Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Stealing the I-word


After spending a few evenings with Julia Kristeva and her detractor William Irwin, and doing a little bit of research on the Sokal affair, I feel like I'm caught in the middle of a dirty fight.

Kristeva's "Word, Dialog, Novel" is the 1966 article wherein she coins the term "intertextuality" and sets it apart from other types of intertextual happenings we may have wanted to accredit to it. The first on her list of "not intertextualities" is allusion. Irwin is quick to hit the ball right back at her in his "Against Intertextuality," and the first action of hers he tackles is her dismissal of allusion. This beef about allusions is not the main point of his article, but since they are the first thing that Kristeva makes clear are not part of the intertextual play, Irwin uses allusions (and even makes allusions to other texts in the opening paragraph!) to make a point about the consequences of Kristeva's approach to literature and meaning. "As some would tell the story," Irwin writes, "allusion died along with the author. It is now naive and reactionary (emphasis mine) to speak of allusion, and it has been displaced by intertextuality."

I understand why allusion is excluded from Kristeva's theory. It's just not part of what she's getting at. Her intertextuality comes from linguistics, semiotics, and even metaphysics. It's about fluidity and ambivalence of meaning being unavoidable, because every text is caught up in the flow of language, history, the literary corpus, and anything else we could call a text (even the reader and the author are texts, not interpreters or creators). No use in me trying to explain it. Suffice it to say that it's highly theoretical, can be put to work for the political, but does not appear to have any necessary teleology. As far as I can tell, it is a descriptive ontological theory of literature and of all texts.

But Irwin even asks the big question, whether it's "an ontological description or a mode of interpretation?" The short answer is both, that the description "gives birth," as Irwin says, to the mode of interpretation. That makes sense -- first you figure out what something is, then you figure out what to make out of it. But then things start to get blurry. All these descriptions are so fluid themselves, and as Irwin jokes, the I-word "has come to have almost as many meanings as users."

So tracking down allusions and considering what new meanings they bring to the text, or what new lights they shed on the text alluded to, may not offer any insight into a Kristevan look at a text. I'm still not even sure what a Kristevan interpretation looks like. But I don't think we can really dismiss the "naive," elementary sort of take on the term intertextuality, that is, the things it sounds like it means. It sounds like it means you have to look at what happens between literary texts, especially when one text is aware of others. I'm not talking about Lisa Simpson playing Ophelia, but I am talking about things like frequent and specific Biblical references in a text, master narratives shared by myriad texts, recurring figures i.e. Christ or Faust, and yes, I'm talking about what happens when one text has the balls, the unmitigated audacity, to directly address another!

This last category leaves me baffled as to what to do about the dead author and his stifled intentions. Is there nothing to be gained by reading an old text in the light of a new text, knowing full well that new text was meant to shed some kind of light? We are discussing some important pairs from this category in my senior seminar on intertextuality: Beowulf/Grendel*, and Mrs. Dalloway/The Hours. (Watch out for those slash marks - something might fly apart.) These pairs are intertextual in the non-Kristevan sense. First of all, we're mostly looking at them in pairs, not so much as floaters on the intertextual sea. But I don't think that makes our work on them "literary study for dummies," nor does it mean my professor didn't get Kristeva. I think he thinks that Kristeva is brilliant, but certainly not the keeper of every incarnation of things that could be said to be intertextual. And I think I agree.

*I think interpreting some three (or more) texts "Beowulf/Beowulf/Beowulf, etc" (as in "traditionally translated poem/Heany-wulf/the Beowulf oral tradition, etc.) in light of each other would be closer to Kristevan intertextuality, but even that's not exactly Kristeva's vision of what to do with this thing.

I also think there's probably no reason to get worked up about intertextuality because Kristeva would just call what we are doing in our humble classroom something completely different, and not a threat to her ontology of texts. But I do think there is a sort of snobbery that surrounds Kristeva and her followers that makes the rest of us wonder -- When we get to grad school, what words are we still allowed to use (did she service mark them?) without being corrected? And what sort of interpretations are we allowed to engage in that won't get us kicked out of the Rainbow Room? See there I go being reactionary!

By the by, I just learned about the Sokal affair: A hoax article with a hilarious, senseless title was published in a postmodern journal in 1996. The physicist (Sokal) who wrote it thought this proved postmodern theory was in the toilet. I don't know if it's as simple as that, but I do think that there is some riding around on high horses going on, and that a fundamental problem with postmodernism is its hypocrisy. It claims to be a leveler, to embrace the popular, to be anti-elite. But it makes a new elite, the kind where people look at the kitschy sculpture and pretend to know what's ironic about it, and get away with it by saying something about hermeneutics (since no one else at the party knows what that is). I know this sort of scenario could never come true (or could it!?) in academia, but being only explicable within the highest echelons of academics only adds to postmodernism's internal problem of being esoteric and therefore hypocritical. I have to laugh with it, be boggled by it, and stick my tongue out at it at the same time. At least in that sense, I think it's doing its job?

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