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Exploitation and Interference in French Thought and Culture


Matt Phillips and Tomas Weber

The word «parasite» evokes nearness and feeding: the Greek parasitos is «one who eats at the table of another». In biology, a parasitic organism is the beneficiary of an unequal relation with its host. The social parasite, too, is one recognized or misrecognized as the unproductive recipient of one-way exchange. In communications theory, meanwhile, static or interference («parasite», in French) is the useless information which clouds the channel between sender and receiver.

In 1980, Michel Serres’s Le Parasite mobilized the concept of the parasite to figure noises, disruptions, destructions and breakdowns at the heart of communication systems, social structures and human relations. Drawing on Serres’s work, the chapters of this volume – organized around two conceptual poles, exploitation and interference – examine French literature (Villiers de l’Isle Adam, Proust, contemporary poetry), film (Nicolas Philibert, Claus Drexel), art (Sophie Calle, contemporary «glitch art») and philosophy (Descartes, Serres, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari), alongside medieval hagiography, immunology, communications theory and linguistic anthropology. The volume thereby demonstrates the new and continued relevance of the figure of the parasite in thinking about transmission, attachment, use, abuse and dependency.

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An Infestation of Signification: Narrative and Visual Parasitism on the Manuscript Page (Blake Gutt)


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An Infestation of Signification: Narrative and Visual Parasitism on the Manuscript Page

ABSTRACT This chapter employs the parasitic systems theory of Michel Serres, as well as Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptualization of the rhizome, as it explores the systems of relation and signification at work on the pages of the medieval manuscript. Taking as a case study the medieval French Vie de Saint Denis [Life of Saint Denis], which it examines alongside a type of inter- and intra-textual marginalia (hybrid letter-images), the chapter addresses both the interactions of visual elements on the manuscript folio, and the relations which structure the text itself. The interplay between letter and image, and their differing ways of signifying, are investigated alongside the parasitic and psychoanalytically perverse relationships which form the framework of Christian sanctity and penitence, and the logic of martyrdom.

This chapter was the winner of the 2015 R. Gapper Postgraduate Essay Prize, awarded by the Society for French Studies.


The parasitic systems theory elaborated by Michel Serres in Le Parasite (1980) locates parasites and hosts as the basic interconnecting units that combine to constitute all relational networks. This formulation of the way that systems function, and the ways in which their elements interact, offers valuable insights into the workings of the medieval manuscript folio. In this essay, I explore how Serres’s theories of parasitism can illuminate both ← 189 | 190 → the textual and visual content of the...

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