December 1, 2012

Intertextuality for Strategic Communication

The Power of Reference, Allusion and Quotation in Communication

Two recent films, Skyfall and Anna Karenina, are made more intensely meaningful by their intentional intertextuality–their incorporation of previous iterations and interpretations of the story they are themselves telling.  Both offer insights into the ways communicators can benefit from the same kind of internal referentiality.

The Concept of Intertextuality

Literary and linguistic theorists began to work with the concept of intertextuality in the mid-1960s, when theorist Julia Kristeva coined the term.  Scholarly definitions have proliferated and grown increasingly technical in the intervening half century. For our purposes, the following definition works just fine: Intertextuality means that texts – novels, paintings, films, but also tax codes and thank you letters –gain meaning not through their reference to an external reality, but by their reference to pre-existing other texts. Intertextuality is not a choice, but rather an inevitable by- product of creating, because we are always creating into already existing histories, discourses and ways of interpreting. These existing frames have already partly shaped what we will produce and how it will be recieved. An author or an artist may intend to give us something original, but they can’t, fully.  We readers,  in turn, never have direct access to a work, but can only get at it by making our way through its prior iterations and interpretations.

James Bond and Anna Karenina are among the most iconic popular texts in modern Western culture. The James Bond series, which is the longest-running film series in history, has given us the rules by which we define spy thrillers. Anna Karenina is no longer only the Leo Tolstoy novel, but also the dozens of derivative films, ballets, operas and musicals that have been created since the late 19th century.

Both are completely enmeshed in our everyday language — we think things about ourselves through the mesh of their expressions:“Bond, James Bond,” and “Shaken, not stirred,”are shorthand invocations of suave masculinity. “All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” has become a catch-all syntax for describing the singularity of just about anything, including in statistics, where the “Anna Karenina principle” is applied to ecological and economic puzzles.

Semiotics professor Daniel Chandler explains the implications of intertextuality:

The concept of intertextuality reminds us that each text exists in relation to others. In fact, texts owe more to other texts than to their own makers …. The debts of a text to other texts are seldom acknowledged . . . however, some texts allude directly to each other—as in ‘remakes’ of films … and many amusing contemporary TV ads. This is a particularly self-conscious form of intertextuality: it credits its audience with the necessary experience to make sense of such allusions and offers them the pleasure of recognition. …it can also be seen as an alienatory mode which runs counter to the dominant realist tradition which focuses on persuading the audience to believe in the ongoing reality of the narrative. It appeals to the pleasures of critical detachment rather than emotional involvement.

Skyfall is an example of a work that offers its knowing viewers the pleasure of recognizing its allusions.  Tom Stoppard’s Anna Karenina can be read as insisting on our alienation–it refuses every opportunity to let audiences sink into the story, instead using a variety of cinematographic devices to keep us alert to the fact that the work is a fiction

Skyfall: The Pleasures of Allusion

Skyfall is the name of Bond’s childhood home, and in director Sam Mendes’ hands, the entire film is about whether you can go home again, not only to the family, but to a British intelligence service that was built to serve a global empire in a pre-computer world.  The film is a rumination about the relevance of Bond-style spies in a new era of cyber-espionage, when chases are more likely to require a string of good computer code than a car that could double as a tank in a pinch. In this new world, the classic elements of Bond’s world can also seem out of place. Although the audience I was in cheered every time a shaken martini, half-clad Bond girl, or cool gadget made an appearance, these symbols were never fully part of the story. Instead they were presented as parenthetical comments, like winks from the director,who both gives us the pleasure of knowing how to decode the world of Bond while also questioning its relevance.

Anna Karenina

There have been many, many retellings of Anna Karenina before Joe Wright’s highly stylized 2012 version. As every critic of the film has noted, this Anna Karenina is told as play within a movie; much of the action takes place in a world-as-theater; servants and peasants live backstage, behind the scenes, and society figures alternate between serving as actors and as audiences to their peers–at the horse race, at the opera, at the cafe. The settings displeased some critics who wanted a more naturalistic setting, one that would let us suspend our disbelief, rather than constantly harnessing it more tightly to the film.  But making such a film might actually have inspired more comparison to earlier versions, as director Joe Wright explained:

Well, originally, the screenplay – written by Tom Stoppard – was a fairly literal translation. It was set in various palaces around Russia. And so we were out on location scout, being shown around these incredible palaces; and then someone would say, well, we’ve shot seven “Anna Kareninas” here before. Or, looking at locations in the U.K., and people would say, well, we’ve made – you know – three Keira Knightley period movies here before.

Wright says that he then decided to freshen up and modernize.  The result is an explicit curtsy of the film to its own cinematographic past. Not to the history of Russian aristocrats, or to the challenges of modernity to Tsarist Russia, or to any other external event, but rather to the text itself.  The stage within a film is a reminder of the historical layers of performance through which we inevitably see this Anna Karenina, and what is “fresh” or “modern” about it is its overt intertextuality.

3 Ways to Exploit Intertextuality to Communicate Better

Intertextuality is an inevitable consequence of an effort to communicate, since recipients always hear through the mesh of previous texts and modes of interpretation. Fine arts, like these recent films, suggest that communicators can use that inevitability to their advantage, and not simply by explicitly quoting or drawing analogies to the past.  Three suggestions:

1.Take a collectively known text and re-fashion it for your organization or your public in a way that adds increased meaning.  Co-opt something that may not have started as yours and make it yours.

Opponents of the Affordable Health Care Act passed during the first Obama administration used the pejorative term Obamacare to emphasize its association with a president that they did not like and, more specifically, with the idea that health care had been turned into a political issue by the President.  When uttered, the term stood as a shorthand for the entire story of how it came about. Obama gained the upper hand, however, when he reclaimed the term, telling audiences  during the 2012 campaign that, “They’re right. I do care.”

The reclaimed term had more value than it would have had the Obama administration come up with it themselves. Now it carries within it all of the iterations of the term–including its assertive retrieval by the President.  The reclamation may suggest by analogy his ability to control not simply the terminology, but the terms of the contest over healthcare itself.  Obamacare is an intertext–a term made up of historical layers of its own usage.

Any communicator can take advantage of these layers if they examine the history of the usage or contexts of a story or term.  If having the shadow of that usage play around the edges of your own message would add resonance, incorporate it!

2. Denaturalize a narrative that we take for granted in order to make a meaningful comment about it.  Wright’s production of  Anna Karenina  lifts it from Tolstoy’s naturalism and the attempt of filmakers to replicate it through realistic movies, in order to point out its constructed nature or, in other words, the fact that the film is not reality but a staged story. The frame, rather than the content, comes into view.
In August 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. created a defining moment in the Civil Rights movement with his evocation of the Emancipation Proclamation. Standing in the literal shadow of Lincoln Memorial, King began:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.

 King’s speech gained power through the way he set up the scene.  First, he walks the listener into the moment of  Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The setting of the speech, coupled with King’s words, are meant to slide listeners seamlessly into the past. In short order, however, he yanks his listeners back out, he denaturalizes the scene he has set with his reminder that “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.”  The indictment of American racism is made more rhetorically powerful by King’s framing it with the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation, and then his immediate pointing at the failure of thaMartin Luther King, Jr. I have a dream speecht promise.  The speech he goes on to give becomes an intertext that stands in relation to the former text, the Proclamation, and to the various historical documents and “texts” –such as the Civil War– to which it refers.

Powerful and compelling scene setting begins with a consideration by a communicator of the history and context from which their claim, or argument, or message flows. Is your message or story one that demonstrates the fruition or failure of a previous moment?  You can set up that past rhetorically through words, imagery, or sound or all three, for an audience, and then point to it–invoking previous texts will deepen the meaning of your own.

3. Use known references or join culturally shared texts in amusing ways to provide pleasure.

Why underestimate the power of amusement?  Juxtaposing iconic texts or invoking them in a light or fun way adds up to a combination that is more than the sum of its parts, and it has the effect of letting an audience feel that they are all in on the same shared joke, which is a nice way of creating a

At the 2012 summer Olympics opening ceremony, the audience gave a warm welcome to the London Symphony Orchestra as it began to play theme music from the film Chariots of Fire.

The now classic 1981 British film is itself an evocative Olympic intertext, as it retells the 1924 Olympic competition between a Christian and Jewish runner. The warm welcome turned into an extended collective belly laugh when it became clear the orchestra also included Rowan Atkinson, the British actor best known as the goofy Mr. Bean. The nonsensical juxtoposition was sheer pleasure, and the combination of the various British elements also somehow added up to a resonant statement about a peculiarly British sense of humor with universal appeal.



One thought on “Intertextuality for Strategic Communication

  1. What a joy to see Rowan Atkinson in the opening ceremony of this years Olympics once more. I had quite forgotten that particular part of the event although the evening will long remain with me, and I hope most of my countrymen, as signpost to all that is good and great about our little country. I wondered then, as I do now, how it all went down in some of the further flung parts of the world. I guess to be seen as just typically british eccentricity is no bad thing … there is a lot worse that can be said. Thanks for posting this Amy.

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