Of Utopia and Parasites
One year ago, in November 2012, I visited Southend on Sea in Essex. I had the clear attempt to evoke critical thoughts for my MA group project in art and and politics but somehow, I ended up pondering on our society’s current condition without being that critical after all. Or at least so I thought. Southend – a place that once served the need for escapism for those living in a city – appeared in an indescribable and beautifully faded glory. Wandering around the place on its off-season days I discovered a variety of twinkling icons for human desire that were buried in the bitter sweetness of failure. Not knowing, whether it was more of a bitter or more of a sweet taste I realised that I was stuck - surrounded by a strange dreamland that didn’t satisfy me as such, but nevertheless appeared captivating. Between the empty gambling paradises for dejected souls, I was able to sense a utopian smell in the air. The cause of this smell spread itself out in unpredictable dimensions: an oversized servant for consumerism, a parasite perhaps.
I have the clear memory of a friend describing the parasite as a good comparison in artistic practices and actually in many other areas, such as politics. He was speaking about it during a late night dinner with a lot of wine, a regular occurrence in my student life. As I recall, we were talking about collective power, then about swarms and then, at some point Mark started saying the most amusing things about parasites. There was something quite engaging about the way he pointed out that we could learn from them. Furthermore, if we would approach things more parasitically, we would be able to succeed in a more sustanable way when it comes to change. It is always a joy hearing a friend questioning a common idea. As far as I'm concerned, the human conception of parasites is rather unpleasant. An unwanted interrupter, an error, a disease; an operator that takes as much as it can, not giving anything whatsoever in return.
Of course however, my friend Mark isn't the only, and not the first thinker to have raised these particular thoughts. Michel Serres, a contemporary French philosopher, dedicated a whole book to the parasite, where he elaborates that parasites are fulfilling their surviving procedures in much the same way as human beings cultivate their social relationships to each other. Using mostly fables to provide evidence for his theory, Serres goes from chapter to chapter comparing parasitic scenarios to human ones. One of his first discoveries is that, in society, the parasite is regarded as an unwanted addition to a major system, whose only aim is to destroy it. Hence society generally tries to obliterate any parasite, with the pure interest to succeed in infecting the primary system. However, Serres suggests that, aside from that, the parasite’s purpose is not destruction per se, but also building new realities from scratch, by “filling the gap between chaos and order”. By having the freedom to interrupt something pre-existing that carries a certain order, the parasite is able to produce change.
In other words: the parasitical approach can achieve a difference by staying in the existing reality and slowly operate from within it, eating softly what is needed to survive but replacing what is unneeded with a new placeholder.
I suggest that if I started describing a failed dreamland, my example being Southend, and if we are now talking of the parasite changing existing realities into “something new”, let’s go for the whole thing, lets go to Utopia.
Looking back at the case Southend, applying the idea of the parasite. I do think that this place grew as parasitically as Michel Serres describes, but its outcome is hardly convincing if we talk of Utopia. I like Serres’ idea about a parasite that can be productive and cause a certain difference. Thus I am wondering if we can operate fully intentionally as parasites, heading towards utopian ideas? And succeed in a valuable outcome?
The thing with Utopia is that, as well as the parasite, we’ve been told to avoid it, and we are constantly reminded to fear utopian thinking, finger-pointed to history lessons. Utopia seems to be seen as a poetic idealism that could end up in dangerous dimensions.
I am thinking about the futurist movement and how they marked their utopian presence with a totalitarian appearance. Although they were clearly utopian in their aims, the reason why they didn’t succeed in “changing the world” is because from the very beginning their demands were shouted out in the most totalitarian way possible and hence they ended up in representative instruments for Mussolini, a “quite” totalitarian protagonist himself.
If I've learnt one thing about “quite” totalitarian representatives in history, it is that in most cases, they were, however they did it, destined to fail miserably within a pretty short amount of time. In the case of the futurists, it might be worth noting that despite their totality, some of their elements could be interpreted as fairly parasitical. The manifest of the futurist musicians for instance: “L'arte dei Rumori” (The Art of Noises), a letter written by Luigi Russolo to a futurist composer friend, in which he argues that the new human ear has converted into an ear that is more familiar to urban and industrial noise. He demands that traditional instrumentation and composition needs to be renewed, suggesting a number of explanations about how technology will make it possible for (futurist) musicians to exchange the traditionally limited amount of timbres into “the infinite variety of timbres in noises, reproduced with appropriate mechanisms”. This may be similar to the chapter about the rat dinner in Michel Serres’ “Parasite”, in which he tells the fable of a rat dinner and its constant interruption by noise. Serres uses a classic idea of system and communication theory to support his argument that noise in any communication acts as a third participator, an unwelcome guest or to say it properly: as a parasite.
Although I am aesthetically drawn to futurism, be it visual or musical, I do remember from history lessons that the presence of the futurists didn’t last for very long. However, I don't feel like giving up on my successful, “utopian” parasite. I think the reason why futurism ended up as a perfect tool for fascist propaganda is not because of the parasitic gestures but because of being too total. To name just one, but crucial, example: the futurist movement glorified war in its artworks and talked about deserting traditionalism and having a revolution. This totalitarian approach simply doesn’t sound like the “serrian” parasitic change that could otherwise be evoked.I wonder, however, if there is a way to parasite “correctly” then, whilst still embracing the idea of Utopia? Were the futurists’ malignant utopian parasites? Are we not able to plant benign parasites into the social structure of our world to achieve sustainable changes? And if so, should we do so?I would like to draw your attention to a further utopian intention, thoroughly examined byRussian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin: the carnival in the writings of Francois Rabelais. In the early French Renaissance period, Rabelais' use of his native tongue was extraordinarily original but also his texts were known for being full of sexual ambiguity, inappropriate anecdotes and vulgar chansons that still shock people nowadays. In Bakhtin’s view, the nature of laughter and mockery is the most important element in Rabelais’ work. Bakhtin reveals the scenes where Rabelais describes the throwing of excrement at superlative forces, indicating that Rabelais makes the strong authorial presence of these forces visible… in a socially disagreeable way.
Furthermore, Bakhtin goes on to describe how Rabelais talks of a shifting consensus regarding the presence of authorities: "All the events shown in this episode present the character of a popular-festive comic performance: it is a gay and free play, but it is also full of deep meaning. Its hero and author is time itself, which uncrowns, covers with ridicule, kills the old world (the old authority and truth), and at the same time gives birth to the new.
In other words, the breaking-up of social norms is used as performance during carnivalesque fests by help of parody and the grotesque gave the opportunity for social criticisms in a humorous way, culturally digestible for both, the common man and the upper class and were therefore (a symbolic) destruction of authority. Bakhtin’s description of the carnival during Rabelais’ time served the purpose of displaying this critique available for all classes of society, not as a revolutionary act, but in my opinion as a theatrical parasite that went on stage and his audience was the system that he was trying to renew.Does this performed symbolic deconstruction create an affect that is translatable into our modern reality? Can fiction affect society?It is now, perhaps interesting, to look at another concept regarding the broader theme ofaffect; take for example “A thousand Plateaus",
a collection of thoughts and philosophical enquires by Deleuze and Guattari in a book that should rather be played like a record than read from A-Z, focusing mainly on the concept of the “rhizome”.
I didn’t necessarily find supporting proposals on how to develop a compassionate parasite so to speak, as the authors seemed not to attempt to give final solutions on how to resolve social concerns, but I came across a chapter that dealt with the idea of becoming an animal; in which the two authors state that becoming an animal can happen as a soft molecular resemblance –rather than a linear and total transformation; which is to say that, rather than imitating the animal in question, one should compose its own organism together with something else, in a way that just those little elements that were allocated can match some of the elements at thefinal destination.
However, despite the intellectually compelling style, the richness of thought and a successful analysis of animal transformation, I missed a (more reasonable) suggestion on how to apply all those “rhizomatic insights” into practical activities. I had an idea that becoming as what Deleuze and Guattari describe as "something else" and renewing ourselves would mean that we should use “just” some particles, or even just matching certain parts of another system to create something else. But how do we apply this idea onto real breathing life rather than talking of poetic/rhizomatic transformations?
Michel De Certeau noted that a poetic element with the aim to transform prior systems already exists in the practice of the everyday. While looking at the division of private and working life, he distinguishes the various practices into strategies and tactics.He explains the practice of “la peruque”, with which certain employees behave or perform under the guise of working while they are, in fact doing something else, thus undermining a structured authority. He points out that the distinction between working place and private life is artificial anyway since the individual is able to practice elements of his private life within the working area and vice versa. Talking of this everyday division, Certeau, brings the terms strategies and tactics into play. Strategies are practised by establishments of power, whether tactics are determined by the absence of power. Furthermore he calls strategies as totalising because they prefer spatial relationships in contrast to tactics, which operate within the context of time. Tactics are a “clever utilisation of time” because they are able to gain a certain validation within the moment of an intervention and, by doing so, a tactic can introduce the notion ofplay into those foundations of predominate power. He compares the usage of tactics with tricking, and calls it a “guileful ruse”. Moreover, exercising this trick within a certain system is the “practical equivalent of wit”. All the various activities within the everyday, such as cooking, relate to the attributes of the tactical ruses previously mentioned above. “Clever tricks of the ‘weak’ within the order established by the ‘strong’”. An art that is produced by various players of the social realm. These so-called tactics are manoeuvrable, poetic and polymorphous and can therefore even transform a strategic model.
I understand that De Certeau wants us to welcome tactics, and accept them as a legitimate approach to survive within the different realities we live in. Likewise I feel certain that the practice of tactics described above is very similar to the idea of a benign parasite that can change our social structures by operating within something that exists already.Perhaps Utopia is not just one place but a polymorphous constellation of brave gestures and clever tactics from its civilians. The dominant powers of our consuming society misunderstood utopianism by reducing various human needs to the single aspect of financial profit. Let us now parasite back, by using the resources offered in a soft and slowly tactic.The radical futurists of the past gave us visions of a noisy world full of progress.
We now need to find our own “noise” to achieve what we ourselves define as progress.
Note: this text originated from an essay I submitted at Goldsmiths University in 2012 and has been edited to make it more readable and generally better (thanks god those academic writing days are gone). Read the original text with all its footnotes and failed dramaturgy over here if like: https://www.academia.edu/5378526/Of_Utopia_and_Parasites