Every sphere has a third.
You don’t have to go far to find the parasite in contemporary American politics. Every time a woman is called a welfare queen, every time a politician says he is opposed to government handouts, and every time a capitalist is compared to a vampire, we invoke the parasitic. It’s easy to find even in presidential election news: once called a “vulture capitalist” by Rick Perry, Romney has more recently been dubbed a “parasitic capitalist” by Pete Kotz at the Village Voice, and it’s common knowledge at this point that the Obama campaign will be milking the former Massachusetts governor’s time at Bain Capital for all its worth, even against the expressed wishes of the likes of Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark. Meanwhile, President Obama has been called a parasite by everyone from Vladimir Putin to Rush Limbaugh.
But to call someone a parasite is to sling an ambiguous insult. The term is used to describe almost anyone from migrant workers to congressmen: we invoke it when we talk about those who want what others have, including relatives who “come out of the woodwork” when someone gains celebrity or dies; those who drain others of money or time, including ne’er-do-wells and lovers; and those seen as unproductive, especially bankers, the unemployed, the homeless, school teachers, and anyone else thought to be sucking at the teat of capitalism or the liberal state—both of which are themselves described as parasitic in their own right. The parasite can be left or right, weak or strong, rich or poor, healthy or sick—it just depends on who’s talking.
It wasn’t always this way. Parasites used to be positive figures; in Ancient Greek literature, to be a parasite was to be an entertainer, a giver of advice, a dinner guest. Often it was to be a priest, someone who deserved hospitality at the tables of the wealthy. Over time, this ancient literary topos evolved to describe something negative, a sponger who cadges meals and drains resources from others while giving nothing in return. Even later, it came to be used by botanists and biologists to describe plants and animals that live alongside, in, with, and generally at the expense of organisms of different species, and since then, the biological and social connotations of the term have informed each other, even as they’ve branched apart. It’s not uncommon, after all, for people to call a parasitoid a “sponger” or to consider a “freeloader” less than human.
Given parasitism’s complex meaning, it shouldn’t really surprise us that Americans have found it difficult to agree on what counts as parasitic. But when we’ve reached the point that just about anyone can be (and is) called a parasite, it’s time to accept that the term has been pushed to its conceptual limits. The very term “parasite” is being sucked dry; it is becoming an empty signifier.
Even in a biological context, the term has been exhausted: scientists are having more and more trouble deciding which relationships are parasitic. It is generally agreed upon that a tapeworm is a parasite rather than a mutualist: the tapeworm it damages its host, rather than sharing benefits more or less equally. Other [apparently] undisputed parasites include the Gnathia marleyi, a parasitic crustacean recently named after Bob Marley that can be found on Carribean coral reefs, and that darling of Youtube videos, the Cotesia glomerata, a wasp that inserts its eggs into caterpillar larva until the parasitoid eggs burst from the caterpillars’ bodies, leaving them to die. But what about the relationship between bivalve mollusks living in deep in the ocean and the sulfide-oxidizing bacteria from which they get their energy? The bacteria is called the parasite, because it obtains its food and shelter from the mollusk, yet if the bacteria can live without its host, the mollusk can’t live without its parasites. Indeed, as Claude Combes writes in The Art of Being a Parasite, the distinction between parasites and mutualists “is quite arbitrary.”
Over the past two decades, scientists have begun to consider parasites and other pathogens not simply as problems but as integral components of ecosystems. Jennifer Ackerman’s cover story in the June issue of Scientific American suggested readers view the body as a “social network” of human cells and microbes, rather than physiological islands. Many of the microbes formerly thought to be pathogens, Ackerman explains, have been found to be mutualists – not mere moochers. Though Ackerman’s focus is on pathogens rather than parasites specifically, she undermines the myth of the parasite on two fronts: first, by arguing that the organisms we assume to be destructive are important to a given milieu; and second, by suggesting that humans are not, as scientists had previously thought, “physiological islands, entirely capable of regulating their own internal workings.” Incidentally, Scientific American’s July issue is on “The Evolution of Cooperation.” With arguments like these, the journal is slating itself to become the most inadvertently leftist magazine in America.
The relationship between parasites and immunity figures largely in theories of parasite conservation, too, which acknowledge the importance of parasites to ecosystems, generally on a larger scale than the human body. Of course, anyone who has had a tapeworm can tell you that biological parasites can do a lot of damage to your body. Parasites are themselves dangerous—they can cause death and morbidity and pose threats to individual organisms as well as entire populations. That said, they’re also mediators, and in this sense they’re important not just for immunity, but also for species coexistence, community composition (or the proportion of organisms relative to a given area), and biodiversity. To lose such mediators, conservationists argue, would cause serious problems for any given ecosystem.
This pro-parasitic—or at least what we might call anti-anti-parasitic—turn in science of the past two decades calls into question the term’s colloquial definition. No longer is a parasite something that takes, giving nothing in return. Parasites now are regarded as an inherent good: a grotesque but necessary evil for the maintenance of ecosystems and biodiversity, and a critical catalyst for evolution. In this sense, the term might be heading part of the way back in the direction of its original social meaning—at least in the scientific context.
This isn’t to say that parasites either don’t exist, or that we should view every living thing as a sort of parasite—a common, if crude, take-away of Michel Serres’s excellent book, The Parasite. Instead, we would do well to recognize that parasites—humans and non-humans alike—feed not off of individuals but off of relationships. They interrupt the connections between an individual and his food source, between communities, between an organism and its brood.
Parasites redirect goods, energy, life, money, and time by renegotiating these relationships. This is how the cuckoo gets food and protection for its offspring: when another bird lays eggs, the cuckoo comes, throws the other bird’s eggs out of its nest, and lays her own eggs in their place. The cuckoo adapts another species’ mother-child relationship to a different end: the other bird is tricked into treating the cuckoo’s eggs as her own. The financier and the imagined welfare queen do the same thing—they tap “rightful” or “natural” relationships to their own ends. They don’t redistribute, because they’re not interested in what’s fair. Instead parasitism combines occupation and diversion; it reminds us that there is a third form of relationship that is neither participating nor opting out, neither eliminating nor redistributing, but repurposing.
It would be a shame to let the political and social valences of the term “parasite” surpass their conceptual limits and pass into oblivion. Redirecting already asymmetrical relationships, the parasite—both social and biological— can help us re-imagine not simply social or political structures, but relationships: if we accept and are willing to become the parasite, we are always willing to accept and become something outside of but dependent on social coherence and organization. For the parasite takes from its host without ever taking its place; it creates new room, feeding off excess, sometimes killing, but often strengthening its milieu.
When we call others parasites, we betray our politics and often our privilege. All politics have something to say about the parasite—it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t have to exist, it will always exist and should be fought, ignored, taken care of. Almost every politics, however, invokes the contemporary, negative view of this figure—even those that call for its valorization. For when we valorize the parasite today, we tend to do so insofar as it is a destructive force, a drain (if a tiny one) on the social body, something that feeds of excess and waste.
But what if we let recent developments in how biologists conceive of nonhuman parasites inform the ways we think about social parasites, just as the idea of the social parasite has informed the biological sense of the term? What if this figure for individualism and selfishness is in fact important even to a more communitarian politics? What if it thrives on the asymmetry that we all know exists, calling into question our relationship to ideas like productivity, community, and value? What if, in other words, we think of parasitism as a positive political good?
It’s certainly not hard to think of reasons to avoid doing so: the social parasite has long been a mainstay of both left and right politics, from early critiques of the stock-jobber to contemporary critiques of “Obamacare,” and for good reason. We oppose parasites to effort, to labor, and above all to functioning systems—the French word for parasite and “noise” in a system (“bruits parasites”), after all, is the same. And from a different standpoint, the parasite has historically been tied to the richest and the poorest, the most vulnerable and the most exploitative: it’s hard to get on board with a figure associated with both these positions, not to mention, in a wider sense, death and destruction. But if we accept the parasitic relationship for what it is—an asymmetrical mediation in human, plant, and animal life—we may begin to see value in the ways in which parasites translate between inside and outside, work and not work, care and not care. This may lead us, if not to a complete valorization of the parasite, at least to a politics that we might call anti-anti-parasitic.
We tend to define life and politics in terms of productivity and labor. Parasites are associated with lazy, passive destruction, but we’d do well to see their particular value as lying in the mediation and catalysis of heterogeneity and change. In this sense, the figure of the parasite can bridge the gap between various strains of oppositional politics that focus too closely on productivity (or unproductivity, or anti-productivity) — especially since so much of anti-capitalist thought has shifted in focus in recent years from production to circulation and distribution, from the sorts of hierarchical and [long-term] organization associated with older generations of the left to a focus on radical actions (that often make claims, at least, for spontaneity). The parasite acts, but it is marked by sustained action in relation to others. In this sense the parasite is a much more apt figure for ecological and dynamic views of life than organisms or social types perceived as isolated in their identities.
The political value of the parasite lies less in our saying “power to the parasite and therefore to no work” than in something like, “power to the parasite and therefore to heterarchy.” Marx’s line adapted from Louis Blanc, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” can withstand a parasite politics; “everyone does his fair share” or the Soviet “from each according to his ability, to each according to his work” cannot. Like the lumpenproletariat of Frantz Fanon—a necessary catalyst for resistance but also a deeply unpredictable destabilizing force—the parasite makes us question and perhaps strengthen our commitment to inclusiveness. It also undermines naive views of horizontality, for the figure of the parasite grows increasingly problematic the closer you get to Utopian thought. The parasite is a figure for asymmetry: asymmetries of labor, care, feeling, commitment. There’s no doubt that historical conditions are at the root of many of these asymmetries, but even if a better world could eliminate (not to say purge) all asymmetry, should it? It’s a question of how inclusive we are willing to be. For insofar as it mediates between the community and the outside, a parasite knows no borders. It precludes closed communities. It undermines the perceived difference between organizations thought to be ideological or social islands; for this reason it may be the best figure we have for combining dialectics and perversity. We exclude it at our peril.