By Benjamin Smith
It was a relatively warm February night in Hoben residence hall and the air was almost ecstatic with a commotion reverberating through the hallways. I left my spot in the stiff armchair and walked through the lounge to be met by two wide-eyed residents running towards me. There is a mouse in Sarah’s room, they explained. “It was in my room first, but I chased it out with a broom and I didn’t mean for this to happen but it ran down the stairs and under her door” said Dylan, worried that I would be mad at him for causing a commotion, which obviously I was not. We went to Sarah’s room and she showed us the corner behind her desk where the mouse was currently cowering. The small square foot of space that had been blocked off with textbooks left the quarter-sized mouse without shelter, so it retreated to the furthest corner. As an RA I have to be flexible enough to fill a variety of different roles. That evening I was the exterminator.
“Don’t let it escape” I advised before running to my room to retrieve a plastic container with the remnants of some nuts. Scooping the mouse up in the container without knocking over the textbook barricade was somewhat difficult, but after a few minutes of struggle the mouse stopped resisting and slid easily into the container with the nudge of the lid.
After a few minutes exploring his new home and trying to escape via air holes in the lid, Larry the mouse settled down, feasting on the nuts scattered abundantly about the container. He (she?) became a huge hit in the lounge and received many visitors from residents. Upon seeing Larry, another RA, Julian, let out a shriek that startled everyone nearby before admitting, “Yeah, he is a little cute.”
A few other residents, upon hearing of Larry’s adventure, decided to go mouse hunting and soon returned with Tony Stark in a separate container. The two mice spent the night together on my floor, separated by their plastic walls until, the next morning, I discovered Michael Phelps with his nose poking just barely above the rising floodwater in the basement (someone clogged the sink and left the water running all night). Finally, my friend drove me several miles off campus where we released the three mice into the woods, and the whole ordeal was over.
Of course, that was not the end of the mouse problem in Hoben, or even the beginning. It seems every winter brings another outbreak of mice colonies digging through the walls and making their homes within ours. The warm environment and abundance of food within the building provides an alluring mouse oasis, ideal for surviving and multiplying through winter, despite the dangerous traps and brooms waiting to crush the life out of them. Very often, our reaction upon finding these creatures in our homes is one of complete shock and horror, but really, we should not be surprised to find other critters taking up residence in our homes. If we think of the relationship between humans and mice as an assemblage, we can begin to dismantle the myth that is the sanctity of the household.
An assemblage is often more complicated than it may appear to be. Jane Bennett explains that assemblages are made up by actants. She says, “an actant never really acts alone. Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces. A lot happens to the concept of agency once nonhuman things are figured less as social constructions and more as actors, and once humans themselves are assessed not as autonoms but as vital materialities” (Bennett, 21). We and the mice are separate actants within the assemblage between us. However, we are not the only actants. If it were that simple, we would simply will them to not be living in our walls. Other actants in this assemblage that attract the mice, for example, include the furnaces that emit warmth in the wintertime and the food left in people’s rooms. At our weekly staff meetings, my supervisor would always exclaim “Tell your residents to put their food in a locking container!” anytime we received complaints about mice in people’s rooms. Of course, whenever we relayed this message to our residents, the response was always that they do lock their food away. Often times assemblages come together in a way that is messy and difficult to track. So many unforeseen forces are always acting on each other that one change can cause a massive effect or no noticeable effect at all. Maybe, for instance, the mice are not finding food in your room, but rather they live there because that is where they have made their home. I had to drive several miles off campus because mice can find their way back home over long distances, and we did not want them to come back. Maybe they did anyway. After all, mice are notorious for being a constant nuisance.
While mice are often seen as pests, it is difficult to not appreciate the event of the human-mouse assemblage for its humor and poetic irony. While Julian let out a banshee-like cry at the sight of a tiny ball of fuzz caged up securely in its plastic container, the poor creature huddled in its corner as far away as it could get from the looming giant was, dare I say, as quiet as a mouse. In that moment, something was about to happen that neither mouse nor human would have even considered would happen had they not crossed paths in space and time. Bennett shows us that:
Assemblages are not governed by any central head: no one materiality or type of material has sufficient competence to determine consistently the trajectory or impact of the group. The effects generated by an assemblage are, rather, emergent properties, emergent in that their ability to make something happen (a newly inflected materialism, a blackout, a hurricane, a war on terror) is distinct from the sum of the vital force of each materiality considered alone. Each member and proto-member of the assemblage has a certain vital force, but there is also an effectivity proper to the grouping as such: an agency of the assemblage, an assemblage is never a stolid block but an open-ended collective, a “non-totalizable sum.” An assemblage thus not only has a distinctive history of formation but a finite life span. (Bennet, 24)
This moment of impact between the mouse and the human has a definite formation (when the human spotted the mouse) and end (when the mouse is released). In the meantime, the interaction between the two actants shaped and affected each other. I had to alter my schedule and change my actions for the night while Larry (and Tony Stark and Michael Phelps) had a massive change in their lives and either found their way back on a long journey home or made new homes elsewhere, leaving their old lives behind. It also had repercussions outside of the actants in the immediate assemblage (us). Many Hoben residents that night spent their evenings in new and unexpected ways, whether it was going hunting for more mice or just taking a few minutes to admire the hall’s new “pets” (although they were already living with us). It is interesting to see how people react given a different set of actants within the human/mouse assemblage. For example, while most residents freak out after seeing a mouse running through their room, often giving loud shouts of alarm and sometimes fear, a mouse in a plastic container drew in curious reactions from residents ready to bestow it with a cute name.
The presence/absence of the container reveals something very telling about us. A mouse in a container shows our control over the mouse. As humans, we like to think that we can control things, from our image to our social standing to the environment. A mouse in a container is just where we want it to be while a mouse running around is unpredictable and has the potential to have undesirable consequences, from something small like eating a packet of ramen to something more dire like spreading disease. We tend to view our household as something within our control. It is the space we live in, the space we create for ourselves, and the idea of sharing it with other beings largely outside of our control (of course we can always set traps) scares us. The mouse is an intruder. It is a constant reminder that we do not have complete control over our environment. But that is the beauty of assemblages. Things come and go, interacting with each other, shaping each other, and forming new things, only to dissolve apart and reform in other ways. An assemblage is an event, a time and place of things coming together in new and unexpected ways. Yes, mice in the house are a nuisance at best and disease-carrying pests at worse, but at least they can remind us of all the exciting possibilities this universe has to offer.
*The names of students have been changed for privacy, the mice got to keep theirs 😊