The parasite paradox:
Collectivity and the Niche

The parasite paradox:
Collectivity and the Niche

In biology, a parasite is an organism that lives on and depends on another. The term describes what at first sight appears to be a one-sided relationship. In ancient Greece, the parasite was still a respected temple servant, who, with the secularization of ancient society, gradually lost their functional role and thus their legitimacy. The parasite as a term became a commensal at the table, until it reappeared in modernity as a botanical term for a relationship between two plants that is beneficial to only one of them.
The philosopher and communication theorist Michel Serres introduces the parasite in his communication theory and speaks of the parasite-host relationship as a „relationship that knows only one direction.“ It is this one-sidedness of the relationship that made a socially pejorative term from this biological concept.

The temporality of parasitism

I propose that the parasite appears as one-sided and exploitative in large part because it is viewed in relation to the life cycle of an organism. The term parasite is informed by a human moral perspective of temporality. This perspective asks about the advantages and disadvantages that occur in the timespan of one life cycle, and in relation to the individual life. Already in this there is a moral bias. If we were to abstract in time, away from the concrete individual life, I would argue, we would have to introduce a new evaluation of the term. If we consider the parasitic in a larger time span, the arrow that „knows only one direction“ might even be reversed.
In the overall evolution of a species, a parasite exerts mutation and adaptation forces over the host species. According to this biological argument, the parasite contributes to the survival of the host in the long run. Parasites create pressure on other organisms to constantly adapt to their environment and to new conditions. This creates a coevolution of host and parasite that evolves over millions of years.
Serres translates this phenomenon into systemic thinking and speaks of the fact that, without the parasite (understood by him as disturbance and irritation) the system stagnates. Thus, without the parasite, every species, every network, every entropy would also be heading towards its own end. For the parasite is not only an irritation, which takes without giving. The parasite is a moment of innovation, introducing new information into a system. It is the moment which tests system boundaries and thereby expands them, which creates irritation and thereby requires adaptation or, speaking from the perspective of thermodynamic law, which maintains the level of entropy in a system.

Taking the parasite beyond the time span of a life cycle, I would question Serres and the biological principle of the „one direction“ in which the parasite acts. For, in information theory, disturbance (noise) always generates information. Without disturbance, or in the logic of evolution, without mutation acting through disturbance and its adaptation to it, there is no development, no competition. So the concept of the parasite, which takes without giving, implodes as soon as we decouple the idea of the parasite from the frame of a life cycle.
Suddenly, disruption – or a parasitic „gnawing“ – becomes innovation. Just as every hack leads to the closing of the gap through which the hack entered the system, thereby contributing to the stabilization of the system. Irritation, therefore, is always only temporarily destructive. It is very unstable in its potential for irritation, as it ultimately contributes to the stabilization and survival of the system. Thus the parasite, in its function of evoking innovation, can unexpectedly become a beloved figure in the same structures that it penetrated and opposed.
Another consequence of going beyond the time span of a life cycle is intergenerational collectivity – a temporal and vertical collectivism, as distinct from horizontal collectivity in the present. By looking at a longer time span, connections between different generations of a species are established as they deal with the same parasites, their genetic legacies and variations.

The parasite as Start-up – ways of appropriation

Financial capitalism, deregulated capitalism, or even Accelerationism are all about acceleration, innovation, and constantly reinventing oneself.
Thus Nancy Fraser speaks of a dangerous liaison between emancipatory practices and neoliberalism; a liaison whereby deregulation and inequality are not only supported, but legitimized as emancipatory. Can it be that neoliberal strategies incorporate parasitic practices so that they ultimately strengthen the dominant system and accelerate its development? As described above, irritation leads to adaptation and change – that is, to innovation. In the neoliberal logic, surplus is generated by reinventing the old, as this is how an enterprise fights for an edge or competitive advantage over other market actors.
How could the parasite ultimately escape the snare of neoliberal appropriation?

Regardless of any appropriation, the moment of disruption remains, which first of all contains nothing productive. According to Serres, the parasite is and remains the „last in the chain“ and therefore, after every appropriation of an innovation (a parasitic action), another parasite lines up at the end to latch onto the new system.
The notion of the parasite conceptually evades appropriation because it is understood relationally. Thus, the parasite is not the object, the actor itself, but instead a description of how actors in a system or network relate to each other.
Thus, even if a parasite is appropriated i.e. becomes part of the system or mainstream, only the signified i.e. the object itself, is appropriated in the process, not the condition of being parasite, that is, the concept itself (signifier).
As soon as the inflatable sleeping bags of Michael Rakowitz’s paraSITE, which are heated inside by exhaust vents, no longer act as a niche instrument providing people with a warm place to sleep, but become part of an exhibition or official support strategies for the homeless, they are no longer a parasite. Instead, they become guests or hosts themselves. From that moment on, paraSITE is appropriated. The parasitic (signifier) of the paraSITE project leaves the object (signified), which mutates into a use value that serves a function but no longer generates irritation.
If the parasite is no longer considered to be a one-way relationship, then it remains to be asked what defines it at all. Wouldn‘t the parasite then be a neoliberal tool par excellence? For it is through irritation that the system ultimately reforms itself and can be maintained; this happens as the parasite generates tame irritations that lead to workable changes. We must then address the question of ideology and the extent to which the parasite is suitable as an ideological figure. Does the parasite mutate into a neoliberal concept, like diversity management or crowdfunding? It would then be a subversive guest – who is at once welcomed and abominated.

In this view, a Start-up could be considered a contemporary parasite. Start-ups seek a niche, usually appearing functionless at first, but then quickly mutate and move out of a counter-hegemonic position right into the center. They feed exclusively on the host called venture capital for the first few years, giving only a hope of success in return. They understand the camouflage or system language perfectly and usually act aggressively to prevail against competitors (e.g. grocery and meal delivery services, Uber, Lime, Gorillas) – these are all characteristics of a parasite. In doing so, they create disruption in an industry, they irritate, they gnaw at the orderly market shares and if they don’t fail, as 90% of start-ups do, they situate themselves in the market and then change sides: they become the host, the market dominator. All other start-ups, on the other hand, squander the irritation and the venture capital, as well as themselves and others, and disappear again. They operate with strategies like sweat equity or growth hacking – forms that operate with unpaid labor and public platforms and exploit their own resources to gain advantage in the market. The start-up appears as a parasite whose demise is speculated on, indeed almost reckoned with. But speculation on a parasite is already a sign of its appropriation.
Spotify, for example, began as a start-up; it was irritating, operated in a niche and ‚annoyed‘ the top dogs like iTunes, until it suddenly came out of the niche into the mainstream, lost the role of irritation and gained that of innovation, then dominant player in the market. So the recurring question is: where is the resistance in the parasite?

Virus and Parasite as Starting Point for Collectivity

In what follows, I want to relate the parasitic and the viral. What interests us about the parasite is its relational, „exploitative“ relationship to the host, to the dominant or the hegemonic. And we can apply this to viruses, which also act parasitically in relation to an organism. They are an enhanced form of the parasitic, since only at the moment of interaction with a host are they capable of reproducing at all.

Most recently, viruses have also been described, in relation to the human organism, as a collective that, taken together, can be called an organ – the so-called virome. The collective of viruses or the virome performs functions in the production of enzymes and participates in the whole organism. At the same time it is difficult to localize.
The virus itself is located in the border area between life and death. They are located between matter and non-matter, so they remain on the border of the corporeal.
Like the parasite, viruses take on an elementary function in the system. Viruses are uncontrollable, hidden, and in addition to their destructive, sometimes lethal properties, they are also a productive alliance in the body.

When the virome steps out of invisibility into visibility, when we understand its functionality, then the uninvited guest mutates into an invited one, the parasite or the virus becomes a welcome guest and its way of acting, thus, calculable, tamed and system-supporting – and no longer irritating at all. At this moment, irritation gains entry into overall social functionality and is even financed (venture capital), included (feminist political content on Netflix) or institutionally connected (political art).

The boundaries of the virome remain unclear, as viruses enter and exit, shifting from a threat to the organism to a system-supporting function. Baudrillard‘s theory of the virus speaks of viruses in much the same way that Serres speaks of parasites, describing the virus’ function as destabilizing the organism or system.
Thus, beside the collectivity of the parasites and the virus, which arises over several generations, a second form of collectivity occurs, which takes form in the virome.
What does this collective form of the parasite mean in relation to art and social transformation?

In her article in Issue 1 of this magazine, Eliza T. Bertuzzo writes that the parasitic and the irritant represent an outdated singular form of critique which ultimately does not generate sufficient transformation. From her perspective, transformational strategies are much more about a sympoiesis, a worlding that includes different fields of action and actors and develops a new practice from them. Therefore, she rejects singular actions such as that of the parasite, which moreover resemble the outdated image of a hero. According to Bertuzzo, they do not have the potential for collective change or create a basis for solidarity and empowerment, let alone transformation.
However, the parasite’s practice and its classification shift place when we see the parasitic not as a singular action but as a viromei.e as a strategy, or a diffuse practice which can be collectivized.

So what if Gaia (the complex totality of all organisms) is not literally understood as a unity, but equally understood from the individual elements of this unity. Then the parasitic can also be part of Gaia, i.e. the whole, without being reduced as a mechanism of autopoiesis.
By this I mean that if we understand a collective of the virome, this does not mean that every virus is uniquely assignable to the collective or even recognized as such. A virome is characterized just by the fact that it acts in chaos, possesses many unknowns, unites different temporalities (virus as gene database17) and mutates very quickly from friend to enemy. It works in a collective, but this becomes clear only from the outside and in relation to a much larger temporality, which, as mentioned above, exceeds the life span of an organism.
The resistance to privatization consists of singular acts of parasitic intervention such as the Penthouse à la Parasite or Parasite Parking. The resistance is not expressed through uniquely collective acts, rather, it is manifested in fragmented niche activities of different parasitic practices. These act with strategies of opaque adaptation, perversion and destruction of the given logics, as Tonia Andresen explains in her article. The virome is a collective which contains in the singular action a collectivity that becomes visible only through observation and over an extended time frame.

The parasite thus acts in the singular, though its effect is collective. For example, the coronavirus acts within the individual organism and mutates, transforming in the collective from one variant to the next. Furthermore, through its irritation, it produces a collective among the hosts. paraSITE, Open Sheds used for what?, and Casa Parásito can each be considered as a single phenomenon, a single parasite, but they can also show a commonality in their fragmented existence. They can act individually and are involved in a collective production of irritation; in this case, an irritation of private property.
The one-way relationship is thereby unstable, however, and the parasite is threatened with its demise at every stage of perpetuation. Thus, each moment of irritation remains temporally precarious and fluid.

Coronavirus as a bridge to collective experience and starting point for mobilization

How is it possible to generate collective mobilization through parasitic strategies? I dare to consider at this point the collective experience of the coronavirus as an opportunity for a new emancipatory practice. Judith Butler speaks of embodied communal experiences, such as a demonstration, as elemental to the experience of commonality.18 Thus, the experience of the pandemic could be a bodily experience which produced similar experiences across class, national, and discriminatory boundaries: fear, impossibility of control, unpredictability, loneliness, and material concerns (but these to highly unequal degrees). While there were new fault lines (e.g., vaccinated vs. unvaccinated people), rich and poor, global North and global South also shared some similar worlds of experience which could not be alleviated by wealth and privilege as in other crises. This shared experience could provide a basis for a common horizon of action.
Political theory has long wondered how to generate a commonality (or mobilization) that would lead to collective action and ultimately to the overthrow of a hegemony. In Marxist theory, the collective experience of working-class exploitation and precarity was foregrounded; in Western, near-sighted humanism, male-white universalism was seen, and still is, as the common paradigm under which unity could be achieved.
The parasitic or viral, however, will probably not be known to produce a real upheaval. Instead, the parasite is generally interested in long-term coexistence with the host due to its own dependence on it. This leads to the thesis, indeed the logic, that the parasite pursues a strategy of transformation through reformation, since a revolution i.e. a new beginning through total death of the system, would destroy its own survival niche.
Still open is the question of how to connect to this collective viral experience. How can this become the basis of an emancipatory common practice – a basis of solidarity which does not take place through abstract ideals (as is too often attempted via theories, ideologies or political convictions), but through the physically shared (viral) experience? And how would this materialize? How can such a precarious experience be transformed into a political moment?

Conclusion: Temporality, Collectivity, Mobilization – Linking Through Parasite Art

The question of the collective is elementary, if parasitic action is to be understood as a common art movement, and equally so if the parasite is to support a social transformation, or to be considered as a political strategy.

In this article, I have presented different forms of collectivization through parasitism.
Firstly, via a shift in temporality, which provokes not only a reversal of the relationship accomplished from a one-way to a two-way relationship; but also opens the question of collectivity, by creating one across generations – that is, vertically, through a temporally extended perspective or an abstraction of experienced time. Just as parasites across generations can be seen as a factor driving change, not only that of their own species, but also that of other species.
Secondly, we have attested collectivity by linking parasite and virus: the collective formed by comparable actions of all viruses involved in the virome (irritations); and the commonality which emerges as a consequence when the parasite itself is present in any host. This is a commonality which may not be experienced individually, but can be observed analytically; as during the COVID pandemic, when a collectivity between viruses was observed. They developed a common strategy, ultimately transforming themselves as a collective virus, generating new variants to always inhabit new niches.
Thirdly, collectivity is generated externally. Thus, this occurs between the hosts themselves, as a parasite (for example, the COVID-19 virus) becomes a common enemy. This collective experience also creates a basis for collective action, for example, when Corona deniers gather together to protest on the streets, regardless of their very different political backgrounds; or as in the artworks collected in this volume, which work on similar themes without internal agreement or a defined sense of belonging.

With the question of collectivity comes that of the possibility of mobilization. I would like to locate the possibility of collective mobilization through the virus or parasite. How can a parasite be taken up as a collective experience of the pandemic and played back as a social critique?
One example of how the Corona pandemic generates collectivity is the Mutual Aid movement in the United States. There, the pandemic led to civil society alliances to mitigate negative consequences and provide mutual support, independently from employers or from the state. Boundaries along the lines of class, race and gender were overcome in an unprecedented way.
I would like to return to the initial question of how parasites act collectively and link this to Parasitic Art. Collectivity in art manifests itself mainly in collectively executed parasitic strategies.
Parasitic art uses the energy of systems for its own actions, flawedly reproducing their logic to avoid attracting attention and to find a niche. Thus paraSITE uses and alienates the exhaust air of subway shafts or restaurant heaters, Penthaus à la Parasit sells other people‘s property, Parasite Parking uses the private space of parking spots for public concerns, and Open Sheds used for what? occupies brownfields by different artists*.
All of these interventions perform different small-scale reinterpretations of public space, acting on the one hand with the system and its logic (camouflage) and on the other hand resisting it (irritation).
While inhabiting the niche, Parasitic Art must remain aware of how temporary its stay is, and that its own lifespan, or the parasite itself, has a short temporality. Every stay is in constant danger of being taken over by the host. And perhaps this very knowledge of their own limitedness, the knowledge of the singularity of their niche, is what unites them and generates a collectivity; just as the coronavirus generates new variants which continually resist the defense mechanisms of the system. Just as Baudrillard‘s virus theory speaks of destabilization through the virus, Parasite Art cannot create a new vision, cannot achieve mobilization. However, Parasite Art can collectively destabilize, and in doing so, motivate further parasitic strategies, and make forms of interpretation and social critiques tangible.

The question to what extent the parasite is a collective being must therefore be answered with yes and no – and here again we find are again at the paradox which has always surrounded the parasite, indeed which it incorporates. Ultimately, the parasite in individual critique also unites precisely this paradox. The parasite is isolated and yet collective – but always remains only individually criticizable.


  1. Like described in: Ross, Toni. “Aesthetic Autonomy and Interdisciplinarity: a Response to Nicolas Bourriaud’s ‘Relational Aesthetics.’” Journal of Visual Art Practice 5.3 (2006): 167–181. Web.
  2. Adorno, Theodor W. 2003. Ästhetische Theorie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
  3. After Lawton, 2019, the question of activists is: “how democracy looks when rights are deprived or upheld, demanding distinctions between right and wrong”. But that’s far from my approach to my artistic or artivist practice. Similarly, Bishop (2012) says: Social practice artists working within an artivist framework view art as a form of protest and resistance with “people [comprising] the central artistic medium and material. Social practice art repositions the viewer or audience of a work of art as collaborators or participants cooperating in partnership with the artist.”
  4. Therefore, it can only be partly experienced in Baumgartens way of aesthetic as the science of senses.
  5. Referring to Spencer Brown (1979), describing the black box as a container for unknown processes, where one can only observe in and output, but not know about the system of the black box itself.
  6. The Parasite, according to Michel Serres (1982), can be seen as an observer, because it is inside and outside all at once. That is another argument for a Parasite Aesthetic, because the aesthetic is not inducible through the sensorial approach.
  7. Serres, Michael, 1982, The Parasite, the Johns Hopkins University press, London.
  8. ibid. 194 (german version, translated by the author)
  9. ibid. 7
  10. Marchart, Oliver. 2019. Conflictual Aesthetics: Artistic Activism and the Public Sphere. Book, Whole. Berlin, Germany: Sternberg Press.
  11. Spontaneous ideology is in the indecipherable, mystical distance between the work and the audience. It‘s the way how the art world defines the political which makes in his opinion the term interchangeable and useless for an analysis.
  12. Mouffe, Chantal. 2014. Agonistik. Die Welt Politisch Denken. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
  13. ibid. 24
  14. look at the end of the text
  15. Capitalist Aesthetic is, as Marchart calls it, the “tame” political art within the white cube and without involvement in real conflicts.
  16. Here also Adorno’s point is interesting, who says that for the art system the art, or the parasite, is important for its existence and therefore finally only confirming and sustaining its position.
  17. Viruses store parts of the DNA and can pass it to different generations of organisms, since viruses have a different lifespan and reproductive cycle. For more details look at:
  18. She speaks of precariousness as a shared experience that would make it possible to act in connectedness, or of performativity or corporeality as the basis of emancipatory mobilization and solidarity.