The Parasite: Overview
Michel Serres’s 1982 book The Parasite, originally published by Johns Hopkins University Press and later republished by the University of Minnesota Press as part of the Posthumanities Series, is a key philosophical text for understanding poststructuralism and its relationship to posthumanism. Serres writes in a disjointed and often cryptic fashion, with prose loaded with puns and wordplay (which often don’t translate to English), yet his goal is to develop a theory of systems.
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 also that it serves as a “thermal exciter,” as a catalyst for changing the very nature of any system.
In this sense, Serres deconstructs (much like Derrida) the relationship between host and parasite (he also gets a kick out of the fact that the word for “guest” and “host” is the same in French, l’ hôte). 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 (especially in social contexts). So, minority groups commonly deemed “parasitic” can make “pests” of themselves to bring about social, political, and other forms of change.
Types of Parasites
Serres is talking about three different types of parasites, but he emphasizes in the first chapter of his book that these uses 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. (A common critique of The Parasite is that it’s overwhelmingly general, but Serres makes a strong case for why his theory is so general in the opening pages.)
The first use refers to biological parasites. In parasitology, a parasite typically refers to organisms that live inside or under the skin of a host and drain their energy (blood, etc.). Hence, their symbiotic relationship is one that harms the host (as opposed to mutualism). In this sense, there are no mammalian parasites, so Serres’s use of the term “parasite” to refer to rats, for instance, isn’t “correct” according to most biologists. However, Serres concedes this “misuse” and claims a looser use of the word.
The second iteration refers to social parasites, which is actually the original context for the word (one reason Serres is able to use “parasite” so loosely in biological contexts is because he gives an effective etymology to show that “parasite” was in a sense co-opted by biologists—in a way, any use of “parasite” is always already an anthropomorphism). In the first chapter he uses the example of a tax collector as a socio-economic parasite, but in later chapters he also uses the original Greek parasitos (a character trope or guest who “repays” the host with storytelling), house guests, etc.
The final iteration is likely unfamiliar to most English readers, as it refers to the French word for “static” in information theory. “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.