Parasite Anthropologies and the Persistence of Cultural Survivals
For E.B. Tylor (and J.G. Frazer), cultural survivals were those “processes, customs, opinions and so forth, which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home” (Tylor 1871: I, 14-15). Culture was supposed to move in an orderly progression from savagery to civilization. Yet rather than gradually disappearing, survivals lay dormant in their cultural hosts, arising to disrupt the smooth progress of civilization. More than anachronism, they fed on the energy of the modern, masquerading as science and dragging down progress. For Tylor, the role of anthropology as a “reformer's science” was to ferret out these primeval rocks and remove them. But the other side of survivals is the possibility that they might arrest the linear progress of Western capitalism, parasitically transforming globalization in subversive ways that gesture to alternatives. This is at the core of Benjamin's and Bloch's evocation of parasitic cultures in ruins and cultural surplus. Based on an understanding of these virtualities at the core of the parasitic, we can also look at Tylor's doctrine more reflexively—as a way of examining certain assumptions which “survive” into the present of anthropological thought and that might parasitically divert energy from Western assumptions regarding culture, modernity, science and power. Indeed, the continued salience of “survivals” in Deleuze and Guattari and others realizes Tylor's greatest fears: that the spectral traces of the past will rise up to overwhelm the hegemony of the present and that anthropology-qua-parasite will be the agent of its undoing.
Keywords: parasite, junk DNA, cultural evolutionism, memes, Deleuze, Serres