The Parasite: Michel Serres and the Solar Economy of Data

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We have known for three thousand years that they all did the same job. … The technology of data processing finally brings us a data bank. This is less progress than simply the revealing of the truth of our systems. We are moving toward a data bank.

—Michel Serres, The Parasite

Zygmunt Bauman in Living on Borrowed Time states it simply:  “Capitalism, to put it bluntly, is essentially a parasitic system. Like all parasites, it may thrive for a time once it finds an as yet unexploited organism on which it can feed, but it can’t do that without harming the host and sooner or later destroying thereby the conditions of its prosperity, or even of its own survival.”1

Michel Serres speaking of the relations in the group dynamics of capitalism would discover the irreversible movement of this parasitic beast telling us “the chain of parasitism is a simple relation of order, irreversible like the flow of the river. One feeds on another and gives nothing in return. Asymmetry is local on a chain and is propagated globally the length of a series, through transitivity. They make a line.… For parasitism is an elementary relation; it is, in fact, the elements of the relation. … The relation upsets equilibrium, making it deviate. If some equilibrium exists or ever existed somewhere, somehow, the introduction of a parasite in the system immediately provokes a difference, a disequilibrium. Immediately, the system changes; time has begun.2 This intervention of temporal movement at the behest of the parasitical relationship is the core energetics of the universe, and the underlying pattern of our delirium.

He’ll make another observation that capitalism is founded on an exclusion: “The first one who, having enclosed a field or a bit of land, decided to exclude everything there, was the true founder of the following historical era” (178). That this notion of capitalism is founded on the exclusion of cyclic or mythical time, that the binding of property and the encircling of it by an horizon are in fact to enclose time as well as exclude it is central to this system. As Cary Wolfe will tell us in the introduction to this famous work: “One must … construct an alternative view of time and history that makes possible the submission of the familiar frames, proportions, and exclusions of historicism and its fundamentally linear, narrative mode to the creative force of the new, the unthought, the unexpected: to the incursion of noise and the force of the event.” (Parasite KL 237)

In his section entitled simply “Noise” Serres will say that “History is programmed; everyone has a score. Others say that they are in the same linguistic milieu together. Words have to find each other, since they are part of the same set. And this is the same solution: there is a conductor or a common text to play. Someone or something always precedes.” (KL 2387) This notion of a social milieu, of an enclosure where everyone is part of an orchestra in which the instruments find each other in the space of this transformation, this event of time that excludes the noise that forms music bound to the scripted text that is playing itself through them. Yet, to follow this as he says involves a fall into repetition and death. “The preformed and the ever-repeated are this text of death bearing the disappearance of the real. Another incarnation of thanatogenic philosophy that seeks to transform the world into a pillar of salt or a plain bestrewn with corpses.” (KL 2397) This is capitalism: the music of death and repetition. As he’ll say it: “If there already is a text or a conductor, if there have been enough repetitions (enough practice), then the world is a hell and we are but shades in it. Then death has won the game, aided in its work by philosophy.” (KL 2398)

Yet, “we are; we live; we think on the fringe, in the probable fed by the unexpected, in the legal nourished with information. There are two ways to die, two ways to sleep, two ways to be stupid— a head-first dive into chaos or stabilized installation in order and chitin. We are provided with enough senses and instinct to protect us against the danger of explosion, but we do not have enough when faced with death from order or with falling asleep from rules and harmony.” (KL 2501) This fine line between order and chaos, the ability to exist in that dangerous zone between without being caught in either is freedom.

If noise is what brings life and creation then silence is the power to exclude noise. “Who has the power? The one who has the sound, the noise, and who makes others be quiet. He doesn’t even need words; all that is necessary is for him to intercept. To say anything at all, but to prevent others from saying. It is enough to thunder. Power is nothing but the occupation of space.” (KL 2684)

The parasite is noise in capitalism that must be excluded. “Privatization begins with the emission of a phenomenon that expands. Then a whole country is tied up by appropriating all the transmitters. Yes, the media replace the motors, proof that noises are not byproducts. Space is full of loudspeakers. The system of sound traverses the differences, from West to East.” (KL 2714) Sound power that controls the socious. There is a connection in this:

Parasite. The prefix para-means “near,” “next to,” measures a distance. The sitos is the food. In this open mouth that speaks and eats, what is next to eating, its neighboring function, is what emits sound. Para measures a difference between a reception and, on the contrary, an expansion. The latter makes one’s own what is in common and what will soon be even more one’s own, the living body. It already eats space. (KL 2726)

So that there is a theory of property (private spot, locus) and money (shit):

Here then is a stercoral theory that supplies a fundament, as it were, for private property. It is not left, but simply filth. It sketches out a space centered around this locus of emission. Just like, a while back, around the loud speaker. The closer one gets to this spot, the closer one is to the private. Inversely then, the further away one goes. I am meditating on the parasite: the prefix para- always measures distance. Sitos, in Greek, sometimes means excrement. (KL 2755)

Like all great philological tracers of the genealogies of our linguistic utterances he uncovers a secret history of sex and tongue:

The strong theorem of all idealism is written as follows: the world is my representation. This can be translated into: the world is my marked territory; the world is my diarrhea. Among good idealists, the privileged are those that come out of their bodies. Saliva, blood, urine, sweat, vomit, and sperm, other such defecations. These dejecta that mark the terrain with their ink make them imperialist owners. Idealism is stercoral and the stercoral theory discovers idealism. (KL 2771)

One could say that capitalism is the fecal organization of society: a society whose only objective is producing an infinite sea of shit. He will ask “Could selling be another form of expulsion?” It’s in this sense that “Money is the trace of the excluded person. Money is the symbol of the banished person. The sign of sacrifice. … But it would still be nothing if we did not understand that it is exactly the substitute of the parasite and the parasite itself, the expelled one that always returns.” (KL 2828)

So the parasite is both excluded and that which must always return: the noise that capital expulses, yet allows to return and feed on its waste. A little death is good. Infection builds the immunity system. “I said: the parasite always comes back; if you chase it, it comes back to its place. Dispose of the fruit, sell it; it returns in the form of money. What you exclude, you include by this equivalent.” (KL 2846) One will never be done with the parasite: it will return by a circuitous route through metamorphosis from fruit to money. It’s fuzzy space through which the parasite moves hither and thither exchanging forms:

All the words used here participate in this distance. Exact and ex-action (extortion) relative to action (to the least action), abuse relative to use, parasite and parable (or parole, “word”) relative to the action of eating or speaking. Everything is deduced from it, as well as the exchanges. We are carried by the flow and the fuzziness of existence, its fluctuations and its circumstances, the advance of its production. (KL 2924)

Serres will read Biblical tales as economic treatises rather than ethical parables. “The passage to the symbolic is assured by an object that the Greeks called a symbol. A token of recognition. The symbolic is the deferral of killing. Could exchange be a deferral of murder? Tamar already makes clear what will happen in the story of Joseph.” (KL 3006)

Joseph’s tale: “The money from the wheat of Egypt is put into bags of wheat destined for Palestine. The brothers left the money, but the money doesn’t leave them. Excluded, included. The money is always there, in the exchange. … And that is why the story of Joseph, our first treatise of economics, is also a treatise on the interpretation of dreams. Cistern-capital and cistern-unconscious.” (KL 3087)

Capitalism is a universe of jokers: “Given the universe of discourse. This universe can be organized according to the distribution of jokers. … A curious universe, though a logical one, where dreams adhere to finance, where gold is near dreams. This universe has the form of a cornucopia. From a narrow, unique point to the wide mouth of equivalence (wide and narrow can change positions here). The universe of discourse is a horn of plenty. Parasites, noises and grub(s), swarm around this horn.” (KL 3095- 3099)

Philological and etymological fables on the economy of ancient discursive worlds come alive in the travels of our parasites: the word itself is this parasite that changes through various metamorphoses revealing its power to move through time in man guises in and out, circulating, exchanging, dancing among the various devices and apparatuses of culture and economy.

He will trace the lineage of Capital: What is Capital? “It is the reservoir above the dam, an iron mine or a coal, manganese, or tungsten mine; a gold mine. A city, a class, a group, a nation. Us. A treasure, a wad of bills, a bank. It is a store of writings.” (KL 3260)

A world of Big Data? “We have known for three thousand years that they all did the same job. The Jupiterian function is the function of the sign. The technology of data processing finally brings us a data bank. This is less progress than simply the revealing of the truth of our systems. We are moving toward a data bank.” (KL 3262) What are we trying to reproduce out of this accumulation of knowledge stored in our data bank? “And thus our knowledge and our ingenious praxes are set today on the reproduction of the sun.” (KL 3273) The ancient Sun cults and religions of the world are at the core of capitalism. “Not only do we look directly at the sun, not only do we merely represent it; we also produce it. Alas, it is not the marvelous transcendence that we expected: it is simply the end of a story.” (KL 3281)

Is this what our massive Hadron Collider is seeking? The secret of producing the sun: the energy of the sun for continuous consumption – to gain power over the very source of earth’s resources?

What will we call this revolution? I don’t know. It will be a new one— a successor to Galileo and Copernicus will give it its name— yet it will not be new. For our paths have long been leading there. Reserve above, ultimately the source, for the functioning of our motors. There are pieces of earth which were suns already. (KL 3283)

So our quest has been there from the beginning of civilization: the quest to attain the power of the Sun – the Sun Kings, all the ancient religious paraphernalia become secular in our economics of the sun.

A chapter in the book of reason is about to close. But we already know that end; we know its consequences. Arriving at the capital-sun or at the data bank … The system is born under our eyes; it was already there: the mammoth of the world, the gigantic dinosaur whose finished enormities are preliminaries, Leviathan, the great beast, already known and named, well-nourished with abundant energy and with normally directed information. The old kind of philosophy is applied anew. Henceforth, we know how to construct this model, since we have the solar force and the data in our bank account. (KL 3299)

Capitalism is a thriving parasite. “The parasite doesn’t stop. It doesn’t stop eating or drinking or yelling or burping or making thousands of noises or filling space with its swarming and din. The parasite is an expansion; it runs and grows. It invades and occupies. It overflows, all of a sudden, from these pages. Inundation, swelling waters. Noises, din, clamor, fury, tumult, and noncomprehension. Asymmetry, violence, murder and carnage, arrow and axe. Misery, hunger: poverty, begging at the doors; those who eat too much, drunk, those who never have anything but wind to chew on. Sickness, epidemics, the plague.” (KL 4653)

1. Bauman, Zygmunt (2013-10-08). Living on Borrowed Time: Conversations with Citlali Rovirosa-Madrazo (Kindle Locations 479-481). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
2. Serres, Michel (2013-11-30). The Parasite (Posthumanities) (Kindle Locations 197-198). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.

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