John Cage
John Zorn
J-S Bach



[1] Every reading of a text enables new meanings. Every reading places a text into a new context. That context is open; it never absolutely determines one interpretation, nor a clearly demarcated complex of interpretations. For that reason, a text can never be completely exhausted; there will always be something more or something else that can be said about it. Derrida introduces the term dissemination referring to this principle in which he places polysemy opposite. 'Dissemination brings out the play between surplus and lack within signification with no prospect of stabilizing or closing it' (Kramer, p.12). From the very moment that a text is published, it is delivered up to a dissemination without return. No archeology of a text is possible. One finds oneself indefinitely referred to bottomless, endless connections and to an indefinitely articulated regress from the beginning. A text never actually begins; it has always already begun. Dissemination destroys the uniqueness of a text, its hegemonic center. It takes a text to its textuality, to its 'plurality of filiations' which it has always carried within itself. Derrida: 'As for the 'plurality of filiations' and the necessity of a 'more differentiated perception', this will always have been my 'theme' in some way, in particular, as signaled by the name 'dissemination'. If one takes the expression 'plurality of filiations' in its familial literality, then this is virtually the very 'subject' of 'Dissemination'' (Points, p.224).

[2] What does dissemination mean? According to Derrida, '... this word ... has the power economically to condense, while unwinding their web, the question of semantic differance (the new concept of writing) and seminal drift, the impossible (monocentric, paternal, familial) re-appropriation of the concept and of the sperm' ('Avoir l'oreille de la philosophie', p.309, J.Culler's translation). The word dissemination implies a link between the wasteful dispersal of semantic meaning and semen. Dissemination 'is' a scattering of semen, seeds and semes, semantic features. 'We are playing on the fortuitous resemblance ... of seme and semen. There is no communication of meaning between them. And yet, by this floating, purely exterior collusion, accident produces a kind of semantic mirage: the deviance of meaning, its reflection-effect in writing, sets something off ... it is a question of remarking a nerve, a fold, an angle that interrupts totality: in a certain place, a place of well-determined form, no series of semantic valences can any longer be closed or reassembled ... the lack and the surplus can never be stabilized in the plenitude of a form' (Positions, p.45-6).
Dissemination 'is' (about) the play of meanings; an unequivocal meaning cannot be assigned to it. (Derrida insistently warns that if we say that dissemination is 'this' or 'that', we are trying to reserve its meaning. And this means that we are immobilizing it and stopping its own dissemination.) Rather, there is a dispersal of meaning because every word, every concept, every text can be connected through all sorts of connotations with other words, concepts, and texts. Dissemination refers both to a fertile dispersal of meanings and to the dissipation or the loss of meaning. Every new context brings about a new meaning, but at the same time, some of the old meaning is lost. The process of acquiring meaning is not cumulative. (This becomes apparent in translations.)
No appeal to context or convention can possibly arrest the disseminating free play of language. Dissemination is an attack on the notion that texts can be owned, controlled, limited or appropriated in the name of some legitimate authoratitive source (cf. Norris, 1982, p.112-3). But rather than enabling a negative prohibition of all access to a kind of truth, a unity of meaning, dissemination affirms the always already divided generation of meaning (cf. Dissemination, p.268).

[3] How is dissemination at work in writing? In every text and in every word, other meanings, words, and texts resonate, whether consciously or subconsciously, voluntarily or involuntarily, wanted or unwanted. Ultimately, there is no way for the author to prevent or contain the dissemination of a text. Derrida exemplifies this in 'Plato's Pharmacy' using the word pharmakon: 'The word pharmakon is caught in a chain of significations. The play of that chain seems systematic. But the system here is not simply that of the intention of an author who goes by the name of Plato. The system is not primarily that of what someone meant-to-say [un vouloir-dire]. Finely regulated communications are established, through the play of language, among diverse functions of the word and, within it, among diverse strata or regions of culture. These communications or corridors of meaning can sometimes be declared or clarified by Plato when he plays upon them 'voluntarily' ... Then again, in other cases, Plato can not see these links, can leave them in the shadow or break them up. And yet these links go on working by themselves. In spite of him? thanks to him? in his text? outside his text? but then where? between his text and the language? for what reader? at what moment? To answer such questions in principle and in general will seem impossible' (Dissemination, p.95-6). One could say that every text differs from itself and thus counters every authoritative interpretation. 'The text constantly goes beyond this representation by the entire system of its resources and its own rules' (Of Grammatology, p.101). However, Derrida is not only interested in derailing a chain of meaning. He intends to show that laying down a meaning is at all times an arbitrary and provisional act based in a desire for power and control. 'We are less interested in breaking through certain limits, with or without cause, than in putting in doubt the right to posit such limits in the first place. In a word, we do not believe that there exists, in all rigor, a ... text, closed upon itself, complete with its inside and outside' (Dissemination, p.130).

[4] Dissemination is an attempt to disclose the contingency of meaning, not to decimate it; it states the constructive nature of meaning, and, hence, the possibility for deconstruction. This can be done in several ways: (a) through associative powers (b) through multiple cohesions that do not always seem logical, such as grammatical connections, anagrammatical games, and related themes (c) through allusions, by which is meant a pluralization of references and voices (d) through an etymological texture: words which resonate actually or implicitly through a text (an example of which is found in 'Plato's Pharmacy' where the mythical figure Pharmacia and the absence of the word pharmakos both resonate in the word pharmakon) and (e) through lateral associations: by following all the senses of the word pharmakon in 'Plato's Pharmacy', Derrida brings many other contexts into play in which the word is used by Plato (medicine, painting, politics, farming, law, sexuality, festivity, family relations), thus folding onto the problematics of marking off.
The aim is not to excessively dissolve everything, but to insist upon a more chastened sense of the contingency of sense, of everything that calls itself universal or necessary, transcendental or ontological, philosophical or scientific. The play of meaning is the result of what Derrida calls 'the play of the world' in Writing and Difference, in which the general text always provides further connections, correlations, and contexts (cf. Culler, p.134).

[5] 'It is not enough to install plurivocity within thematics in order to recover the interminable motion of writing. Writing does not simply weave several threads into a single term in such a way that one might end up unraveling all the 'contents' just by pulling a few strings' (Dissemination, p.350).
This is where Derrida situates the difference between dissemination and polysemy. Moments of polysemy are moments of meaning. Polysemy always sends forth its multiplicities within the horizon of a meaning that has been at last deciphered and made present in the rich collection of its determinations. Ultimately, polysemy rests on some integral reading that contains no absolute rift, no senseless deviation. It always testifies to a past truth or a truth to come. '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' (Dissemination, p.351). Derrida has the opinion that the meaningfulness of language by no means consists of a mere accumulation of meanings that crop up haphazardly. Dissemination means that transformations of meaning no longer hinge on any enrichment of 'history' and 'language', but only on a certain squaring of the text. 'The difference between discursive polysemy and textual dissemination is precisely difference itself, an implacable difference' (Dissemination, p.351). Dissemination cannot be reduced to polysemy. 'Writing is read, and 'in the last analysis', does not give rise to a hermeneutic deciphering, to the decoding of a meaning or truth' (Margins, p.329). 'If there is thus no thematic unity or overall meaning to reappropriate beyond the textual instances, no total message located in some imaginary order, intentionality, or lived experience, then the text is no longer the expression or representation (felicitous or otherwise) of any truth that would come to diffract or assemble itself in the polysemy of literature. It is this hermeneutic concept of polysemy that must be replaced by dissemination' (Dissemination, p.262). The heterogeneity of different writings is writing itself.

[6] The page entitled Pharmakos gives a deeper understanding of dissemination and an example of  this from the work of Derrida. Examples of dissemination in music can be found  in (D)(R)econtextualization, Of Interpretation, and Gerd Zacher's Kunst einer Fuge [Art of a Fugue]. Dissemination in relation to (music) education is discussed in To Give a Lesson.