Exploitation and Interference in French Thought and Culture

by Matt Phillips (Author) Tomas Weber (Author)
©2018 Edited Collection X, 274 Pages
Series: Modern French Identities, Volume 128


The word «parasite» evokes nearness and feeding: the Greek parasitos is «one who eats at the table of another». In biology, a parasitic organism is the beneficiary of an unequal relation with its host. The social parasite, too, is one recognized or misrecognized as the unproductive recipient of one-way exchange. In communications theory, meanwhile, static or interference («parasite», in French) is the useless information which clouds the channel between sender and receiver.
In 1980, Michel Serres’s Le Parasite mobilized the concept of the parasite to figure noises, disruptions, destructions and breakdowns at the heart of communication systems, social structures and human relations. Drawing on Serres’s work, the chapters of this volume – organized around two conceptual poles, exploitation and interference – examine French literature (Villiers de l’Isle Adam, Proust, contemporary poetry), film (Nicolas Philibert, Claus Drexel), art (Sophie Calle, contemporary «glitch art») and philosophy (Descartes, Serres, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari), alongside medieval hagiography, immunology, communications theory and linguistic anthropology. The volume thereby demonstrates the new and continued relevance of the figure of the parasite in thinking about transmission, attachment, use, abuse and dependency.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Figures
  • Introduction (Tomas Weber)
  • Part I. Exploitation
  • Parables of the Para- (Steven Connor)
  • Homelessness and Urban Parasitism: Diagnosing the City’s Malaise (Khalil Khalsi)
  • Taking Care or Taking Advantage? Sophie Calle’s Prenez soin de vous (Alice Blackhurst)
  • The Philosophical Commitments of the Self-Metaphor in Immunology (Andrew Jones)
  • The Parasitical Relationship between Science and the Sacred in Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Claire Lenoir and L’Ève Future (Anne Orset)
  • Part II. Interference
  • What You Might Hear When People Talk, or Proust as a Linguistic Anthropologist (Michael Lucey)
  • The Parasitic and the Ordinary: Speech, Time and Ethics in Nicolas Philibert’s La Maison de la radio (Rhiannon Harries)
  • ‘Se laisser contaminer’: Parasitic Practices, Paradigms of Deconstruction (Nicholas Cotton)
  • An Infestation of Signification: Narrative and Visual Parasitism on the Manuscript Page (Blake Gutt)
  • The Parasite A(r)t Work: Digital Glitches in Visual Art (Carole Nosella)
  • Empathic Static: Empathy and Conflict, with Simon Baron-Cohen and Virginie Despentes (Matt Phillips)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →


The editors would like to thank the French department at the University of Cambridge for making this volume possible, and especially Martin Crowley, Ian James, Michael Moriarty and Jacky Price-Dyer for their support towards this book and the conference from which it proceeds. Thanks are also owed to the Society for French Studies and the School of Arts and Humanities (Cambridge), for their financial support of the conference; and to the team at Peter Lang, especially Peter Collier, Laurel Plapp and Laura-Beth Shanahan. ← vii | viii →

← viii | ix →


← x | 1 →



In the midst of the Vichy regime the poet Aimé Césaire sensed an opportunity to create an authentic and tangible form of humanism, from the vantage point of a newly renewed Antillean culture, that would be distinct from the phony humanism exemplified by colonialism. Announcing this project in the first edition of the magazine Tropiques [Tropics] which he founded with Suzanne Césaire together with René Ménil in 1941, he declared that ‘il n’est plus temps de parasiter le monde. C’est de le sauver qu’il s’agit’ [the time for parasiting the world is over. It’s now a question of saving it].1 With this image of the parasite Césaire constructs a scene in which an intruder (the island of Martinique) feeds off and depends upon a pre-existing autonomous entity (the world). For Césaire, in denying the island political and cultural self-determination colonial France forced Martinique into the position of a parasite which feeds, not just off France but, lacking a sense of its own cultural identity, off the entire world. Colonization creates parasites, a notion which emerges in both left and right political discourses. But colonization is, of course, parasitic in another, more primary sense. Though it may create dependencies on the colonizer state it also involves the parasitic consumption of the resources and labour of the colonized. When Frantz Fanon claimed that ‘l’Europe est littéralement la création du tiers monde’ [Europe is literally the creation of the Third World] he meant that the very concept and material wealth of Europe was dependent on its colonies.2 If there is a parasite in the colonial ← 1 | 2 → relation, then, must it not rather be the colonizer and not the colonized? What, we could ask, parasites what? Where is the parasite, where is the host?

When speaking figuratively of parasites – of dependent entities feeding off autonomous beings – things get muddy very quickly, perhaps partly because it is ultimately unclear where a fully autonomous being would begin and end, or what an independent ‘self’ would look like. The intricacy of the entanglements – the multiple forms of exploitation, interference and dependency – created by colonization, for instance, stretch the image of the parasite to the limit. But this isn’t just an issue that flares up when we transfer a ‘natural’ concept, parasitism, to political discourse. Biologists, also, encounter similar limits and problems. Much of the work of Donna Haraway, the American feminist theorist and philosopher of science, has been concerned with ‘exploring what counts as “one”’ in the biological sciences. In an interview with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, Haraway, on the subject of Richard Dawkins’s groundbreaking work in The Extended Phenotype, is interested in the fact that ‘from the parasite’s point of view, the host is part of the parasite’s phenotype. In those kinds of extended bodies, […] self and other are, in a sense, perspectival issues. What counts as self and what counts as other is a perspectival question or a question of purposes. Within which context are which boundaries firm? So from the point of view of the parasite the host looks like part of itself; from the point of view of the host the parasite looks like an invader.’3 What counts as a parasite and what counts as an autonomous self is, to a large degree, a relational question, a question of irreconcilable perspectives: for the parasite the host is part of itself whereas for the host the parasite is an alien intruder. But this isn’t the end of the story. In Michel Serres fascinating 1980 work Le Parasite, the parasite itself becomes a very figure of this incommensurability. Serres’s prose turns the concept into a figure for the very impossibility of ever drawing clear lines, once and for all and from nowhere, between fully autonomous selves and their various dependents.

Parasite, in French, as well as its obvious meaning also means static, the noise that interferes with a message. It is what prevents a message from ← 2 | 3 → ever reaching its receiver fully intact and undistorted. Serres’s book, then, should be considered as an effort in exploring how and where these two distinct meanings, of exploitation on the one hand and interference on the other, overlap. Parasites, operating internally to the relations between entities, are what force all systems to be open systems, preventing them from ever reaching perfect equilibrium, which is to say that they impede anything from ever being absolutely, calmly and exclusively itself. Serres, who, we might imagine, is thinking next to (‘para’) Jean-François Lyotard’s concept of paralogie [paralogy],4 Lyotard’s term for the situated and unfinished creation of meaning that resists ideas of consensus and universal reason, conceives of the parasite as the ineradicable ‘noise’ in any system of relations that prevents that system from ever being at rest and from fully closing itself off to another. The figure of the parasite, then, becomes a way of thinking, in a general sense, the interactions between beings. Using La Fontaine’s fables, Molière’s Tartuffe, thermodynamics and the science of information – amongst many other sources – Serres transforms the parasite into a figure for the noisy, chaotic and irreconcilable element in any system that disturbs stable identity. In fact, Serres turns the parasite into a figure and condition for relation itself. To think with parasites means to affirm that the parasite cannot be opposed to any fully independent entity that would stand outside of its relations – it is to think, rather, with open borders.

For Césaire, also, saving the world instead of parasiting it required rejecting stories which would pit absolute dependence against absolute independence. The world to be built was a world of different stories. As a deputé of Martinique following the Second World War he was involved with the controversial project of the island’s départementalisation – its political integration, with other former colonies, into the French state, with administratively equal status to any other metropolitan département. This was criticized at the time by those who regarded the project as marking a retreat from the radical demand of national independence and as a codification of a parasitic relationship in another form, and it is arguable that these criticisms have been largely validated: following départementalisation ← 3 | 4 → Martinique suffered, and continues to suffer, from high living costs – ‘la vie chère’ – high levels of unemployment and is almost totally reliant on produce imported from France,5 a situation which formed the target of the massive strikes in the Antilles in the early months of 2009.6

And yet, Gary Wilder, in his book Freedom Time, situates Césaire’s involvement in départementalisation in a moment of ‘world-historical transition’,7 a moment at which the world was sensed as open to radical transformation. Césaire’s political activities, Wilder argues, were driven by a ‘pragmatic-utopian’ vision which refused to equate political emancipation with national independence. Wilder interprets Césaire’s political activities following World War Two as experiments in moving beyond the concept of France and transforming and enriching its supposedly universal values. Integrating into the French state was not a retreat from political freedom, then, but an experiment with freedom on a universal scale: it amounted to demanding that France make good on its proclaimed universal values and transform itself together with its former ‘parasite’. His aim, according to Wilder, was nothing less than to ‘transcend the very idea of France, remake the world, and inaugurate a new epoch of human history’.8

For Césaire the opposite of a parasite was not any conventional idea of a self-sufficient entity – political freedom entailed the transformation rather than the eradication of relations with the colonizer state and, ultimately, a transformation of the world. It is Césaire’s commitment to a universal humanism that forces him to reject the position of the parasite and yet it is for this reason Césaire comes close to thinking parasitically in Serres’s sense: rather than beginning with a vision of isolation and autonomy he starts from a vision of mutual entanglement that directs his politics not towards the restoration or recovery of a lost equilibrium or identity but ← 4 | 5 → towards the creation of more liveable and just ways of being entangled together. The parasite is what poses the question of such transformation. ‘It was there, necessary, on my path. How can the state of things themselves be transformed?’ Rather than trying to protect and secure fully formed selves from ready-made external threats, to struggle for political freedom or justice can be approached as an experimental practice of noise making, of making trouble and parasites, the aim of which would be the creation of better ways of living together through ongoing irreconcilability. No matter the apparent strength of a system it is always and necessarily open to transformation. The figure of the parasite offers little in the way of program or solution – as Steven Connor points out in the first chapter, Serres’s thought about parasitism are not something that can be easily ‘applied’. And yet perhaps a better metaphor for approaching Le Parasite’s relation with other texts might be that of infection. Serres’s thought is interesting not for its particular applications but for its very slipperiness which allows it to invade and colonize diverse modes of thinking. After all, it is not an exaggeration to say that Serres, in the conceptual adventure that is Le Parasite, attempts to create and to think a figure of the universal with a planetary aspiration, a generalized theory of relation itself: what is universal, it seems, is to be entangled and fragile, ever open to disturbance, always at risk of being distorted and reshaped by unfamiliar sounds, many of which emerge from ‘within’.

Rather than an attempt to ‘apply’ the figure of the parasite, then, the chapters collected in this volume have all responded to the figure’s inherent provocativeness – in the sense of giving rise to voices, noises, disturbances. The chapters that follow are all, in different ways, experiments in entangling the figure of the parasite with an assortment of texts, films and artworks from the Middle Ages to the present. Steven Connor’s chapter, ‘Parables of the Para-’, offers a roaming exploration and elaboration of the figure of the parasite with particular reference to Serres, as well as to the work of Edward Thomas, Shakespeare, Philip Larkin and to Euclid’s parallel postulate. Connor situates Le Parasite amongst Serres’s body of work, concluding that the book ‘is the equivalent in Serres’s oeuvre to Beckett’s L’Innommable [The Unnameable]’ – embroiled in relation and parasited by his own ideas that are always threatening to ‘swallow him up’, Le Parasite marks a point ← 5 | 6 → of no return for Serres. The only way out, Connor points out, was to write a book called, this time, Détachement [Detachment].

‘Homelessness and Urban Parasitism: Diagnosing the City’s Malaise’ examines homelessness in Paris, analysing the spatial, representational, legal and economic dynamics that work to obfuscate the City of Light’s sans-abri. Khalil Khalsi draws on Serres’s account of parasitism, but also Roberto Esposito on immunization, Michel de Certeau and Marc Augé on spaces and non-places and Peter Sloterdijk on exclusion; and discusses Claus Drexel’s documentary Au bord du monde [On the Edge of the World] (2014), which interviews members of the city’s homeless population, as well as official documents surrounding the legal status of homeless persons – all while elaborating a spirited indictment of systemic marginalization.

The French artist Sophie Calle’s work has explicitly been termed ‘parasitic’ in its exploitation of other people for artistic ends. Taking stock of recent critical accounts which aim to reclaim such ‘vampirism’ as a model of performance art worthy of praise, Alice Blackhurst, in ‘Taking Care, or Taking Advantage? Sophie Calle’s Prenez soin de vous’, makes the case that Calle’s installation work concerning the death of her mother, as well as the large-scale collaborative efforts that feed off the emotional detritus of the breakdown of a romantic relationship, proffer modes of taking care rather than of taking advantage, moving beyond desires for mere self-rehabilitation in order to make relational, if fragile, space for the other.

Andrew Jones, in ‘The Philosophical Commitments of the Self-Metaphor in Immunology’, offers a philosophical critique of the discourses of parasitism and immunology by tracing their philosophical foundations back through Kant to Descartes. Both discourses, Jones demonstrates, have presupposed that it is possible to distinguish what is, and is not, the self. Ultimately, Jones offers the argument that any theory that emphasizes the autonomy and identity of the self as a precondition for immunological reactions must be incongruous with the science it attempts to explain. If there is an immune self, then its origin is dependent on the environment it provides protection against. This, then, raises the following question: can parasitism maintain its meaning in the absence of a host that ‘knows itself’ prior to its interactions with the environment? ← 6 | 7 →

Anne Orset’s chapter ‘The Parasitical Relationship between Science and the Sacred in Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Claire Lenoir and L’Ève future’ draws out the multiple figures of the parasite lurking in these works by l’Isle-Adam. Situating l’Isle-Adam’s proto science-fiction in the midst of the turbulent relation between religion and scientific knowledge in nineteenth-century France, these works, Orset argues, spin through an ‘extended spiral of parasites’ and parasitic relations, in order, finally, to encourage a parasitical kind of reading in which the reader would nourish him or herself on the ‘fringes of major theories’.

Michael Lucey’s chapter, ‘What You Might Hear When People Talk, or Proust as a Linguistic Anthropologist’ develops an original approach, guided by linguistic anthropology, to the Recherche’s ‘representation of talk’. For Lucey, the Recherche understands talk in a way similar to how linguistic anthropologists understand it, namely, as a medium of socio-cultural activity which is ‘used continually to reproduce, but also to act upon, various regions of the existing social order’. The narrator of Proust’s novels, for Lucey, is absorbed in the various ways in which language becomes ‘talk’, in which it becomes more than a communication of information and obtains socio-cultural agency through the extra-semantic ‘parasites that inhabit the communicative channel’.

Moving to more literal recordings of talk Rhiannon Harries, in ‘The Parasitic and the Ordinary: Speech, Time and Ethics in Nicolas Philibert’s La Maison de la radio’, examines Philibert’s ‘paradoxical’ film about the inner workings of the French public broadcasting institution Radio France. Harries reads Philibert’s counter-intuitive project of ‘filming voices’ alongside Jacques Derrida’s concepts of the ordinary and parasitic operations of language, on the one hand, and Emmanuel Levinas’s interwoven accounts of time, ethics and language, on the other, in order to consider how La Maison de la radio [The House of Radio] engages speech cinematically to unfold alternative temporalities and forms of plural, ethical history open to difference. Harries ultimately contends that documentary, as a hybrid filmic mode, is uniquely placed to accommodate, without assimilating, the parasitic for the sake of ethics.

In ‘“Se laisser contaminer”: Parasitic Practices, Paradigms of Deconstruction’, Nicholas Cotton provides a detailed overview of the ← 7 | 8 → concept of the parasitic in Derrida’s thinking. Attentive to the multiple uses of the noun ‘parasite’ and the verb ‘parasiter’ [to parasite] in Derrida’s work, Cotton shows how ‘le parasitage’ [parasitism] might be placed alongside other, more well-known Derridean concepts such as hospitality, or autoimmunity, making the claim that Derrida should be considered a thinker of ‘le parasitage’.

Moving to the Middle Ages, Blake Gutt, in ‘An Infestation of Signification: Narrative and Visual Parasitism on the Manuscript Page’, examines the relationship between letter and image in two medieval manuscript witnesses of La Vie de Saint Denis [Life of Saint Denis]: Bibliothèque nationale de France, français 696 (c. 1280) and Bibliothèque nationale de France, français 2090–2 (c. 1314–19). Both feature a type of inter- and intra-textual marginalia, in the form of letters which have been embellished to feature human or animal faces. Drawing on Serres’s systems thinking as well as the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Gutt examines the apparently ‘parasitic’ functioning of these hybrid letter-images, arguing that what at first appears as parasitism in a pejorative sense, obfuscating communication, can more fruitfully be read as a symbiotic relationship between letter and image.

Carole Nosella’s chapter, ‘The Parasite A(r)t Work: Digital Glitches in Visual Art’, focuses on the ‘Glitch Art’ movement, and in particular on the work of Eric Rondepierre and Jacques Perconte. Nosella reads the process in which glitches, in the work of certain photographic and digital artists, have given rise to images of a new kind. Reflexive, since they cast light back on the way in which digital images are put together, Nosella argues that these liquid images also reintroduce the possibility of a kind of sublime into the digital which, by nature, operates with a high level of predictability.

Finally, Matt Phillips’s closing chapter, ‘Empathic Static: Empathy and Conflict, with Simon Baron-Cohen and Virginie Despentes’, offers a vision of human empathic relations as often rife with interference. Drawing on psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s definition of empathy (but in opposition to his view of empathy as the key to conflict resolution), and through a close reading of Virginie Despentes’s recent Vernon Subutex, empathy here appears as an experience at once conflicted and conflictual, and not immune from complicity in exploitation. ← 8 | 9 →


X, 274
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
parasites exploitation interference
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. 10, 274 pp., 2 fig. col., 5 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Matt Phillips (Author) Tomas Weber (Author)

Matt Phillips teaches at the University of Paris-Diderot (Paris-7). His research examines questions of emotion and affect through the lens of modern and contemporary French literature and thought. Tomas Weber is a PhD candidate and translator in the French Department at the University of Cambridge. His doctoral thesis focuses on the thought of Bruno Latour and the discourse of speculative metaphysics.


Title: Parasites