A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Thanks to the Anthropocene: Figuring Parasitic Rhetoric through Human-Earth Relations

Steven LeMieux

(Published June 26, 2018)


But he figures wrong. The serpent is not a lessee; he was not looking for a haven; he was answered without having called. He was given an uncalled-for opinion. Someone made himself the serpent’s benefactor, savior, and father.

Michel Serres, The Parasite

To the extent that one can answer the call, one can do so only as an impostor, at best as one’s own alternate, the other of oneself—the one who is called. In any case, the one who answers the call is other than the one who had not yet been called. Answering the call (which you must do; this is not a question of ‘choice’), you become an impostor: do you seriously think you are the Messiah?

Avital Ronell, Stupidity


At the beginning of The Natural Contract Michel Serres describes a painting that features a fight to the death between two opponents; they are perfectly matched. It’s a fight that is both “magnificent” and “banal,” but they fight “knee-deep in the mud,” and “with every move they make, a slimy hole swallows them up, so that they are gradually burying themselves together” (1). Serres points toward a third position that is “outside their squabble: the marsh into which the struggle is sinking” (1). It’s worth noting that Serres doesn’t call our attention to the marsh in which the duelists might sink, individually together. Instead, he highlights that it’s the struggle itself, the collective object or the material relation that will sink into this marsh. It’s this third subject, the earth, that draws this duel out and puts a concrete decision between the fighters in doubt. This third threatens a logic of identifications that, like the struggle above, rests on the self overcoming the other.

Before we go much further, I want to take a step back: from a muddy marsh to a solid, if excluded, middle. Serres’ third emerges out of classic laws of thought: identity, contradiction, and excluded middle. Aristotle works through these laws in Metaphysics, and they concretize the boundaries of logical thought. Briefly, the law of identity states that a thing is itself; the law of contradiction states that a thing cannot be and not be, simultaneously; finally, the law of excluded middle states that a thing either is or is not. Between being and not being there can be no middle. As such, logical binaries are bound together by the rigorous exclusion of any third possibility. Serres argues that that this exclusion, conversely, gives way to the inclusion of the third as a tactic for interrupting binary, domineering logics. To include the third is also to show that the third was excluded, that the third is necessary, and it also opens the door to further interruptions.

Early in another text, The Parasite, Serres writes about an encounter between a serpent and a villager. A serpent is lying in the snow. It’s freezing, but the serpent remains quiet and still—unobtrusive. Serres suggests that it might be hibernating, that it “asked for nothing” (22). At that same time, a villager is out for a walk on his own land and comes across the frozen serpent. Startled by the snake, but feeling charitable, the villager picks it up and brings the snake inside his house. He takes the chilled serpent and lays it down before his fire, warming it. The villager, as he sees it, has done good—he saved the snake. But the serpent, warmed by the fire, wakes, and it is hostile. It lunges at the villager, and the villager, becoming hostile in turn, strikes at the serpent, slicing it into thirds. Serres notes that French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine delivers the fable from the villager’s point of view and, as such, ends the fable with a solemn message, “death to ingrates” (23). But both the snake and the villager responded with hostility, and while La Fontaine is clear on whom the ingrate is, Serres exposes a question of the relation. He calls for serious litigation and writes “[w]ho is the host and who is the guest? Where is the gift and where is the debt? Who is hospitable, who is hostile, again the same word, the same thing” (23).

These are the same questions we might ask about our relation with the planet. Out for a walk around our home, we have stumbled upon a radically changed planet. As Bill McKibben writes, “imagine we live on a planet. Not our cozy, taken-for-granted earth, but a planet, a real one with melting poles and dying forests and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat. An inhospitable place” (1). Climate science attends to the specific differences that we currently see and measure, but the Anthropocene is broader. It is a stratigraphic designation that marks a new era in earth’s history formed by recognizable human-impact on a global scale. It describes a distinct layer of sediment on the earth’s crust. The Anthropocene describes a difference within the earth itself—it interrupts.

For Serres, interruption by the third is at the heart of parasitic relation. The third is a parasite. It interrupts, but, also, the “third exists before the second. A third exists before the other” (Serres Parasite 63). Between the duelists there is the muck, between the snake and the villager there was the cold and obligation. The Anthropocene demands that I account for Homo sapiens and the earth, that we recognize that between Homo sapiens and the earth there is an I, that between ourselves the earth is never simply in-agential ground, but that it is between and beside us. If the third is to be included, we also have to recognize that there is another. Between the three, there is now the Anthropocene. Serres writes that “there is always a mediate, a middle, an intermediary…the middle term can be any one of the three, depending” (Serres Parasite 63). When the parasite is included, even while it shifts position, the question of relation remains open. When it is excluded, chased away, or ignored, relation becomes fixed. The parasite, as much a relation as a being-in-relation both forms and is formed by its particular situation. “The relation” Serres writes “parasites the relation; the relation itself is a parasite” (Serres 132). Between an I and the earth—on the relation between them—there is a we. The Anthropocene is the noise made by the third, Homo sapiens.

The exposure and inclusion of the excluded middle is not a new task, but, as Michelle Ballif writes, “the entire history of rhetoric can be read as the attempt to deal with the problem of the [third] by codifying language, to ensure rhetoric's Being as a ‘true techne’ (a true art or method) rather than a ‘false’ one—that is, sophistry” (59). Against that history, Victor Vitanza has long been one of the third’s loudest advocates. He proposed that a Third Sophistic is populated by writers and thinkers[1] that, like Serres, take issue with the exclusion of the middle. Vitanza has done extensive work bringing Serres’ texts into conversation with rhetorical studies. In Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric, Vitanza folds Serres’ proto-parasite—the third man, the demon, the prosopopoeiea of noise—into conversation with sophistic rhetoric, and in a later text, Sexual Violence in Western Thought and Writing: Chaste Rape, Vitanza rigorously engages with much of Serres work. He ends this text on a pedagogical and practical note, writing that “[w]hen confronted and affronted with whatever it is, write a third transversal one. As Serres himself does…Multiply multiples” (223). Thirds, as I will argue, are only ever the first of many in the middle.

In this essay I propose that parasitism is fundamentally rhetorical and that rhetoric is fundamentally parasitic, that a parasitic rhetoric can function as a means of continued interruption: noisy exposure exposing itself. Further, this parasitic rhetoric offers us a means of attending to a shared responsibility between disparate but entangled bodies. Here, I position Michel Serres work in conversation with rhetorical studies and parasitic rhetoric as a method of rhetorical intervention that begins with the explicitly posthuman. The parasite is definitionally other, nonhuman, foreign, unwanted, but it is intrinsically relational. By positioning the parasite alongside Diane Davis’ concept, rhetoricity, I argue that that parasitic rhetoric can be useful as a methodology for performing rhetorical intervention that begins with relation and invites its own interruption. Parasitic rhetoric is one avenue of including and recognizing our responsibility both for the other and the third. It’s an alternative to the cessation of responsibility that exclusion brings. 

Introducing the Parasite

Throughout his text, The Parasite, Serres takes up parasites as things, concepts, and events. The word “parasite” oscillates between different definitions—in French it encapsulates the biological parasite that feeds off on its host, the social parasite or unwelcome/bad guest, and finally noise or static. This third definition, particular to French, is a key element in Serres’ figuration because it’s particularly in this third way that the parasite is “productive and creative” (Wolfe xiii). Serres’ parasite always betrays a lopsided relationship; the parasite takes and gives nothing back, and the host’s response is always parasitic in kind. The flux of the parasitical relation is fixed around a core concept in which “the parasited one parasites the parasites” (13). That is to say that response to an interruption is always, itself, interruptive. To get here, though, we must understand Serres’ three kinds of oscillating parasite. Each of these parasitic models relates to a host differently, but each, eventually, interrupts. By attending to that interruption, I intend to take up the parasite heuristically; it describes both the nature of relationality and a means of examining relations. The parasite, as I take it up, is not confined to any specific being or body, but describes a material relation set against and apart from a stable, situated, identifiable being.

The most common understanding of the parasite is a biological organism that feeds on, and perhaps eventually kills, its host. It takes and gives nothing back. Serres writes that “[i]t is not just anything that troubles a passing message. It is not just anyone who is invited to someone’s table” (Parasite 230). The parasite functions in particular ways within particular material relations, and while aspects of the parasite might be generalizable, care must be taken to recognize the specific manifestations of a preoriginary relatability. While any given biological parasite shares an originary relatability with its host—that is to say that these organisms are biologically and materially primed to relate in specific ways with one another—Serres’ broader parasitic model takes up interruption as a starting point. Interruption arrives before both the interrupted and interrupter. Their relatability, in other words, arrives before they do.

The parasite is also situated within social relations as a bad guest. Serres draws on the French hôte, which means both guest and host in English, to describe the parasite at its most fluid. Hosts and guests interrupt one another, take from one another, and pay back one another at cross-purposes. There is tension between the biological and social parasite. In either case, even when it seemingly gives nothing in return, the parasite is always an addition. Serres writes that the parasite always “adds a mediation…[it] increases [the system’s] complexity” (Parasite 88). In other words, “the parasite invents something new. Since [it] does not eat like everyone else, [it] builds a new logic” (Serres Parasite 35). The parasite changes whatever system it enters—interruption persuades.

Serres begins The Parasite with a fable that illustrates the third definition—static, noise, interruption. This definition of parasite is the most unfamiliar in English, and with it Serres draws heavily on information theory.[2] Channeling La Fontaine, he writes about the town mouse and the country mouse. The town mouse invites the country mouse to dine with him in the tax farmer’s[3] house. They eat the tax-farmer’s scraps while he sleeps upstairs, but the mice hear a noise and flee. Woken by the noisy mice, the tax-famer shifts in his creaky bed, and scares the mice. The man returns to sleep, but only the town mouse returns to his feast. The country mouse has been frightened off; it flees to eat in silence.

Serres is describing a chain of parasites. The tax-farmer parasites the people around him, skimming off the top of their production. The town mouse takes from the tax-farmer. The country mouse takes from the table of the town mouse and gives nothing back. Within the chain each parasite in turn works to come after, to take and give nothing back. This chain, though, is inevitably broken by noise. Serres writes that “the noise, the ultimate parasite, through its interruption, wins the game;” the last always interrupts (Parasite 4). Noise, rather than simply breaking the system, creates a new one.

It isn’t particularly difficult to find more analogs for this kind of generative interruption. Oklahoma is currently experiencing several booms: fracking and earthquakes. Oil and natural gas companies drill and extract resources. They’re benefiting from the production of others—living organisms that have, through earth and organic processes, turned to oil and natural gas—and giving nothing[4] in return. The substance they inject interrupts delicate equilibrium along fault lines and the earth shifts. Like the tax-farmer rolling in bed or stepping on a floorboard, the earth’s crust shifts and we hear a noise—earthquakes. Responding to these earthquakes some people flee, some remain. New relationships emerge.

These three definitions of parasites give rise to differently situated material entanglements—eating a host is not the same as a guest overstaying their welcome, nor is it the same as a sudden noise. But Serres develops the parasite as a concept that, through the oscillations of these different definitions, both attends to and is anchored by materiality. Response brings every system into being, but it is response anchored by material specificity. The bed creaks and the earth quakes; the mice have ears sensitive enough for the creaks, and we have instruments that can detect the quakes. Whether inclusive or exclusive, a new system emerges through persuasion. This isn’t to say that a newly persuaded system emerges, but that by responding to persuasion—interruption—a system comes into being. Persuasion doesn’t merely involve a change in direction or belief. It operates at the level of an absolute difference. Interruption persuades, and to be persuaded is to be interrupted from your self.

I argue that included or excluded, the parasite is always a preoriginary addition. It is always already present as an interruption, but its presence doesn’t imply unity with a host. Instead, the parasite, thick in the middle of becoming, is always off to the side—an addition. But one that comes first. When the parasite is excluded, the hosts risk fixing their relation and creating new violence or division. When the parasite is included, though, the host doesn’t turn the parasite into a proper guest. In other words, including the third isn’t an invitation; it’s an admission of responsibility toward the parasite—an intruder, an unwelcome guest, noisy interruption—and further, it’s a recognition that response is dictated by material specificity and given in-kind, parasitically.

The parasite, as such, can be taken up as a model for unpacking rhetorical relation grounded in interruptive address. The parasitic relation describes “a simple relation of order, irreversible like the flow of the river” (Serres Parasite 182). But this doesn’t betray stability in the parasitic model; instead, this flow describes change, the flux of relation along which being proceeds. Relation, as figured through the parasite, is always asymmetric relation. The parasite takes and gives nothing in return, and response proceeds sideways—along the periphery—rather than face-to-face. Serres writes that the para in parasite means that “it is on the side, next to, shifted; it is not on the thing, but on its relation. It has relations, as they say, and makes a system of them. It is always mediate and never immediate. It has a relation to the relation” (38-9) The parasite, rather than interrupting a host itself, always instead interrupts relation. The parasite interrupts the relation that makes such a presumption of a stable, self-contained host possible. The parasite, as persuasive, interruptive force, exposes and interrupts the relationality of the self—your self as rhetorically constructed.

Throughout its recorded history, rhetoric has often been figured as a kind of parasite upon ‘real’ research, or philosophy, or dialectic. This view is exemplified by those that take Socrates' definitions of rhetoric in Plato's Gorgias seriously (Kennedy 37). Rhetoric is dismissively cordoned off to “little books” that teach a person to deliver real philosophical or dialectic work. Rhetoric’s work is merely relational in these figurations. It is parasitic upon true knowledge, only doing the immaterial work of mediation. Rhetoric, seen in this way, is akin to the biological parasite, feeding off the work others have done. And while rhetoric can be seen as a parasite, it also can play the host. Serres’ text, parasitically, sidles up alongside rhetoric. Interruption often receives a black eye in rhetorical scholarship. [5] It works against a rhetor’s address; it must be overcome by the force of rhetoric. George Kennedy, while unpacking a radically distributed notion of rhetoric as energy, the rheme situates noise as antithetical to rhetorical work. He writes that “[i]n the jungle, in the seas, and in human assemblies, background noise is an obstacle to communication” (17). Interruption, as Kennedy situates it, a hurdle that rhetoric must clear.

Serres establishes a discourse of relation that draws heavily on rhetorical themes without paying rhetoric back. Serres, in other words, parasites rhetoric, and in this essay I argue that rhetoric can parasite The Parasite. His attention to materiality positions The Parasite in proximity to current new materialist, rhetorical scholarship. Thomas Rickert, in Ambient Rhetoric, advances a new materialist project by arguing for a worldly and material persuasion. For Rickert, rhetoric is “a responsive way of revealing the world for others, responding to and put forth through affective, symbolic, and material means, so as to (at least potentially) reattune or otherwise transform how others inhabit the world to an extent that calls for some action” (emphasis in original 162). For Rickert, rhetoric follows after persuasion, and it is something that operates in the world; rhetoric is a particular response, and knowledge and consciousness follow after it (284).

I would argue, though, for a definition of rhetoric that, drawing on Serres parasitic logic, does not follow after persuasion. Instead, rhetoric is a relation to relation; rhetoric describes a system composed of response alongside persuasion. I contend that all persuasion is interruption and that all interruption is, at its core, materially persuasive. Serres writes that “[t]he theory of being, ontology, brings us to atoms. The theory of relations brings us to the parasite” (Parasite 185). The parasite brings us to rhetoric. Rhetoric holds together interruption and response as inseparable, as inextricably bound together but still heterogeneous—together, parasitically, they are in flux. To perform rhetoric, or what we might call parasitic rhetoric, is to embrace a particular kind of noisy response that creates an opening for inclusion. It is to respond interruptively, open to further interruption. Parasitic rhetoric announces the emergence of beings-in-relation, and it offers the means of including an excluded third without fixing it in place.

Entangled Thirds

The earth no longer seems to be the stable, situated, identifiable being it once was. In current climate change discourse there has been increasing popular and scientific support for declaring a new epoch in the earth’s history—the Anthropocene. While climate change science is focused on the broad climate patterns of the earth, specific species extinctions, and new interactions caused by rising temperatures and shifting environments, the Anthropocene marks and is marked by a material trace within the earth. Beyond any one specific change to the earth’s climate, the Anthropocene takes as its beginning a readable line in the earth itself that marks the point in time when human activity began changing the earth on a global scale. Arguments are ongoing as to where this line is, but some causes of it, as noted by the Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene,’ are: anthropogenic erosion, the composition of the atmosphere, ocean acidification, massive habitat loss and broad extinctions.

The Working Group writes that “the ‘geologic signal’ currently being produced in strata must be sufficiently large, clear and distinctive” (2016). The sedimentary layers of the earth are read differently, and various epochs are often in flux as different scientists read the earth differently. We should, in other words, be able to definitively locate the material trace of our own impact upon the earth. The Working Group seems guided not by the common markers of climate change—raising global temperatures, raising sea levels, changing weather patterns—but instead degrees of readability, interpretation, and consensus building. Much of the debate surrounding the Anthropocene is focused on what human events have or might have caused these global traces and where best to find evidence of them. These potential traces are numerous, and they range from the beginnings of agriculture to nuclear tests.[6] But regardless of when and how or if the Anthropocene is situated, there is an open question as to what to make of it. There has been a flood of scholarship, advocacy, and policy surrounding the Anthropocene.[7] But the Anthropocene, as I figure it, is a material interruption. It's a noisy parasite that creates a space for refiguring our responsibility toward the earth by beginning to include, rather than exclude.

The Anthropocene, more so than the substance of climate change or extinction events, radically shifts the rhetorical situation ecological discourse operates within. Jimmie Killingsworth and Jacqueline Palmer’s 1992 book Ecospeak is positioned near the beginnings of environmental rhetorics. They begin by laying out that discourse is central to environmental crises and that there is a quandary of identification in environmental discourse; crucially, there is a tension between a local and global discourse communities (7-8). The failure of rhetorical appeals to bridge this tension results in hardened lines of disagreement that create chasms of difference between different groups of human stakeholders. The tension between the local and the global is still at work today, as Phaedra Pezzulo shows in Toxic Tourism (142). And these stakeholders, as Killingsworth and Palmer identify them, are set against the earth with one extreme arguing for the earth as a resource and the other arguing humans are a mere pest upon the earth (4). The positions that they identify are still, almost 25 years later, at the core of current environmental debates.

Jamie Lorimer identifies two common responses to the Anthropocene. The first is an optimistic view that holds humans as ultimately the stewards of the earth, and that the earth can be mastered and made hospitable through economic and scientific forces such as geoengineering (2). The second response recoils in horror at the mark of the Anthropocene. This response takes up the Anthropocene as legitimizing “various modes of retreat” or “renaturalization” of human action (2) This eco-pessimism figures Homo sapiens as exceptionally violent, a pestilence upon the earth. But both of these responses retain a sharp distinction between humans and the earth. [8] These mirrored reactions emerge through a reading of the Anthropocene as a chasm rather than a joint articulation between humans and the earth. In both of these extremes the earth is rendered as mere ground upon which arguments proceed. It may change, but it is excluded as the object of human action.

The Anthropocene figured differently poses different but similar issues of exclusion. Dipesh Chakrabarty articulates in “The Climate of History: Four Theses” how climate change and the Anthropocene have refigured humans as something other than a collection of individuals. He writes that the Anthropocene marks Homo sapiens, broadly, as “geological agents” (206). Geological agents operate on a global rather than local scale, and the Anthropocene is possible only through collective—voluntary or not—action. Individual humans or even groups of humans might create environmental disasters, but the Anthropocene is beyond these discrete events.[9] The Anthropocene, taken up with this unifying gesture, carries risks with it. Mastery-driven eco-optimism relies on a belief in human exceptionalism born out of an understanding of the Anthropocene as a commonplace that excludes the individual in favor of Homo sapiens. In a 2011 co-authored piece, Crutzen and Christian Schwägerl write that “we should shift our mission from crusade to management, so we can steer nature’s course symbiotically instead of enslaving the former natural world.” For them the Anthropocene allows us to sidestep any division between local and global communities. They argue that Homo sapiens can make up for previous actions, that we can accept that “nature is us.” They propose a relationship that is symbiotic only insofar as humans don’t render the earth inhospitable. The solution they provide and the assumptions it relies upon depend upon excluding any given I to establish a clear, fixed, dominant relationship between Homo sapiens and the earth.

I contend that Serres’ illustration of the serpent and the villager can prime readers for taking up our relationship with the earth beyond the extreme positions outlined above. Parasitic relation reveals the question of relation as figured by the excluded middle. The above responses to the Anthropocene exclude the earth as merely the ground upon which a struggle over the tenor of human responsibility takes place, while eco-optimism excludes the individual in an effort to establish a fixed, dominant relationship between Homo sapiens and the earth. The arguments advance by beginning with exclusion, but the third—excluded or included—has already interrupted. The Anthropocene as a further interruption—a fourth, another. It creates the scene that allows us to identify, and thus include—that is to listen to, to respond to, to allow to respond—those that had been excluded.

Drawing from Plato’s Sophist, Serres asks, “[w]hich is the third part? Or who or what is the third, in this logic of the trenchant decision? Is the third excluded or not? Here we have a tri-valent logic where we expected only a bivalent one” (23). Throughout the Sophist, the titular sophist is sought through a series of binary pairings. Eventually the possibility of a third state of being emerges, but it is quickly routed back into a binary understanding (243e-d). The law of excluded-middle is affirmed, but Serres sticks with the excluded third. By refusing to collapse relation into a binary logic, Serres creates an opening for the necessary inclusion of the third that was always already present. “As soon as we are two,” Serres writes, “we are already three or four” (57). It is attention to the third, not the third itself, that opens the question of relation.

The Anthropocene, that is the layer of sediment read as the Anthropocene, intrudes regardless. As a mark upon the earth it can be included or excluded in arguments, but it persists as a preoriginary addition to a newly made system of relation. The arrival of the Anthropocene creates a new system of relations from which individuals, Homo sapiens, and the earth emerge, so that any relation between any of the three is already mediated by the fourth. By continuously attending to the parasite, positions shift—the tax farmer attends to the mice and creates noise—and the “parasite parasites the parasites” (55). I wrote above that the Anthropocene, as further interruption, demands that I account for my relations, for Homo sapiens and the earth. Doing so is accepting responsibility, or, rather, accepting and responding to judgment and interruption. The parasite, the third or fourth, changes positions as address—persuasive interruption—propagates, and the question of relation remains open.

Serres dovetails his retelling of Fontaine’s “The Peasant and the Snake” with a version of Fontaine’s “The Man and the Snake.” A snake accused of being a “vile reprobate” calls on other animals to judge between the snake and the man. For Serres, this litigation has a conclusion. Cows and trees judge that the man is, indeed, the ingrate. Serres takes it even further and calls “man” out as the “universal parasite” (Parasite 24). Within parasitic logic there is a struggle for the final position, the position of subject or judge. Serres writes that “[t]he observer always makes less noise than the observed. He is thus unobservable by the observed… he is an asymmetric operator.” (Parasite 238). This unobservable observer bears no responsibility. It is unseen and, for the moment, uninterrupted. The danger of the parasite is not necessarily that there is a final position, because, eventually, the parasited parasites the parasite. Instead the danger inherent in parasitic relation is that in the struggle to exclude—a struggle to maintain position as a subject wholly at the expense of others—there is a race to the bottom. It’s a race that’s won by always coming in last place—always interrupting. For Serres humans are the ultimate parasite because we exemplify this behavior; we work to refuse others their response-ability. But, I argue that parasitic rhetoric is one means of avoiding the unobservable position. It’s a method for accepting responsibility, or, rather, accepting and responding to judgment and interruption.

Between humans, individuals and the earth there is an obligation toward, and shared by, one another demanded by the interruption of the fourth—the noisy Anthropocene. Before there were three, there were four—even if some were excluded. Serres’s parasitic logic is paradoxical; he writes that any “roles or incarnations are a function of the relation, the relation is a function of the parasite, in a circular causality, in feedback loops” (Serres Parasite 63). The earth, Homo sapiens, and the individual I emerge out of their relation already in-relation. They don’t pop into existence out of nowhere, nor are they stable beings merely interrupted and put into relation via some addition[10]. Their current relation and more specifically their current being-in-relation emerge through the persuasive interruptive of the Anthropocene. The relation, in other words, is announced and attended to thanks to the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is recognized after the fact, and it can be recognized as an interruption that carries with it rhetorical intervention—recognizing and including the excluded third.

I propose that the Anthropocene sets the stage for the litigation Serres calls for, and that we can take it up through epidictic rather than judicial means. To approach it judicially is to risk a flight toward the final position, to judge in a binary that does not allow for interruption. “Strike but listen first” (Serres Parasite 23). Act, but include the third. Litigate, but not toward finality. Epidictic intervention is one method of acting that accounts for both praise and blame without demanding a fixed position. In other words, a parasitic rhetoric, as epidictic intervention, can hold us accountable even while we continue to listen.

Parasitic Relation

This epideictic intervention is a way of performing relation, thus interruption, without constantly pushing toward the final, unobservable position. Rather than attempting to uncover original actors or prime movers, I argue that we can begin to trace the course of interruptions to reveal a common parasitic motion through which relation unfolds. We can sharpen responsibility and become curious about the addresses that interrupt and constitute us. Reading Avital Ronell alongside Serres can give insight into how address, specifically the reception of that address, impacts both addressor and addressee. In the final section of Stupidity, the “Kant Satellite,” Ronell refigures Kafka’s retelling of the Abraham parable, and she describes a differently situated interruption, the intercepted call. While Serres describes an answer prior to any call, an answer that refigures the villager as host and messiah to the serpent, Ronell examines the hubris necessary to accept any call as a call addressed to you.

Ronell presents us with a series of Abrahams, one of which is a dumb, dirty, improper Abraham who “rises to the occasion of solemn bestowal, having heard his name and felt himself addressed” (292). The call might be meant for another, the call might be imagined, or it might actually be a call meant for some version of him, but he thought he heard his name and answers. And having answered the call, Abraham’s “ridiculousness” “has the ability to return the call on itself and reoriginates it as mistaken… [it] diverts and cancels the call” (291). Having answered the call Abraham changes and is changed by the call. Ronell writes that anytime you answer a call (even, as Serres describes, answering without having been called) you answer as an imposter. You make yourself responsible (and the rhetor responsible. in turn, to you) by interrupting an address. Abraham was, “from the get-go, a cheater, a bluffer; he cheated God already by determining that his own name was called” (307). Abraham was a parasite, but so is every respondent. Each respondent is interrupted differently and responds particularly to their material circumstances. The serpent can only respond once its body has warmed. Kairos dictates who can parasite whom, but response always emerges from the third—unexpectedly. The villager ‘rescued’ the frozen snake, but a snake, hot and bothered, responded. Whomever the villager imagined he was addressing was nowhere to be seen. This is how response functions; it emerges from a third.

Ronell continues, “[t]o the extent that one can answer the call, one can do so only as an impostor, at best as one’s own alternate, the other of oneself—the one who is called. In any case, the one who answers the call is other than the one who had not yet been called” (309). Every call is answered by an imposter. Every call is intercepted and interrupted. As Ronell describes it, the response to an address—an address meant for an other, an address the receiver imagines—interrupts and reconstitutes both parties. In answering a call the addressed one addresses the addressor. The parasited one parasites the parasite. A dialogue progresses sideways, through thirds. And while both parties, the serpent and villager, humans and the earth, Abraham and God, or Homo sapiens and an I might close the question of relation by fixing their relation in place, by answering and accusing a hostile addresser, the third operates from the outside. That relation is fixed by excluding the outsider as outsider, by appropriating the response as their own. Exclusion via absorption.

Included or excluded, the third—as a parasite—creates the necessary structure for relation, and it is this relation that calls the identifiable self into being. Diane Davis, in Inessential Solidarity, argues that there is an “originary (or preoriginary) rhetoricity—affectability or persuadability—that is the condition for symbolic action” (Inessential 2). This rhetoricity is the necessary precondition for relation, and, as such, identification as not the product of “self-enclosed organisms” but instead emerges from within “the realm of affectable beings…the realm of a radically generalized rhetoricity” (Inessential 26). For Davis, rhetoricity attends to the exposedness that precedes exposure; rhetoricity is the response-ability of any being, the twining of a fundamental openness and responsibility toward the other. As with Serres’ parasite, rhetoricity creates the possibility of its own intervention. It precedes and allows for being, and it situates being as being-in-response. Davis argues that the “address as such is interruptive” (69). And address “initiates…a relation rather than an appropriation or assimilation” (77). Agency, in other words, is not snuffed out by interruption. Instead, agency is always agency-in-response to an other.  

There is, as Diane Davis writes, “a rhetorical imperative (an obligation to respond) prior to and as the condition” for the self (14). We respond before we are; response is a precondition for being in the world. We are obligated because we are already primed to respond by a preoriginary exposedness—rhetoricity. Rhetoricity attends to a generalized persuasion toward persuadability. Serres writes that the parasite “is an operator; it is a generalized clinamen” (Parasite 188). In other words, the parasite engenders generalized inclination toward—toward the other, toward mediation, toward relation. The parasite engenders relation, and it operates alongside rhetoricity. The parasite doesn’t afford rhetoricity or vice versa. Instead, I argue that Serres’ parasite exposes rhetoricity as an interruption, a preoriginary addition. Here, rhetoricity is a noisy third, and it arrives before there were two. Rhetoricity, situated alongside the parasite, can be seen as a precondition for relation that is also caught up in relation. Obligation and exposedness are in flux alongside the parasite.

Above, I stated that Serres’ parasite is means of both unpacking and leaving open the question of relation by turning our attention toward excluded thirds. The logic of the parasite chases relation across interruptions. This chase gives way to discrete end points—parasites that come last, that chase out the third and fix relation between binaries. By putting rhetoricity and the parasite in conversation and by situating the parasite alongside rhetoricity as pararhetoricity we can hold the parasite in play—symbiotically in relation to relation. Rather than merely chasing the parasite down toward either included and excluded thirds, rhetoricity brings to the parasite a notion of openness toward interruption. Exposedness is already parasitic interruption, and to be attentive to excluded thirds is to be attentive to interruption, to be ready to be unready, to be interrupted while holding the material specificity of that interruption in relation.

Serres writes that “the position of the parasite is to be between. That is why it must be said to be a being or a relation. But the attribute of the parasite…is its specificity” (230). Rhetoricity, figured as both an interruption and as materially-contingent, implies that any kind of affectability or persuadability is afforded by the specificity of beings-in-relation. Biologic parasites develop specificity through eons of evolution and mutual cohabitation. Unwelcome houseguests are situated according to community-established social norms. And noise is constrained both by physical tolerances and individuality—not all noise is heard, and not all noise that is heard is interruptive. All of this to say that rhetoricity—understood through a parasitic logic—is, like the parasite, paradoxically situated through the very relation it affords. This leaves us following the traces of relation toward continued response and response-ability.

Parasitic Response-ability

Derrida’s work on hospitality can offer some insight into how we might refigure responsibility within the parasitic model. He begins Of Hospitality by repositioning the question of the foreigner as a “question of being in question” both the guest and the host are put to this question (3). And the question of hospitality, always arrives as an interruption. In “Hostipitality” Derrida notes that “to be hospitable is to let oneself be overtaken, to be ready to not be ready” (361). The villager stumbles upon the serpent and is obligated out of the blue. The Anthropocene rewrites a vision of the earth as masterable and thus savable, and we might read ourselves doubly obligated both to save the earth and to right a wrong. We, very broadly, are subject to a persuasion, that like all persuasive moments, was un-asked for and impossible to prepare for. In this case, too, it seems beyond the capacity of any individual. And while a person might prime themselves for persuasion, might readily prepare to have their mind changed, accept new positions, persuasion always arrives as an interruption. After the ethos, pathos, and logos of an argument the sublime hits.

Both extremes—geo-engineers and proponents of minimized-impact—are responding to the same persuasive moment. Even though they respond differently, they respond, and they emerge through response obligated by the Anthropocene. Both groups respond through exclusion by fixing relation in a binary system—masters-of or parasites-upon—and judge accordingly. Like the country mouse, these respondents flee—they advocate for a response that doesn’t allow further interruption. Both extremes head toward quiet stasis with one punishing the earth for acting the ingrate and the other judging themselves for the same. In either case, someone dies. I argue that the addition of a fourth, the Anthropocene, a noise made by an excluded third, is an opportunity for including rather than excluding that third in relation. Parasitic rhetoric is a means of engaging the third, of dining alongside interruption.

Diane Davis, in “Autozoography: Notes toward a Rhetoricity of the Living,” makes an argument against a version of self-knowledge that is exclusive to humans alone. She writes that “the point is not that animals share an autodeictic power presumed to be strictly human but that autodeixis is not a power at all;” it instead “grants the effect of the I” (546). In other words, any I emerges following such a declaration, whatever form it might take, not before. Further, Davis highlights Derrida’s work on autobiography, and she argues that “[t]here would be no life—no genetic codes, no cellular function…if a being could not mark itself off, trace and retrace itself on the limit that both shares and divides it.” The trace marks a boundary that is necessary for life itself. But it is a porous boundary that defies the very limits it sets because it, as is the case with all articulations, is shared. Davis writes that “a certain autodeicticity is inherent in the perpetual (re)inscription of the differential relation” (546). The self, in other words, isn’t necessary for the inscription of these limits, but instead emerges through that act. This inscription isn’t a declaration of “I am,” but it reflects the effect of the I; it addresses the author and in doing so, grants an I that then responds. I respond to the limits of my self, limits I share with an other. The I that responds doesn’t simply respond to an other, but responds to the material trace that delimits self and other as the author of that trace.

Any I that responds to the Anthropocene—that intercepts the Anthropocene as address— responds to and within a broad, uncomfortable, and for most of the human population frankly unfair we. More than a conceptual tool for altering our relation to the earth—as a particularly potent enthymeme in climate activist discourse—the Anthropocene is a material interruption that obligates any I to respond to the Earth, as an us. It is a material trace—a layer of sediment mixed with plastics and pesticides and the sudden erasure of thousands of species—that refuses a singular response. The Anthropocene creates a moment where I am interrupted by we; as a trace upon the earth, it articulates—joins and separates—human and the earth, I and we. This we, carries with it not only humans but the earth at its broadest consideration. Even while we rest upon the earth and are made from the earth, we emerge in response, and in relation to, distinct from the earth, from each other.

The parasite, as much a relation as a being-in-relation both forms and is formed by its specific relations. It is hard to find the border between humans and the earth, between an I and a we, between an I and the earth. Even if geologists find and agree upon a line in the strata—a line of human waste—that marks humans as geological actors, the nature of that trace separates and joins. It intrudes, or, rather, it has already intruded. The Anthropocene, as a trace upon the earth cannot be erased, and so it cannot be solved or reversed. It is possible to reduce human impact. Depending on the actions that various governments and peoples around the world take, global warming can be halted or even reversed.[11] There is no escaping response, though. As the Trump administration plunges forward with policies that are antagonistic to climate science and conservation it still mounts a response to the Anthropocene. To call climate change and all the symptoms and effects of climate change a hoax is to see a mark and recoil. Climate-deniers are responsive to the same interruptions as many climate scientists and activists.

Having heard the noises of the Anthropocene, there isn’t any option other than response. Once interrupted, always already interrupted. Regardless of future action, the anthropocenic strata will remain and will remain interruptive and unavoidable. Cleaning up our mess would require action that only geological agents could perform. Any kind of conservation that might turn back climate change broadly and thus put a halt to the activities that produce the anthropocenic strata could only be a further anthropocenic interruption. Parasites catch us in a double bind because any response—inclusion or exclusion—still takes place within relation. There’s a case to be made for the utter inseparability of these bodies; we’re all made of earthstuff, but this is not an argument for pure reduction. It’s important to include rather than exclude thirds—parasites, noise, interruptions, the Anthropocene—as co-constitutive, preoriginary additions. The trace of the Anthropocene is a mark written on the earth with itself, and it’s a noise that interrupts what has become a dangerously broken relationship. By keeping open the question of relation, by not re-inscribing a chasm between nature and culture, it can become possible to respond within accusation responsibly, rather than with a final judgement. 

I wrote that the relation between Homo sapiens, I, and the earth is announced and attended to thanks to the Anthropocene. This ‘thanks’ may be more crucial than its initial appearance suggest. Serres writes that “[n]o exchange could take place, no gift could be given in any of the languages I have heard spoken, if the final receiver did not say ‘thank you’ at the end of the line. The terminal offers thanks. The phrase is only a gust of wind: it is indispensable nonetheless” (45). This ‘thanks’ operates as an utterance that disrupts the final, unobservable position. By saying ‘thanks’ we make noise, we respond—interruptively—with inclusion. That gesture creates a parasitic chain in a different direction, it invites interruption. Interruption always arrives as such—it creates change—but within the shock of interruption there is room to prepare ourselves to respond with inclusion rather than exclusion. Ready-or-not, parasites interrupt, and we’re always caught off guard by interruption. Saying thanks doesn’t turn parasites into guests. Instead, it is a way to admit that an uninterruptable-self is a fantasy and that parasitic incursion is the beginning of relation rather than its cessation. The Anthropocene is irreversible; it’s a stain that cannot be erased, but we don’t have to accept the way in which it is currently being written—with increased greenhouse gasses, mass extinctions, displaced peoples. We’re beginning to understand the untold devastation that climate change is causing and going to cause across the globe. This destruction writes the Anthropocene. We don’t have to like it, but if we’re going to live with it, we have to find a way to thank it—that is, to interrupt it with inclusion rather than exclusion. Parasitic rhetoric is a way to say thank you, to continue to interrupt and generate new response and new responsibility.

[1] “Sophists of the most recent period might be Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Hélène Cixous, Gayatri Spivak, and others” (Vitanza Negation 238).

[2]Carey Wolfe draws a connection between Serres and systems theorists such as Gregory Bateson and Niklas Luhmann. Similarly, Katherine Hayles traces the parasite’s genealogy through information theory.

[3] Tax farmers both collect taxes and skim off the top. They live off what they take and don’t transfer to the government.

[4] It may be more appropriate to say that they are paying the earth back with waste or what Serres calls “at cross purposes” with the various chemical blends that are pumped into the ground to shatter the rock and release oil and gas.

[5] See Amit Pinchevski’s By Way of Introduction for a noticeable outlier. Interruption, for Pinchevski following Levinas, creates “the very possibility of being response-able to and for the other” (11, 13).

[6] See Angus for a review of these proposed beginnings.

[7] Beyond analysis of the Anthropocene, there have been a host of proposed Anthropocene analogues—Anthrobscene (Parikka) Capitalocene (Latour), Cthulucene (Haraway). The Anthropocene is a prolific interrupter.

[8] This is issue has not gone unnoticed. Nathaniel Rivers writes that “environmentalism and its concomitant rhetorics, however, frequently draw a bold line between humans and nonhuman nature” (422). Rivers, drawing on New Materialism and Object Oriented Ontology, advocates for a weird environmentalism as a way to short circuit this split.

[9] Timothy Morton mounts a series of defenses that anticipate objections to the Anthropocenic we, the accused Homo sapiens, in Dark Ecology.

[10] Karen Barad argues that material beings are always in intra-action. That is to say that agencies “are only distinct in relation to their mutual entanglement; they don’t exist as individual elements” (33).

[11] It would take extreme action to even halt our current level of warming. See the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (113).

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