Friday, May 09, 2008

Griffiths, Eric. "Dante, Primo Levi and the Intertextualists." TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT May 7, 2008.

If you can make your way past the living statues and knots of wannabe writers supposing themselves to be Joyce and Hemingway deep in conversation outside Les Deux Magots, you come, next door but one, to 4 place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where enlightenment or something like it really did strike twice. It was there on March 22, 1895, that the Lumière brothers unveiled a prototype of their Cinématographe before a select audience of technical experts and entrepreneurs. In Salle C of the same imposing edifice, a biggish room with rows of tables at which the eager sat in groups of five or so facing Professor Barthes, Julia Kristeva, concerned with “the validity of scientific method in the domain of the ‘human’ sciences”, disclosed in 1966 the term 'intertextualité.' Neither Kristeva nor the Lumières foresaw how their devices would catch on. The brothers dismissed their invention as “without any future” and turned their minds to dressings designed to heal burns. Less than a decade after her presentation, Kristeva was complaining that intertextuality had been “frequently understood in the banal sense of ‘source-criticism’ of a particular text” (La révolution du langage poétique, 1974), which was not what she had meant at all. She introduced the term while sketching out Bakhtin’s account of the irreducibly dialogical nature of utterance, quoting from his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics: “if semantic and logical relations are to become dialogical they have to be embodied . . . they must enter another sphere of existence: they become discourse . . . and acquire an author, that’s to say some one whose utterance they are”. She glossed this “dialogical” quality as designating “language taken up in practice by an individual”. Bakhtin thought any linguistics which concentrates on language as a supra-individual system (Saussure’s langue) and on signs considered as decontextualized items inevitably neglected this quality, because dialogism arises, and contributes to how we make sense, only in a concrete, historical world containing specific agents (the realm of Saussure’s parole). For example, a Bakhtinian might say, nothing formulable as langue in the two sentences “I got some anti-depressants from the doctor this morning” and “Mary’s coming to stay for a fortnight”, nor in their formal conjunction, would justify understanding an implicit “because” between them. However, when uttered in rapid succession by an individual whom the interlocutor knows to be disposed to gloom in Mary’s presence, the “because” clearly transpires. To miss it might actually be to miss the utterance’s drift. . . .
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