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Parasites

Exploitation and Interference in French Thought and Culture

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Matt Phillips and Tomas Weber

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.

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Empathic Static: Empathy and Conflict, with Simon Baron-Cohen and Virginie Despentes (Matt Phillips)

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MATT PHILLIPS

Empathic Static: Empathy and Conflict, with Simon Baron-Cohen and Virginie Despentes

ABSTRACT The concept of ‘empathy’ has attracted a great deal of interest in recent decades, across academic disciplines as well as the broader public sphere, with many identifying in this human capacity the key to a more peaceful future. This article focuses in its first half on one such vision of empathy, proposed by psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (2011), which argues for and celebrates empathy’s ability to resolve conflict. I here put pressure on this idea, and in the second half, through a close reading of a chapter in Virginie Despentes’s recent Vernon Subutex trilogy (2015–17), suggest ways in which the experience of empathy might be rife with interference, and might be understood as both conflicted (tearing in opposing directions) and conflictual (staking in and willing on conflict).

Coined by Edward Titchener as a translation for the German Einfühlung at the beginning of the last century,1 ‘empathy’ is a relatively young addition to the language of emotions, a Johnny-come-lately to the circle of his semantic siblings: sympathy, compassion, pity. Young, but go-getting: ‘empathy’ has, in the last ten or so years, made its presence felt in the humanities, life sciences and social sciences alike. Jean Decety and Jason Cowell note a 300 per cent rise in scientific publications using the term ‘empathy’ between 2004...

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