subject to a balance of power between the two players.
Video 7
Video 7: When the stakes are high the game tends to come down to a balance of power between humans…

Players tell us that by turning the log in the appropriate manner, they can give their beetle an advantage or correct its path, when at least one of the coleopterons is moving in the direction of the other. When the two beetles are above the axis, there is no point in manipulating the log. It is only when one of the two is not parallel to the log’s longitudinal axis that turning it becomes beneficial. One thereby seeks to position one’s beetle lower than its opponent so that its lower horn (the only one that is mobile) can pass under its opponent’s horn. When an advantage is recognized, the log can only be turned by the owner of the kwaang that is in a position of power (see video 8). This rule is ambiguous and should be discussed, since it has important implications. Is this because the advantages are not always discernible and one needs to facilitate recognition when they occur? How does one explain the withdrawal of the disadvantaged player’s influencing abilities? In light of what has been said above about vibration and the uncertainty surrounding the effects of its propagation, there is no guarantee that if the losing player continues rolling his stylus, he will not be compounding his disadvantage. Vibrations tend to favor the beetle in the dominant position. But to understand the log rule, it is also necessary to understand how its manipulation affects the circuit already patiently established by both players. This is the first time in the game that the player’s work is not merely a matter of emitting signals, but of supporting the action kinetically, by influencing the very support on which the interaction takes place. It is only after the intensity of the circuit has been established and is considered sufficiently stable that one may enter into this balance of power.

Video 8
Video 8: The beetle lifting its opponent is clearly recognized as getting the upper hand on it. The owner of the latter thus has to stop manipulating the log.

At this stage, the two players transmit different forces to the log, which creaks and turns more or less from side to side. The position of the log results from the tension between two forces—between the system’s two human poles. It is no longer the shared management and joint production of a vibratory circuit; this has been installed. Now a pure balance of power is being expressed between two divergent human interests. This can be visible as such, but its expression may not be accepted in those terms for very long—as an expression of something human (that is, as merely the negotiation between the human components of the fight). Manipulating the log enables one of the two players to take the vibratory lead. The player whose beetle is regarded as having the advantage—that is, the one that has at least succeeded in passing its lower horn under that of its opponent so that it may grip it with its pincers—gains the exclusive ability to give the circuit a new injection of tension. Having the vibratory lead does not mean having greater ability to control one’s beetle. strictly speaking, it is the beetle itself that has the lead and has earned its player a vibratory advantage. And when the players detect a decrease in intensity they do not hesitate to take up their styli to reactivate the whole circuit (see figure 10).

Figure 10
Figure 10: The player on the left is said to have the vibratory upper hand.


In kwaang fighting, communication between humans and beetles takes the form of a large circuit transmitting and circulating intensity, composed of five “loops”: a) two interspecific loops linking humans to insects, establishing contact by means of the stylus, b) two monospecific loops, one concerning exchanges between the two kwaang, and the other involving the two players in a balance-of-power situation and subjecting the players to changes in intensity, and c) an inclusive circuit represented by the wooden log, ensuring that the whole system reacts to the activity of the beetles and the two human competitors (see Appendix I).

One might wonder if these loops are executed in series, in parallel, or even according to a third mode. Here we are no doubt reaching the limit of the electricity metaphor. If they were executed in series, player A’s vibration on the log would affect beetle A, which would transmit to beetle B, inducing an action from player B and so on. And yet this model—based on a chain of causes and effects with unvarying intensity from one end of the circuit to the other—does not work. In the case of parallel execution, the intensities produced by the different loops would have to add up or accumulate but this is not the case either. There is indeed a chronological chain of processes and methods for sustaining a vibratory field, but this field is highly random in its connections as well as in its intensity circulation modalities. It is absolutely essential for the interaction to be made longer than it would be in the wild, and this is why players need to experiment with different methods and vary the means of sustaining the system’s conductivity.

In this context, at what point can it be said that players communicate with their kwaang? The beetle ultimately imposes its sensory universe while leaving humans with the possibility of appending code, meaning, and technique. The player is not attached to his insect in a purely mechanical way. Neither does he form one body with his coleopteron like a horseman and horse that share kinetic conventions and habits. The contact modalities of kwaang fighting do not allow themselves to be exhausted by the existing anthropological models ordinarily invoked to explain problems of cooperation at the boundary of the self (“distributed cognition” in the work of Edwin Hutchins [1996], the “cybernetic nature of the self” in that of Gregory Bateson [1972], or the “ecological psychology” of James J. Gibson [1977]). The gap between the motor and perceptual worlds of men and beetles is quite large and can only be narrowed by broadened communication theory that can more particularly build on a cognitive ethology applied to beetles. To cross the gulf separating them from their insects, players must submit to an unusual mode of communication. The kwaang impose their universe of low-frequency vibrations. In this context, beetle fighting is very much a theater of forced cooperation, but this cooperation is expressed in a circular way. The beetle is encouraged to cooperate with the man when the man is compelled by the insect to change his frame of reference and navigate an uncertain vibration field. The human player cannot rely on a simple rational understanding of the game. He is only allowed to shift from one level of communication to the other when the beetle is stuck in the sole modulation of physical magnitudes. Yet, between the two, there is no need for any sharing of mental images, representations, or joint attention frameworks. It is communication of a completely different kind, essentially based on establishing a vibratory flow, a vehicle for signals whose emergence, effects, and interpretability are never certain (see figure 12).

Figure 12
Figure 12: A successful fight that is obviously stimulating both the players and the gamblers to frenetically negotiate odds and amounts!

Appendix 1. Kwaang fighting device’s communications circuits diagrams.12

Appendix Figure 1
Appendix Figure 2
Appendix Figure 3
Appendix Figure 4
Appendix Figure 5


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Benveniste, Emile. 1952. “Communication animale et langage humain.” Diogène 1: 1–8.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1981. Cours à l’Université Paris 8 : La peinture et la question des concepts —Cours n°3 du 05/05/81. La voix de Gilles Deleuze en ligne. http://www2.univ-paris8.fr/deleuze/article.php3?id_article=83

———. 2003. Francis Bacon: Logic of sensation. London: Continuum Books.

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Lestel, Dominique. 2002. “Langage et communications animales.” Langages, 36e année, n°146: 91–100.

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Rennesson, Stéphane, Emmanuel Grimaud, and Nicolas Césard. 2011. “Jeu d’espèces: Quand deux scarabées se rencontrent sur un ring.” In Humains non-humains: Comment repeupler les sciences sociales, edited by Sophie Houdart and Olivier Thiéry, 30–39. Paris: La Découverte.

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Le scarabée magnétique : Les circuits de communication du jeu de kwaang en Thaïlande

Résumé : Les combats de scarabées en Thaïlande constituent une sorte de laboratoire où on expérimente des formes de coopération pour le moins insolites entre humains et insectes. A partir de la description des modes de contacts entre les joueurs et leurs animaux, les auteurs montrent comment des cas d’interactions interspécifiques obligent à préciser ce qu’on entend par communication. Quand on songe que les capacités cognitives et perceptives des deux êtres sont fort différentes, on peut se demander ce que peuvent partager les amateurs et leurs coléoptères. Les amateurs s’accordent toutefois pour dire que leurs gladiateurs miniatures ne peuvent pas être dressés mais qu’en tirant profit de leur grande sensibilité aux vibrations, on peut maximiser leur potentiel martial. En s’appuyant sur un questionnement radical des notions de signal et de bruit, l’article montre jusqu’à quel point les scarabées relancent le débat autour de l’existence de formes de communication pré-signalétique.

Stéphane Rennesson teaches anthropology at the Institut d’Etudes Politique in Paris. As the result of long participatory fieldwork in Thailand as a boxer, a trainer, and a promoter, he has written an in-depth ethnography of the world of Thai boxing in its country of origin. More recently, he has been working on numerous other games that are very much structured and that have met popular success in Thailand. He is mainly interested in competitions that require uncanny collaborations between humans and various animals, studying animal fights (beetles, cocks, fishes, buffaloes) and birds’ singing contests.

Emmanuel Grimaud has worked on various subjects, including the first ethnography of the Bombay film studios (Bollywood film studio, CNRS Editions, 2004), a duplicate of Gandhi (Le sosie de Gandhi, CNRS Editions, 2007), Indian robotics and mechanical gods (Dieux et robots, L’Archange Minotaure, 2008), and Japanese humanoids (Le jour où les robots mangeront des pommes, Petra, 2012). More recently his research has been focusing on the anthropology of eye movements. He also founded the ARTMAP (www.artmap-research.com), an international collective of researchers and artists experimenting with technology between art and science. He received the bronze medal of the CNRS in 2011.

Nicolas Césard has done ethnographic and ethnohistorical research mainly in Indonesia. His PhD thesis has shed light on the processes that, for a century, have led the northeastern nomadic groups of Borneo to transform their subsistence ways of life in favor of commercial strategies, a sedentary lifestyle, and the adoption of new social dispositions. For several years he has examined the interactions between societies and their environment, as well as the management of natural resources, through the field of ethnoentomology. Drawing on a comparative analysis of interactions between people, insects, and the natural environment at large, he takes interest in ecological, biological, and technological dimensions of people’s relations to nature, both on pragmatic and symbolic standpoints.


1. This article is the result of collective fieldwork conducted by Stéphane Rennesson, Emmanuel Grimaud, and Nicolas Césard. Other forms of “species game,” such as fish fights or birdsong competitions, involve very different approaches to animal communication. This comparative perspective will be developed in future articles.

2. Nurturing the uncertainty of a communication device is far from being a distinctive feature of interspecific relations. It can also prove to be fruitful among interactions between humans as accurately showed in this themed section by Matthew Carey as he analyzes flirtatious relationships in Morocco.

3. Besides, as was shown by Japanese biologists, pupae and larvae of some kinds of beetles communicate through vibrations in the humus where they dwell. Their study gives credence to the sensibility of these animals to vibrations that propagates in a solid environment (Kojima, Ishikawal, and Takanashi 2012).

4. Bred and trained by Wilhelm von Osten, who was a mathematics teacher, Hans in fact displayed some bewildering proficiencies since he was able to solve mathematical problems, give the date, point out an individual in a crowd from a picture, and even spell words by means of a numeric code. He would answer by hitting the ground with his foot as many times as necessary. These equine feats were at the heart of a controversy that shook the Berlin scientific community for a few months from 1904 to 1905 (Pfungst [1911] 1965; Despret 2004).

5. Following Charles Sanders Peirce’s typology of signs as ways to denote an object (icon, index, and symbol), theories of communication tend to make a difference between analogic/analog forms of communication and digital forms. Analogic coding encompasses every avenue of communication that is not verbal: body movements, gestures, postures, facial expressions, etc. With regard to humans, it also includes paralinguistic elements such as voice inflections, rhythms, and intonations. Analogic communication essentially refers to social relations and is a matter of correspondences of magnitude. It is all about the modulation of intensities. On the other hand, digital coding, that is to say verbal and articulated language, enables to depict the state of the world and is operated through a purely arbitrary and conventional association between signs and what they stand for. For a discussion on the hybridization of digital and analogic codes, see Bateson about dolphins (1972) and also Deleuze’s comment on Bateson’s dolphins (1981) and on Francis Bacon (2003).

6. Researchers have also been looking for proof of symbol-handling by social birds and insects. Regarding the latter we could point to the famous controversy between Karl Von Frisch (1950) and Emile Benveniste (1952) over bee language, discussed by Tim Ingold (1988) and Dominique Lestel (2002).

7. The possibility of a communication between human beings and mammals is comprehensively discussed in this volume by Charles Stépanoff’s study of reindeer herding system.

8. In his courses at the Sorbonne in the 1970s, Gilbert Simondon called for a broader theory of communication not only concerned with humans but also including the way bacteria communicate with their environment, the various modes of communication of animals (vibratory, acoustic, etc.), as well as the latest communication networks produced by humans (2010).

9. On this problem, see Jakob von Uexküll ([1934] 2010) and James J. Gibson (1977), who approach motivations among animals in terms of qualities and affordances. Both of them invite us to consider these motivations as closely connected to the physical properties of the environment, paying attention to the way species are engaged in a selective scanning of the features offered to them by their surroundings, according to their cognitive and perceptual abilities.

10. As such, we assume a totally different approach from Clifford Geertz (1973). Instead of considering animals embedded in a human game and manipulated as symbols in a cultural text to which they are alien, we try to be sensible to the way the player is forced to adopt a certain mode of communication, becoming his own beetle’s extension.

11. All videos are available for viewing on the Hau: Journal of Ethnograhic Theory website. To watch a video, click the video screenshot.

12. A PDF of the Kwaang fighting device’s communications circuit diagrams is available online: http://wvww.haujournal.org/extras/kwaang_circuit_diagrams.pdf.