About Intertextuality

At its simplest, intertextuality can be understood as how texts (and a text can be any cultural object, not just the written word) inform and shape each other.  Or, from About.com:  "The interdependent ways in which texts stand in relation to one another (as well as to the culture at large) to produce meaning."

However, the term has a complex, scholarly, and controversial history and variety of uses.  For the purposes of English 220, we use the simpler definition stated above, and explore the following basic features of intertextuality (adapted from Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler):
  • Scale of adoption: the overall scale of allusion/incorporation within the text;
  • Criticality to comprehension: how important it would be for the reader to recognize the intertextuality involved;
  • Alteration: the alteration of sources (more noticeable alteration presumably making it more reflexively intertextual);
  • Reflexivity: how reflexive (or self-conscious) the use of intertextuality seems to be;
  • Explicitness: the specificity and explicitness of reference(s) to other text(s) (e.g. direct quotation, attributed quotation) (is assuming recognition more reflexively intertextual?); and
  • Structural unboundedness: to what extent the text is presented (or understood) as part of or tied to a larger structure (e.g. as part of a genre, of a series, of a serial, of a magazine, of an exhibition etc.) - factors which are often not under the control of the author of the text.
The techniques of intertextuality can include:
  • Quotation: directly quoting from the foundational text
  • Allusion: making a direct or indirect reference to the foundational text 
  • Calque: borrowing words or phrases from the foundational text (e.g., many people don't realize that the phrase "high maintenance" is intertextual, as it is borrowed from the movie, When Harry Met Sally)
  • Translation: this can include translating from language to language or from medium to medium, otherwise known as adaptation
  • Pastiche: imitating the style or character of the foundational text in a way that celebrates it 
  • Parody: similar to pastiche, but mocking rather than celebrating the foundational text
  • Plagiarism: copying content directly from the foundational text without acknowledgment or permission
To put it all perhaps more simply, intertextuality can do the following things, which can and often do overlap:
  • Complement the foundational text with a work in another medium or genre
  • Adapt the foundational text to another medium, genre, and/or setting 
  • Retell the foundational text in the same (or similar) medium and genre, keeping as true to the original as possible
  • Reinterpret the foundational text by changing the emphasis or degree in its message and meaning
  • Subvert the meaning and message of the original text, putting a widely divergent or even opposing spin on it
We also operate from the premise that the formation of intertextual meaning takes place within the reader, and has value for that reader even if that meaning, or even the intertextuality itself, was unintended by/unconscious in the author.

The following example is of a type of intertextuality that has been growing in popularity recently.  I call this "collage textuality."  It combines pop culture references in a way that is entirely ironic, tongue-in-cheek, even lowbrow. The foundational text is unclear (i.e, is it a Wolverinized Mickey or a Mickeyized Wolverine?)  It is entirely explicit, structurally bound, and critical to comprehension, in that if you don't know who both Mickey Mouse and Wolverine are, and if you don't appreciate this genre of "collage textuality," it will make absolutely no sense to you, nor will it be enjoyable.  On a scale of adoption of 1 to 10, it's an 11; the entire text is an intertextual object.  Its irony occurs from the blending of a cutesie, wholesome old-school  cartoon character with a brooding, anti-authority, violent, cigar-smoking antihero.    

It's interesting to note that Wolverine is a mutant, a type of character and theme that's become more and more common in contemporary pop culture.  This type of collage textuality is itself mutant in its nature, taking the mutation to another level; Mickey Mouse is now a mutant, and Wolverine's essential identity is now mutated.  

Hmm...come to think of it, intertextuality and mutation are not so different....

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