Here is what that article described. The larva of the parasite Nematomorpha develops inside the body of a cricket, eating its way through everything non-essential to the cricket’s basic functioning. Once grown, the worm needs to return to water to reproduce. So, having eaten its fill and having reduced the cricket to head, shell and legs, the hairworm begins to secrete mind-controlling substances which create suicidal urges in the cricket, driving it towards, and then into, the closest river or lake. The cricket drowns, and the hairworm emerges from the corpse and swims away to mate. In a particularly romantic twist, this clipping suggested that the hairworm waits for a moonlit night to take over the mind of the cricket, using the reflection of moonlight to guide its host to a watery grave.
Strangely, considering the metaphoric and semantic overlaps between insect symbiosis and the language of hosting, in that book of lectures that I found on the train there was only one mention of parasitism. Derrida invokes it early on in order to draw the distinction between a “guest” and a “parasite.” “How can we distinguish between a guest and a parasite?” he asks.
1. Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality (Stanford University Press, 2000), pp. 59-61
In principle, the difference is straightforward, but for that you need a law; hospitality, reception, the welcome offered have to be submitted to a basic and limiting jurisdiction. Not all new arrivals are received as guests if they don’t have the benefit of the right to hospitality, or the right to asylum, etc. Without this right, a new arrival can only be introduced ‘in my home’ as a parasite, a guest who is wrong, illegitimate, clandestine, liable to expulsion or arrest.1
The “law” that Derrida refers to here is one pole of a dialectic that these lectures seek to deconstruct. He sets it in opposition to the capital-L Law of hospitality, of a radical hospitality that cannot be constrained by a “limiting jurisdiction.” Under this “Law” then, there would be no “limiting jurisdiction” and therefore no possibility of a guest who is “wrong, illegitimate, clandestine.” Derrida does not consider the parasite as being, of itself, different from the guest. What distinguishes them is determined by the conditions that the “law” happens to impose. The one who arrives is nothing more than an arrival. Only after they have knocked on the door do the laws that they meet determine their classification as either parasite or as guest.
The first prediction that comes up on a google search for “insect” is “insecticide.” It’s an indication that on the most quotidian level, when most people think about bugs, it’s usually about how to get rid of them. Applying the metaphor of a bug to a human is a literal belittling, which scales them down to a realm where death is quotidian and inconsequential. There is a well-documented history of the dangers of a semantics which dehumanizes, in particular one which anthropod-morphizes. When some public figures (such as UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who referred to people at the Calais Jungle migrant camp as a ‘swarm’ headed towards his country) use this language, the response is swift condemnation and a reminder of the murderous history that such associations invoke. When Erdogan uses the language, his supporters take to the streets.
“Swarm,” “parasite,” “virus,” and “vermin” (that which carries the parasite) are used in similar syntactic situations, but with differing associations. While a “swarm” suggests something en masse, beyond control, and beyond the individual agency of the participating organisms, a “virus” suggest infection and uncontrollable multiplication; a “parasite” brings up opposing images of something calculating, pernicious, rational and controlling: something sneaky and evil-intentioned which will take on-the-sly, abusing the generosity of the host.
Alex Bein’s 1964 essay “The Jewish Parasite” outlines the history of this word “parasite.” Contrary to contemporary usage, which invokes the biologic and anthropodic as a metaphor for the social, the passage of the word through time shows that the scientific sense is in fact a transfer from its original, social, meaning. The etymology of the word has its roots in the greek, παρα, “beside,” and σιτος, “grain, food,” or by extension “one who eats beside.” It was originally used in a positive sense, referring to “the officers of the sacerdotal and municipal services,” who “received their provisions at the expense of the state.”22. Alex Bein, The Jewish Parasite: Notes on the Semantics of the Jewish Problem, with special Reference to Germany, Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, Oxford University Press, January 1, 1964, vol. 9 (1) pp. 3-40 (Ironically, it is members of these municipal services that are currently being labeled “viruses” in Erdogan’s purge). By the fourth century BCE its meaning had shifted, referring instead to the poor who would gather outside the houses of the rich during the midday meal — no longer beside them at the table, but subject to mockery and humiliation in exchange for the scraps of charity. Marxist theory would later adopt the word parasite to refer to the capitalists who lived off the labor of others. The metaphor is displaced to the opposite end of the power and wealth spectrum, but retains the association of unproductivity. The arrival, in order to be a guest, must have a productivity to offer — a “guest” worker visa confers a status in exchange for extractable labor.
From the beggar at the gate, the parasite became a stock character in Greek comedy, and through this it entered European language and literature via Molière, Shakespeare, Ben Johnson and others. Not until the mid-19th century, with biologists such as Pierre-Joseph van Beneden (1809–1894), who studied the life cycle of the tapeworm, did the word assume its current scientific significance. Then in the 20th century, borrowed back as metaphor from science with all its accumulated layers of association, it became a central pillar in the ideology of Nazi Germany, a foundational myth of the Holocaust which saw the Jew cast as a parasite, an unproductive and destructive outsider that has entered into and is feeding off the body of the German nation. In the 1990s came the language of the Hutus, who labeled the Tutsis ‘cockroaches’ during the Rwandan genocide, and in the dark corners of the internet the accusation of parasitism is alternately leveled at Israelis, Palestinians, the Polish, Romanians, Mexicans, people on welfare, and unemployed youth, all the way through to the current European crisis of migration, Brexit and the potential dissolution of the United Kingdom. In Turkey today it is concurrently deployed at opposite ends of the spectrum, at both the Syrian refugees and the accused coup-supporters in the municipal services.
The “migrant crisis” (which, in the phrase “migrant crisis” enacts another semantic mis-transference, applying to the migrants themselves what is really a crisis of the Europe receiving them) is the most recent occasion for this language of parasitism. From politicians to tabloid media to far-right nationalists, these insect metaphors are being deployed to denigrate and dehumanize those who are arriving, accusing them of dependency, or exploitation, of taking and bringing nothing in return, and of posing the threat of destruction to the ones already there. A small syntactical twist in these metaphors that cast immigrants as insects brings us to the language of Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National in France, who recently proposed a health initiative to, “Dénoncer et éradiquer toute immigration bactérienne.” While she protested that she had meant only to find solutions for new bacteria arriving in the country as a result of the movement of peoples, the double meaning of such a phrase — to eradicate immigrant bacteria — is impossible to ignore. In one sentence Le Pen manages to combine the migrant as both bacteria and as the host of bacteria — both the carrier of disease and the disease itself. She goes on to state: “Les hôpitaux font face à la présence alarmante de maladies contagieuses non européennes, liées à l’afflux migratoire.” In her double-tongued phrases “Non-Europeanness” is contagious, a threat, a kind of pernicious biological warfare being waged by the incoming strangers.