Intertextuality is a word coined in late 1960s by philosopher Julia Kristeva to describe the phenomenon of a continual exchange and relationship building between texts.

The term intertextuality was born within the paradigm of poststructuralism – a school of thought in which Kristeva is often included, along with Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard. Originally intertextuality served as a literary device for clarifying the process of interpreting any text by seeing the combination of multiple other texts that underlie it. Later, the term acquired a much wider scope of meanings to embody a myriad of textual and other interrelations.

To understand a text through the prism of intertextuality is to perceive it as a tapestry of many other texts, ideas and contexts, woven together. Intertextuality invites us to read and interpret texts through their multiple references to other texts.

No Text is a Hermetic Totality, Nor Intertextuality Is

Intertextuality is best understood when looked at as a process of texts talking both to the reader and to each other thus forging the emergence of a sandbox for meaning where:

  • texts play
  • various signifying systems merge
  • texts meet, influence, collide with and enrich each other.

In other words, no text is an island, nor it is a hermetic totality. Powered by multiple references to other ideas, works, interpretations and contexts, every text steps on the shoulders of other texts, connecting implicitly or explicitly to their associations and understandings.

Intertextuality itself is an intertextual being

On one hand, Kristeva’s term is intertextual in its essence; it merges her perception of Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotics (the study of how signs derive their meaning within the structure of a text) and Bakhtin’s dialogism (the examination of the multiple meanings in each text and in each word (for more see the wonderful work: Interrogating Julia Kristeva’s Concept of Intertextuality)

A text, as explained by Kristeva in her work Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, is:

a permutation of texts, intertextuality in the given text,” where “several utterances, taken from other texts intersect and neutralize one another

Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art

On the other hand, intertextuality’s further existence implies a variety of intertextual relationships: with time the term accrues more meanings and understandings from various domains and disciplines to serve diverse purposes: from understanding texts, to deconstructing socio-cultural phenomena.

Text is not a unilinear entity but a heterogeneous combination of texts. Any text is at once literary and social, creative and cultural. They are culturally and institutionally fashioned.

Interrogating Julia Kristeva’s Concept of Intertextuality

Follow the White Rabbit: An Example of Intertextuality

There are numerous and diverse types of intertextual relationships and as many ways of finding such in any author piece. The most easy to spot examples of intertextuality are the references between and inside literature works. Next come movie allusions, or songs, collages. Creativity and its manifestations are literally all connected and in an endless loop of citation, echoing each other.

Intertextuality is effortlessly remembered as texts echoing other texts.

One of the many examples for such meaning amplification (or echoing), is the movie Matrix.

Take the sentence “Follow the White Rabbit”, for example.

When this rings in the reader’s mind it not only relies on itself as a sentence but also steps on a broader plane of meanings: associations and previous knowledge accrued by the interpreter of this same line through their previous encounters with the sentence and the relationships it has entered before, the most obvious one being “Follow the white rabbit” for Lewis Carroll‘s Alice in Wonderland.

It in this way that the reference becomes weighty, saying more than one thing and serving as a springboard for the reader’s mind to explore broader and deeper associations.

Intertextuality in the Context of the World Wide Web

Web resources are in constant exchange of references, most of which made explicit with the help of the all-mighty hypertext. This provides ground for connections on many levels, thus expanding the ways we interpret and write texts.

The way intertextuality helps us in the context of the World Wide Web is by providing a way to deconstruct reader’s needs through their texts (social media, email interactions, blog comments, reviews, shares, interest graphs, questions etc) and on the basis of this to create richer, more relevant texts, broader content structures – with enough touching points and most importantly granular connections that allow interactions on multiple levels.

Applying the understanding of intertextuality to the way we craft texts for the Web takes thinking about the links in these text on a whole new level and allows for finding just the right references to ideas, contexts and things to genuinely connect with the reader and add more meaning to their understanding of the subject in question. In practice, electronic, explicitly, traceable linked intertextuality means that one day we will say: hey, robo ? give me references to “follow the white rabbit”. And isn’t that a glamorous textual play and a magnificent opportunity for building relationships and meaning in cyberspace?