Intertextuality – All Texts are Part of a Matrix of Utterances


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Intertextuality theories originated in the 1960s. Image by Adam Jones

The theory of intertextuality is based on the idea that all signifying systems are a product of previous signifying systems; it proposes that texts are not the original product of one author, but of their connection with other texts, both written and spoken, and to the structure of language.

The idea of intertextuality, a concept originated by French semiotician Julia Kristeva in the late 1960s, was founded on Ferdinand de Saussure’s  (1857-1913) theories of semiology and Mikhail Bakhtin’s  (1895-1975)  interests in the social aspects of language and his ideas of dialogism which he theorised in the 1920s.

Saussure’s Comparative Push

The founder of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, viewed language as a socially-conceived structured system of elements, rules, and meanings. His theories of signs inspired the idea of structuralism, “the belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations,”  and  the study of semiology –  signs within society.

Based on Saussure’s  innovative linguistic and semiologic  structural theories,  post-structural theorists  such as Kristeva  began to question the notion that  texts were closed off entities and forwarded the proposition that a literary text should be considered to be  a product not of an author’s original thoughts with one referential  meaning  but of several that could be compared. This opened the doors to a comparative approach to literary texts being  adopted and analysis being undertaken beyond the structure of the text in order to investigate a text’s relationships to other works and linguistic structures.

Bakhtin’s Dialogism

Russian semiotician, Mikhail Bakhtin’s view on sign-sign relationships is quite different from the Saussurean model. While Saussure focused on structure and “synchrony” and the sign system, Bakhtin turned his attention to the diachronicity and the historical value of signs.

Bakhtin’s interests in the social and cultural aspects of language led to what he called  “dialogism” which he viewed as “the necessary relation of any utterance to other utterances.” His theory of dialogism, which he relates back to Socratic dialogues, is based on the idea that due to the fluid nature of language, all texts have traces of other texts within them and are all part of a matrix  of utterances. Bakhtin proposed that we understand texts because of their connection to earlier patterns of meanings, utterances, or words.

For Bakhtin, text is not just an individual verbal entity but a social phenomenon, and literary work  is a product of multiple determinants that are specific to class, social group and speech community.

Julia Kristeva and Intertexuality

Texts - layers of other texts. Image by National Library in Paris

Texts – layers of other texts. Image by National Library in Paris

In her study of semiotics, Saussure’s works, and in particular Bakhtin’s idea of dialogism,  French semiotician Julia Kristeva originated the  term “intertextuality.”

For Kristeva and Bakhtin, as Robert Stam puts it, every text forms a “mosaic of citations” or leaves traces over which other texts can be written.  As mentioned, Bakhtin tended to focus on the social and historical and human whereas Kristeva’s theory paid close attention to text, textuality, and their relation to ideological structures.

Texts Are Built From Other Texts

The theory of intertextuality suggests that a text cannot exist alone as a self-contained, enclosed whole. A text is formed by the repetition and transformation and inclusion  of other textual structures. This is based on the idea that since the writer is a reader of texts before he creates his work, the work inevitably gets inflected with references, quotations and influences of every kind.

In his work, Saussure claimed that texts are not free of other texts, and as “individuals” we are a product of the meetings of many and various texts. In the seventies, these ideas were advanced further by Roland Barthes in his controversial discussions on authorship, “work” and the nature of “texts.”


Bakhtin, M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. (1984). University of Texas Press, Slavic Series.

Barthes, R. Theory of the Text, in Untying the Text. 31-47, R. Young (ed.). (1981). London: Routledge.

Ferdinand de Saussure. Course in General Linguistics. (1959). The Philosophical Library, New York City.

Kristeva, J. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Leon S. Roudiez (ed.), T. Gora et al (trans.). (1980). New York: Columbia University Press.

Stam, R.  et al. New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-structuralism and Beyond. (1992). Routledge, London.

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