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Intertextuality

Definition

The concept of intertextuality describes the relationship between media products where one text references another text by reusing some its ideas and meanings. It might be a vivid image, important dialogue, iconic music, or even an entire plotline. Importantly, our interpretation of a particular sign is shaped by our understanding of its connotation in the other text.

You can use this working definition of intertextuality to explore and analyse the links between texts, but intertextuality is a much more profound understanding about how meaning is constructed.

Julia Kristeva said intertextuality was a “mosaic of quotations” where “any text is the absorption and transformation of another”. Roland Barthes also argued “a text is made of multiple writings” because writers “blend and clash” existing meanings. Books are not written in a vacuum. According to Foucault, they are “caught up in a system of references to other books”.

Each of these theorists are making the same point: the meaning of a text owes more to other texts than the writer who puts their name to the work. That is intertextuality.

This guide will take you through some of the different forms of intertextuality you might find in literature and popular culture, such as bricolage, parody and pastiche.

Bricolage

Producers are able to construct new media texts from the bits and pieces of other texts. This combination of reused elements is called bricolage. The most obvious examples are memes where you take screenshot of a television show or film, overlay your text, and encode a new message:

success kid meme
Example of Bricolage

This particular meme started circulating in 2007 and became popularly known as “Success Kid”. The image of the baby clenching a fistful of sand is used to connote small victories and good luck, but its exact meaning continues to change each time the meme is recirculated online.

Fanfiction is another steady source of bricolage because the authors are stealing characters and settings from existing works of fiction to create their own stories. Or computer game mods can add another dimension to the original work by modifying its skins and textures and gameplay. Some players like to record their action to splice together a film version of the game.

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Lévi-Strauss (1966) compared writers constructing meaning in texts to the “bricoleur” – a resourceful handyman who can tinker with various materials to build something creative and purposeful. Bricolage, which means DIY in French, is that improvisation.

In terms of semiotics, Lévi-Strauss suggested “the first aspect of bricolage is thus to construct a system of paradigms with the fragments of syntagmatic chains”. You can then assemble new narratives and insights from these old signs.

I steal from every single movie ever made.

Quentin Tarantino

Homage

Homage refers to media texts which pay tribute to the original by borrowing and reworking its codes and conventions. Have a look at this comparison between “Star Wars” (1977) and “The Dam Busters” (1955):

First, both targets can be destroyed by a “precise hit” which will start a “chain reaction” or “shockwaves”. Notice how the paper-based explanation is recreated on a computer terminal to help the audience visualise the missions. Then, the series of close-ups of the pilots “standing by”. Compare “look at the size of that thing” to “it’s big isn’t it”. Some ships go “across” to draw the enemy flak; other ships start the “attack”. The number of guns. Explosions. “You should be able to see it by now”.

George Lucas is re-imagining the World War II sequence “in a galaxy far, far away” because the original was a great source of inspiration, and the director wants to emulate its success in his space epic.

Parody

Producers can exaggerate elements of existing texts for comedic effect. Double-click on the link below to watch the official trailer for “Spaceballs” (1987) and think about how it spoofs aspects of “Star Wars” (1977):

Pastiche

A pastiche directly mimics the technical codes of the earlier work, such as the cinematography, mise-en-scène and non-diegetic sounds in film. Unlike an homage, a pastiche offers little alteration or adaption of the original material. The term often has negative connotations because the references are simple and obvious.

Good writers borrow, great writers steal.

T.S. Eliot

Easter Eggs

Some media producers like to hide references to other texts. In the spirit of an Easter egg hunt, look carefully at this still from “Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) and try to work out how the set designers squeezed in a link to “Star Wars” (1977):

screenshot with easter egg
Screenshot from Raiders of the Lost Ark

Julia Kristeva’s Intertextuality

The philosopher and feminist, Julia Kristeva, argued writers were always using existing codes and concepts to help construct their narratives. Some meanings and values were simply being repeated. Other signs were being transformed to communicate new insights and ideas to the reader.

Kristeva labelled this relationship intertextuality.

If the connection between the reader and the author of a text is the “horizontal axis”, then the repetition and sharing of ideas should be considered the “vertical axis”. She said intertextuality was this “dialogue among several writings”.

Further Study

You should look at the concept of implosion in our guide to Baudrillard’s simulacra and simulation because it describes how signs are relentlessly reworked and reused by the media until they lose their impact and meaning.

Barthes, Roland (1977): “Death of the Author”.
Foucault, Michel (1974): “The Archaeology of Knowledge”.
Kristeva, Julia (1966): “Word, Dialogue and Novel”.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1966): “The Savage Mind”.

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