History Does Re-actualize Itself: Intertextuality and Social Change

Posted in 2012 The Gnovis Blog  |  Tagged , , , , , , , ,

“There can be no statement that does not reactualize others.”  Norman Fairclough (1992), a linguistic, quotes Foucault in his book Discourse and Social Change (new window).  In other words, nothing we say is completely new.  When we communicate, we are constantly recycling words, concepts and ideas that have been used before.  This is what Foucault means by reactualization.  The study of intertextuality in linguistics explicates this very notion too: it focuses on the process of language reproduction and/or reactualization.  Intertextuality describes the ever-increasing meaning layers a language unit carries. These layers are ever-increasing because as a language unit is repeatedly used in various contexts: each new usage leaves a mark on the meaning the unit carries.

Intertextuality is a “multiplanar process.”  In The Metaphysics of Text (new window), Sukanta Chaudhuri (2010) explains this multiplanar process.  Every added use of a word or concept adds another layer to the language.  So intertextual language carries “infinitely complex” baggage. “The root meaning obviously controls the others, but those in turn can modify and extend the root meaning, even replacing it in current usage (Chaudhuri 48). Intertextual language provokes comparison of features between the initial language production and the intertextual reactualization. Consequently, intertextual language is susceptible to the original text’s frame. Any new entity is received by audiences in the shadow of what their intertextual language refers to.

There is an abundance of literature on social change and identity perception in the fields of political science and social psychology. Separately, the notion of intertextuality, how it comes to be, and what it signifies, is also heavily discussed in linguistics. My suggestion is to pioneer interdisciplinary studies by combining sociolinguistics with sociopolitical studies.  Consolidating social change, identity and intertextual language serves to better understand socio-political phenomena in the world today. This synthesis is linguistics-based. It involves applying linguistic concepts of intertextuality, framing and metadiscourse to the study of identity, and therefore perception, of social movements.

People understand an event in the context of preceding events in history.  An example of my proposed idea is the following.  The preemptive strike on Afghanistan in 2001 as an event is identified, comprehended and analyzed by the American public in light of a similar preceding event: the Vietnam War.  What sentiments the Vietnam War may have evoked taint the understanding of the pre-emptive strike on Afghanistan.  To reword Foucault’s description of intertextuality: the event of war in Afghanistan reactualizes the Vietnam War to some extent.  Even if the strike on Afghanistan may have vast differences with Vietnam, the intertextuality may skew its understanding as an independent and different mission.

Legislatures and policy makers interested in predicting public reception of their proposals can benefit from sociolinguistic and historic contextualization.  Intertextuality in bills, speeches or proposals should be identified before the final draft; in this way we can avoid or benefit from the baggage our (new but also re-actualized) language and activities may carry. We might be able to gauge reception and perception of our idea by looking for its similar preceding events in history.

[Featured Image: Intertextuality Collage by Bob Mays]