Derrida and Baudrillard: Cybernetics in Hypertexts

Even the few pages we read of Derrida’s “Of Grammatology” takes a lot of unpacking. What struck me the most was his discussion of writing as a signifier of language: he describes it historically as a “signifier of the signifier” (language itself being a signifier of expression) and then goes on to introduce an idea of  writing as expanded beyond a simple secondary signifier of language; it now “exceeds and comprehends [the concept] of language.” He also describes the cybernetic “program” as covering a field made up entirely of the field of writing. This exploration of writing as a navigational program – and a system – is directly in line with the hypertexts we’ve been reading.

But what of the idea of the signifier? Has writing truly expanded beyond the point of a simple signifier? What does it mean to talk about language, writing, and meaning in terms of signifiers, and signifieds, particularly when Derrida explores a gap between the two? Do we buy Derrida’s claim that contemporary writing remains successfully linked to language?

Predictably, I had to turn to another Frenchman to help pave the way to contextualization. Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation is a fine place to start understanding how the gap between “signifiers” and “signified” work in the contemporary world, and once grasped, Derrida’s ideas become more clear. In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard explores the relationship between the real and the simulation: the signified and the signifier. In the postmodern world, he explains, we are governed by a system of simulacra that precede the original; in other words, a world of symbols with no direct link to fundamental meaning (the Matrix is a clumsily executed exploration of this idea: the entire world is a simulation). Baudrillard then directly brings up the idea of cybernetics; in the chapter “Simulacra and Science Fiction,” he describes the simulacra of simulation as “founded on information, the model, the cybernetic game – total operationality, hyperreality, aim of total control.” This too sounds a lot like the hypertexts we’ve been reading. In fact, Baudrillard’s simulacra of simulation, when applied to hypertext, seems to be the same cybernetic program Derrida describes. In other words, the meaning of the signifier has not diminished, but has overtaken the meaning of the signified.

What does this mean for the texts we are reading? Clearly, the structure of the writing itself challenges the language it is meant to signify; it no longer follows the traditional rules of language. We might be strung out along threads, as in “Twelve Blue”; we might see it littered with pictures, as in “My Body & a Wunderkammer.” Entirely new structures are written (or “programmed”) and old ones are turned topsy-turvy (as in House of Leaves). Every aspect of the hypertext is manipulated, traditional bounds are redefined, and the writing becomes the kind of cybernetic game both Derrida and Baudrillard are describing.

I propose that Derrida is correct; that contemporary writing has not fallen away from the language that it represents (the modernists tried this, and it didn’t go over so well). Rather, it has expanded to encompass language. And if language is the signifier of meaning, it’s not a terrifically large leap of logic to understand the expansion of writing beyond language as an expansion that closer approaches meaning. In a way, cybernetics allows writing to overstep the bounds that kept it tethered to the rules of language (e.g. grammar and structure) and come closer to achieving a simulation of meaning. When reading hypertexts, it is worth keeping in mind how the structure of the writing is both affective and effective. Does House of Leaves succeed in making you panic? Does Chapter 68 of Hopscotch more or less effectively express an intimate scene than traditional writing? I think that most of the texts we’re reading allow for more direct manipulation of the reader through the subversion of traditional rules of language in order to allow writing a much closer link to meaning.

-jocelyn petyak

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~ by jocelynpetyak on February 15, 2010.

 
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