Parasitic knowledges

A kind of manifesto

The parasitic knowledge producer aims for dissidence. There is no time to entertain the musings of established fellow intellectuals who can afford to stretch out into territory that might find limited audience. There is no time to debate whether the audience is limited because its comprehension is limited, or because the ideas themselves are limited even if they aspire to intellectualism of the highest order.

The parasite is familiar with the taint of second-rate products, discount stores, knock-off goods, budget travel, coupons, “FOR SALE” bargain bins. Its struggle is desperate to extricate itself from the smallness of its predicament. Better off a parasite to a powerful host than just another organism trying to survive among peers.

Listening to yet another engaging conversation about philosophy, politics, and culture on, I become a silent part of the conversation. I get what they are talking about, I am enamored with the importance of the discussion, with the feeling that I belong to the group of people engaged in it even if I don’t have the credentials, or admittedly, the communicative facility required for a live broadcast. And, as I listen, I recall William Shatner’s advice to aspiring actors at the Montreal Comiccon: don’t become so enamored with the profession that the life of a struggling actors becomes enough to validate the experience. He recalled fellow actors throughout his career who were happy waiting tables and landing the occasional gig, content to be in the company of similar others, where lifestyle and profession become synonymous and ever-reinforcing each-other. The experience is enough, and the ambition to “make it” fades, because in a sense, one has already made it.

This is the predicament of the late PhD, the token doctorate chaser, an element in the system refusing to accept its assigned place, trading it for no place at all. The freelancer, the independent scholar, the contractor, the consultant, the part-timer. As Nikita Petrov describes his impression visiting a recruiting station for the Church of Scientology, the well-groomed handsome people welcoming you to “the Institution” (any institution) are intended to demonstrate that the system works, at least for some. Ironed shirts, fashionable ties, fitted jackets, clean shoes, crisp haircuts. Clearly, in institutional circles, appearance is commensurate with importance, and keeping up an appearance is a status signal even for those who bemoan, but cannot tear themselves away from, capitalism. There is even a direct correlation between appearance and perceived intelligence, the intelligent and well-dressed researchers at Cambridge tell us.

The parasite’s appearance is an attempt. Success levels vary. The common element is that this is not its everyday attire. On a regular day, its appearance, like its ideas, is an affront to the institution. It wears gaudy, badly fitting clothes probably purchased on sale from Costco or Winners. Parasitic fashion imitates the institution, but goes in unorthodox and unsanctioned directions. Parasitic fashion is iconoclastic, it tests the limits of propriety and questions the self-importance of the current thing. Caution: institutionalized fashion also aims to push the boundaries of outmoded traditions, but it does so only when those traditions are safely declawed, too feeble to defend themselves, vulnerable, twisted, and decrepit. You will never see an institutional attack on a healthy adversary. Institutionalized fashion is banal and predictable. The parasite sees the occupants of the institution as a collection of well-dressed former parasites who have achieved embryogenesis. It may change drastically from one generation to the next, but you can bet that the current thing will be exaggerated and zealously defended, thanks to institutional inertia. Even when institutional ideas seem irrational, unwholesome, corrupt, and downright malevolent, as long as paychecks are clearing and the actors on the inside are in sufficient numbers to constitute an organism, the institution is healthy.

Parasitic knowledges, then, are an attempt to map out institutional directions from the outside. They are necessarily against the grain, but not sanctioned and sanctimonious. They are rudely stamped, curtailed of fair proportion, cheated of feature, deformed, unfinished, sent before their time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.

The parasitic knowledges examined here are micro-analysis of institutional attempts at iconoclasm, but which carry all the markers of institutional endorsement. Chomsky would dub this “the consensus:” a set of ideas, beliefs, and values that are accepted by a significant portion of the institution without critical examination. Critical examination is parasitic, and the institutional organism rejects it. This consensus is constructed and maintained to serve the interests of those in institutional power, whose devotion to the consensus is a necessary condition of continuous prosperity.