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August 18, 2009

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Towards A Theory of Material Intertextuality

It turns out that one of my ideas about Kindle 2020 —

How might [electronic readers] change the entire FIELD of media consumption, handheld devices, computing, reading, etc… Will everything restructure itself around the reader? Or will it be a fun, handy curiosity, plotting its own logic while everything else goes along unchanged?

— actually depends on a whole bunch of other ideas, some of them a little bit technical. I’m going to try to spell those out here.

The big idea is material intertextuality. The short version of this is:

1) a text’s meaning (use, experience, etc.) always depends on its material/physical form;
2) material/physical form always depends on both the materiality of the media itself and its physical contexts (readers, bookstores, sites of reading);
3) all of those forms are always part of a system where they’re in dialogue with other forms.

In short, when I read something, I bring all of my assumptions about reading, in all of its various forms - in cheap books, expensive ones, pamphlets, comics, movies, street signs, etc. - with me. How I read is structured by all of them, even if negatively. A novel printed on cloth paper can be cheap, unserious, escapist reading in one context, and the epitome of high learning or even political protest in a different context — even if it’s the same physical book.


I’ve been trying to explain what literary critics (and litcrit-minded people) mean by intertextuality, and this “Semiotics for Beginners” website is a good place to look (without, like a lot of otherwise smart critics, getting it wrong).

As with so many other things, Roland Barthes is a good place to start:

A text is… a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations… The writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.

Two things are getting disrupted here - the unity of the book and the unity of the author. Hence the “multidimensional space” — you can think about the text or the writer as points of intersection with all sorts of vectors flowing through them, coming from and headed to someplace else. Those vectors are what we call language.

Michael Bakhtin tried to approach the novel this way. A lot of classical poetry seems to have one voice - one guy (usually) talking, in one mode of address - usually a high or elevated style. You couldn’t understand the novel without trying to understand how the novel orchestrates all the different modes and varieties of language — narrative, dialogue, storytelling, letter-writing, the weird naturalist-scientific mode that so many novelists adopted. Bakhtin’s solution was to see this heterogeneity of language in the novel as a reflection of the dialogic, plural voices always present in language itself. This is from Sue Vice’s Introducing Bakhtin:

The language we use in personal or textual discourse is itself composed of many languages, which have all been used before… Each utterance, whether it takes the form of a conversation in the street or a novel, consists of the unique orchestration of well-worn words. As in an everyday dialogue, all these languages will interact with each other, jockey for position, compromise, effect a temporary stabilization, before moving on to the next construction of meaning.

Intertextuality has a slightly different spin than dialogism - partly because it’s trying to move away from the notion that individual people are pulling the strings of language, rather than the other way around. Julia Kristeva, who coined intertextuality, put it this way:

Kristeva referred to texts in terms of two axes: a horizontal axis connecting the author and reader of a text, and a vertical axis, which connects the text to other texts (Kristeva 1980, 69). Uniting these two axes are shared codes: every text and every reading depends on prior codes. Kristeva declared that ‘every text is from the outset under the jurisdiction of other discourses which impose a universe on it’ (cited in Culler 1981, 105). She argued that rather than confining our attention to the structure of a text we should study its ‘structuration’ (how the structure came into being). This involved siting it ‘within the totality of previous or synchronic texts’ of which it was a ‘transformation’ (Le texte du roman, cited by Coward & Ellis 1977, 52).

Part of this move, too, is to move away from using words like “book” (which implies a kind of self-contained perfection of the text) or “work” (which implies a one-to-one relationship between a text and its author) or even “author” (which implies that the person who wrote this language down has a authoritative monopoly on its meaning).

Words aren’t little pictures happily joined to sounds in your head. They’re out in the world, and so are you. This is what Jacques Lacan meant when he said “the unconscious is structured like a language.”

Nothing is in here. Everything is out there.

But all of these ghostly circulations inevitably leave out huge chunks of the material world. Eventually, critics and theorists started to say, okay, we get it; we were assuming all of this metaphysics about books and authors and readers and bodies. But let’s forget about “books” as hypothetical ideal and self-contained entities. They’re not just self-cancelling disembodied authorless language. A lot of those metaphysical illusions actually seem to come from real, physical practices, effected on paper and book covers and sold by booksellers and acted on by readers. Let’s start to look at some of those codes and practices too! (Ditto the body, commodities, etc., the whole historical/materialist turn of the last twenty years.) This is what some of us mean by the materiality of the text.

So we started looking at physical objects again. And I mean looking, really hard - sometimes at individual pieces of paper, stray punctuation marks, registers of subscriber lists, ledgers for ink and paper purchases by regional booksellers. It’s the paranoid style applied to bibliography; a kind of collector’s mania, where you strenuously insist on the importance of alternate covers, variations in editions, the subtle sonic differences in grades of wax on vinyl recordings.

What we forgot though, in all of this emphasis on specificity, is the place of the system, and the importance of understanding how perception itself changes in time and space. This is where Walter Benjamin’s project of aesthetics and theories of comparative and convergent media become really important.

When the media landscape changes, we actually begin to SEE things differently, even (or ESPECIALLY) things that haven’t changed at all.

This is the reason why the iPod didn’t just change the way we listen to music - and later, look at pictures or movies or play video games. It changed the way we read. (As did movies, television, video games, and many, many other things.)

The question is - what kinds of new media, or new experiences of media, drive these changes, and make us change the way we read, think about, produce, exchange texts? Will electronic reading devices be largely a peripheral part of this change (reflecting the way we read paper books, or on computers, or on our phones), or will they be at the center of it?

I found a chance to sneak this idea into my dissertation. Here’s an excerpt:

In any writing system, a document’s material creation or assembly shapes both its meaning and its legitimacy. As [Cornelia] Vismann notes with respect to history and the law, “[a] new way of binding or of writing things down, a change in the way data are collected, affects the legal framework… [Only] by turning into parchment codices, string-tied convolutes, or standardized chrome folders, do files acquire face, form, and format.” Indeed, it is just this transformation from parchment and fine paper codices to convolutes and chrome folders that marks the modernist information revolution. But Vismann’s formula for files’ dependence on materiality for their meaning also instantiates D.F. McKenzie’s broader axiom for any text: “New readers of course make new texts, and… their new meanings are a function of their new forms.” Here we can add the voice of Michel de Certeau:
Whether it is a question of newspaper or Proust, the text has a meaning only through its readers; it changes along with them; it is ordered in accord with codes of perception that it does not control. It becomes a text only in its relation to the exteriority of the reader, by an interplay of implications and ruses between two sorts of ‘expectation’ in combination: the expectation that organizes a readable space (a literality), and one that organizes a procedure necessary for the actualization of the work (a reading).

But what if we were to transform de Certeau’s analytic disjunction (“newspaper or Proust”) into a synthetic conjunction (“newspaper and Proust”)? If we take seriously the modernist idea – whether T.S. Eliot’s conception of literary tradition or Jorge Luis Borges’s observation in “Kafka and his Precursors” that “each writer creates his precursors” – that reading texts (what de Certeau calls “the actualization of the work”) transforms the meaning of prior texts, then we must also grant that a text’s meaning may depend on the material form taken by other texts.28 The reader’s (and writer’s) expectations governing literary space (de Certeau’s “literality”) are affected not just by the material form of the text in its immediacy, but by that form’s position in a system. This system (in a classically structuralist sense) is synchronic and diachronic, syntagmatic and paradigmatic, differentiated by and differentiating a broad range of material texts past, present, and future, all of which are always potentially at play in the expectations, whether conscious or unconscious, of readers, writers, designers, advertisers, booksellers and publishers.

This may be an obvious point: obviously the physical design and makeup of a text invokes a series of similar texts, which in turn differentiate themselves from texts in a different genre, with a different readership, or in a different form. But taken to its limit, the consequences are both unexpected and radical. Proust’s A la recherche does not need to appear in a feuilleton to be transformed by the newspaper; and it can just as easily be shaped in its re-reading by the form of the medieval scroll or of cinema. This sense of material intertextuality is necessary for any treatment of modernism, like this one, which tries to rethink modernism in the historical context of varying media, whether it appears as literary or nonliterary, residual or emerging.

Posted August 18, 2009 at 7:05 | Comments (0) | Permasnark
File under: Theory/Wonkish
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