Graham Allen, Intertextuality

In the first chapter, Graham Allen begins by providing an overview of Saussure’s structuralism, explaining that SIGN = SIGNIFIER/SIGNIFIED and that “the reference of the sign is to the system, not directly to the world” (9). That is, the signifier is arbitrary, representing a concept (the signified) not with actual connection to the world or to some originary essence, but with reference to our preconceived system of communication: la langue. Signs produce meaning relationally. Moreover, the relation suggested by the sign is always a negative one. Meaning is grounded in difference or lack, not in positive qualities that can distinguish one thing from another. So, a tree is a tree because it is not a bush or a flower or a vine.

He sets this up to suggest that:

If all signs are in some way differential, they can be understood not only as non-referential in nature but also as shadowed by a vast number of possible relations. The linguistic sign is, after Saussure, a non-unitary, non-stable, relational unit, the understanding of which leads us out into a vast network of relations, of similarity and difference, which constitutes the synchronic system of language…Authors of literary works do not just select words from a language system, they select plots, generic features, aspects of character, images, ways of narrating, even phrases and sentences from previous literary texts and from the literary tradition. If we imagine the literary traditions itself as a synchronic system, then the literary author becomes a figure working with at least two systems, those of language in general and of the literary system in particular. (11)

In this light, it seems that intertextuality is inherent in language. (ASIDE: derridean web presents a similar concept). From here, Allen turns to Roland Barthes’s infamous essay, “The Death of the Author,” arguing that “the meaning of the author’s words, Barthes suggests, does not originate from the author’s own unique consciousness but from their place within linguistic-cultural systems. The author is placed in the role of a compiler or arranger of pre-existent possibilities within the language system. Each words the author employs, each sentences, paragraph, or whole text s/he produces takes its origins from, and thus has meaning in terms of, the language system out of which it was produced” (14).

Having established a broad concept of intertextuality, Allen turns to two other theorists whose work was seminal in the introduction of the term to literary theory: Bakhtin and Kristeva. Bakhtin, in contrast to Saussure, maintained that looking at language in the abstract is problematic. He sees language as always rooted in its particular cultural/social/political/historical context: “no word or utterance, from this perspective, is ever neutral. Though the meaning of utterances may be unique, they still derive from already established patterns of meaning recognizable by the addressee and adapted by the addresser” (18).

In this light, Allen notes:

The most crucial aspect of language…is that all language responds to previous utterances and to pre-existing patterns of meaning and evaluation, but also promotes and seeks to promote further responses. One cannot understand an utterance or even a written work as if it were singular in meaning, unconnected to previous and future utterances or works….All utterances are dialogic, their meaning and logic depend upon what has previously been said and on how they will be received by others. The abstract linguistics of Saussure strips language of its dialogic nature, which includes its social, ideological, subject-centered and subject-addressed nature. Bakhtin/Volosinov summarize as follows:

Language acquires life and historically evolves…in concrete verbal communication and not in the abstract linguistic system of language, nor in the individual psyche of speakers. (Bakhtin/Volosinov, 1986: 95)


In the following pages, Allen defines Bakhtin’s “dialogism” in order to explain how it is relevant to intertextuality. He notes that Bakhtin’s dialogism “refers to the idea that all utterances respond to previous utterances and are always addressed to other potential speakers, rather than occurring independently or in isolation. Language always occurs in specific social situations between specific human agents. Worlds always contain a dialogic quality, embodying a dialogue between different meanings and applications. Bakhtin’s dialogism undermines any argument for final and unquestionable positions, since every position within language is a space of dialogic forces rather than monologic truth” (glossary, 211). Allen, of course, connects this to Bakhtin’s “double-voiced discourse,” or “the idea that language is always double-voiced. No words has a single, independent meaning. All language is shot through with prior utterances, prior uses of the same words and is always addressed towards other speakers” (212).

Allen argues that these concepts approach “what must appear a major theory of intertextuality. All utterances depend on or call to other utterances; no utterance itself is singular; all utterances are shot through with other, competing and conflicting voices” (27). “At the heart of Bakhtin’s work,” Allen suggests, “is an argument that the dialogic, heteroglot aspects of language are essentially threatening to any unitary, authoritarian and hierarchical conception of society, art and life. If language is socially specific and thus embodies the stratifications, unfinalized interpretations, ideological positions and class conflicts at work in society in any epoch, and indeed at any specific moment, then no attempt to explain language or art through an abstract system of generalizable relations is viable for those wishing to understand language, art, even speech acts. It is this vision of human society and communication which stands behind the term ‘intertextuality’” (30).

Bakhtin’s dialogism (and other concepts) are critical to intertextuality theorization, but it is Julia Kristeva who actually coined the word “intertextuality.” For Kristeva, as for other early poststructuralist theorists working with intertextuality, the text, author, and reader were all in process. Furthermore, “communication and that which breaks communication apart—what Kristeva calls significance—are in a constantly antagonistic relationship with each other. The text is the site of the struggle” (35; my emphasis). Here, we get closer to Kristeva’s understanding of intertextuality: “All texts…contain within the, the ideological structures and struggles expressed within society through discourse,” Allen states, “this means, for Kristeva, that the intertextual dimensions of a text cannot be studied as mere ‘sources’ or ‘influences’ stemming from what traditionally has been styled ‘background’ or ‘context’” (36). Rather than considering the intertexuality of a given work as background or context, one should consider the text as “a practice and a productivity, its intertextual status represents its structuration of words and utterances that existed before, will go on after the moment of utterance, and so are, in Bakhtin’s terms, ‘double-voiced’” (36).

Although this is fascinating and can be discussed in much more detail, the point is that, for poststructuralists such as Kristeva and Bakhtin, “intertextuality…concerns a text’s emergence from the ‘social text’ but also its continued existence within society and history” (36).

But Kristeva’s theory of intertextuality is more than one of society/individuality. In fact, it draws significantly on Bakhtin’s dialogism, including the concept of double-voiced discourse, heteroglossia, and etc., to think about the ways in which texts not only contain bits and pieces of other texts (literary, social, historical, etc.,) but also often require (especially novels) multiple, often contradictory voices to work. That is, the voices of multiple characters whose lives are all texts in their own rights, must converge to create the unique formula of conflict and resolution—repeated for hundreds of pages—that results in “narrative.” Much like nesting dolls, the concept of intertextuality can therefore be found in smaller and smaller increments of the text—it can be read as the split (unconscious/conscious) subject, which always at least contains a social script (the ego) and an individual script (the id).

Some useful terms:

Phenotext: the part of the text bound up with the language of communication. It is structured and displays a single, unified voice.  (50)

Genotext: the part of the text which stems from the ‘drive-energy’ emanating from the unconscious and which is regognizable in terms of ‘phonematic devices’ such as rhythm and intonation, melody, repetition, and even kinds of narrative arrangement. (50)


Allen concludes by taking more time to think about what Kristeva and Bakhtin’s bodies of theory can tell us about intertextuality as the messy concept it is today. He states that “intertextuality is thus understood as ‘the passage from one sign system to another’ which involves ‘an altering of the thetic position—the destruction of the old position and the formulation of a new one’” (53). He notes that “intertextuality as a concept with a complex history presents us with a series of oppositions between which we cannot simply decide. The oppositions offer us a series of questions” (59) [these are his words below, but it’s easier to interact with the questions without quotation marks and citations. They, like the preceding quotation, can be found on page 59]:

  1. Is intertextuality an historically informing term, or is it essentially ahistorical
  2. Does intertextuality open the text to history, or to yet more textuality?
  3. Is intertextuality a manageable term, or is it essentially unmanageable, concerned with finite or infinite and overwhelming dimensions of meaning?
  4. Does intertextuality provide us with a form of knowledge, or does it destroy what was previously considered to be knowledge?
  5. Is the centre of intertextuality in the author, the reader or the text itself?
  6. Does intertextuality aid the practice of interpretation, or resist notions of interpretation?


Chapter Two: Barthes

            In this chapter, Allen describes Barthes’s theory about the death of the author, noting that “the theory of the text, therefore, involves a theory of intertextuality, since the text not only sets going a plurality of meanings but is also woven out of numerous discourses and spun from already existent meaning…The text’s plurality is neither wholly an ‘inside’ not an ‘outside’, since the text itself is not a unified, isolated object upon which an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ can be fixed” (67).

For Barthes, the work is the “material book offering up the possibility of meaning, of closure, and thus of interpretation” while the text is “the play of the signifier within the work, its unleashing of the disruptive and yet playful force of writing” (66). In this sense, the text is like the derridean trace: “radically plural in terms of meaning” (66).

In a Barthsean understanding of intertextuality, then, “the ‘text’ s that which is potentially released within a ‘work’ and yet that which exists between that text and other texts. It is intertextual to the core, and in Barthes’s hands, it foregrounds…the productive role of the reader” (68). According to Allen, however, “Barthes’s contribution to this poststructuralist project…is to emphasize explicitly the role of the reader in the production of the anti-monologic text” *69).

According to Barthes, there are two kinds of readers:

  1. Consumers (who read the work for stable meaning)
  2. Analyzers (read the text a re-writers, produce meaning).


Chapter Three: Structuralists

            In this chapter, Allen describes structuralist approaches to intertextuality. Noting the structuralist emphasis on describable systems, codes, etc., Allen suggests that “the essential thrust of the structuralist project seems to be toward the intertextual, in that it denies the existence of unitary objects and emphasizes their systematic and relational nature” (96).

Allen then describes Genette’s theory of intertextuality. He states that “literary works, for a theorist like Genette, are not original, unique, unitary wholes, but particular articulations (selections and combinations) of an enclosed system” (96). Genette’s open structuralism “gives up on the idea of establishing a stable, ahistorical, irrefutable map or division of literary elements, but which instead studies the relationships (sometimes fluid, never unchanging) which link the text with the architextural network out of which it produces meaning” (101).

Genette defines intertextuality as part of a broader concept (transtextuality) which can be understood as the following five elements:

  1. Transtextuality: “the textual transcendence of the text” (101).
  2. Intertextuality: “a relationship of copresence between two texts or among several texts” and/or “the actual presence of one text within another” (101) This includes quotation, plagiarism, and allusion.
  3. Metatextuality: “when a text takes up a relation of ‘commentary’ to another text: ‘it unites a given text to another, of which it speaks without necessarily citing it’…” (102).
  4. Architextuality: “has to do with the reader’s expectations, and thus their reception of a work” (102).
  5. Paratextuality: “relates to all elements which stand on the ‘threshold’ of a text” (216). This includes peritext (or, “elements such as titles, chapter titles, prefaces and notes”) and epitext (or, “elements such as interviews, publicity announcements, reviews, and other authorial/editorial discussions).
  6. Hypertextuality: “any relationship uniting a text B (which I shall call the hypertext) to an earlier text A (I shall, of course, call it the hypotext), upon which it is grafted in a manner that is not of commentary” (108).

After talking about Genette, Allen moves on to Michael Riffaterre. He notes that “the cemtrality of intertextuality in Riffaterre’s work is signaled by [the] anti-referential approach,” or his concept of the referential fallacy in which he argues that texts having meaning not because they are mimetic (or refer to the world in any significant, essential way) but because of “the semiotic structures which link up their individual words, phrases, sentences, key images, themes, and rhetorical devices” (115).

Although intertextuality is central to Riffaterre’s theory, however, it is not an endpoint for him. Allen notes that Riffaterre uses intertextuality to determine “the ways in which texts produce semiotic unity by transforming socially shared codes, clichés, oppositions and descriptive systems; yet such an approach refuses to accept that such a reliance on the sociolect involves the text in anything other that its own self-generating system” (124).

Chapter Four: Situated Readers

In this chapter Allen considers several different ways in which readers figure into the theories of intertextuality. He begins by discussing Harold Bloom’s concept: belatedness. According to Allen, Bloom argues that “poetry in the post-Miltonic period…stems from two motivations, or, to employ the Freudian terminology which Bloom adapts, drives. The first concerns the desire to imitate the precursor’s poetry…the second concerns the desire to be original…Bloom’s vision of poetry is thus intertextual. It argues that poetry, and indeed literature in general, can only imitate previous texts” (134).

In this framework, poets as writers must misread both their own work and the originals by which they are motivated in order to convince themselves that they are writing original pieces: “intertextuality is for Bloom a product of ‘the anxiety of influence’” (137).

Readers, then, are key to whether or not a text is perceived as intertextual. Bloom argues that critical reading is misreading. When readers write, they can be aware of their intertextual references (intentional intertextuality) or trick themselves (perhaps unconsciously) by “mis-reading” (unintentional intertextuality). This leaves Allen with two questions:

  1. How can we know what text influenced another text?
  2. When is it necessary to know? (When is the intertext determinate?)

In the next section of the chapter, Allen addresses some of the problem’s with Bloom’s work (exclusive canon, non-representative of women and minorities) by turning to women’s studies and post-colonialism.

Allen argues that “it is not possible to conflate notions of intertextuality with notions of a monological canon without endorsing the historical practice of marginalizing certain kinds of writing” (144). He then outlines critical responses to this problem, turning to Showalter’s gynocriticism: “Showalter’s vision here is a set of ‘images, metaphors, themes, and plots’ which connects women’s writing across periods and national divisions and builds into something as cohesive and intertextually rich as the traditionially sanctioned male literary canon” (145). Metaphors for intertextuality, Allen notes, are actually evocative of femininity: “the notion of intertextuality, with its connotations of webs and weaving, constitutes an opportunity for such a feminization of the symbolics of the act of writing” (145). Although I think the idea that women draw on other women writers while composing their own texts is fascinating, I’m not sure how I feel about this feminization of the space of the intertext as a way to include women. All women aren’t feminine. It seems to me that feminizing spaces to be more inclusive, while it’s a start, amounts to throwing some pink ribbons and lace into the corner of the boys’ club and claiming it’s inclusive. Anyway. After this section, Allen turns to post-colonial concerns and notes that the double-voiced discourse in post-structural conceptions of intertextuality is probably most useful for thinking about the ways in which colonized readers, voices, and perspectives might find their place in an otherwise monologic, patriarchal text (159).

Chapter Five: Postmodern Contexts

The introduction in this chapter amounts to saying “INTERTEXTUALITY IN ALL THE MEDIA! NOT JUST WRITTEN WORKS!”

Allen turns to postmodernism and textuality in such a way that I kept thinking about Tropic of Orange. He argues that “postmodern literature is a double-codedness. This double-codedness questions the available modes of representation in culture whilst recognizing that it must still employ these modes” (188).

Allen argues that, in this context, parody is a critical way of thinking about intertextuality.

He moves on to state that “postmodern literature deploys a vast array of contemporary and historical forms…to register its dependence upon established forms of representation. But at the same moment that it registers this fact, its juxtaposition of styles and codes, of different and sometimes apparently incompatible forms of representation, serves to question, disturb and even subvert the dominance of those established forms” (190).

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