The Electronic Labyrinth


Writing, as the term is used in contemporary literary theory, is the mode of literary creation that comes of age in the wake of The End of the Book and The Death of the Author. In Of Grammatology, Derrida demonstrates that, from Plato (who, of course, prohibited poets from his ideal Republic) to Rousseau and Saussure, the western philosophical tradition has systematically excluded and suppressed the concept of writing as a free-play of signification. In our logocentric world, speech is privileged over writing for its sense of proximity to the source of utterance; when I speak, the seal between my words and the meaning I intend by them remains intact, secured by my physical presence. Writing, by contrast, seems to drive a wedge between the speaker and his or her utterance. Cut off from the consciousness which would guarantee their meaning, words begin to move, to take on unintended connotations, to be received in unexpected ways. Signifiers are no longer fixed to their signifieds, but begin to point beyond themselves to other signifiers:

The meaning of meaning [...] is infinite implication, the indefinite referral of signifier to signifier [...] its force is a certain pure and infinite equivocality which gives signified meaning no respite, no rest, but engages in its own economy so that is always signifies again and differs. (Derrida, Writing and Difference 25)

To question the bond between sound and sense is to subvert the metaphysical tradition of logocentrism at its roots. As Christopher Norris notes, writing for Derrida is "that which exceeds--and has the power to dismantle--the whole traditional edifice of Western attitudes to thought and language" (29).

In its potentially radical transformation of the literary mode, hypertext has obvious alliances with Derrida's conception of writing. Moving from node to node in an undetermined path, meaning in a hypertext accrues not in the word, but between words; a text's meaning lies less in what the author intended than in the ways it is read and, in being read, is re-written. Hypertext, in its electronic form, takes on the mutability and mobility with which Derrida characterizes writing; disseminated through phonelines and electronic bulletin boards, the electronic word has no author, has no point of origin, has no meaning except that of its transmission, of its devotion to the possibilities of dissemination itself.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
contact us