Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Intertextuality is not a Buzzword for Source Criticism

Posted by NT Wrong on May 12, 2008

For Kristeva, anyway, the idea of intertextuality replaces anthropomorphizing approaches to text (as intersubjective communication) with the idea that every text is at the same time an intertext.

“[A]ny text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; and text is the absorption and transformation of another. The notion of intertextuality replaces that of intersubjectivity, and poetic language is read as at least double” (Kristeva 1980: 66).

So, for Kristeva, intertextuality is nothing less than a reconception of what text is. Even though the practicalities of textual criticism limit discussion of intertextuality to those intertexts of which we are aware, the wider implications of intertextuality must be borne in mind if we are employing the term. And if not, saying ‘intertextuality’ is useless monkey-chatter, jargon, a buzzword–when what you’re actually talking about is old-fashioned source criticism.

Kristeva dismisses such a banal approach to ‘intertextuality’ as:

“le sens banal de ‘critique des sources’ d’un texte”
(1974: 59)

Some scholars have observed the tendency in others to dress up source criticism in the trendy clothes of ‘intertextuality’. Interestingly, many have recourse to the same hypotext (“old wine in new bottles”) …

“One may well ask whether intertextuality in its restricted sense presents us with an approach to literature that is really new. Is it not in effect a specious term for a well-known practice–old wine in a new bottle?
– A. Maria Van Enp Taalman Kip, “Intertextuality and Theocritus 13.” Pages 153-169 in Irene JF de Jong & JP Sullivan, Modern Critical Theory and Classical Literature (Leiden, New York & Köln: Brill, 1994).

“The midrash realizes its goal via a hermeneutic of recombining pieces of the canonized exemplar into a new discourse. We thus see how its intertextuality served both the revolutionary and conservative needs of the midrash and its authors, preserving the old wine by pouring it into new bottles.”
– Daniel Boyarin, “Old Wine in New Bottles: Intertextuality and Midrash.” Poetics Today 8.3/4 (1987): 539-556, 555.

Plett notes two complaints about intertextuality. The first is against progressive formulations, and criticises it as “incomprehensible” and “irrational”. The second is against traditionalist formulations, which are equivalent to the old source criticism, and thus represents “old wine in new bottles”.
– Heinrich F. Plett, “Intertextualities,” in Intertextuality, ed. Heinrich F. Plett (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1991), p. 5

… Now, I wonder, are you asking yourself, ‘Were Plett and Kip dependent on Boyarin for their formulation?” …


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