Derrida and Hypertext Today

Courtney Kàohinani Rowe, English 111, 1999

Derrida's Dissemination often seems like a prophecy of hypertext and the internet. His terms echo those commonly used today, and many of his ideas line up incredibly well with the actual physical characteristics of hypertext and the internet.

Probably the best time that Derrida sounds like he is speaking specifically of the technology we use today is when he speaks of a text's "woven texture -- a web that envelops a web" (63). This idea of a specific text within a network of texts (all other texts) is a common one in Dissemination. Derrida bounces off the notion that all of nature is one great book ("The Book" (54)) which all other texts or book come from and are contained within. Where is there a better example of this than the internet? Each document on the internet is merely a part of the whole, a fragment contained within and, through links, also part of (and thereby helping to create) the whole.

Later, Derrida speaks of a scission, an "arbitrary insertion of the letter-opener by which the reading process is opened up indifferently here or there" (301). The ability to come into a text from an arbitrary beginning is one of the important features of hypertext it has no set beginning or end. Because of this lack of set beginning and end, hypertext could be considered to be outside of a set time period, very similar to Derrida's conception of prefaces.

In a preface, Derrida points out, "the text exists as something written a past which, under the false appearance of a present, a hidden omnipotent author (in full mastery of his product) is presenting to the reading as his future" (7). This doesn't match exactly with hypertext, since one of the distinguishing characteristics of hypertext is that the author gives up a good deal control over the reader's experience, and therefore can't necessarily dictate a past, present or future for the reader. However, a reader in hypertext is able to create his own past, present and future hypertext is set up so that it's easy to read the "end" first or the "beginning" last, to travel backwards through links, to jump around and create a new order, a new timeline for each reading. Because of this, hypertext as it stands alone, like Derrida's preface, is always part of the present, past and future.

As Derrida points out later, as a reader, the present can only be where you are at that moment. "You live in the present, in "what is called present," in consciousness" (307). It is only by reading a text that a present is created, which ties into the notion of hypertext being much more reader controlled, almost created anew each time it is read. Says Derrida:

Every term, every germ depends at every moment on its place and is entrained, like all the parts of a machine, into an ordered series of displacements, slips, transformations, and recurrences that cut out or add a member in every proposition that has gone before. (300)

The placement of each part of the text create the whole text, letting the reader of a document (especially a hypertext document set up to facilitate newly ordered readings) control the meaning of that text. This also ties into the notion mentioned before, of how all texts (and parts of texts) are interconnected and together (like each machine part) create the larger whole.

All of this fits incredibly well into the actual workings of hypertext and the internet that are almost commonplace today. Perhaps Derrida was a prophet.

discussions of Dissemination

Cyberspace Web Main screen critical theory