“When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen– they happen because of you.” — Peter Parker, Captain America: Civil War
Transtextuality is a part of just about every story that you can think of. In a sense, it’s how texts relate to texts. Like, sure, it’s references to other media, but it’s also how the text relates to itself. In the scene that introduces Peter Parker to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he says the page quote and you understand the phrase that they want you to be thinking of, even though he doesn’t actually say it. In Marvel comics, they even have a name for people who recognize certain versions of transtextuality– the “True Believers”. But it goes beyond comics, of course.
I want to talk about this because understanding how texts relate to each other is kind of my thing? Part of what I do here is look for structural resonances between disparate works and do what I can to reconcile them. lt can be as simple a visual reference or dialogue, and it can be as complicated as whatever the hell James Joyce’s Ulysses is. I use transtextuality all the time. It’s the language of a fictional canon that includes every story, song, and saying that anyone has ever heard.
Gérard Genette, a French literary theorist associated with the structuralist movement, split transtextuality into five subcategories: intertextuality, paratextuality, archetextuality, metatextuality, and hypertextuality. Some of these you might have heard of, some you might not, but I’ll break each of them down and explain how they work.
Intertextuality is one work referencing another work. It’s the most common form of transtextuality out there, and has many other names– allusion, quotation, even plagiarism. It works best when it works on its own beyond the reference itself. For example, let’s check out two uses of intertext in the Star Trek franchise.
One works, the other… meh. Mostly because Benedict Cumberbatch is not Ricardo Montalbán, but also because the original Khan stands on his own while also being a reference to Moby-Dick, whilst the second requires knowledge of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to have any impact. And even with the later scene where Spock and Spock-Prime talk about who Khan was, it doesn’t have the same impact as having gone into the movie having seen “Space Seed” and Wrath of Khan.
They are also using intertext to put the work into a certain context. In Wrath of Khan, they are trying to establish Khan’s quest to kill Captain Kirk as one that, like Ahab’s pursuit of the whale, is obsessive and doomed to failure. In Into Darkness, they are trying to establish the film as being part of the greater Star Trek franchise by using a villain that is inherent to that franchise. The second is part of a trend that YouTube essayist The Nerd Writer calls “weaponized intertextuality“– the use of intertext as a replacement for writing things that would get an emotional response. You’re supposed to feel a certain way when Cumberbatch is revealed to be Khan and that feeling isn’t supposed to be annoyance. Conversely, I would probably categorize the first as “motivated intertextuality”– the use of intertext to highlight an aspect or trope of the writing that it is contained in.
Paratext is the text that surrounds the text– titles, cover art, advertisements, the quotes from critics that no one pays attention to, the Rotten Tomatoes score that people actually care about, the Playbill, etc. All of those bits put the text into specific contexts as well. It’s literally judging books by their covers. Let’s look at some titles, as that is the paratext that most people are familiar with.
The Princess Bride has the kind of non-indicative title that those not already familiar with the film might think that it’s a fantasy romance in the vein of the classic Disney Princess films, aka “a kissing book”. What it does do however, is clearly identify our main character, Princess Buttercup. The story would have a radically different plot if it were titled The Dread Pirate Roberts or Inigo Montoya’s Revenge— stories with those titles would logically follow those characters. On the other hand, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is not focused on the titular barber Figaro, but Count Almaviva– Figaro starred in his own opera in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Both of which are also based on the plays by Pierre Beaumarchais, but that is a different kind of transtextuality altogether.
Title can also set the tone. A movie simply called The War Room doesn’t set the same comedic tone as Dr. Strangelove, OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Pulling from the Star Wars franchise, Episode VI was for the longest time going to be titled Revenge of the Jedi, which would have cast Luke’s final battle with Vader and the Emperor in a vastly different light. Over at the Disney Company, they specifically gave Tangled and Frozen their titles for a number of reasons, but the common theory is that it was because The Princess and the Frog (with its longer, more “girly” title) under-performed. Ultimately, good paratext attempts to lead the right audience to the text.
Archetextuality attempts to put the text within the context of its genre. I might have a few posts that cover that subject. These are the things in a story that make people think that it’s a particular genre. It’s the entire reason for my Breaking Genre posts– just because the surface archetext makes it look like a certain genre, but going deeper into the archetext reveals other origins.
What makes Superman a superhero? I mean, he literally invented the genre, so what precedents did he set that every superhero afterwards followed? Well, he wears a costume, fights crime, has extraordinary powers and abilities that most people don’t, and has a secret identity. Every superhero character since? Either conforms to, or intentionally subverts all of these character traits. Batman? Has a costume and secret identity, and fights crime, but no powers. Jessica Jones? Fights crime and has powers, but no secret identity or costume. Deathstroke? Powers, costume, and secret identity– not so much with the fighting crime.
Or how about another genre codifier, Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings practically invented modern Fantasy, I’ve said as much before. Between the standard five races (men, elves, dwarves, orcs, and halflings), the creation of a world that is not our own, the use of ancient mythology in a new context, the presence of magic and those who can wield it, the large scale conflict of good and evil– these are all things that people think of when the imagine what a Fantasy story is. And most modern Fantasy, from Harry Potter to Percy Jackson and the Olympians to Dungeons & Dragons to, yes, even Star Wars, explore at least one if not more of these elements.
Metatextuality is the type of transtextuality that directly deals with critical commentary on a text. All of these examples are metatextual analyses of the transtextuality of these texts. In fact, just about my entire blog is an example of metatextuality. And honestly, there’s no better example of metatextuality than this.
Airplane! is such an eviscerating and pointed satire of airplane disaster films that it essentially killed the genre of disaster films until the 90’s, and killed the airplane disaster film genre entirely. Similar genre satires such as Blazing Saddles and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! are also metatextual narratives that use the genre and story conventions of the original texts and exaggerate them for fun and profit.
Metatext can also be used for drama as well. Also called deconstruction, it’s taking the original text apart and showing its flaws. The best example of this is Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which dissembles the superhero comic genre and shows how “anyone” who got real powers wouldn’t actually care about any sort of responsibility, because who could make them? It examined the context of the female superhero and how being the Lone Girl in a group would effect their relationships. It also basically predicted and laid the foundation for the “gritty” anti-heroes that would take over comics in the 90’s. But of course, what can be deconstructed can also be reconstructed– The Incredibles, for all its parallels to Watchmen, is a reconstruction of the superhero genre that says “So what if it’s a bit silly? How else are you going to watch a guy hit a giant robot?”
If you’ve spent enough time on the internet, you’ve probably heard of the hyperlink. It’s when there’s a thing on a web page that takes you to another page when you click it. Hypertextuality works similarly– if Khan’s monologue from Moby-Dick is motivated intertextuality, hypertextuality is essentially unmotivated intertextuality.
How many references did you count? Almost all forms of transtextuality can fall into this unmotivated intertextuality very easily. “This thing exists, so laugh because I’m referencing it.” Yes, I can do it do sometimes. Take my Ulysses joke at the beginning– Ulysses is actually pretty clearly defined as a hypertext to Homer’s Odyssey. It takes the plot of The Odyssey and transforms it, putting it in a different place and time. The references in the opening of Shrek 2 are also transformed– instead of Frodo, it’s Fiona, instead of Spiderman, it’s Shrek. But these kinds of references, like The Nerd Writer’s weaponized intertextuality, require knowledge of outside materials. It’s transformative… to a point. Parody also technically falls under hypertextuality, though from the definitions, it’s definitely more direct parody than broad satire. Films like Robin Hood: Men In Tights, Young Frankenstein, and Galaxy Quest are more hypertext than metatext because they each derive from a singular source text.
The Importance of Transtextuality
If you’re writing with transtext, it’s important to understand how you want to use said transtext. The lines blur at several points, and if you don’t want it to fall flat you have to be very careful with how you handle it. I could probably stand to be a bit more careful with it myself. But it has applications beyond fiction as well.
In Season 5 of its run, Star Trek: The Next Generation aired the episode “Darmok”, which featured an alien race that spoke entirely in transtext, making the phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” a commonly understood phrase within geek culture. But our language is also built on references and allusions as well– it’s a bit of an Achilles’ heel. We drag up these phrases from all our yesterdays, that converse into a Maelstrom of idiom and allusion and it makes up the lion’s share of our language. Is it the be-all and end-all? Probably not, but from Monday to Saturday and from Mercury to Pluto, it would take an odyssey through conlangs to find one that didn’t have any allusions in it, and it might end up being a wild goose chase anyways.
So it’s more than just fiction.