Intertextuality is a concept first outlined in the work of poststructuralist theorists Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes and refers to the emergence of and understanding of any individual text out of the vast network of discourses and languages that make up culture. No text, in the light of intertextuality, stands alone; all texts have their existence and their meaning in relation to a practically infinite field of prior texts and prior significations. Such a vision of textuality emerges from 20th-century developments in our understanding of what it means to use and to be in language. No speaker creates their language from scratch; all linguistic utterances depend upon the employment and redeployment of already existent utterances. Intertextuality is part, then, of a radical rethinking of human subjectivity and human expression, a rethinking that at its most extreme argues it is language rather than human intention that generates meaning. Having found expression in the radical texts of early poststructuralism, intertextuality became a popular concept within literary criticism, often reimagined in ways that appear far less skeptical about authorial intentionality. A survey of literary theory and practice from the 1970s onward will show a host of critics and theorists employing the term to foreground formalist, political, psychoanalytical, feminist, postcolonial, postmodernist, and other modes of interpretation and commentary. At times these approaches bring the concept much closer to ideas centered in the humanistic subject, such as influence, allusion, citation, and appropriation, while at other times they continue and extend the deconstruction of traditional models of intention. What all theories and practices of intertextuality seem to share, however, is a need to reimagine the act of reading, given that reading can no longer be confined to the reader’s encounter with a single, stable, inviolable text. Taken together, intertextual theories and practices have demonstrated in a myriad of ways the need to move beyond the Author—Text—Reader model to models of reading which, by treating all texts as intertexts, confront the limits of interpretation itself.
Literary texts have long been understood as generative of other texts and of artistic responses that stretch across time and culture. Adaptation studies seeks to explore the cultural contexts for these afterlives and the contributions they make to the literary canon. Writers such as William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens were being adapted almost as soon as their work emerged on stage or in print and there can be no doubt that this accretive aspect to their writing ensures their literary survival. Adaptation is, then, both a response to, a reinforcer of, and a potential shaper of canon and has had particular impact as a process through the multimedia and global affordances of the 20th century onwards, from novels to theatre, from poetry to music, and from film to digital content. The aesthetic pleasure of recognizing an “original” referenced in a secondary version can be considered central to the cultural power of literature and the arts. Appropriation as a concept though moves far beyond intertextuality and introduces ideas of active critical commentary, of creative re-interpretation and of “writing back” to the original. Often defined in terms of a hostile takeover or possession, both the theory and practice of appropriation have been informed by the activist scholarship of postcolonialism, poststructuralism, feminism, and queer theory. Artistic responses can be understood as products of specific cultural politics and moments and as informed responses to perceived injustices and asymmetries of power. The empowering aspects of re-visionary writing, that has seen, for example, fairytales reclaimed for female protagonists, or voices returned to silenced or marginalized individuals and communities, through reconceived plots and the provision of alternative points of view, provide a predominantly positive history. There are, however, aspects of borrowing and appropriation that are more problematic, raising ethical questions about who has the right to speak for or on behalf of others or indeed to access, and potentially rewrite, cultural heritage. There has been debate in the arena of intercultural performance about the “right” of Western theatre directors to embed aspects of Asian culture into their work and in a number of highly controversial examples, the “right” of White artists to access the cultural references of First Nation or Black Asian and Minority Ethnic communities has been contested, leading in extreme cases to the agreed destruction of artworks. The concept of “cultural appropriation” poses important questions about the availability of artforms across cultural boundaries and about issues of access and inclusion but in turn demands approaches that perform cultural sensitivity and respect the question of provenance as well as intergenerational and cross-cultural justice.