When most people think about bugs, it’s usually about how to get rid of them. Applying the metaphor of a bug to a human scales them down to a realm where death is quotidian and inconsequential.
When I began writing this piece about parasitism and hospitality, I was living in an Istanbul in shock from the bombings at Ataturk airport. I was living in a nation where the trending hashtag was “We don’t want Syrians in our country,” referring to them as “dirty, vermin, parasites, freeloaders.” By the time I came to make the final edits I was living in an Istanbul reeling from the attempted coup, after a night spent diving to the ground and hiding in a neighbor’s kitchen as the sonic booms of jets rocked the building and gunfire blasted through the streets outside. Two days later, as news of the purges of thousands of judges, military personnel, police, prosecutors and academics spread, I heard that language again. This time it came from the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as he announced that he would remove all viruses from state institutions.
Two years ago I was on another part of the European continent, taking the night train between Spain, where I was working, and Portugal, where my family lives. The night train starts in Paris at noon and arrives in Lisbon in the early hours of the next morning, crossing the borders while its occupants sleep. When I embarked in Madrid, I found that the passenger before me had left a book in the luggage rack above my bunk: Derrida’s lectures on radical hospitality. Bookmarking one of the pages was a magazine cutting on the lifecycle of the Nematomorpha, or the horsehair worm.
Here is what that article described. The larva of the parasite Nematomorpha develops inside the body of a cricket, eating its way through everything non-essential to the cricket’s basic functioning. Once grown, the worm needs to return to water to reproduce. So, having eaten its fill and having reduced the cricket to head, shell and legs, the hairworm begins to secrete mind-controlling substances which create suicidal urges in the cricket, driving it towards, and then into, the closest river or lake. The cricket drowns, and the hairworm emerges from the corpse and swims away to mate. In a particularly romantic twist, this clipping suggested that the hairworm waits for a moonlit night to take over the mind of the cricket, using the reflection of moonlight to guide its host to a watery grave.
Strangely, considering the metaphoric and semantic overlaps between insect symbiosis and the language of hosting, in that book of lectures that I found on the train there was only one mention of parasitism. Derrida invokes it early on in order to draw the distinction between a “guest” and a “parasite.” “How can we distinguish between a guest and a parasite?” he asks.
In principle, the difference is straightforward, but for that you need a law; hospitality, reception, the welcome offered have to be submitted to a basic and limiting jurisdiction. Not all new arrivals are received as guests if they don’t have the benefit of the right to hospitality, or the right to asylum, etc. Without this right, a new arrival can only be introduced ‘in my home’ as a parasite, a guest who is wrong, illegitimate, clandestine, liable to expulsion or arrest.1
The “law” that Derrida refers to here is one pole of a dialectic that these lectures seek to deconstruct. He sets it in opposition to the capital-L Law of hospitality, of a radical hospitality that cannot be constrained by a “limiting jurisdiction.” Under this “Law” then, there would be no “limiting jurisdiction” and therefore no possibility of a guest who is “wrong, illegitimate, clandestine.” Derrida does not consider the parasite as being, of itself, different from the guest. What distinguishes them is determined by the conditions that the “law” happens to impose. The one who arrives is nothing more than an arrival. Only after they have knocked on the door do the laws that they meet determine their classification as either parasite or as guest.
The first prediction that comes up on a google search for “insect” is “insecticide.” It’s an indication that on the most quotidian level, when most people think about bugs, it’s usually about how to get rid of them. Applying the metaphor of a bug to a human is a literal belittling, which scales them down to a realm where death is quotidian and inconsequential. There is a well-documented history of the dangers of a semantics which dehumanizes, in particular one which anthropod-morphizes. When some public figures (such as UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who referred to people at the Calais Jungle migrant camp as a ‘swarm’ headed towards his country) use this language, the response is swift condemnation and a reminder of the murderous history that such associations invoke. When Erdogan uses the language, his supporters take to the streets.
“Swarm,” “parasite,” “virus,” and “vermin” (that which carries the parasite) are used in similar syntactic situations, but with differing associations. While a “swarm” suggests something en masse, beyond control, and beyond the individual agency of the participating organisms, a “virus” suggest infection and uncontrollable multiplication; a “parasite” brings up opposing images of something calculating, pernicious, rational and controlling: something sneaky and evil-intentioned which will take on-the-sly, abusing the generosity of the host.
Alex Bein’s 1964 essay “The Jewish Parasite” outlines the history of this word “parasite.” Contrary to contemporary usage, which invokes the biologic and anthropodic as a metaphor for the social, the passage of the word through time shows that the scientific sense is in fact a transfer from its original, social, meaning. The etymology of the word has its roots in the greek, ????, “beside,” and ?????, “grain, food,” or by extension “one who eats beside.” It was originally used in a positive sense, referring to “the officers of the sacerdotal and municipal services,” who “received their provisions at the expense of the state.”2
From the beggar at the gate, the parasite became a stock character in Greek comedy, and through this it entered European language and literature via Molière, Shakespeare, Ben Johnson and others. Not until the mid-19th century, with biologists such as Pierre-Joseph van Beneden (1809–1894), who studied the life cycle of the tapeworm, did the word assume its current scientific significance. Then in the 20th century, borrowed back as metaphor from science with all its accumulated layers of association, it became a central pillar in the ideology of Nazi Germany, a foundational myth of the Holocaust which saw the Jew cast as a parasite, an unproductive and destructive outsider that has entered into and is feeding off the body of the German nation. In the 1990s came the language of the Hutus, who labeled the Tutsis ‘cockroaches’ during the Rwandan genocide, and in the dark corners of the internet the accusation of parasitism is alternately leveled at Israelis, Palestinians, the Polish, Romanians, Mexicans, people on welfare, and unemployed youth, all the way through to the current European crisis of migration, Brexit and the potential dissolution of the United Kingdom. In Turkey today it is concurrently deployed at opposite ends of the spectrum, at both the Syrian refugees and the accused coup-supporters in the municipal services.
The “migrant crisis” (which, in the phrase “migrant crisis” enacts another semantic mis-transference, applying to the migrants themselves what is really a crisis of the Europe receiving them) is the most recent occasion for this language of parasitism. From politicians to tabloid media to far-right nationalists, these insect metaphors are being deployed to denigrate and dehumanize those who are arriving, accusing them of dependency, or exploitation, of taking and bringing nothing in return, and of posing the threat of destruction to the ones already there. A small syntactical twist in these metaphors that cast immigrants as insects brings us to the language of Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National in France, who recently proposed a health initiative to, “Dénoncer et éradiquer toute immigration bactérienne.” While she protested that she had meant only to find solutions for new bacteria arriving in the country as a result of the movement of peoples, the double meaning of such a phrase — to eradicate immigrant bacteria — is impossible to ignore. In one sentence Le Pen manages to combine the migrant as both bacteria and as the host of bacteria — both the carrier of disease and the disease itself. She goes on to state: “Les hôpitaux font face à la présence alarmante de maladies contagieuses non européennes, liées à l’afflux migratoire.” In her double-tongued phrases “Non-Europeanness” is contagious, a threat, a kind of pernicious biological warfare being waged by the incoming strangers.
European media is applying similar semantic gymnastics to the “flesh eating” parasite, “Cutaneous leishmaniasis” also known as the Aleppo Boil, which has been endemic in Syria for generations and is now, with forced migration, the destruction of medical infrastructure, and inadequate conditions in refugee camps, spreading to neighboring countries. Tabloid reports, for example in the UK’s Daily Mail, while not directly calling the refugees “flesh eating bacteria,” manage to syntactically confuse the bacteria, the carrier, the host and the ways in which it is spread. The effect is a disingenuous blurring of associations, in much the same way as Le Pen’s proposition.
What is this paranoia that collapses migrants with parasites, with contagion and disease? The transference from the organism of the individual body, to that oft-used nationalist metaphor of the body politic contains a terror not just of the negative changes that the new arrival might enact, but of the idea of change itself. Consider European nations like Slovakia, which claim they cannot welcome Muslim migrants on the grounds that they have no mosques. The new arrivals threaten change, but change itself is intrinsic to hospitality.
Sometime after finding that book on the night train I was back home in Istanbul. (My passage there, across Europe via train and then by air onto Istanbul, was a kind of a parody-of-ease in comparison to the inhospitable journey so many individuals are making, simultaneously, in the opposite direction.) I was having dinner at the house of Yassin al Haj Saleh, the Syrian writer and intellectual. The conversation turned to the fear in Europe in response to the arriving Syrians. “I think the problem stems from the concept of being yourself.” Yassin told me. “Western modernism tells you all the time “be yourself.” Why? Why should the dynamic always be moving you, the motor that is working to make you move forward is to stay like yourself all the time? Hospitality is related to this, in a way. When you change yourself, you will be open to those who will be agents in your change. You change yourself through struggle, through friendship, through love, through hosting people within you. Modernity is mean in this way. You are rational, calculating, you are homo-economicus. And this is the opposite to change and hospitality.” The basis for hospitality is, across cultures, often identified as a kind of mutual assurance of security — I must offer hospitality to the stranger so that someone will offer hospitality to me when I am a stranger. Yassin reframes it not as a necessity but as an opportunity. The possibility of change is predicated upon an openness to the agents of change. In this framing, the symbiote is not something to be tolerated by the host, but something to be desired.
Derrida’s lectures explore the transference of the metaphors of host and guest from the interpersonal to the international, as if we could apply the codes of hospitality that we enact at the level of the home to the level of the nation state. But this simple semantic transfer from the interpersonal to the international is faulty for the many reasons that manifest themselves in the current European crisis over migration. The most prominent one is that although both media and politicians couch the situation in the language of hospitality, the arriving migrants are not considered guests. “Refugees” Yassin told me, “are not being dealt with as guests; they are being dealt with as beggars. English has that expression ‘beggars cannot be choosers,’ and we have the same expression in Arabic ???? ??????, shahhadh wa msharet. You have to accept what we offer and you are not expected to have dialogue, to have ego, to represent yourself. When you are a beggar you cannot impose the rules. And if you treat someone as a beggar they will not respond to you as a guest, but as someone who has been shamed.”
It may not be something that European citizens want to recognize — that the refugee is treated as a beggar, rather than as a guest, but the truth of this assertion is visible in the reactions of outrage when refugees arrive with smartphones, refuse the first job they are offered or don’t accept with obsequious gratefulness the hand-me-down donations offered to them. Europe is treating the new arrivals as beggars, while couching their actions in a Biblically infused language of guest and host. The confusion between the word and the deed, between the name given and the actions taken is part of a matrix of a shallow pseudo-Christian morality and is responsible for much of the confusion and disorientation occurring in European nations “hosting” incoming refugees.
Last year The Gatestone Institute published a paper which claimed to document the ways in which migrants arriving in Germany were “proving to be ungrateful and impatient guests.” The Gatestone Institute is an American think-tank accused of funding and promoting anti-Muslim sentiment, not exactly a neutral source. But the tone of offended opprobrium that it takes in the article is recognizable across European newsmedia. Examples that the article gave ranged from a refugee who successfully sued the German government for taking 16 months to process his application papers. (As if recourse to the law should not be a right of refugees, as if to protest 16 months without status or work permit were “impatience”), to “400 migrants, mostly from Africa” who occupied an abandoned school in Hamburg to protest unreasonable living conditions in the tents they had been housed in, and then, upon the arrival of the police, threatened to set themselves on fire if their case was not addressed. The accusation of “ungrateful guests’ leveled at individuals who threaten to set themselves on fire over their desperation at inadequate housing conditions is telling as to how far the semantic confusion over metaphors of hosting extend. If my guest were threatening to set themselves on fire over the conditions I had hosted them in, I might reconsider my skills as a host.
The metaphor of hospitality, then, is misleading and confusing when applied to the case of the nation state. Let’s turn to the metaphor of the “parasite.” Is there any way to strip the word of its murderous historical associations and return it to its original, positive sense, “to eat beside”? If so, it might be possible to reclaim it in the service of new ways of imagining relations of hospitality. What if the word “Parasite,” with all the associations of history, was replaced with “para-site,” in the hope that the slight lexical shift would jar the reader away from the instinctive associations of the word, and bring it closer to its original meaning. Para: besides; site, sitos: food. To eat beside. In every culture this image is one of the most essential symbols of hospitality.
In a fitting evolution, the medical and scientific meaning of the word parasite now seems to be performing the dance of the ouroboros, the hair worm and its clan looping back around to eat its own semantic tail. Scientific developments are pushing beyond the metaphoric association with the scrounger, the scavenger, back to the word’s original, positive, social significance. It turns out that an organism may in fact require the other which feeds at its table, just as much economic research suggests that migrants, who in the short term may require support, in the long term add to the economic value of the nations they settle in.3
Recently I came across a paper published by two scientists in Japan, who had been studying my favorite parasite, the Nematomorpha, or horsehair worm. Their research, published by the Ecological Society of America in 2011, found that when they considered these zombie parasites not just in relationship to the cricket, but to the wider eco-system, the horsehair worm became a vital pivot point in the flow of energy across ecosystems. Those crickets leaping into the water provide a food source for an endangered trout, and prevent the trout from eating too many bentheic invertebrates — beetles and other bugs which are an essential food supply for the local bird population. “Endangered Japanese trout (Salvelinus leucomaenis japonicus) readily ate these infected orthopterans, which due to their abundance, accounted for 60% of the annual energy intake of the trout population.” The scientists observed that “Trout grew fastest in the fall, when nematomorphs were driving energy-rich orthopterans into the stream. When infected orthopterans were available, trout did not eat benthic invertebrates in proportion to their abundance, leading to the potential for cascading, indirect effects through the forest-stream ecosystem.”4
The parasite here is cast as a disruption that might, up close, seem destructive, but seen within the larger picture, becomes the modifier that balances the system and keeps it functioning. The paper on the Nematomorpha provided the first quantitative evidence that “a manipulative parasite can dramatically alter the flow of energy through and across ecosystems,” re-imagining the function and possible roles of the parasite.
Derrida only mentions parasites once in his lectures, “Of Hospitality,” but he does use the term elsewhere in his writing. J.L. Austin, in his famous passage on performative speech acts from “How To Do Things With Words” claims that the “non-serious” is parasitic upon “normality.” Derrida replies to this by accusing Austin of being trapped in a ‘metaphysics of presence’ which privileges the original over the copy, the self-contained over the dependent, and, Derrida adds, the host over the parasite. In a conversation in 1994, Derrida claimed that “All I have done […] is dominated by the thought of a virus, what could be called a parasitology […] The virus is in part a parasite that destroys, that introduces disorder into communication.”5
Derrida leaves us with parasitism not as a state of being, not as a metaphor, but as a strategy. Invited back to the table beside the host, it becomes a means of creative disruption. The word cannot be stripped of the centuries of negative associations, and in particular from the last century of genocide that it gave linguistic permission for. But the “para-site,” re-imagined, can be a strategy of disruption, can open up to new ways of thinking about the assumptions that surround the codes of international hospitality, and can provide a new possibilities for thinking about those who arrive and knock on the door.
In the reality of the political landscape, such a re-imagining seems unlikely. In Turkey Erdogan is repeatedly employing this language to justify his purges, and the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe and the US means that “parasite” as an accusation, a term of aggression, is unlikely to disappear from the vocabulary any time soon. Maybe now is not the time for subtle semantics. But language can shift, if nothing else, the way the balance of power is imagined. What is now a case of how much one can give and how much the other will take, can be reframed by the “para-site” on a horizontal plane, as the host and guest sit beside each other, eating from the same table.