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Definition: intertextuality from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Theory in literary criticism that draws attention to the interdependence of literary texts.

As part of a movement stemming from the work of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, known as deconstruction, the principles of intertextuality are as thoroughly demonstrated in the critical writings of its advocates as in the literary works they discuss. Behind assertions of intertextuality lies the more general theory that authors cannot achieve a ‘closure’ of their writings as self-contained artefacts in the manner assumed by much traditional literary criticism.

Summary Article: Intertextuality from The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory

“Intertextuality” names a text's relations to other texts in the larger “mosaic” of cultural practices and their expression. An “intertext” is therefore a focalizing point within this network or system, while a text's “intertextual” potential and status are derived from its relations with other texts past, present, and future. Unlike the term “reference,” to which it is closely allied, “intertextuality” has no verb form and hence has unlimited powers of designation, but not specification to a particular kind of textual activity (Orr 2003). However, unlike critical terms such as “allusion,” “intertextuality” has a specific provenance and date. In her work on the Russian critic and theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, Julia Kristeva described and named the concept of “intertextualité” in a series of essays between 1966 and 1968 published in French in 1969 (as Semeiotikè: recherches pour une sémanalyse). While Semeiotikè has been translated into English only in part (by L. Roudiez in 1980 and others in Moi 1986), Kristeva's term needed no translation into cognate European tongues sharing Greek and Latin heritages. Its instant and spontaneous success lay in its applicability, to multifarious cultural forms and practices, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to the cultural sea change post-1968 in notions about language and power, namely that these were decentered and in process rather than being given or fixed. Kristeva's complex and careful redefinitions of Bakhtin's work on “dialogism,” “carnival,” and “polyphony” as “intertextuality” were thus rapidly re-spun in a plethora of theoretical and applied work on language, cultural practices, and power structures now understood as “the linguistic turn.” Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Philippe Sollers, and Michel Foucault all variously inflected and reshaped Kristeva's “intertextuality” by focusing on its core idea, the notion that there is nothing outside of language, and hence of the text.

Since the first wave of its dissemination in French theory and usage as a critical term for the multiple relations between texts (Riffaterre 1978; Jenny 1982), intertextuality also struck chords with emergent, increasingly politicized voices which had been excluded from dominant intellectual mainstreams. The malleability of “inter-textuality” to describe multiple power relations between the text and its worlds thus immediately attracted feminist, gay, and subaltern practitioners and cultural critics for its power to unsettle grand, colonial narratives, and to name cultural blank and nonwhite spaces. Intertextuality as an interplay of coequal texts meant that the marginal spaces in a dominant culture do not exist. The generative potentiality of intertextuality can therefore be seen in the explosion of postcolonial forms of cultural expression in the 1980s, together with the circulation of these “texts” in academe (particularly in the US). Yet the seemingly unstoppable expansions and possibilities of intertextuality were offset by retractions of its use within the heartlands of cultural production and criticism of the 1990s. Eminently catchall to name general relations within networks of texts, the term “intertextuality” dealt with, but could not overtly delineate, specific forms, qualities, or operations of textual cross-reference. It had therefore only limited cultural leverage, as Genette's work of reclassification from the 1970s exemplifies (his “architext,” “palimpsest,” and “paratext”). His redefinitions of Kristeva's term aside, intertextuality thus everywhere elides meta- and micro-textual activity, where definitions and reworking of genres, rhetorical figures, and tropes, for example, do not.

But the retraction of intertextuality was also due to cultural forces of much greater magnitude at work in the 1980s onwards, in particular the development and accessibility of electronic media and their resources. These overtly challenged its core concept, “text,” although intertextuality always presumed to encompass non-print “texts,” and forms. Pressures from these new media to decenter the hegemony of print text were in fact replicated by two rival critical theory movements of the 1980s and 1990s. The one offered alternative umbrella terms to intertextuality such as the highly successful notion of “deconstruction” within high theory, or in sociology and linguistics the concept of “interdiscursivity” (Angenot 1983), which recast the impact of oral discourses and popular cultural forms. The other sought sharper terminological precision for intertextuality by redefining its intrinsic principles, taxonomies, and major variants in edited theoretical and applied critical readers (Lachmann 1982; Broich & Pfister 1985; Worton & Still 1990; Plett 1991). Most striking about these was, first, that national European literatures, cultures, and canons were back in force to provide key examples of intertextuality at work. Second, the theories of intertextuality as disseminated in the English language (in parallel with the vocabulary of the internet) were only part of “critical theory” more broadly, mainly undertaken in English departments and through English translations. While not an edited volume, Allen (2000) is indicative. It also marks an important point of no return in critical readers on intertextuality, seeking to clarify and popularize it. Henceforth, the term cannot be regarded as a singular noun, or a concept for a network of texts in all languages. Ordinary users also largely ignore its semiotic thrusts by employing it as an imperfect synonym variously for “allusion,” “parody,” or “contact point.”

In the new millennium, responses to the developments of intertextuality develop these strands of its theoretical displacement. Moves to stricter definition have sought to capture various geographies of intertextual endeavor. For example, Samoyault (2001) focuses on the mnemonic activities of intertextuality in French literature, which reflect upon the space of intertextuality in French cultural memory more generally, whereas Bauman (2004) has pointed up the cross-cultural forces of intertextuality, in particular its folkloric, anthropological, and popular dimensions. Orr (2003) was the first to engage overtly with the specific geographical and historical contexts which gave rise not just to a neologism, but Kristeva's invention of the term within Barthes's seminar and the Tel Quel circle. As a French- and Russian-speaking Bulgarian émigrée, Kristeva was its privileged non-French and female outsider voice. Juvan (2008) has taken up Orr's cue for others to explore central and eastern European ramifications of Kristeva's term. By returning intertextuality to its Bakhtinian lineages, he qualifies its “citationality.” For Juvan, the reader and the text are very far from dead. Intertextuality thus remains a viable term, not only for poetics in countries enriched by being multiethnic, such as his native Slovenia, but also for those seeking to understand wider transnational cultural impacts upon their national literatures.

For others, however, intertextuality has always been one phenomenon among several in the longer history of comparable and contrastive terms. “Influence,” “imitation,” and “quotation” (as older forms of “contact point,” “parody,” “allusion”) have always been, and remain, motors of the establishment, adaptation, and transformation of cultural forms and practices, with specific vocabularies to match (Orr 2003). In discussing the forms and functions of intertextuality, Broich & Pfister (1985) had already pinpointed its contemporary rivals, including intellectual movements such as “inter-disciplinarity,” which encapsulate multiple discourses, or networks and mosaics with greater multimedia potential, such as the internet. The fact of new technologies has pressed hardest on the limits of print media, so that “intertextuality” as a term for cross- and intergeneric cultural operations is now already superseded by its more precise cousin, “intermediality.” This describes how cultural productions are facilitated by their (re)interpretation and adaptation in a variety of media including text, performance, the plastic, and the virtual arts (Wagner 1996; Chapple & Kattenbelt 2006; Wolf & Bernhart 2006). In an online journal aptly named Inter-médialités, which pluralizes the concept from the outset, Kajewsky (2006) elucidates the differences between “intermediality,” “intertextuality,” and “remediation.” Her work is indicative of other studies where literary texts (and intertextuality) are set alongside nonprint media of all kinds, so that “intermediality” emerges as the more effective term for cultural interrelationships in the digital age as a culminating moment for both oral and print text traditions. As against the era of mass media of the fourth estate (the press, TV, radio as inflections of the three feudal estates of the realm, the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners, respectively), however, the fifth estate of information and communication technologies is seen by intellectual historians of postmodernity as a force for action against global corporations. Through strategic electronic networking and the formation of special interest websites, bloggers can enter in unprecedented ways into bottom-up, one-to-global engagements that target initiatives for cultural change and for the accountability of faceless megalopolises (Dutton 2009).

In its 40-year history, intertextuality thus offers a term that perhaps best pinpoints a moment of last resort to name relations between texts, where “text” had not yet taken on its now ubiquitous sense of “text-messaging.” In the France of May 1968, Kristeva's intertextuality served the purposes of overturning previous hierarchies of high-cultural understanding by translating and adapting Bakhtinian dialogism and the carnivalesque into an intellectual movement claiming a more democratic face for categories of texts. “Intertextuality,” like “intermediality” after it, is only the latest name for “adaptation” and “translation” of ideas and expression, to make sense of contemporary culture. Like the multiform species of nature, culture in all its forms, including the virtual, has constantly adapted to changing climates and conditions for its ongoing existence. As in the past, the protean possibilities for cultural production will continue to depend upon the acts of human engagement and recording. Whether in transient oral and bodily performances (speech, poetry, folk tales, drama, dance), or in material forms that outlive the instance of expression (writing, painting, sculpture, tapestry, architecture, the internet), particular movements will form, develop, and change shape thanks to temporal and spatial possibilities, including contact with neighboring or rival cultural practices and their new media. The practices of renewal, parody, and resistance to censorship that maintain and subvert cultural work cannot be sustained without the newcomer (in time), outsider (in space), or the highly skilled adaptations of the insider to disturb preset orders of things. Intertextuality still has work to do, to recuperate texts forgotten or invisible in the global cultural matrix. If this work depends on digitization of the world's libraries and archives, the remit of intertextuality is guaranteed for at least the next 40 years, but it will probably be known by a different name.

SEE ALSO: Narratology and Structuralism; Structuralism

  • Allen, G. (2000). Intertextuality. Routledge London.
  • Angenot., M. (1983). Intertextualité, inter-discursivité, discours social. Texte, 2, 101-112.
  • Btauman, R. (2004). A World in Other's Words: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Intertextuality. Blackwell Malden, MA.
  • Broich, U.; Pfister, M. (eds.) (1985). Intertextualität: Formen, Funktionen, anglistische Fallstudien. Niemeyer Tübingen.
  • Chapple, F.; Kattenbelt, C. (eds.) (2006). Intermediality in Theatre and Performance. Rodopi New York.
  • Dutton, R. (2009). Democracy on the line: The fifth estate? Oxford Today, 21, 12-15.
  • Genette, G. (1992). The Architext: An Introduction (trans. Lewin, J. E. ). University of California Press Berkeley. (Original work published 1979.).
  • Genette, G. (1997). Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree (trans. C. Newman; C. Doubinsky). University of Nebraska Press Lincoln. (Original work published 1982.).
  • Genette, G. (1997). Thresholds of Interpretation (trans Lewin, J. E. ). Cambridge University Press Cambridge. (Original work published 1987.).
  • Jenny, L. (1982). The strategy of forms (trans. R. Carter). In Todorov, T. (ed.), French Literary Theory Today: A Reader. Cambridge University Press Cambridge, pp. 34-64. (Original work published 1976.).
  • Juvan, M. (2008). History and Poetics of Intertextuality (trans. Pogačar, T. ). Purdue University Press West Lafayette, IN.
  • Kajewsky, O. J. (2006). Intermediality, intertextuality and remediation: A literary perspective on intermediality. Intermédialités: histoire et théorie des arts, des lettres et des techniques, 6, 43-64.
  • Kristeva, J. (1969). Semeiotikè: Recherches pour une sémanalyse. Points Paris.
  • Lachmann, R. (ed.) (1982). Dialogizität; Theorie und Geschichte der Literatur und der schönen Künste. Wilhelm Fink Munich.
  • Moi, T. (ed.) (1986). The Kristeva Reader. Blackwell Oxford.
  • Orr, M. (2003). Intertextuality: Debates and Contexts. Polity Cambridge.
  • Plett, H. E. (ed.) (1991). Intertextuality. Walter de Gruyter Berlin.
  • Riffaterre, M. (1978). Semiotics of Poetry. Indiana University Press Bloomington.
  • Samoyault, T. (2001). Intertextualité: Mémoire de la littérature. Hachette Paris.
  • Wagner, P. (1996). Icons-Texts-Iconotexts: Essays on Ekphrasis and Intermediality. Walter de Gruyter Berlin.
  • Wolf, W.; Bernhart, W. (eds.) (2006). Framing Borders in Literature and Other Media. Rodopi Amsterdam.
  • Worton, M.; Still, J. (eds.) (1990). Intertextuality: Theories and Practices. Routledge London.
    © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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