Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes


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Physically a reader processes only one text at a time. This and other limits on human attention encourage literary studies and teaching to focus on one text at a time as though each text has its own self-contained system of meaning. Mid-20th-century New Criticism or "Close Reading" (as many of today's teachers were educated) encourages a reader's mastery of a single text or canon of texts, built one text or author at a time.

This single-text approach emphasizes an individual text's formal, self-referential and self-reinforcing dynamics in creating an independent world of meaning for its audience. (e.g., "How does this poem speak to you or draw you into its world?"; "How does fiction create its own world of meaning?"; "How does a text create an independent, consistent frame of reference for every question you might have?" The success or quality of a text may be judged on how well it answers these questions.)

In the later 20th century, post-structural linguistics  reconceived words' meanings as interdependent on each other—a word or sign no longer has a direct reference to what it signifies but works only in relation to other signs and words.

By extension, post-structural literary studies posited that literary texts do not exist individually or independently of each other but rather in a network of shared words (signs), meanings, and contexts.

Put another way:

, there is no writer who hasn't read, no text that doesn't respond to other texts as models, sources, knowledge, etc.

No conceivable reader (beyond first grade) reads a text without bringing to it a field of reference built by other texts.

"Intertextuality" describes the process by which different books, poems, and articles share, connect, duplicate, and relate to each other—sometimes explicitly and according to a writer's intention, other times according to connections readers make as they move back and forth from one text to another.

All readings are preconditioned by other texts and readings, which are themselves in turn changed by what you're reading now.

Literary texts are read less as timeless, autonomous, universal masterpieces than as connections or contributors in a network of other texts and cultural expressions.

Positively, intertextuality “makes texts talk to each other” as people talk to each other, creating a dialogue or dialectic that generates new or extended meanings for all texts or speakers involved.

Question: how much of this have you heard before in Literary Theory or elsewhere? Other ways to explain or represent this understanding of language and texts?

For today, intertextuality—no final meaning to anything you’re reading, but continuing conversation or dialogue between texts and readers.

Intertextuality and dialogue (Columbia University)

Intertextuality (U. of Wales, Aberystwyth)

Wikipedia definition of intertextuality

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