The Parasite: Overview
The Parasite by Michel Serres combines information theory, poststructuralism, and posthumanism. Originally published in 1980 as Le Parasite, it was translated to English and published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1982. In the early 2000s, however, the book gained renewed attention when it was picked up and reissued as part of the “Posthumanities Series” (from the University of Minnesota Press), a special book series edited by Cary Wolfe. It is an important work for two major reasons. First, The Parasite challenges the idea of the humanist subject; that is, Serres argues that ideas such as independence, autonomy, and agency obscure the interdependency of humans with their environment. Second, Serres writes in an experimental style, as he aims to write a “new” type of philosophy that’s not hindered by academic conventions. The book is rigorous and playful, and it is sometimes affectionately referred to as “the book of books,” because Serres relies so heavily on intertextual references to structure his writing style.
To summarize the text is quite difficult, but you might simply say that this book is about the role of the parasite in social, biological, and informational systems. Serres suggests that the parasite is not simply a key facet of any system, but that it also serves as a “thermal exciter,” as a catalyst for changing the very nature of any system.
In this sense, Serres deconstructs the relationship between host and parasite (also note that l’ hôte means both “guest” and “host” in French). The parasite in this sense is less a “drain” on the energy of a given system or organism, but rather something that changes the very nature of the host. And, the radical implication of this idea is that the parasite isn’t necessarily negative—as we commonly conceptualize it today—as it opens a new range of possibilities. So, for example, minority groups who are commonly deemed “parasitic” can make “pests” of themselves to bring about social, political, and other forms of change.
Types of Parasites
There are three types of parasites:
- Biological – a parasite is an organism that lives in a body or under the skin. It harms the host by draining energy (i.e., blood or nutrients) without providing any benefits. In the seventeenth century, “parasite” was likely used to refer to flora exclusively (e.g., mistletoe is a common form of parasitic plant).
- Social – a so-called social parasite is a person who drains resources from a society without giving anything in return. Originally, parasitos referred to a specific character trope in Greek drama, and the word “parasite” was later co-opted by biologists.
- Informational – le parasite is “static” or “noise” in a system. For Serres, an organized system exists in opposition to noise.
Serres is talking about three different types of parasites, but he emphasizes that these different types are not mutually exclusive. Arguably, one of the key aims of the book is to show that the use of the same word in three different contexts is not coincidental; instead, it informs the cohesion of the theory Serres aims to advance. For example, the biological term comes from the social context, and, in the early twentieth century, the biological context was often used (problematically) to refer to marginalized social groups, such as the Jewish people, black people, women, or migrant farmers. There is an inter-relationship between the biological and social; that is, parasite is always already a biosocial idea.
The final iteration is likely unfamiliar to most English readers, as it refers to the French word for “static” in information theory. Le parasite in this sense refers to an interruption in a signal, a break in a chain of communication, and so forth. So, in the first parable Serres discusses about the city and county rats, the noise that frightens the rats is itself a sort of parasite.
Relationship to Posthumanism
Though published before posthumanism was a distinct approach within literary studies, philosophy, and culture studies, The Parasite provides an early example of posthumanist concepts. On the one hand, it openly destabilizes the ways we conceptualize nonhuman animals, such as rats and so forth, but on the other hand it is much more significant in that it undermines the idea of an autonomous, individuated subject.
Key to liberal humanism (which posthumanism critiques) is the notion that individuals are autonomous and self-contained; Serres works to push back against this idea to suggest that parasites are inherent in any system, that relationality and dependency are much more widespread than we openly admit. Furthermore, such dependency often isn’t a negative thing; it represents a catalyst, a “thermal exciter,” a possibility for change.
To put it differently, it was quite common in the early twentieth century to describe “undesirables” as parasitic, which happened frequently in eugenics discourse, sociological theories, and so forth. Ergo, a person could be a humanist and still claim that certain groups (e.g., impoverished individuals) were parasites on the so-called productive class (think, for example, of capitalistic critiques of social welfare that so often rely on the image of independence as paramount). What Serres proposes that fits so well with posthumanist discourse is instead the idea that so-called parasites aren’t all bad, that independence is really more a product of problematic discourses than a reality, and that we need to think more critically about the potential limits of humanism.