Wednesday, September 27, 2017


For this week, I read selections from Julia Kristeva, Gerard Genette and Graham Allen, all discussing the complex theory of intertextuality. Genette goes into quite some detail that makes the entire idea incredibly complicated, but I will attempt to break it down here because to a certain extent I believe in this theory, or at least I think that this theory holds some truth to it.

Julia Kristeva is generally acknowledged as one who coined the term intertextuality, though it is tied to some of the French post-structuralist and other theories that had been floating around in the 1960s. For her, authors do not create new texts; instead, they compile and build upon what has already been created and so on. This is somewhat true in all art. One cannot escape their inspirations or sources. Yet Kristeva seems to suggest that there is nothing new to say or do.

Incidentally, this song is a direct influence upon one of my own songs, perhaps proving Kristeva's point.

One of the points made by Graham Allen, however, is that intertextuality means that an individual text cannot have meaning, that it is part of a larger whole, a continuum of sorts. This is certainly partially true. Today's modern indie rock music could not have existed without its grunge predecessors, who in turn formed out of the 80s rock who can trace their paths back to the late 70s punk, etc, etc until we get back through the initial rock and roll movement that developed from the blues and we are on the back porch of a West Virginia farm house listening to a family jug band. Does that mean that the songs in themselves are without significance?

While I do agree that individual pieces of art or literature cannot have stable interpretations, to say that they cannot have significance or meaning on their own is misleading. A piece of good writing can be that regardless, but it becomes a great piece of writing when placed in the line of other good writings and within the social and cultural time and context. No matter how terrific a piece of literature is, there will always be something that came before it that made it possible. Kurt Vonnegut, my favorite author, could not have created his masterpieces without the influence of Mark Twain, who, likewise, is indebted to those before him. Even the standout geniuses are on the continuum. The Beatles, original and amazing though they are, were majorly influenced by the early rock and roll singers. Today, we have become aware of this fact, and this incites some interesting reactions. When we become aware that nothing is new, people began to attempt a newness in hopes that they can cross a virgin threshold. Art, music and literature that to the trained eye and ear feels odd, offensive or ridiculous. Take for instance Andres Serrano's Piss Christ. Many would argue that this is not art but simply something offensive floating in a jar of his own piss. Is this art? It certainly hadn't been done before, except when unsuspecting artists dropped valuables in the toilet.

Genette sets down a long list of what he calls "transtextuality" that helps to understand the subtleties surrounding the concept of intertextuality. I will skip most of these for now, as they don't necessarily help us understand this idea much better. Suffice to say that there are many different ways to see a text's relationship to the wider textual world. Chapter titles, commentaries, awareness of its genre and many other things force a reader to acknowledge the necessity of the continuum of literature. 

One point I would like to discuss is what Genette calls "paratext."  For an example he mentions the chapter titles that James Joyce originally had developed for his book Ulysses but later removed. Does the reader ignore this insight into the text since it is not part of the end result? If this is true, every mistake, every edit would contain some sort of significance for the text. It reminds me a little of Dave Egger's book, You Shall Know Our Velocity! In the first edition, there is a thirty-page interruption by one of the side characters, named Hand. Hand is painted as a mischievous and unreliable friend to the main narrator. But in his interruption, Hand contradicts some of the points the narrator made, asking the reader to reconsider the entire story. This added so much to the story, so many interesting ideas that require another reading to decide what you want to believe. Yet in the subsequent editions, Eggers removed the interruption, leaving him determinately as the unreliable friend, and lending credibility to the original narrator. Do I now ignore the interruption because it was removed? 

Intertextuality is a very interesting way to view things. While I cannot fully commit to some of the ideas put forth by Kristeva and Genette, I do believe there are many valid points that one has to acknowledge in the literary world. But it does beg the question if nothing is new and nothing can truly be created, why do we try to create at all?

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