Invasive Others and Significant Others: Strange Kinship and Interspecies Ethics near the Korean Demilitarized Zone
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Invasive Others and Significant Others:
Strange Kinship and Interspecies Ethics near the Korean Demilitarized Zone

History hides the fact that man is the universal parasite, that everything and everyone around him is a hospitable space. Plants and animals are always his hosts; man is always necessarily their guest. Always taking, never giving. He bends the logic of exchange and of giving in his favor when he is dealing with nature as a whole.

—Michel Serres, The Parasite ([1982] 2007, 24)

in the context of global climate change and mass extinction, especially with the identification of the Anthropocene as a new geological era in which humans have become the major planetary force, Michel Serres' statement that "man is the universal parasite" of nature might seem especially prescient. If one were to name an "invasive other" in the age of the Anthropocene, it would have to be the Homo sapiens, who wreaks havoc on Mother Earth. Yet, as Rob Nixon cautions, the "epic vantage point," in which discourses of the Anthropocene have a tendency to indulge, invites universalisms that threaten to obscure [End Page 203] the differences that make a difference, in relation to stratifications of power and inequality, and the "imperfectly understood, infinitely elaborate webs of nonhuman agency… that continue to shape the Earth's life systems" (2014). Moreover, accepting the Anthropocene means that we can't cling to a modernist vision of "nature as a whole," as if human culture and nonhuman nature could ever be disentangled. Scaling down from the universal and from "nature as a whole," questions of who is invasive and what is other, or what is parasitizing whom and toward what ends, become more politically consequential and potentially transformative. If we accept that "we have never been modern" (Latour 1993), then it follows that, even at a planetary scale, an ontological distinction between (human) "guest" and (natural) "host" is impossible to fully draw. Serres himself underscores this point, describing the field of the host as a "dark puddle," in which the host and the guest are "two things with opposite signs but the same value" ([1982] 2007, 16).

For Serres, "parasite" can be biological, social, or the noise (vs. signal) in a system. Each of these parasites is generative in that it interrupts the typical course of things and creates possibilities for new relations of exchange and communication. As Steven D. Brown writes, "This parasite, through its interruption, is a catalyst for complexity" (2002, 16). I use this parasitical insight to analyze the play of invasiveness and hospitality that characterizes the work of conservation biologists in South Korea. Rather than being merely "invasive" by entering into the habitat of endangered species, or dominating them through biopolitical population management, the conservationists that I describe are more aptly described as parasitical, "bending the logics of exchange" to gain proximity and a measure of relationality with the birds they care for and seek to protect.

AN UNNATURAL SANCTUARY

The ambiguity of invasiveness and host-guest relations is perhaps nowhere more heightened than in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, one of the most heavily fortified spaces on earth, which has become identified as an unexpected ecological sanctuary. As environmental [End Page 204] historian Peter Coates writes, the DMZ "illustrates how a distressing No-Man's Land can also be an enigmatic Many Creatures' Land" (2014, 503). The enigmatic return to nature of the DMZ, a place that former President Bill Clinton famously called the "scariest place on earth," has made it a magnet for international news media, conservationists, scientists, and tourists. The South Korean state has also heavily promoted its ecological value as part of a broader capitalization of areas along the southern border of the DMZ, now packaged as a tourist zone of "peace and life" (Black 2015, Cossette 2016).

Many cultural studies of the DMZ's ecology tend to reproduce what has become a commonplace narrative in South Korea of the DMZ's "return to nature," a nostalgic vision that neglects the politics entailed in resignifying a space of rampant militarization and emergent capitalism as an ecologically exceptional space and symbol of hope. These studies take its exceptionalism at face value and highlight as "paradoxical" or...



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