Thursday, December 16, 2004

"Intertextuality" is under attack

Or: The Death of the "Intertext"

A favorite chestnut of literary theory is being attacked by philosopher William Irwin (the guy who edited The Matrix and Philosophy and The Simpsons and Philosophy). Irwin's essay appears in the latest issue of Philosophy and Literature (available online if you have an institutional subscription; email me if you want to read it). According to the Chronicle of Higher Education's's summary:

"Intertextuality," a term used in literary criticism, has outlived its usefulness, says William Irwin, an associate professor of philosophy at King's College, in Pennsylvania. It is, he says, "at best a rhetorical flourish intended to impress, at worst ... the signifier of an illogical position."

The term describes a way of viewing literature in which texts refer only to other texts and the intentions of the author are irrelevant. It was coined in 1960s Paris in an atmosphere of distrust for authority and capitalism, he says. Intertextuality began as a "politically charged theory" that sought to transfer power from the author to the reader.

But there are logical problems with that transfer of power, Mr. Irwin says. For the theory to be consistent, he says, it should also hold that "the reader can no more create meaning than the author can," he says.

The term "Intertextuality" was coined in 1966 by Julia Kristeva, a member of the Tel Quel school of French theorists, among whom was also Roland Barthes. The premise of "intertextuality" is a view of reality in which everything around is a "text," even historical or scientific phenomena. As Irwing summarizes it in his essay:

Perhaps the notion that social and historical phenomena are texts is not such a difficult pill to swallow. Historians and lay people alike speak of such things as their interpretations of the French Revolution or the Clinton presidency. If a text is just an object of interpretation, such things can and should be recognized as texts. It is not just eminent and lofty socio-historical matters that Kristeva would have us take as part of the textual system, however. Rather, as Manfred Pfister says, for Kristeva, "everything—or, at least, every cultural formation—counts as a text within this general semiotics of culture."8 Everything is a text; not just revolutions and administrations, but professional wrestling and detergent are texts to be interpreted—as, in fact, they are by Barthes. Still, even this is not too disconcerting when taken in the proper spirit. Certainly an adept interpreter can garner interesting insights about the drama and symbolism of professional wrestling and the marketing ploys that determine the color of our detergent. This is not all that Kristeva has in mind, however. There is no separation of the social text and the literary text, but rather the two must be woven together to produce the tapestry. As Graham Allen captures Kristeva's point, "we must give up the notion that texts present a unified meaning and begin to view them as the combination and compilation of sections of the social text. As such, texts have no unity or unified meaning on their own, they are thoroughly connected to on-going cultural and social processes" (p. 37).

Kristeva (and to a great extent, Barthes also) believes that language -- the world of texts -- is like an unstructured network constituted entirely by piracy. You steal even if you don't think you are stealing; your language is always somebody else's first. There is no orignality and probably no human agency. [And there's more to it, but I don't want to get carried away...]

Though many people would go later use the term as a fashionable substitute for the idea of a literary "allusion" or influence, Kristeva meant it as a radical philosophical concept in the vein of Barthes' "death of the author," another fine old chestnut. Here's Irwin on the link between Kristeva and Barthes:

Roland Barthes, rather than Julia Kristeva, provides us with the most important speculations on the mode of intertextual interpretation. In 1968 Barthes proclaimed "the death of the author" based on the intertextual insight that texts derive their meanings, not from some author creating de novo [anew] and ex nihilo [from nothing], but only through their relations to other texts. Meaning results from the play of texts, as they are generated by the langue and the culture. The death of the author results in the liberation of the reader, as Barthes's theory of the text "insists strongly on the (productive) equivalence of writing and reading." Barthes replaces the notion of the author with what he calls the scriptor (scripteur). The scriptor is much like a scribe, taking dictation on what she may or may not understand and which she certainly does not authorize with meaning. The intertextual reader/interpreter then is free and unfettered in tracing the relations between texts; there is no authorial intention to defer to, since the will of the author is not capable of fixing meaning. Once the scriptor has made the marks on the page, the text flies off on wings of its own to become the plaything of readers.

Part of what Barthes wants to do when he throws out "writer" and substitutes "scriptor" is weaken the idea of the Writer as somehow above it all. Writing is a function of language, not the god-like gift that romantics often think of. And a weaker idea of the 'writer' also weakens the category of the 'reader'. Reading and writing aren't so different from one another. When you read, aren't you also in some way writing (even if just for yourself)? When you write, aren't you always reading?

Oddly, though the academic blog-world is more or less United in its Hostility to Jargon-filled, Badly Written, Literary Theory (I have found this out the hard way), the idea that all readers could be writers makes intuitive sense in this world of links, hyperlinks, and blockquotes. There are 5 million little authors now; in some sense, Barthes wins despite himself. The Author is dead, but the blogger lives?

Well, maybe.

A final thought: I love reading Roland Barthes, who is probably the most to blame for the dissemination of many of these ideas. It's fun to play with these ideas, and speculate about what would be entailed if they were true. But I've come to feel that shouldn't take the ideas of French Literary Theory entirely literally, or seriously. Also, many of the conventional, common-sensical terms of literary criticism are still potentially useful. "Authorial intention" can be useful. The author's Biography can be useful, as can historical context. And "Influence" may be useful too, not so much in Harold Bloom's paranoid sense of the term, but in the sense that there is a chronological linearity to literary history that cannot really be reversed. (Another way of putting this is Irwin's: "[T]he theory and practice go too far when, for some, they assume the relations between and among texts actually change canonical texts. Whereas it is enlightening, perhaps even necessary, to make connections to Hamlet when reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the relations between the two texts do nothing to change the text of Hamlet.")

Final thought 2: It's interesting that Irwin approvingly cites Mark Bauerlein and Denis Dutton in this piece -- he's certainly siding with the Clarity-ists, and against the Obscurantists. I guess that should be no surprise, given that Irwin's piece is appearing in Philosophy and Literature, which is associated with Denis Dutton (and did I mention that I found this story through Dutton's own A&L Daily? Nepotism!). Irwin ends with a particularly choice turn of phrase:

Just as reports of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated, so the death of allusion is not warranted. Given the problems with theories of intertextuality, the use of the term intertextuality is dubious, as it implies that language and texts operate independently of human agency. While, in a sense, allusions are inter-textual phenomena, they are more properly and precisely described as authorial-textual phenomena. Unintended connections between texts are, as I have argued elsewhere, better called "accidental associations". The term intertextuality is at best a rhetorical flourish intended to impress, at worst it is the signifier of an illogical position. And so intertextuality is a term that should be shaved off by "Dutton's Razor," the principle that jargon that does not illuminate or elucidate but rather mystifies and obscures should be stricken from the lexicon of sincere and intelligent humanists.

Ah, Dutton's Razor. Nice one.

[If this term is obscure to you, start by going here. Then read this tirade in the WSJ against jargon in academic writing.]

Note: I got a troll-like comment on this post. Unfortunately, since Blogger doesn't seem to let me delete individual comments, I'm going to remove all comments for this post. I'm copying Dr. Crazy's comments and mine into the body of the post itself.


Interesting post, Amardeep. What's most interesting to me (I think) is the way that every five years or so somebody seems to come out with a book that attacks French Literary Theory from the 1960s and 1970s. Is this really a radical thing to do in the year 2005? People have been talking about the death of theory or the turn against theory for at least the past 10 years, criticizing the jargon and the approach (as if both are interchangeable, which I'm not sure they are).

I often wonder why, particularly in literary studies, there is such resistance against looking at texts/ideas in new ways that don't trace the object of study back to some kind of original creator. I'm not saying that there isn't a person who creates the text (clearly, somebody writes and publishes, etc.) but at the same time I think that the death of the author - or the author function - in criticism is an entirely useful construction for literary analysis. Arguments to the contrary (I think) contribute to the ways in which literary studies is devalued as a discipline - as being something that "anybody" can (or should be able to) do in contrast to something like, say, physics, that not "just anybody" can do.
# posted by Dr. Crazy : 12:58 PM

Dr. Crazy,
Yes, There is an anti-disciplinary (and perhaps even conservative) element in these polemics. And just to be clear, I did teach a graduate course on Deconstruction last year. And I have many close friends who are Obscurantists...

But I think it might be possible to depoliticize this debate, and actually ask ourselves in good faith whether the terms we use when we have these discussions about, say, authorship, are as precise as they could be. Sometimes when ideas from theory are used, they are used in kind of an imprecise, slangy way that sounds impressive, but not much more.

Tim Burke had an interesting answer to this, starting in December, in response to an Op-Ed by Ophelia Benson in the Guardian about (what else) bad academic writing. Tim's approach is to defend the use of technical jargon for precise, "denotative" ends, while attacking it when used otherwise: "One way to determine if it is bad writing or just difficult writing is to look at the way the language is used. Is the language a technical jargon - in which the words have highly specific, well-defined denotative meanings, or is it a slang - in which the words have very loosely defined, broad, and (perhaps apart from connotation) interchangeable meanings?"

[Our friend Manorama also talked about this awhile back.]

As for the author vs. the author function, it depends. I think in discussions that are specifically about the ambiguity of authorship of a particular text, it makes sense to raise it. But I don't see the 'death of the author' as in any way a 'universal' phenomenon. I'm not even sure whether it is desirable. I think it is possible to bring Authors down to size, and prioritize their Texts over their persons, without making such stark pronouncements.

And I agree with Irwin that "intertexuality" in Kristeva's specific sense may not be of very much value. (I would be curious to know whether you agree) Further, the more common (mis)use of it as a synonym for allusion is especially bad. If that's what we mean, we should just say it -- allusion!

Sorry if that's a little clipped -- this could be a longer discussion.
# posted by Amardeep : 1:35 PM

I entirely agree that to use "intertextuality" when one is really talking about "allusion" (or performativity when one is talking about performance; intentionality when one is talking about intention, etc. etc.) is hardly desirable. In fact, this tendency ultimately is the fodder for criticisms about "bad academic writing" (read: bad writing by literary/cultural theorists/critics). I also agree that using jargon in a slangy way undermines its utility (for example, when people use "deconstruct" as another word for "analyze").

All of this said, I think there is value in diminishing the significance of the author in our criticism of particular literary pieces. This is difficult because the tendency in constructing curricula and in deciding what literary criticism gets published has been to group texts as central on the basis of an author's identity (national/sexual/gender/class) and this is how the revision of the canon has in many respects been accomplished. That said, I fear the tendency to ghettoize certain literary works on the basis that they are written by women, by people of color, etc. By doing away with the author as a construction central to how we organize texts, it becomes possible to explode those structures that say, for example, that Toni Morrison is the property of Afr.Amer. lit classes and not of postmodern american fiction classes. Why should texts be confined in that way? Again, this is not to say that it isn't useful to read Toni Morrison's novels in the context of African-American literature, but to say that we must read her novels in that way because of Morrison's identity as the author seems like a mistake to me.

As for Kristeva's ideas about "intertextuality" as a "politically charged theory".... well, a couple of things. I think the supposition that readers create meaning while authors do not is absurd. I've always thought about intertextuality in terms of readers bringing a particular set of experiences/perspectives to a text and thus finding meanings or making connections from that frame of reference. It's not so much a matter of the reader "making" meaning as a matter of the reader having the freedom to find unauthorized meanings. I do think that this can be politically positive because it undermines the notion that there are "right" and "wrong" ways to read a text and it helps to dismantle a notion that some have more authority than others as readers. Perhaps we could talk about this as an "accidental association," but I think that - if one buys into Barthes/Kristeva/Foucault/etc. - one would have to say that there are no "accidents" because ultimately language inspires us to find these associations or that these associations are integral to how language operates? I'm not sure if that makes sense, so forgive me for my lack of clarity. And no need to worry about your reply being clipped - it is the way of commenting :)

And yes, I think that the blogosphere is INCREDIBLY interesting in relation to any discussion of "the author" - particularly when one thinks about anonymous/pseudonymous blogging because in a real sense the author IS dead (we don't know who's writing in any "real" way) but at the same time a writing identity is constructed and language is - to use a jargonny word - proliferating. Must think more about this.
# posted by Dr. Crazy : 3:32 PM