Intertextuality

Trees in fall

In this episode Kim and Chad talk about Julia Kristeva’s theory of “intertextuality.”

Chad references Chapter 3 of Kristeva’s book Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, Translated by Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez, (Columbia UP 1980).

The last quote (the permanent revolt one) is from Chapter 15, “Europhilia-Europhobia,” of Kristeva’s Intimate Revolt: The Powers and Limits of Psychoanalysis, Translated by Jeanie Herman, (Columbia UP, 2002).

Chad Hegelmeyer is a postdoc in English at NYU. He wrote a dissertation about fact checking! The Capybara still stands, proudly, in place of Chad.

Capybara Chad

TRANSCRIPT

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

texts, literature, reading, writer, language, interpretation, poetry, word, work, podcast, meaning, allusion, totally, modernist, interpreting, writing, subject, notes, wasteland

Kim

So today we are here to talk about intertextuality. Hi, Chad. 

Chad

Hi Kim!

Kim

Do you want to introduce yourself?

Chad

Sure, yeah. My name is Chad Hegelmeyer. I’m a postdoctoral fellow at NYU in the English Department, where I was formally–just a few minutes–ago a PhD candidate there with Kim. I study 20th-century contemporary American literature, a lot about narrative, and I wrote a dissertation about fact-checking and literature.

Kim

Excellent. So Chad, what the heck is intertextuality?

Chad 

Okay, so intertextuality refers to just the way that a text meaning is shaped by other texts. And sometimes the way that this gets talked about is, you know, the intertextuality refers to influences or just the sources of a literary work, but actually, it’s much more radical than that. So one way of thinking about intertextuality–and actually, this is a way that Julia Kristeva herself, the person who coined this term encouraged us to think about it–is to picture a text as a 3D space. So, think about a situation in which words are not just floating out there by themselves totally independent, meaning things. They are never quite fully detached from the texts or contexts in which they are used. So they have all these strings attached to them that connect them to all the places in which they’re used, and they drag those other texts into the text that we are currently reading. So every word, certain phrases or sentences, will not just evoke but, like, have these deep connections to other texts. What this means is that a text’s meaning is not in it: it’s between it and all the other texts that it’s related to. So reading kind of plunges us into a network of relations rather than a text. And we read, or we interpret, by tracing those relations.

Kim

Cool. And so you said that Kristeva coined this term, which is not a thing I knew before you said it.

Chad

Yeah, isn’t that wild? Yeah, she coined it. So if you don’t know Julia Kristeva, she is a Bulgarian literary theorist who spent, I think, most or all of her life in Paris. The field of literary theory that Kristeva was sort of thrust into in Paris is called Structuralism. And it’s really devoted to seeing literature and language as this edifice or this structure that we can take apart and find out how it works. And she’s really bothered by how static that is. For her things are not static; they’re not these unchanging structures. They are moving and changing in time. That’s why intertextuality is not an unmoving connection of texts. It’s this, like, constantly changing network.

Kim

Okay, nice because I was gonna ask you how intertextuality is different from modernist references. I don’t think what Kristeva means and what we often now mean by intertextuality is something like “The Wasteland” with all its footnotes, and all of it sort of like reaching back into a grand literary past.

Chad

Yeah. I mean, I actually think it’s sort of similar in a way, like, so, the school of literary theory that sort of comes before Structuralism in some way is called New Criticism, as you know, and even though a lot of new critics were kind of champions of Modernist literature, there were some things about Modernist literature that at least in my view, they were very uncomfortable about. Yeah, so some new critics like Wimsatt and Beardsley and the verbal icon are actually deeply uncomfortable with like, the referentiality and the citation and the illusion that’s really heavy in modernist poetry. They’ll put up with all of the allusions to other texts in “The Wasteland,” but they hate the notes that explain them. And their solution is to say that even if the notes were fake, even if all the allusions were to made-up texts, like totally fictional texts, that they would still work. And actually, they want you to read the notes that way. So they want you to read the things in the notes as if they are just, like, the same thing as the lines of the poetry in the poem. They’re just a creation of the poet. They don’t actually reference anything outside of the poetry or into the world.

Kim

Right because they can’t handle texts that are not complete unto themselves

Chad

Totally–they want, they want that. They want the text–the poetic text–to be this work of art that has its own separate ontological existence. That’s, like, totally independent, right? So they hate it when you know, to understand a text you have to like put it down for a second and go pick up another book on the bookshelf, right? They don’t want that at all.

Kim

Okay, so this seems like the exact right moment to ask how do I use intertextuality?

Chad

Yeah, so what Kristeva is saying is like, you actually can’t do that–that’s completely impossible. That’s not how texts mean. You don’t necessarily have to get up, pick up that other book. But just by reading and interpreting a text, you’re already sort of doing that in your brain, you’re already drawing on the other texts in which you’ve encountered these words or phrases, right? And for her, it’s even more radical than just allusion or citation. Every word. So here’s a direct quote from Kristeva: “Each word (text) is an intersection of word (texts, plural) or at least one other word (text) can be read.” So let me reread that in two different ways. So you can read it first as, “each word is an intersection of Word, or at least one other word can be read.” Or we can read it, “each text is an intersection of texts where at least one other text can be read,” right? So there’s never we’re never only reading just one text or we’re reading a text we’re reading other texts as well. And we’re using those other texts to read the texts that we’re reading.

Kim

Okay, so for her intertextuality is like a basic function of language?

Chad

Kind of, I mean, so she does a lot of complex theoretical stuff that comes out of semiotics and linguistic traditions about, like, denotative meeting and other types of meaning. And she also has this really weird insistence that I don’t totally understand where she says that there’s some logic, there’s some extra-linguistic logic at work here. It’s not just, like, the logic of language itself–there’s some other kinds of logic at work. According to Kristeva, and also according to Barthes here a bit, too, Roland Barthes, we’re already doing–or using–intertextuality and we’re doing it in two ways as writers and readers. When we’re writing, we’re actually performing a kind of reading, right? As a writer–so they really want to get rid of this notion of the writing subjects that, like, think of the Romantic poet and like the poetry just comes from inside of him, right? No, that’s not how we do that. As a writer, you’re just sort of like a language processor. You’re taking in all this language from other places in your life and then you’re processing it into this new thing, this new text, right? Kristeva actually calls this a writing, hyphen, reading process or “writing-reading process.” So that’s the writing side. As a reader, you’re not just receiving a message or a signal from the writer through the text–you’re actually decoding a highly complex network, a network of relationships to produce an interpretation. So reading itself is a kind of writing, right? You’re, you’re producing the text insofar as you are reading it in this particular way using this particular web of associations. So this kind of goes into, like, you can, maybe, if you know anything about Roland Barthes, you kind of start to see where something like “The Death of the Author” comes from.

Kim

And if you are a listener of this podcast, you might have heard our episode on “The Death of the Author.”

Chad

Excellent. We’re already an intertext!

Kim

But I see what you’re getting, I mean, I see where you might go to get something that is a little bit beyond just the basic functions of language, because it’s not just meaning that’s at stake here, but interpretation, which is a little bit bigger.

Chad

Yeah, absolutely. And interpretation isn’t trying to recover the web of associations that the author had in mind when they wrote it. It’s using the ones that you are, you’re in contact with as a reader.

Kim

Cool. Okay, then. Here’s the big dramatic question. How will intertextuality save the world?

Chad

Yeah, so, I’m obviously very attracted to the idea of intertextuality and I think it’s extremely important for interpreting texts like I, you know, a lot of my work starts here. At the same time, there’s something lost in Kristeva, in Barthes, and in a lot of these post structuralist thinkers for me, they’re very cold and like the human subject kind of drops out of them, you know, or is like something we have to dismantle even. I don’t like that. I think that human beings are not just, like, little notes, connecting webs of text together. I mean, that’s not exactly what they would say either. But I think there’s something interesting going on there that is kind of lost here. What Kristeva thinks is good about this is that there’s something revolutionary–there’s a revolutionary possibility in language and literature. So here’s another quote from her: “by showing how much of the inside of the text is indebted to its outside, interpretation reveals the inauthenticity of the writing subject. The writer is a subject in process, a carnival, a polyphony without possible reconciliation, a permanent revolt.”

Kim

Chad, that was so beautiful, you’re gonna read it again.

Chad

Okay, here we go. “By showing how much of the inside of the text is indebted to its outside, interpretation reveals the inauthenticity of the writing subject. The writer is a subject in process, a carnival, a polyphony without possible reconciliation, a permanent revolt.” So we lose the writer subject, but we get process, we get time, we get carnival, we get permanent in revolt and the possibility of, like, things actually changing, you know, we can have the possibility of revolution and not just this static structure that we have to dismantle, then put back together like it’s a machine or something.

Kim

Yeah. Awesome. All right. We should say goodbye to our listeners, farewell. Thank you for listening.

Chad

Goodbye. And yeah, thanks for listening to me talk about Julia Kristeva intertextuality for a little bit.

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