From parasites to holobionts

From parasites to holobionts

Thank you for the invitation to write about Penthaus à la Parasit. You have been using university affiliations and connections in ways that I would define a tad abusive — if it didn’t sound acquiescent, I would say “parasitic”—for two years, so let me tell you I am going to use it, in turn, above all to make mental order into thoughts and questions I am interested in at the moment. As they surround our practices in times of insecurity, precarity and unpredictability, and how they might or might not contribute to reframing the future, I am confident you will make up the links with your own work.

This year, 2020, will be quite certainly remembered for the coronavirus and more precisely, for the trouble and unprecedented events catalysed by the measures introduced to contain its spread in different countries. The world, however, is in a crisis of much deeper nature—and this, already for a very long time. Those thinkers, activists, artists, writers, attracting attention to multispecies interactions; calling for symbiotic instead of competitive or oppositional relationships; those pleading for commoning as sustainable alternative to any form of property; those exploring new or suppressed forms of cohabitation—all are trying to respond to the dreadful implications of that crisis. Saying a clear “no” to communitarian-identitarian thinking, they provide us with viable options, options compatible with human and non-human life on this wrecked planet. I owe a lot to Lefebvre’s theories, as you know, thus to “compatible”, I will add enjoyable options: indeed, the visions for future life offered by these authors interest me because they weave together joy, use (opposite of consumption, as in “use value” vs. “exchange value”), and a sense of collectively shared and produced space. More than Lefebvre’s, however, postcolonial and feminist theories, as well as experiences, imbue my thinking. Such perspectives predispose one to appreciate a further aspect, namely, that said authors suggest neither that the damage can be fully undone, nor that they have “the right solution.” Humbly, but with perseverance, they encourage to tinkering, assembling, combining, queering: ideas and efforts, bodies and parts, bits and pieces of heterogeneous knowledges, in a world with no distinct or fixed borders, entities, enemies, not even fixed accomplices.

Of course, these lines of thought and struggle inform my take on the parasite—both, the philosophical figure and your artistic intervention, adopting “parasitic” strategies in order to re-appropriate space. In your e-mail, still in Chicago, you proposed I tackle the following question: in how far does Penthaus à la Parasit facilitate appropriation? I cannot answer this without asking yet another question: what kind of appropriation is meant, what shall be appropriated by whom? I imagine you could answer the Penthaus is a strategic intervention that, operationalising the logic of taking without giving (Michel Serres spoke of “abuse value”), creates connections between otherwise incommensurable entities and expectations, making exchange possible and fostering collectivity as well as individuality. You would then refer to the commodification of (urban) space, the financialisation of housing, the gentrification of whole neighbourhoods, and emphasise the provocation emanating from the improbable encounter between a housing society or real estate company and a lone student/artist “infiltrating” their premises, more precisely: ab-using these premises for his everyday needs. Accordingly, appropriation would emerge as a form of resistance against the alienation of inhabitants from social space, as a practice rooted in everyday life practice, and as a subversive act applying the tools of surprise, ambiguity and contradiction to provoke, denounce, attract attention. The object of appropriation would be identified in the meanwhile largely commodified (urban) space, and its subject in the daring occupier, a mix between agent provocateur and frugal hero with a mission, ideally inspiring and instigating others to attempt many more appropriations. Although this is not my focus here, I cannot not mention that millions of people, in Europe as elsewhere, resort daily to more or less “parasitic” strategies out of sheer, often desperate, necessity—obviously without the comfort of legal assistance, often without any media attention, and mostly with violent evictions as consequence. I do not intend to disqualify your intervention by this, but to contextualise our discussion and connect it with extant radical critiques of capitalist expulsion.

I have been debating with you about the Penthaus ever since its first “landing” on a rooftop of Neukölln, last summer; meanwhile, I can say I have two main objections to the narrative of the parasite that appropriates space and shifts or overturns representations. For one, it does not consider that power and agency are unequally distributed in most societies. Think only of the tale of the wolf and the sheep in Serres’ book—of how easily it could be taken for a declaration that power depends upon the invention of techniques to come downstream, to be in the last position in a parasitic chain. To believe this means to be blind to the circumstance that power, also the power to perform parasitic strategies, is ill-distributed, be it due to mere biological differences or to hegemonic orders inherited from patriarchy, colonialism, religion, capitalism and anthropocentrism. It mostly also means to be privileged, in one way or the other. In fact, the faith in “positioning” and its techniques is usually higher among white men (contrast this with Donna Haraway’s plea for situating ourselves and our knowledge, which offers a feminist alternative to an academic practice obsessed with “positioning”, asserting, establishing, one’s against others’ knowledge). As your female peers and friends pointed out early on, a woman occupying alone a Penthaus fixed on the top of some building might not feel, and be, safe at all. This simple fact, to which I could add the risk of harassment for people of colour and LGBTQs, or the hurdles for aged and physically impaired inhabitants, should remind you of a crucial question for spatial interventions pursuing an emancipatory agenda: can the proposed experience be collectivised? “Already the production and instigation of shared imaginaries represents a step towards collectivisation”, you will counter. Absolutely. But must those imaginaries continue to rely on heroic, “extreme”, even warlike pictures (with their high risk for romanticisation), in an age characterised anyway by proliferating armed conflicts and frightening extremes—from the impacts of the ecological crisis, through the ongoing expulsion of millions of capitalism refugees, to the absurd concentration of wealth and resources in the hands of a few? Serres remarked that the only thing the parasite fears is another parasite waiting behind them:1 how, then, might solidarisations among differently (cap)able and empowered unfold, when it is evident that capitalism eventually disables and disempowers us all?

The latter aspect points to the fact that parasitism implicitly requires growth: (food) production, or energy, must be available and abundant in order to sustain a, limited, number of parasites. Such an environment is certain to disappear with the collapse of capitalism, with the irreversible ecological damages caused by continuing privatisations, extractivism, unsustainable industrialisation, and with the progressive exhaustion of “new frontiers” for the outsourcing of misery and waste (mainly, the colonies of former times). So what is there to be still appropriated, actually? Here rest both my second objection and my interest in the theoretical, activist, artistic, conceptual, endeavours evoked in the opening of my letter. Parasitism relies on and at the same time exposes the reversibility of interiority and exteriority (“l’extérieur, pour lui, est l’intérieur d’un autre”, writes Serres), or at least the blurring of their distinction. In trying to operationalise it as a model for survival, one should however be aware of the fact that it preserves the idea of separate entities communicating, but also competing, with each other. From this derives the importance of certain tasks “typical” of the parasite: mediation, transformation, creation, innovation. Doesn’t the terminology ring a bell? These are the instruments and myths of neoliberal democracy, an ideology that might, in places, tame the most brutal tracts of capitalism, yet does not question at all its expansionist-exploitative nature. You should now understand my scepticism about “parasitic” strategies. Not only do they offer little scope for collectivisation and solidarisation, due, in my opinion, to a mentality that unwillingly prioritises “conquest” and individualised survival; they are also highly compatible with, and therefore easy to incorporate in, capitalist logics. This is why to the parasite model, I decidedly prefer the sym-poietic holobionts model. For Donna Haraway, sym-poiesis “means ‘making-with.’ Nothing makes itself; nothing is really auto-poietic or self-organizing. … Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding. Another word for these sympoietic entities is holobionts, or, etymologically, ‘entire beings’ or ‘safe and sound beings.’”.2 Her arguments explicitly draw on biology and can be linked with the comparatively new realisation, in immunology, that the immune system is permanently exchanging information with viruses and bacteria, rather than “battling” them when they “attack” from “outside.” I recall this not because of everybody’s fresh interest in virology, sparked by Covid-19, but for the philosophical and political potentialities that thinking of ourselves as holobionts entails. If it is demonstrated that we hold together contingently and dynamically, engaging other holobionts in complex patternings that “are more like knots of diverse intra-active relatings in dynamic complex systems than like the entities of a biology made up of preexisting bounded units (genes, cells, organisms, etc.)”3, how can we still conceive of ourselves as “individuals”? Above all, in social and political terms, we need to abandon views stressing competition and even cooperation, since “all the players are symbionts to each other, in diverse kinds of relationalities and with varying degrees of openness to attachments and assemblages with other holobionts”4. The holobionts model, in other words, is a model of radical collaboration.

Concluding: Penthaus à la Parasit is a provocation, a pointer, a joker; it disrupts the message by affecting and changing usual modalities of communication and transmissions. However, I am increasingly convinced that we need to devise and develop models that facilitate symbiotic relations, based on multi- and transdirectional exchange, if we want to inspect, and expand, the arts of living on a damaged planet.5This may require to refrain from “appropriating” anything, and to direct our efforts to shaping dynamic, open, intra-active relatings.


  1. The ramification of the network depends on the number of jokers. But I suspect there is a limit to this. When there are too many, we are lost as if in a labyrinth. What would a series be if there were only jokers? What could be said of it?” (Serres 1982: 162).
  2. Haraway 2017:M25.
  3. Haraway 2017: M26. Examples of symbiosis are rhizomal bacteria interacting with legumes and allowing nitrogen fixation, essential to terrestrial life, or the coral reef as well as the tidal sea grass ecosystems, relying on the various symbionts of corals and clams.
  4. Ibid.
  5. This is a homage to the edited volume of Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan and Nils Bubandt (2017), from which was drawn Haraway’s cited piece.

Cited works:

Haraway, Donna: “Symbiogenesis, Sympoiesis, and Art Science Activisms for Staying with the Trouble”, in Anna Tsing et al (eds) (2017): Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press; M25-50.

Serres, Michel (1982): The Parasite. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

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