Brief Considerations on the Concept of Intertextuality | Literary Theory 101

What is Intertextuality?

In Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel for children “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” a young girl called Alice follows a white rabbit and falls down a rabbit hole. Alice enters a fantasy world where she encounters many strange anthropomorphic creatures and has a series of surreal experiences.

In my book “The Matrix and The Alice Books” I explore aspects of intertextuality in the motion picture “The Matrix” and the books “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and “Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. This article is inspired by my fascination with the connection between literature and film studies.

Today, the phrases “falling down the rabbit hole” and “follow the white rabbit” have become synonymous with beginning a journey that is strange, problematic, and/or chaotic. It’s a phrase that has been widely used in film, literature, and art.

Why? Because even discussing Lewis Carroll’s “white rabbit” in this context — an article delivered through the internet — implies the use of intertextual relations between the Alice books, the words in the books, and the meaning that contemporary culture attributes to them.

In this 5-part article, I will introduce the concept of intertextuality by touching upon these subtopics:

- define intertextuality;
- understand what interpretation, reading, and meaning means in literary theory;
- discuss the origins of intertextuality; and
- contrast these concepts within the framewotk of structuralist and post-structuralist theories.

As we do all this, I will briefly introduce the ideas of the main thinkers who theorized what intertextuality is. The five literary theorist we will look at are: Julia Kristeva (b. 1941), Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975), Roland Barthes (1915–1980), and Gérard Genette (1930–2018).

Let’s now follow the rabbit and dive down the exciting world of intertextuality.

1. Introduction to Intertexuality and Interpretation

Intertextuality is a set of relations between texts, which can include direct quotations, allusions, literary conventions, imitation, parody, and unconscious sources among others.

Intertextuality also involves assumptions regarding the reader, the situation being referred to, and its context.

In traditional literary theory, it is assumed that when we read a work of literature we are trying to find a meaning which lies inside that work. Why? Because literary texts possess meaning, and readers extract it. The process of extracting meaning from texts is called interpretation.

However, contemporary literary and cultural theory has radically changed such ideas. It is now believed that works of literature are built from systems, codes, and traditions established by previous works of literature.

Crucial to the meaning of a work of literature are also the systems, the codes, and the traditions of other fields, such as films, music, art, and of culture in general.

The act of reading rather than the interpretation of one work, engages the reader in discovering a network of textual relations. Tracing those relations is, in fact, interpreting the text, that is, discovering its meaning, or meanings.

Reading thus becomes a process of ‘touring between texts.’

In “Intertextuality”, Graham Allen, an Associate Professor in Modern English at University College Cork, Ireland, writes:

“Meaning becomes something which exists between a text and all the other texts to which it refers and relates, moving out from the independent text into a network of textual relations.”

To sum up, in literary theory, the analysis of a work of literature involves making intertextual references, extracting meaning, being a critical reader, and interpreting a text.

Now you’re ready to embark on an exciting journey in the world of literary theory and discover the intricacies of intertextuality.

2. What Are the Origins of Intertextuality?

The word “intertextuality” derives from the Latin intertexto, meaning to ‘mingle while weaving’.

But first, what is intertextuality?

The term “intertextuality” was first introduced in literary linguistics by Bulgarian-born French semiotician and philosopher Julia Kristeva in the late 1960s.

In her manifesto — which includes such essays as “The Bounded Text and Word, Dialogue, and Novel,” Kristeva broke from traditional notions of the author’s influences and the text’s sources.

She argued that all signifying systems, from table settings to poems, are constituted by the manner in which they transform earlier signifying systems.

A literary work, then, is not simply the product of a single author, but of his/her relationship to other texts (both written and spoken), and to the structure of language itself.

Let us now briefly look at the origins of intertextuality.

Like modern literary and cultural theory itself, the origins of intertextuality can be traced back to 20th-century linguistics.

A major role in understanding intertextuality was played by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. By emphasizing the systematic features of language, Saussure established the relational nature of meaning and texts.

Another literary theorist who had a major influence on the theory of intertextuality was the Russian literary theorist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin.

According to “Cultural Transactions: Nature, Self, Society” by Paul Hernadi, an Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature at University of California, Santa Barbara, Bakhtin emphasized the relation between an author and his work, the work and its readers, and the relation of all three to the social and historical forces that surround them.

To sum up, by combining Saussurean and Baktinian theories, Kristeva produced the first enunciation of intertextual theory.

3. Structuralism vs Post-Structuralism and Intertextuality

As you learned in the previous video lesson, Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-born French semiotician and philosopher, had a crucial role in theorizing what intertextuality is.

It is important thought to note that her work was published during a transitional period in modern literary and cultural theory.

This transition is described in terms of moving from structuralism to post-structuralism.

Structuralists analyzed texts of all kinds, from works of literature to aspects of everyday communication. These theorists based their analysis on semiology, which is the study of signs, a movement fathered by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.

Post-structuralists, on the other hand, believed in the unstable nature of language and meaning, insisting that all texts have multiple meanings.

The transition from structuralism to post-structuralism is characterized by the replacement of objectivity, scientific rigour, and methodological stability by an emphasis on uncertainity, indeterminancy, incommunicability, subjectivity, desire, pleasure, and play.

Structuralists believed that criticism is objective, while post-structuralists argued that criticism, like literature, is inherently unstable.

But, in “Structuralism and Poststructuralism for Beginners” by Donald D. Palmer, an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California, what the two theories had in common was the postmodern obsession with language and with the radical claim of the disappearance of the individual.

As a result, post-structuralism became an important factor in discussing and understanding intertextuality.

4. “Death of the Author” and Intertextuality

Another social and literary critic and theorist who made use of intertextual theory was French literary theorist Roland Barthes. Barthes’s position on intertextuality, his belief in plurality and the freedom of all readers from constraints is characteristically post-structuralist.

Concerned with the role of the author in the production of meaning, Roland Barthes believed that literary meaning can never be fully grasped by the reader, because the intertextual nature of literary works always leads readers on to new textual relations.

Authors, therefore, cannot be held responsible for the multiple meanings readers discover within literary texts. Thus, Barthes proclaimed the “death of the Author”, and viewed this situation as a liberation for readers.

He believed that all literary productions take place in the presence of other texts, and only through intertextuality are texts allowed to come into being.

In his essay “Theory of the Text,” published in “Untying the Text. A Post-Structuralist Reader” edited by Robert Young, Roland Barthes writes:

“Any text is a new tissue of past citations. Bits of code, formulae, rhythmic models, fragments of social languages, etc., pass into the text and are redistributed within it, for there is always language before and around the text. Intertextuality, the condition of any text whatsoever, cannot, of course, be reduced to a problem of sources or influences; the intertext is a general field of anonymous formulae whose origin can scarcely ever be located; of unconscious or automatic quotations, given without quotation marks.”

Thus, writing is always an iteration which is also a re-iteration, a re-writing which foregrounds the trace of the various texts in both knowing and unknowing places.

It is important to note that these elements of intertextuality need not be simply “literary.” One also has to take into account historical and social determinants which, themselves, transform and change literary practices.

Moreover, strictly speaking, a text is constituted, only in the moment of its reading. The reader’s own previous readings, experiences and position within the cultural formation also form crucial connections, and open new doors to intertextuality.

5. Literary Criticism and Intertextuality

The concept of intertextuality is very flexible, in the sense that structuralist critics use it to locate and even fix literary meaning, while post-structuralists employ the term to disrupt notions of meaning.

Literary critics, such as French theorist Gérard Genette, employ intertextuality theory to argue for critical certainty, or at least for the possibility of saying definite, stable and incontrovertible things about literary texts.

In “Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method”, Genette writes that the “analysis of narrative discourse as I understand it constantly implies a study of relationship: on the one hand the relationship between a discourse and the events that it recounts (narrative in its second meaning), on the other hand the relationship between the same discourse and the act that it produces it… (narrative in its third meaning).

Although intertextuality has inspired various critical positions, it is a term by no means exclusively related to literary works, or written communication.

Intertextuality has been adapted by critics of non-literary art forms, such as painting, music, architecture, photography or even film. Through the use of intertextuality employed by other art forms, traits of society or periods of history can be captured not only in the written form, but also by using visual imagery.

Intertextuality, as a concept, has a history of different expressions, which reflect the historical situations out of which it has emerged.

The purpose of this introductory video lessons is not to choose between theories of intertextuality, but rather to present their most important elements, and understand the term intertextuality in its specific historical and cultural manifestations.

To summarize, we can state that the concept of intertextuality dramatically blurs the outlines of texts, making them, in Roland Barthes words, an “illimitable tissue of connections and associations”.

Of course, it entirely depends on the reader’s sensibility and background knowledge to make all the necessary connections in order to get the most out of a text.

About the Author:

Voicu Mihnea Simandan is a Beijing-based Romanian education entrepreneur with an interest in language learning, reading literacy, and world travel. He writes at

Voicu Mihnea Simandan

Written by

A Beijing-based Romanian-born education entrepreneur and archer interested in reading literacy, language learning, and world travel.

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