“Persona Non Grata: Playing the Parasite in Inhospitable Times”
In this talk, I’ll advance parasitism as a 21st-century performance paradigm. From representations of “resource-draining” housewives and “welfare queens” (les assistés) to the language of “illegal aliens” (immigrés clandestins), I’ll argue that the discourse of social parasitism has overwhelmingly stigmatized women and minorities whose contributions to society—whether domestic work, dependent care, or undocumented labor—have been kept off the official record. Tracking the figuration of the parasite from theater history to media theory—from its little-known origins in ancient religious rites (as the “class-jumping” priest permitted to dine with superior officers) to its dissimulating presence as a stock character in Greek and Roman comedy to its recent appropriation as an interventionist model in experimental art and media—I’ll argue that the parasite has signaled the threat of mimesis as one of passing (as host).
Unlocking its dormant political potential, I’ll argue that parasitism is a tactical maneuver by which a younger generation of female performance artists, both excluded from canonized feminism and on the margins of the art world, have sought to leverage the access allowed by their privileged positions as implicated in (and perhaps even attached to) a system whose very survival they nevertheless seek to work against. Playing the parasite, they not only mirror back the parasitical logic of neoliberalism but also represent the glitch or breach in its host system that threatens its undoing from the inside.
Anna Watkins Fisher is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University, teaching in the Department of Performing and Media Arts. She received her Ph.D. from the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University and M.A. in Performance Studies from NYU. She has published on topics in performance and media studies, contemporary art and visual culture, and feminist and queer theory and is currently working on a book provisionally titled Playing the Parasite: The Art of Dependence in a Networked Age, which theorizes parasitism as an emergent paradigm in the field of contemporary art and performance.