Dissemination and Contamination

Dissemination and Contamination
PhD: The Dissemination of Science Fiction

In this brief chapter I will examine the movement of dissemination – which is the process of grafting – and how we may view this in light of genre; ie what can be termed generic contamination. It should be noted that the process of dissemination is not contingent on the presence of genre and should be viewed in the broader spectrum of textuality. As such, much of what is said here can apply to any other textual entity, not just the generic mark. Here, however, I will restrict myself to a general examination of dissemination and how genre contamination can be regarded as an instance of dissemination and insemination.

First, we should look at what dissemination means, in Derrida’s terms. At its most basic “[d]issemination generalizes the theory and practice of the graft without a body proper” (Derrida, 1972a: 10, italics in original) thereby focussing on the concept of the graft which is a concept related to Derrida’s notion of the trace and the mark. It is not originary in any sense; while it may have an origin the graft always produces (itself) and advances only in the plural. It is a singular plural, which no single origin will ever have preceded. Germination, dissemination. There is no first insemination. The semen is already swarming. The “primal” insemination is dissemination. A trace, a graft whose traces have been lost. (Derrida, 1972a: 334)

This is why the graft has no body proper, since it is part of a process which is inevitable in any text, according to Derrida. It is this process which is so significant for Derrida, not just here but in all of his dealings with text and meaning. One of the theses of dissemination is “the impossibility of reducing a text as such to its effects of meaning, content, thesis, or theme.” (Derrida, 1972a: 7) For Derrida, it is always the marginal and the liminal which exerts a peculiar influence on the text; radically absent yet very real in its effects. Meaning, therefore, is not fixed for Derrida but rather something which is in a constant process, always writing and rewriting itself, always multiplying and rushing outwards.

Dissemination is the division of meaning; the tendency of textual meaning to move out in all directions and so resist closure. Or as Vincent B. Leitch puts it, “[t]he “work,” now called text, explodes beyond stable meaning and truth toward the radical and ceaseless play of infinite meanings spread across textual surfaces – dissemination.” (Leitch, 1983: 105, italics in original) Dissemination, then, becomes the endless play of meaning both as divided and doubled; because words have too many meanings there will be an indefinite number of meanings, meanings proliferate.

In discussing dissemination Derrida plays on the double meanings of seed/term/germ and semantics, all of which constitute the effect of dissemination. (Derrida 1972a: 334) Dissemination is therefore not a negative process which must be contained; but rather it is the necessary precondition for writing to exist at all: “The heterogeneity of different writings is writing itself, the graft. It is numerous from the first or it is not.” (Derrida, 1972a: 390) Such an understanding of textuality is intertextuality in the way that Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes both use it.

In Roland Barthes’ words, the author becomes the scriptor (Barthes, 1977: 145) and any understanding of a text which does not to some extent quote, cite, or reproduce another text is questioned. Instead, texts are understood as the always ‘already-written’. Derrida agrees with this notion, when he argues that textual samples

can only be read within the operation of their reinscription, within the graft. It is the sustained, discrete violence of an incision that is not apparent in the thickness of the text, a calculated insemination of the proliferating allogene through which the two texts are transformed, deform each other, contaminate each other’s content, tend at times to reject each other, or pass elliptically into the other and become regenerated in the repetition, along the edges of an overcast seam. (Derrida, 1972a: 389-390, italics in original).

Let us for now turn instead to polysemy and its connection with dissemination. Derrida is insists that dissemination is different from polysemy; being multiple and indefinite. “In diverging from polysemy, comprising both more and less than the latter, dissemination interrupts the circulation that transforms into an origin what is actually an after-effect of meaning.” (Derrida, 1972a: 17) Dissemination, in its affinity with the trace, points out that there is no originating moment, and this is its opposition to polysemy, since:

Polysemy always puts out its multiplicities and variations with the horizon, at least, of some integral reading which contains no absolute rift, no senseless derivation – the horizon of the final parousia of a meaning at last deciphered, revealed, made present in the rich collections of its determinations. [...] All the moments of polysemy are, as the world implies, moments of meaning. [...] The concept of polysemy thus belongs within the confines of explanation, within the explication or enumeration, in the present, of meaning. it belongs to the attending discourse. Its style is that of the representative surface. It forgets that its horizon is framed. The difference between discursive polysemy and textual dissemination is precisely difference itself, “an implacable difference.” This difference is of course indispensable to the production of meaning (and that is why between polysemy and dissemination the difference is very slight). (Derrida, 1972a: 384-385)

The difference between polysemy and dissemination may thus be very slight, but it remains significant. While polysemy generates meaning from within the text, on premises accepted by the text, dissemination generates meaning from without; it imports meaning into the text and not always accepted meanings, if we briefly speak of the intentions of the text. Dissemination, as opposed to polysemy, turns the work into text, opening it for the larger movement of textuality and intertextuality. As Joseph N. Riddel points out:

The literary text is a play of textuality, not simply in the obvious sense that a “work” of art always originates in the historical field of predecessors. Its own play of difference mirrors its displacement and reappropriation of other texts, and anticipates the necessary critical text which must “supplement” it. (Riddel, 1976: 589)

Derrida puts it slightly differently: “Even while it keeps the text it culls alive, this play of insemination – or grafting – destroys their hegemonic center, subverts their authority and their uniqueness.” (Derrida, 1972a: 378) This echoes Barthes notion of the always ‘already-written’ and allows us to realise that texts are no longer as unique as once thought, but must instead continually defer their meanings to previous texts, as well as later texts which will in turn also transform them. The movement of texts and their meanings are not locked in a strictly forward-moving motion; Riddel points out that later texts are anticipated by earlier ones and Derrida states that “[e]ach grafted text continues to radiate back toward the site of its removal, transforming that, too, as it affects the new territory.” (Derrida, 1972a: 390) Arguing further for the intertextual origins of every text, Leitch writes:

The disorienting effect of the invading predecessors resembles the disruptive functions at work in the sign: a play of differences operates, bringing about, not fullness of meaning, but generic disturbances and discontinuities – random flights of signifiers. In place of pure signifiers, though, we have here contaminating pieces of various intertexts. The sign, as such, is constituted as originarily intertextual. (Leitch, 1983: 98)

This is the deconstructive move of reversing and displacing the typical conceptual order: text and sign are no longer whole and original, they are instead always already composites of earlier texts and signs. The process of dissemination and grafting, that is, pointing out the inherently interdependent nature of the text amounts to an overturning of the typical conceptual order, or, as Jonathan Culler succinctly puts it: “The graft is the very figure of intervention.” (Culler, 1982: 141)

While the graft may be the site of the intersection between multiple texts, let us for now rather look at the further implications of dissemination. I mentioned earlier that dissemination is intertextuality in the sense that also Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva uses the concept. It is telling to compare their writings on intertextuality, since it provides us with a broader spectrum for Derrida’s term. Kristeva writes that,

Whatever the semantic content of a text its condition as a signifying practice presupposes the existence of other discourses. [...] This is to say that every text is from the outset under the jurisdiction of other discourses which impose a universe on it. (Kristeva, quoted from Culler, 1981: 116)

Earlier texts thus impose something on the present text, and it is this imposition which not only makes texts what they are but also why intertextuality as a concept destroys authority and uniqueness; no longer does meaning originate with the author but is imposed from the outside by earlier texts, themselves imposed on by even earlier texts. This chain is never-ending. This is why Barthes writes of the author becoming a scriptor, since author implies a unique individual creating original material. Rather, according to Barthes, the author must be conceived off as piecing together already existing texts in new ways, hence the reference to the ‘already-written.’ This process is inevitable and not necessarily conscious.

Derrida’s notion of dissemination is perhaps more radical than Kristeva’s and Barthes’ since for Derrida dissemination occurs even at the most basic level of the sign. While Kristeva and Barthes do not speak of using whole texts when stringing together new ones, it is unclear at what level the intertextual process moves on. For Derrida, it lies at the very core of language and so must be thought of to originate at the level of the sign. As Culler points out: “Linkings that stress the etymology or morphology of a word, bringing out the rift or gap at the heart of draft, outline, plan, are ways of applying torque to a concept and affecting its force.” (Culler, 82: 142) In other words, the sign itself carries within it already the seeds that will eventually deconstruct it.

For Derrida, then, there is no difference between textuality and intertextuality it is the same process. Truth, or meaning, in a given text becomes naturally suspect in such an environment, as Leitch points out:

The lesson of textuality as intertextuality is that truth in (of) literature is an illusion: there is only always the deracinating play of myriad differences. Infinite meanings are broadcast across textual surfaces. In deconstructive theory, such dissemination takes the place of truth. (Leitch, 1983: 99, italics in original)

This may sound as the ultimate in textual nihilism where any hope of unity or stability is forever lost and the text is utterly shattered and in the worst case completely redundant and useless, since we can never decide irrevocably which meaning is the most appropriate. The text has lost all meaning since it has an infinite number of meanings; the text is hollow. It is evident that there is a degree of semantic indeterminacy in Derrida’s proposition of dissemination and it is here that we may tie back into postmodernism. Indeterminacy is one of the most vital aspects of postmodern culture (though it existed prior to postmodernism, of course) and Ihab Hassan describes indeterminacy as the tendency to “delay closures, frustrate expectations, promote abstractions, sustain a playful plurality of perspectives, and generally shift the grounds of meaning on their audiences.” (Hassan 1987:73). Meaning is not something definite in postmodern culture, there is no single truth which may stabilise meaning, instead meaning becomes a object which may be playfully examined and reexamined constantly.

Clearly Derrida’s project is not to eradicate all meaning but instead to investigate how meaning is produced, and he insists that dissemination is thus always also insemination (Derrida 1972a: 304) and that this insemination creates what he terms the graft. As Culler states “Meaning is produced by a process of grafting…” (Culler, 1982: 134) and as Derrida asserts:

To write means to graft. It’s the same word. The saying of the thing is restored to its being-grafted. The graft is not something that happens to the properness of the thing. There is no more any thing than there is any original text. (Derrida, 1972a: 389)

Leitch argues: “The Derridian operation of grafting is a postmodern tactic designed to cross traditional boundaries in order to promote fruitful intersections among isolated disciplines and textual traditions.” (Leitch, 1996: 41, italics in original). As we can see from Leitch’s quote grafting is not only part of the very process of writing, but can also be used as a specific strategy. Grafting is thus a way of making sense or meaning from a text, what is grafted onto the present text may differ but it will always alter the text; here we find a parallel meaning to Kristeva’s concept of one discourse imposing on another. For Derrida, this is how meaning arises, whether we know of the imposing discourse.

Michel Foucault makes the same point when he in The Archeology of Knowledge states that a text “is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network.” (Foucault, 1969: 23) Such a network, then, must be seen as what frames a text and makes meaning possible. Indeed, in “Signature Event Context” Derrida argues how context is one way of controlling aspects of a text, but also that in the end, “[e]ventually, one may recognize other such possibilities in it by inscribing or grafting it into other chains. No context can enclose it. Nor can any code…” (Derrida, 1972b: 317) It is not possible to restrict the text to only one meaning, just as it is not possible to claim that a text belongs to only one network or field of discourse; a text is composed of many different elements from many different networks. A text is thus always contaminated by other texts from disparate fields.

It is this realisation which carries us into Derrida’s concept of contamination. He discusses contamination primarily in relation to genre, though it does crop up briefly in Dissemination. Significantly, in relation to genre contamination works similar to dissemination in the way it overflow and breaks boundaries. In Derrida’s conception, genre instates a line which must not be crossed, a certain norm whatever it may specifically be. This norm, as we have seen, is never natural but always constructed by certain standards. This is the law of genre. It is precisely this law which enables us to interpret texts, which indicates not just the necessary existence of genre but also the impossibility of genreless texts: “a text cannot belong to no genre, it cannot be without or less a genre. Every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always genre and genres.” (Derrida, 1980: 65)

The trait that marks membership comes to form what Derrida terms an internal pocket by the process of invagination and this pocket is larger than the whole. (Derrida, 1980: 59) I will argue that invagination is the same process as grafting, since what we find is that another discourse imposes upon a text and inseminates it with meaning. The confluence of the sexual metaphors here are not to be mistaken for it is clear that meaning is given birth by this process of insemination and invagination.

Trace or graft, the movement is the same; just as the generic mark does not belong to the text because it is a trace, so too does the graft not truly belong in the text. The use of the word “contamination” makes the process sound negative since it implies impurity, which must be a conscious decision to fly in the face of a desire for purity of genre. We may instead choose the phrasing “participation without belonging” since this does not carry the same negative connotations, and Derrida also the terms interchangeably: “Here now, very quickly, is the law of abounding, of excess, the law of participation without membership, of contamination, etc.” (Derrida, 1980: 63, italics in original)

As we can see, this is exactly what the very concept of dissemination indicates; the graft does not truly belong in the text, since it comes from the outside, yet it remains a necessary part of the text and is indeed constitutive of the text: “What interests me is that this re-mark – ever possible for every text, for every corpus of traces – is absolutely necessary for and constitutive of what we call art, poetry, or literature.” (Derrida, 1980: 64) We can see here again how texts are viewed as being forever framed by other texts and discourses outside itself. As Leitch puts it: “What are texts? Strings of differential traces. Sequences of floating signifiers. Sets of infiltrated signs dragging along ultimately indecipherable intertextual elements.”(Leitch, 1983: 122)

I do not agree that these traces or grafts must necessarily remain indecipherable. To be sure, such traces may be very difficult to follow and it will be by their very nature be impossible to locate any specific origin since that is by definition impossible, but that does not mean that the textual graft may not still be described and analysed. Indeed, Derrida suggests as much when he writes that “one must elaborate a systematic treatise on the textual graft.” (Derrida, 1972a: 214) Derrida himself mentions footnotes, epigraphs and titles, in essence much of what Gerard Genette describes in Paratexts, but there seems to be no particular limit specifically what type of graft may be studied.

Jonathan Culler is very excited about a study of grafts, pointing out that one of deconstruction’s primary aims is to identify grafts; points of juncture and stress occur where texts have been spliced together. He states that “a treatise on textual grafting would attempt to classify various ways of inserting one discourse in another or intervening in the discourse one is interpreting” and would do so by treating “discourse as the product of various sorts of combinations or insertions” and exploring “its ability to function in new contexts with new force.” (Culler, 1982: 135)

It is just such as treatise that I wish to embark on, examining instances where metaphors from the sf genre has become dislodged from its traditional field and exploded outward into other, seemingly incompatible, fields. As such, this dissertation can be seen as the process of a ‘double reading’ of the science fiction genre ‘against’ literature, theory, culture; in essence textuality. The junctures where sf has been spliced with other texts would thus grant these metaphors new force in their ability to function in new contexts.

Such a project remains valid because of Derrida’s point that: “Each grafted text continues to radiate back toward the site of its removal, transforming that, too, as it affects the new territory.” (Derrida 1972a:355) and so we realise that the number of different texts which contain within them textual samples from the sf genre are affected by this generic participation or contamination, which is both dissemination (from the genre) and insemination (into the text in question). Because every sign, or genre for that matter, can be cited, it can also break from its ‘original’ context and so “engender infinitely new contexts in an absolutely nonsaturable fashion.” (Derrida, 1972b: 320) It is these new contexts and new forces which will be the topic of the following chapters.


Barthes, Roland (1977). Image-Music-Text, Stephen Heath (ed), Glasgow: Fontana Paperbacks.
Culler, Jonathan. Pursuit of Signs, Florence, Routledge, 2001.
Culler, Jonathan (1982). On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Derrida, Jacques (1972a). Dissemination, London & New York: Continuum, 2004.
Derrida, Jacques (1972b). Margins of Philosophy, Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1982.
Derrida, Jacques (1980). “The Law of Genre”, Critical Inquiry, 7:1 (1980: Autumn).
Foucault, Michel (1969). The Archeology of Knowledge, New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.
Hassan, Ihab (1987). The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture, Ohio State University Press.
Leitch, Vincent B. (1983). Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction, New York: Columbia University Press.
Leitch, Vincent B. (1996). Postmodernism – Local Effects, Global Flows, Albany: State University of New York Press.
Riddel, Jospeh N. (1976). “From Heidegger to Derrida to Chance: Doubling and (Poetic) Language”, boundary 2, Vol.4 No. 2 (Winter, 1976), 569-592.

New Mappings
today repeats the future

1 comment:

meika said...

The word is zygote. Some swarm into sperm, some seat themselves into eggs. Among their fractal interactions we pick up patterns and call them grammar and even meaning to make sense of it all. The language mates to our sensibilities and we call the result consciousness.