Screening Information Response

Canvas for Public Discourse

“Writing always involves this screening of this spectral interplay of parasites and hosts”

Mark C. Taylor

The first thing that jumped out to me in the reading was Taylor’s description of the writing process–an interplay of parasites and hosts. He uses familiar imagery to refer to his literary influences, both conscious and subconscious. He refers to these influences as ghosts that haunt him as he writes. He also refers to them as parasites; their continued existence and relevance depends on contemporary writers like Taylor, so in that sense Taylor’s writing is like a “host”. At the same time, Taylor thinks of himself as a parasite. He lifts passages and ideas for his own gain. His writing would be anemic without the blood of his predecessors.

I am immediately skeptical of this line of thinking. Certainly there is some truth to it, but I am frustrated by the trend of using scientific concepts as metaphor for concepts in art or the humanities. In science, parasitism implies that one organism is actively harmed by the actions of another. Taylor doesn’t really make the case that he is harmed by his literary influences, nor that his influences are harmed by him. In my opinion, the relationship is closer to comensalism–Taylor’s writing is improved by references to Augustine, but Augustine is neither hurt nor helped by this interaction.

In a similar vein, I am somewhat troubled by Taylor’s references to “survival of the fittest” outside of its scientific meaning. So-called “Social Darwinists” co-opted these same concepts to imply that people of color were less “fit” than Whites. I don’t think that Taylor is being insidious; only that he is using the caché of hard sciences to uplift his own work (now that’s parasitism!) In science, fitness has a very specific meaning–it refers to the ability of an organism to succcessfully reproduce. The problem that I have in Taylor’s essay is that he has not completed his metaphor. He states that in a conversation, ideas that are not “fit” do not survive…but he does not explain what it takes for an idea to be “fit”. What is “fitness” in the context of thought? Is it thought that persists in one’s own mind? Or a thought that gets passed to many individuals, like a meme? Must the thought be insightful? Or can it just be the thought of an adorable cross-eyed cat? Is a cross-eyed cat an insightful thing?