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Sign Systems Studies

Volume 31, Issue 2, 2003

Han-liang Chang
Pages 421-438

Notes towards a semiotics of parasitism

The metaphor of parasites or parasitism has dominated literary critical discourse since the 1970s, prominent examples being Michel Serres in France and J. Hillis Miller in America. In their writings the relationship between text and paratext, literature and criticism, is often likened to that between host and parasite, and can be therefore deconstructed. Their writings, along with those by Derrida, Barthes, and Thom, seem to be suggesting the possibility of a semiotics of parasitism. Unfortunately, none of these writers has drawn enough on the biological foundation of parasitism. Curiously, even in biology, parasitism is already a metaphor through which the signified of an ecological phenomenon involving two organisms is expressed by the signifier of “[eating] food at another’s [side] table”. This paper will make some preliminary remarks on semiotics of parasitism, based on the notions of Umwelt (Jakob von Uexküll) and structural coupling (Maturana and Varela). It will look into the phenomenon of co-evolutionary process in community ecology. With reference to empirical history, the project will briefly survey the literary and medical praxis of the 17th century England where large number of creative writings referred to the phenomenon of parasitism, which was deeply embedded in religious practice (e.g., the Eucharist) and political life (e.g., the courtier ecology in monarchy) of the times. Finally, it will touch upon the possible ‘parasitic’ relationship between language and biology.

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