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.