The most eloquent theorist of intertextuality, who always attacked the notions of stable meaning and unquestionable truth, was Roland Barthes. He is associated with structuralism, post-structuralism, and semiotics. In his essay Theory of the Text (1981), Barthes defined what he meant by the term ‘text’ and ‘intertextuality’. Barthes built his theory on both Julia Kristeva’s and Mikhail Bakhtin’s work.
A textual scholar is considered to be someone concerned with manuscript studies, with the task of determining the validity of a text. Barthes argued that not the ‘text’ is the material inscription of a ‘work’, but the ‘work’ is the material, offering the possibility of meaning, closure and thus of interpretation. The term ‘text’ is considered to be the act of writing. Barthes makes it clear that we should not confuse the text and the work: “The work is held in the hand, the text in language” (1981: 39).
Barthes’s theory of text involves the theory of intertextuality because the text offers a plurality of meanings and is also woven out of numerous already existing texts. The text is not a unified, isolated object that gives a singular meaning, but an element open to various interpretations. Similar to Kristeva, Barthes considered that only literature written after the emergence of Modernism allows the reader to become fully active in the production of meaning. Only Modernist literature and the literature that follows it give examples of “texts” which can be re-interpreted, rather than just simply read, by the reader.
Barthes emphasizes the role of the reader in the production of meaning, and he distinguished two types of readers: on the one hand, “consumers” who read the work for stable meaning, and on the other hand, readers who are productive in their reading, which he called “writers of the text”. The readers that engage themselves in the second kind of reading are, in Barthes words, doing “textual analysis,” in contrast with the more traditional “criticism.” This practice of reading, seen as re-writing, is at the basis of Barthes theory of intertextuality.
One of the most widely-known features of intertextuality is Barthes’ claim of the “death of the Author” (Barthes 1977: 142-148). Barthes combines psychoanalytical and linguistic theories to argue that the origin of the text is not a unified authorial consciousness, but a plurality of other words, other utterances, and other texts.
Therefore, Barthes suggests that the meaning of the author’s words does not originate from the author’s own unique consciousness, but from the place of those words within linguistic and cultural systems. The author has the role of a compiler, or arranger, of pre-existent possibilities within the language system. Each word, sentence, paragraph or whole text that the author produces takes its origins from the language system out of which it has been produced. Thus, the meanings are expressed in terms of the same system. The view of language expressed by Barthes in this way is what theorists have termed intertextual.
Intertextuality for Barthes means that nothing exists outside the text. Barthes’ intertextual theory destroys the idea that meaning comes from, and is the property of, the individual author. Allen synthesizes this view by saying that “the modern scriptor, when s/he writes, is always already in a process of reading and re-writing. Meaning comes not from the author but from language viewed intertextually” (2000: 74).
The intertextual nature of writing turns both the traditional author and the traditional critic, into readers. Barthes concludes The Death of the Author with the following lines: “… a text is made from multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused, and that place is the reader, not, as hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up the writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination… the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (Barthes 1977: 148).
Barthes’s most important discussions of textual analysis were written in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during a period in which post-structuralism was emerging from within structuralism. Thus, textual analysis is not considered as a critique of structuralism, but as a part of a new movement. Some of the most relevant examples of textual analysis produced by Barthes are based on readings of literary works. In his textual analysis, Barthes tried “to say no longer from where the text comes (historical criticism), nor even how it is made (structural analysis), but how it is unmade, how it explodes, disseminates – by what coded paths it goes off” (Barthes 1977: 126-127) (italics from original).
Although Saussure’s, Bakhtian’s, Kristeva’s and Barthes’s works are sources of intertextual conceptualization, they fail to develop a rigorous theory of how to use intertextuality when analyzing texts. Barthes’s post-structuralist texts are examples of a radical form of intertextuality, rather than intertextual theory as it exists in critical practice. This is one reason why critics had to move away from post-structuralist theories and discover ways in which intertextuality could be applied to the analysis of other texts.
- Allen, G. (2000) Intertextuality. London: Routledge.
- Barthes, R. (1977) Image – Music – Text. Stephen Heath (transl.), London: Fontana.
- Barthes, R. (1981) Theory of the Text, in R. Young (ed.). Untying the Text, 31-47, London: Routledge.
(Fragment from The Matrix and the Alice Books by Voicu Mihnea Simandan, p.25-28)
My intertextual study The Matrix and the Alice Books looks at the way Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass have influenced some of the ideas put forth by Andy and Larry Wachowski. The book is now available as a Kindle ebook too.