Derrida is hard to sum up but can someone define his notion of "dissemination" or does anyone know a good passage where he defines it? I know that Derrida writes on dissemination and has an original theory of it but I haven't encountered it in the "majors," namely, Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference.

I've been writing on the transmission of knowledge and the reproduction of subjectivity and looking at Kant's notion of genius, disciples and the preservation and transmission of artistic technique through education and I think Derrida's perspective would be useful.

  • see the end of Signature event context - "a dissemination irreducible to polysemy"
    – user10383
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 1:33

3 Answers 3


I know that Derrida writes on dissemination and has an original theory of it

I think he uses the term in a reasonably conventional way; AFAIK it would be a bit of a red herring to say he has a distinct theory of it.

Note that the book Dissemination is actually a compendium of ostensibly unrelated material, but much of it is an examination of Plato's Phaedrus. While it's been almost 20 years since I read it, a theme is I think to do with Derrida's (apocryphal?) use of the Ancient Greek term "pharmakon" to mean both poison and cure as analogous with language and particularly philopsophical language (the implicit topic, by orthodox interpretation, of the Phaedrus being rhetoric, and the concept of rhetoric being fundatmental to the orthodox canon).

I've been writing on the transmission of knowledge and the reproduction of subjectivity

If you enjoy reading Derrida and tend to think along similar lines, I think the stuff on Plato in Dissemination might be stimulating. I notice there is a garden path here (e.g.) if you start searching derrida kant "theory of genius".

I think Derrida is often addressing subjectivity in a more whole-hearted, self conscious way than most writers and presuming part of that goal is to transmit knowledge, it stands to reason a reproduction (or transformation) is involved.


As User10383 pointed out, Dissemination in Derrida should be contrasted with polysemy (among other things). An interpretation is constrained by polysemy if it considers only the various possible discrete meanings a text could have. For example, the two or more meanings of a pun. An interpretation recognizes the possibility of dissemination if it acknowledges as well that anything textual (anything at all) can be put forth without any intention-to-signify whatsoever. In the field of rhetoric this is known as irony. I can say words or perform actions without believing in them or meaning to say anything by them at all.

This marks (or re-marks) the difference between what others have called structuralism and post-structuralism, though Derrida never used the latter term to describe his own work. Structuralism dreamed of creating a combinatorics of all possible meanings of all possible signifiers in order to exhaust the project of interpretation (Levi-Strauss' Mythologiques is probably the best example of this) Derrida shows the impossibility of such a project by noting the essential possibility of dissemination. Because dissemination is an a priori possibility, one can never saturate the context of an interpretation by identifying exactly what is relevant and what is not to the meaning of a particular text.

“Dissemination”, the essay in the eponymous book, is the best source on the subject, though Limited Inc, which includes the essay “Signature, Event, Context” is a bit more approachable. Derrida does not discuss dissemination as explicitly there, but everything he has to say about these three themes - signature, event, and context - relates to dissemination. Here is a citation:

Before elaborating more precisely the inevitable consequences of these nuclear traits of all writing-that is: (1) the break with the horizon of communication as communication of consciousnesses or of presences and as linguistical or semantic transport of the desire to mean what one says [vouloir-dire]; (2) the disengagement of all writing from the semantic or hermeneutic horizons which, inasmuch as they are horizons of meaning, are riven [crever] by writing; (3) the necessity of disengaging from the concept of polysemics what I have elsewhere called dissemination, which is also the concept of writing; (4) the disqualification or the limiting of the concept of context, whether "real" or "linguistic," inasmuch as its rigorous theoretical determination as well as its empirical saturation is rendered impossible or insufficient by writing-I would like to demonstrate that the traits that can be recognized in the classical, narrowly defined concept of writing, are generalizable. They are valid not only for all orders of "signs" and for all languages in general but moreover, beyond semio-linguistic communication, for the entire field of what philosophy would call experience, even the experience of being: the above-mentioned “presence." Limited Inc p. 8-9

Dissemination is certainly a relevant theme if you are discussing genius. The possibility of an action or work (such as a work of art) purely belonging to an agent and its merit returning to them alone is undermined by dissemination. This is further explained in the essay.


The first place I'd look is Derridas book Dissemination; but given Derridas propensity for absence its probably not the first place one ought to look.

I haven't read it - but here is a review of the same by the LRB.

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