Postmodernism and Heteroglossia, Part Two



Hybridity and Pluralism

In her 1966 essay, “Word, Dialogue and Novel,” Julia Kristeva (1941-) privileged the term “Text,” insisting that the subject is composed of discourses, created by a signifying system. The “Text” is a dynamic activity, rather than an object, an intersection of textual surfaces, rather than a point where meaning is fixed. Like Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), Kristeva understood the politically subversive nature of celebrating intertextuality and realized that there was a deeply serious side to the challenge 0f the carnivalesque. Influenced by Kristeva, Roland Barthes (1915-1960) took up the idea that intertexuality was linked to a flouting of authority and referred to intertextuality as cryptographe (cryptogram) in which the reader is perversely split and re-split through codes, or when the text is composed of quotations that are not the actual quotes of other authors. These cryptograms are silenced quotations without quotation marks, using cultural codes which are references to recognized stereotypes, myths, received wisdom, shared assumptions, collective thinking and so on. Any authorial notion of mastery over a supposedly unique “work of art” is a fiction, convenient for those in authority, and, even the “I” or the voice of authority, the subject, is a mere social construction.

Given that reading and writing is the function of a network of citations, the rejection by Barthes of the “author” is also a rejection of author/ity and is therefore a political and revolutionary rejection of centralized control. With his theories of Deconstruction, the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) also rejected the notion of the independent author or unique authorship, understanding the “activity ” (to borrow a term from Barthes) of writing to be a kind of rewriting or an explicit interpretation of or commentary on the works of earlier writers. A reader cannot read without knowledge of a literary tradition of reading and writing, and a writer cannot write without access to his or her heritage. To write, to make art, any artist must use numerous quotations of already readable texts that can be quoted and quotable or readable. To be readable the writing must both draw from and attain the condition of iterability or the ability to be re-read, re-written or to be “grafted,” as Derrida would say, as re-expressions into other texts. As Barthes said, “..a text is an intertext,” an outcome that produced what he termed “a tissue” of quotations or citations. Kristeva, in her turn, defined a “text” as a “permutation of texts,” an intertextuality: “in the space of any given text, several utterances take from other texts, intersect and neutralize one another.”

However, in order to stress how different intertextuality is from previous methodologies of critical analysis, it is important to stress that although there always has to be a language existing before and after and around texts that allows the text to be uttered, but these multiple Intertexts are not sources of influence upon the writer. To posit an “influence” would be to assume a point of origin and to assume origin would be to assume some form of “originality.” But the entire point of Intertextuality is that there is no traceable source and that to attempt to track back upon an author’s path is to free fall into an abyss that has no end. Literature and visual art is nothing but a general field or open territory of anonymous formulae or literary conventions or visual codes whose origin cannot be located and which have already been written. All written and visual utterances and expressions must both import or utilize and, in the process, naturalize, or make familiar through repetition, the speech acts of others. The viewer must work within the resulting tensions among the numerous texts, seek collaborations among numerous artists, and undertake negotiations with the results. The idea is that the text is comparable to a dialogue between the reader and writer: words are neither neutral nor original but are already used and secondhand and saturated with other meanings, leftover and already contaminated and impregnated with their opposites. Meanings can be palimpsests, overlaying one another, transparent slices that one can see through, a past that is still present at odds with that which is on the surface.

Clearly, these Post-Structuralist interpretations of writing and reading and making art were closely related to the visual strategies that Postmodern artists and architects were beginning to employ as early as the 1960s and came into vogue during the 1980s. The literary critic, Jonathan Culler, called the formalist methodology “a bizarre fiction.” “At its most basic,” Culler said in The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, “..the lesson of contemporary European criticism is this: the New Criticism’s dream of a self-contained encounter between the innocent reader and autonomous text is a bizarre fiction.” To read, Culler explained, is to read in relation to other texts, and, indeed reading like looking can occur only in relation to preexisting codes that are products of these texts. As “objects of the culture,” the works are required to participate in a variety of systems and must emerge from these networks of meanings. As Derrida put it, the intertextual codes are déjà-la, or already there. The origins are lost, for codification cannot originate or be originated; any code is already encoded in a prior code and these contributions of previous texts to the code makes signification possible, and now signification is redefined as a stacking up as it were of these preexisting codes. Because they have already been appropriated, free floating quotations are already anonymous and always untraceable, being already read, already seen, and refer to the sum of accumulated collective knowledge that makes it possible for texts to have reiterable meaning.

Taking their cue from Bakhtin and inspired by the uprising of the spring of 1968, the French writers and philosophers were invested in taking an anti-authorian position in regards to traditional literary traditions, while the American artists were attempting to break away from their Modernist predecessors and the critical authority of cultural leaders. Clearly, double-coding, a term popularized by Charles Jencks, is a visual counterpart to Intertextuality, but much of architecture’s intertextuality is, in fact, not visible or immediately understandable to the casual visitor,and yet is nevertheless present. Unlike Intertextuality in literature which is deeply embedded within the surface text itself, intertextuality in the visual arts depended upon a near scholarly knowledge of the history of art and of critical theory. The late architect, Charles Moore (1925-1993), utilized an entire history of Western architectural vocabularies for his Piazza d’Italia (1978) in New Orleans. The satirical façade, like a stage set, is a jumble of misaligned parts, assembled from the ruins of history into a deconstruction of stylistic chronology. If multiple texts must exist in order to write, then multiple works of art must be known in order for the work to exist, either for the artist or for the viewer.

While both Barthes and Kristeva were concerned about establishing a new epistemology or foundation for literature and of the visual arts, the more familiar definition of Postmodernism was formed out of the world of architecture by the architectural critic, Charles Jencks, who, unlike his art historical counterparts, was faced with postmodern tendencies as early as the 1960s. For Jencks, Postmodernism evolved out of art and architecture of the sixties, once again, paralleling similar approaches in the world of philosophy–postmodernism was a mere rethinking of Modernism. Jenks would agree with Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1996) that Postmodernism is less of a break and more of a continuation of a particular kind of Modernism. In other words, it is important to understand that Modernism was a period of time and that during this period of time, certain art critics and certain art historians (authority figures) decided to speak only of some art and fell silent on other forms of art making. Postmodernism became a “return” as artists and architects returned to that which had been “repressed” in Modernism: the hybrid (the impure) and the vernacular (popular culture). The architect, Robert Venturi’s books, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning From Las Vegas, written during the sixties, were the equivalents of Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans of 1962 as manifestos that celebrated popular culture.

Jencks, like most of the theorists of the Postmodern, understood that one of the leading characteristics of Postmodernism is the global and international culture of expansionary capitalism that makes any dominate style impossible. Note that, in the visual arts, Postmodernism finally found fertile ground in American academics during the short-lived art boom of the 1980s. Postmodernism as a theory enabled the art world to encompass the capitalist expansion of the art world beyond the narrow borders of New York City. Jencks characterized Postmodern art to be eclectic, due to what he called an embarrass de richesses, or a surplus of unrestricted ability to browse among historical periods or the freedom to “choose and combine traditions selectively—an “election,” as he would have it. The result is “a striking synthesis of traditions,” a “smorgasbord,” “inventive combinations,” and a “confused parody” that come out of a culture of pluralism, which recognizes no dominant style or movement. Despite the fact that, in their day, the best works of Postmodernism are, according to Jencks, “doubly-coded and ironic” producing a “hybrid (non) style” that opposes “an exclusive dogma of taste,” Postmodern architecture quickly became dated and stranded on the sands of its own excess of choice.

A simple contrarian movement or reaction, Postmodernism attempted to move always towards greater pluralism in contrast to the narrow elitism of Modernism, but as evidenced by its own erudition, the movement never believed that gaps between high and low or between different communities could be bridged into one universal culture. It is doubtful that visitors to Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center (1989) in Columbus, Ohio grasped his verbal visual punning exercises with the Jeffersonian grid and an abandoned armory. Resisting this notion of “control” but relying upon complex theory, Postmodernism deployed juxtaposition of motives, as seen in the Wexner Center, acknowledging multiple legitimacies, from the history of Ohio to the theory of Deconstruction. The literary and philosophical counterpart of Jencks’s “double-coding” would be “intertextuality”. This “double-voiced discourse” constitutes the fundamental agenda of the post-modern movement. According to Jencks “Double a strategy of affirming and denying the existing power structures (by) inscribing differing tastes and opposite forms of discourse.” In other words heteroglossia; in other words, intertextuality; in other words, plurality and the play of many voices.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Postmodernism and Heteroglossia, Part One



Texts and Textuality

The phenomenon that would be known by the 1980s as Postmodern theory or “theory” consisted of servings of a French Potée from the 1950s and 1960s, full of different ingredients, a stew of linguistic theory, psychology, anthropology, history, sociology, literary theory, feminist theory, that simmered and served up first Structuralism and then Post-Structuralism. Structuralism and Post-Structuralism are imprecise and inexact terms that roughly coincide with the equally imprecise divide between Modernism and Postmodernism. Although it is possible to roughly retrace the intellectual steps of all the French scholars who were together in Paris and knew each other, it is more difficult to sort out the ways and means in which their ideas were taken up, sliced and diced, renamed and redirected by the next generation of scholars. The journey of the concept of a term discussed by Marcel Mauss, mana, from the significance of the exchange of gifts in a culture to a “floating signifier” in the interpretations of Claude Lévi-Strauss denoting a surplus which is then transformed by Pierre Bourdieu into symbolic capital while Jacques Lacan would reimagine this sliding signifier as the machinations of language making itself while Roland Barthes found this kind of empty signifier in the myths of popular culture, all of which would inspire Slavoj Zizek to realize that politics was nothing more than a fabula of floating signifiers. It is no wonder that American critics would cut through all this interweavings of community influence, seeking a more simple and general definition of Postmodernism.

In American academic circles, the complex mixture of French (and German) ideas were boiled down or reduced to their essence. According to this coulis, Postmodernism acknowledged disillusionment with the supposed transcendent state of the revered art object. Modernism was frowned upon as an uneasy mixture of mystification of the art and the artist and a meta-position of objectivity from the critic/observer. Like “French theory,” Postmodern art was impure, less a method of making and more a mode of making through synthesis that was indulgent, excluding and denying nothing and was tolerant of everything. Unlike Modernism which maintained a cool position of elitism, Postmodern art was concerned with inclusive context, making the map or the overall picture the emblem of Postmodernism. There were territories beyond the surface of the artwork and outside of “art” that needed to be considered. Attempts at staking out boundaries are as futile as the limits are arbitrary and in order to expand the viewpoint it is necessary to have a flexible perspective. Any kind of system is but a superimposition upon vernacular and local formations.

According to Kim Levin in the 1980s article “Farewell to Modernism,” if the grid was the emblem of Modernism, then the grid had gone back to nature allowing the artist to roam free. In America, freedom was seen almost exclusively as the fight to break the grip of Modernism, as exemplified by abstract art, i.e. purity and Abstract Expressionism. In addition, the American version of Postmodernism was a neat modernist compare and contrast. If Modernist art was abstract, then Postmodern art returned to representation. If Modernism was about the future and the teleology of progress, then Postmodernism had to be about the past and began to devour the history of Modernism. Now freed or exempted from the confines of Modernism, artistic “wandering” resulted in an obsession with the past, as artists borrowed from high and popular art and copied and cross-referenced among images. Appropriation replaced (Modernist) creativity. While Modernism excluded this past from its consciousness, Postmodernism used the old as source for the “new,” recognizing the power of the past or what Karl Marx had called the “dead hand of history” or at least trying to use the “dead hand” to some advantage.

American artists of the Eighties, who began to appropriate Postmodern theory as the basis for their art, were playing at second-hand with decades-old ideas developed in the post-war period by a small group of Continental thinkers. These borrowed ideas were put in the service of a small group of New York art critics and art historians who were interested in establishing their own not-Modernist and not-Greenberg turf, and they established an intellectual hegemony over American-style Postmodernism in New York. Out of or derived from complicated ideas, they developed their own ideas, turning heteroglossia into something far more simple and manageable: “double coding,” a term popularized by architectural critic Charles Jencks. A subtle theory of the relationship between language and human consciousness became a use of motifs from history. Both Structuralism and Post-Structuralism were critiques of the human subject and of the sentimental notion that the subject is a free intellectual agent, eternal and unaffected by history or culture. Post-Structuralists wanted to deconstruct the human “reality,” which, after all, was only a convenient fiction, a product of cultural and changeable signifying activities. Even the unconscious mind, once thought to be unreachable was deemed constructed and culturally specific.

Structuralism and Post-Structuralism also critiqued the possibility of a fixed and frozen set of linguistic relations, even within a structure. Ferdinand de Saussure had emphasized the distinction between the signifier, or the “sound image,” and the signified, the concept and stated that their relationship was arbitrary. His analysis suggested that the structural relationship between sign and signifier was conventional, and that meaning is known through common usage rather than through pre-figured necessity. Instead, given the instability of signifiers, each signifier acquired semantic value due to its differential position within the structure of the language. In other words, signifiers have no meaning in and of themselves and “mean” or signify only in terms of their differences and distinctions. It was Saussure who literally illustrated this process of differentiation, drawing (a literal drawing) a current of (wiggling) signifiers flowing above a stream of the “signifieds” below. The slipping signifiers were repositioned by Jacques Lacan, who placed them in a dominant position, demoting the once determining signified by placing it below the signifier. This flipping of the position of the linguistic algorithm is also the flip from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism, where the signified is demoted and the signifier is dominant: floating signifiers that defied the signified.

The instability of the structure of the linguistic system designed by Saussure was quickly exploited. Just six years after Saussure’s death, in The Dialogical Imagination (1919), Mikhail Bakhtin put forward a theory of everyday language called “dialogism.” Living and working in the Soviet Union, Bakhtin subtly opposed the prevailing powers under the guise of analyzing Western literature. Understandably, he would consider language as ideological. Without being precisely political, Bakhtin opposed two modes of literature, the monologic and the dialogic. Monologic language was the language of authority, speaking in tones of “truth” with the expectation of being believed. For example, a scientist writes and publishes monologically and reflects the accepted and expected modes of discourse and assumes that the received practices will not be challenged. On the other side of the monological coin is poetry, the highest of high art, uttered by a poet under the illusion that she is writing in a standard literary format which is supposed as “pure” as the words of the scientist are “transparent.” In addition, this ideological homogenizing language holds language together in a centripetal or oppositional force.

Bakhtin, as might be expected, had little use for the illusions of high art and saw fiction as a dialogic mode. The scientist and the poet speak above or transcendently (or so they believe) but the fiction writer must address a specific reader and audience. Bakhtin preferred the low art of make believe because it reflected the ordinary language of everyday people. In fact, Bakhtin pointed out that monologic speech was impossible, and its concept of a unity or plenitude is actually an illusion, covering up the actuality of excess or lack of fixed meaning. People use specific modes of discourse in order to communicate with each other. Language is inherently dialogic: a speaker must make himself understood to the listener and the interchange between the two participants means that language must always be dialogic. However, there are difficulties if the speaker and the listener are from different paradigms. And this is where ideology comes into play. On one hand, the speaker must achieve competence in communicating, and on the other hand, the listener must have the same or similar competence. But since meaning is not fixed, words only appear to have pre-existing meanings–meanings that are “already ready”–in one social paradigm, that, when it is received in another social paradigm, are often alien to the speaker’s intentions.

The discourses are appropriated in order to make one’s intentions clear, however, there will be interference from two sources: the social slippage between speaker and listener and the linguistic slippage in the language itself. Bakhtin understood all legitimation to be relative and that the “crisis” of legitimation is nothing less than the destruction of traditional notions of “society” and the “social subject.” Uninvolved in any nostalgia for the concept of the “original subject” or individual and unique human being, he used a Medieval concept of carivari or the “carnivalesque” as his critical strategy. With his concept of the “dialogic” in which writers and/or speakers create or intensify “hetroglossia,” Bakhtin seems to have understood the idea of “intertextuality” before this way of reading became well-established. There is a “social heteroglossia,” or a kind of natural language or way of communicating in which words do not exist only in formalized dictionaries but are created in and out of people’s inventive and ever flexible mouths. Bakhtin emphasized the carnival or the power of laughter to destroy pre-established hierarchies, not just of language but also of discourses themselves. Laughter, for Bakhtin, was the most radical form of language. It is the carnival of language that makes dialogue possible in its quest to undermine power.

The carnival is a theater of the absurd which reveals the constructed nature of social restrictions. Produced through the activities of the carnival, scornful and subversive laughter serves no higher cause and supports no existing social structures, and operates on the unofficial margins of popular or lower class life, and unfolds in unofficial and unsanctioned practices, and thus cannot be codified or controlled or raised to a higher and fixed level. Bhaktin’s critique of literature through the carnival reveals that all relations are social and human relations arbitrary; and that, despite the iron grip of totalitarianism, alternative political structures are possible. The carnival in history has been allowed by authorities, parceling out moments of freedom and sanctioning a momentary lapse of what is considered the “norm.” These momentary reversals of power and prestige produce a sense of spectacle that is not only seen or exhibited but can also be lived and experienced as “revival and renewal” through the flipping of received wisdom and through showing the verso of power. Mocking the ruling powers, the carnival speaks in parody with a double-voiced and double-coded language that challenges the single-voiced utterances or approved speech and discourses from the higher authorities. Today, we can witness and enjoy parody thorough the “spectacle” of mass media, whether one is viewing Saturday Night Live or reading the blogs of outsiders who become the contemporary player in a carnivalesque undreamed of but predicted by Bhaktin. On late night talk shows, such as the Jon Stewart Show, nothing is sacred–no person, idea or government— and all is fair game, because it is open season on pretentions of wisdom or sagacity. The carnival has come to town.


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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Postmodernism and Intertextuality



Bakhtin and Kristeva

Working within the confines of the Soviet Union, a place where words, thoughts and deeds were monitored, the literary theorist Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975) examined, in an intellectually safe way, how language cannot be controlled by a central authority. Because he had fought in the White Russian army against the Bolsheviks, Bakhtin was undoubtedly already a person of interest to Stalin, and his prominence at the center of the “Bakhtin” Circle in Vitebsk in the early 1920s would have raised his profile even further. Interestingly, he and the painter Marc Chagall were in that city, the town of Chagall’s birth, at the same time; and Vitebsk, now in Belarus, was a center of avant-garde excitement. Due to his adherence to Christianity, Bakhtin was arrested by the Soviets in 1929 and sent to Siberia. His sentence was shorted to six years, possibly because he had written a well-received book, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, that same year. Bakhtin, who had a degenerative bone disease and would live in bad health for the rest of his life, doggedly continued his rethinking of Russian Formalism. His best known ideas which concerned the novel, a relatively new art form, and its manifestations of dialogue, heteroglossia and the carnivalesque, filtered into European literary theory initially through Julia Kristeva (1941-) in Paris.

Bakhtin’s work on the novel began in the 1920s and continued to be developed until his death in 1975, but it is best to begin with his idea of the “chronotrope” or the combination of space and time. The literary “genre” will be a reflection of the way in which a particular culture, whether Greek or Roman or Renaissance, organizes a narrative, which is also the way in which humans conceptually navigate time and space. Each culture conceives of time as it relates to space in a different fashion and the chronotrope manifests itself in literature. Bakhtin explained the relationship between a cultures’s sense of time and understanding of space and the ways in which the collective narratives were structured in his work, “Forms of Time and the Chronotrope in the Novel: An Essay on Historical Poetics” (1937-8/1973). As Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, in Mikhail Bakhtin pointed out, the re-presentation of a particular chronotrope is characteristic of a particular age and a single work can contain overlapping or coexisting chronotropes that were inherited or borrowed from other times. Bakhtin explained,

“Within the limits of a single work and within the total output of a single author we may notice a number of different chronotropes and complex interactions among them, specific to the given work or author; its is common, moreover, for one of these chonotropes to envelop or dominate others.”

In tracing the evolution of language or the attitude towards language, Bakhtin contrasted the Greek world view of circular time as evidenced in “adventure time,” played out in epics or in tragedy to the realization in the Roman era that language was relative, situational, time-based and not universal or timeless. In response to the modern understanding of malleable language, Bakhtin introduced the idea of “heteroglossia.” Typical of the theoretical approaches of his time which used binaries, Bakhtin set monologic against dialogic, or paired the monoglot and the heteroglot, as explained in his other essays on his theory of the novel, “Discourse in the Novel,” “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” and “Epic and Novel: On a Methodology for the Study of the Novel.”

All of these essays explored Bakhtin’s contention that language responds to changing world views–the nature of space time, the chronotrope. Bakhtin focused on the novel, because this new type of literature was written in the immediate present tense and was therefore a barometer of social conditions and changes. Most importantly, the novel has inherited hundreds of years of Western literature, from romance to biography, and therefore combines different chronotropes, allowing the novel and its characters to speak dialogically or in many voices. Unlike the language employed for scientific works, for academic explanations, for government information and so on, which claim a universal and transparent mode of expression, the novel make no such truth claims and has the freedom to subvert the supposed neutrality of language. Bakhtin, from the very beginning, was interested in genres and the ways in which a society “tells time.” In addition Bakhtin was concerned with social class and the ways in which authors borrow quotations (a manner of speaking) from different locations, from the street or the drawing room, that allow the writers to mimic various voices; heteroglossia.

For Bakhtin and his Circle, the key term was “utterance,” meaning that language is a human activity and is located within a specific social chronotrope. As Bakhtin and his colleague, Valentin N. Volosinov, wrote in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, “A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another. If one end of the bridge depends on me, then the other depends on my addressee. A word is territory shared by both addresser and addressee, by the speaker and his interlocutor.” However, for the French who took up the ideas of Bakhtin, “Intertextuality,” a term coined by the Bulgarian theorist Julia Kristeva (1941-) became the translation of his concepts. These imported ideas on language were developed in contrast the formal structures of Ferdinand de Saussure and for the Parisian intellectuals who were also looking for alternatives to formalism and structuralism, Bakhtin’s literary theories fell upon fertile soil. As an Eastern European, Kristeva had access to the writings of Bakhtin and his Circle and, when she came to Paris in 1966, she brought the linguistic critique of Bakhtin with her.

However in mingling with the Parisian intellectual milieu, Kristeva made important changes to Bakhtin’s interpretations of plural voices in literature and came to her own definition of “intertextuality.” As is obvious from the account of Bakhtin’s essays above, he and his Circle were still clinging to the notion of representation in that the heteroglossia of a novel was illustrative of the various chronotropes evidenced in the utterances of the characters. Over time, Kristeva further destabilized the notion of the “self,” psychologicalizing language under the influence of Jacques Lacan and eliminated Bakhtin’s personalization of the author due to Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction. Thanks to the sponsorship of Roland Barthes (1916-1980) who invited her to present the writings of Bakhtin to his seminar, Kristeva became a prominent figure in French philosophical thought. Her presentation was subsequently published in Critique as “Bakhtine, le mot, le dialogue, et le roman” (“Word, Dialogue and Language”) in 1966. However, Kristeva was a student and it was Barthes who spread her ideas through his own articles which began to reexamine the relationship between author and reader and among texts themselves.

The concept of Intertextuality that Kristeva put forward was based in Bakhtin’s notion of the dialogic novel–multiple voices in narrative context, “heteroglossia,” and “dialogism,” meaning that all dialogue is inherently dialogic or intertextual. In order to “utter” the speaker must know the language and must have cultural competence in that language. While dialogism is true of “everyday” speech, literary writing had acquired a “special” status with the presumption of the author as the supreme creator. The omnipotent author, or more precisely the theoretical device that confines a book to a single voice, constitutes a monologue, stripping language of the other’s intentions. The result is a suppression of the natural and existing dialogue resulting in a binary opposition: exposition and analysis: the exposition of the author and the analysis of the theoretician. The reader is eliminated from the equation. The various chronotropes are suppressed in favor of a fiction of plentitude and precision that effectively stops any further or alternative analysis. Authority is upheld but at a cost. One can understand the theory of intertexuality is a return of the repressed, that which haunts the text: the multiple and excluded voices which were actually created by the writer but written out by a formal analysis of the work’s structure.

When she gave her paper, Kristeva incorporated Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World, which expounded on the carnivalesque or the incorporation of the unauthorized and informal language of popular culture and the “lower” classes. The carnival was a medieval custom that allowed a periodic release of the antic and the forbidden into official culture. It was on those occasions that the real culture of real people, unfiltered by abstractions and embedded in actual experience, was released. These subterranean levels of commentary lodged within legitimated forms of discourse include parody, the grotesque, earthy and of the body. As Bakhtin wrote,

“To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth. Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one…. Grotesque realism knows no other level; it is the fruitful earth and the womb. It is always conceiving”

In contrast to the bête noir of Barthes, the “realistic” novel, which Bakhtin stated was “monologic,” the dialogic novel put forward by Bakhtin emphasizes the carnival, the power of parodic language and the discovery of the plural which destroys hierarchal difference and levels the text. Kristeva, in her turn, argued that every text is under the jurisdiction or rule of other discourses in that each text is “created” by other texts. A text is differential and historical, a play of divergent times or temporalities or Bakhtin’s “chronotopes,” and contains traces and tracings of otherness and of other genres. Texts are made out of cultural or ideological norms and conventions of the genre that are recognized by the activated reader/viewer who is familiar with the styles and idioms in the language and with the clichés and formulas. As Kristeva wrote in her 1966 essay,

Bakhtin postulates the necessity for what he calls a translinguistic science, which, developed on the basis of langauge’s dialogism, would enable us to understand intertextual relationships; relationships that the nineteenth century labelled ‘social value”or literature’s moral “message..” Dialogue and ambivalence are borne out as the only approach that permits the writer to enter history be espousing a ambivalent ethics: negation as affirmation. Dialogue and ambivalence lead me to conclude that, within the interior space of the text as well as within the space of texts, poetic language is a “double.”

Given that the process of intertextual references is governed by the rules of discursive formation, the structure of the literary system need not depend upon the author’s intentions, and there are no moments of authority, no points of origin, only the purposes of reading. The auteur is a construction based upon a series of texts that retrospectively creates the author/auteur, rather than being a writer as the one who created the texts. The identification of the intertext is an act of interpretation on the part of the reader. Because the writer may or may not be aware of all the “voices” deployed, the author’s intention is not at issue. The writer is a reader of a text before s/he creates texts and the work of art is shot through with references, quotations, and influences and because what is produced is a cross-fertilization of a book, it is these networks that are of interest. The undermining of the authority of the writer undermines the enclosure of the book, problemizing both entities. Intertextuality is a subversive activity.

Kristeva links intertextuality to transgression: “We should particularly emphasize this specificity of dialogue as transgression giving itself a law so as radically and categorically to distinguish it from the pseudo-transgression evident in a certain modern “erotic ” and parodic literature..” In contrast the assumption that there is an official mode of discourse, all such “laws” constitute a kind of textual ideology, so that language is not timeless or universal but subject to cultural code and these codes are site and time specific. The conscious use or awareness of the intertext is a conscious manipulation of what Barthes called the “circular memory of reading,” which could refer to the use of italics and commas to indicate sources. However, this kind of restrictive reading is a mere catalogue of “influences” or “sources” and other assertions of the “presence” of the “author,” which restrict the reader’s free intertextual reading of the text. In contrast to the formal analysis, Kristeva called active and intertextual reading an “aggressive participation.”

In her later work, The Revolution of Poetic Language (1974/1984), Kristeva took the idea of the carnival and recast it as the semiotic in which the maternal or “feminine fluidity” or that which is yet unfixed would be a transgressive invasion or inscription (inter-writing) into intertextuality. In other words, the feminine becomes a kind of under-text, which is pre-symbolic or semiotic but also makes the symbolic possible. Therefore, a “fluid reading” would both accept and look for examples of other texts that have somehow entered into the primary text, always supposed to be “pure.” But no text is pure or whole or centered. Every text is an intertext, composed of multiple texts. It is easy to assume that all Kristeva means is that one text may quote another text, but this is not what she is saying. Kristeva was always interested in the Other, particularly the primal Other, the female which has been suppressed by the Law (of the Father) and haunts the (male) official text and subverts the singular (patriarchal) authoritarian voice. Both Bakhtin and Kristeva were very interested in subversion of the social order as manifested in literature as a form of literary social activism, not so much on the part of the writer him or herself but on the part of the reader who was re-directed, away from unity and towards polysemy.

Sometimes the importance of a concept such as intertextuality is what subsequent readers, writers, and creators make of the initial concept and how the theory becomes a trope. In a generalized way,the point of intertextuality became that in order for a writer to writer and/or for a reader to read, for an artist to make art, for a spectator to see the object, many references already ready need to be put into play. Structuralism always insisted that meaning is dependent upon a network of relations, what Ludwig Wittgenstein referred to “family resemblances,” and Kristeva was following the logical consequences of the significance of the “network.” However, it is important to understand that there is a difference between intertextuality as subversion of class and authority and intertextuality as a mode of reading. One type of analysis has political implications and the other is a mode of understanding literature without subverting authority.

“Quotations” or heteroglossia need to be understood as the acknowledgement of the importance of polyvalence or the network of language that creates any cultural object. Of course, no cultural object can ever be created out of a space of purified ontology or untouched origins and to be created and, in order to be understood, all objects are dependent upon other objects. That being said, Kristeva is not making the same argument that Harold Bloom made, that art comes out of art. She is saying that art depends upon a network of semiotic relationships that allow the object to function meaningfully in the culture. “Quotations” are not direct re-statings of another author: quotations and references and borrowings are the many ways in which the culture expresses itself across time.

The quotations that comprise the inter-text are forgotten fragments, half-realized displacements that distort and redefine the “primary utterance,” presumed to be the “original” and “creative” voice of the author, and relocates that utterance within another linguistic and cultural context. The use of quotation generates tensions within the reader and analyst pulled between the belief system that valorizes the auteur as the originator and the awareness of the dissemination of meaning and how meaning is made. The quotation or heteroglossia demands a non-linear or fluid reading or an awareness of multiplicity. Holding on to the now-discredited concept of “Originality” may not be the best way to read the work, because the assumption of originality or of the artist-as-origin limits the reading and denies the richness of the text/s. For example, in film noir movies made in Hollywood in the 1940s, one reads through the films and confronts the heteroglossia of the mystery novel, the detective novel, the cultural concern about the Depression, the male fear of the female, the male-made narrative that controls the account, silencing of the subversive voices of the woman, the criminal and even the Law itself. By wrenching oneself out of this trap of the narrator’s voice, the reader can activate the multiple voices and texts, from pulp fiction to Hemmingway.

Any work of art must contain traces of imitation, appropriation, quotation and reference that can mobilize the reader’s creative performance or a performity by the reader. Following Bakhtin’s logic, the history of genres as a sequence is undone–we are familiar with the original “road movie” and know that this journey comes from an antique source, The Odyssey. Therefore, the single unified voice of the narrator unravels and meaning and significance must be constructed out of known genres and borrowed voices, and all authors rewrite the works of predecessors–old voices become new voices. When literature is analyzed from a Postmodern perspective, a text becomes allegory or an assemblage of past genres. Action on the part of the reader preempts the authoritarian idea of the expert and subversive language substitutes itself for subject or the author’s singular voice. The text or artwork is not longer a sacred object but a space of language at work. The artwork is now a fabric composed of multiple codes, suggesting a new activity for the reader/analyst who finds an intertext. The new activity of the intertext is not author-dominated and places the emphasis on the reader or viewer. The text cannot exist as a hermetic or self-sufficient whole and does not function in a closed system. The reader’s experience may lead to new interpretations, for texts enter via the author and via the reader and have the effect of undermining authoritarian reading in the singular.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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