Category Archives: Volume 1 Spring 2013


Texts are made out of other texts. Intertextuality is a useful term to describe this fact, in part, because it unsettles commonplace assumptions about authorship and originality. Here is how Ralph Waldo Emerson approaches this idea in “Quotation and Originality”:

Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant, — and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing, — that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation.

At about the same time Emerson was writing his literary essays the natural historian Charles Darwin’s writing was proposing that the essences of things were by definition relational. Darwin’s research led people to become more aware of how things are connected with other things, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral. John Muir makes a comparable comment in his journals during his first summer in the mountains of California. “When we try to pick out anything by itself,” he writes, “we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” (My First Summer in the Sierra 110). Whether it is Emerson writing about quotation, or Darwin or Muir reflecting on the natural world, the study of relationships between things—and of things as sets of relationships—offers a useful analogy for the study of language and literature.

The Latin term intertexto means to intermingle while weaving. The French semiotician Julia Kristeva uses the term(1) in the essay “Word, Dialogue, and Novel” to describe the constitutive process. She argues that any text “is constructed of a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another” (66). Here is how the literary theorist Roland Barthes puts the case:

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. (“Theory of the Text” 39)

The very existence of a text implies coexistence with other texts. Film adaptations of books, cultural references in television and film, remix and sampling in music—all of these practices are intertextual.


1. Literary and cultural theorists that discuss the concept of intertextuality include Vladimir Volosinov, Mikhail Bakhtin, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, and Gerard Gennete. Volosinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1986) is a study of the relationship between language and society. Genette’s The Architext (1992), Palimpsests (1997), and Paratexts (1997) elaborate 1) the ways a text relates to other texts (transtextuality); 2) explicit quotation or allusion (intertextuality); 3) prefaces, interviews, publicity, reviews (paratextuality), commentary (metatextuality); 4) the play of one text off another (hypertextuality), and 5) generic expectations (architextuality).


Literary and Non-Literary

Cover of "Language in the Inner City: Stu...

Cover via Amazon

This week in class we have been discussing narrative as literary form. One way to pursue such a discussion is to examine the continuity between these literary forms and the way we use language in our day-to-day lives. One way to pursue this continuity in narrative is by reading Mary Louise Pratt’s Toward a Speech Act Theory, in which she builds on the research conducted by the sociolinguist William Labov, specifically his “The Transformation of Experience in Narrative Syntax” in Language in the Inner City (1972). Another approach to to read short literary anecdotes and stories, including stories by William Carlos Williams and Italo Calvino.


English: Title page from: Wordsworth, William ...

Title page from William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, with a few other poems. London: Printed for J. & A. Arch, 1798

The other way is to emphasize the differences between the literary and non-literary. Near the conclusion of the eighteenth century, William Wordsworth made a case for the literary as a distinctive mode of cultural production. He proposed to write a poetry that would “choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men” (Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads). Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his discussion of Wordsworth’s literary experiment in Chapter 14 of his Biographia Literaria, adds that Wordsworth’s poetry would allow “awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us” (Qtd. in Critical Theory Since Plato 505). A few years later, Percy Byshee Shelley (in response to Thomas Love Peacock’s satire of poetry) composed his Defense of Poetry, in which he claims that poetry “purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity” and in turn “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar” (542). The argument here for the distinctive power of poetry would be echoed nearly one hundred years hence by the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky who made a case for what he called defamiliarization. In “Art as Technique,” he makes a distinction between artistic language and everyday language, arguing that “the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception. . . (800).

In these comments about the distinctiveness of poetry one hears a broader claim that art frees the mind from convention. In the words of William Blake, “poetry fetter’d, fetters the human race.” My point here is not necessarily to endorse such a position. Rather I am interested in the claim as an example of an answer to the questions about the literary you have been asked to consider in this course. Among the outcomes of taking an undergraduate degree in English is an understanding of the intellectual questions that inform literary studies, and that arise in the ongoing conversations about imaginative thinking and its place in human experience.

Reading in English

“Read as though it made sense and perhaps it will.”

—I.A. Richards

Reading in English is more than finding information as you might, say, in a biology textbook or in a book that describes the major theories of psychology. Reading in English is also more than the act of recording information or summarizing main ideas. Consider what happens when you are faced with reading a poem:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

To read this poem, Ezra Pound’s  “In a Station of the Metro,” is to become aware of the occasion of reading. That is, a reading of the poem requires a reader to note the particular parts and see how they might come together. Who is speaking? In what context? What about the language? Why “apparition”? What about the two lines of the poem? How do I make sense of the second line of the poem? One of the ways to read the poem would be to write about it. Working on a text by writing about it is a way of reading, or rereading, that will help you practice becoming aware of how you are reading, and consider the consequences in the choices you have made in the act of reading.

Writing becomes a powerful tool for reading texts that do not easily summarize—texts that present readers with striking, surprising, even troubling uses of language. One might cite the philosophical dialogues of Plato or the writing about economics by Adam Smith. Consider the following passage from a lecture by the philosopher William James delivered at the Lowell Institute in December of 1906:

We live in a world of realities that can be infinitely useful or infinitely harmful. Ideas that tell us which of them to expect count as the true ideas in all this primary sphere of verification, and the pursuit of such ideas is a primary human duty. The possession of truth, so far from being here an end in itself, is only a preliminary means towards other vital satisfactions. If I am lost in the woods and starved, and find what looks like a cow-path, it is of the utmost importance that I should think of a human habitation at the end of it, for if I do so and follow it, I save myself. The true thought is useful here because the house which is its object is useful. The practical value of true ideas is thus primarily derived from the practical importance of their objects to us.

Or consider the opening of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s astonishing essay on the creative process he titled “Circles”:

The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. . . . [E]very action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.

Most readers can follow these passages. But this is not language readily summarized. In fact, placing these excerpts back in the context of the lectures from which they are taken requires the reader to do some work. Marking the text in the margin, or underlining or bracketing phrases or sentences that are particularly difficult or even mysterious, begins the process of making meaning. What does James mean that we live in a world of realities? Why the plural? What does it mean to say that these realities are “infinitely useful or infinitely harmful?” Can I begin with an analogy to a situation that translates the “we” into “me”?

The point is that the reading begins with your encounter with the text and acknowledging that the work of making meaning begins with your thinking. Sure, you could go to a book that summarizes James’ essay (and theory of truth) for you. But in doing so you merely repeat what someone else has concluded from her or his way of reading. More importantly, you miss an opportunity to learn how to read. Working on a text that challenges you is like mastering a sequence of chords on a guitar or learning how to throw a Frisbee. After spending time going over the passage you will be able to do more with that passage. With texts that are well put together, which deserve this kind of attention, you will most likely feel a sense of incompleteness, of not quite being able to sum it up. Not to worry, as this feeling is common in an experience of reading writing that matters.

Literary texts are texts that have mattered to readers. Literature, Ezra Pound quips, is “news that stays news.” The literary texts that remain news in a community of readers are texts that imagine ways of thinking about or being in the world that are useful in some way to readers. Literary texts, in this sense, might be understood as forms of reasoning that we use to reason—to think with, or imagine, our selves and the world. “Literature is a point outside of our hodiernal circle,” Emerson writes in “Circles,” “through which a new one may be described. The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it.” A comparable case is made by the poet Adrienne Rich in her essay  “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision”: “We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.” Such a use of literature, or a need to know, begins in the act of reading—attentively, as well as with generosity and humility—and the critical activity of thinking and writing that might follow.