Defense of the Pharmakon and its Application to the Hypertextual Network

Andres Luco, English 111, 1999

"Textuality is being constitued by difference and by differences from differences, it is by nature absolutely heterogeneous and is constantly composing with the forces that tend to annihilate it (w 98)."

In "Dissemination", Jacques Derrida critiques a bias toward the act of writing that plagues Western thought. In doing so, Derrida makes reference to the "Phaedrus," an ancient dialogue of Plato. The "Phaedrus" houses an crucial juxtaposition between speech and writing that Derrida calls attention to in trying to reveal unfair assumptions in Plato's thinkingand consequently, in his subordination of writing to speech. Derrida points out that in order to distinguish between speech and writing, Plato first establishes an opposition between presence and absence (with speech corresponding to the presence category, and writing corresponding to absence). This opposition becomes woefully slanted when Plato praises speech while condemning writing. Plato attacks writing as a far-removed substitute for "self-present" discourse such as speech, which allows a more immediate and supposedly superior contact between two communicating subjects (i.e., the teacher and the learner). Thus, speech becomes the benchmark for ideal communication, because it is graced with the category of presence. Writing, on the other hand, is branded as a failed, inferior, compensation for absence. Specifically in the section called "The Pharmakon" Derrida interrupts Plato's argument by demonstrating how the clear-cut lines of this speech-presence/writing-absence opposition are vulnerable to dissolution. Rather, he suggests that the elements of presence and absent are inherent in both speech and writing, thus casting doubt on the appropriateness of this opposition in explaining such a distinction. Derrida ultimately targets the process of constructing such a slanted opposition as an attempt toward a unitary center in his logic. Apparently, Plato's discourse cannot tolerate the possible contradictions, or "differences" inherent within the meaning of the terms he uses. He therefore tries to hide these differences to promote the coherence of his argument.

Plato's biased adulation of speech over writing is now echoed in the reservations people might hold against hypertext in relation to print text. Hypertext threatens unity in a senseits basic tenets of decentralization, multilinearity, and network may suggest to some, in the most pessimistic view, the emergence of an anarchic textuality. In better terms, hyptertext implies this question: what will become of the printed book? If the book were to one day become obsolete, what would be lost? Using Derrida's critique of the presence/absence opposition in Plato, an attempt at speculating the relation between print and hypertext not as a tilted opposition, but as two intertwining terms that, respectively, carry their own advantages and disadvantages on an equal plane.

A major reservation about hypertextuality is its scattered, disorganized nature, while print might be identified as a more orderly, efficient kind of textuality. When the boundaries between different discourses are dissolved, don't we risk incomprehensibility, just as it would be impossible to understand the speech of one individual in an over-crowded room? While discussing the double-meaning of the word "pharmakon" in Platonic discourse, Derrida mentions that "One must therefore acceptthe composition of these two forces or of these two gestures (98)." He goes on to do just so, analyzing the double-sided quality of the pharmakon as a metaphor for writing. This strategy is apparently in defiance of what past translators of Plato have donewhich was to choose one meaning of the pharmakon and completely dispose of the other. The translators therefore take it upon themselves to arrest meaning according to their own intellectual whim. The translated texts subsequently deployed by these translators would then only address one half of the issue, and any readers of those texts would be denied access to a critical dimension of Plato's discourse. So, while hypertextuality risks discursive chaos, print textuality has been demonstrated to be incomplete. Through the network, hypertextuality holds an advantage in that it calls attention to the intersections of different viewpoints on the same topic, lending to a more comprehensive understanding of the subject in question.

Just as Plato's translators have done, print text threatens the imposition of a false center, despite the advantage it assumes in the order of comprehensibility. Realistically speaking, however, print text is already part of a network. It can be argued that any text is in fact the culmination of a number of other texts that the author previously encountered and later used as resources for his/her own writing (the necessity for bibliographical documentation is proof of this). However, with a print text the reader is tempted to consider whatever she is reading at the particular moment as the central, important text. Subconsciously, one might guess, bibliographic material is subordinated to the main body. So, while print text allows the reader to remain oriented and train his/her focus on one thing at a time, so to speak, hypertextuality is more honest about the genealogy of the discourses that readers encounter. Print text may inadvertently give birth to myths that eulogize the unique and utterly individual genius of certain authors, at the same time downplaying the influence and accomplishments of their predecessors and contemporaries. By the very same token, Derrida critiques the Platonic claim that writing, in its external, absent quality, is an inadequate prosthesis for memory (compatible with presence): "even though writing is external to (internal) memory, even though hyponmesia is not in itself memory, it affects memory and hypnotizes it in its very inside." Thus, writing penetrates self-present memory. In the same way, network always penetrates any text, digital or print.

Plato utilized the presence/absence opposition in order to mark a clean incision between the concepts of speech and writing. But, Derrida successfully shows that the terms of this opposition are subject to blending. For this very reason, one should be careful not to set the printed text in opposition to hypertext, as they both must contend with the same fundamental problems. Rather being viewed as a new and contending form of discourse, as writing once had been, hypertext should be given a chance to prove itself through its practices, revisions, and contributions.

discussions of Dissemination

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