15 Mar 2024 All day SG1, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DP



  • Michael Degani (University of Cambridge)
  • Grace Zhou (Maynooth University)


Drawing on an improbable mix of philosophy, folklore, theology, communications theory, and behavioural ecology, Michel Serres (1982) offered a theory of the Parasite as any agent, human or beyond, that acts as an interrupting third, perturbing a connection between two (or more) relata. From noise that garbles a channel, to an uninvited guest that shows up for dinner, to a sovereign that expropriates the surplus of its people, to a species that degrades an environment, the parasite stands for all actors who live off–and upon–others. And yet just who is the parasite and who is the host is not always so clear, and often a matter of framing.

We propose that in the parasite anthropologists may find a powerful tool with which to theorise a world of increasingly complex cohabitations, in which such frames themselves exert a powerful organising force. The concept has proven useful for STS and media studies to theorise moments of breakdown and interruption (Brown 2002; Lezaun 2011; Fisher 2020; Wolfe 2021). Uptake in anthropology has been comparatively rare, though it has been used to suggestively rethink assumptions of economic reciprocity (Kockelman 2010; Shryock 2019) or ecological equilibrium (Kirksey 2015; Chao 2021). More broadly, the parasite, which emphasises the reversibility of guest/host or exploiter/exploited, may also be a useful ‘portable analytic’ (Boyer and Howe 2015) across a range of ethnographic contexts. It offers a provocation to consider the ambivalent ethos of co-option, over-intimacy, reappropriation, or adaptation from within a system, in contrast to the purifying imaginaries of redemptive liberalism, overt resistance, and fugitivity. Thinking with parasites brings together questions across economic, political, social, and ecological domains, and we invite papers that explore this proposition with ethnographic nuance. How might the parasite provide a common framework for subjects as varied as roadblocks, toxic exposure, human-animal relations, and ‘surplus’ populations? How might it help develop an ethnography of disgust, resentment, and other ‘ugly’ affects?

We also take seriously critiques of Serres’ framework for not dealing with the specificities of how parasitic relationality interfaces with structures of oppression and privilege (Snyder 2013), and invite critical reflections on the ways that accusations of parasitism are often gendered and racialized. Who or what is deemed parasitic, and what do these ascriptions reveal about normative judgements of worth, or about the work that is needed to maintain closed systems of power? Finally, how might understanding ascriptions of parasitism as an admission (or disavowal) of fundamental entanglement and mutual dependence open up new avenues for transformation and emergence?

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Supported by:

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Call for papers

Participants will convene for a workshop sponsored by CRASSH (The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) at the University of Cambridge on 15 March 2024, with the aim of putting together a special journal issue.

Please send a 250-word abstract or description of interest to Michael Degani (md996@cam.ac.uk) and Grace H Zhou (grace.zhou@mu.ie) by 12 November 2023.

We have limited funds to support early-career academics and/or scholars with financial needs. Everyone with an interest in the topic is warmly invited to submit, but do indicate if you will be requesting financial support.

Works cited:

  • Boyer, Dominic and Cymene Howe. 2015. ‘Portable Analytics and Lateral Theory.’ In Dominic Boyer, Cymene Howe, and James Faubion, eds. Theory Can Be More than it Used to Be: Learning  Anthropology’s Method in a Time of Transition, 15-38. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Brown, Steven D. 2002. ‘Michel Serres: Science, Translation and the Logic of the Parasite.’ Theory, Culture & Society 19(3): 1-27.
  • Chao, Sophie. 2021. ‘The Beetle or the Bug? Multispecies Politics in a West Papuan Oil Palm Plantation.’ American Anthropologist 123(3): 476-489.
  • Fisher, Anna Watkins. 2020. The Play in the System: The Art of Parasitical Resistance. Durham: Duke University Press.Kirksey, Eben. 2015. Emergent Ecologies. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Kockelman, Paul. 2010. ‘Enemies, Parasites, and Noise: How to Take Up Residence in a System Without Becoming a Term in It.’ Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20: 406-421.
  • Lezaun, Javier. 2011. ‘Bees, Beekeepers, and Bureaucrats: Parasitism and the Politics of Transgenic Life.’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29(4): 738-756.
  • Serres, Michel. 1982. The Parasite. Translated by Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Shryock, Andrew. 2019. ‘Keeping to Oneself: Hospitality and the Magical Hoard in the Balga of Jordan. History and Anthropology 30 (5): 546-562.
  • Snyder, Emily. 2013. ‘The Ugly Animal: Aesthetics, Power, and Animal-Human Relationality. Humanimalia 5(1): 136-168.
  • Wolfe, Cary. 2021. ‘Bring the Noise: The Parasite and the Multiple Genealogies of Posthumanism.’ Media Theory 5(1): 274-294.

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