Living with parasites

To get an appreciation for the complex interconnections between culture, society and environment in a real EH research situation, read the following article by Eben Kirksey:

Eben Kirksey, “Living With Parasites in Palo Verde National Park,” Environmental Humanities 1 (2012): 23-55.

Pages 40-44 are particularly illustrative of Eben’s project.

Eben’s journey to understand the many different stakeholders and forces at play in Palo Verde National Park is a great example of the method Stephen explained in the previous step: “starting in the middle of actual experiences, observing what is going on then moving outwards to connect it to the kinds of knowledge that will help make sense of the situation.” The article also illustrates the complex entanglements of culture, society and environment and hits on some key themes that are central to Environmental Humanities, and this course. Many of the terms and ideas from Eben’s article will resurface in later weeks.

In the article, Eben observes that:

Creatures, like the fringe-toed foam frog, that refuse to participate in anthropocentric collectives are living figures of post-human hopes. Living and dying in zones of abandonment, these organisms are in an epistemological space beyond the reach of scientific measurement and direct biopolitical regulation. Even as aspiring scientists earnestly worked to democratically speak for nature, struggling to build stable speech prosthetics for a multitude of unloved critters, I found constant evidence of constitutive outsiders. I discovered species that were ever elusive, unloved others who were unrepresented in realms of human discourse. (Kirksey 2012, 48)

One of the concepts Eben’s article brings forward is the concept of “reinstituting the collective”. When you start observing a particular situation, you might feel a bit lonesome, stuck out on your own (the Master of all that you survey!). But then perhaps you realise that you can’t make notes without your notebook, or camera, and you need a few concepts to work with, not to mention language…so you are not just working on your own, you are quite a few. You may also start to change your ideas based on conversations with your peers.

Because of a problem in the environment you may make new friends and connections, including with other beings, and things may leap out demanding attention. You can familiarise yourself with them by observing and writing about them. They become part of the collective that needs to be taken into account in the analysis. It’s like the guy who invented speed humps to slow down cars; in this case, the observation that school children needed greater safety led to children becoming part of the collective, so speed humps were added.


  • What are the key parasites figuring into this story?

  • What for you is the main point of Eben’s article?

  • Do you think Eben’s approach is consistent with the key propositions of the Environmental Humanities?

  • How might we rethink our relations with other species via the concept of the parasite evoked in this article?

An updated and revised version of “Living with Parasites” has just been published in Emergent Ecologies, a new book with Duke University Press.

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This article is from the free online course:

Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

UNSW Sydney

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