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  • Extratextual Intelligence
  • H Porter Abbott (bio)

The Good Lord can converse in his own language only with himself.

Peter Esterházy, The Book of Hrabal

A little over fifty years ago, Yvor Winters felt it necessary to enlarge on Dr. Johnson’s famous refutation of Bishop Berkeley, suggesting that “the philosopher who needs further convincing may try driving his car against [a] wall, and at as high a rate of speed as he may feel the ingenuity of his philosophy to require.” 1 Despite all the postmodern ontological uprooting that has gone on since, most nowadays would agree with Winters that there’s a world out there. Even for the embattled editors of Social Text, the issue is not the existence of an extratextual reality but rather what we can know of it by our representations. The issue has turned into one of traces—what in writing exceeds the constructions we bring to it—though in one aspect, that of the intending subject, there has been considerable effort not only to discredit its traces but to deny its extratextual existence altogether. With regard to this latter issue, the work of Samuel Beckett seems to lie right on the cusp between affirmation and denial. A very good test case, the work of Beckett’s maturity brings out a parallel division within the way the whole business of making texts out of texts is conceptualized.


Making texts out of texts, of course, is an ancient delight. Cultivated as “allusion” and “imitation,” it has traditionally required study, practice, reading, and wit. But since it has been theorized in the 1960s and 1970s, making texts out of texts has come to be seen as an unavoidable condi-tion of all writing that no amount of study, practice, reading, or wit can elude. Called intertextuality, it connotes a textual closed system to which all are confined and from which none escape. Postmodern writers are distinguished, then, not by this condition, which is universal, but by an awareness of it. They understand how the voice with which they speak is a multitude of voices, no one of which is their own, they being only [End Page 811] conduits or channels within which these voices mingle before passing on. Where it survives as an art, the practice of literature has, arguably, crossed over from the writer to the reader who, in the interest of critical jouissance, labors to discriminate those intertextual voices by which the writer is possessed.

It is possible to overstate this. Nothing in the original conception of intertextuality explicitly denies the agency of the author as an intending subject. Nonetheless, use of the term has generally abetted a trend in which the signature of the artist has been absorbed by the anthropology of discourse. The great force and appeal of the term “intertextuality,” when Julia Kristeva first published it in 1967, lay in the breathtaking shift in perspective it helped bring about. By its agency, the history of texts could be seen as an immense field of “sign systems” with infinitely disjoinable and rejoinable text parts, literary or vernacular, oral or written. Discourse in this construction is a tapestry, weaving itself like Conrad’s universal “knitting machine,” 2 and crazily dotted with knots of what Kristeva calls “nondisjunctive unity”—points in the fabric that we call novels, plays, and the like. 3

Once coined, the term “intertextuality” was identified with, applied to, or absorbed by everything from “pantextuality” (Derrida) to “transtextuality” (Genette). It has supported the ludic, polysemantic reading of the later Barthes and the precise exclusions of Michael Riffaterre. It has incorporated theory retroactively, as Kristeva herself incorporated Mikhail Bakhtin and as others have incorporated Northrop Frye. Once popularized, the term was quickly extended to activities the implications of which it had been invented to displace, including the old philological pursuits of hunting sources, noting influences, tracking down allusions. The situation got so out of hand that Kristeva herself abandoned the term in 1974 for the more accurate “transposition.” 4 But, however limited and focused her own intentions, what Kristeva gave powerful impetus to, and what her enduringly popular term came to signify, is that writing consists entirely of the written: “l...

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