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Modernist Parasites

My new book, Modernist Parasites: Bioethics, Dependency, and Literature, Post-1900, analyzes biological and social parasites in the political, scientific, and literary imagination. With the rise of Darwinism, eugenics, and parasitology in the late nineteenth century, Sebastian Williams posits that the “parasite” came to be humanity’s ultimate other—a dangerous antagonist. But many authors such as Isaac Rosenberg, John Steinbeck, Franz Kafka, Clarice Lispector, Nella Larsen, and George Orwell reconsider parasitism. Ultimately, parasites inherently depend on others for their survival, illustrating the limits of ethical models that privilege the discrete individual above interdependent communities.

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We tend to think of parasites as greedy, self-serving figures. Yet Modernist Parasites explores what these figures have given to, rather than taken from, literary writers. From the First World War poetry of Isaac Rosenberg to the experimental writing of Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector, Williams argues that the figure of the parasite is central to modernist writers’ imagining of a relational, interdependent model of selfhood – one that productively troubles the liberal humanist conception of the self as bounded, singular, and autonomous. Readers of modernism, animal studies, and posthumanism will find much to draw on this generous and generative study of literary parasitism.

— Rachel Murray, University of Bristol

Modernist Parasites: Bioethics, Dependency, and Literature is a welcome contribution to the current critical conversation on modernism and the posthuman. The analysis moves deftly between national, historical and socio-economic contexts. From the unimaginable squalor of everyday life on the Western Front, through the choked landscapes of the American dust bowl, to the contradictions of twentieth-century metropolitan culture, parasitism defines modernist biopolitics.

The study amasses a wealth of textual evidence and theoretical argument, drawing from the American and the European traditions (Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, John Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, Franz Kafka, Clarice Lispector, Mina Loy, Nella Larsen and George Orwell) to show that the parasite inhabits the century’s most vivid expressions of the marginalised and the abject.

— Ruben Borg, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem