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A teacher asks students to find ways in which the stories "The Emperor's New Clothes" and "Chicken Little" are similar and ways they are different. A member of a book club compares last month's selection to the current month's. A book review includes some of the dialogue from the reviewed book. People leaving the movie theater after seeing Lord of the Rings comment that the book was better. The movie Pocahontas is criticized by historians for misrepresenting established historical events. In each of these examples, different texts are brought together, related to one another, or connected in some way. This juxtaposition of different texts is called intertextuality. Intertextuality occurs at many levels, in many forms, and serves a variety of functions; the foregoing examples reflect only a small subset of the possibilities.

Levels, Forms, and Functions of Intertextuality

Juxtapositions may occur at multiple levels including word or phrase, sentence or utterance, larger units of connected text such as a paragraph or stanza, and genre. Intertextuality can be created through the following means:

  • duplication (a string of words occurring in two texts such as occurs in quotation) and stylistic means (repetition of a stress, sound, or rhyme pattern across two or more texts)
  • naming and reference (as occurs in citations)
  • proximal association (as occurs among chapters in an edited book which are presumed to have some relationship to each other)
  • sequential association (an established sequence of related texts such as a reply to a letter or e-mail).

Intertextuality can be explicit or implied through a variety of literary devices (e.g., allusion, metonymy, synecdoche).

Intertextuality can be viewed as a function of social practices associated with the use of language. It is a social practice of scholars to refer to previous scholarly works through the use of quotations, citations, and bibliographies. The reading and use of book reviews, movie reviews, and similar texts can be viewed as social practices, which by definition are overt intertextual practices. Intertextuality can be created when an unexpected text occurs within a social practice. For example, if instead of receiving a report card at the end of a grading period, a student received a poem, part of the meaning of the poem would be from its placement in a particular social practice and its contrast with the genre of report card.

Locations of Intertextuality

A key question to ask about intertextuality is its location, because questions about location reveal different definitions and approaches to the analysis of intertextuality. Some scholars locate intertextuality in the text itself when explicit or implied reference is made to another text. The intertextual relationship exists whether or not it is detected by the reader and whether or not it was intended by the author of the text. From this perspective questions can be asked about how one text signals another text and what meaning is conveyed by the text through the intertextual reference.

A second location of intertextuality is in the person. As a person interacts with the target text (whether spoken, written, or electronic), the person brings to the interaction with the text previous texts and his or her experience with them. Some of these previous texts may be conversations, books, or other printed texts, narratives of personal experience, memories, and so forth. The person may use these previous texts to create meanings for the target text or to help with the process of comprehending the text. For example, previous experience in reading a mathematics text provides guidance and procedures for reading a new mathematics text. Because, for example, individuals have different background experiences and histories of encounters with conversational and written texts, the texts a particular person might bring to any interaction with a target text would vary. So too would their use of those texts. Other questions of interest pertain to understanding the cognitive processes involved in using texts from previous experiences.

Closely related to locating intertextuality in the person is locating intertextuality in the task. For example, an academic task might require a person to interact with multiple texts in order to understand some phenomenon, such as a historical event. In such a case, the task explicitly requires the use and juxtaposition of multiple texts. In some cases, multiple texts may even be provided as part of the presentation of the task. However, it may also be the case that the person addressing the task conceives of the task as involving multiple texts, whether or not it is an explicit part of the task. For example, a student given a literary text to explicate may conceive of the task as involving the juxtaposition of the target text, other texts written by the author, the teacher's lectures on the target text, and his or her previous efforts at explicating literary texts with the resultant teacher comments and grades. From this perspective, questions of interest concern the explicit and implicit intertextual demands made by the task and the interpretation of those demands. Interpretation reflects the person's representation of the task and its intertextual demands and are manifest in what and how texts are used to address the task. Questions can also be asked about the cognitive processes involved in the representation of the task and in its completion. There are interesting questions about the cognitive, affective, and social dimensions of the task, including their role in task interpretation and execution.

A fourth location of intertextuality is in the social practices of a community or social group. Over time, a social group establishes shared standards and expectations for what texts can and should be juxtaposed, and under what circumstances. That is, there are shared, abstract models for the use and juxtaposition of texts in particular types of situations. For example, in a court room, it is a shared social practice of lawyers and judges to interpret testimony and evidence in terms of previous court cases and a specific sets of legal documents (such as the U.S. Constitution). Within an academic discipline, there are specific intertextual practices and these vary from discipline to discipline. For example, in scholarly publications in the social sciences it is customary to cite previous work on the topic of interest. In writing a novel, however, authors do not cite previous novels that have addressed similar themes. In classrooms, teachers and students establish shared intertextual practices for engaging in academic work. For example, there are shared intertextual practices for completing worksheets (e.g., using the text book to answer the worksheet questions), for studying for tests, for writing an essay, and so on.

Although individuals enact intertextual practices, what they are enacting is an abstract model that has evolved over time. As such, the material environment that people encounter may be structured to facilitate certain intertextual practices and inhibit others. For example, many scholastic literature texts are organized to facilitate genre study and the comparison of texts within a particular genre. They do not foster comparison of texts across genre (e.g., poems and short stories). Textbooks often have end-of-chapter questions that refer readers to material in that chapter, but which do not ask readers to use information from previous chapters. From the perspective of intertextuality as located in social practices of communities and groups, questions can be asked about the intertextual demands of the social practices that make up an institution such as schooling and how various intertextual practices came to be associated with particular social institutions.

A fifth location of intertextuality is in the social interaction of people in an event. As people interact with each other they propose intertextual links, acknowledge the proposals, recognize the intertextual links, and give the intertextual links meaning and social consequence. That is, intertextuality is socially constructed as people act and react to each other. In classroom conversations, a teacher may propose an intertextual link between a story the class is reading, a movie being shown at a local theater, and a mural in the surrounding community. But the proposed intertextuality does not become actualized until the students acknowledge that an intertextual link has been made, recognize the story, the movie, and the mural and the potential connections among them, and give meaning and consequence to those connections. As people interact with each other, the proposed intertextual link may be negotiated and transformed such that the construction of intertextuality is a joint accomplishment shared by all involved in the event. From this perspective, questions can be asked about the interpersonal processes involved in proposing, ratifying, and giving meaning and consequence to intertextuality.

The multiple locations of intertextuality reflect, in part, different disciplinary perspectives on intertextuality, as suggested by the kinds of questions proposed for each location. Cognitive perspectives tend to locate intertextuality either in the text, in the person, or in the task; social, anthropological, and related perspectives tend to locate intertextuality in social, cultural, and historical practices; perspectives associated with sociolinguistic ethnography and symbolic interactionism tend to locate intertextuality in the social interaction of people in an event. Regardless of perspective, intertextuality is inherent to every use of language whether written or spoken, verbal, or graphic. It is ubiquitous in education, in every classroom conversation, instructional task, curriculum guide, educational policy document, and debate. What may be less obvious about intertextuality is the impact it has on delimiting texts that may be juxtaposed as well as establishing participation roles, rights, and responsibilities for interacting with texts. This aspect of intertextuality can be discussed in terms of power relations.

Intertextuality and Power Relations

Two kinds of power relations associated with intertextuality can be distinguished for heuristic purposes. The first concerns the establishment of boundaries on the set of texts that may be intertextually related in any specific instance. Through historical practice, some authority, material circumstances, or simply the limitations of a person's experience, boundaries are placed on what texts may be candidates for juxtaposition. For example, consider the set of texts that may be considered for a high school course on American literature. It is unlikely that folk songs, rap music, personal journals of ordinary people, or comic books would be considered as possible candidates–much less be included in the course. By establishing particular boundaries some texts and the ideas, people, places, and ideologies they represent are centralized, others are marginalized. However, these boundaries can be crossed; indeed, the Norton Anthology of African American Literature includes folk songs, rap music, and a compact disc of oral performances, and the Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature includes a comic-book-like entry.

The second kind of power relations related to intertextuality concerns intertextual participation rights–who gets to make what intertextual links, when, where, how, and to what social consequence. Intertextual rights are not necessarily distributed equally or equitably. Consider a classroom example. A low-achieving student might propose an intertextual link between a novel being read in a class and a rap song. The teacher might dismiss the proposed intertextual link simply because the low-achieving student proposed it. A high-achieving student might make a similar intertextual proposal that is accepted by the teacher and other students. Precisely because intertextuality is ubiquitous in academic and social practices, severely circumscribed and differentially distributed participation rights have important consequences for individuals, the institutions within which they may operate, and the ways in which they operate within those institutions.

The Educational Significance of Intertextuality

In many ways, teachers and researchers have been using the construct of intertextuality without naming it. Teachers often ask students to relate one text to another, and researchers are often interested in how various conversations and written texts have been juxtaposed. Thus, the explicit naming of intertextual processes and attention to them can be seen as an attempt to create systematic inquiry about intertextuality and to build an understanding of its nuances and consequences.

Recognition of the ubiquitous nature of intertextuality provides educational researchers with a set of heuristics for analysis of classroom conversations, reading processes, writing processes, instructional practices, and assessment practices. Similarly, attention to intertextuality can lead to redesign of curriculum in reading, language arts, literature studies, and social studies. Emphasis can be placed on ways to create understanding and meaning through intertextuality rather than the current emphasis on understanding texts as if they stood alone. There is preliminary evidence to suggest that such an emphasis increases academic achievement, although such increases are probably related to the ways in which texts are juxtaposed rather than simply juxtaposition. Attention to intertextuality also provides ways to enhance connections between academic texts and texts outside of the classroom, including community texts, workplace texts, and family texts.


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