Other Convergences: Intertextuality, Multivocality, and De-centeredness

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

[Pages 8-10 in print version. © the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.]

Textual Openness

Like Barthes, Foucault, and Mikhail Bakhtin, Jacques Derrida continually uses the terms link (liasons) , web (toile) , network (réseau), and interwoven (s'y tissent), which cry out for hypertextuality; but in contrast to Barthes, who emphasizes the writerly text and its nonlinearity, Derrida emphasizes textual openness, intertextuality, and the irrelevance of distinctions between inside and outside a particular text. These emphases appear with particular clarity when he claims that "like any text, the text of 'Plato' couldn't not be involved, or at least in a virtual, dynamic, lateral manner, with all the worlds that composed the system of the Greek language." Derrida in fact here describes extant hypertext systems in which the active reader in the process of exploring a text, probing it, can call into play dictionaries with morphological analyzers that connect individual words to cognates, derivations, and opposites. Here again something that Derrida and other critical theorists describe as part of a seemingly extravagant claim about language turns out precisely to describe the new economy of reading and writing with electronic virtual, rather than physical, forms.

Derrida properly recognizes (in advance, one might say) that a new, freer, richer form of text, one truer to our potential experience, perhaps to our actual if unrecognized experience, depends upon discrete reading units. As he explains, in what Gregory Ulmer terms "the fundamental generalization of his writing" (58), there also exists "the possibility of disengagement and citational graft which belongs to the structure of every mark, spoken and written, and which constitutes every mark in writing before and outside of every horizon of semiolinguistic communication. . . . Every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic, spoken or written . . . can be cited, put between quotation marks." The implication of such citability, separability, appears in the fact, crucial to hypertext, that, as Derrida adds, "in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable" ("Signature," 185).

Like Barthes, Derrida conceives of text as constituted by discrete reading units. Derrida's conception of text relates to his "methodology of decomposition" that might transgress the limits of philosophy. "The organ of this new philospheme," as Gregory Ulmer points out, "is the mouth, the mouth that bites, chews, tastes. . . . The first step of decomposition is the bite" (57). Derrida, who describes text in terms of something close to Barthes's lexias, explains in Glas that "the object of the present work, its style too, is the 'mourceau,' " which Ulmer translates as "bit, piece, morsel, fragment; musical composition; snack, mouthful." This mourceau , adds Derrida, "is always detached, as its name indicates and so you do not forget it, with the teeth," and these teeth, Ulmer explains, refer to "quotation marks, brackets, parentheses: when language is cited (put between quotation marks), the effect is that of releasing the grasp or hold of a controlling context" (58).

Derrida's groping for a way to foreground his recognition of the way text operates in a print medium -- he is, after all, the fierce advocate of writing as against orality -- shows the position, possibly the dilemma, of the thinker working with print who sees its shortcomings but for all his brilliance cannot think his way outside this mentalité . Derrida, the experience of hypertext shows, gropes toward a new kind of text: he describes it, he praises it, but he can only present it in terms of the devices -- here those of punctuation -- associated with a particular kind of writing. As the Marxists remind us, thought derives from the forces and modes of production, though, as we shall see, few Marxists or Marxians ever directly confront the most important mode of literary production -- that dependent upon the techne of writing and print.

From this Derridean emphasis upon discontinuity comes the conception of hypertext as a vast assemblage, what I have elsewhere termed the metatext and what Nelson calls the "docuverse." Derrida in fact employs the word assemblage for cinema, which he perceives as a rival, an alternative, to print. Ulmer points out that "the gram or trace provides the 'linguistics' for collage/montage" (267), and he quotes Derrida's use of assemblage in Speech and Phenomena : "The word 'assemblage' seems more apt for suggesting that the kind of bringing-together proposed here has the structure of an interlacing, a weaving, or a web, which would allow the different threads and different lines of sense or force to separate again, as well as being ready to bind others together" (131). To carry Derrida's instinctive theorizing of hypertext further, one may also point to his recognition that such a montagelike textuality marks or foregrounds the writing process and therefore rejects a deceptive transparency.


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