The Electronic Labyrinth


Derived from the Latin intertexto, meaning to intermingle while weaving, intertextuality is a term first introduced by French semiotician Julia Kristeva in the late sixties. In essays such as "Word, Dialogue, and Novel," Kristeva broke with traditional notions of the author's "influences" and the text's "sources," positing that all signifying systems, from table settings to poems, are constituted by the manner in which they transform earlier signifying systems. A literary work, then, is not simply the product of a single author, but of its relationship to other texts and to the strucutures of language itself. "[A]ny text," she argues, "is constructed of a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another" (66).

Intertextuality is, thus, a way of accounting for the role of literary and extra-literary materials without recourse to traditional notions of authorship. It subverts the concept of the text as self-sufficient, hermetic totality, foregrounding, in its stead, the fact that all literary production takes place in the presence of other texts; they are, in effect, palimpsests. For Roland Barthes, who proclaimed the death of the author, it is the fact of intertexuality that allows the text to come into being:

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).

Thus writing is always an iteration which is also a re-iteration, a re-writing which foregrounds the trace of the various texts it both knowingly and unknowingly places and dis-places.

Intertexts need not be simply "literary"--historical and social determinants are themselves signifying practices which transform and inflect literary practices. (Consider, for example, the influence of the capitalist mode of production upon the rise of the novel.) Moreover, a text is constituted, strictly speaking, only in the moment of its reading. Thus the reader's own previous readings, experiences and position within the cultural formation also form crucial intertexts.

The concept of intertexuality thus dramatically blurs the outlines of the book, dispersing its image of totality into an unbounded, illimitable tissue of connections and associations, paraphrases and fragments, texts and con-texts. For many hypertext authors and theorists, intertextuality provides an apt description of the kind of textual space which they, like the figures in Remedio Varo's famous "Bordando el Manto Terrestre," find themselves weaving:

a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships, and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world. (Pynchon 10)

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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