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John Green reviews Dissemination by Jacques Derrida (translated by Barbara Johnson).
“This (therefore) will not have been a book”
It is with a sense of some irony that I must write this review, since the thrust of Derrida’s argument in Dissemination is that books are not selfenclosed entities that can be examined in isolation. By their very nature they refer us to all manner of parallel, contiguous and tangential texts, genres and discourses. All writing is intertextual as a result of the proliferation of meaning beyond what is explicit in the text. We could not read Dissemination without already having read, having already understood. If it were the only book in the universe, if the words therein appeared nowhere else, then we would be unable to read it. It would then be a closed book to us. But language is constituted by signs that are characterised by their repeatability and we are thus able to read and understand Dissemination; we have always already encountered the words therein elsewhere, or can refer to them elsewhere if we have not.
The text opens with a preface devoted to prefaces; the preface as supplement – necessary addition or substitute for the text, which need not have been the preface for this book. A preface on prefaces seems peculiarly enclosed and selfreferential for a work on intertextuality. It could have prefaced any book, or stand alone as a text in itself, if such a thing were possible. Of course, for Derrida, it is not.
An example of dissemination; although he is nowhere mentioned in this work, I was frequently reminded of Jean Cocteau while reading ‘The Double Session’, the section in which Derrida uses an excerpt of Plato’s Philebus in conjunction with a prose-piece by Stéphane Mallarmé to examine the notion of mimesis and the problem of representation. My favourite story about Cocteau concerns his belief that he could commune with angels. This belief was the result of an epiphanic episode in an elevator. The inscription on the manufacturer’s brass nameplate inside the elevator was miraculously transformed from Otis- Pifre, the manufacturer’s name, to Heurtebise the name of the angel introducing itself. A bizarre method of introduction, no doubt, but it has stuck with me as a consequence.
‘The Double Session’ contains several references to the verb heurter (to knock, to shock), the noun bise (north wind, cold blast) and to constellations, a leitmotif of Cocteau’s. As a result, it is as if Cocteau somehow haunts Derrida’s text, just as Derrida describes Pierrot haunting Mallarmé’s. This haunting, this lack-thatis- there is evidence of differance, the ubiquitous deferral of meaning that entails the impossibility of totalization. The pursuit of truth is unending because truth is never present all at once, never self-enclosed or identical with itself. Meaning is always excessive – there is always spillage, an overflowing or, better, a postponement of complete comprehension, because of writing’s intertextuality.
‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, the first section proper (?) of the text, reveals a similar case of haunting. The central text here is Plato’s Phaedrus, in particular the section dealing with the origins of writing. As in Of Grammatology, Derrida is concerned to break down the traditional hierarchy between speech and writing that he sees as having plagued Western metaphysics since Plato. There are a number of these ‘binary oppositions’, including male/female, good/evil, truth/error and speech/writing, each opposition allotting a higher status to the first category. Derrida wishes to put these categories into question, while acknowledging the impossibility of escaping them altogether. His work is therefore always a critique.
The Phaedrus attempts to demonstrate the superiority of speech over writing. Writing is but a poor imitation of Speech. The latter is closer to the origin of the Idea expressed and is thus less corrupted. Derrida argues that speech, just like writing, is characterised by differance, by deferral, and that as a consequence can be no closer to the truth, to the approximation of self-presence than writing. At the same moment, he brings into question the boundaries of ‘the text’.
The Phaedrus is haunted by the ghost of the ‘Pharmakos’, the scapegoat. The Athenians kept a small group of supplementary individuals called ‘Pharmakoi’ in their community – on the margins – to be sacrificed at times of pestilence, famine etc to appease the gods. Again, neither word appears in the written/spoken text. However, writing is frequently referred to by Plato as a ‘Pharmakon’, a related and already ambiguous term that can be translated as either ‘cure’ or ‘poison’. The English word ‘potion’ has a similar ambiguity, derived from the Latin ‘potare’ – to drink, but suggesting a potency that can be used for good or ill.
While for Plato writing is a ‘Pharmakon’, being both a remedy (an aide memoire) and a poison (weakening our natural capacities for recollection), for Derrida, this overt description is permanently disturbed by the spectre of the ‘Pharmakos’, the idea of the scapegoat, the marginal supplement condemned for the absence of truth and corruption of goodness. Just as the scapegoats are a remedy for the ills of the city, so inversely, writing the remedy is a scapegoat for Plato. To use the sort of identity logic that Derrida detests, if the Pharmakoi are a Pharmakon, the Pharmakon is a Pharmakos. For the Athenians, including Plato, the idea of the ‘scapegoat’, the blameless sacrifice and the idea of a ‘remedy’ are too obviously related to be missed.
Plato criticises writing for being responsible for distancing us from the light, while never using the precise metaphor that Derrida suggests. The notion of the scapegoat, of the ‘Pharmakos’ is there but it is implicit, hanging around, on the wind. It is as though the description of writing as a ‘Pharmakos’ would undermine and subvert Plato’s project (though it is not clear that this is so). The boundaries of the text are broken by this potential interpretation that is there but elsewhere.
Dissemination is by no means an easy text to read. Perseverance and diligence are required, as well as familiarity with the Phaedrus, the writings of Mallarmé, and Philippe Sollers’ experimental novel Numbers, which Derrida reflects on and almost seems to parody in the final, eponymous section of the book. Barbara Johnson deserves immense credit for her translation of Derrida’s text. For consistency’s sake, parts of Derrida’s text are themselves experimental – references abound, as do fold-ins and cut-ups à la Burroughs, demonstrating the disseminative force of language. Johnson has successfully managed to recreate this force in a foreign tongue. Dissemination also lacks the several hundred typos that marred my enjoyment of Of Grammatology, although I rather liked the idea of “always already threeness”, and for that we should be grateful to the Athlone Press.
Derrida recommends that Mallarme’s texts are read and re-read. Indeed, re-reading is crucial to the appreciation of dissemination, though the reader should leave a gap of several years before returning to this work, in order to recover. Despite what Derrida says, this text IS exhausting, but its completion left me exhilarated if also a touch relieved.
This (therefore) will not have been a review.
© John Green 1993
Dissemination by Jacques Derrida (translated with an introduction and additional notes by Barbara Johnson) is published in paperback by the Athlone Press and costs £14.95.
John Green is a postgraduate student working in academic publishing.