In “The World of Texts: Intertextuality,” chapter 4 of A Rhetoric of Literate Action: Literate Action Volume 1, Charles Bazerman introduces the concept of intertextuality, which is the act of referring other texts, either directly or indirectly and self-consciously or implicitly but with intentionality (59). In short, intertextuality represents the relationships between and among texts.
Bazerman argues that by understanding intertextuality and how it is used by writers to position their own texts, we can learn how to better position our own writing within the conversations and activity systems in which are texts our positioned (59).
Texts, he explains, often build upon other texts, thereby creating a body or archive of texts that are all related to one another. This concept is most easily understood within the context of an exchange of letters, emails, or text messages. In being a response to what was written, the new text implicitly or explicitly responds to and builds upon the letter, email, or text message to which it is responding. And as this exchange of texts continues, the writers involved will likely be responding to, or at least basing their responses upon, not just the most recent text sent to them but to any number of the texts written by either author in the exchange. Likewise, in the exchange of letters, emails, or text messages, the writers may also refer to other texts written by others people, thereby expanding the intertextual relationships even further. If we were to trace out all the ways a series of letters refer to and draw upon each other and texts outside the exchange, implicitly and explicitly, directly and indirectly, we will see emerge a network of relationships in and amongst all these texts (59-60).
While we can see this intertextual network most directly in something like an exchange of letters, we can readily find it in any text that is situated in a conversation about a topic, a genre, and/or an activity system. You’ve most likely be introduced to the literary device of allusion in a literature course. Poets, fiction writers, and playwrights often make reference to earlier literary texts, and these acts of allusion are acts of intertextuality. Inherent in US law is the concept of precedent through common law and case law. The basic idea behind precedent is that similar rulings should be applied to similar situations, which means that Appellate Courts and the Supreme Court decisions make reference to earlier written court decisions, and juries and lawyers interpret the law based upon these decisions. This too is a system of intertextuality. Additionally, we see intertextuality at play in the shaping of knowledge through scholarship and research. Knowledge creation does not exist within a vacuum; even new theories and ideas are inherently situated within what has been thought and said before. Our practices of paraphrase, summary, quotation, and citation are nothing more than a formalized practices of intertextuality.
In fact, as Bazerman notes, fields and disciplines have their own network of texts that one becomes familiar with as one becomes a professional — becomes professionalized — in that field. Learning how this body of texts (ideas) relates to one another and learning how to understand where a text falls within this network of intertextuality is a large part of becoming professionalized, especially for those who engage in knowledge creation (60-61). Likewise, as noted above, all genres and activity systems have their own series of intertexts upon which to draw, and they have their own conventions and practices for referring to other texts (63).
As Bazerman noted at the beginning of this chapter, understanding textuality and its conventions within particular genres and activity systems is important because it allows writers to better situate their own writing within its intertextual environment. Doing so helps readers understand where your text is located within its activity system and its time, which helps them understand how to make sense of your writing. In other words, intertextuality plays a crucial role in creating effective communication.