CfA Kaiak, 7, 2020: Parasitisms
The notion of “exchange” is overestimated: there is no exchange not being unequal; even the “gift” – often as much overestimated or naively opposed to it – either seems to consist of a hidden exchange, or appears “impossible”, that is symbolic and secret for those who make it in the first place. While this is so according to an equally impossible speculative line of thought that, beginning with Mauss, would lead from Baudrillard to Derrida, what is more important is that there is no exchange not involving also parasitic operations: as Michel Serres argued, there is no “productive” activity not producing parasites – and parasites of parasites.
The parasite takes without giving. It amounts to nothing else than its own operation, which consists in feeding on the host environment without giving anything in return. The parasite subtracts value and energy, it eats at will, consumes. Yet the parasite (its existence and very notion) disturbs us because, while desiring to distinguish ourselves from it, we end up envying it or recognizing in it an excess of (hidden) similarity with us. Perhaps to protect us from this unavowable similarity, thus repeating an unintentional metaphysics, we postulate that on the vertex of any parasitic cascade there has always been a Producer Cause that creates itself without ever taking (parasitically) from others. Indeed, if we do not postulate the existence of such a Cause, then all (human and nonhuman) activities would end up appearing parasitic and, with a sudden reversal of the burden of proof, what seemed to be an acquired ontological given – namely the primacy of Production and Creative Power – would appear as what has to be demonstrated and explained.
One of the paradoxes of parasitism is that it can be as much aggressive and predatory as emancipatory and libertarian. The parasite – both in its biological and social aspects – can be so violent as to destroy its host environment: think, say, of the parasitic relationship between cancer cells and the organism that hosts them (apoptosis), or to the Anthropocene intended as the predatory relationship between industrialized societies and the global living environment. However, it would be possible to make examples of the opposite sign: one is that of foodsharing, which is practiced in some high-developed European cities and is organized in such a way that in the big distribution’s chains the unsold food intended for waste can be taken by anyone who wants it, for whatever reason, without having to ask anyone and in a completely anonymous way. Another example, apparently obvious and therefore scarcely investigated or plunged into the historicity of the unconscious, is the parasitic relationship that we have with past and present human cultures, from which we take without having to reciprocate.
There are also some borderline parasitic operations between predation and ‘democratic’ use of available energy or information, such as the widespread habit consisting in cracking computer resources and cultural contents sharing them on the Internet. In this case too, the paradox of the parasitic relationship is that, while taking only what is needed or what seems to have a value, it turns out to be an indirect instrument for verifying the positivity of the value itself in a given epoch or social context. This positivity of the value could be perceived just as a “common good”, bringing us back to the overestimated notion of exchange, or rather as a sign or force we cannot do without in order to live and above all to exist – as happened, for example, with the Treatise on Good Manners for the Younger Generations by Raoul Vaneigem, famous for being the most stolen book in Paris in 1968.
In short, if the parasite subtracts in order to exist and exists in order to subtract, one possible misunderstanding has to be dispelled: the parasite does not only take to survive but also to create in its own way, i.e. it differs, deviates, plays, transforms, improvises, invents, experiments – and at the same time knows that it is not the Cause of its creativity. It is aware that it needs the host environment to be rich enough (from any perspective), otherwise it could not subtract, exist and create in its own way. For this reason, the parasite can be predatory and violent (and therefore unmentionably envied) but cannot suffer from social envy. Similarly, parasitism can be destructive and generate catastrophes but also create symbiosis and hybridization, therefore punctuated equilibria, a-evolutive connections, rhizomes.
Obviously, we are anthropomorphizing and psychologizing the parasitic phenomenon only to make its ontological characteristics more iconic. In most of the cases, parasitic operations are in fact unnoticed, anonymous, impersonal and, above all, not human. From this point of view, we believe it is not by chance that the problem of parasitism, alongside with that of symbiosis, is emerging in many contemporary scholarships (biology, ecology, sociology and recently ontology), also significantly characterizing a field of artistic experimentation. Thus, as it is often the case, authors who had investigated the parasitic question in a splendid isolation – we are referring, in particular, to Gabriel Tarde and Michel Serres – come back to topicality, while more recent or apparently specialized innovative theoretical researches, such as that of the biologist Lynn Margulis, reveal their intimate connection with historically distant disciplinary fields.
Finally, the parasitic relationship should also be interpretable from the perspective of the environment that hosts and encounters the parasite without inviting it. The latter is either an unwelcome guest or someone who has stayed too long in the house, becoming intrusive and oppressive. Although we know that, even in this case, the host environment is in turn, often inadvertently, hosted without invitation in other home environments in which it behaves like a parasite, the problem remains in all its crudeness: how to get rid of a being that oppresses us, taking away our energy and freedom? Certainly, even without having to reach the “masterly” excesses of Ulysses toward the Proci, it is possible, so to speak, to fight the parasite by offering or imposing on him a “rental”, that is an ethical, economic, political contract which delimits and safeguards our area of freedom on a case-by-case basis. Yet there are instances in which the parasitic relationship is not perceived as such by the host, and, on the contrary, it is paradoxically felt as a gift (!) of freedom and not as its limitation. A chance that, in psycho-semantic terms, exceeds the cases in which the relationship, though vital, is not perceived at all, except in pathological conditions: think, say, of the bacterial flora that we host in our intestines. We will then have the exceptional, borderline cases in which what one may call love seems to happen, and in which the excess of meaning or even the pathetic excess of parasitism is experienced: if we accept that the other takes everything they wants, or rather if we want the other to parasitise us completely, to take everything from us, is it because we love them – or maybe are we just facing an overestimation of parasitism analogous to that of the exchange relationship? On the other hand, precisely considering this insinuation, the parasitic relationship could be configured as a sort of loop of living matter – as a simple and elastic pattern, able to liquidate any residual anthropomorphism.
In any case, reasoning about parasites takes us out of the (not only economically) restricted scope of the exchange, allowing us to notice things we would otherwise not see. If in fact, as said before, the notion of exchange is overestimated, the polyvalence of the parasitic one is still disavowed and unknown. We therefore welcome proposals aiming to investigate this concept in all of its range, that is within the field of sciences, with special reference to ecology and biology; within its theoretical dimension, which is nowaday above all ontological; within humanities, in relation to the psychology and sociology of parasitism, as well as its aesthetic or ethical and political features; from the viewpoint of literature or cinema, and starting from the hybrid dimension of technology and applied arts.
Call for AbstractsPlease send your abstract in a .docx format (maximum 5.000 characters, spaces included; in Italian, French, English or German) to Kaiak’s editor-in-chief Eleonora de Conciliis (firstname.lastname@example.org) within 15th March 2020. Proposals will be evaluated within 31st March 2020. Accepted papers will have to be submitted within 30th June 2020 and will subsequently undergo double blind peer review.