RELATED TERMS: Reception theory and reader response criticism; Semiotics

Intertextuality, and its cognate term, citationality, is the shaping of a specific text’s meanings by other texts. It can refer to an author’s borrowing and transformation of a prior text or to a reader’s referencing of one text in reading another.

It is likely that the design of any particular narrative environment will involve the citation other prior texts, designs, media productions and environments, from which it will derive part of its meaning. Such citation may have the character of a detournement, where the meaning of the cited item is radically altered. It is an acknowledgement that a narrative environment is, in many ways, like a collage, assemblage or montage, all practices of citation and re-contextualisation.

It is this awareness that ‘writing’, and by extension ‘designing’, involves the borrowing of elements, their re-contextualisation and the new meanings that emerge (the invention) that underlies Derrida’s practice of deconstruction, which engages with the invention that arises from re-contextualisation, the history and memory that comes along with the cited item and the tension or accord between the older and the newer meanings, which may give rise to contradictions, paradoxes or aporia (non-sequiturs, questions, puzzles).

As Edward Said (2003, 14) comments,

“Most humanistic scholars are … perfectly happy with the notion that texts exist in contexts, that there is such a thing as intertextuality, that the pressures of conventions, predecessors, and rhetorical styles limit what Walter Benjamin once called the ‘overtaxing of the productive person in the name of . . . the principle of ‘creativity,’ ‘ in which the poet is believed on his own, and out of his pure mind, to have brought forth his work.”

Similarly, Keir Elam points to the intertextual basis of theatre as a frame. Appropriate decoding of a given text derives above all from the audience’s familiarity with other texts, a skill acquired by learning textual rules. The genesis of the performance is also intertextual, as it bears the traces of prior performances at every level from the written text through the mise en scene, the actor to the directorial style and so on. In this way, any text, according to Julia Kristeva (1970, 12), ‘is a permutation of texts, an intertextuality. In the space of a single text several énoncés from other texts cross and neutralize each other’.

The ‘ideal’ audience, given this multi-layered citationality, is one endowed with a sufficiently detailed, and judiciously employed, textual background to enable them to identify all relevant relations and use them as an interpretive matrix. In practice, people bring whatever level of skill they have attained to the decoding and appreciation of the text/performance, opening to the domain of reception theory and reader response criticism.

In popular culture, intertextuality refers to the incorporation of meanings of one text within another in a reflexive fashion. For example, the television show The Simpsons includes references to films, other television shows and celebrities. These intertextual references assume that viewers know the people and cultural products being referenced.


Elam, K. (1980) The Semiotics of theatre and drama. London, UK: Routledge.

Kristeva, J. (1970) Le Texte du roman: approche sémiologique d’une structure discursive transformationelle. The Hague: Mouton.

Said, E. (2003) Orientalism. London, UK: Penguin Books.

Sturken M., & Cartwright, L. (2001). In Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture. New York: Oxford University Press._