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).