Intertextuality is a concept that floats around the worlds of literary studies and semiotics (the study of signs, from literature to clothing labels). Here’s how Jonathan Culler describes intertextuality:

Intertextuality thus becomes less a name for a work’s relation to particular prior texts than a designation of its participation in the discursive space of a culture: the relationship between a text and the various languages or signifying practices of a culture and its relation to those texts which articulate for it the possibilities of that culture (The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature and Deconstruction).

A little while ago at work I listened to the entire The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. I’m not a huge King fan, mostly because I don’t go in for horror as a general rule. The fact remains, however, that King is really quite a good writer. One of the things that makes me think he’s a good writer (and almost a great writer) is the magnificent intertextual layering of the Dark Tower books, particularly book one, The Gunslinger. By the close of book six King’s “participation in the discursive space of [our] culture” does start to collapse into a much more self-conscious use of outside cultural and literary material. King spends less time building characters and events that we know from our cultural-creativity-soup and more time tracing the lines of where each one of those characters comes from. I suppose you could condemn King for this, but I wonder if the problem isn’t that Culler’s concept of intertextuality is a little bit too narrow. Umberto Eco, for instance, has stated explicitly that many of the intertextual layers of Name of the Rose were created intentionally (see his essay “Intertextual Irony” in On Literature), and this from one of the world’s leading novelists, literary critics and semioticians.

The above is a fairly meandering way to suggest that both intentional homage and completely unintentional intertexture are fun. They both make reading interesting and immediate and they help to tell so much more story than is on the page. For those of you still not quite getting the intertexture thing let me give you an example from King’s The Gunslinger.

The main character in The Gunslinger is the Gunslinger. He does have a name, Roland, but the character is really the Gunslinger. King describes him as tall, thin, he has hard, cold, blue eyes and is a single-minded, all-but-invincible warrior. He carries two big revolvers, one on each thigh, and has two belts of bullets criss-crossed over his chest. He wears a flat-topped hat and looks old, as though he was chiseled out of bare rock. Picture this character, place him in your mind’s eye. Is there any chance that he looks an awful lot like this?

In my very first reading of the very first description of Roland the Gunslinger, all I could think of was Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven (absolutely his best acting role and arguably his best directorial offering, which is really, really saying something). I know now that King actually did have a modified version of Eastwood in mind as he designed Roland, but that the idea of Eastwood would come so completely and perfectly to my mind is, I think, a product of an intertextual relationship. It’s not just that King meant me to think of Eastwood that makes this relationship intertextual. He just wanted me to think of an archetypal character and in my culture (and King’s as well) that archetypal character has found its most complete representation in Eastwood’s various portrayals of the darkly aberrant yet honorable anti-hero. Cool hey?

What, you might well ask, is the point of all of this semiotic gibberish? Our lesson of the day from literary criticism: intertextuality is fun. That is all.


Required Reading…

I’ve been pounding away at my thesis with a little more gusto than usual over the last little while and have consquently been neglecting my poor little blog and its faithful band of readers. I know I say this a lot, but sorry about that. I don’t have a lot to write at the moment, but I do have some reading assignments for you all.

Recently Fred (aka Slacktivist) has been posting extensively on North American Evangelicalism’s obsession with the morality of homosexuality. Regardless of where you stand in this particular debate you need to read all seven posts in his Gay Hatin’ Gospel series. I’ll start you off here, with the very first in the series. This is an issue that Christians need to examine more critically than we have been. It’s time to stop towing party lines (whether liberal or conservative) and start finding an honest and loving way to be Christians to the gays and lesbians in our lives.

For those of you who have been following, and perhaps even shaken by, Richard Dawkins’ anti-religion apologetics, you need to read Nicholas Lash’s response in the New Blackfriars. In a relatively short article Lash rips into Dawkins’ argument to a rather astonishing degree. I haven’t read Dawkins’ book, but from the excerpts I’ve read here and there it seems to me that Lash is right to indict Dawkins for being ignorant of the copious amount of research and literature available on religious and theological topics.

In any case, since I’m not writing anything here, you may as well go and read some of the above.