Why does language not simply transfer information from point A to point B? Or why doesn’t language simply represent the ideas of speakers? This has to do with the distinction between signal and noise. In an article on Michel Serres’ concept of the parasite, Steven D. Brown writes,
In a living system, a message passed from A to B consists of a mixture of signal and noise. From the perspective of A, the noise is extraneous, a threat to the successful reception of the signal. But from the perspective of B, this mixture of signal and noise need not necessarily be grasped in the same way. Noise ‘cuts’ the signal in such a way that what is received is very different from what was sent. To put this in a different context, when we listen to what another says, we also take in the hesitations, the changes in emphasis, the slips of the tongue in what they say. For the speaker these are all just ‘noise’ to be overcome. But for us, as listener, these may significantly alter our understanding of what is being said. Noise and signal are differentially distributed depending on the position one occupies in a communicative set up. (87-88)In praise of the parasite: the dark organizational theory of Michel Serres. Porto Alegre, v. 16, n. 1, Jan./Jul. 2013
This is about different observations. The speaker and listener observe differently, making different distinctions. For the listener, the hesitations, the changes in emphasis, the slips of the tongue might mean something, while for the speaker those things are supposed to be ignored–that is, treated as noise. We have two psychic systems observing differently. What “counts” as meaningful (or signal) differs.
The hesitations, slips of the tongue, etc., can be considered static, which is one meaning of parasite for Serres. Static interrupts; it is considered noise, but it can be included in the signal. As Brown puts it,
The parasite plays a dual role in the system. It makes communication possible by acting as the meditational means. But it also necessarily disrupts the message, in the same way that static affects radio transmissions. This disruption is not entirely negative – it transforms the nature of the message depending on the position of the receiver and their activities.p.88
Brown paraphrases Serres’ example of a telephone ringing at a dinner party, where the ringing serves as a parasite:
Serres likens this effect to that of a ringing telephone at a dinner party. The host and guests are enjoying their conversation when the noise of the telephone begins outside the room. At first the host tries to ignore this interruption, but eventually it becomes unbearable. She crosses the threshold and picks up the receiver. Now the conversation next door becomes the noise that is disturbing the call, at least until it is completed – ‘If I approach the table, the noise becomes conversation. In the system, noise and message exchange roles according to the position of the observer and the action of the actor’ (SERRES, 1982a, p. 66).Brown, p. 88
What is considered noise depends on the position and intentions of the listener/observer. If I am trying to listen to the dinner party conversation, the ringing of the phone is noise; if I’m trying to listen to the caller on the phone, the dinner party conversation is noise.
Exchange is always unequal. The “A is A” of classical logic—the law of identity—is undercut. This is a key point that Serres makes. I can pay for my dinner, but the payment is never equal to what went into preparing and serving the meal. Thus, I am a parasite. But the one preparing the serving the meal (the restaurant owner) also parasitizes something else–the suppliers of the raw materials that the restaurant owner doesn’t produce. And so on. But in classical economic theory, the exchanges are equal in the sense that both parties benefit by the exchange. As Brown writes,
The human is the ultimate ‘universal parasite’ who turns ‘everything and everyone around him’ into a ‘hospitable space’ (ibid, p. 24). At the origin of human society we find this parasitic logic of taking without giving – ‘man milks the cow, makes the steer work, makes a roof from the tree; they have all decided who the parasite is” (ibid, p. 24). Before the human even begins to enter into pre-capitalist relations of exchange, we find unequal exchange.p. 90
For Deleuze, difference and repetition takes precedence over identity. For Luhmann also, we start with difference rather than identity.
Serres’ treatment of time represents a continuous thread running through all of his work (see ASSAD, 1999). Like Bergson before him, Serres has done much to emphasise that the ‘irreversible time’ discovered by nineteenth century thermodynamics needs to become a proper object of thought for the social and human sciences. The processes that define living cannot be run backwards to reveal their initial conditions, in the way that that is suggested by ‘clock time’. Living is descent, a downward progress from differentiation through a long series of equilibriums that follow the energetic thalweg leading toward indifferentiation and eventual stability: deathBrown, p. 90
Luhmann also writes about time in terms of irreversible change. Parasitism is also irreversible. The dog cannot parasitize the flee. This is a disequilibrium. When it comes to systems and their environments, the systems are always more organized. Systems engage in complexity reduction, while also building up their own complexity.
The flee sucks the dog’s blood without giving anything in return, or does it? According to Brown,
This biological interpretation emphasises that the host may gain some benefit from its exposure to the parasite. Usually hosts can tolerate a parasite because of their relatively small size. Furthermore, on detecting the parasite, the host is able to develop strategies of
Hosts that are infected by a parasite, like a virus, and survive may be stronger (or better prepared for the future) than those that have never been infected. The host develops antibodies. Brown again:
Through illness, the organism discovers new modes of normativity. For Serres, the episodes of crisis represented by illness provoke an organic system to settle around ‘counternorms’. The parasite hardens the system against further parasitism.p. 91
The parasite provokes a systemic differentiation or change. The current COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the creation a new norms. If people observe the precautions instituted to stop the spread of this virus, they will also decrease the spread of common colds, the flu, etc. There is already evidence of this. Another case is the police reform effort; the reform effort is a parasite on the police system, and the police system adapts and becomes smarter (as in creating a police union and gaining political allies) ultimately nullifying the reform effort. The police system is also better prepared for the next reform effort–and the parasite will always return (the return of the repressed).
The parasite gives the host the means to be safe from the parasite. The organism reinforces its resistance and increases its adaptability. It is moved a bit away from its equilibrium and it is then even more strongly at equilibrium. The generous hosts are therefore stronger than the bodies without visits; generation increases resistance right in the middle of endemic diseases. Thus parasitism contributes to the formation of adapted species from the point of view of evolution.(SERRES, 1982, p. 193).
Although the parasite appears to take without giving back, this is not strictly accurate in most cases. Consider the uninvited guest who draws up their chair to the dinner table. They ‘pay’ for their meal not with coins, but rather with their conviviality and fine story telling – ‘he obtains the roast and pays for it with stories’ (ibid, p. 36). This is an exchange of sorts albeit an apparently unequal one. This raises the obvious question of why a host would tolerate such a deal?
Serres explains this by marking a distinction between production and information. Unlike predators, who consume their prey whole, the parasite does not exhaust production. It would be better to say that the parasite parasitizes reproduction, the propagation of production, rather than production per se. The parasite redirects reproduction, it steers it in a new direction favourable to it. Serres liken this to the addition of information to energy. He tells the fable of ‘the blind man and the cripple’, where one has energy without information and the other has the converse capacities. When the paralyzed man is hoisted onto the blind man’s shoulders they make a new whole – a ‘crossed association of the material and the logical, and exchange of the solid for a voice’ (ibid, p. 36).
The parasite is a selector, a point of decision where a new diagonal path is established that redirects the flow of production. To raw production, they add information, creating a new direction for a system.p. 89
Here we return to structural coupling. The blind man and the cripple structurally couple, becoming something other than the sum of their parts; the assemblage has new capacities. Or we can say they form an assemblage.
Consider a wineskin containing wine. This is an assemblage. The wine is now portable; the wineskin offers the wine a form, and the full wineskin also has a different form. Wine without the wineskin or some other container is like energy without information–the root word of information is form. The wineskin is a also host of the parasitic wine.
A closed system at equilibrium knows no time, or rather it knows only the endless, ceaseless time of the return to steady state. Living systems, by contrast, operate quite far from equilibrium states, oscillating between numerous existing and emergent norms. What we call history begins with differentiation, divergence. Serres likens it to an empty set or a white space that is invaded by the parasite, who chases out all the others, creating disequilibrium – ‘the introduction of parasite in a system is equivalent to the introduction of noise… time does not begin without its intervention’Brown, p. 91
(ibid, p. 184).
Money is the medium that enables innumerable social interactions and formations, and money is a parasite.
Money is, of course, the universal exchanger, the ultimate instance of Marx’s ‘general equivalent’. For Serres it is the most abstract form taken by the parasite, a return of the repressed.Brown, p. 93
Serres then offers a unique account of power. We have learned from Foucault (1979) to mistrust the idea of ‘sovereign power’ as centralised. Power is distributed, it infuses social relations in such a way that it acts upon our actions rather than proscribes. Serres takes this account one stage further. Power is part of the game of parasitism. The parasite does not seek to establish property rights, they merely exploit all such efforts at enclosure and create a vector where everything flows towards them. In the chain or cascade of parasites that opens up in every white space, the position of power is always found in she or he who comes last. From this position, one may parasitise all the others. Once again, the only thing the parasite fears is another parasite waiting behind them.Brown, p.
Think of the youngest child in a family; s/he sits at the end of the parasitic chain. Every family member serves the youngest.
The secret to maintaining power is to keep moving further downstream in the order of parasitism. In William Faulkner‘s short story “Barn Burning,” Abner Snopes achieves this position. He constantly violates boundaries and property rights; he crosses enclosures, dismantles and burns fences; he ruins the expensive rug belonging to his landlord, thus essentially taking ownership of it. He uses the legal system and is never really punished. Furthermore, Snopes interrupts daily, normal life in the communities he enters; he is noise or static–like the sound of the TV or radio in DeLillo’s White Noise, something normally ignored. In the terms used by Deleuze and Guattari, Snopes is the nomad. He moves from place to place, finding new niches to parasitize.
A parasite may be a vector, the carrier of a pathogen. The parasite serves a bridge between pathogen and host. Without the parasite, the pathogen and the host would never come into contact. In “Barn Burning,” Abner Snopes brings property owners into contact with judges, as the property owners try to protect their property rights and seek justice. Snopes could also be called a joker, as the term is used by Serres. He has no real social position or identity, but he functions as a wildcard. Snopes is the excluded middle that links the judge and Major De Spain in “Barn Burning.”
The joker is a card in a game that serves to alter the direction of play. It interrupts the game and makes a new set of moves possible. Likewise, the white or blank domino can change the fortunes of a player because it can be played to link sequences of dominoes that are otherwise incommensurable. In a way this special object is both the weakest and strongest in the game. It has no particular value, and hence appears to be extraneous, worthy of being gotten rid of as soon as possible in favour of more valuable tokens. But at the same time it has the capacity to take on all possible values in the game, and at particular moments in the unfolding of the game it can be the most highly prized of all tokens.Brown, p. 95
The lowly pawn in a chess game plays the same role as it approaches the other side of the board, threatening to become become a Queen or any other piece.
The joker is a particular form of parasite that provokes activity within the system. It introduces a change of play, a raising of stakes, a redistribution of fortunes in the game and possible outcomes.Brown, p. 95
Classical logic excludes the middle; entities are subject of objects, alive or dead, masculine or feminine, etc. This is the law of the excluded middle. But the excluded middle returns as the parasite.
Serres’ concept of the parasite has its place in a broader post-Kantian effort to challenge how we think identity. Serres’ particular contribution is to demonstrate that the classical logic of the excluded middle is faulty and generates a ‘third man’ position from which identity is distributed. Personifying this ‘third man’ or ‘third space’ as the parasite, Serres explores how thirdness both makes communication possible and interrupts it simultaneously. Echoing the slogan of Deleuze & Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, Serres asserts that ‘things work because they don’t work’. We are only together because of the parasite.Brown, p. 96
In the form of the parasite, the excluded is included.
The parasite is the elementary form of relations. It is the basis of intersubjectivity, of our ‘being together’. We must think of social ordering as one instance of a broader work of making and transforming relations through parasitism. Hence to seek a basis for social order in terms of some kind of contract or conflict between individuals is mistaken. Mediation, ‘thirdness’, is the necessary grounds for the intersubjective, indeed for subjectivity itself. Serres is then able to redescribe many of the fundamental concepts of the human and social sciences – communication, exchange, history, power, society – as outcomes of parasitized relations.Brown, pp. 96-97
A system that settles down to inhabit and control a particular territory is vulnerable; it becomes a target of the parasite. This is not a position of power but a defensive position. This is the strength of the protest movement; it remains a moving target in a kind of guerrilla warfare.
Stations and positions are not sources of power, they are what are parasitized to produce power. She or he who makes a blank space, an enclosure, is simply issuing an invitation to the parasite. Change and transformation comes from disequilibrium, redirecting flows, not stopping and defending them. . . .
From this it follows that if we want to produce an adequate account of, say, financial markets, the mass media or protest movement, we have to begin with a materialist description of the distribution and interruption of relations through parasitism. We have to start with a noise that comes from outside.Brown, p. 97
A protest movement such as Black Lives Matter might be viewed as powerless because it lacks a base; it’s people do not occupy powerful positions; it has no clear leadership or structure; it is, in the end, no more than a slogan. But this is a misunderstanding. As a parasite, BLM irritates the establishment–or rather disrupts and interrupts/redirects the flows or assemblages that constitute “the establishment.” The slogan becomes a meme that enters into all kinds of conversations, forcing people to take a stand. People in authority or with privilege are basically forced to say whether they agree that black lives matter. Brown writes about the Occupy London Stock Exchange movement, but BLM is more current case.
A parasite interrupts flows, redirects. Consider the rock in a stream; the water must flow around it. The water can’t ignore the rock. The rocks also absorbs energy from the water.